Is “a bit of quiet” Quaker worship?

My friend and colleague Maud Grainger asked me this the other day: when people in Quaker settings, like a workshop or a discussion session, say things like ‘let’s just have a moment of stillness’ or ‘we’ll start with a bit of quiet’, are they really introducing a period of Quaker worship? And from that question she drew out a deeper one: is Quaker worship really about being still or quiet, or is something else going on?

Thinking about these questions, I was reminded of a time a few years ago when I was facilitating just that sort of workshop, and we’d just started – we were in silence to begin  the workshop – when someone who was running late knocked on the door. I went to let her in and said as quietly as I could (probably not very – I’m better at being loud and clear!), “Come in, we’re just having some worship.” She came in, we had our worship and our workshop, and at the end of the session, she sought me out to say: “I really liked the way you introduced that. You made worship sound completely ordinary, like having a cup of tea.”

I didn’t do that on purpose, but she was picking up something which is true in my life – worship is part of my ordinary day. In my worship life, I do use silence as a tool. But silence is only one of the tools available for worship, and it isn’t automatically related. I usually live alone, and I like to be in silence most of the time – I’m writing in silence now, in the quiet of an early Saturday morning before other people are mostly awake; I spend time in silence to read, to think, to go to sleep… you get the idea. Of course I try, as Thomas Kelly wrote, to keep up a practice of “inner, secret turning to God” throughout that silence – but silence doesn’t really have much to do with that. Kelly goes on to talk about keeping it up while you “walk and talk and work and laugh with your friends”: he’s writing about a habit which exists in the mind and can be maintained through many situations, rather than an outward practice. I can be as distant from the inner Light in a silence which allows me to get distracted and wrapped up in worldly concerns as I can be close to the Light when I’m holding close to my leadings and inner sense in order to navigate a crowded place or complex situation.

The phrase ‘outward practice’ raises a more difficult possibility. Do we sometimes risk making the unprogrammed, open, listening space of Quaker worship into an outward ritual – just the kind of ritual early Quakers were rejecting when they threw out the practices of previous generations of Christians and created unprogrammed worship instead – by focusing too much on the fact of silence or sitting still? I think we sometimes do. Actually, I think it can be useful to admit this and to be aware of the liturgies of Quakerism, the ways in which we do have a ritual structure and for some of us that’s really helpful in our worship lives. People who study and create more complex rituals talk about the structure of them – the way a good beginning can help us move from everyday concerns into focusing on the purpose of the ritual, and so on. In Quaker worship, we often have to find a natural structure for ourselves, or we may fall back on using things which are not essential to the process as markers. Moving to online worship has sometimes made this more obvious: for example, I realised that the walk to meeting had been a more important part of my process than I thought, because when it was taken away – because the meeting for worship was right here in my house, on Zoom – the period of time I needed at the beginning of worship to settle and centre myself was longer.

Moving online also came with new freedoms, though. Although there was no longer any need to walk to meeting, I could pick up my colouring book for the first five minutes without disturbing anyone else – since they couldn’t see the book or hear me moving. Walking and colouring aren’t at all the same, and yet for me they can serve the same purpose: engaging my body in something simple and relaxing. Like silence, they’re tools which can help me move into a worshipful perspective.

In that worshipful space, of course, there might not be silence or stillness. “Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts,” George Fox instructed, but life isn’t always like that. Sometimes apparent calm is the swan paddling furiously underneath the water, and sometimes our worship is successful but not at all still – Jane Fenn heard God’s voice and found not only that “my soul and all within me trembled at the hearing of it” but even that “my outward tabernacle shook insomuch that many present observed the deep exercise I was under.” Others find that physical stillness and inward closeness to the Divine don’t go together for all sorts of reasons – as the Quaker Disability Equality Group have recently written (link goes to a PDF document; a Word version can also be downloaded from their resources page).

So what is happening when we open a Quaker session with a request for ‘a bit of quiet’ or ‘a moment of stillness’? The aim, I think, is good: to offer people a short period of time to set aside concerns from outside the session and focus; to give people a space in which to tune in to their inner Light; and to use the tools of unprogrammed Quaker worship, including silence, to do that. However, when we name the tool – quiet, silence, stillness – rather than the goal or the process – settling, worshipping, listening – I worry about two risks. One is conflating them: assuming that for everyone, those are the tools which work. The other is diminishing them: leaving out some of the richness and the complexity of unprogrammed worship, in which anything can happen and we might be stirred up as well as calmed, in favour of a weaker version, a self-fulfilling prophecy in which we know in advance that there will only be silence.

