On Sunday 13 June, 1652, a remarkable event took place in the countryside between Sedbergh and Kendal. An itinerant preacher called George Fox mounted a rocky outcrop on Firbank Fell and addressed an assembly of around 1000 people.
These 'Seekers after truth' as they were originally called, had gathered to hear Fox because they were disenchanted with the contemporary Anglican church and its grip on society. They were looking for a more radical spirituality which would speak to their own experience.
This long ago event which is generally perceived as being the beginning of the Quaker movement, may not at first glance seem particularly relevant to our own time. I should like to try to persuade you otherwise.
The countryside from which the seekers came is sparsely populated today. In the 17th century, settlements would have been still further and fewer between and Fox's audience would have had to travel considerable distances over rough terrain to gather at Firbank Fell. Most of them, being what are still called in Cumbria “middling kind of folk”, would have travelled on foot and spent at least one night in the open. An assembly of a thousand men, women and children in such a remote rural area would have been a uniquely odd occurrence.
But most significantly, all those who gathered on that Sunday morning had chosen not to attend a service of the Established Church – an act of defiance which was punishable by substantial fines. The monthly penalty for defying the legal requirement to worship according to the rites of the Church of England was £20 at a time when the daily wage of a male farm worker was around 10 pence. Many who refused to 'conform' eventually forfeited their possessions and were sent to prison. All were regarded with contempt by the powerful and conventional.
Physical discomfort and dislocation, dispossession and imprisonment, disdain from the more sophisticated and influential members of society – these are hardships which most of us would prefer to avoid. It is perhaps the last of these outcomes that we most fear in a society which will no longer reduce us to indigence for our beliefs but will act quickly to present principled dissent as irrelevant and its practitioners as cranks if they challenge the comfortable orthodoxy.
Remember what these early dissenters were seeking: truth. The theological differences between a Cumbrian shepherd and his rector may not be of great interest to us now, but that fiercely independent determination to look past what was comfortable, generally accepted - even fashionable – in pursuit of a way of life rooted in integrity and in a careful discernment of the meaning of personal experience, is as significant now as it was three and a half centuries ago.
The prevalent orthodoxy of our time is not confessional. It takes the form of an intellectually indolent cynicism, well fed and watered by consumerism, which conceals its deep conformity from itself. To say that this is a road to ruin is to invite accusations of Puritanism or worse. But where has this lazy conformity taken us?
The events of the last couple of weeks – the Prime Minister's former press spokesman and the CEO of News International arrested; the bosses of the latter summoned to appear before a Parliamentary committee; the head of the Metropolitan Police forced to resign; the Serious Fraud Office investigating News International; politicians finally having to admit the hold which that organisation has had over them for decades – all these appalling events have undermined trust in the essential structures of our democracy.
None of this happened in the teeth of society's opposition. Seekers after truth have been marginalised and ignored and it has taken the hacking of a murdered child's phone to arouse our consciences. The need to develop and heed those consciences, whatever the cost, has never been more apparent and there is a model for us in those north-country dissenters who were willing to put the pursuit of integrity above every social or material advantage.
The rock on which George Fox stood to “sound deep to that of God in every man” on that Sunday so long ago, bears a plaque commemorating the event. It begins with words central to the Quaker way : “Let your lives speak”. It is a call to our own time.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen