Reflections on the Foundations

Quakers have always tried to express our spiritual understandings through our actions. Famously, this includes refusing to fight, because the real problems aren’t solved by outward actions, and treating everyone as equals – whether that’s through refusing to doff hats or refraining from the use of titles. It’s not always clear, though, how particular spiritual insights should be worked through into practical actions. Does the equality of all before God mean that nobody should be allowed to be wealthy, or that those who are wealthy should treat others well, or that some people being wealthy is okay if everyone has their minimum needs met? In 1918, with the Russian Revolution and the First World War in progress, Quakers in Britain approved a statement, now known as the Foundations of a True Social Order, which laid out their picture of the way things should be. This year, Rachel Muers and I have been conducting some research about the context and legacy of this document. What follows are some of my personal reflections arising from this work.

The Foundations addresses questions about how society should be ordered, although it was criticised at the time for not being practical and specific enough. Reading it today, I can see why – both why people want something more detailed, and why it would be impossible to write such a thing and have it approved by the many and diverse Quakers who make up the Yearly Meeting. Take the last point, for example, which addresses my question about wealth most directly. “The ownership of material things, such as land and capital, should be so regulated as best to minister to the need and development of man.” Well, yes. For sure. But what does that regulation look like in the real world?

Someone said to me over the summer that they thought the project of liberal Quakerism, laid out in texts like these, could now be said to have failed. We haven’t, this argument says, created a world anything like that which is described in the Foundations. We haven’t attracted lots of people to be Quakers, we haven’t created a fair and just society, etc. On one level, this is obviously true. Anyone reading British political or economic news at the moment knows that there are many ways in which society at the moment is moving towards entrenching or even creating inequalities. At another level, I wonder whether this is the right question. It might not be right to frame the issue in terms of success and failure at all – and someone looking for progress could point to evidence that the world has changed both for better and for worse during that time.

(I once tried this argument out on some Jehovah’s Witnesses who knocked on my door to tell me that I should stop putting up posters about local politics and join their church instead. They argued that God is the true King and that participating in human government distracts us from this. I argued that we are trying to manifest God’s Kingdom on earth, and as evidence that this sometimes works, I pointed to the recent introduction of same-sex marriage. Needless to say, they declined to agree with me, but I do think we have made progress towards equality in some areas – including some areas which the Yearly Meeting at the time of the Foundations might not even have been aware of as problems.)

I also wonder what underlying theological picture is involved in this judgement. Is there a God who looks down from above, comparing the world we are building to a grand blueprint? It might be tempting to reading the Foundations as laying out just such a blueprint. I don’t think, though, that this is theologically realistic or true to the long-term and developing nature of Quaker witness. Perhaps something closer to what Bruce Epperly describes as process theology – which, he says, “affirms an open source, adventurous, and constantly evolving universe in which God and creatures are constantly doing new things” (Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, 2011, p44) – can help us to think about ourselves as work with, alongside, or even in God to explore multiple possible futures, rather than being bound to achieve or fail against a single measure.

Finally, one of the things which emerged when I was interviewing Quakers today about the ideas in the Foundations was that the work is long-term, and that the Quaker perspective can help us stick to that rather than being blown about by the winds of fashion and the demands of the 24-hour news cycle or the 5-year election cycle. Even among Quakers, we still don’t agree about the best way to regulate the ownership of material things – or many other similar questions. We are, however, building up a body of reflection on these questions. Our prayerful decision making process is able to take on board new evidence when it arrives, such as about sustainability, and relate that to commitments we already had, such as our opposition to outward violence.

The people who wrote the Foundations rejected more detailed proposals from other churches because they wanted not the minimum, but a vision. Standing in a long tradition, can we keep looking to this ideal, trying to put it into practice while knowing that we will fall short of that, and not be discouraged by apparent judgements of ‘failure’? For me, I think this will be a lifelong challenge.

I’m a Quaker – ask me why

For several years now, I have – on and off, depending on weather, reliability of pins, mood, etc. – worn a badge which says, “I’m a Quaker – ask me why”. Since there’s a chance that some readers of this blog might want to take up that invitation, here are some sample answers. In reality, of course, I reply in the moment and what I actually say might not be anything like what I’ve written here. However, I’ve tried to reflect the real situations in which people have seen the badge and actually asked. Some of my responses leave considerable room for improvement; your comments and further questions are welcome below!