When I ask a group of Quakers in the unprogrammed tradition for a short period of worship, rather than a moment of quiet, I know that there will probably be silence. I’ve participated in hundreds of two minute silences and ten minute silences in which we were open, but nobody had a message to share. However, I’ve also been in just a few where there was a message: either something which came directly to me and for me alone, speaking to my condition even if I was anxious or fretful or clock-watching or whatever, or something which was shared with the group, such as a request to uphold a person or situation or a reading which set the tone for what came next. Whatever words we use to introduce our practice, I want to keep that possibility. Into our lives, through our listening and waiting, can come surprisingly possibilities and divine guidance. Stillness and quiet can help us be responsive to that – but so can anything else which helps us listen and be open, whether that’s walking, colouring, singing, dancing, the outdoors, friends and family, TV shows…

Quakers say that of God is in everyone and everywhere. Our task is to notice that and act on it, in whatever way works for us.


For answers to more questions about Quakers, see my new book, Quakers Do What! Why?

Book review: The Faithful Spy

Note: I was sent a free copy of this book for review by Speakeasy

The Faithful Spy is a graphic novel which tells the true story – or at least, selected highlights of the true story – of German Lutheran theologian, pastor, and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The format makes it an accessible read, and the content contains some hopeful notes, although ultimately Bonhoeffer and his group do not succeed in killing Hitler. (Spoilers – which are a matter of historical fact, fairly widely know, and I give here because I think in this case knowing the ending enhances appreciation of the storytelling – they made three attempts, and most of the conspirators including Bonhoeffer were executed for it, some of them very shortly before the end of war.) As well as travelling to the UK, the USA, and other countries around Europe and choosing to return to Germany, Bonhoeffer spends a considerable amount of time in prison. 

The Library of Congress Catalogue codes on the end-paper of this volume all list it as ‘juvenile literature’. On the one hand, I agree that the illustrated format, straightforward story telling style, and important historical content make this suitable reading for some teenagers. On the other hand, I have two objections. First, I worry that some readers without a reasonable historical background might not be able to grasp the context of this story (which centres Christians rather than Jews, for example – a sensible choice for a book about the life of Bonhoeffer, a somewhat problematic choice if it’s your first introduction to the story of the Shoah). Secondly, that such a label might mean some adult readers who would benefit from it, might miss it. 

Readers of all ages might, rightly, be disturbed by some of the content. There are no graphic deaths, but there are details of assassination attempts and prison conditions, and torture, war, poverty, and death are a constant background. The insights into Hitler’s rise to power are important and need to be read and remembered – but this isn’t a cheerful book or one to escape into if current politics is getting you down. It might be one to study if you are thinking about ways to channel your anger.

So who would benefit from reading this book?

  • People who already know a fair amount about the Second World War and want to fill in more details or get a different perspective. ‘Assassinate Hitler’ has become an almost proverbial option – would you or wouldn’t you? how would it affect the timeline? – and here is the story of a man who was involved in several attempts to do just that, and who grappled in a serious and informed way with the moral implications of such an action.
  • People who study theology and want to think about the ways in which a life shapes someone’s theological ideas. In particular, Hendrix shares a very clear narrative about the ways in which Bonhoeffer was influenced by the Roman Catholic and American Black churches, and about the ways in which he struggled to fit ethical principles to complex realities. 
  • People who are looking at a dangerous political situation and considering when and how to act. Before the famous ending, there are a lot of other steps Bonhoeffer and his friends try out. They find ways to help Jews out of Germany. They build theological arguments which counter the allegedly Christian positions being taken by the German churches under Nazi orders. They form a revolutionary theological school in a remote place where they can teach alternative ideas. They enlist the help of Christians outside Germany. They build communications networks, search for allies, and draw inspiration from other, more or less comparable, movements. 

Overall, I was impressed with the research and story-telling in this book. Direct quotes from historical sources are clearly marked, and despite some simplifications I’d happily recommend this to a student wanting a quick overview to get started with Bonhoeffer’s work as well as to casual readers. Well worth picking up, with no easy answers but a thoughtful and accessible engagement with important questions.

Different Moves in the Meeting Game?

Sometimes I use the idea of ‘religion-games’ to help me understand what is happening in complex religious situations – I’ve written before about how this might help to explain what is happening when people belong to more than one religious tradition, and how this might inspire new approaches to Quaker membership, and recently I gave a conference paper in which I talked about how this might apply to bringing a practice from one tradition (my example was Quaker worship) into interreligious settings such as joint worship services. After that paper, Rose Drew asked a really good question: what does this say about cases where someone uses practices from another tradition, like a Buddhist breathing mediation, in Quaker worship? Rose gives a real example like this in her excellent book, Buddhist and Christian?: someone who is both a Buddhist and a Quaker says (page 174) that she “uses Buddhist meditation techniques (focusing on the breath, for example) to assist her at the beginning of each Meeting in the process known as ‘centring down’, in which one quietens ones’ mind in preparation for the silence and openness of the Meeting.” In the religion-games picture, what is happening here?

