Barclay’s Apology – Woodbrooke post

I wrote a post for Woodbrooke’s blog about Robert Barclay, his Apology, and reading it today.

Writing: sometimes erratic and boring

From time to time, I resolve to share more about my writing process, to let people know what I’m working on. It should, in theory, help me build an audience of people who want to read the books I’m writing, and create a community of writers who are going through similar things.

Every time I make that resolution, though, I come up against twin problems. One is that some stages of my writing process are delicate. I don’t want to share the details too early, in case they change. Last year, for example, I mentioned on Twitter a Quakers-in-space sci-fi novel I was working on, or maybe at some level am still working on… but it got halfway into the first draft and stalled, so it may be some time. (But the one before that which stalled is now the one I’m working on, so I do sometimes come back to them in due course.)

The other is that quite a lot of stages of the writing and publishing process are boring. I work intensely on something for a while – months or years – and then there are long periods of waiting. Sometimes this is a good wait, the kind with a definite end: people who like my Quaker Quicks work can look forward to the publication of Hearing the Light in September 2021. (For those who are following the larger projects, this is the accessible version of the material I researched for Theology from Listening, Brill, 2020 – if you want the footnotes, that’s the one you need.) Sometimes this is a wait which, the longer it lasts, the worse the news is likely to be. In late 2019 I wrote a novel set in North Wales just after the Romans left; it has romance and adventure and religion and horses, and for almost exactly a year now I’ve been submitting it to one agent or publisher after another with no success. Not the good kind of waiting! 

It also doesn’t help that I am often working on more than one project at once. For example, sometimes someone asks me how my current project is coming, and I have to pause to remember whether they are a Fiction person or an Academic person before I answer, because the (possibly misguided) way I am apparently dealing with lockdown stress is by working on two books at once. My current theory – see above re. changes to details – is that one of them is a novel, set in Iron Age England, picking up hints from the Classical authors about multiple marriages in that society, and the other is an academic book, building on my previous work on multiple religious belonging and using Wittgensteinian approaches to create an entirely new way of thinking about what it is to participate in a religious tradition. But only the other day I threw out my entire previous chapter plan and started again with a new structure, so who knows what will happen between here and a finished manuscript, let alone whether it will ever see the light of day.

An elderly friend in one of my previous Quaker meetings used to ask whenever he saw me: are you still writing? He died some time ago but I remember his encouragement and, even if the day by day work of it isn’t exciting or easy to share, I can definitely say: yes I am.

What does membership mean to you?

I’m on a subgroup of the Book of Discipline Revision Committee which is looking at how we understand and describe membership. I wrote the following as part of our initial reflections; I’ve written before about membership and I know lots of meetings and committees have considered it in various ways. How do you feel when you think about membership? What do you think the Revision Committee needs to know about the current situation?

When I think about membership I feel happy and annoyed and sad and the ache of a missed opportunity. I’m happy to be in membership: I’m happy to be part of crew, to be trusted to do Quaker work, and to make a public statement of my commitment to the community. Sometimes I feel annoyed that I didn’t get a birthright membership, and that my process of applying for membership felt like paperwork and not deeply spiritual in the way some other people describe. It sometimes bothers me that membership doesn’t actually mean the difference between crew and passengers: we trust lots and lots of attenders to serve in all sorts of roles, including handling our money and encouraging other people into membership. And although I’m pleased we are flexible about membership in some ways, no longer insisting on a written letter and finding less intimidating ways to have visits and other conversations, there are so many people out there who are Quakers, who are doing Quaker work in the world, who are in or known to our meetings, who participate in Quaker worship other than with a local meeting, who could be better supported by our communities but aren’t in membership because they can’t attend on Sunday mornings or don’t find the community as welcoming as it should be or aren’t sure they would be accepted or think they aren’t ‘good enough’… so many of them that I can’t help feeling we are not using membership as well as it could be used. 

Membership at the moment is very geographical. This doesn’t reflect my life or experience – of moving repeatedly for study and work, and struggling to move my membership in a timely way; and of worshipping online with international communities, some not tied to geographical structures. 

It can also have a very different focus depending who is looking at it. It would be possible to describe membership mainly from a nominations perspective in terms of people being available for roles or not. (Suppose we gave membership as a gift to anyone who accepted a significant nomination – the membership list in many meetings would undergo some major changes.) It would be possible to describe membership mainly from a resources perspective, looking both at who gives money and energy to the meeting and who receives support from the meeting. (Suppose we gifted membership to anyone who donated to us or to whom we wanted to give practical or financial support – the membership list in many meetings would be quite different.) It would also be possible to describe membership from a spiritual perspective, finding those who are most deeply rooted in the Quaker tradition, give most in ministry (not just spoken ministry) and are most important to the quality of worship. (Suppose we gifted membership to all those who deepen and enrich our worship – the membership list would look very different again.) In fact, some of these forms of membership have existed or do exist: nominations committees in local meetings tend to have a de facto ‘active’ list of names to consider, treasurers know who to send a schedule for donations, and the identification of people who have a gift for improving worship might be compared to the historical process of recording ministers. We just don’t call them ‘membership’.

At the moment membership seems to often mean a problem and a debate. Many of those who have it cherish it. I would be sad if we abolished it and I felt I had lost something. But I also know that sometimes we have to knock down an old building in order to clear the ground and create something better, and membership seems to me to be crumbling in some places. It has been renovated repeatedly, but there’s still a steep staircase and some other bumps which exclude people, bits of ancient plaster fall off the ceiling sometimes, and even when you’re inside the space it isn’t always ready for modern life – like that charming hotel room with the exposed wooden beams where there’s only one plug socket.

