Religion is my business

Key words: Quakers, workplace, work organisation, religion as a protected characteristic


In this article, I examine the Quaker tradition lived out in the contemporary workplace. I explore the assumption that religious traditions have been rationally exorcised from organised work. I draw on my qualitative research into twenty British Quakers and contend that the current relevance of Max Weber’s suggestion in ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ that Quakers were notable examples of the spirit of capitalism. I suggest that this is an outdated notion; members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) have evolved into a post-Christian sect; that the capitalist spirit which Weber identified has also evolved if we observe religion in its everyday manifestation at work; and that religious belief, seen as a prerequisite of money-making enterprise by Weber, is now framed by Quakers in individualised and post-Christian terms. I draw upon my research to highlight as well that what counts as religion and work are viewed by these Quakers as indistinguishable in practice. These Quaker narratives reveal religion’s presence within the everyday work process but, ultimately, the church tradition was not seen as a primary aspect the interviewees’ everyday engagement.

Quakers occupy a unique space in the narrative of British religious traditions, especially with regard to their putative involvement in market-funded enterprises (Walvin, 1997). Originally a cultish sect born in the politico-religious tumult of the English revolutionary fervour of the seventeenth century, the Quaker church is one of that historical period’s great institutional survivors. Shapeshifting to fit the changing times, initially radical and counter-cultural with a litany of martyrs upon which their origin story is founded, then gradually turning denominational, withdrawing into a quietist period, their close and enduring relationship with the world of work has played a central role in the stories with which Quakers identify and project outwardly to the world (Freeman, 2013). Their modern, twenty-first century incarnation carries on this liquid tradition (Collins and Dandelion, 2014).

Nowadays, occupying an expressly post-Christian theological position, the Quaker tradition is highly implicit, the existence of God is an open question, with ‘non-theist’ beliefs being implicitly acceptable if not quite hegemonic in the church, their religious goals are identified not only as experientially grounded and, therefore, highly individualised, but also fundamentally directed towards an ultimate realisation in the everyday world (Dandelion, 2007). Embedded similarly in the ambition of the contemporary Quaker tradition is the view that the world of work lays out a straighter, more authentic and contemporary path along which a better, more charitable, egalitarian and authentic world can be realised. Quakers suggest that ongoing engagement with the everyday as Quakers is their end and how they manage this worldly enterprise is the singular marker of their faith (Dandelion, 2007). Work comprises a central aspect of this ambition. It re-imagines a liberal horizon of charitable works towards which Quakers can nudge the worldly realm. How Quakers manage to engage with organised work in its twenty-first manifestations, market and non-market funded, continues to be the focus of my research and it is upon the outcomes of my study of Quakers in the modern work organisation that this article is based.

I have an enduring interest, not only in Quakers per se but moreover this liberal church as a case study. In particular, I seek to explore how members of this post-modern (Collins & Dandelion 2008) organised religion mesh with the everyday process of organised work. In the UK, religious belief is identified as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act (2010) and people should not be discriminated in the workplace on this basis. Anyone doing so is in danger of falling foul of the law. Yet, this Act of Parliament shies away from defining what counts as religion or belief in the social world. According to Section 10 of the Act, ‘Religion means any religion and a reference to religion includes a reference to a lack of religion. Belief means any religious or philosophical belief and a reference to belief includes a reference to a lack of belief.’ Unsurprisingly, religion and belief are difficult to define in empirical terms and are caught up here in abstracted legalese. Case law and real-life examples are left to put flesh on the bones of the law and define, in practice, what counts in social terms as religion and belief. This Quaker case study adds to our understanding of what counts as religion and belief in the world of work especially as it is lived out in the twenty-first century.