One of the points about most games is that you can’t play more than one at once – you are either playing football or rugby, either cricket or tennis, either Scrabble or Monopoly, and putting a seven-letter word down on a chess board won’t get you a triple word score or two hundred pounds, just a lot of confused looks from other players! There are cases, perhaps, when you can be playing two games at once if they are of very different kinds or if you have changed your mind about the objectives. For example, when I was a child who was required to participate in PE lessons, I might officially be playing rugby – in the sense of being on a rugby field – but I would set myself other goals, like ‘how long can I go without moving my feet at all?’ In that case, actually, it’s not clear that I’m really playing rugby at all; I’m mostly playing with the boundary between apparent compliance (enough not to get punished) and actual disobedience (because I loathe PE and have no intention of trying to do the things I’m being told to do). If I went into meeting for worship and – even while sitting in silence – ignored the rules about listening and being open to spoken ministry, and instead determinedly did a visualisation throughout, perhaps it would be like this. Unlike my childhood PE lessons, though, meeting for worship is entirely optional in most circumstances, and people who don’t want to even try out Quaker rules usually quickly work out that they’re in the wrong place.

But I can imagine a case where someone was genuinely playing rugby, wants to play rugby, but also played another game at the same time, perhaps ‘count how often the PE teacher says ‘try harder!”. If your PE teacher has a distracting verbal habit like using the same phrase over and over, you could be playing rugby and phrase-counting games at the same time. This could be what’s happening when someone uses a Buddhist meditation technique in a Quaker meeting for worship – they are playing two religion-games at once. However, I don’t think this fits all the facts in this case. In particular, counting how often your PE teacher yells “try harder!” isn’t likely to make you play better rugby, and it might have the opposite effect. But when Quakers who find a breathing meditation technique useful in general bring it into meeting for worship with them, at least some of them find that it is actively helpful: that it helps them settle into the silence, focus on worship, and so on. In that case, they aren’t just playing two games at once – the two games are interacting in some way, despite having different rules.

There are also cases with ordinary games where you can cross-train – where being good at one games tends to help you with another game. Long ago comedian Tony Hawks challenged the members of a football team to games of tennis. As I remember it, one of his findings was that, even if they never usually play tennis, practice at playing football makes footballers into better tennis players than he had expected. I think this might be closer to what is happening with the meditating meeting attendees. Practising one game – mediation – outside meeting for worship helps them to develop skills which are relevant, even if not directly, to participating well in meeting for worship. 

When we look at things from this point of view, we can also see some other practices which are well-established as ‘things people sometimes do in Quaker meeting’ as also separable, capable of being played as games on their own. For example, reading a passage from the Bible is an acceptable move within the meeting for worship game, and reading Biblical passages is also something we can do outside meeting for worship – indeed, reading and studying the Bible in different ways probably makes up several different games (some more religious, like devotional reading; some more secular, like academic study). In this account, bringing into a particular practice skills and techniques – and knowledge and experience and feelings and lots of other aspects of life – from elsewhere doesn’t stop you playing by the rules relevant to the current practice: the footballers play tennis according to the rules of tennis. It might, done with sensitivity to the origins of the practice you are borrowing from and the ethics of transporting ideas and practices across cultural and religious boundaries, be actively helpful.

Posting Poetry

My poetry practice was starting to get a bit tired. Not everything about it, but I had some poems which I liked but which weren’t finding homes – so I decided to build them new ones. And then I remembered that I also had an old home for poetry, sitting around somewhere on the internet like a really useful spoon forgotten at the back of a cupboard, and decided I should renovate it.

So let me introduce you to two places I am now sharing poems. One is my Instagram, @rhiannonbookgeek. Short poems, especially ones which can be made into images using Canva or a similar service, can be very at home on the image-drive social media site. (This wasn’t my idea – check out hashtags like #poetrycommunity and #poemsofinstagram for many other people doing similar things.) I’ve been enjoying making the images, as well as sharing the poems. I’m not an amazing graphic designer, but choosing a simple layout and picking a photograph is fun and it makes me consider my writing in different ways. At the moment, I’m only posting poems which already existed – some of them first drafted before I’d ever heard of Instagram – but it will be interesting to see whether in the future, what I write is changed by imagining it in this form before it’s finished.