You can find out more about the revision process, including how to contact the committee directly, on Britain Yearly Meeting’s website.

Queer History in Fiction

One way to approach queer/LGBTQ+ history in fiction is to set stories in the past and create lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and other queer characters there. That’s the approach I took in Between Boat and Shore, and it’s been done by lots of other writers as well. However, I realised recently that I’ve read three books which take another approach, setting a story in the present and giving characters evidence of a queer past to reckon with now. I think this is interesting for the way it allows authors to explore both the possibilities of the past and how we, as a modern interpretative community, relate to it. In this blog post, I want to talk briefly about these three, all very different, books and comment a little on what insights they might have for other readers and writers of both real and fictional LGBTQ+ histories.

The three books are:

The Bones of Our Fathers, Elin Gregory

Documenting Light, E. E. Ottoman

Little Fish, Casey Plett

The three are very different in style and genre. Gregory and Ottoman are working within the romance genre, with their focus on a couple; Plett’s novel is more literary, with the focus on a single central character. All three involve some difficulty, and Ottoman’s deals with poverty, illness, and the closet, but Plett’s is noticeably grittier in tone, with poverty, suicide, alcoholism, and sexual abuse recurring themes. Gregory’s central characters are gay men, while Ottoman’s are a trans man and a nonbinary person, and Plett’s is a trans woman. The narrative voices tend to be clear about this, taking advantage of the modern setting to use explicit language, but at times older confusions surface: can the past be understood in modern terms, and is it possible for someone who thought of himself as a gay man, for example, to have actually in some sense been a trans woman? An advantage of exploring these questions in fiction, as opposed to academic or other theoretical writing, is that they can be approached indirectly and their complexities and unanswerableness given space.

Another difference between them is the explicitness and nature of the evidence each author creates. I think all three are fictional but plausible. In Gregory’s novel, the archaeologist main character is excavating a Bronze Age burial cist (small stone chamber) in which two men were placed together – I don’t know of a case exactly like that, but the Weerdinge Men, a pair of bog bodies initially assumed to be a male and female couple because of their pose but now interpreted as two male bodies, would provide a very similar example. In Ottoman’s novel, an old photograph is the central piece of evidence – again, one of the main characters has professional expertise as an archivist, although perseverance is shown to be just as important in the research process. Old photographs with similar aesthetics, if not the same level of known background, circulate frequently online and some have been researched and published. The evidence Plett gives her main character is thinner, less concrete – stories from someone who knew her grandfather, a letter which says nothing explicitly – and extremely plausible. Having an ancestor about whom there are suggestive stories or some things which make you wonder is a common enough experience that the situation felt familiar to me. There are few ways to prove or disprove such theories, though. 

What they have in common is the challenge of discovering more about the past. This is most central in Ottoman’s novel, a bit less so in Gregory’s, and more like a background or framing device in Plett’s. Together, they ask questions about the relationship we have with the past. Does it matter whether people long ago had similar experiences to our own? Is it useful to know whether they were happy or sad in their situations, whether they embraced their sexual desires and expressed the genders they felt, or whether they embraced social or religious rules which encouraged them to focus on family, tradition, or heaven? Many of the characters in Plett’s novel are Mennonites and the religious background of the community heavily shapes what can be said and done both by the main character, Wendy, and her grandfather. In contrast, in Ottoman’s novel the characters’ own hesitations about what they can claim to know become more of an issue.

As both a reader and a writer of queer stories in historical (and prehistoric!) settings, these books helped me to think about the kind of emotional feedback I and others like me might be seeking in such stories and in historical and archaeological research. There is a sense of recognition, of seeing oneself in history, which is similar to the desire to be represented and see oneself in fiction set in the present. (And these novels also do that – for example, although Plett’s main character is trans and I’m cis, she has sexual relationships with both men and women and I found her reflections on changing sexual attraction over time very relatable.) However, I think it goes beyond what can be broadly characterised as representation. Finding or creating historical characters who are LGBTQ+ also allows the creation of a continuity. It’s not an accident that in Plett’s novel the potentially queer historical character is literally family, the main character’s grandfather. In Gregory’s novel, the connection is more about locality, the place in Wales where the burial is found – but the title, with its reference to ‘Our Fathers’, makes the image much more explicit. And in Ottoman’s writing, the theme of kinship and recognition, knowing about the past by finding something there which matches present experience, becomes a key research tool for the characters. 

To give an example from another area of life, I had accepted that being vegetarian was a modern thing and, while convinced about the moral rightness of my decision, it hadn’t occurred to me to look for other people in the past who made the same choice. There are plenty throughout the centuries, of course, but the possibility only really opened up to me when I read a label in a museum which identified the bones of an Iron Age man who, according to a chemical analysis of his remains, derived his protein mainly from plants. Bam! An ancestor in the tradition. (If memory serves this was the East Riding of Yorkshire Museum in Hull, but I don’t have details of the find location etc.) Finding examples like that enables us to broaden our imaginations and widen the network of connections in our chosen families. This is important in many areas of life, but especially if – as many people who are other gender conforming and straight are – you are told that your experience is a phase, a trend, etc. 

