Reading Diversely and Other Challenges

It’s been hard to find time and focus to write a blog post recently – since we got back from our amazing three-week holiday in Thailand, I’ve been busy. Busy with my ordinary work at Woodbrooke, which remains fun and interesting: examining a PhD thesis, starting an online course on discernment, planning future courses, meeting new colleagues. Busy with other work, like offering private tuition for A-level Religious Studies students. Busy with voluntary work, including being co-editor of Quaker Studies and serving on Britain Yearly Meeting’s Book of Discipline Revision Committee. Busy with family and friends – a family member is seriously ill, friends have been struggling, lots which I can’t discuss in public. And of course busy with the everyday of life: laundry, washing up, proofreading bits of my wife’s PhD work, finding time to do my own writing (especially when I have academic book chapters and conference papers with due dates looming…).

But among all that, I always read a fair amount, and at the beginning of January I thought I’d have a new year’s resolution to try and balance my reading in any given month. Challenges for reading a more diverse range of books come in lots of forms. The one I designed for myself gives me six categories of books to focus on – I aim to read at least one in each category in each month. Some might count for more than one category. I normally read between twelve and fifteen books a month, so six in categories leaves me space for other things as well. My six categories for 2023 are:

  • a book by an author who is LGBTQI+
  • a book by an author of colour
  • a book by an author who lives somewhere other than the UK or the USA
  • a sapphic romance book
  • a book which contributes to my ‘uses of Quaker history’ research project
  • a book of academic philosophy, theology, or study of religion

Some of these are the sort of diverse reading challenges I see on TikTok – at the moment, for example, Black History Month in the USA is coming up and lots of people are recommending authors of colour. Others are much more personal – other people might also be researching Quaker history but only I get to decide what contributes to my project! I’m pleased to say that in January I managed to read in all of these categories, and in this post I’d like to share a few comments on the things I’ve read.

For the first two categories, I got two books which could fit into both. I was given Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath as a Christmas present, and it made an excellent start on this: it’s a fun story about a college-age Puetro Rican lesbian from New York who sets out to find herself and ends up learning a lot about coming out and family responses to it, feminism (including the gifts and failings of white feminism), and what it means to love in many different ways. Gabby Rivera, like her main character, is a lesbian with Puetro Rican heritage, and also the author of a Marvel comic book series about America Chavez.

From my local library, I borrowed Akwaeke Emezi’s novel The Death of Vivek Oji. This is very different in tone – it starts with a death, rather than a coming out – but addresses many overlapping issues, especially about how older generations in families come to terms with the identities of their younger members. Emezi is a nonbinary author who handles complex gender and sexuality issues with skill. I don’t want to say too much about the plot because it would easily be spoiled, but I will say that it finished in a much more hopeful place than I anticipated at the beginning. I also enjoyed the deft characterisation and judicious use of Nigerian languages and dialect.

In fact, I did well in these categories and had a couple of other books this month which would have qualified. Bolu Babalola’s Honey & Spice is an excellent straight romance by a British Nigerian author – it’s funny and clever and uses romance tropes brilliantly, and left me wanting to spend more time with the characters (I would absolutely read a sequel!). And Sandi Toksvig’s memoir-cum-historical ramble, Between the Stops: The View of My Life from the Top of the Number 12 Bus talks about all sorts of aspects of her life, including coming out as a lesbian at a time when that was much less common in public life than now, and her quest for greater gender equality in everything from politics to street names.

But all of those authors, diverse as they are in some ways, are currently working in either the UK or the USA, and the point of my next challenge is to move beyond that. A book which fitted and had been sitting on my to-read shelf since I picked it up in a charity shop a while ago was Colm Tóibín’s The Heather Blazing, set in the Republic of Ireland, written by an author who is based there, and among other things exploring the politics of Ireland and how political views on topics like sex before marriage have changed over time. It’s a quiet, thoughtful read, which explores situations rather than presenting an exciting plot or stating character’s views, but very effectively prompts the reader to reflect on the ethics of what’s happening.