Barista in a coffee shop: “Go on, then, why?”

Me: “I enjoy the silent worship and it’s good to have a community who support my ethical choices.”

Typical response: “Ah, great, here’s your soy chai latte.”

Slightly less common response: “Ah, my great-aunt was a Quaker but I never knew much about them.”

Man on a London Underground escalator: “Quakers, they have a place in Euston, don’t they?”

Me: “Yes, we do.”

Him: “I keep meaning to go and find out about them.”

Me: “I’m sure you’d be welcome – or at any of the other meeting houses around London.”

Him: “There are more?”

Me: “Several.” *trips over as we reach the top*

Him: “Quakers sound peaceful.”

Me: “We try to be!”

Awkward date trying to make conversation: “So, ah, you have a badge about Quakers.”

Me: “Yeah, err, I do. Um, have you heard of Quakers before?”

Her: “Err, my GCSE RS textbook said they were, like, pacifists or something?”

Me: “Yeah, yeah, that’s right.”

Her: “So, err, the weather’s been nice.”

Undergraduate realising I have a clear position on the just war argument: “Is that because you’re a Quaker?”

Me: “Yes, my religious belief and my ethical reasoning are clearly linked here. Of course, it’s also possible to support a pacifist stance with atheist principles.”

Another undergraduate: “Will you mark us down if we say we’re in favour of war in our essays?”

Me: “Not if you provide an argument in support of what you say.”

Another Quaker looking at the badge: “I don’t think I could wear one of those.”

Me: “It’s not always easy, but it’s not that hard, either.”

Me asking myself in the safe confines of a blog post: “So, why are you a Quaker?”

I enjoy silent, waiting worship. I appreciate the equality and the openness of the situation it creates. Modern British Quakerism allows me to value tradition, such as Quaker history and ancient mythology, while at the same time exploring new riches, such as fictionalist perspectives and fresh Biblical criticism, and weighing all these against my own experience.

I’m a Quaker because the Quaker community provides a combination of spiritual depth, social support, and freedom to seek which I haven’t encountered anywhere else. I was born and raised a Quaker but I stayed for the worship, the community, and the discussions.

On doing Quaker outreach

One of this month’s chapters in our process of reading Quaker faith & practice is chapter 28, ‘Sharing the Quaker experience’. It’s a short chapter and not, in my experience, one which is often quoted. I think it’s about an important subject, though: how we talk about Quakerism beyond the confines of our community. After some thought, I’ve decided to respond to this chapter in two blog posts: this one is about outreach but aimed at Quakers, while the next one will be about Quakers and aimed at non-Quakers, i.e. will itself be outreach.

At the very end of chapter 28, a passage in italics – written, I guess, by the committee who compiled the book – reminds us that “Each meeting must find its own way of sharing the Quaker experience, each Friend remember ‘that we are each the epistle of Yearly Meeting’.” If we are each epistles, letters, from our Yearly Meeting to those who are not members of it, what we do we say?

I think I know some Quakers who might be very good epistles but the letter hasn’t been signed, or they hide the address it comes from. Are there people in your life who don’t know that you’re a Quaker? Of course, it doesn’t have to come into every interaction, but if I get to know someone more than a very little bit I usually find it does come up.

Sometimes I might be a good enough letter, but I’m not phrased in a way people can hear. I try and adapt my language to the audience, but it’s easy to make mistakes with this: I once refused to buy a raffle ticket, and although I thought I’d used quite neutral terms something in what I said made the women selling them very cross indeed! Her rant turned out to be about Methodists as much as Quakers, so perhaps I’d stepped on a hidden landmine, but it’s also possible that something I said was more inflammatory than I intended. People who turn away at the idea of organised religion or the word ‘God’ might be other examples here.

Sometimes people might see the headlines of an epistle, but miss the real content. What can be a chance to express Quaker ideas in one setting gets sweep up by unrelated assumptions in another: one waiter who is interested to hear that I choose to eat vegan because my religion inspires me to look after the environment is usually balanced by another who assumes that I’m claiming to be vegan because women are always trying to lose weight. I think that’s them, not me, or at least I don’t yet have a solution to this!