It also enriches our understanding of people in the past – however much I know intellectually that people in the past were the same species with the same cognitive and emotional skills (and diversity) as people today, just with different technology and culture, it can be hard to understand this. That’s especially true of prehistory (someone said of my novel that it was a surprise at first to read about Neolithic people speaking in such a modern way – but genetically, they were modern humans the same as us, and their language would have felt modern to them), but it can also be true of much more recent periods. When I was at school, there was a brief attempt to help us connect with history by working backwards from our family trees towards the Victorians… but even though that is only a short gap, even though I remember meeting my great-grandparents who were born only ten years after Victoria died, it can still be difficult to make that imaginative leap if the people described there seem to have little or nothing in common with you. The evidence of queer pasts explored in these novels helps the characters to make that leap in various ways, and to look at the past with insight and compassion, even love.

With all those factors in mind, my conclusion at the moment is that the emotional impact of that connection is strengthened when it is personal and felt directly in some way: family connections, connections through place or religion, connections through shared experiences of some kind. Sharing this experience with a fictional character through reading a novel about it might help readers to create those pathways for ourselves, and seeing the possibility of ancestral connections can bring us to the existing evidence in new ways. This might help us to create a more accurate image of the past – one which gets closer to taking into account the full range of human experience – but also opens up new directions for telling stories about the past. All historical work involves interpretation, always drawing on our own experience and ideas as well as original artefacts and documents, and although these examples are stories of fictional pasts as well as fictional presents, understanding better the motivations and feeling involved in interpretation can help us to navigate the complexities of it better.

29.04 – anti-vivisection?

This blog post is part of my series on passages in Quaker faith & practice which were written specifically for it, in 1994.

The status of the passages in the final chapter of Quaker faith & practice is a little different to the rest of the book: this chapter, called ‘Leadings’, is an attempt to predict which issues Quakers in Britain might deal with in the future. Since we are now in or beyond that future – I think that, twenty-seven years on, we’re probably past most of what the 1994 Revision Committee could have called ‘the foreseeable future’ – we can ask whether or not the community did move in the directions predicted.

As far as I know, the Yearly Meeting as a whole did not in any formal way take up the challenge presented in 29.04, which asks us to oppose vivisection, the testing of medical and cosmetic products on live animals. This is partly because wider society moved fairly quickly on one part of the issue: other methods were created and testing cosmetics on animals was banned in the UK in 1998. Animal testing in medical research is heavily regulated but also still an important part of the process for some fields. I haven’t heard debate about this among Quakers recently. I get the impression that there’s a general acceptance of a minimisation of harm: a small amount of carefully regulated testing on animals which enables us to relieve suffering in humans is a balance a lot of people can live with. Even if we have worries about it and hope other processes for medical testing will be found in future, it’s a compromise which reflects the reality of a complex situation at the moment. Or perhaps it’s just something people don’t talk about at the moment.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a good deal of concern about animal welfare among Quakers. Quaker Concern for Animals is still going strong and with increasing awareness of the role of animal agriculture in the climate crisis, arguments for reducing or removing animal products from our diets are more visible in wider society than ever before. With convenient vegan foods becoming much more widely available, and debates about the role of sheep in damaging the ecosystem and the role of cows in creating greenhouse gases reaching the mainstream media, Quakers are also engaged in these discussions. 

Of course, the situation is not simple. We need to pay attention to the circumstances in which human beings produce food, including ensuring there is fair pay for work done. The non-human animals involved are not just those which might be killed and eaten, but all those which live alongside crops: the mice in the wheat field and the bees pollinating the fruit as well as the cows who produce milk and the male chicks thrown out because they won’t lay eggs. And some animal involvement in a wider farming practice supports the fertility of the soil, and issues about what can be farmed (or picked or caught) locally and what is a sustainable use of wild resources and what is culturally appropriate all factor in as well. Mention veganism or plant-based diets in a general Quaker Facebook group and you are likely to hear from people concerned about all these aspects and more – and trying, as we saw with the example of animal testing in medical development, to hold all these perspectives in balance at once. Working out what is best for people and plants and ecosystems and the earth and every living thing is not simple and the rules of thumb we develop to make decisions on a day-to-day basis, like, ‘I’ll try and eat only plants whenever I can’ or ‘I’ll try and eat things produced as close to home as possible’ are compromises which let us get on with life but cannot be pushed as universal solutions.

In 2021, animal ethics are important to many Quakers but in the Society as a whole they tend to be positioned within a wider discussion about sustainability rather than an end in themselves. If I had to guess, I would predict that over the next thirty years, some other aspects of animal ethics might come to the fore – perhaps through debates about rewilding in Britain and the role of native animals (say, wolves, beavers, and wild boar, rather than the animals our Neolithic ancestors brought from the Middle East), and perhaps through ongoing research about animal intelligence and the complexities of ecosystems (involving all animals including humans but also plants, like the recent work on tree communication). In this process, Quakers might become more sensitised to our interdependence with the whole of existence, less focussed on single issue campaigns and more aware of the endless web of connections.

Am I right that Britain Yearly Meeting didn’t take a formal stance on vivisection? Are there Local or Area, Preparative or Monthly Meetings who have made minutes on these issues?

Am I right that vivisection is now not so commonly discussed, with animal ethics debates focussed on other issues? If I am right, is that change happening because of the move I describe in towards a focus on sustainability or for other reasons?

Where do you think this discussion will go in the next thirty years? Are there factors you think are relevant to this which aren’t being considered at the moment?

A book of discipline blogging challenge

In a Facebook discussion about Christmas, Janet Scott noted that her often-quoted piece in Quaker faith & practice (Qf&p) which describes Quaker approaches to ‘times and seasons’ in 1994 was written especially for that book, suggesting that there was a lack of other writing available on the topic. This prompted me to wonder about two related questions: besides times and seasons, which other topics needed new material writing in 1994? and what might there be to say about those topics in 2021?