The first three challenges are about reading a wide range of different authors. The next three are about content, and in particular reading to feed my different areas of work. The aim of reading a sapphic romance book every month is to try and expand my awareness of this specific niche market, a market into which I’m trying to sell my novel Between Boat & Shore (and the sequel to it, on which I’m currently working). For this category this month I chose, and borrowed from the local library, Lily Lindon’s romcom Double Booked. It turned out that the emphasis was more on the comedy than the romance so this might be a slight cheat, but I’m happy to include it here for two reasons – one, from the marketing I’d guessed it would follow more romance genre conventions than it actually did, which is an important lesson about marketing, and two, the main character is bi rather than lesbian and it’s good to establish that bi women are included in my category of sapphic characters. Also, putting the emphasis on the comedy really worked and it was a very good, sometimes laugh out loud, read.

Understanding Quaker history and how it has been used is a huge project, and I finished two books this month which fit into different parts of this work. One was H. Larry Ingle’s biography of George Fox, First Among Friends, which I started last year and needed to finish. The other was Ann Bell’s historical novel, The Sister of Mary Dyer, which is an interesting example of how fiction can be used to make history more accessible; in this case, Bell imagines that Dyer had a sister who was less committed to the Quaker cause and is able to raise questions about the situation which the reader might have. 

Finally, Mathew Guest’s sociology of religion book Neoliberal Religion was my academic read for the month. He looks at a variety of ways in which neoliberal economic ideas (including about the importance of markets, a focus on the individual, and the ‘post-truth’ era) have affected religious groups. He makes a convincing case for the impact of these ideas, and I found his nuancing of secularisation through this lens particularly useful. He also ends with a call for more work on the ethics of the sociology of religion, which seems right to me.

Now it’s the first of February and I need to make sure I have books in all six categories for this month! Feel free to comment with recommendations in any category (or none – I read other things as well). 

American Adventure

I was recently in the USA for ten days. I visited Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, and went to the American Academy of Religion conference in Denver, Colorado (with my travel expenses shared between Guilford and Woodbrooke). I don’t usually use this blog for travel reports but it’s a traditional thing to do and on this occasion I thought I’d share some of my observations – many of them about Quaker stuff or religion, but also a few on the weather and public transport!

Guilford College – the place I’d heard of without realising it

I knew some things about Guilford before I went, of course. I’ve been collaborating with Wess Daniels, who is a staff member there, for several years, and I knew a few things about their Quaker Leadership Programme. I hadn’t known much about the history of the area, though – for example, I hadn’t realised it had such a long Quaker history. I knew there were plenty of Quakers there, and I had heard a little bit about the connections with the Underground Railroad. But until I talked to the archivist, who mentioned the World Gathering and the World Gathering of Young Friends, I hadn’t made the connection with the 1985 epistle from Young Friends which is included in Quaker faith & practice, which I have often heard and quoted in relation to the diversity of Quaker religious language. 

Guilford’s campus in the sunshine, showing a little bit of how the buildings are set among grass and trees.

As the Judith Weller Harvey Visiting Scholar for the week, I was invited to give a public keynote lecture, and I got to have meetings with several groups of students and some of the staff. I chatted with some students who are researching contextual theology. I spoke to the Quaker Leadership Scholars Programme about how Quakers talk about God and heard some of their reflections on their own uses of religious language. In the UK, opportunities to study Quakerism during an undergraduate course are very limited (at the moment I’m doing a couple of weeks on a module about Lived Religions in Birmingham, and perhaps a few other people mention Quakers from time to time – but I don’t think there’s a sustained programme anywhere), so it was good to meet Guilford’s students and understand a bit about their experience.

Giving my talk – I’m standing at a lectern and gesturing about… something to do with religious language. Photo credit to Wess Daniels.

The Quaker World book launch

It took several years, with Wess and I working through the pandemic, but The Quaker World was published this November. We also held an online launch, but we took the chance to do a small in-person event for those who could attend, with three contributors who are based in Guilford.

Myself, Abigail Lawrence, Wess Daniels (holding a copy of The Quaker World), Lloyd Lee Wilson, and Michael Dutch – just some of the many contributors to the book.