Church, God and profits

The British Quaker church traditionally has an intimate historic relationship with money-making business (Walvin, 1997; Freeman 2013). This is partly the result of its purist theological origins. The tradition initially emerged during the middle of the seventeenth century in the northwest of England and its east midlands counties in response to what its advocates saw as the apostate condition of the established and hegemonic Church of England whose symbiotic relationship with the English state vested religious power widely across the politico-legal landscape. Quakers saw this wedding of the religious and political across the English social milieu as dissolute in its effects and sought to challenge it. They rejected the mediation claimed by religious institutions between the individual and the divine. Instead, they espoused a belief that interlocutors were both unnecessary and inimical to the religious enterprise (Dandelion 2007).

Such radical theology, and its practice, has been seen historically as oppositional by English state actors and Quaker practices, cognisant of its theology, were proscribed as heretical by the church and purposefully undermined by the politico-legal establishment. Marginalised socially as a consequence, Quakers were denied means of social advancement and influence. Routes into mainstream professions were expressly blocked to Quakers, especially through their refusal to take oaths and swear allegiance to worldly authorities: their loyalty was to God who required no additional supportive allegiance (Spencer, 2013). The door to business, therefore, was a singular way open to them and a new religious faction, fastidious and principled, whose ethics were based on a spiritual equality before God, directly accessible to all believers, emerged blinking into the light of the English post-revolutionary era economy.

Quakers built an outstanding business legacy which endures even to the present time. Outlawed from the professions and full participation in the state apparatus, theologically disinclined towards compromise with the worldly mores of the time, succeeding generations of Quakers, their offspring and a sprinkling of latter-day incomers, came to terms with the world by pursuing salvation through their good works. These good works became synonymous in the Quaker mind with business and godly engagement with the working world. Indeed, by many a measure, Quakers not only saw good works as a means to a higher end but they also acquired a reputation as being highly successful, partly through their apparent trustworthiness and diligence in business dealings which, at least in analysis, translated seamlessly, coherently, from belief to practice (Walvin, 1997). Such was Quakers’ apparent worldly success in business that they became economically wealthy, acquired concomitant social status, supported by their association with the religiosity of the Quaker tradition, and informed significantly Max Weber’s ideas about how the puritanical, protestant Christian churches influenced the expansion, and subsequent economic predominance, of capitalism in Western economies. 

Max Weber’s classical ideas about religion and its essentially causal relationship to capitalism describe the evolving inter-relationship between religion and the economy. They focus on the notion that religious beliefs and their practical application in the social sphere were hugely influential determinants in the rise and ultimate pervasiveness of the capitalist ethic. Weber managed to explain this view with historic reference to the predominance of capitalism in the largely protestant cradle of nation states of northern Europe. In contrast to the supposedly bureaucratised Catholic approach to religious belief and practice, expedited laconically in social terms, Weber discussed in his seminal work, ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ (1930), reformed Christianity’s intimate bond with work and private enterprise which had arisen as a consequence of the protestant reformation. Weber did not feel that this was a coincident occurrence: there was, he argued, a causal explanation. The relationship between post-reformation Christian belief systems in the protestant churches and good works in the world begat the rise of values favourable to ‘economic rationalism’ in the everyday service of God. Quakers were cited by Weber as salient in this process.

Quakers since the middle of the seventeenth century had followed a set of beliefs, in common with other puritan Christian sects, which encouraged, if only implicitly, the accumulation of material wealth by making a trading profit. Such monetising of their working lives was a by-product, according to Weber, of their pursuit of a straight and narrow path to God. Quakers, along with members of other similar protestant churches arising broadly from the Baptist tradition, were not typically strangers to money and its benefits. Financial capital and its promises were, however, incidental to the apparent primary motive of their life: to compose through and within the everyday a strong and lasting relationship with the eternal divine who was no longer, through Protestantism’s emergence, camouflaged behind the Catholic vestments of sacred times and places. Being scrupulous in business, trustworthy, and reliable, profitability ensued and this resulted in more opportunities for economic activity, according to Weber. Provided that this success in the capitalist enterprise did not contradict their principal aim, to achieve substance in the name of God, through good works within the world, the Quaker tradition could retain spiritual coherence between holy and lowly engagement.

