Pushing at the Frontiers of Change (Book Review)

Bernard Ratigan

David Blamires. Pushing at the Frontiers of Change: A Memoir of Quaker Involvement with Homosexuality. Quaker Books, 2012.

David Blamires is one of the quiet brigade who just gets on with what he thinks important. Now retired from a lifetime teaching medieval German in the University of Manchester he continues indefatigably with his passions, if Quakers are allowed to have passions. Pushing at the frontiers of change is at the far end of an ark that began with Homosexuality from the inside first published in 1973. HFTI, as it was called in the semi-closeted code of the time, was an extension into gay territory of the thinking done by Quakers after the 1964 report Towards a Quaker view of sex. It is hard now at this distance to convey the impact of both these short books. The tabloids could reduce Towards to a few headline grabbing headlines but HFTI was met with little by way of notice.

However, the fact that a Christian body, the Society of Friends, could muscle enough strength to even contemplate, let alone publish, a book which did not even begin to condemn homosexuality as an error message is recorded in Blamires new book. The largely unpublicised journey, taken not only by gay and lesbian Quakers but also by the Society of Friends as a whole, is recorded here. Many of those who carried the burden of keeping conversations going are now dead.

From the 70s onwards the Quakers carried on talking with each other and with other people of faith (and none) to ensure that hearts and minds were changed not by mouthing the right words but by metanoia. It is not surprising that, in addition to a substantial percentage of Quakers from birth, there is a stream of people making the journey to the Society of Friends, not least from the Catholic Church. The seeming radical nature of Quaker life and worship – in silence until prompted by the spirit, the peace testimony, the rejection of sacraments, dogma, clergy and meetings with no voting only listening and talking until those present have come to a mind over any issue – offer such a different model of what it is to be a Quaker.

It was not surprising, after the introduction of secular civil partnerships in 2005, that the Quakers kept on pushing to be allowed to have same sex marriage in the context of Meetings for Worship as allowed by law for heterosexual people getting married in the Quaker way.

As a gay Catholic with many Quaker friends it has been very humbling to watch this group of fellow Christians struggle over the last four decades. My admiration is not just for LGBT Friends but also for those in the Society who have really had to struggle with their opinions. Lest those who find the idea of equality for LGBT difficult think that all Quakers are liberals on these matters, Blamires’ book shows this not to be the case. It stands a model of Christian patience and tolerance that the Quakers could take on board the need to take the testimony of LGBT friends seriously and then to keep talking even when positions seemed unbridgeable.

In the Catholic Church we have yet to find a way of talking about our differences in an adult manner. It is rare to hear a homily that engages with the reality of living together either as spouses or couples that is not idealized or phoney. This, I suppose, is the fruit of compulsory clerical celibacy and of an ecclesial structure that is strong on teaching and weak on listening. The recent knee jerk reaction by the bishops to the coalition government’s proposal to include same sex couples in secular marriage rather than civil partnership reads like a pull-back from seeing marriage has having both procreative and relational dimensions (equally). The task of talking to a secular society about the message of Jesus is made even harder. The Quakers do seem to see that love between people is better seen sui generis – especially when celibacy is the unspoken winner anyway in the Catholic way of thinking.

As a method for Christians who disagree with one another in love rather than walk away or stay and pretend that all is fine, the Quaker way has much to teach us in the Catholic Church. Although we may seem very far away from each other as versions of Christianity – with some Quakers not wishing even to be labeled as Christian and some Catholics perhaps agreeing with them – I have come to see that there is perhaps more in common than separating us. The radical nature of the meeting for worship with its waiting in silence until the spirit prompts speech; the radical nature of the peace testimony; the avowed lack of sacraments but an injunction to seek that of God in every person points to a profound understanding of the divine presence in both humanity and in the created world.

Pushing at the frontiers of change: A memoir of Quaker involvement with homosexuality is a quiet book written by a quiet man who has spent his life time working on medieval German especially on Meister Eckhart, on David Jones the Anglo-Welsh painter, poet and calligrapher and listening and talking about what it is to be a Quaker and gay. This little book is the record of a remarkable journey travelled by a small group of people, seemingly insignificant by the likes of us big hitters in the Catholic Church, yet are surprisingly influential and have much to teach us by their seeming lack of certainty.

This text was originally published in the Quest Bulletin, no. 63 (Spring 2012)

One comment on “Pushing at the Frontiers of Change (Book Review)
  1. Thanks for this good review. I am a US (gay) Quaker and am just about finishing this book. It’s full of inspiring history, some by people I know personally. When I joined the Quakers decades ago, they told me in no uncertain terms about “continuing revelation”— i.e. updating our practices according to new times and new situations. For strict Bible thumpers, the book of Leviticus is actually against the entire capitalist system and says all debts should be forgiven every 50 years. I think that’s a great idea, and find it distressing that Catholics used “continuing revelation” and threw out their prohibition against usury a few hundred years ago.

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