Worlds of Women: review of A Door Into Ocean

A Door Into Ocean is a 1986 sci-fi novel by Quaker author Joan Slonczewski. It’s interested in nonviolence and the creation of a culture focussing on sharing and equality. One of the ways it explores these themes is through the invention of a society in which there are only women. I picked this up because it was recommended in a Quaker context, but as I was reading I soon realised that it’s relevant to another discussion I’ve been reading recently – the extensive discussions about gender plague/gendercide stories. I mostly read these conversations on Twitter, but I recommend Ana Mardoll’s blog if you need to catch up on the latest round. On Twitter, and I’m sorry I can’t find this again, someone said something to the effect that perhaps authors look for ways to kill off all the men in these stories because they want to create a matriarchy but they don’t know how to do that without murder.

I think that might be true about this book. And if it is, that would be deeply ironic for a story so concerned with nonviolence and the avoidance of death-hastening. Before I get into the details, I should say that this isn’t a discussion of the mechanic presented in the book for the creation of an all-women society or how it works: the sci-fi explanation offered is that in the distant past, the life-shapers in this ocean-dwelling society discovered how to create pregnancies by fusing ova, and the group evolved to no longer have men. (Exactly how this squares with their vague belief in a creating deity who set the entire ecosystem up in balance isn’t explored.) But it has an extremely similar vibe to Nicola Griffith’s book Ammonite, in which a virus kills all men who land on a particular planet, and it’s still very much the case that the author made these decisions. 

Both books also have a kind of situational lesbianism, in which it feels like the author wanted to create lesbian relationships (which is great!) but didn’t believe women would really be attracted to other women if they had the choice of men. In particular, in A Door Into Ocean, although women in the all-women society take women as lovers, a man who goes to live in the all-women society easily finds a lover there, and the woman who crosses from another world into the all-women society retains her attachment to the men in her previous society. It imagines women loving women but always being attracted to men as well. In a somewhat similar way, A Door Into Ocean is aware of trans possibilities in a way I don’t recall in Ammonite, but it shies away from exploring them – there is just one scene in which a woman from the all-women society suggests to her lover, the man from the other world, that he could simply go to the local medic and be reshaped into what she regards as a normal female body. He immediately and emphatically rejects the idea and it is never mentioned again.

Joan Slonczewski has good reasons for wanting to create a society very different to her own. In fact, she creates two societies: one, associated with stone and metal, which seems to reflect real-world situations, with men mostly in charge (and some women in military roles), a strong military, lots of invasions, communities controlled by violence and fear, hunger and homelessness, etc. The other, represented by the world of water where everything is fluid and growing (a metaphor made literal which Slonczewski uses extremely well), is all women, nonviolent, governed by gatherings of people at which all adults can speak and a consensus is sought… in fact, funnily enough, the women of the ocean world make decisions in a very similar way to the characters in my novel Between Boat and Shore. This other Quaker author and I might be drawing on, err, Quaker discernment processes? All this is good in some ways. But what is the message given by the conclusion she apparently reached before writing, namely that such a society could not have, or would be much better off without, men?

I think it normalises the assumption that masculinity and violence go together. If it was a one-off, there wouldn’t necessarily be any harm in this creation in a sci-fi; but this book is part of a much larger pattern, in which it’s clear that the opposite – a society of all men, which is completely peaceful and loving and nonviolent – is not being imagined. (And if you are about to tell me that they couldn’t reproduce, remember that in these stories we’re talking about speculative fiction in which a wide range of currently impossible surgeries are made possible, and mpreg is already a genre, and also some trans men carry pregnancies…) It also tends to ignore trans experience, as already mentioned. And, to return to the idea from the first paragraph, it is interesting that authors trying to create societies where women lead need to do so through the nonexistence of men. 

Whether men are killed by a virus or other plague, or die off when they become unnecessary, this creation of matriarchies through death undermines the nonviolent results Slonczewski wants it to have. It can imply a bio-essentialism, because it suggests that violence is inextricably entangled with the male body rather than being a social problem. Those results are so at odds with the other values expressed in A Door Into Ocean (such as the belief that every person can learn and grow, and the possibility of social change through nonviolent pressure) that it seems unlikely to Slonczewski intended them. Now they’ve been pointed out, hopefully future authors with similar social agendas (myself included) can avoid them.

Social Media Feelings

In my previous post, I wrote about the social media experiment I did during Lent. In the comments on that post, I was asked:

How did you feel after the experiment? Would you maintain across all platforms and channels a sustained social media presence for longer or have discerned your preferences? How do you think it benefitted you and your loved ones? Did you have a disciplined set time each day devoted to social media work? What were your thoughts on it for your future – in your own life and your career?

