Religion and the world of work: the organisational quest for coherence

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Quakers have been contemplating how far to cede their religious beliefs to bureaucratic management since the middle of the seventeenth century. Originally Christian recusants, they reproved the established English church for its perceived apostasy and its claims to institutionally mediate between the individual and the divine. Nowadays, the British Quaker church’s evolving implicit, liberal appeal is built not on exclusive Christianity, or even God — an open question within the group — but its claims to theological inclusivity and pluralism.

British Quakers in the twenty-first century tend to be ‘switchers’ (Perrin and Maus 1991) to the liberal church in adulthood. They see the Quaker collective as liberating, allowing them to seek ‘a God of one’s own’ outside the ‘closed system’ of an organised religious collective (Beck 2010). In this way, in contrast to the perceived fixed, settled and administrated principles of mainstream Christianity, liberal Quakers can ‘have religion’ (Carrothers 2007) largely on their own individualised terms. Personal salvation, for these Quaker incomers, lies not so much in a world of redemption, but in the charitable articulation of their liberal faith today in the everyday world.

Organisations, being the predominant element of our contemporary lives (Blass 2004), constitute the milieu within which Quakers must find room to author this highly individualised religious project. But theirs is a complicated, and intensely contested, collective enterprise. Within work organisations, the Quaker religious venture to improve the world is not a singular operator. Other various and competing institutional logics are simultaneously at play in the living and fluid organisational context. While Quaker participants in my research suggest that they largely share the espoused ambitions of their work organisation and its ‘secularised’ (for want of a more neutral word) claims to improve the world, my research points, on the contrary, to religion as a singular and harmonious factor in the organised setting being wide of the mark. Especially in everyday terms, working life is a complex and constant Workfluss (work setting) of negotiation, settlement and response at the everyday level as these Quakers grope for coherence amongst the accidental and the unforeseen.

For Quakers, the everyday is meaningful; meaning is in the everyday. Coherence between faith and practice is aspirationally cast as an ultimate end. But the world of work for these Quaker interviewees was not only full of unknowns and the unpredictable. Across the cohort, in market-funded enterprises, such as banks, or from within non-market funded institutions such as schools and hospitals, the work organisation is an authority in their lives. Quakers must negotiate its authorial path. Understandably, they chose to work in organisations which — they believe — only minimally and exceptionally require heavy and substantial everyday compromise. So, for these Quakers, religious ambitions to move the world to a more humanly prosperous horizon, and the broad intentions of the work organisation, are happily aligned. Organisational logics, say of profession, career or market economics, are little differentiated from their own individualised religious aspirations — even in the worrisome minutiae of the workaday. But, for each Quaker, it is the work organisation which sets out the collaborative terms of endearment.

Such authorial conditions are emphasised in my study by the outlying Quaker narratives that show the salience of the organisational context in defining the scope and the limitations of their religious project. For, when Quaker and work ambitions do not align, on the shopfloor of an engineering company, for instance, explicit or implicit religiosity is a precarious ground for negotiation. Indeed, in this particular case, Quaker faith was re-imagined by management as an oppositional threat to the firm’s everyday operation and the protagonist was occupationally defenestrated.

More vertiginously, the work organisation can also change its mind. In the referenced engineering company, the non-negotiable incompatibility of what counted as Quaker and the ambitions of the work organisation were explicit. But the authority of work to set out terms also seemingly extends to moving the goalposts with circumspection so that, what once was, from the Quaker purview, aligned and harmonious, liberal, benevolent and shared, transfuses into a fundamentally discordant form. When financial cuts, in swingeing response to the banking crisis of 2009, were implemented within one interviewee’s educational establishment, Quaker ambitions to make better the world, initially defined by them as almost indivisible from those of the work organisation, became marooned in a sea of apparent managerial indifference and religious impotence.

Liberal Quaker claims to improve the world through the work organisation are provisional, it seems, contingent on the continuing collaboration of the living, evolving and capricious organisational design. How contingent is a moot point. That it is contingent, however, on the guiltless agreement of the work organisation, seems to me a quite arguable point. The personal salvation of liberal Quakers today is, from within the organised world, still very much beholden to bureaucracy’s unshakeable iron hold.

Mark Read is an early career researcher interested in religion and work. His research into the British liberal Quaker tradition explores the boundaries between these everyday categories

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