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Extracts from a LETTER to a FRIEND,
answering several QUERIES about PLAIN SPEECH,
and other matters to do with our Society.
By: Paul Thompson
"For the grace of God that bringeth Salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously and godly, in this present world." (Titus 2:11,12)
I have deliberately taken time to think about how to present this matter to thee. It is something of which many people make a gnat at which to strain, whilst they swallow many things which are the size of camels! All I am about to write is true, and is sound doctrine; but I do not set it before thee as a rule for thee, or for others, to walk by, but as a testimony. It is as if I stand in a court of law, to give evidence; those who hear what I say must decide whether I am a witness of truth or a false witness. Indeed, I do stand in such a court, as it were in the court of the law of God, which is written now upon the hearts of his people; all I say is recorded and remembered, and I will have to account one day for every word.
Several years ago, I was in conversation with a friend who both dressed and spoke plain. I gave the opinion at the time, that I doubted whether I would wear anything other than modest, modern dress, or give up the "egalitarian `you'" in my speech. His reply to me was, "Thou canst never tell how the Lord will lead thee!" This was both the gentle chastisement of an elder, and words of prophecy to me; I was reminded, first of all, that if I am to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, and to worship God in spirit and in truth, I am no longer my own man, but put myself entirely into the Lord's hands. It is not for me to make pronouncements of what I will or will not do, in my own strength; the Lord may well have other plans for me. Secondly, although I did not know it at the time, I was given a hint about the path I would take.
I remember Fox's supposed advice to Penn , about his wearing of a sword. It was a wise piece of prophecy and a word of Knowledge, not just a `bon mot'; Penn was to be encumbered with the thing until it became too heavy for him to carry, at which point he surrendered to the Lord's will, and was relieved of the burden! I have had moments like this in my life, and I feel that any disciple must have such moments; we come to turning points in our lives - like Levi at the receipt of custom, and the rich young man - when Christ gives us the choice, at our moment of visitation, between the burdens of the world (to which our worldly nature is addicted) and the cross. At the time, the choice seems hard, but in the end we find that Christ's yoke is easy and his burden light, for it is his strength, lent to us, which bears it. So let me recount, as I recall it, the moment at which fashionable attire and worldly speech became so burdensome to me, that I had to consider putting them down. I wrote down my impression of this elsewhere:
"I was standing on the platform of Crewe station, on the way home from a gathering of Friends during which I had spoken at length with someone on the subject of plain dress. because of my close friendship with people who dress plain, my companion had been sounding me out about what lay behind this peculiarity of appearance; was it, as so many critics insist, merely ‘outward quakersim’? I confess I could not see it as that, knowing the love, humility, simplicity of spirit, honesty, and integrity of those who kept to it, and the trials they underwent as a result. Of course it was outward, but not merely outward; unless a person is out to deceive, much of his or her priorities can be seen by the appearance presented. What is in the heart cannot fail to come out on the sleeve... I suddenly looked around at the crowd of passengers on the platform. What did they see when they looked at me? An ordinary bloke, with nothing about him to show that his philosophy of life, his values, were not the same as theirs? I was struck by the possibility that my appearance was a deception - a lie! Should I rush home and dig out my Greenpeace badge, or get an AIDS-awareness ribbon? What would those trifles say about the radical difference which I claim that Christ has made in my life? If I decided to dress plain, however little the people in the street understood precisely what this strange man in a broad-brimmed hat and collarless jacket was all about, would they conclude that his values were different from theirs? I was beginning to ask myself difficult and unusual questions..."
It was not long thereafter, as thou canst well imagine, that my pilgrimage led me into the land of plain-ness. I cannot tell whether this is a stopping place, or a place on the way; but I would find it strange that the Lord would turn me back to something he once bid me turn from . Although the above quotation is mainly about attire, it is none the less relevant to speech. In each case, I was brought to a point where an obvious witness for the Lord was required of me. Importantly, it means that I cannot now fade into the background; I cannot hide; I have no camouflage; the witness is open and obvious, and, in including all aspects of my life such as speech and appearance, is more complete. It has indeed puzzled many, but they have come and asked me for an explanation, and I have been able always to direct them to the Lord.
At his point I must say to thee, that unless the leading is clear, and unless the burden of worldly speech is unbearable, and unless this is truly the day of thy visitation, then thou must not adopt plain speech. Much as I would relish (in my own desire) an army of brothers and sisters, I would give the same counsel to anyone - it is perilous to move in our own strength, and in plainness alone there is no salvation. But when that clear command from the Lord comes, thou must not disobey it.
Now I must add something of an apologia! For the most commonly levelled accusation heard on the lips of those who have only a shallow appreciation of this matter, is that it is merely an affectation of an old way, adopted out of nostalgia. It is not that! Let me enumerate some answers, personal and general, to that:
1/ Plain language, and in particular the singular address, is better grammar than current usage. The latter produces ambiguities which often even study of context cannot clarify; in the case of reading a new translation of Scripture, for example, it has often proved impossible to tell whether one person is being addressed, and when a number are being addressed. In such cases, it is often necessary to compare the text with an earlier version, such as the King James'.