That’s a lot to answer in a comment so I’ve turned my responses into this post.

I didn’t have especially strong feelings about the experiment. Afterwards, I was pleased I’d done it, and interested in the results, and happy that it produced some more connections and encouraged me to do more of things I wanted to do anyway.

I probably will stay active across a range of social media platforms. It suits me to have a range of different spaces in which to connect with people in different ways. In the past, there have definitely been platforms which came and went in my life (for example, LiveJournal and Tumblr are places where I’m no longer active) – some of that is personal preferences changing, some of it is communities moving, and some of it is my interests changing. To some extent, the communities I’m involved in vary across the platforms – for example, when I say I’m on TikTok, I’m really mostly talking about BookTok, the community of TikTok users who mostly talk about books. On Facebook, I’m much less active in general book-themed conversation and more involved in Quaker groups. There’s often a natural ebb and flow to this as the people, platforms, and resultant communities all change.

It benefited me by prompting me to do something I wanted to do anyway. I’m not sure most of my loved ones would have noticed much! I asked my wife, who is at least as active on social media as I am, and she said that it was nice when I posted about her a bit more than usual, but otherwise it didn’t make any difference. In general, I think social media benefits us both by helping us to connect with people with similar interests – to share ideas, explore hobbies, learn new skills, hear different perspectives, engage in conversations…

I didn’t set aside a specific time for social media. I normally find some time to look at social media on my phone anyway – downtime, waiting for something, a quick break between other activities – and I was usually able to include posting in that space. I also split up the steps, so I might play with an idea in Canva one day, download the finished image the next day, and post it to Instagram when I happen to be looking at my feed anyway the day after. I think if I did have a set time every day for social media I’d probably find it difficult to use unless I also had a much more detailed task list. Instead, my approach is to be playful and responsive, picking up trends (like Twitter memes) and sharing things I’m doing anyway (like reviewing books I would have been reading whether or not I was going to post about them).

In the future, I hope that social media will continue to provide spaces for sharing, learning, and connecting with people. I hope we’ll continues to develop ways to prevent the abusive, bullying, and hurtful behaviour which is common both on social media and in lots of other social spaces, and focus on using technology positively. In my experience, social media can help reduce loneliness, entertain and inform. In particular, the internet in general and social media in particular has a unique power to enable us to connect with others who are interested in the same thing. Sometimes this creates communities around dangerous or mistaken ideas, and I wouldn’t want to restrict myself to one platform or one topic for that reason. Sometimes, though, it can be extremely positive, and enables in-depth discussions and sharing of knowledge in a way that’s difficult to achieve offline unless people are able to commit to travel etc.

It’s that power to reach people interested in a specific topic which makes social media relevant to my career. It makes possible different approaches to networking, to finding out about potential contacts, to sharing information about my work, to inviting people to attend events or courses. It supports communities of Quakers, of readers, of writers, of religious people from many traditions, of people who are interested in editing or prayer or language or LGBTQ+ stories… Like any powerful tool, it has risks, but I find it extremely useful.

Social Media Experiment

Just before the beginning of Lent, I saw some posts on Facebook and and Twitter which said things like, “See you after Easter! I’m fasting from social media.” I wished those people all the best, but I didn’t feel inclined to copy them. Instead, I was inspired to go in the other direction: for Lent, I took up posting on social media every day. This is an aim I’ve had in the past – on most social media platforms, your posts are seen by more people if you post regularly, so if some of your posts ask people to do something (anything – my examples include: help a charity, join a course, buy a book, answer a question…) they will be more likely to succeed if you’ve been posting regularly in between. And maybe I’m a little contrary, because social media is generally a positive in my life and I didn’t feel like fasting from it!

I’m active on several social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and since the middle of March, TikTok – so I shared my posts round. I posted on at least one of those almost every day – I gave myself Sundays off when I felt like it, and I missed a few days when I was ill. A few things, like blog posts, I shared on two or three platforms, but mostly I created different content for each platform. My goal was to try things out and connect with people. In the following, I’m going to look briefly at the results of my experiments. I’ll explore which type of content worked best on which platform and use that to formulate some ideas about how I might use them in future.