I answered the first question with a fairly simple research method – I searched the online version of Qf&p for ‘1994’, and then checked the paper version (since the online version doesn’t include it) to see which passages were written specifically for the book and which were published elsewhere, coincidentally in 1994. This enabled me to make a list of 35 passages written either by individuals and submitted to Yearly Meeting in 1994 or drafted by the 1994 Revision Committee. (I left out passages drafted by previous revision committees and edited in 1994; one has to draw a line somewhere.) From those passages, I made a quick list of topics which includes conflict in meetings, intervisitation, prayer healing, marriage, and many more (the full list is at the end of this post).

The second question I propose to answer during the year by running through that list of topics and writing a blog post about each of them. I don’t expect that my posts will be the final word on many of the topics – indeed, on a number of them I am not well qualified to comment – but I hope to be able to point to other Quaker writing and to raise relevant questions, with the intention of starting conversations. The comments on my blog posts are open, or if you have a lot to say you could set up your own blog. (Free and easy! Here are some tips.) Of course, there will also be all sorts of issues which didn’t exist in 1994 or weren’t included. I might tackle some of those, if they occur to me or someone points them out – and again, please feel free to contribute your own perspectives.

In this post, I want to start the project off with brief remarks on two topics which I’m clear that other people need to discuss as well. There are some topics for which, even without direct experience, someone who is interested in the community’s response can make some small but potential useful contribution through a reflection on the wider issue: for example, I’m not a parent and I’ve never had an abortion, but I might be able to say something about how Quakers generally in my experience talk about parenting and abortions. However, here are two topics on which this approach doesn’t seem so relevant: the role of the Welsh language in British Quakerism, and the tradition of making affirmations rather than taking oaths in Scotland. (That’s passages 10.14 and 20.54 if you’re interested.)

In most of British Quakerism, as in much of British society, the role of the Welsh language is largely to be ignored. This is probably to our detriment, as Welsh is an important part of the history and culture of these islands, but it generally just doesn’t come up. There are notable exceptions and the formation of Meeting of Friends in Wales has enabled Welsh-speaking Quakers to become more visible. As far as I know, there is one meeting where Welsh is the normal language of spoken ministry, and in other Quaker meetings in Wales I have heard Welsh spoken sometimes (and probably at least as often language learners comparing notes, in English). Once in a while it’s used in other contexts – I’ve heard Advices and Queries read in Welsh in other places occasionally. The publication of Tua’r Tarddiad/Towards the Source hopefully provides a starting point for a wider appreciation of the language among Quakers. But we need to hear from Welsh speakers: what would you like to say about the role of your language among Quakers in 2021?

On a similar theme, I would guess that the passage about oath-taking in Scotland might have been written specially for the 1994 book because the differences between the legal situations hadn’t been dealt with in the appropriate way or at the appropriate level of detail before. This kind of issue, not related to oaths but to other aspects of the law, has occasionally surfaced since: for example, I remember a question about the differences between the law in England and Wales and the law in Scotland being raised in a Yearly Meeting in relation to prison chaplains and other visitors. It also comes up in relation to the trustees of Quaker bodies and a few other matters, as charities in Scotland are regulated by OSCR while charities in England and Wales come under the Charity Commission. Friends in Scotland may be able to tell us: what issues are not fully taken into account at the moment, and what differences do we need to be more alert to?

(Some readers might now be wondering about Northern Ireland, because if this was a news run-down of the current coronavirus rules we would now need an update on the situation in Northern Ireland. But there’s nothing to say on that in this context, because Quaker meetings in Northern Ireland are part of Ireland Yearly Meeting, which has its own book of discipline. That said, I’d be delighted if Irish Friends, and people from other Yearly Meetings as well, want to give their own perspectives on these topics.) 

Over the course of 2021, I plan to blog about many of the topics which needed updates in 1994, and I invite others to do the same – I include the list below for anyone interested.

Chapter 10: 14, 16, 21, 23, 30, 31

Topics: 

  • place of the Welsh language in the RSoF
  • Leaveners; communities with purpose
  • conflict in meetings
  • divorce within a community
  • dual membership (two passages)

Chapter 13: 26, 31, 32

  • travel in the ministry
  • intervisitation (two passages)

Chapter 20: 40, 53, 74

  • drug use (moderation/avoidance)
  • oaths in Scotland
  • legal proceedings in divorce

Chapter 21: 05, 31, 37, 38, 71

  • impromptu and healing mfw with Leaveners
  • music
  • places to find beauty
  • prayer healing

Chapter 22: 02, 11, 14, 21, 33, 44, 54, 56, 57, 58, 59, 73, 88, 92

  • friendship
  • sexuality
  • making a home
  • marriage
  • celebration of commitment
  • problems in relationships
  • abortion
  • adoption
  • parenting
  • ending relationships
  • death – terminally ill, by suicide
  • bereavement

25.04

  • interdependence

26:36

  • religious language

27.04, 42

  • universalist/Christocentric
  • sacraments/times and seasons

29.04, 05

  • anti-vivisection
  • genetic engineering

An Online Year

At about this time, it’s traditional to post round-ups of the year, top ten thises and best of thats. Thinking back over 2020, however, my top tens would mostly be of bad or boring things (top three moments when I wondered whether a loved one would die… top ten times I said “maybe we can do that after the pandemic”… top fifty films I have seen before and we watched again…). Instead, I’d like to share some reflections on something which has been comforting and familiar this year: the internet.