The other is my poetry blog, Unprogrammed Poetry. I first used this back in 2012, and I posted there regularly for a while – but then it faded, for all sorts of reasons. I’m now sharing there everything I post to Instagram, with both the image and a plain HTML version in the hopes that this will improve the accessibility. (I try to add an alt text to my Instagram posts for screen reader users, but this doesn’t always work well with poetry.) I might also post some longer poems there, with or without images.

A while ago, trying to work out where to submit what to see whether I could get things published, I wrote a list of reasons for writing different kinds of work. For poetry, I wrote that my reasons for writing are to be heard, to express myself and be recognised, and to form community. I’ve been pleased to publish in some formal spaces, and to have the support of editors – you can find a list of places I’ve published on my poetry page. But I know there’s also a lot of community to be formed online, and benefits to sharing in a more immediate way. I hope you find the poems rich and thought-provoking. Some of them might even be enjoyable.

A shrinking and expanding world

At the moment it seems that my world is paradoxical: both shrinking and expanding, both suddenly moving freely where I was pushing and grinding to a halt where it previously moved easily. Here are some observations.

Shrinking. In lockdown, I have shrunk my world to the places I can walk to. I don’t drive, and although I would use public transport if my journey was essential, it hasn’t seemed necessary. I have been sleeping in the same bed for three months – highly unusual for me, because usually I travel or stay away from home for work perhaps once a month on average, and travel for pleasure as well. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why and I’m not in a hurry to change back again, but that doesn’t make it any less strange. 

I’m glad I can walk to leafy green places. It’s good Druid practice to focus on a small area and get to know it well, watching the seasons pass the same few trees and the flowers come and go in the same patch of grass, and spiritually, I’m enjoying that opportunity. But practically that shrinking has other effects. I’m much more aware than I was before of the extent to which I live in an area which is short of local shops. We do have some options, but using the closest places often comes with costs I think of as part of the ‘poverty tax’: being charged to get cash from a machine, paying extra over supermarket prices, not being able to get much fresh food. One of the key options is delivery – but getting an organic fruit and veg box every week has a very different class tone.

Out for a walk in the park with these local geese and their goslings.

Expanding. Everyone knows that online activity is dramatically increased overall. We can all see why – and we know that those who aren’t able to access the internet are very differently affected by the pandemic. For me, the general increase in online activity has resulted in some strange interactions; I’ve been getting friend requests and other contacts on social media sites I haven’t actively used for years. And on Facebook in particular, I’ve been getting a drastic increase in traffic, much of it from other parts of the world. 

Very little of it seems to be malicious or machine-produced; these are contacts from real people, often from countries where I have a small number of existing contacts, who are reaching out. It’s not necessarily a deep contact – you don’t actually need to message me to find out the weather in England, although I can tell you about that – but it is generally authentic. I enjoy talking to new people, especially when I can do it in controlled ways; I have had to review my limits on this, and now accept a maximum of 50 new friends a day, and only answer Facebook messages for half an hour in the morning. Otherwise this expansion could shut everything else out of my life!

Slowing down. I don’t know if this is true, actually, but it feels like I’m writing more slowly. Most of my projects are at stages where they need time – either to wait for someone else to do something (like copy edit the manuscript of my third Quaker Quicks book, or decide whether or not they want to publish my next novel), or because I need thinking and reading time for projects which are in development (like a fiction project which needs plot ideas, or an academic book project which needs background reading). I’m trying not to be impatient with others or myself, but I’m… not very good at that.

For a change of pace I took control of some of my own process and have been publishing poems on Instagram – a bit of expansion to balance the slow feeling!

Speeding up. Some things which have seemed like a good idea for a long time are suddenly mainstream. They might not stay there, of course, but for the time being this seems to me to be something worth noting and encouraging. I have a few examples in mind. The first one is the way in which the Black Lives Matter movement is succeeding in some ways and places. There is masses of work to do, and some of it is starting. I’m seeing more discussion, more sensible involvement and action from white people, and changing attitudes – people who wouldn’t seriously have considered, a year ago, changing a name or removing a statue, are now thinking about exactly that. We will go for the symbolic and the easy first, of course, and some people will try to act as if that’s enough, but even those steps acknowledge the importance of the topic and demonstrate a willingness to change which hasn’t always been there. 

In a very different sphere, people who a year ago would have insisted on meeting in person are now happily meeting online, and seeing the advantages of it. There are some things which need to be done while physically present, and I look forward to a time when it’s safe to meet that way again; but even then, I hope we’ll keep the advantages and meet online or have hybrid approaches when that will work. The increased opportunities for international cooperation, for access for people with some disabilities, and for reducing the carbon footprints of our travel, all seem important to me.