English is one of the few modern languages - indeed I know of no other - which has dropped the second person singular; it has done so to its impoverishment. Moreover it did so, historically, for a base reason - that everyone, rather than wishing to be held equal, wished to be vainly addressed as if "gentry"!
2/ Therefore, plain language is more honest and truthful - its yea is yea and its nay nay - in not addressing one person as if he were two! It is into all truth that the Holy Spirit leads us.
3/ It is the language of Scripture. First of all, it is a direct translation of the grammar and terms used by the writers or speakers of Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, who first spoke the words, or wrote them down with the Lord's inspiration. Each of these languages differentiates between one and several people; each one numbers the days of the week, and so on..
Even thought the translation which we know as the King James or Authorised Version of the Bible is open to criticism for some mis-translations , we can credit the transcribers with wishing to keep this harmony of language, even though plural address was already common in their day, and pagan day-names had been in use for centuries.
Later translations have sought to compromise with fashion, instead of trusting firstly that a reader would take the trouble to find out about a construction he did not understand, and secondly that he who holds the key of David would open the meaning to a sincere seeker, in whatever measure he saw fit.
Until the Gadarene rush to theological liberalism and innovation, it had always been Friends' way to stay close to the language of Scripture. This is particularly so in the case of matters of a spiritual nature, of salvation from sin, and so on, as testimony to the fact that they were in unity with the witness of the early Church, and not with the world. Nowadays when I read articles by or receive letters from many people claiming the name of our Society, though I grant their good intentions (in their own strength), I see them groping for new terms everywhere, or for ideas and notions outside the Church's experience, and expressing badly and inaccurately things which are said plainly in Scripture, which they would find if they did but look rightly guided. Sometimes this is deliberate, as if somehow they are trying to escape from simplicity into complexity: "Let's find a new word for `repentance'", or "Let's find a new word for `salvation'", or "Let's find a new word for `sin' that isn't so judgmental", as if there were no divine judgment, and so on. All this they do in the name, supposedly, of being `relevant' to their `life experiences' today; but what they are really doing, if they but knew it, is dancing to the world's tune and being led along by the world's spirit, according to the world's agenda, not God's. Rejection of plain speech, and their scorn for it and opposition to it, are part of this. Oh how they are deceived, and how they deceive others! What a wasting!
4/ it is humble speech, not puffed-up with pride. It is difficult to adopt a "holier-than-thou" attitude with plain language in one's mouth. Those who accuse us of pharisaism do but accuse themselves, for they know better the nature and spirit of the pharisees, being leavened with their leaven (Luke 18:10-14)! It is a language that must be wielded in love, and a language of the cross, because it suffers the scorn of the world; it is truly "a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Greeks."
5/ Singular speech in particular has not died. That is the dialect of my playground days, in Lancashire, where we were thee and thou to each other - but be sure we had to say "you" to our teacher in class, or we were in severe trouble. Oh the vanity of that, that we should address God, in our school prayers, as "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name", but had to address our teacher as if she were greater!
These days, just as there is pressure from people who think they know better about what the Society is or should be, upon the plain witness with which the Lord favoured us, and asked us to bear to the world when he first gathered us as a people, there is pressure in the English-speaking sphere against the survival of dialects. All speakers of English are to be absorbed into the esturine speech of radio presenters.
Plain speech can be regarded similarly as a dialect - but not too unintelligible, for all that - and should be defended against this pressure.
6/ it is argued that today there are "new versions" of plain speech, and "new testimonies" which are somehow "relevant" to today. It is given to me to ask people who claim such, how faithfully previous testimonies have been kept up. They are fond of quoting from the Friends' address to the King of England, that "the Spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move unto it", referring to the peace testimony. But where is Christ changeable as regards other testimonies? All have been dropped, or left as options for the individual. If Christ is not changeable, then I would say that the people who have moved unto things again, from which he once commanded them, are the ones who have changed, and that they no longer heed the Spirit of Christ!
Let them look to their own history, and see where these testimonies came into it, and where they went out of it. They were always in danger, when the Society grew lukewarm in its faith, and in its waiting on him who speaks from heaven; but they started to dwindle seriously at the time of the evangelical innovations of Joseph John Gurney and his followers, who turned people away from reliance upon the immediacy of Christ, to an outward reliance on the words of Scripture. This brought the Society of one hundred and fifty years ago back into the apostasy of the other professing churches, out of which the Lord had once led us. From that point onwards, it has been futile to speak of corporate testimonies.
Plain attire - gone within the Society, bar for those affiliated elsewhere, and one man who affects it as a tourist attraction!