On Facebook, I posted 18 posts during this period. (I was also tagged in a lot.) 8 were public and the other 10 were limited to friends-only (not especially private given that I have almost 3600 Facebook friends, but also not open to everyone in the world). The friends-only ones were mainly about our wedding anniversary party and going on holiday, and it’s not a surprise these were popular (the biggest number is 175 reactions on the picture of the wedding cake, just to give you an idea). Of the public ones, this post asking a question about Quaker worship got the best engagement (in stats, 32 reactions and 52 comments; qualitatively, good answers and interesting conversation). I also shared content from other people, posted about my books and World Book Day, and other more general theological or writing stuff, and that didn’t get the same level of engagement. Posts about this blog get low engagement on Facebook, but the blog stats reveal that it’s the second most common way of finding it (behind the major search engines, which are grouped together). In general, this supports my usual Facebook policy which is that it’s ‘advanced level Rhiannon’ – a mix of personal stuff and in-depth Quaker discussion. When I write for Facebook, I imagine mainly people I already know and already have some background in the topics I talk about. 

On Twitter, I tweeted 15 times during this period (and sent lots of replies). I had one runaway success with a Quaker twist on a meme – almost 3900 impressions and a 7% engagement rate, far above Twitter’s average (most brands are pleased with themselves if they get a 1% engagement rate, meaning that 1 in a 100 people who see the tweet do something, such as clicking ‘like’ on it or clicking a link in it). People also responded with some great answers. Other successes include posts about events and projects I’m involved in – especially where I can tag or be tagged by others who are involved – and some of my replies to large-ish accounts also got good numbers of impressions. Lesson: connections are important, joining in with memes sometimes is worthwhile, and it’s okay if Twitter content is often reactive. When I post on Twitter I focus on interacting, and I cover a wider range of topics than on Facebook – for example, I enjoy connecting with the writing community on Twitter and sometimes post about writing, or archaeology, or just jokes. In contrast,  when I’m connecting with writers on Facebook it’s in dedicated groups and not visible on my profile.

On Instagram, I posted 14 times during this period. (I also shared 1 story and didn’t get into Reels or anything else…) Instagram isn’t a medium which comes naturally too me because it’s so visual, but as well as posting some pictures of books and food, I experimented with making specific Instagram content with Canva. I only used free elements on Canva, and I tried creating content focussed on my usual themes – Quakers and philosophical stuff. Those posts did better than my others, and this one about Quaker meeting for worship did especially well – it didn’t get comments, but it did have 212 impressions and was seen by 188 accounts – of which 55% weren’t already following me. That’s reaching significantly more people than my other posts and means that ‘keep playing with text in Canva’ will be my Instagram plan for the next few months. I’d like to know a) whether this trend continues and b) whether I can adjust so that there’s more conversation, not just likes!

Finally, midway through March I was overcome by some sort of social media energy and started a TikTok channel. At first I’d ruled it out – isn’t TikTok too visual for me, like Instagram? – but on exploring TikTok further I discovered a subset of posters who are all about the verbal content. That I can do! So in the 8 videos I’ve posted so far I’ve done some experiments. My most successful post so far was a book review, and since I enjoy connecting with other readers I’m planning to focus on book reviews and some posts about my own books for a while. It’s too early to say much more but if you’re interested please come over and say hello!

I didn’t count Goodreads in this experiment, because I post there when a book thing happens, but it’s another social media site where I am active. Very few people in my circles seem to be using CuriousCat any more, but it’s there if you want to ask me questions anonymously. In general, I plan to keep using social media, and perhaps this post will help you choose where to follow me or think through how to use any social media you participate in.

What social media do you enjoy? What kind of things do you want to share and what conversations do you want to have? Have you ever done an experiment like this?

Book review: Our Child of Two Worlds, Stephen Cox

Spoiler warning! This a book review which includes some details about the plot, so do read the novel first if you’d prefer not to know what happens. 

Stephen Cox’s new book Our Child of Two Worlds is a sequel to his previous novel, Our Child of the Stars (which I previously discussed on this blog). It explores the implications of Molly and Gene’s decision to make Cory, the child of the titles, part of their family. They turn out to have less control over the situation than they imagine: when the other side of Cory’s family arrives for their distant planet, decisions Gene and Molly were struggling with are actually out of their hands.

Image of the book cover and details of the social media blast, 31st March-3rd April, which includes posts by @booksandlovelythings, @geekdads, Red Train Blog, Scrapping & Playing/ @annarella, For Winter Nights/ @wetdarkandwild, Blue Book Balloon/ @bluebookballoon, Brigid Fox and Buddha/ @bookgeekrelng

There are a handful of other characters who explore the themes of the book alongside Cory: besides Molly and Gene, I was especially interested in Molly’s sister, who faces her own very difficult decisions, and Elsa, another child Gene and Molly end up adopting. It’s absolutely consistent with their characters that they go on welcoming more people and trying to support everyone; but as Cory needs more support – as his alien powers develop and seem to be out of control – the more complex situation also becomes more dangerous. 

