This is the third in a series of articles about the relevance and application of the Quaker testimonies.
Simplicity can be complex. It is perhaps the most attractive of the Quaker Testimonies but also the most difficult to grasp and give expression to in daily life. It may easily be confused with austerity and it certainly offers plentiful openings into dead ends to those of us who have a leaning towards Puritanism.
Early Friends referred to this Testimony as “plainness” and bore witness to it in their forms of dress and speech. George Fox warned his followers to “keep your testimony against the world's vain fashions” and to this day, there is still a tendency amongst Quakers to dress in a modest and unobtrusive manner.
English speech of the seventeenth century still made use of the formal “you” and the familiar “thou” and Quakers would choose the familiar form, regardless of the status of an interlocutor, in order to bear witness to their belief in equality. The custom still persists in our occasional usage today, particularly in the north of England where one may still hear older Friends say: “thank God for thy ministry” or speak of “holding thee in the light”.
These choices, made in order to avoid whatever might contribute to social division, may therefore be perceived as closely allied to the Testimonies of peace and equality.
As with all disciplines, “plainness” may become an end in itself rather than a means of growing closer to the truth. Margaret Fell, sometimes known as the “nursing mother” of Quakerism, warned, in characteristically robust and memorable fashion, against a contemporary obsession with outward appearance to the detriment of attending to the leadings of the spirit: “ but we must all be in one dress and one colour: this is a silly poor gospel”.
Fell urged Friends to seek rather to be “covered with God's eternal spirit and clothed with his eternal light.” The warning has not been outworn. Three centuries later, the temptation to mistake means for ends is still with us
A more constructive view of what constitutes simplicity, and one which I strive to take as my guide, was offered by an 18th century Quaker, John Woolman, who preached against “cumber” - the habit of cluttering one's physical and spiritual environment with unnecessary possessions and desires which complicate our lives and divert us from the perception of, and acting out of, the truth. This involves positive choices rather than negative austerity, although it is easy to mistake the latter for evidence of simplicity.
A family possessed of sufficient disposable income to replace their kitchen may opt for the fashionable simplicity of the Shaker style. If the original kitchen was still serviceable, though less 'plain', then this is surely nothing more than an expensive following of “vain fashion”. Satiety mimicking the appearance of simplicity is a particularly distressing form of delusion. For if simplicity is not seen as the servant of truth, then truth is obscured. If truth is obscured, simplicity will have no integrity. This circle of meaning is summed up in the words of Rufus Jones, an American academic and writer who was also a Quaker : “unclouded honesty at the heart and centre of a man is the true basis of simplicity”.
However, simplicity requires more of us than the shunning of fashion trends. At its heart is not just the nature of our material goods, but also our attitude towards those goods. In an acquisitive, consumerist culture which makes quick and shallow assessments of an individual's worth based upon their lifestyle, a refusal to acquire without the exercise of discernment or self-discipline is essential for those who would be a sign of contradiction.
If we decline to differentiate between wants and needs, we not only contribute to injustice and environmental degradation, we manifest that the source of our dignity and self-esteem lies in our purchasing power rather than in our common dignity as children of one Creator.
Simplicity in our own day is inseparable from peace and sustainability. The simple life, freely chosen, is described in Quaker thinking as “a source of strength”. It has the capacity to inoculate us against the greed which lies at the root of conflict.
John Woolman was aware of the danger: “May we look upon our treasures, and the furniture of our houses, and the garments in which we array ourselves, and try whether the seeds of war have any nourishment in these our possessions or not.”
Simplicity presents a radical challenge to a world order predicated on ever growing riches and ease. It is an order which tends to the growth of inequality and injustice. It seeks short-term gain for the developed world at the expense of the poorest and of the capacity of our planet to endure the diminution of its resources and the increase of waste and pollution which we pour upon it in the unconsidered gratification of our acquisitive egos.
Simplicity is perhaps best understood as appropriate living. It is about owning and using only what is necessary and not being seduced by that which is dangled before us by advertisers and arbiters of style. It is about focusing less on our own desires and more upon the common good. It is about vigilance over uncritical susceptibility to cultural norms. It is about having a clear vision of our origin and our end. Above all, it is about understanding what is needed if we are to love our neighbours as ourselves.
© Jill Segger is a Quaker and Ekklesia's associate editor. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is also a composer. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger
More from Jill Segger on Ekklesia here: http://ekklesia.co.uk/search/node/Jill+Segger
The first article in this series is called 'Cultivating the discipline of peace' - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/10356
The second is on 'How equality can re-shape society' - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/10428