One of the early Quaker testimonies was the refusal to use titles (Mr, Mrs, Lord, etc), addressing others only by their Christian and family names. That was a challenge to the convention that John Smith would be addressed as “Mr Smith” if he was a social superior and ‘John’ if he was considered an inferior. The Quaker custom of using the form ‘John Smith’ for everyone was the way that they treated everyone as an equal. Speaking in that way marked them out as Quakers but it caused resentment. In time the social hierarchy that Quakers objected to became less marked, and the point of the early testimony was lost. If there is any modern case against the use of titles, it may be because ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ reveal marital status, and there is still some prejudice against ‘Ms’. As a Quaker peculiarity this refusal to use titles has become an oddity which no longer serves any purpose.
Some Friends inconvenienced themselves by refusing to include a title when they completed official forms, to the extent that they deprived themselves of bank accounts. Even more serious recently was the requirement to supply a title on a CRB form, essential for anyone who was employed to work with children or vulnerable adults or who had roles with them in meetings, and, in spite of appeals, the authorities refused to accept forms on which the title had been left blank.
We continue to use obsolete conventions without thinking. We begin a letter with ‘Dear Mr Smith’, ‘Dear John’, perhaps ‘Dear Sir’ if we don’t know their name and ignoring the fact that the addressee may be a woman, but then ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ is rather clumsy.
I like the probably fictitious story of the man who received a letter from the tax inspector beginning ‘Dear Mr …’ and ending ‘I remain your humble and faithful servant’ He replied to it, ‘Undear Sir’ and ending ‘You remain my humble and faithful servant’. The ‘Undear Sir’ was at least truthful, but seems discourteous. George Fox would not have been bothered by that.A Justice of the Peace who had arrested George Fox visited him in prison. He doffed his hat and said, ‘How do you do, Mr Fox? Your servant, Sir’ Fox replied, ‘Take heed of hypocrisy and a rotten heart, for when came I to be thy master and thee my servant? Do servants use to cast their masters into prison?’
So what might Quaker simplicity reject? The opening word ‘Dear’ could well be omitted, the addressee’s name would be quite sufficient. We then come to the ending. ‘Yours faithfully’ or ‘Yours truly’ implies that this letter is truthful but others might not be. This is parallel to the refusal to take oaths, as they implied that statements not under oath need not be truthful. ‘Yours very truly’ is even worse, for obvious reasons. ‘Yours sincerely’ raises a similar objection. (‘Sincere’ once meant ‘without wax’, a letter without a seal was personal rather than official, and therefore implied that it was more likely to be truthful.) Perhaps Friends recognise this when they use such forms as ‘Yours in friendship’, although I must admit that I find this rather twee.
That is why when writing to Friends I sometimes omit the ‘Dear’ and the conventional ending, just putting my name. It is not such a point of principle with me (unlike early Friends) that I would intentionally cause offence, but I wish that this would become universal practice.
I am making a serious point in this rather whimsical piece. As Quakers we have our own ways of doing things. When these are outmoded, no longer serve a purpose and make life difficult we should be ready to discard them. When society uses conventions which are silly or untruthful, should we adopt new Quaker ways of plain speaking? Our testimonies will never become irrelevant, but they may lead us to abandon old ways and consider new ways of expressing them.