This protestant ethic, rooted in the immanent of the everyday, was founded on religious beliefs which were fundamental to the epoch-defining rise in Europe of the rational pursuit of capital. The idea of ownership of private property as a basis for the organisation of society passed into the politico-legal realm as the spirit of capitalism gradually took hold after the Reformation, eventually, in modernity, establishing a world of ‘economic rationalism’ where God’s erstwhile designs no longer underpinned its rationale and human responses. The ‘what’ of capitalism, and the ‘how’, later became decoupled by its own logics and practice from its ‘why’. But, according to Weber’s thesis, this eventual divergence of religious ends from economically rational means was less significant than his central argument regarding the accumulation of wealth and its ethics: religious belief in its exposition rather than the immediate social context was the primary influence on the rise of the capitalistic spirit in the first place. It was the fundamentally necessary condition in its fomentation. This essential conclusion is open to contention with regard to the contemporary religious and capitalist milieu, in particular with reference to the Quaker tradition and its apparent everyday engagement with the working world.

My contention is based on a case study of twenty-first century Quakers relating their narratives about religion, the working world and their inter-relationship. I shall illustrate this view with reference to my research into how British Quakers, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, see their faith tradition in relation  to work and, moreover, how it is currently organised. In particular, I contend that religious belief frames Quakers’ involvement in the working enterprise but that the causal relationship is absent. I identify the changed relationship of twenty-first century Quakers to Christianity and point out the highly individualised terms alternative to religion which these current affiliates suggest uphold their working lives.

Research methodology and data analysis

My study of twenty British Quakers and their working lives took place between 2009 and 2012. Given the emotive and everyday nature of the subject matter, I felt that a qualitative exploration of the religious tradition was most appropriate (Bryman, 2008). Religion is a particularly emotionally complex and practically intricate field of study. It is unwieldy, resisting conformity to easy categorisation (Beckford, 2003). My ambition, to secure a better understanding of how Quakers lived out their faith in the workaday world, and its relationship with the world in the work setting, suggested that I needed to devise a data-gathering strategy which would account for lived religion’s potential complexity (Silverman, 2011). I also had to stand apart as far as possible from influencing interviewees’ assumptions about work and the Quaker tradition, especially as an insider to the church processes. As an occasional attender at Quaker Meetings for Worship, I was aware, not only of my insidership and its ambiguities, but also the view that Quaker identity management might be a factor in relationships with interviewees and the church organisation. I had to recognise that I was embedded in the methodological process and its data gathering vagaries, potential inconsistencies and ongoing fluidity (McCutcheon, 1998).

I understood at the outset that acquiring data from sufficiently wide and varied experiential sources in terms of work and religion could be convoluted and I adopted a convenience sampling method. Using local Quaker meetings as the most available source of research participants, I planned to contact initially the chief administrators, or clerks, of local groups within relatively easy geographical reach of my home address. The intention was to gain access to as many potential recruits to as possible by addressing directly, with permission, the congregation after regular Sunday gatherings about the project and its aims. This ambition fell somewhat short, however, as the clerks of local meetings as gatekeepers were less spontaneously receptive than I had anticipated. After further assistance from the Quaker and Business Group (Q&B) – a recognised interest group within the formal Quaker administration in Great Britain – who emailed their membership for volunteer participants on my behalf, I eventually obtained a total of 20 interviewees. It was from this cohort of Quaker volunteers that I gathered approximately sixty hours of audio recordings upon which was built my thesis on the religion and its relationship to organised work in the twenty-first century.

The interview data collected was replete with personal narratives of religion and work which were initially interpreted in terms of separate and separable categories. It became apparent, however, as I coded and categorised the data that these two iterations of the interviewees’ lives had not been so much misacscribed as underestimated in their everyday complexities. Themes were developed as the interviews progressed: Quakers as utopians at work, mental illness and its presentations, Christianity and belief in a God, religion lived out as a form of social heterodoxy, patterns of non-religious beliefs, religion and work in organised forms, conspicuousness of Quaker beliefs in the work context. There appeared to be a complex interplay between the categories. One of the salient, emergent themes – and most surprising to me – was that the Quaker interviewees felt that they made a difference to the world through their jobs and that their work organisations were felt to facilitate this worldly improvement.