And sometimes I try and leave the whole thing at home, hoping not to have to provide any explanations – with varying degrees of success. Sometimes I can go a whole evening without thinking about it (top tip: if your D&D character is firebombing a hospital, people will probably be too distracted by that to quiz you about your religion). Other times, setting it aside doesn’t work. I remember going for a job interview for Christian but not Quaker employers. I tried quite hard to leave Quakerism out of it, knowing that it was highly likely to be a disadvantage, but people kept asking me questions about my own faith and ideas. Afterwards, as well as deciding not to employ me, the interviewer did note that the whole panel had learned a lot about Quakerism. I wasn’t very impressed at the time – I wanted the job! – but perhaps in the long run it illustrates that, whatever my thoughts on the matter, I am indeed an epistle from the Yearly Meeting.

Afterwords: coming towards the end

I’m now in my last week as an Eva Koch scholar. Over the weekend, the four Eva Koch scholars gave presentations to some local Friends and those who happened to be at Woodbrooke, outlining our findings and sharing some of our experience. Here are some of the headlines from mine – things which haven’t yet been covered in blog posts (see my afterwords tag to find them all). I’ve also included a few of the pictures I used in my presentation, all taken in Woodbrooke’s garden during my time here.DSCF7947

Afterwords has three main purposes: community building, improving ministry, and smoothing transitions. Unfortunately, these all have a flip side. Afterwords can help a meeting to flourish as a community by helping people to get to know one another better – especially in ‘the things which are eternal’. It can move a community beyond chatting about daily life and into a deeper sharing about experiences of worship and spiritual insight. However, it can also split the community: either physically, if the afterwords is held in such a way that not everyone participates or feels able to participate, or emotionally, especially if people in the meeting have very strong and opposed views about afterwords. Because people tend to really like or really dislike afterwords, with the middle ground sparsely populated,  the whole idea can be polarising.

Afterwords can improve ministry. This can be by encouraging people who are perhaps newer or shyer to speak in a space where there is less pressure tDSCF7853.JPGo give ‘true ministry’. It can also be by moving contributions from those who need to speak often, or who need a more direct response than is acceptable during worship, into a space where that’s acceptable. (Whether this actually is seen as acceptable depends a lot on how the Friend concerned is characterised: there’s sympathy for cases where a mental health or emotional need is hinted at, but very little for cases where something is thought to be a hobby-horse or campaigning point.) On the other hand, afterwords can also confuse newcomers (how do you know what’s nearly ministry if you don’t have any idea what ministry is?) or encourage people to hold back from ministry, thinking that if they are at all unsure of their leading to speak they should wait until afterwords. Some people in the survey reported that having introduced afterwords, their meeting now has very little or no ministry during worship.

For some people, afterwords smooths over a transition from worship into the ordinary world. If notices seem like a jolt after the silence, afterwords – held in a spirit of worship, but with more relaxed rules on speaking – can feel like a gentle introduction.
Unfortunately, there are also (sometimes in the same meeting!) people wDSCF7880ho feel that moving into too many words is a rough road, and would find well-given notices and a cup of coffee provide a smoother transition. In a way, this finding is even less of a finding than the others – you can look to see whether community building is needed in your meeting and whether afterwords might help, and you can put in other ways of explaining and improving ministry, but you can’t do much else about the transition. However, I also think that this finding is more interesting than the others, because so little attention is usually paid to the spiritual experience of the ending of a meeting for worship. The advice on centring down is not paired with advice on ‘rising up’ – except in the activist sense – and yet the movement out of waiting worship is clearly important to people and deserves further attention.

How do we take what we have learned during meeting for worship out into the world? Can we find ways to clarify and consolidate what our Inward Teacher gives us while we are listening, and apply it to our whole lives? To answer these questions, I think we need to consider and review all our practices around the end of worship, including afterwords, but also how we give notices, how we use social time, and our mixed bag of current taboos about discussing and building on spoken ministry.


Reading Qf&p: chapter 7, Meeting for Sufferings

Reading the chapter about Meeting for Sufferings brought back to me clearly how much I enjoyed serving as an alternate. This remark does, I realise, need clarifying in three ways for the reader:

  • what on earth is Meeting for Sufferings? (This was one of the phrases most interestingly mangled when I had some interviews with Quaker professionally transcribed; it’s obviously almost impossible to hear it as correct English unless you already know what it means.)
  • who would enjoy something with Sufferings in the name, and why?
  • what do you mean by ‘serving as an alternate’ – surely that doesn’t make any sense?

and I’ll try and address these in this post.

