A History of the Concern of Truth and Integrity within Meeting of Friends in Wales

This brief history does not try to be exhaustive, but tries to set out, in broad strokes, how we arrived at the current situation.  

The concern arose within Southern Marches Area Meeting, following a letter to the Friend from a member. (This AM straddles the border, with Local Meetings in both Wales and England)

Following the June meeting in 2020, MFW established a number of Special Interest Groups, including one for Truth and Integrity.

Following a report to the  June 2021 MFW a supportive Minute for this work in particular was passed.

‘The work’ consisted initially of fact finding/soliciting considered opinion by undertaking interviews with politicians/academics viz.  

  • Geoffrey Hosking: historian, author of Trust: a History
  • Julian Baggini: philosopher, author of A Short History of Truth
  • Catherine West: Quaker, Labour MP, Swarthmore Lecturer Faith in Politics? (here) (passcode .S!.W1zx)
  • Ruth Cadbury: Quaker, Labour MP 
  • Tania Mathias: Quaker, ex-Conservative MP (here) (passcode *5HUeW16)
  • Molly Scott Cato: Economics Professor; ex-Green MEP  

What did we learn?

  • All of the speakers, bar one,  expressed varying degrees of alarm at our current state
  • Geoffrey Hosking showed us that truth and trust are intimately related, and that where truth is distorted, as in Stalinist Russia, trust is eroded and society fractures. 
  • Catherine West alerted us to Peter Oborne’s book The Assault on Truth.  (‘There is a moral emergency in British public life.’). She also drew attention to the influence of Russian interference on election processes, and Russian money on British democracy (see subsequent revelations in the Pandora papers).
  • Ruth Cadbury spoke of the power of numbers, and the influence of combined faith groups on politicians.
  • Molly Scott Cato showed us that Peter Oborne’s ‘moral emergency’ is a threat to democracy as we know it. 

For some of us this is a salient, crucial point.  Just as we wish our grandchildren to inherit the beautiful planet we have experienced in our lives, so we want them to enjoy the benefits of a mature democracy where truth prospers and the rule of law applies.  

  • Molly Scott Cato also gave us the idea of a conference which could produce a decisive declaration drawing Quakers together.
  • All of the speakers thought that with our history, Quakers occupied a special place in relation to Truth and Integrity, and we were well placed to work with other faith groups. 

The core workers at this project were very conscious that:

  • The Concern we felt was for the UK as a whole, with only limited application to Wales
  • Wales, and issues emanating from Wales, were sometimes met with an a sense of privileged English superiority
  • Consequently we wanted to draw in Friends from across BYM

In consultation with staff at Friends House, the decision was taken in December 2021 to seek accreditation as a Quaker Recognised Body.

We then held a conference from 25-30 April 2022, and this is the statement that emerged from it:

Living Truth – A Rallying Call for Quakers - Final Conference Statement

The shared acceptance of the means by which the truth is discerned in the public realm has collapsed. 

The world has entered a new and deeply troubling phase in its history. Standards of truthfulness and integrity in public and commercial life are being undermined to the extent that democracy itself is under threat. This radical departure from our traditional Quaker Testimony has been a source of deep concern for many Friends, leading to the establishment of the the Quaker Truth and Integrity Group in late 2021.

As an initial step, QTIG Arranged an online conference which took place over the week of 25 April 2022. Over 100 Friends took part in four sessions of deep discernment.[1]

As a Quaker Recognised Body[2], we start from the recognition that every so often, a cultural tide sweeps across the affairs of a nation. This happened in this country with the advent of the welfare state and the National Health Service. A spirit of solidarity, born out of the privations of the war and the great depression of the 1930s reflected a sense of optimism and purpose. This happened again but in a different direction towards the end of the 20th century in favour of the individual, entrepreneurship, and a process of privatisation that has been a driver for increasing inequality in terms of economic resources and power.

We see signs of authoritarianism emerging, where truth is deliberately distorted, where politicians claim ‘alternative facts’, where those in power expect to act with impunity, where respect for the judiciary is undermined; indeed, the very basis of democracy is being destroyed.

We see the Internet, social media that remove some editorial control, and the widespread use of algorithms in the development and implementation of public policy as part of and as symptoms of this development; but we do not see these technologies as intrinsically good or bad. They exist and it is how they are used that determines whether they contribute to a vibrant democratic society or militate against it.

One speaker reminded us that early Quakers held that ‘people should have the right to disagree. Citizens should have the means of seeking truth together through a framework of law (as a means of preserving public peace); minorities[3] should be protected from overmighty majorities who might hound out dissent’[4]. In his view, Quakers were major contributors to the development of what we call liberal democracy and representative government. And we hold fast to this conviction now expressed in Advices and Queries (34): Remember your responsibilities as a citizen for the conduct of local, national, and international affairs. Do not shrink from the time and effort your involvement may demand.[5]

All this is set against the backdrop of the climate emergency and Covid and a deeply destructive resistance to the acceptance of scientific findings. This matters, because such resistance, just like that to verifiable facts, is corroding the vital trust we need for a functioning democratic society.