The interviewees believed, in effect, that Quaker and work ambitions were aligned and that both parties were working jointly within the world and with the world to bring about its liberal improvement. However, these Quakers also tended to reject the primary importance of the religious tradition in the work context and they distanced themselves from the idea of a causal relationship between their Quaker faith and how they lived out their individual beliefs. My conclusion was that, if one was to pattern Quaker lived religion in the work setting, the most compelling explanations lay in the relationship between the research participants and the particulars of the work context not in the particulars of their beliefs.

In industrial and occupational terms, Quakers depicted their current occupations in managerial, professional and administrative terms. In others, nineteen out of twenty interviewees were service sector, white collar workers. Their white-collar jobs, sixteen out of the cohort, were also typically located in non-market funded roles. The private business sector, that is market funded industries, accounted for the various employ of the other four interviewees. In this sense, the Quaker cohort was composed of a professional class of workers who serviced within their job roles in large part publicly funded interests, such as government administration of education and health and charitable concerns, as well as some private enterprises (see Table 1.)

Whilst it is possible to make inferences about Quaker engagement with public and private enterprises from this tiny sample, the focus of my research was to discover more about the interrelationship between the categories of work and religion in the everyday realm. Church and popular discourses, for example, are replete with historical references to British Quaker businesses such as Cadbury’s and Rowntree’s chocolate manufacture, the financial weight of Barclay’s Bank, Clark’s shoes and other concerns (Walvin, 1997; Freeman, 2013). Not only are the bases of these business narratives rooted mainly in the past, their narratives shaped by retelling, their relevance to contemporary Quaker working lives was in the research quite distant; they were not, in the research, related as influential in how the Quakers saw themselves engaging with their everyday work. Indeed, if they were referenced at all by the interviewees, it was in very oblique and generalised terms. Just as the practices and beliefs of the earliest, seventeenth century Quakers were seen by the liberal participants as ‘of their time’, so these Quakers framed their work experientially and in the everyday particular. Overarching, grand narratives such as Christianity which might have situated their practice were not seen as central to work in the everyday. And it was with regard to the everyday and particular responses of the interviewees to work that my study was focused.

The interviewees, across all industrial categories and occupations, related their current working lives in singularly meaningful and religiously satisfying terms and it is in this sense that I regard religion as alive in the contemporary workplace, even if this is not apparent in its rational, organised form. If work and religion are understood in everyday terms, of individual engagement and organisational level negotiation, religious exposition, difference and its coincidence with working life, can be more clearly understood. The salient distinction between the claims of the Quaker religion and those of the work organisation as related by the interviewees appears to rest on the idea that engagement is singularly embodied by the individual within the workaday context and everyday practice is not refracted into the organisational process through a Quaker prism.

The British Quaker tradition in the twenty-first century

The Quaker faith at the start of the current millennium is much and fundamentally changed from that of its earliest, seventeenth century origins and its forbears over the successive centuries. The tradition has evolved into a post-Christian, liberal manifestation of its former radically Christo-centric exposition. It still holds to many of the underlying founding philosophies which point towards how the divine can be reached. It is, for example, highly individualised in terms of its claim to divine accessibility and godly availability to all-comers. It has moved, however, in its theologies which, in their detail, such as there is a reliance on specific dogma, beyond Christian prescription. God is now allowable as an open question and Quakers are allowed, if not implicitly encouraged in the name of diversity and inclusivity, to hold private and individually sanctioned beliefs. The church has become theologically pluralistic as a result.

