I often hear the phrase “weighty Quaker”. When I was new to Quakers, I thought this was something to aspire to. It seemed to convey the idea that this was someone in whose voice I would hear Truth, that this was someone who practiced our values thoroughly.
As time has given me more experience with Quakers as human beings, however, I understand that this is sometimes used to convey that one among us is ‘more equal’ than the others and that their voice should be heard more loudly. It’s often evoked to give more authority to the speaker, as if they were holders of a Truth that we could only access through them. But the Quaker way tells us that we can all access Truth through our connection to the Divine, and our testimony of equality tells us that none of us has special access to this Truth.
Similarly, I often hear that something or someone is ‘unquakerly’. As a new Quaker, I wanted to avoid this at all costs. I used to ask what it meant, but could not find a satisfying or even a consistent answer. As my experience with this phrase and those who use it has grown, I have come to understand that it often simply means that the speaker doesn’t like something but has no other argument against it.
I have recently heard another phrase along these same lines: “a Quaker’s Quaker”, meant to convey the idea that this person is perfectly Quaker, and should not be doubted. That what they say must be accepted as Truth, and any other points of view ignored. Sort of the Quaker version of speaking ex cathedra.
This makes me think about a Quaker career path: seeker, attender, member, weighty Quaker, Quaker’s Quaker. And this makes my heart hurt. We do not have ‘degrees’ of Quakerliness. We are not Freemasons.
Instead, the Quaker way is more complicated and more subtle. We are all sometimes speakers of Truth, and we are all sometimes caught up in pride and ego and fear and willfulness which block our access to the divine. It is true that some Friends seem to understand how to avoid this block more often than others, but as soon as we label them as ‘weighty’, we can almost guarantee that the path will be blocked for them.
As with all pedestals, it’s often others who place us there. When we place one Friend above another, we give them false value, and then we become disillusioned when they cannot live up to our unrealistic expectations. It’s important to remember that our testimony of equality is also about humility, and when we wrap ourselves in Quaker values and judge others as unquakerly, we put ourselves on a pedestal above them. The fall from a pedestal is a long one.
We hear about Quaker values: peace, truth, equality, simplicity, community, stewardship. We do not have to be Quaker to work for Quaker values. We should remember that we do not own these values, nor do we have a monopoly on them. Sometimes the lives of non-Quakers speak these values louder than the lives of ‘weighty’ Quakers. Or Quaker’s Quakers.
What if we end this separation of Friends into degrees of worthiness and try to treat each other as equal? Let’s think about dropping these labels, stop judging each other’s worthiness, and begin to weigh each others’ words against the Truth we find in worship. Let’s embrace our testimony to equality and try to listen for Truth in the voices of all Friends and friends.
Author’s note: This was published in the British Quaker Magazine “The Friend” 9 December 2021