Simplicity and Truth

Simplicity is perhaps the most difficult Quaker testimony to articulate, especially nowadays when the way modern western society itself functions could be described as anything but simple! In many respects, it is not a separate testimony itself, but at the heart of all the others. The way we worship, in a simple room undecorated with symbols, with a simple practice based on silence in which any may speak is related to our testimony to Equality. One of our favourite catchphrases, “live simply so that others may simply live” and our opposition to unfettered consumerism echoes the Peace testimony in that inequalities of access to resources are ultimately at the root of almost all conflicts in the world. And it has always been a simple truth that a life led honestly, without deviousness or deceit is always a life which is simpler to lead than a life in which one must keep careful track of any dishonest dealings lest one is caught out. In times gone by when Quakers were more famous and more associated with the world of business than we are now, we had an extra special reputation for honest dealing, which made people particularly keen to work with Quaker-owned businesses leading to their particular success, resulting in the many household names of today such as Barclay’s and Lloyd’s, Cadbury’s and Rowntree’s, and Clark’s. Quakers were responsible for the introduction of the legal concept of ‘affirmation’ in courtroom, on account of refusing to swear oaths on the Bible – the Quaker ideal is to have one standard of truth and honesty which applies at all times, so to swear an oath implies a different standard of truth, which we reject.

The earliest Quakers demonstrated visible forms of simplicity through what was known as Plain Dress; the clothes they wore were plain, unadorned, usually grey or black, and without showing expensive jewellery or other ostentatious displays of wealth. Later on, when many Quakers entered the milling and weaving trades – being debarred from academic and professional life by law simply for being Quakers – it couldn’t but helped be noticed that, owning the mills which wove the cloth their clothes tended to be of the best quality! So the practice of Plain Dress was dropped, but the spirit carried on – today, Quakers will often buy cheaper, fairly traded clothing or support charity shops rather than buy expensive designer labels. Many Quakers still don’t wear jewellery at all, but of those who do, the jewellery is chosen for its sentimental meaning or its aesthetic value rather than how much might be paid for it in the shop. It is not true that Quakers don’t believe in computers, mobile phones, cars, or other forms of technology; what is true is that we try always to consider the impact our lifestyles and our choices might have on ourselves, our neighbours, those in other places, and on the Earth itself, and consider always whether the benefits of our choices might be outweighed by the harm of them.

What must be emphasised when thinking about the Quaker testimonies is that they are our aspirations, the guidelines we try to work to rather than our rules which people must follow in order to be one of us. We are, after all, no more or less human than anybody else, and the statement “I’m not good enough to be a Quaker” is most definitely not one we like to hear, for it is a fundamental part of our belief system that everybody is good enough to be a Quaker.

The description of our testimony to Simplicity started off referring to our way of worship. Now you have learned a little about what we believe and why we believe it, it is time to get down to what we actually do together on a Sunday morning.

2 Responses to Simplicity and Truth

  1. Jonathan says:

    I was wanting to ask a couple of questions regarding the Quakers and the wearing of jewellery.

    1) Can Quakers exchange rings during their wedding vows and wear a wedding ring on a daily basis as a symbol of matrimony?

    2) Does the wedding ring have to just be a plain, gold wedding band, or can it be a stone-set ring with a jewel of some sort in the middle of it?

    3) I own a silver St Christopher medallion that I often like to wear. Is it forbidden for a Quaker to wear the medallion of a Catholic saint like St Christopher, especially as it is a piece of jewellery and some Quakers refuse to wear jewellery? May a Quaker wear the medallion of a Catholic saint like St Christopher without it contradicting their Quaker beliefs?

    I would appreciate it if someone could answer these questions for me in detail and explain the reasons for their answer, from the Quaker perspective. Thank you.

  2. simon gray says:

    Hi Jonathan – thanks for your questions; I assume you’re in Britain so I’ll answer from a modern British perspective.

    The headline answer is that in modern British Quakerism nothing (that is normally considered to be generally reasonable human behaviour!) is forbidden as such, rather, ‘eyebrows may be raised’ at certain activity – your wedding rings would cause no stir whatsoever, but for example comment may be made at somebody arriving to meeting in a different expensive sports car each week, or ostentatiously flashing a gold Cartier watch!

    Most Quakers wear wedding rings, but many don’t. I’ve certainly seen couples exchange rings during the ceremony itself, but it’s not common to.

    The wedding ring itself can be whatever you want it to be – the important thing is that it has special personal significance for you, rather than it be somehow a legally mandated object with a prescribed design.

    With your St Christopher medallion, we have no cause to mock or object to Catholic beliefs, we simply don’t believe in them ourselves; if you were to wear it in the context of praying through a saint, you’d be carrying out a Catholic belief rather than a Quaker belief, but we wouldn’t forbid you from doing so. And again, although it’s true that many Quakers don’t wear jewellery, it’s not true that we forbid ourselves from doing so.

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