What about you? How is your world changing at the moment?

Anti-racist teaching and learning

I’ve been reflecting recently on what is involved in teaching for liberation – especially in what might be involved for me, as a white person, to teach in a way which demonstrates that Black Lives Matter and is anti-racist.

The first thing I can do is to make sure that I am handing over the microphone whenever appropriate, and encouraging everyone to listen to people of colour. Paying attention is the first step – and believing what people of colour say, and acting on their requests.

In doing this, however, I need to make sure that I’m not putting inappropriate burdens on those I’m trying to help. Black people and other people of colour who are members my community don’t have any responsibility to educate me or others – I’m very grateful to those of you who choose to offer that, but I don’t want to pressure anyone. That being so, to try and pass over my teaching role to people of colour isn’t always the right move. Giving opportunities and listening is important. Forcing people to speak, requiring emotional or other unpaid work from them, or disclaiming my own responsibilities as someone with a teaching role in my community may be just as damaging – as Sophie Bevan says in a recent blog post, she always has to “answer banal questions about where I’m from or justify my existence in white spaces” and the frustration of that is “constant, inescapable and oppressive”. Sometimes I do feminist work – but I don’t like it when I’m in a room full of men and they all look to me for the ‘feminist’ or ‘women’s’ take on a topic, and so it would be wrong of me to expect people of colour to automatically take on anti-racist work. 

I have to hold a balance between taking responsibility for my own education and sharing what I know with other white people, and remembering that as a white person much of the racist structure of our society is hidden from me. There will always be new perspectives to hear and more to learn, so I am always a learner even when I am also in a teaching position.

Actually, this is a familiar position and not restricted to the subject of race. I frequently teach about theology and the diversity of understandings of God/the Spirit/Love/the Divine which exist in my community – obviously I have to do that while unable to know everything about God! I do think I know some things about God, from experience and paying attention to other’s experiences, and I know some things about talking about God, because I’ve worked on those problems for years. But I’m also still a learner – learning from God and learning from other people. 

This position demands a willingness to take risks – to say something and see whether others agree, to try and understand something and risk getting it wrong. It demands a willingness to say that I have made mistakes in the past – which I absolutely have – and to expect to make more in the future. It also means trusting the participants in my courses not to take me as the ultimate authority: knowing that they will listen to me, but also supporting their own processes of exploration, and hoping that if I do make a mistake, they will uncover that for themselves and be able to make a correction. How? In anti-racist work, probably by listening to and believing more people of colour.

In order to support other learners in that, I need to continually model the process. Some resources I’ve found helpful in getting to where I am today include:

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge
So you want to talk about race, Ijeoma Oluo
White privilege, Kalwant Bhopal
Natives, Akala

Some resources I hope to engage with in the future to learn more include:

Talking About Race from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture  (thanks to my partner Piangfan Angela Naksukpaiboon for passing on this link)
Me and White Supremacy, Layla F Saad
How to be an Anti-Racist, Ibram X. Kendi‎
Rigorous, a magazine by writers and editors of colour 

I also try and donate to relevant organisations when I’m able to. Two I’ve supported recently are:

Colours Youth Network, which supports young Black and people of colour who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex (QTIBPOC) 

Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, which works with schools and communities to empower young people and improve their opportunities

Supporting a charity is also a chance to learn about their work and listen to their perspectives.

There are also opportunities online. These include the formal opportunities offered by organisations (for Quakers, both Quakers in Britain and Woodbrooke run courses) and informal opportunities. For many years now, I have been reading in social media spaces, where people take the time to make their personal experiences public and make explicit links to the political. This is harder to make recommendations for, because it has to start with your choice of social media setting and it works when you explore, follow links, reach out, and seek people who have different experiences.

I think Twitter, which is structured in such a way as to encourage this kind of public sharing, is especially good for learning by listening. If you’re new to Twitter and want to learn, as well as following people you’ve heard of, try exploring hashtags. For example, the recent #PublishingPaidMe hashtag revealed the way in which black authors are offered smaller advances than white authors in similar situations, and #BlackInTheIvory shares the experiences of black people working in academia.

Maybe I’ll see you there. White people, let’s be anti-racist learners together.

Quakers Do What! Why?

My second book in the Quaker Quicks series from Christian Alternative Books is coming out soon – I have some early copies to sign and sell, as pictured – so I wanted to say a bit about this book. What is it and why did I write it?

A box of copies of ‘Quakers Do What! Why?’