This book left me thinking about what decisions you get to make. In the end, and after worrying about what to do, Gene and Molly don’t get to decide whether or not to travel with Cory to an alien world – the purples, Cory’s people, don’t offer to take the whole family. Cory must travel alone and everyone has to make the best of it. On the other hand, there are a lot of decisions they have been able to make along the way: how to respond to Cory’s arrival in the first book, how to handle Cory’s development and changing needs, and how to look after other children (baby Fleur and teenage Elsa, and others in the wider family/community) as well. 

Cory also gets to make some decisions, but often not from a position of having good information. Lacking almost all contact with others of his own kind, he doesn’t know much about his own powers, his own health, or what help he can expect and when. He’s also too young to think some things through well – something which can be tricky to portray in fiction, where a character’s decisions are carefully considered from outside even if they are made to see unconsidered inside the narrative, but which comes over convincingly here. Some of the adults are also very aware of Cory’s youth; his powers, although often a plot point, aren’t in the end treated as a handy magical MacGuffin by the people around him. That makes a refreshing change from some other superhero genre stories, where powers are regarded mainly as a useful tool and care for their possessor often comes second.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. If I have hesitations, they’re not just about the story: I read the last part of it, which includes violence in space, at the time of the start of the war in Ukraine, which made those sections more difficult to read than they would usually be. If you enjoyed the first book, you’ll probably enjoy this. If you enjoy stories about family, trying to stay together when things are difficult, and finding new ways to make connections, you’ll probably enjoy both of these books – it may be best to start with Our Child of the Stars and then pick up Our Child of Two Worlds.

Story and situation

As a writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I can control in a reader’s experience. Word choice, sentence length, paragraph structure, chapters… and writers and publishers together, or writers who self-publish, can control layout, paper quality, cover art. These are all important. They are also only part of a reader’s experience. When this is discussed, there’s often a focus on things about the reader – some within the reader’s control, and some not. Does the reader have personal experience of things described in the book? Does the reader’s mood accord with the mood of the book? Does the reader have time and space to read attentively, or are they skimming or distracted? Writers try to guess things about readers (like which words they know and what kind of story they want to read) and readers try to use clues like covers and blurbs and reviews to pick writers who relate appropriately to their expectations – sometimes wanting comfort and sometimes wanting challenge.

But another things readers or media consumers do is to put different texts in dialogue. Sometimes this is very considered – for example, last year I went on holiday to Whitstable, and I went in Harbour Books and asked for novels set locally, and read two very different stories, both set in the same town, in relatively quick succession. Sometimes it’s even controlled by an editorial hand, as when poems are collected in an anthology or essays in an edited collection, or suggested by an publisher, as when books are placed in a series. Sometimes it’s an accident. This can happen with fiction, and it can happen when some of the texts are factual, too. 

Does the news count as a text for this purpose? On the one hand, it obviously isn’t like reading a novel or watching a film, and rolling 24-hour news coverage is different even from a journalistic nonfiction book. On the other hand, sometimes it arrives in similar ways. Last night, instead of putting the news on, we watched The King’s Man – but we watched it on the same TV, and whatever its other pros and cons as a film the way I thought about it was undoubtedly affected by the world context. Sometimes creators see this sort of thing coming and make changes, more or less successfully, to account for it. A Spiderman film had the twin towers removed after September 11th; one theory about the weird plot of Marvel series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was that it had a storyline about a pandemic removed. The parallels between The King’s Man and the situation in Ukraine probably aren’t strong enough to justify such a reaction, even if it hadn’t been released before the recent events – and much of what it uses and plays with is real history anyway – but sitting on my sofa last night, it was impossible to avoid making the comparisons.

This seems inevitable. I don’t think this specific effect did The King’s Man, a movie which swings wildly between the tragic, the comic, and an uncertain tragi-comedy, any favours, but as often as it causes problems it can be a positive and enlightening experience. In January I read Darryl Cunningham’s Supercrash, a graphic novel which investigates politics and financial structures. I had that freshly in my mind as stories about inflation and the rising cost of living were getting traction on news agendas, and it helped me to think more widely about the implications of what was being reported and ask questions (usually ones I can’t answer) about why things are the way they are.

That being so, I have no moral to draw out of these musings except to keep on reflecting on how particular combinations might be affecting my responses to any given piece of media. Would I have like The King’s Man better in a different time? Possibly. Would I have appreciated Supercrash less if it hadn’t seemed relevant? Probably. Will I try and create stories which respond to the world around me? Probably. Will I be able to write something which speaks to the moment in which it is published? Probably not!

Have you had the experience of media/situation pairings which worked especially well or especially badly?

