After peace, the Quaker testimony to equality is our next most famous feature, and actually predates the peace testimony as something we’ve always held to. It manifests itself as firmly held beliefs both in social equality and in spiritual equality.
21st century Britain aspires to be a classless society, but in the 17th century there were rules, laws, and conventions governing the way society operated, how people dressed, and how they addressed and interacted with each other which were firmly rooted in social class. Women and children were considered the property of their husbands and their fathers just as much as the cows and pigs were, titles such as ‘Mister’ were applied to people considered socially superior but not socially inferior, and the raising of one’s hat to somebody as you passed them in the street was not a mere act of politeness between equals, but a display of deference between supposedly inferiors and supposedly betters – and failing to abide by these conventions put people at very real risk of being beaten up or brought before the judge.
At the same time, in the Church women were excluded from any organisational or spiritual roles, and, as today in many other churches, spiritual authority was vested solely in the person who was appointed as vicar, priest, or bishop; God was seen as somebody who spoke only to the priest, who then relayed the message on to the congregation – and the giving and receiving of the sacraments of communion and baptism were used as instruments of power by which corrupt and abusive clergy would often hold their flock to ransom.
Quakers believed – and continue to believe – in a world turned upside down. Although the title of Mr no longer carries the same meaning it did 350 years ago, consider the titles Mrs or Miss – why does a woman’s status of being married or not need especially signifying when a man’s does not? Many Quaker women continue to use their parents’ surname after getting married rather than automatically changing to their husbands – or sometimes after a Quaker wedding, the husband and wife combine their surnames as a hyphenated name. Quakers were at the head of the campaign to abolish the British slave trade 200 years ago, and were leaders in the Underground Railroad in North America which helped escaping slaves find their freedom, and in modern times Quakers are very active in the Trade Justice / Fair Trade movement, seeking to end the modern form of slavery where the poorest producers of our food and clothes are at the mercy of the richest corporations and governments.
In our meetings for worship and our organisation, the principle of spiritual equality is taken to its ultimate degree, for the responsibility of teaching in the form of vocal ministry is laid upon all present, rather than just a select few – anybody may speak out of the silence, whether they are attending for the first time or whether their grandparents also attended that same meeting. It is a common myth amongst ourselves that we have no hierarchy; in fact we do have local, national, and international hierarchies – but the key difference is, our hierarchies are not of personality, but functions, and there is no ‘career’ hierarchy. A person can be appointed to any committee or position at any time without having worked their way up any ranks, they serve their time in that role – usually three or six years – and when they are finished, that is it; one doesn’t ‘progress’ from a certain role in the local meeting to the same one in the area meeting to the national meeting, and similarly, holding a certain important role in the national meeting doesn’t give you any more authority over anybody in your local meeting than the member of the meeting sitting next to you who has not yet done any Quaker service.