At the core of this book is a series of questions. I’d been collecting questions for a while – all my life, probably, because I’ve been a Quaker all along and from the time I was at school I was trying to explain what I was on about and where I went on Sundays. In this book I try to answer the most common questions, and some of the most difficult. There are questions in here which I’m practised at answering: I didn’t have much problem writing an answer to “What’s this about Quakers who don’t believe in God?” because I’ve already answered it so many times. It’s not a simple answer, but it’s not especially difficult for me at this point. Actually, the hardest answer to write was for “Do Quakers have structures like parishes?” – the initial answer is ‘yes’, but when I tried to say slightly more, I had to try and cover all the possible options, and Quakers around the world have lots of different structures. 

At the impersonal level, I thought it would be useful to have a recent and brief book which addresses these issues – partly for Quakers who might find it useful as a reference work, but mainly for people who are new to Quakers or want to find out more. There’s a chapter on Quaker weddings and funerals, for example, since that’s a time when people often encounter Quakers for the first time. There are chapters on Quaker worship and things which are sometimes mentioned (but not usually properly explained) when Quakers get into the news, like the way we make decisions. 

More personally, I started writing this book from a sense of frustration. I like answering questions, and I’ll be happy to keep repeating these answers in conversation – but there isn’t always time to give a full answer. I can and do refer people to other sources – for some of the topics in this book, specific Quaker groups have already produced good leaflets or videos or other materials – but sometimes there’s not a single good source for follow-up reading, or the best descriptions are aimed at people who already know about how Quakers do things. So I wrote this book so I have given the full answer somewhere, and if I give a brief answer I know there’s a full version easily accessible as well.

You can preorder this book from Christian Alternative Books or any other bookshop of your choice. Or if you’d like a personally signed copy, email me at rhiannon.grant@woodbrooke.org.uk with your details and I can arrange to post you one (and ask if you’d like to buy Telling the Truth about God or Between Boat and Shore at the same time). There are only 25 in the first box, so get in touch now!

Search terms: quaker values as a unifying force

This phrase, ‘quaker values as a unifying force’, appeared in my search terms recently and I think it makes a couple of assumptions which are worth discussing.

Are Quaker values really a unifying force? Is that what brings Quakers together, or what helps us work with others? And what are ‘Quaker values’ anyway? Is this a useful way to think of what might also be called ‘testimony’ or ‘the testimonies’?

When people say ‘Quaker values’, I think they often mean the list of abstract words which, in the mid-twentieth century, began to be used to describe the actions we are led to take, the ways we make our faith concrete in the world. The list varies a bit, but it usually includes peace, equality, truth, simplicity, and sometimes community, integrity, sustainability, earthcare. These are often called the Quaker testimonies. This is both a strange way of using the word ‘testimony’ – think of giving testimony in court – and tends to make these things remote and sound acceptable to everyone. That has political uses, for sure. But it also hides the counter-cultural nature of many of them. Having an equality testimony could be mistaken for a belief or paying lip-service to equality, rather than actually behaving as if everyone is already equal – as we all are in God’s eyes, but very much aren’t in the social structures in which we live.

Instead of a list of abstract values, we can also see Quaker testimony as something more like the testimony we might be asked to give in court. Like in court, we’re called to give it – and the quality of it will be judged by our peers (the jury) and by the judge (God?). Like a witness statement, it will be individual – if I didn’t see the crime, I mustn’t say that I did; and if you and I both saw it, we might still have seen very different things. Multiple testimonies might point in the same direction (the butler did it!) but they can’t be reduced to that conclusion. Instead of a crime, though, we’re giving a witness statement about what we see as the truth of the world, revealed in our spiritual experiences and through meeting for worship. And as well as using words, we can give our testimony through actions – behaving as if the world we’ve glimpsed, the Divine Commonwealth or Kingdom of Heaven, is already here.

Will that be a unifying force? The list of values certainly can be unifying in some ways. Lots of people agree that peace, truth, and equality are a good ideas. What we tend not to agree about is how we should get there – the pacifist and the just war advocate both want peace, but they don’t agree about the route to it. Sometimes it isn’t obvious – I don’t use any titles because I want to achieve equality, but in some professional settings where sexism is a strong factor, not using my earned title, Dr, might prevent me from being treated equally with men who are my peers. Neither path is an easy or automatic route to equal respect for all people. Explaining our reasons, as well as acting and naming values, might be necessary in order to make common ground with those who agree with our aims but might be using different methods.