Meeting for Sufferings is an old institution of British Quakerism, which as the first section of this chapter carefully explains, has been through many changes over the years. We have kept the name, partly as a reminder of our historical sufferings (in the early years of the Quaker movement, Friends were persecuted – practically all our leaders spent time in prison) and partly because we still (revived in 1997) have a practice of recording those Friends who are “before the courts or imprisoned for matters of conscience” (these days that might be something like an arrest for protesting new runways or blockading arms bases). Today, Meeting for Sufferings is a representative body for Quakers in Britain, meeting several times a year with people from all over England, Scotland, and Wales. (Remember that Ireland Yearly Meeting is separate.)

When I began my service on Meeting for Sufferings, the new small size (with a total of around 100 Friends present) was very new, and so was the system by which that was produced. Each Area Meeting, in order to be represented at every Meeting for Sufferings without having to force one person to go every time, appoints two people: a representative, and their deputy, which in non-hierarchical Quaker terms we call an alternate, because they are the alternative choice. Within each Area Meeting, Friends choose whether the two will alternate, i.e. take turns between one and the other, or whether one will normally go and the other deputise if necessary. In my Area Meeting, the serving representative said to me, “You go a few times in a row to begin with, to get the hang of it,” and this gave me a good opportunity to get into the swing of it. We then took turns for a while before I sadly left the Area Meeting before the end of my triennium (standard three-year appointment) and had to give it up.

Within the whole chapter about Meeting for Sufferings, though, the part which speaks to me most is the advice about who to nominate. There are things here that I don’t recognise in myself, as there always are in these lists (spiritual maturity!?!). However, there are also some which I can see I had started to develop, and was able to work on enormously, through my service on Sufferings. “A good grasp of our testimonies and structures”, for example. I had a fair idea, but I learned a huge amount just in reading the papers for Sufferings and listening to the business – there was a huge amount of work which I had no idea about. I became much clearer about the scope and purpose of our central work, and about the importance of supporting it. I enjoyed getting a glimpse of the ways in which local, area, central, and international work all interconnects.

I came to appreciate “the importance of reporting back” on topics which were important to Friends locally, although I remember several times when I came away from Area Meeting having given a thoughtful report which I had worked hard to present in a lively way, and wondering why I bothered! It can be a struggle to help people feel connected when they are only hearing snippets and have an eye on the clock.

I don’t know whether I was able to bring “fresh insight” to the role, but I hope that in my own small way I contributed to the “experience and continuity” – not just by bringing my previous experience into my service, but also by carrying what I learned from Sufferings on into other roles. If you are ever asked to consider nomination, Friends, I encourage you to think seriously about what you might have to learn as well as what you have to offer. In the meantime, you can find out what Meeting for Sufferings has been doing recently because their papers and minutes are online.

Afterwords: digging deeper

I didn’t feel ready to write this on Wednesday, when I was expecting to post, partly because the news about my new job dominated my attention for a few days. However, I would like to share some of the ideas I’m playing around with at the moment and ask you whether they ring true.

I’m looking at the relationship between afterwords and spoken ministry – in my survey, lots of people said that their form of afterwords was either meant to improve, or had a negative effect on, the spoken ministry in their meeting, and I’ve been trying to think about why this is.

Some of obviously depends on how you think about ministry in the first place. I might think about ministry as a particular way of speaking, with special rules, in which case afterwords has similar-but-slightly-different rules. I might think about ministry as a gift from God or something we channel from the depths we contact during worship, in which case afterwords might seem like a space for sharing small but potentially precious gifts, or a mockery which doesn’t acknowledge the specialness of this contact. I might think about ministry as something we learn to do, whatever else we think it is, and in that case I might ask: what does the use of afterwords teach about ministry?

