Throughout the year I have committed to producing blog posts for each letter of the alphabet about Quakerism, in my case primarily my own experience and interpretation of being a Quaker rather than any piece of beautifully researched or well-read prose.
The Quaker Alphabet project has now reached J here in EBL Towers. In honour of this wonderful letter, I decided to write about Margaret Fell’s 1666 (or 1667) pamphlet arguing that women should be allowed to preach. You can read the full text of it here.
Margaret Fell was involved in founding the Religious Society of Friends through her work with George Fox and others. Her pamphlet setting out the view of women’s right to preach and speak in church was extremely influential. Quaker women were often literate, and indeed research into the lives of women of this period, such as by Antonia Fraser in “The Weaker Vessel“, may depend upon their journals for insights into people’s daily lives and routines of the period.
The role of women in the life of a religious community will differ from church to church. However, the Anglican Church (Church of England and its related churches around the world) and the Catholic Church are still struggling with the question, some 350 years after Margaret Fell summarised it. It’s not just Christian faiths either that are finding the question challenging.
Clearly I have my answer provided thanks to Margaret Fell, although I might use slightly different language, arguments and examples updated for a more modern audience; in retrospect that might be the wrong approach for churches still mired in historical and apparently antiquated mind-sets.
For me, and as I suspect for a number of other Quakers, the question of women’s speaking simply does not arise. Some years ago, when the Church of England was discussing appointing female ministers, I attended a workshop on feminism and spirituality. It was led by a woman who planned to become an Anglican priest if the vote was carried in favour of such appointments. She sat down with our group of Quaker women and gave a deep sigh and said, “I can’t tell you what a relief it is to be with a group of women who aren’t talking about female ordination!”
We all looked a bit bemused and admitted it was not something we really thought about.
“You don’t have priests…” she started.
“We are all priests,” someone corrected her gently.
And that is the way of it; without a recognised and separate clergy, we all have the responsibility and the opportunity to be priests to and for one another. Essentially every individual has a direct relationship with the Divine and we learn and worship together as equals. Of course there may be barriers preventing people standing up in a meeting for worship and speaking the message they feel they have received. We also are all members of a wider society with its own rules and challenges.
I know and recognise that Quakers are not exempt from sexism (or any other -ism) in thought or word or deed. I know we are not perfect. It’s just that for me I have a community of seekers of the truth who are open to trying not be discriminatory to the best of their ability and in at least this area have done a fair job of it so far.
It’s so easy to slip into self-recrimination, and so I want to celebrate our commitment and value its longevity as well as appreciate and exult in more recent witness (around eg same sex relationships and marriage).