The singular belief that is now definitional of the liberal British Quaker tradition is, apart from the bowlderised ‘that of God in everyone’ which suggests the divine is equally accessible to all, the idea of the ‘absolute perhaps’ (Dandelion 1996). The ‘absolute perhaps’ captures more essentially the contemporary liberal Quaker direction of travel. The British liberal Quaker tradition, at least notionally, is accepting of any reasonably held, if only implicitly expressed, beliefs felt personally to be compatible with the espoused claims of the collective church. Beliefs themselves, however, are regarded from within the Quaker fold as experientially grounded (Spencer, 2013). They are, therefore, by definition individualised and personalised. The corollary of this view is that one’s beliefs are highly contingent upon, and logically inseparable from, their present and historical context as well as the Quaker affiliates’ perceptions of such. Moreover, and contrastingly in terms of the historical church tradition, this liberal mien is resistant to how beliefs are prospected. Quakers are sceptical about tenets of belief which are proposed dogmatically and unyieldingly. Belief and its boundaries for Quakers are porous and fluid, provisional and transitional and espousal contrary to this view, which violate the spirit of ‘absolute perhaps’, is anathema to the current church unless extolling and defending this liberal provisionality.

Hidden within this liberal and putatively tolerant frame of reference lies another consistency with the church’s former, Christo-centric origins: Quakers still believe that the exposition of faith in the everyday, as Quakers, is an essential determinant of what counts as Quaker. In other words, faith alone is yet no longer a defining and necessary aspect of the liberal tradition. In common with Quakers from earlier, Christianised generations, today’s faith tradition is relevant only insofar as its exposition is commensurate with the observable intention, in occupational as well as other terms, to ‘walk cheerfully over the world’. The marriage between belief and its faithful re-articulation within the worldly is, in Quaker terms, enduringly indissolvable. This constancy and coherence of Quaker faith in terms of its everyday ambition diverges with regard to the particulars and the liberal emphasis of its theology which challenges both the importance and exclusivity of detailed Christianity and the prescriptive tendencies of the mainstream churches.

My research shows that there is a substantive divergence from the Quaker tradition which Weber argued was originally such an estimable addition to the rise of capitalism. Individuals in the twenty-first century Quaker church are free to believe according to their conscience and experience without overt prescription from the collective. This system of personal beliefs ought, however, from a corporate perspective, to be expedited faithfully in the workaday world in ways commensurate with the claims upheld by the Quaker church collectively. There is a disjunction, however.

Divergence from an agreed tenet of beliefs, a collective tasked with overseeing conformity and the implication that individual can guide their own religious path autonomously within the world, out of sight of the Quaker collective, suggests some practical problems, especially in the negotiated context of the organised working world. A significant aspect of this philosophy relates to how and why Quakers in the twenty-first century engage with the world of work. My study suggests that rather than collectively defined belief and the practice of Christianity, contemporary work, and, more specifically, its organised form, fundamentally shapes not only how Quakers lived out their faith in the work setting but it also shaped the highly individualised liberal of its exposition of its adherents. This will be illustrated with more specific reference to Quakers in the cohort employed in business enterprises

Translating liberal belief into liberal practice

The contemporary work setting, as seen through the eyes of these Quakers, is a welcoming setting in terms of their apparently mutual ambition to improve the world. These Quakers framed the espoused ambitions of their work organisations and their individual ambitions for the world as a good fit. In ideal terms and in the everyday realm, their work organisations were seen as mutually supportive. Despite relating work narratives showing disparities about incidental means to their joint ends, overall, the interviewees saw their work as fulfilling and enjoyable. Whether this amounted to improving, for example, the lives of orphans in Africa, young people in the British education system disadvantaged by institutional self-interest or counselling those suffering from mental illnesses, Quakers depicted a working life very much on the side of the angels and assisted by managers. Regan had worked as a government office and said that she was:

            ‘fundamentally committed to justice, redressing injustice and to         truthfulness and that chimes with Quakers; there was nothing in the organisation that was any problem at all; and my values were the        values of the organisation before I was a Quaker and especially after.’

