Sydney Friends Meeting House, credit wikipedia
What friends are for, by Bill Hartley
The Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers, has been associated with the town of Darlington in County Durham since the 17thcentury. Even the local football club is nicknamed the Quakers. In the town centre there is a rather elegant Friends Meeting House which was built in 1839. Today it sits awkwardly amongst the charity shops, night clubs and bargain drinking spots. Here, the Quakers meet twice a week for silent prayer and contemplation. It seems like the perfect place for someone to go in search of a quiet, non ritualistic, religious experience. Close by they also maintain the Quaker tradition of philanthropy by running their own charity shop.
For anyone with a vague idea of what the Quakers are about, the banner draped over the portico might be confusing. It invites passers-by to ‘Join us in the fight for Climate Justice’. Below that, rather more alarmingly it adds, ‘act now to save your home’. This seems like a peculiar bandwagon for a supposedly religious organisation to climb on. Would not something about God, or a shared spiritual experience, have been more appropriate than representing themselves as a branch office of Extinction Rebellion?
Climate Justice is a complex subject. Sonia Klinsky, an associate professor at Arizona State University, distils the problem rather effectively. She points out that whilst China is the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases, Saudi Arabia, the US and Australia to name but three all have more than twice per capita emissions than the country which is supposedly the worst offender. She adds that low income countries have been arguing for years that it would be unjust to require them to cut essential investments in areas that richer countries already take for granted, such as electricity generation.
Undeterred, the Quakers have adopted a simplistic approach, typical of an organisation which down the years has atomised into what might be called a broad church, if indeed it is a church at all. Some would describe it as a cult. There are said to be 17,000 Quakers in Britain plus another 9000 who ‘regularly’ attend Quaker gatherings, which is a sizeable reserve team. Writing in the Guardian a few years ago Simon Jenkins noted that 14% of them are actually atheists and a further 43% felt unable to profess a belief in God; a rather strange situation to be in for a body which derives from Protestantism. ‘Four Quakers, five opinions’ as they used to say but perhaps this makes it easier to understand why a banner making a commitment to Climate Justice should be draped across the front of the building. Superficially it provides something they might all be able to rally round.
Speaking of God, the Quakers’ refusal to attend Anglican worship once got them disbarred from many aspects of public life. Frozen out by the Establishment they needed to do something else and that was to enter trade and industry. Quaker names such as Fry and Cadbury are well known. Others have a rather more local fame. In Darlington the name of Joseph Pease is prominent and indeed there is a statue of him in the town centre. Pease and others like him pioneered industrialisation in the town. They were involved in banking, the wool and linen trades and the development of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. Interestingly the website devoted to the history and activities of the Darlington Quakers and their many business enterprises, mentions the word ‘Collieries’ only once. It seems that whilst the Quakers are happy to celebrate some achievements of the Pease family, there is no mention of why the Stockton and Darlington Railway was built. The main reason being to shift Durham coal out from the port of Stockton. Incidentally Edward Pease was the largest coal owner in South Durham. The local Quakers are reticent when it comes to acknowledging the part one of their number played in mining and transporting fossil fuels out of the county.
Even in the Friends Meeting House where there is plenty of material celebrating local Quaker involvement in banking and industry, there is no reference to coal mining. It seems they prefer to draw a veil over this part of the Pease family activities, which for the working classes of County Durham would have been a rather more onerous way of earning a living than working in one of Mr Cadbury’s factories. Perhaps like those who self-flagellate owing to an ancestor having been involved in the slave trade, the local Quakers ought to acknowledge the part they played in sending hundreds of men and boys underground. After all, the search for climate justice according to the Quakers’ own literature is all about helping those who have been disadvantaged by the production of fossil fuels. Given Quaker philanthropy in Darlington, it is reasonable to suppose that the profits from those coal mines were fed into the construction of the meeting house. Certainly it didn’t extend to providing decent housing for the workers after the fashion of say, Titus Salt of Saltaire fame. Darlington got a clock tower over the market hall instead.
Whilst a Friends Meeting House is a focal point for people with a variety of beliefs and opinions of the spiritual and even non spiritual, what they appear to have done is achieve unanimity where environmental matters are concerned. They describe themselves as ‘working with climate campaigners around the world to grasp the historical roots of these injustices’. (Not very well apparently, since they don’t acknowledge what was going on in their own back yard). They have also joined with other faith groups in writing to the prime minister urging him to ‘end UK support for fossil fuels and pledge money for loss and damage’. In case you were wondering where this money might go you don’t have to look far. The term ‘racist exploitation’, also included in the statement, suggests nowhere near County Durham.
Among the Quakers there seems to be no desire to get beyond an environmental policy based on sensationalism and misinformation, or to consider other possible factors involved in climate change, or that it might be a non linear chaotic system, something that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledged in a 2007 statement. But there again why would they? The Quakers have chosen to latch themselves onto a fashionable cause. Perhaps in an attempt to appear relevant they have bought into the green media nexus and the idea of imminent doom (including the loss of our homes). However, it is a competitive market out there as one commentator has noted, describing Quakers as ‘a religious sect grounded in human centred religious emotionalism where the creed is not obligatory’. Another commentator suggested that it has simply taken the Quakers forty years to catch up with the zeitgeist and that the Quakers’ silent worship is yet another example of ‘western liberals looking into a deep well and seeing their own reflection’.
William Hartley is a Social Historian