Two excellent books for Black History Month

I don’t normally do ‘months’ and Black History Month in the UK isn’t until October and reading books isn’t enough… but I happen to have read a couple of excellent books on Black history lately, and it’s Black History Month in the USA and Canada, and Quakers celebrate festivals all year round, so I’m going to do this anyway. 

Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga is a richly detailed account of Black history as it relates to the British state. It took me two weekends to read and I had a break in the middle, because it’s emotionally intense at a times as well as a long read. I wouldn’t call the text dense, exactly, because it’s always clearly written, but there’s a lot, simply because there is a lot to say on these subjects. I haven’t read either the illustrated or teenage versions or watched the TV show, but hopefully those make the material accessible to more people. 

Overall, I found Black and British helped to tie together many different strands, often of history where I knew a little bit or had read something before. One example would be Black Tudors – I had read Miranda Kaufmann’s book on Black history in the Tudor period, and Olusoga’s work helped to put that into context for me. Another example is the ‘struggle for Africa’ – I knew that European countries had colonised much of Africa, but I knew more about the later effects than the original process, and in the context of the whole sweep of Black and British it became obvious how relatively recently that colonisation took place. Olusoga’s book also does really useful work in revealing things which might be relevant to the political situation today, including addressing different manifestations of racism in different parts of British society over time, and I’d highly recommend this as a background to anyone wanting to understand some of the more complex interactions of race and class in Britain.

Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts by Rebecca Hall (illustrated by Hugo Martinez) is a graphic – novel? I feel my genre vocabulary failing here; a book which uses sequential art to tell a true story – which combines the story of Hall’s research, including her encounters with racism in the process, with the stories of slave revolts which she researched. I really appreciated the way Hall wove together the different elements of the story, so that as a reader I was clear which parts were fact and what was imagination, but she was free to imagine and fill in the gaps when necessary. I was really engaged by the process – I felt a surge of anger when she was shut out of an archive which might have revealed some of the lost material. I see that Lloyd’s Bank, one of the archives mentioned in the book, now has a section about enslavement on the history page of their website, but it’s worded in a distancing sort of way. I hope they have now allowed Hall and other researchers access to check for records which might be useful.

As well as the racism and reluctance to face up to history which Hall encounters in her research, she also uncovers the sexist assumptions made by both enslavers and historians of the slave trade. The book details several slave revolts in which women, often women not even named in the historical record, were leaders in resisting and were punished accordingly. Sometimes it seems that even people who were in a position to see it happening directly failed to understand the agency women had and the active roles they took, unable to believe that women would handle weapons or organise co-ordinated attacks. I found this a really important counter to the dominant narrative about the antislavery movement, which tends to centre white British men (many of them Quakers – see the Lloyd’s page linked above for some examples – which means that as a member of the Quaker community I hear it especially often). 

As Banseka Kayembe said in the article I linked at this beginning of this post, “a true commitment to anti-racism can’t be about just yourself or reading a couple of books – it’s got to be about the collective power of all of us.” Hopefully these books leave us better equipped to focus on that.

Prehistory and present landscapes

One of the things I find most intriguing about the prehistory of the place I live is understanding how humans have shaped and changed the landscape – perhaps since our first arrival here. When I was writing about the Neolithic, I was very aware of the suggestion once made that all novels written today, whether they express it explicitly or not, are about climate change at some level. The introduction of farming, characteristic of the Neolithic period, involves the introduction of new species – in Orkney at the time when Between Boat and Shore is set, the community keeps sheep and cows, but does not yet have pigs or horses. The Orkney landscape of that time was very different to the open one we see today, because it’s still thickly wooded except in the areas where grazing or deliberate clearance has made space for fields.

I had assumed that the forested landscape of the Neolithic was the natural state of affairs – but recently I’ve been reading about the Mesolithic period, and of course it’s more complex than that. The Mesolithic is usually taken to begin in Britain at the point when the glaciers finally leave. (There were also people in Britain during parts of the Ice Age, a period known as the Paleolithic.) But the landscape at that point was very open – scoured clean by ice, basically. It took a long time for freshwater fish to reappear in the rivers, and at the beginning of the Mesolithic wild horses lived on grass plains. Over time, trees grew, horses left for more open areas and deer, elk, and aurochs were more comfortable with the increased cover. The forests of the Neolithic began growing in this period. But trees didn’t grow everywhere and it’s been suggested that as well as cutting trees down, people deliberately burned moorland to keep it open. New shoots after the burning would attract deer, making them easier to hunt – but the practice also encourages the formation of peat and prevents forest trees from growing to full size. (This article gives a summary of key theories.)