This congruence between the interviewees’ assumptions about the ambitions of the work organisation and the Quaker tradition, especially in terms of their individual concerns, was evidenced across industrial categories and not only in non-market funded concerns. Convergence in these public sector settings in terms of ends, if not necessarily means, to making better the world might be seen as unremarkable. There was, though, also a close identification related by interviewees working in market funded companies between the intentions as espoused by the work organisation and their Quaker religious aspirations.

Three out of the four interviewees working in private concerns detailed the close alignment of their individual and religious ambitions and those which they pursued explicitly as employees in their work organisation. Only the outlier in the cohort, working on the shopfloor of a manufacturing factory, described the dissonance between his ambitions to improve the workaday world and those pursued by the work concern. Fundamentally, the pursuit of a better world, from the perspective of the interviewees, related equally to market and non-market funded enterprises coincided which sought a better more charitable and equitable world. Significantly, however, the everyday exposition of these ends was conducted on singularly individual, rather than explicitly and decidedly Quaker terms.

Colleen was self-employed. She was nowadays ‘privileged to have found some work that excites and stretches and fulfils me but…I could be sitting at a till in Tesco’s, God forbid. Sometimes you have got to do those jobs if there is nothing else there; but I am fortunate in that I don’t have to.’ Colin had managed to find an occupation that sat happily with the tenets of her liberal faith. She was at liberty to choose when she worked and for whom. Working in translation services, she had a niche skill that allowed her to live a happy working life which fulfilled her material need.

Colleen had known less fulfilling economic times and appreciated now her position in life and the extent to which work can facilitate more than material necessities. ‘You have to work,’ she said, ‘If you don’t work, you don’t have any money to pay the rent, or the mortgage or buy the food or whatever else.’

Colleen listed the varied jobs she had undertaken in the past to gain enough money to get by: ‘Tended bar; waited food tables; waited cocktail tables; I bought a pick up truck and I moved people; I did light haulage jobs; nursing assistant in a nursing home; did a lot of admin.’ This litany of jobs had been undertaken for instrumental reasons: she had been a young mother who needed to feed her offspring and took whatever work was on offer to pay the bills. ‘Dancing on tables; professionally would be stretching a point in as much as I got paid for it. People paid me to do it. And when you have a small child, you have to earn an income,’ she intoned.

Colleen had now found fulfilment in her present employ and framed her working life in terms other than mere instrumentality. She viewed her work in terms commensurate with her liberal Quaker beliefs. The workaday world was interpreted through a complex Quaker lens to which Colleen could relate most piquantly as an individual at the centre of the religious enterprise. In her opinion, it was difficult to disentangle and identify discretely what counted as Quaker and what counted otherwise as work. ‘I think that work is something that I do not something that I am. I am me when I do it. Quaker is not something that I do. It is something that I am,’ she opined. ‘I am always Quaker when I am me at work.’ Colleen also felt, implicating her individualised beliefs, that this view preceded her involvement with the Quaker tradition. ‘But I think I was like that before I joined the Society (of Friends, Quakers),’ she reflected. In her view, as a Quaker believer, her experience is primary. ‘I don’t say, I am a Quaker; I say, I am Quaker. It was a thing for me before I joined the Society. I didn’t join the Society if I were going to become some embodiment of what I think a Quaker is.’ Surrendering to the apparent complexity of the detail and the individual as essential, Colleen confided, ‘Ah, well. We won’t worry about semantics.’

Reiterating her individualistic view, Colleen stated that her ultimate calling was not to follow a particular profession that was compatible with the liberal mien of the Quaker church. She believed that her connection to the working world was much more fundamental. Colleen believed that coherence between her beliefs and how she conducted her life in the everyday was an essential aim. This was apparently not sanctioned by the church or a divine authority. Instead, Colleen framed her everyday Quaker practice in terms of a intricate confluence of abstract factors. ‘What I am talking about is what I really believe in; in my God space, my deepest space, in my essential me space: what I really believe there and trying to live a life where I match my behaviour to that space. I guess that’s what integrity means.’