Another question we might want to ask is: do we want a unifying force? It sounds good, but it might not be that simple. I would need to think carefully before I declared myself in unity with, or even on the same side as, some of the people who are working for the same goals – but through means that I think are contrary to those goals. Consider, for example, the ‘this just war is this one which will bring peace!’ position. As a pacifist, who thinks that war is always wrong, does it help me to be ‘unified’ with people who hold that view? Or those who uphold ‘equality’ between some people by contributing to the exclusion of others – speaking out against that, rather than trying to be unified with it, might be part of my testimony.

Alternatively, perhaps the searcher was wondering whether the Quaker values are a unifying force within the Quaker community. I would say that they are to some extent. The list of values can be useful as a shorthand, a teaching device, or a test of knowledge – starting any analysis of anything by reference to ‘the testimonies’ can provide a shared structure from which to move forward. However, the existence of different lists in different communities, and the problem of explaining that the lists are recent convenient devices rather than a core or central truth of Quakerism, suggests that they are not as unifying as all that. The lists can also be a bit lacking or weak – why don’t they include Love and Justice, for example? Given that, would we want them to be the unifying force in Quakerism? Do we need anything extra to unify us as a community? This sometimes comes up in discussion where there’s an underlying anxiety about something else – that our theology is too diverse, that our practice of unprogrammed meeting for worship isn’t clear enough or lacks a shared understanding, or that our bonds of friendship and love aren’t strong enough to hold us together.

Articulating our testimony/testimonies can help us explain and teach our faith, and living a witness to the truths we know is part of that faith itself – but ‘Quaker values’ can’t stand in for other work we also need to do.

The Internet is Real

The internet is real. Things which happen online really happen.

Depending on your experience of the internet, this might seem anywhere from completely obvious to blatantly untrue. In this post, I want to explore why after some consideration I’ve decided that it is true, and why it matters.

Recently I hear someone describing a meeting from a while ago in which some of the people were physically gathered and some were present via an internet connection. In her description, she contrasted those who were ‘really’ there with those who were there ‘virtually’. I understand why and this is a common way of thinking about such situations – but I also think it opens up the path for a really problematic mistake.

There’s also a lot of discussion around at the moment about how a remote meeting, for example via video conferencing software, is different to one taking place in person. I agree that it’s useful to get at that difference and notice what does and doesn’t happen – but that difference only makes it a different thing, not an unreal thing.

A meeting held online is still a meeting. A person you talk to online is still a person. A relationship which happens through an internet connection is still a relationship and it involves a connection between two people.

Why is it a problem to say that the ‘virtual’ is different from the ‘real’? When I was young, I was taught that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. I spent a long time trying to pretend that was true – but it isn’t. Words and the lack of words, the way you are treated and the way people behave, has a very real effect. This is not to diminish the problems of physical violence: sticks, stones, fists, and bombs are all damaging and at the same time that lockdown is putting some of us in much more contact with the internet, it is also leaving some people in more physical danger from abusive relationships and other problems. It is to place a value on mental and emotional health which isn’t always present in the society in which I live. If it were true that words could never hurt, they could also never help or otherwise affect us. If it were true that the social world to which words belong had no effect on us, it might also be the case that stuff which happens online wasn’t real.

Words can hurt – and encourage and support. Someone in a video conference (as those who have been trolled or Zoom bombed know) can hurt – or help. At the moment, I’m talking to a lot of people, mainly in the Quaker community, who were previously aware of the internet as an option, perhaps for a limited range of activities or in a rather abstract way. They are now suddenly using the internet for almost everything, and finding steep learning curves with new software and being surprised by just how many things are already happening online. A lot of us are very grateful to have this option – and aware of those who don’t. Some are also puzzled or inclined to keep regarding it as unreal or second-rate. Saying that the internet is real doesn’t mean you have to like it, either: I don’t like mangoes, but they’re real.

There are things for which a purely online meeting is obviously not adequate: getting a massage or going to the dentist, for example. But a meeting held by video conferencing is still a meeting – it can make you feel better or worse, decide your action points and your attitude – even as you might struggle with the dissonance of the presence of faces and voices in the absence of bodies. And the chat you have on Facebook is real, and the connection you feel when someone posts is real, and the affection – and the annoyance and the ambivalence – we build up as we meet the same people again over time are all real. It’s virtual too, of course, but that’s the medium, not the message: a hologram of a dinosaur is a real hologram of a dinosaur.

Implying that things which happen online aren’t real, while perhaps useful for expressing frustration at what the internet can’t do or enabling you to dismiss things about it you dislike, doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the situation. For those who have made real connections through the internet – often an important source of social contact for disabled people, for those who are isolated, for most of us who are in lockdown or social distancing, and for those who anyway chose to connect online through social media, email, dating sites, and so on – hearing that online friendships aren’t real, online dating is disordered, or connections through the internet will never measure up to the standards set by those who can choose to focus on in-person connections, can be deeply hurtful. Please don’t even start down that road. Online stuff is real stuff.