Closer investigation always seems to lead to the breakdown of binaries. There isn’t a clear line here between ‘hunter-gatherers’ who passively occupy a landscape and ‘farmers’ who take control of it – the hunter-gatherer-burner-deer-follower/tempters act to change things in the landscape when it suits them, and farmers have to work around the natural givens of the place. Nor is there a pure ‘natural’ state untouched by human hands followed by a ‘created’ state which is either spoiled or improved depending on your perspective. Human beings are part of nature and have an influence on the ecosystem whenever and wherever they live – like all other species, whether it’s the predator which can affect the whole system, or the introduced grazing animal which, in sufficient numbers, changes the soil and everything else. Or animals whose ways of life accidentally create habitats for others.

In an era of discussions about rewilding, this puts some of the pressing questions into perspective. Unless we can bring back the glaciers (and if you can do that, broader issues about climate breakdown might not be so urgent!), there is probably no ‘untouched’ ‘wild’ British landscape to return to. Even land left entirely alone will be affected by the things previously done by humans – by the plants we have introduced and the animals we have made extinct, as well as by climate change itself. Instead, we have to accept that humans have always had and will always have an influence, and ask how we should best use that influence. I don’t have any answers, but I find that exploring the distant past sometimes helps me ask these questions better.

Telling the Truth about God sells 1000 copies

The publisher emailed to let me know that Telling the Truth about God, my book about Quakers and religious language, has sold more than a thousand copies. It’s good to see it reaching more and more readers.

The front cover of my book, Telling the Truth about God, on a dark background. It has the words '1000 copies sold' above and fireworks and balloons around.
Image description: the front cover of my book, Telling the Truth about God, on a dark background. It has the words ‘1000 copies sold’ above and fireworks and balloons around.

In other book news, Stephen Cox recently posted Ten easy ways to help an author – his new book, Our Child of Two Worlds, will be out this March. The tips apply to just about any book you’d like to support.

I think ‘meeting for worship’ is a good enough name.

In the responses to my recent Friends Journal article, one theme was about the phrase ‘meeting for worship’. Commenters on Paul Parker’s public Facebook post raised a number of concerns about the word ‘worship’ in the Quaker context. 

(Other responses focussed on other parts of my article: you might also be interested in this blog post from Clare Flourish about nontheist words for God, and this Tweet from Betsy Cazden about the use of ‘we’ in Quaker minutes.) 

I have heard concerns about the word ‘worship’ before. I haven’t written about it before because it doesn’t bother me at all… but it clearly is bothering some people, so perhaps it’s worth taking some time to explore questions about why it might or might not be an issue.

The main concern raised in the Facebook conversation is, in Matt Moore’s words, that “the general use of the word worship invokes an image of bowing down before and subservience to”. This is not, Matt and several other commenters agree, what we think is happening in meeting for worship, and so it’s not an appropriate name. Turning to other sources, we can see that this concern has been around for a while – our 1994 book of discipline, Quaker faith & practice, addresses this in various ways, including in this much-quoted passage in which ‘worship’ is understood as ‘worth-ship’:

To me, worship is recognising and communing with the divine, whether it is within myself, in others, or in the world. The pre-condition of worship is my belief in worth-ship, my own and that of other people.

Despite these concerns, we still have the phrase ‘meeting for worship’. Why keep it? I think one reason is the wider association of ‘worship’ with religious stuff: OS maps mark (with a small equal-armed cross, suggesting the Christian origins of this symbol) ‘places of worship’ and the phrases ‘public worship’ and ‘collective worship’ have featured in British legislation over the years. (The latter, in the requirement that ‘collective worship’ be provided in schools, is in my limited experience more of a formality than a fact; I went to look up the official situation and discovered that the main guidance document dates from 1994. )

As well as making a clear association of our public meetings with religious stuff, the phrase ‘meeting for worship’ may be appropriate, with exactly the connotations of ‘bowing down before’, in some understandings of the Divine. Here’s another passage from Quaker faith & practice, by John Punshon:

The city of Birmingham, England, where I live, is one of the most racially and religiously mixed communities in Europe. It has a stimulating, challenging and exciting atmosphere. On one occasion, at a big interfaith gathering, I was being very Quakerly and very enlightened. The discussion was about prayer, and I confessed that it was my habit to pray anywhere and that I could do so sitting comfortably in a chair. A devout Muslim woman in the conference was shocked at what she saw as my easygoing familiarity with God, my lack of respect, my denial of my own human dignity. When you think of God, she said, there is only one possible response. It is to go down on your knees.