Colleen related how her current work required autonomous judgement and integrity. In concrete terms, she had had, for example, to translate sensitive and potentially incriminating matters for a client held in the criminal justice and for clients under close state supervision. She undertook the task with scrupulous moral probity in the everyday but reflected self-consciously on the complication of work and religion: ‘I was very careful to represent him compassionately, sensitively maybe compassion’s the wrong word. By honestly, I mean with some genuineness. Is that because I am a good translator or because I am a Quaker? I don’t know. I can’t unpick that. How can you unpick that?’  

Banking on a better world

Andy had been introduced to the Quaker faith through a conversation with one of his in-laws after years of looking for alternatives to his original Catholic beliefs which he now regarded as ‘just a cultural thing, I don’t believe in that stuff any more’. He had already tried to develop a personal path through a form of meditation but he was sceptical about its leverage: ‘some of it makes sense, (but) a lot of it was utter rubbish’. The nature of Andy’s workplace presented his Quaker faith with a concentrated test. He described his organisation as ‘very, very rational, very meritocratic’ but also ‘a pretty robust and challenging environment where some of the things other managers did in terms of treating colleagues was just awful’.

Despite this intense and ruthless backdrop, his workplace, in his eyes, opened up a window into a world of danger and religious confliction that was ripe with spiritual opportunity. Finance was regarded by Andy in highly moral terms, where he was dealing, for example, with individuals in former Soviet countries who were strongly connected in the public mind with corruption, extortion and contracted murder. For Andy, the collective conscience of the Quaker movement weighed heavily in his working life on this point, but their imagined disapproval at a practical connivance was countered in his opinion by a desire to forsake fixed and absolute moral principles and, in a spirit of functional forgiveness, ‘to do business, (though) very much eyes open’.

He also believed in the concept of finance as a moral enterprise, of ‘economics correcting behaviours’, highlighting how international finance can be orientated by individual and collective actions at work to enhance the lives of the poor and the dispossessed. He cited his previous work in Asia helping to restructure ‘sensationally corrupt’ foreign state banks.  For him, this was a just enterprise, repairing economic infrastructures to prevent the further exploitation of ordinary citizens by political and economic elites. In contrast to many organisational discourses, especially within non-market funded enterprises identified in the research, this kind of corporate engagement, in Andy’s view, can also make an enormous difference to people’s lives.

In Andy’s opinion, greed can be turned to good. He gave an example of how, in order to access financial capital within the business community, ‘you need to have a minimum standard of ethical behaviour: if you were to take out a contract in some former Soviet countries today, and have one of your competitors murdered, you wouldn’t get away with that relative to your ability to do business internationally’. In other words, Andy believed that, whilst the idea of accumulating material wealth and its promotion as desirable does not cohere particularly neatly with the corporate view of Quaker faith, in practical terms, the beneficial effects of engaging with the fiscal process at an organisational level, are tangible and real and morally significant. For Andy, both faith and avarice are then re-imagined in the contemporary workplace in terms as at once contrary and complementary to liberal Quaker religious claims.

Although, for Andy, Quakerism was like ‘wearing a comfortable shoe, there were no edges as it was about a path, a journey, and no real belief system’, he chose to distance his own thinking from that of the corporately defined  Quaker faith. Whilst he related his personal faith to the moral challenges of the work context, he viewed the Quaker tradition through a highly individualised and detached lens. ‘I don’t feel that there is such a thing as Quaker beliefs.  I have a set of beliefs and that’s my beliefs. They are not Quaker beliefs, if that makes sense,’ he said. Quakerism was understood by Andy to ‘sculpt my beliefs’ which, in a practical sense, framed her professional ethic. ‘I will never tell a lie to anyone now, and that’s liberating (and) if I am having a difficult time with someone at work, I just think, there is a bit of good in everyone. That helps me get the most out of people, on a professional and a personal level’. But, ultimately, Andy’s personal beliefs preceded and superseded those depicted by the Quaker church as definitional of the liberal faith tradition. Not only were they primary in a temporal sense for him, they were primary in terms of their everyday influence on his engagement with work. Beliefs existed primarily outside the religious tradition and were couched in Quaker terms only in apparently contingent and provisional terms.