The conference heard clear calls for a fundamental overhaul of our democratic institutions; a constitutional convention or commission (convened by a broad coalition of civil society organisations and faith groups); and a declaration of what are acceptable norms in public life: politics, business, and media. There is a need to re-establish trust in the division of power between the executive, the legislative and the judiciary where disagreement is worked through without vilifying the people involved.

The conference heard a call for establishing norms in public behaviour which allow for ‘losers’ consent’; where the contest between ideas and ideologies is played on a fair and level pitch, where those who do not win the argument can accept the result without feeling that the winning side won by lying and manipulating the public.

The Quaker Truth and Integrity Group understands that many others are working and have worked over a long time to address these issues. As a group, we are ready to contribute to this work and we commit ourselves - with this statement - to take this work forward. We invite you to join us. The immediate priorities for our work to be:

  • Formulating a public Declaration advocating the renewal of our democratic institutions, the ethical norms that govern them, and working to gain support from others for that declaration
  • Working with other groups who are addressing the same and similar issues; the ways in which this can be done are evolving, but we see the possibility for organising a series of webinars with politicians and others in public life who support the ethical norms embedded in the public Declaration.
  • Revealing and publicising the extent to which politicians of different parties work together in Parliament for the common good.
  • Educating ourselves and others in finding ways to question the messages we receive through all the news channels, i.e., the promotion of digital literacy
  • Educating ourselves more in terms of the use of social media to reach out to others effectively.
  • Notwithstanding the difficulties in doing so effectively and without unintended negative consequences, finding ways of upholding those people in public life who have the courage to ‘do the right thing’, to be truthful and to act with integrity. We are considering developing an award in this context.

We are energised and encouraged by the participation in and response to our initial work in convening this conference. We see this work as of this moment, critical, urgent, important, and laid on us. Please join us in this work if you can. Please uphold us in other ways if you can’t.

[1] A report of the event and links to the video recordings of the session will appear on the website at http://quakertruth.org shortly
[2] Recognised at Meeting for Sufferings in March 2022
[3] Here, the term minorities is used in the sense applicable in the 17th century in what is now the USA and refers specifically to religious minorities
[4] This is a quote taken from the recording of that session in which the speaker referred to, quoted and paraphrased early Friends including William Penn
[5] Quaker Faith & Practice, section 1.02 (34)

Principles Underpinning QTIG

There are eight principles that underpin the work we do.  

1.  In Yearly Meeting in 2012 Geoffrey Durham said: “Without the right holding of Meeting, Quakers become a pressure group.” We are a religious community, not a pressure group; we recognise we do not do things in our own power. It is not accidental that our Steering Group holds itself accountable to Gospel Order, with its meetings starting with silent worship. 

2.  As part of the  Quaker community, we are aiming for the transformation of the world around us. We strive to bring it closer to that which it is intended to be: a place where justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness as a living stream.  

3.  We recognise the power of Testimony. Our testimonies are not individual, atomised formulations. Rather, taken together, they are a visible signs of a life lived in response to the Spirit. Such a life will itself be the Testimony and will embody Truth, Integrity, Simplicity and Equality. We need to live out Truth in all our work. 

4. Ben Pink Dandelion stated in his Swarthmore Lecture that: “…we should work even with compromised institutions and in compromised situations as the best options available. Every person is a precious child of God and thus we work with everyone.” We need to learn to do so too, no matter how personally difficult that is.  

5. Ben Pink Dandelion also wrote that Liberal Quakers “are absolute about the ‘perhaps’ nature of theology. …we regard any ‘truth’ related to our beliefs to be partial, personal or provisional”.  

Yet the recognition of reality is central to Truth. And while it may be that we need to undertake some careful sifting of the facts to discern what is real, part of reality is recognising that some people lie for malign ends, inventing “alternative facts”. We can not only strive to be reconcilers, identifying and supporting those who evidence truth and integrity in their professional or political lives, we can also be assured in our prophetic denunciation of what we see, while expecting better. 

6. The work may be challenging. It is important not to be fearful of the scale of the task or doubt our own capacities to undertake it. In the words of Roy Stephenson, “We all need the humility, and the courage to lay self aside and let the Divine do its work.” The most frequently used phrase in the Bible is “Fear not”. John Macmurray tells us: “Fear is destructive of reality.” Fear also undermines our capacities and distorts perception.

7.  The task may not only be challenging, it may even be costly. We may never be put to the test, but when contemplating such issues, there is strength to be found in the portrait of Jesus who, when facing personal oblivion, prayed so hard his sweat was like blood. And the conclusion of his prayer was to say: “Thy will be done.”

8.  We need to recognize the long view. We nowadays laud John Woolman as a Quaker saint. Indeed he appears as an image on this website. But the work against slavery had started long before he was born. Who was the first person to stand up and denounce slavery in a Meeting Room filled with Quaker slave owners several generations earlier? We may never know. But it is their work which came to eventual fruition in the life of John Woolman. It may be that we are laying down a path for others to follow.  

So to summarise: 

i.      We are a religious community, not a pressure group.  

ii.     As a religious community  we seek a world transformed.  

iii.    We ourselves need to be patterns and examples 

iv.    Everyone we meet is an precious child of God.  

v.     We can be confident in our prophetic role. 

vi.    Fear not.  

vii.   Thy will be done

viii.  We can see ourselves as building a path into the future.