John Woolman (1720-1772) was a New Jersey Quaker and a tailor by trade. At his Meeting he and his fellow friends proclaimed the equality of all people whilst their affluence was built on slave labour.
Woolman had a “leading from God” that slavery was a moral abomination and that Quakers should free their slaves. He shared this at his meeting and whilst there was no doubting his personal integrity many were unwilling to free their slaves. Since as Quakers they were prohibited from voting and majority rule, they had to keep talking and praying until unity was achieved. They were following the Gamaliel principle: if this leading is of God, nothing we do can stop it; if it is not of God, it will pass away. The “sense of the Meeting” was divided.
In 1746 Woolman began a ministry which would last twenty years, visiting Meetings of Friends along the East Coast to explore his “leading from God”. For two decades he lived in the tension between the Quaker belief of “that of God in every person” and the reality of Quaker practice which allowed slavery. The reception he received varied from meeting to meeting. Finally after two decades the Quakers reached unity on emancipation. Quakers became the first religious community in the USA to free their slaves; it would be a long time before the rest of the nation followed their example.
The Shared Conversations undertaken across the Church of England on the subject of human sexuality echo the Quakers’ exploring of Woolman’s leading from God. But too soon the Bishops have resorted to report and statement. The Shared Conversations should not have been a one-off event but an on-going and continuing process. The point of such conversation is that there is no immediate resolution or answer. This is profoundly uncomfortable but that is precisely the point. We are not yet in a place where we can make a public statement which has any real lasting value or meaning.
The tension needs to be embraced and lived and not parked by yet another report. The conversations need to continue. We need to continue talking and praying, talking and praying until one way or another a unity of mind can be reached. To say this will never happen is to close down the possibilities of the Spirit For John Woolman it was two decades of conversations before clarity emerged.
There are good and sincere people of integrity on all sides of this debate, none deserve to be over-ridden, excluded or made to feel wrong or lesser beings. Bishops and others may long for this topic to go away but it will not, we have to live the tension not pretend it is not there. The Shared Conversation has only just begun; this issue is not going away and we must continue to talk and pray, talk and pray.
John Wooler’s story offers us a challenging but real engagement with discernment, costly, exposing, draining but surely a better way than the modern addiction to reports and statements, which satisfy no one, deepen entrenchment and delay resolution. The continued repetition of a point by one or by many does not make it right. Rather it will be in deep listening and in genuine openness to learning that the path ahead will be discerned. We need to stand together at the point of tension and love one another through to resolution.