Liberal Quakers within the folds of organised work

I suggest that the liberal Quakers are a not unsuitable group when how the categories of religion and work are perceived and lived out within the contemporary working world. This article is based on research into a post-Christian religion, an ambiguous and post-modern (Collins, 2008) group. Founded originally in relation to the perceived apostasy of the established English church, the modern tradition leans less on Christian religious dogma and the idea of inspired truths. Instead, affiliates are drawn into the church through its avowed detachment from clerical hierarchies which are regarded as constraining the individual spiritual enterprise in contrast to the constraining tendencies of organised Christian churches. Howsoever the interviewees saw the contradictions of mainstream Christian theologies, they still valued the idea of religion. Religion was applied to make sense of their personal experience and this allowed them to transcend their everyday engagement with the world. In this sense, despite rejecting mainstream Christian church traditions, overall, the interviewees still wanted to ‘have religion’ (Carrothers, 2007) and , in doing so, they identified more completely with the individualised terms which the liberal Quaker church was perceived to support.

Conclusions made about Quakers in work organisations, I argue, can be related more widely, not just in terms of the broader church, but also in terms of other religious beliefs and, perhaps, issues connected with the more amorphous category of non-belief, particularly as these identity claims are lived out in relation to the work process. Specifically, I contend that ascribed categories of religious belief, which should be made more transparent to policy-makers in public administration as well as in work organisations, are much less clear in the everyday than one might be led to expect from corporate church discourses.

One might not expect interviewees from the liberal Quaker tradition to demarcate strong boundaries between their everyday, inclusive religious claims and the espoused horizons towards which contemporary work organisations also, it appears, mutually aspire to move the world. Quakers reject outward signs of religious affiliation within the church: all times and spaces are potentially sacred except insofar as they are opportune moments for exploration of the divine. They are accommodated to the world and its compromises. Their aim is to mend its worldly inconsistencies whilst they blend their Quaker ambitions from within the everyday. Without engaging faithfully with the workaday, these Quakers suggest that their faith is mere inauthentic symbolism. So, even if conspicuous boundaries are fluid and porous and permeable, the important condition is for Quakers to move devotedly within the world. This is their inclusive boundary, the common theme in relation to their claimed religious practice and, as an article of faith, it is expedited by these interviewees.

Yet the idea of the Quaker religion in the work setting is not without nuance, certainly in terms of belief in practice and especially as it informs the interviewees’ engagement with the social setting. Quakers move as Quakers within the workaday world. They engage spiritedly with corporate aspirations in the everyday as defined for them by their work organisations. Quakers ambitions, acted out separately, across contexts, in market funded enterprises, geared towards making money, and in non-market funded concerns, their ends are described in mutual terms. That these intentions are so completely melded raises some interesting questions, however, in terms of how religion defines itself in relation to the work organisational context, especially as differences in work and religious ambitions seem, from the interviewees’ perspective, so negligible and ineffable. The liberal Quaker tradition appears to be subsumed into a workaday, rather than a capitalist ethic which, they suggest, is grounded in the everyday experience of these white-collar professionals. And it is in the varied particulars of their everyday work, not the professed liberality of this highly individualised church tradition, which most sharply defines Quakers’ religious beliefs in practice.

Table 1

MarketPublic corporations   0 QuakersPrivate corporations   4 Quakers working in manufacturing, finance (x2)  language services  
Non-MarketGeneral government   12 Quakers working in public administration  medical and emergency services educationHouseholds or Non-profit institutions serving households (NPISHs)   4 Quakers working in charities


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