Hotel Transylvania – a Quaker review?

Hotel Transylvania, and the sequel Hotel Transylvania 2, are cartoons about Dracula, who runs a hotel and wants to protect his daughter from dangers, such as humans. We watched them on Netflix and I liked them enough to go on thinking about them, although as you’ll see in this post I have some questions. Inevitably – spoilers coming, although this is genuinely fairly obvious as plot twists go – Dracula’s daughter not only meets a human but falls in love with him.

They’re funny films. There is some cartoon violence – they are, after all, monsters – although this is frequently subverted. Having watched them both, I found myself wondering what a Quaker reading of them might be. And saying ‘bleh, bleh bleh’ repeatedly. (It’s… I can’t explain, you have to experience it yourself.)

One possibility is to look at the themes around equality. Like a lot of other stories which involve ‘normal’ humans mixing with ‘monsters’ (usually human-like in many ways but with extra abilities or strikingly different bodies), the Hotel Transylvania could easily be read as incorporating metaphors for difference within the human population. The core ‘vampire falls for human’ narrative can easily be given a queer reading (as is often done for narratives like the X-Men). The story in the second film where there’s conflict over whether the child is really a vampire or really human could readily be taken as a story about racial equality (compare with the struggle sometimes seen over whether biracial children are ‘really’ black or white – I embedded my answer in the choice of the term ‘biracial’, of course). The emphasis on bodily difference – does the baby have fangs? can humans disguise themselves as monsters? – could be considered from the perspective of critical disability studies, asking, for example, why it is the monsters who have both extra abilities (vampires can fly) and disabilities (extreme sun sensitivity).

None of those themes is a perfect fit. Some of the narrative elements are extremely mainstream – although Dracula’s daughter Mavis falls in love with a human, the story rests wholly on the concept of a ‘one true love’, with whom you, in the film’s term, “zing”. This commitment to lifelong monogamy, and the idea that both partners (and the rest of the world) just know and accept that is distinctly heteronormative. The issues around race are dealt with in quite a shallow way, with one character’s misidentification of a very hairy man as a werewolf played entirely for laughs and an assumption that it is personal prejudice, not systemic issues, which are the root of the problem (‘humans like us now’, the monsters realise; and the aged grandfather who hates humans comes round as soon as he realises his granddaughter is happy with one…). Although the possible representation of disability is more complex, characters are shown easily overcoming physical limitations (can’t go out in the sun? just wear a big hat!) and the moves towards equality which are made by showing ‘monsters’ sympathetically are balanced or overwhelmed by the extent to which disabilities are always the basis of jokes.

There could be a peace theme. Although there are violent moments and attacks, the overall narrative also shows the end of a years-long conflict. Frankenstein (actually his monster, as Frank will explain when he gets a chance) is afraid of fire and all the monsters begin from a fear of humans, after lifetimes of being attacked. By the end, monsters and humans live in harmony – the vampire children’s camp has adopted human norms (mockable ones, of course, like friendship and health & safety), and the human family can come and visit Hotel Transylvania whenever they like.

It isn’t this simple, though. The monster attitude towards humans improves during the two films, but the proclamations that it ‘doesn’t matter’ whether baby is a monster or a human never quite ring true – everyone knows that it will affect his future. The human attitude towards monsters, at the same time, tends towards the touristy. Having got over fear, the humans we see in the wider world usually go for either hero-worship or requesting selfies. It’s nice in the short term but it doesn’t reflect genuine comfort. To return to my reading of the story as a racial analogy, it’s rather like the white woman who told me how ‘wonderfully colourful’ Birmingham is. Delighting in the exotic certainly feels to the oppressor like a step forward from fear or disgust, but it’s a long way short of true equality and can be extremely stressful for the oppressed group, who are often pressured to perform correctly in that exotic role.

Is anything about this film simple? Well, perhaps. Many of the jokes are plain farce or wordplay. The plots are mostly straightforward with easy-to-predict twists. If you don’t spend too much time thinking about it – sorry, after reading this post it may be too late for that – these are fun, kid-friendly films with enough going on to amuse adults, too. And staying at home and watching Netflix is a pretty simple thing to do, and very important at the moment. Of course, paying for Netflix and the kit to watch it on may not – especially in ordinary times – be a key feature of the stereotypical simple life, but in some ways it seems to be worth it!