2020 is the second time in my life that I have put almost all previous activity aside and turned to the internet instead. This time it was different because everyone was doing it, but in many ways there were strong similarities to the previous time, when I was a teenager with a chronic illness who couldn’t cope with attending school physically. (I’m not going to discuss the details of the diagnosis, because my considered opinion is that it was a medical term for ‘dunno’.) At first I was too ill to do much of anything, but as I recovered internet access became one of my key learning tools. I also had home tutors and used paper-based distance learning, and later attended some lessons in person, but of course once I was online I didn’t restrict myself to the lessons which arrived by email. I read webpages and joined php forums about my special interests at the time (for which, besides my diagnosis, you can mainly read fandoms: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Wars, M*A*S*H…). For an awkward and frequently lonely teenager who was much more comfortable with writing than in-person interaction, those opportunities were a real gift.

Looking back at 2020, I can see some of the ways in which my earlier experiences, of which that period of illness was an important one, prepared me to cope with what happened. Pivoting everything to online felt more like going home than entering new territory. I agree that working on Zoom isn’t the same – and video conferencing was not dreamt of in my dial-up teenage days when a video could take hours to download! – but the increased ease of connection more than makes up for the loss of some body language in many circumstances (especially because I often miss or misread body language anyway, so I find it helpful that everyone knows it’s missing and can choose to provide the information verbally if they want to). And the wider increase in online activity, especially the rise in interactions on social media, has generally been good for me. As an author, I’m working on building a online audience, and although book sales haven’t been huge this year the number of people reading my blog has been steadily climbing. (Hi! Welcome!) For me, one of the challenges in 2021 may be to maintain that. 

As well as my teenage illness, years of studying primarily from home set me up well for working from home. For my taught MA, and even more for my PhD, I had some in-person meetings, but spent the majority of my time self-directed, reading, writing, thinking. The kind of work I do now for Woodbrooke – teaching, supervising research students, planning conferences, and so on – mostly fits well into that model. For most of this year, I’ve been working three days a week, or in fact spreading that time over five or six days (we try and teach when people are likely to be available, so there’s always some evening and weekend work). For the other two days, or in fact for a couple of hours every morning, I write. In 2020 I finished a book – Hearing the Light will be out in September 2021 – and started work on three others. 2020 was not a great year for research, although I did manage to get back to using libraries by the autumn, but it may have been a good year for developing ideas. I reserve final judgement on that until I see which seeds actually grow! There’s plenty of work to do next year.

Familiarity isn’t always good, of course. I think I’ve been worse this year at contacting friends directly. I’ve enjoyed spending time online but I’ve missed travel (especially reading on trains). I’m lucky to be well set up with somewhere nice to live, that I’m happy to spend time, but it can be stifling. I’ve enjoyed spending a lot of time with my partner, but have missed seeing some others (especially family and friends who live at a distance). And a bunch of bad as well as good stuff has happened in my offline life.

And for the record, here are the top ten most read posts on my blog in 2020 (not all, but most, published this year):

Is a bit of quiet Quaker worship?

Five Reasons Quakers Can Celebrate Christmas

Asexuality, Aromanticism and Quakers

Liberal Quakers and Life After Death

The Internet Is Real

Being a World Quaker

Ethics and Other People’s Words

Quaker Marriage: Couple, God and Community

Quakers Do What! Why?

Quaker Values as a Unifying Force

I look forward to seeing you all online in 2021 – and perhaps a few people in person. And I’m making some notes about possible blog topics for the year so let me know if there’s something you’d like me to write about!

Book review: When a Pagan Prays, Nimue Brown

When a Pagan Prays, Nimue Brown, Moon Books, 2014

When I picked up this book, I was interested in learning about Druidry with a eye to expanding my own practice  – how do other Druids, or at least one other Druid, relate to prayer? What might I use in creating a Druid prayer practice? Reading it, however, I found something with a much wider interest. Brown does speak from her own Druid perspective – indeed, one of the best aspects of the book is the way in which she shares her personal as well as research journey with the subject – but she also deals with a wide variety of possible approaches to deity. Of particular interest to me, and I suspect to other Quakers as well, is the combination she creates of space for atheist and rationalist perspectives while also addressing the possibility of religious experience including the irrational and inexplicable. For example, on page 43 she writes, “Sacredness is a condition of being that could belong to almost anything, and does not require deity.” As she explores different approaches to and forms of prayer, she always holds open the possibility that there will be no reply and that prayer may not work in the ways we hope for or want – while also demonstrating that this need not be a final block, that there are always other ways to look at things or alternative techniques to try. She not only suggests that she may be mistaken, but shows the reader in detail ways in which she changed her mind as she gained more knowledge and experience. This is a great gift, especially for those who may be experimenting in a similar way with this or another spiritual question.