Sometimes people talk about afterwords moving unwanted contributions out of ministry, by making another space in which they can be shared. Sometimes people talk about afterwords taking wanted contributions out of ministry, because having another space means that people have to be very sure about their leading before they speak during worship. These are obviously two sides of the same coin, and can both be happening at once in the same meeting! Other people talk about afterwords as a space in which people might gain confidence in speaking, and thus feel more about to give ministry during worship in the future. My impression is that this works for some people – where what is lacking is confidence about speaking to the whole group, or feeling that their contribution will be welcomed – but that it just muddies the water for other people, if they aren’t sure what will count as ministry.

A situation which is mentioned sometimes in the survey responses – and which I probably won’t have time to explore fully in this project, but would like to consider in the future – is how people can learn to give spoken ministry in situations where they don’t have experience of hearing it. In a 1988 book chapter on spoken ministry, Alan Davis says that although “like other forms of discourse, it [spoken ministry] must be learned” this is an open process: “anyone may speak, all may learn” (p134, ‘Talking in Silence’, in N. Coupland (ed.) Styles of Discourse). That’s certainly true in the Meetings for Worship he examine, where every meeting had at least four pieces of ministry during their hour of worship, and some had as many as seven. But I know meetings who go for weeks or months without hearing any spoken ministry at all, and several survey respondents told me that their meetings are often entirely silent. In that case, adding an afterword for ‘not quite ministry’ might be tempting, but it might not make sense, especially if many of those attending the meeting have no idea at all of what afterwords isn’t quite.

Have you got experience of any of the situations described here? Has afterwords supported you in giving spoken ministry, or does it encourage you to hold back from speaking during worship?

Afterwords: a labyrinth of ideas

I’m now at the stage in my research where I’ve read the survey data, everything else about afterwords I can find, and begun to look at related things – other patterns of change in the way Meeting for Worship is held, for example, and writing about worship and vocal ministry generally. It’s difficult to summarise where I’m at because I feel like I’m walking around in a maze: I decide to turn left, only to walk for ten minutes and find myself back at a point I passed half an hour ago. That being so, I thought I’d offer you, not a coherent account of anything, but sketches of some of the places where I’ve tied some string. If you recognise any of these spots, do let me know.

Afterwords isn’t the only thing about Meeting for Worship which has changed over the past century. Two examples of other changes which have interested me are the shift from just a pair of Elders shaking hands to everyone shaking hands, and the introduction of social time after meeting. Both of these changes must have come in slowly – there are reports of Friends who held out against them, and there remains some variety in the practices – but both could be related to one of the key purposes given for afterwords, namely community building. Shaking hands with each other gives a point of formal greeting between the end of worship – the Elders shaking hands – and the notices. For some meetings, afterword appears in this slot and is reported to help people get to know one another. Adding refreshments and thereby encouraging people to stay for social time, the classic tea and coffee, also gives people more time in the meeting house to get to know one another and encourages informal conversation. Again, for some meetings, afterwords can extend this process, giving an extra space for more or less formal sharing before or alongside the social time.

The way we talk about afterwords can reveal our ideas about other things, especially our views of Meeting for Worship. For example, lots of people told me in the survey that they thought that spoken contributions sometimes got misplaced one way or the other: either that things which weren’t really ‘true ministry’ got said during Meeting for Worship, where they didn’t belong, or that things which were ‘true ministry’ got said during afterwords, when they would have been better said in worship. At the very simple level, this reveals that the people answering my survey have a picture of the differences between ‘true ministry’ and ‘nearly ministry’ and ‘not ministry’ which goes beyond whether something is said in worship, afterwords, or elsewhere. At a more complex level, as people begin to describe these differences, they are revealing their ideas about true ministry and where it comes from – in others words, their theology.

Afterwords is part of a wider picture of the end of Meeting for Worship, and what people want is a smooth transition into the next thing. What that smooth transition actually looks like is another matter, but descriptions of problematic processes – the introduction of an unwanted afterword, or a lack of afterword before a disliked notices – tend to stress suddenness or a bump or jolt in ‘coming up from the depths’ of worship. On the other hand, when people like a process, they describe it in terms of an easy, smooth, unjolted transition – whether that’s from worship into social time without being bumped into a too-heady wordy space by afterwords, or from worship into afterwords with space to reflect on the experience of Meeting without being forced to make social chit-chat too soon. This doesn’t solve the problem of whether you should have afterwords, but it points towards some of the right questions to ask about why people like it or don’t.