I recognised the truth in what she said and have acted on it ever since, though I regret I have not yet been brave enough to kneel in the meeting house. That will come. From this unnamed woman I learned something of Islam – submission to God – in a way that no Christian had ever taught me. But the words are immaterial. It was not the Mosque or the Qur’an addressing me, but the living God I know in Christ speaking through her.

We might want to ask questions about some things in this passage (for example, why couldn’t he find out or remember her name?) but he makes the point about the rightness of submission to God very vividly. In this context of this passage, the word ‘worship’ might seem entirely appropriate. If it doesn’t, it may be our cultural assumptions about the meanings of submission, service, and subservience which need examining, and how those interact with our theology.

That said, I don’t think it’s Punshon’s point which leads to my comfort with the phrase ‘meeting for worship’. Some Christian expressions of the ideas of humility and obedience make my skin crawl (and lead to a number of verses in Christmas carols which I will not sing, for example). There is important theological work to be done there, but it isn’t having done it which makes me fine with the word ‘worship’. That’s more to do with my understanding of how language works and how we learn words.

Here’s a paragraph from one of my PhD supervisors, Mikel Burley, about some other words entirely, in which he explains how the use of words can change and why we need to look at the context. 

The present study makes use of both ‘reincarnation’ and ‘rebirth’. I take the view that, rather than words carrying their meanings around with them like a halo or an aura that remains unchanged in every context (to paraphrase Wittgenstein 2009a: $117), it is the uses to which the words are put that imbue them with life: ‘Practice gives the words their sense’ (Wittgenstein 1998: 97e). Pace Aurobindo, I hold it to be misleading to speak of ‘the idea in the word’ (emphasis added) or to imply that the etymology of a word somehow determines its meaning for all time. There is no reason why talk of reincarnation must commit the speaker to belief in a psychic entity’ getting out of one ‘case of flesh’ and into another. And even when imagery of souls inhabiting fleshly bodies does occur, it would be ill-advised to assume that such imagery is tied necessarily to any particular metaphysical theory. There are many meanings that the imagery might convey, and these cannot be known in advance, prior to an investigation of the contextual surroundings.

(Rebirth and the Stream of Life, page 8)

If we apply this approach to the word ‘worship’, what do we find? The first main point has to be that ‘worship’ can be applied in a range of different situations – dictionary entries give examples including formal acts of worship such as church services, worship of a loved one or family member (“Her parents worship her”), and the use of ‘Worship’ in titles of respect for mayors and magistrates (“Thank you, Your Worship”). Putting it into a sentence makes it clear that even a small amount of contextual change can change the meaning, and if we dug deeper into specific cases – asking, for example, under what circumstances are people inclined to say that parents worship a child? what behaviours on the part of the parents and/or the child lead to that conclusion? – we would probably find many more shades of nuance as the context changed. ‘Bowing down before’ the worshipped person is not universal. There is a power relationship in many cases, as in the titles, but it’s not always straightforward – adults are more socially powerful than children, and the parents who worship their child complicate without reversing that situation.

The use of ‘worship’ in ‘meeting for worship’ is one such specific context. In English we don’t tend to stick words together by removing the spaces, but we have any number of phrases in which several words work together as a single unit. ‘Noun phrase’, for example. Some become almost completely divorced from their original components – consider the term ‘House of Commons’ for example. We can use the words ‘house’ and ‘common’ in all sorts of other contexts (‘to house people’, ‘meeting house’, ‘a walk on the common’, ‘common people’), and we can say things of the House of Commons which would not make sense to say of other houses – that it sits, for example. And we might have all sorts of problems with the House of Commons, but when I hear people complaining, it’s about the members of the house and their behaviour, not about the word ‘commons’. 

Where does that leave ‘meeting for worship’? It’s not as absolutely set as a phrase as ‘House of Commons’, so you may think that example misleading. Some words will always have a negative feel for individuals, even when they learn new phrases and contexts for them. However, I think this is something we can recognise and work with.

When I join a new community, start a new hobby, or begin a new project, I expect to learn some new vocabulary for it. Often this is words which I already knew, but which have a technical purpose. When I started learning to drive, my instructor explained that although the pedal is technically called the accelerator, and the stuff it delivers is called petrol in British English, we would call that pedal the gas pedal for short. (This was a good choice because it’s shorter and she had to say it a lot.) When I meet a new group of people, I encounter new names – sometimes entirely new names, but often names I already know applied to a different person. I can easily think of multiple people called Ben, Peter, or Emma – and a few others called Rhiannon. Both of these situations have the potential for confusion, but usually we manage to sort it out. Like my driving instructor, we can give an explicit clarification. With names, we might choose to add a surname or nickname when it’s needed. 