Brown is also refreshingly upfront about the risks of prayer – what happens if your prayer is answered? This includes unintended consequences but also, less commonly addressed in religious literature, the social and personal aspects. If you say ‘hello’ to God (or Gods, or Goddess, or spirits – Brown’s Druidry is not committed on this) and something says ‘hello’ back, what are you going to make of it? Brown acknowledges that “few things would be more terrifying” (p37) but also addresses the many ways in which those responses might appear. Hearing a voice which says ‘hello’ is not the most common experience, although not entirely unknown. The Pagan communities which Brown is discussing don’t have the Quaker idea of listening together to have a shared experience of being spoken to or led to a specific action, and perhaps the book is slightly poorer, philosophically, for leaving out that possibility. On the other hand, Brown does come to three conclusions which are closely aligned with the Quaker perspective. One is about the importance of listening itself and the difficulty of that process: “the hardest thing to do in prayer is to sit in true silence and listen.” (p140) Another is about the ways in which, rather than changing the world, prayer and related practices can change us. She is direct about the need for the person prayer to be open to transformation: “If you aren’t willing to change then don’t pray. If you aren’t willing to be confused, frightened, overwhelmed or intimidated sometimes, don’t pray.” (p109)

The other way in which Brown reaches a Quaker-like conclusion is her focus on experiment and personal experience. Of her research method for the book, she says that as well as reading a lot and having conversations with other Druids on these topics: “If I wanted to understand, I was going to have to experiment, and pray, every day.” (p181) And when she talks about the ways in which the process has changed her, it is clear that she has had an experience of being helped and changed by prayer. For me, the most telling line in that discussion was on page 114, when she talks about the way her relationship to her work has changed: “I feel that I’m doing the work I need to be doing, bit by bit, and that certainty changes a lot of things for me.”

Of course, the similarities to my own perspective are only one aspect of the book’s usefulness. Although there are a few places where Brown comes close to describing something like Quaker worship – like this comment about improvisation in ritual: “In truly inspired improvisation, it can be hard to decide whether the prayer even comes from the person who voices it” (p136) – for the most part, her focus is on other forms. She explores Pagan ritual, intercessory prayer, and linguistic issues such as the tone in which we address our deities as well as philosophical and theological issues about to whom prayer is directed (and how we pray when we don’t have solid answers to this question) and the social and ethical aspects of prayer. And in the later sections, I also found some answers to my original questions – how do other Druids pray? Brown offers an extended discussion of two Druid prayer texts which are in common use in Britain, the Druid’s Vow or Druid’s Oath and the Druid’s Prayer or Gorsedd Prayer. As in much modern Druidry, her emphasis is on the reader developing skills to create their own relationship with, understanding of, and perhaps version of, these classic texts, rather than apologetics or finding ways to defend the existing tradition. 

I would recommend When a Pagan Prays to anyone wanting to think about the complexities of prayer, not just Pagans but those in any tradition considering their prayer life and wanting to develop it independently.

Quaker Marriage: couple, God, and community

One of the steps in applying for a Quaker wedding, for people who are not in membership, is to have two Quakers who are in membership check that the applicant understands the Quaker approach to marriage and the way Quakers do things. Because I’m in membership, I don’t have to complete this step – but my partner did, and talking it through with her in advance prompted me to think through some of the questions involved. In this blog post, I share a few personal reflections on them.

Who marries who? This gets framed in different ways at different times. For example, we can say that in Quaker practice, the couple marry each other rather than being married by a priest or other official. This explains what actually happens in a Quaker wedding, when each member of the couple stands, when they are ready, and recites or reads the words of the marriage declaration. We also say that in Quaker understanding, God marries the couple rather than it being a human act (it is “the Lord’s work, and we are but witnesses“). In order to bring those two approaches together, we need the Quaker understanding that God is present in human beings and can inform and guide human actions. In spoken ministry (even prepared ministry, like the exact words of the marriage declaration which have to be agreed with your partner and the registering officer in advance), human beings aim to say – and in this case also to do, since the declaration is a speech act – what God leads us to say and do. 

When does the marriage actually happen? It is solemnised at the wedding, and registered with the civil authorities at that point. However, God doesn’t always work on human timetables. A couple may have been married in a spiritual sense for some time before they get around to the human witnessing part, which involves a fair amount of paperwork and expense (and the legal possibility: some of the clearest examples of this are lesbian and gay couples who have been married in some sense since long before their relationships were legally recognised). On the other hand, it also makes sense to say that the couple get married, and while this doesn’t mark the beginning of the relationship, it may signal a change, not only in legal status but in the strength and commitment of the relationship. Perhaps it is more accurate to think of getting married as a process happening over a period of time rather than a single moment.

Why a Quaker wedding? It’s important to me to have a Quaker wedding for two reasons, one probably more important than the other. The less important reason is because I can. Because I am marrying a woman, and there are places in the world (including the place she was born) and religious communities everywhere in which our relationship would not be recognised as a marriage, just because we are both women. Quakers in Britain do recognise our relationship as possible and real and just as good and valuable as all other relationships, and it’s important to me to lean into that and appreciate the opportunity that gives me to be married in the context of my religious community.

The more important reason is about that community. Having a Quaker wedding isn’t just about the wedding – it’s about the longer term involvement in the community, the way that we can, hopefully, be supported by the Quaker community. I have some insight into this because my parents had a Quaker wedding and I grew up with that understanding, that the meeting was always there. (The meeting wasn’t always able to provide what I wanted from it, spiritually and practically, but those are issues for another post!) It’s important to me to be married in the care of a Quaker meeting because it’s an opportunity – on both sides: an opportunity for me to celebrate something special in my life alongside my religious community, and an opportunity for that community to come together to support us. 

I reserve the right to update my views on these issues – I’ve never been married before and my understanding will probably change over the next few years as we go through the process of having a Quaker wedding and continue our lives together as a married couple! Fortunately, blogging allows me to set a marker in time and write some more later. At the moment, I’m mostly just very happy to have discerned that marriage is right for us, to feel safe and confident celebrating our relationship in public, and to be marrying the woman I love.

Christmas: cancelled, inevitable, every day, and/or stolen?