Plain speech - gone, within the Society (though it was still heard in places within some people's living memories). Again I ask - where is Christ changeable? Or whom do they now hear? With all their day-names and month-names, it cannot be the Lord, who said by his prophet, "For I will take away the names of the Baalim out of her mouth, and they shall no more be remembered by their name." (Hosea 2:17)
Alcohol - although a later-adopted testimony, in response to an evil of the time, this has now gone, although the social evil remains.
Peace - gone, as a corporate witness.
"Hat honour" - gone. Although paying lip service to equality, they use all sorts of honorific titles in conversation and correspondence amongst themselves and to others.
Oaths - gone. Although the affirmation is used in court cases , by and large it is done so in compliance with secular law, done so with ease, and is no witness. However, other verbal profanities, calling vainly upon God's name, etc. are commonly heard on people's lips!
Worship, the first and greatest of our testimonies to the power of God, that he alone gathers us together to worship in spirit and in truth, and that no earthly king's officers, if they beat us or arrest us, can prevent us from obedience to that call and that gathering - gone. Certainly people still turn up on first-day, but this is seen as their exercising religious freedom, coming to a `style' or `mode' of worship that suits their temperament, where they have freedom to express themselves at will rather than waiting for the anointing of the Lord's Holy Spirit. Moreover, they see as valid any other form of worship, however gathered and however practiced by other people, no doubt suitable to their `temperament' also. Moreover they `experiment' with other forms of worship, `circle dancing' and so on, as if the Lord were not sufficient. Moreover, and most importantly, worship is now an addition to their lifestyle, as in other churches and religions of the world; rather their lives should grow from meeting with God.
Here, more than anywhere else, they swallow many things the size of camels, but strain at this one little gnat, the faithfulness of the remnant of Friends. G K Chesterton said that when humankind ceases to believe in God, they will not believe in nothing, they will believe in anything. They will swallow camel upon camel!
This is shown by the way they have also turned again from a testimony which grows out of our worship: that of not elevating one day above another, as all things are made new by Christ, who is the Lord of the Sabbath himself, and our Jubilee himself - gone. Not only do they now have the popish "Christ-mass" again, and the spring festival of the demon Ishtar ("Easter"), but "Chanukah" of the old covenant, "Diwwali", and many others. This shows how they have become even more mixed with the world than before the Lord separated us from it as a peculiar people unto himself.
So if they say to someone, "Our testimony to such and such obliges us to show solidarity with you," and that person answers, "How faithful have you been to your testimonies so far?", what will be their answer?
7/ Plain speech is relevant to the twentieth century, and to the twenty-first as we approach it. How? By being adhered to in a modern context, to show forth a steadfastness, faithfulness, and above all the power of God. What I do, in speaking plain to all, is make absolutely clear a witness to Christ in this day and age!
8/ It may seem beneath the contempt of the mockers, but once adopted, in response to the Lord's bidding, its speakers feel his peace, his rest, his freedom.
9/ Although this is a separate point, I feel it is right to list it here, as if one of the items cited in defence of plain speech. It is more of a caveat. All this to which I bear witness, all the reasons why the plain folk adhere steadfastly to our ways, are in no way a cause to glorify us. Rather all the credit, praise, thanks, glory, and worship should go to the Son, and through him to the Father.
In conclusion on this matter, and in answer to the questions in thy letter, I must leave it to thee, to "work out thy own salvation with fear and trembling." However, I hope my testimony and apology have been of use.
Thy friend sincerely,
It occurs to me to address something I heard from thee last time we spoke - the subject of the reform of the larger body into a Christian body. Although I have faith that the Lord can raise children to Abraham out of stones, I doubt if such a reform of that society is possible `just like that', or from thy efforts alone, or even from the combined efforts of a few others. I would be full of praise for the Lord if it were to happen, but I feel that such a reform is beyond our efforts, given that the current state of that society has evolved over the past one hundred and fifty years (starting with the apostasy of the Gurneyites, who dominated the society for the second half of the nineteenth century, through the Manchester Conference at which a cadre of influential people forced in theological liberalism, to the present, when the society is dominated by influential Universalists).
I do not rule out that some of us may have a ministry or mission to that society - I believe I have myself, or have had in the past - but the commission which we all have is to preach the good news to the world, and to proclaim the kingdom of God; specifically, that Christ is come to teach his people himself, and has ended the worships of the world, and set up the worship of the Father in spirit and in truth, eternally new. Essentially, this message means that our hearers should come out of those worships and societies and be separate - a people gathered by the Lord, as the new, spiritual Children of Israel - but again, some of them may have a ministry to perform where they are. It is not for us to insist that they join "us", or come out of one branch of the Society of Friends and join another, or join or form some other "church" (such things are open to them, of course); but it is for us to turn them to Christ, the Christ known inwardly and testified to in the Bible, to call them to the winning side, to show them the joy of being gathered in worship by the Shepherd, and to encourage them to answer the same call and to become living stones in his temple, soldiers in the Lamb's war, which is still raging!