Both of those examples are relatively minor. What about bigger changes? It can be hard to learn a new term which goes against your expectations or where you have had negative experiences. That might be because you have a core meaning for the word which isn’t held by other users – as when I have to double-check pants/trousers with American English speakers because I expect ‘pants’ to mean underwear and then it sometimes doesn’t. It can also be about bad memories. For example, there’s a perfectly nice person who posts interesting content on Twitter who I don’t follow because they have exactly the same name as someone who bullied me, and if I see one of their posts I think about how much the bullying hurt rather than what the post actually said. Still, these bigger issues are ordinary parts of communication and we have lots of ways to handle them – to ask, to say to ourselves ‘no, this is Nice Person’, to keep listening to others and ourselves until we can make sense of the situation.

What do these examples mean for the words we choose to use when we describe Quakerism to ourselves and others? I think it means that we should start from the expectation that people can and will learn the words and phrases we use, and how we use them, if we take the time to explain and make space for questions. We will also need to sort out some of the ways in which the negative associations an individual might have are different to population-wide connotations. The person on Twitter doesn’t have to change their name because I was bullied by someone with the same name – that’s my individual association. Quakers in Britain did change the name of Monthly Meetings (to Area Meetings) because they no longer met every month – that was a clearly accepted general meaning which was no longer accurate.

Does the word ‘worship’ cause widespread confusion or hurt? People who are new to the Quaker community often have questions about what is involved in meeting for worship – just as people new to other religious communities will have questions about what is involved in communion, meditation, davening, salat, and other practices. Unless we could get a single phrase which summarised all the rich experiences of meeting for worship – of listening and waiting and silence and speech and stillness and fidgeting and resting and dozing and shaking and standing and rooms and software and memories and prayer and emotions and Spirit and everything – changing the name wouldn’t help with that. The phrase ‘meeting for worship’ is a name for our practice, not a guide to what happens during our practice. (My name is Rhiannon Grant, and knowing that won’t tell you what’s on my CV; I have an IKEA bookcase called Billy, but I also need the instructions to assemble it.) The word ‘worship’ has negative associations for some individuals, who might prefer to avoid it, or need to remind themselves that this is the Nice One, or swap it for a different term. That isn’t the same as having a population-wide problem. The associations of ‘worship’ – with religion, with a deliberate act of a spiritual nature, among other things – have advantages as well as disadvantages.

In short, I think ‘meeting for worship’ is an adequate name for the practice of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain. If we changed it, not only would all we all have to remember the change, but we would spend just as much time explaining what we meant by the new name. We would have set ourselves further apart from Quakers internationally and our friends in other religious communities. If we want to be clear about how our practice is different, it would be better to be specific and explain further.

Meeting for worship: questions welcome.

Meeting for worship: space to listen.

Meeting for worship: meet reality however you understand it.

Meeting for worship: together, we attend to what is worthwhile.

Meeting for worship: warning, may contain God.

Small Steps, Big Ideas

‘One step at a time.’ ‘One day at a time.’ These and many other similar proverbial phrases emphasise the advantages of doing things a little bit at a time. Write a book one word, one sentence, one paragraph, one page at a time. Take life one minute, one hour, one day, one week at a time. 

Of course, this has to be tempered with taking the long view. I can write a book one word at a time – but it’s much easier to choose each word if I’ve got an outline of the book, a plan for the chapter, a goal for this section, an idea of the main points this page needs to cover. ‘Know where you’re going’ and ‘Dream big’ are also standard advice for a reason.

Books are my first example because I read, write, and discuss books regularly. But of course these things are applicable to other issues. Life in general. Trying to work out how far ahead to plan in detail when the UK government may or may not introduce some or other restrictions. Blogging. (How often have I set out a new year with an ambitious blogging plan and dropped it within the first few weeks, in favour of a more spontaneous approach? Let’s just say… it’s been known.) 

Perhaps this was a long-winded way to say that I felt I should update my blog but I don’t know what to talk about. (And maybe I don’t need to; the WordPress stats page assures me people are still reading my 2016 post about Quakers celebrating Christmas.) I am working on big projects which aren’t yet ready to share – I have sent a manuscript to a publisher for consideration; an edited volume is in the final stages; another novel draft is in progress; other academic projects take shape then break apart without reaching the page – and I’ll be posting if there’s anything to say on those fronts. 

In smaller projects, I have had two things published in Friends Journal recently. One is a short Quaker-themed speculative fiction story, What A Minute Could Do, and the other is an article on language, The Quaker Vocabulary of Tomorrow. A conclusion we could draw from both pieces is that if we pay attention to the big ideas but also take things word by word and minute by minute (in both senses), important changes may be possible.