I gave this as a conference paper at the Multiple Religious Belonging conference, run jointly by the Centre for Research in Quaker Studies and the Hyphen Project and held online September-October 2020. I don’t always publish conference papers as such – they get recycled in various ways, as book chapters or sections of other projects – but this one is so specific to time and place, as well as hopefully having wider implications, that it seems appropriate to share it as a blog post. If you’re interested in Multiple Religious Belonging, a group from that conference are going to continue to meet every couple of months for the next year, and we’d welcome other people working on related topics to join us – contact me at rhiannon.grant@woodbrooke.org.uk or Grace Milton directly for details.

Today, I’d like to use discussions about Christmas as an example of a complex religious situation, and look at the issues which arise from Christian, Quaker, Neo-Pagan, and wider social perspectives. It might not be immediately obvious that this complex religious situation involves multiple religious belonging. It does for me – I belong to all four of the communities, or perhaps layers of community, which I’ll be discussing in this paper, but I should start by outlining how I’m treating these four groups.

In this paper, I talk about Quakers – probably the best defined of the four groups, with some internal mechanisms for recording who belongs to a Quaker community or attends Quaker worship, and clearly described in a body of historical and sociological literature. I also talk about Christians, by which I mean people who, more or less loosely, belong to Christian churches – people with an active involvement in Christian practice, including those who might be ‘lapsed’ or otherwise regard it as a matter of culture rather than belief. I talk about Neo-Pagans, a broad term which – like ‘Christian’ – covers a lot of different groups, including Wiccans, Druids, eclectic Pagans, resconstructionists of various kinds, and so on. And I talk about the ‘wider society’ in which we live, the vaguest of the four groups but a significant one in this case – British society can be seen as Christian or secular, depending how you look at it, but I am thinking of people who are participating in British society who, Christian or not, have an involvement in Christmas practices because of their ubiquity. Almost everyone who buys food in British shops is going to see Christmas trees and mince pies, for example. A few people can be members of all four groups. A few more may be members of three – identifying as both Christian and Quaker, or Quaker and Pagan, or Christian and Pagan – and a lot will be both actively Christian or Quaker or Neo-Pagan and a member of wider British society.

I have been prompted in my consideration of Christmas as a complex religious situation initially by three discussions. The first is some recent social media discussions about whether Christmas is ‘cancelled’ or not – as things stand with coronavirus in the UK at the moment, it seems that the usual parties, visits to family homes, and other events traditional around Christmas are likely to be impossible or look very different, while church services are able to carry on in at least some form. For people for whom the social events are the main part of Christmas, it feels like it will be cancelled. For those who want to highlight the role of traditional Christian worship in Christmas, it’s important to say that it’s not cancelled.

The second is a longer-term discussion about the Quaker relationship to Christmas. For those who aren’t familiar with the Quaker tradition, in the early part of the movement – in the seventeenth century, beginning in the north of England and spreading fairly rapidly throughout the country and then internationally – Quakers rejected many things about the Christian church as they knew it at the time. They rejected set liturgy in favour of an open, silent waiting to be moved to preach. They rejected outward, physical rituals of baptism and communion, preferring to focus on inward experiences of the Holy Spirit. And they rejected the Christian liturgical year, saying that Christmas day, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday were days like any other. They had a passionate faith in Jesus, but what mattered to them was Jesus present within people, here and now – every day is Christmas day, and every day is Easter day, in this understanding.

However, by 1994 Janet Scott could write that this idea was “dying of neglect”: she observed that many Quakers in Britain, who are “involved with family and the wider society, keep Christmas” and a lot ignore the message of Easter even as they keep some of the customs involved. (27.42) This is very much the case today, with British Quaker meetings commonly holding extra worship services on Christmas day, Christmas socials, and related activities. This gives rise to a continual tension in Quaker groups: many Quakers are aware that we officially don’t celebrate these things – and some of them will say so whenever Quaker-founded company Cadbury’s run an advertising campaign based on Easter chocolate, which is to say, every year – while at the same time, actually celebrating themselves in ways which are broadly in line with the behaviour of wider British society.

The third is another longer-term discussion, sometimes conducted in a scholarly way but more often the preserve of the light-hearted newspaper article or social media post, about the relationship between Christmas customs as we have them now in Britain and both ancient and modern Pagan customs. In December, I often see social media posts about, for example, the relationship between the astronomical event of the winter solstice, the Roman Pagan celebration of Mithras, and the date of Christmas. You may have seen these yourself and I don’t intend to debate the factual accuracy of any of these claims here. For one thing, there are too many – as well as the date of Christmas, the potential Pagan origins of the Christmas tree, of Santa Claus, and numerous other traditions are frequently discussed. What I’m interested in today is not whether these claims are historically true but the relationship created by the framing of the question – the way in which merely asking “is a Christmas tree really a Pagan tradition?” firstly sets up a relationship between two religions, understood as ‘Christianity’ and ‘Paganism’, and secondly suggests that a practice – cutting evergreen plant material to use as a decoration – ‘really’ belongs to only one.

The problem in the first part of the claim, as you probably spotted, is that Christianity and Paganism are not at all unified traditions. Christians of different branches of the church celebrate Christmas differently, not even all on the same date, and Paganism is a complex collection of surviving, revived, and newly invented religious traditions not all of which even mark the solstice. Obviously, the claim that tree-cutting ‘belongs’ to one or other of these complex communities is massively over-simplified.

