Towards a Quaker View of Sex

Barnes Swarthmore Lecture 1960


Excerpt from the 1960 Swarthmore Lecture in which Barnes reflects on the creative process by which the group has worked together.


The Creative Imagination, Kenneth Barnes. Swarthmore Lecture 1960, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1960. Reproduced by permission of the Religious Society of Friends.


Swarthmore Lecture The Creative Imagination

Two years ago a small group of Friends met to consider the problems brought into prominence by the Wolfenden Report--problems first of homosexuality and later those of sexual conduct in general. All but two of us were trained in scientific method--teachers, psychiatrists, research workers. We knew that we had to deal with actions and evidence that to most people were repulsive, and that even in ourselves, who had come voluntarily to investigate these matters, there were disgusts and inhibitions that made it difficult for us to understand the predicament of the offenders against law and convention. We know that we had to do as Jesus did, to reach out imaginatively to understand. To do this we had to set aside all pre-judgments. We could not know these people if we first of all thought of them as sinners. We had to abandon all those fierce certainties and categorical judgments that people have in the past believed to be inseparable from Christianity, relying only on its revelation of the need of love and of the quality of love that Jesus offered. Casting aside so much, what were we left with? A faith that in the honest search for truth--in so far as it was honest--we could not depart from the way of God.

But we had to prepare ourselves, for the investigation and judgment of sexual conduct can be deeply coloured by unconscious impulses, and clear-sightedness is difficult to achieve. So our conferences have been preceded by a full-length meeting for worship in which we have been encouraged to face everything in ourselves as well as in the world. Those meetings for worship have been sometimes completely silent yet time of intense activity.

I think I can say that of all the specific group-work I have experienced in the Society of Friends, this has been the most moving, and most convincing in its effect. By abandoning certainty of judgment in an aspect of life where the Church has in the past been most vehemently certain and uncompromising, we reached a deeper certainty and a more creative one. It could not be said that we have reached solutions to what are among the most intractable problems of our time. Indeed we have had to recognize that there are conditions for which one is responsible and which we can do little to remedy; and that we must all, at least in spirit and imagination, share as Jesus did in body and apparently in defeat, the suffering of our fellows. More than anything else the experience of this work has brought us an understanding of compassion, the need to enter into the lives of others and know how life feels to them.

This experience has been one of growing unity, of intimacy of spirit, of liveliness as well as gravity. It has been to us a revelation. The moment I use this word I think of the way in which the slowly accumulated truths of science are sometimes contrasted, with the "revealed" truths of religion. But is there any difference? Only if we are committing ourselves to a dualism and thinking in terms of ideas, or if we are dressing up primitive magic in respectable clothes. There is no fundamental difference if we see supremely in Jesus, as we sometimes almost equally clearly in the friends we love, the living truth--truth as a movement, a process, a continuing action--in a person.

I am often sorry that we were ever called Quakers. Too often the term Quaker--originally a jibe,and meaningless in the modern world--obscures the deeply significant origin of our true name, a name that should inspire and humble us.

I do not speak of you any more as my servants; a servant is one who does not understand what his master is about, whereas I have made known to you all that my Father has told me; and so I have called you my friends.*

Jesus may not actually have used these words, for the Gospel of John is interpretive rather than a factual record. That does not make them any less significant, for even so they indicate what Jesus had become to his followers.

Is the Christian Church outgrowing the attitude of ecstatic adoration and near-idolatry, and will it increasingly recognize what it means to be the companion of Christ in discovery? Friends have in their very name accepted this relationship; we have little excuse for failing to recognize the implications; we have nothing to lose.