But a puzzle remains – why does ordinary language about religion allow this sort of claim which is quickly shown to be inaccurate? are there better ways of discussing the moral questions which can be raised by this sort of claim? By the way, I actually don’t think the moral issues are very pressing in the case of Christians and Pagans in Britain today, which is one of the reasons I’ve chosen this example for abstract discussion, over others where the harm is larger, the power relationships much more unequal, and colonial and other damaging histories much more recent. In order to think about how we might talk about these issues better, let me take a brief diversion into questions of analogy. I’ll then return to work back through my three situations with some new terminology in hand.

When people try to understand something complex, we often turn to analogy – think about how we talk about electricity moving through a wire as if it were like water flowing through a pipe, for example. It isn’t exactly how electricity works, but it’s close enough for many everyday conversations. In the same way, we’ve already thought during this conference about some of the ways we talk about religion. ‘Belonging’, ‘spiritual fluidity’, social identities. Sometimes people collapse religion with another category, like race or ethnicity – in Britain, we’ve seen this very clearly in popular understandings of Islam over the last decade or so. Religious communities are compared to other groups, which helps make sense of the ways in which they could ‘own’ something: the Christmas tree debate can sound a bit like two football clubs trading a player – as if the trees used to play for Pagans but signed up with Christians a while ago. 

I think a more productive approach might be to compare religious practices to the philosopher Wittgenstein’s idea of language-games. A language-game isn’t a whole natural language, like English or Welsh; in fact, the examples Wittgenstein gives tend to be very restricted. ‘Telling a joke’ is a language-game, for example, or giving directions using landmarks, or a system in which builders ask for and receive bricks and slabs. If we zoomed in on religious practices to the same level, we might well pick out ‘using evergreen plants for decoration’ or ‘gift giving’ and so on. I’ll call the results of this kind of analysis ‘religion-games’ – not to imply that they are fun or trivial, but to suggest they have many of the same features as language-games. They are rule-guided – we can do the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ depending on whether we follow relevant rules established by our communities. And they are contextual – that is to say, the meaning of the plants or the gifts can vary depending on the religious and social setting, in the same way that telling a joke is a language-game which can perform multiple social functions depending on the context in which it’s done.

What would this approach say about each of my three situations? When we think about religion-games, it doesn’t seem so surprising if more than one religious tradition has the same or similar practices. We have the language-game of joke-telling in lots of different natural languages, and we can have a religion-game like decorating with evergreen plants in lots of different religions. We also have multiple communities which are making and agreeing – and often renegotiating – their rules for participating in religion-games. Actually, I think the rules for Christmas tree decoration aren’t now governed by any of the church groups, and they certainly aren’t governed by Pagans, even if they have a strong claim to tree-themed acts of worship; rather, they are embedded in and negotiated by a historically and culturally Christian society which sees itself mainly as secular. A narrow view of what religion is, often associated with Christianity, in which religion-games involving belief are emphasised at the expense of those which are more obviously about practice, enables this misunderstanding. So about the Christians and the Pagans, I can say: religion-games are sometimes shared between or move between religious traditions. Depending on other factors, such as the power relations between the two traditions, this may or may not be ethically problematic.

What about the Quakers who are trying to both play some religion-games associated with Christmas while also refraining from playing the religion-game of celebrating Christmas? I have two suggestions here. One is that we can build on the previous point – not only are some religion-games shared between traditions, but some individuals can play religion-games from more than one tradition. A thoughtful choosing of which Christmas traditions to engage in may be in line with the Quaker aim, of having your outward behaviour reflect your inward experience rather than letting society determine your actions, without reaching the totally anti-Christmas conclusion of the early Quakers. 

My second suggestion is that some ways of ‘not doing Christmas’ may be a move within the ‘celebrating Christmas’ religion-game. Let me give you a more specific example which makes this clearer. You might be aware of the tradition of ‘Christmas jumper day’. On Christmas jumper day in a workplace or other community, everyone wears their ugly or funny or otherwise Christmas-themed jumper. When my workplace held one, I considered my options and decided that one possible Quaker choice in the circumstances was to wear a plain grey jumper. At one level, I was participating – I specifically chose grey, because Quaker grey as a form of plain dress has a long history. Although I wear my grey jumper to work throughout the year, I also wear blue and black and other colours – I didn’t pick one at random on Christmas jumper day. I knew the rules and looked for a way to subvert them. The move of ‘not taking a move’ is known in other games, too – skipping a turn, not playing any cards, switching your Scrabble tiles rather than placing a word. A studied refusal to participate in something, whether it’s wearing grey on Christmas jumper day or not sending any Christmas cards or having a strict limit on the cost of presents, requires just as much awareness of the rules of the game as ordinary participation.

And finally, what about the claims that Christmas is cancelled? Some of the practices we associate with Christmas in Britain are certainly going to be heavily limited this year – pubs shut at 10pm and groups limited to six people, and so on. Worship services can continue with some modifications, but for many in what a recent Prime Minister called “a Christian country”, church services are not the most important of the religion-games. Gift-giving, tree-decorating, jumper-wearing, school nativity plays, and similar practices are the religion-games which form the heart of the British Christmas tradition today – and they are not simply associated with one religious tradition: derived from Christianity, influenced by or with the potential to become neo-Pagan, often crossing over into secular and consumerist spaces. An analysis of these practices as religion-games opens new vocabulary to discuss that complexity, but might also help us adjust them to the realities of pandemic life. By focusing on core elements and changing things which are circumstantial, the rules of games can be adjusted to suit different situations – think about wheelchair basketball, co-operative Scrabble, the Great British Bake Off filmed in a self-isolating bubble – and the same is true for our religion-games.