This is mainly a book about Quakers for an academic audience – researchers, students, and others who want to understand the complex family of Quaker traditions – rather than a book for Quakers, although of course there’s an overlap between those groups and some Quakers will be interested in reading it. As well as many thanks to Wess and all our amazing contributors, I’d like to thank the staff at Routledge for providing many professional services to The Quaker World, including organising anonymous peer review of the book proposal, the cover design, multiple rounds of copy editing, reference checking, typesetting, ebook formatting, managing contacts for contributors, sending out free copies, indexing, website maintenance, and some marketing.

Quaker Studies panels at AAR

There were two Quaker Studies panels at the American Academy of Religion conference this year. The first was about Quakers in Africa and Asia. Oscar Malande spoke about the relationship between Quakerism and African traditional religions, tracing how they have interacted, and Andrew Taylor described two Quaker missions to China – one evangelical and one liberal – and how they played out very differently. 

A picture I took while Oscar was giving his paper – the lighting wasn’t brilliant with the window behind the speakers but this gives you some idea of the panel at the table and the rest of us listening.

The second panel was titled ‘History, Secularism and the Quakers’. Izzak Novak gave a paper which used the writings of a early 20th century Quaker, Eleanor Darlington, to help refuse the false dichotomy between the religious and the secular, arguing in particular that liberal religion is just as religious as more conservative forms of religion. The other paper in the panel was mine – I outlined a big project I’m just starting, about the history of Quaker history. I’m asking questions about how Quaker history has been created and how it has been used, especially in accessible or popular sources like historical fiction, children’s books, and other cultural productions. More on this project in, err, maybe a few years!

Denver Friends Church

One of the things I really wanted to do, on the one Sunday I was in the US, was to attend programmed worship. As a member of Britain Yearly Meeting where we practice mainly unprogrammed worship (we have some semi-programmed, like all-age worship or a Christmas service in some places, and I believe there’s one programmed meeting in London), programmed worship is something I’ve often read about, and been reminded to include, but other than via Zoom it’s not usually accessible to me. So on the Sunday morning I went to Denver Friends Church – there’s also an unprogrammed meeting in Denver, but I had to choose, so sorry I missed you! 

Inside Denver Friends Church, before worship. The drum kit wasn’t used, but the guitars and piano accompanied the singing, with the words on the large screens. Not all the chairs were filled but it didn’t feel empty, either – I was in good time and took this picture before others arrived.

What was it like? The worship had three main sections – singing, open worship, and a Bible-based talk. I didn’t know any of the songs, but fortunately the words were all put up in a nice presentation (easier to look up and sing than having to hold your hymn book just so!). I didn’t find the words hugely moving but I enjoyed the music and the whole-hearted way people participated in the singing. 

The open worship was unprogrammed in the sense of not being planned, but had very little in common with unprogrammed worship in the British tradition. There was very little silence. As soon as one person had finished speaking, someone else began. And the focus of most contributions was on asking for prayer – there were a few which gave thanks for a prayer answered, but most asked either for prayer for the speaker or someone they knew personally. At one point someone’s request for healing was answering with a gathering-round, laying on hands and praying for him specifically. 

In many ways this felt very natural, and it’s in keeping with both broader Quaker traditions and other churches. Early Friends were happy to pray for healing. I’ve done laying on of hands in other churches, too; it can be misused, but when everyone involved is comfortable it can be a very meaningful and immediate response to someone’s suffering. There was a spontaneity to this ministry – the need for prayer was answered with prayer – where the same request in a British meeting would be met with silence and perhaps someone from the pastoral care committee looking for a chance to chat later. It was also immediate and heartfelt, where some ministry in British meetings tends to the abstract. 

Some other things which might have appeared in spoken ministry in Britain, including lessons drawn from life experience and reflections on the tradition, were more present in the Bible talk given by the pastor. I found it useful to explore a Bible passage in detail, but I had questions both about the translation and the conclusion. The pastor’s preferred version is the New Living Translation, and having recently watched the documentary 1946, about the problems of using the modern term ‘homosexual’ in the translation of the Bible, I was very aware of the potential flaws in that text. (One of the benefits of reading the Bible on my phone in church – and I was very glad they gave a wifi code so I could do that easily – was that I could flip back and forth between the translation under discussion, and some others which I consider to be either more scholarly and/or more aligned with my politics.) And although I agreed with his main conclusion, which was about working every day to be closer to what God wants us to be, I didn’t think that installing Covenant Eyes software (which aims to block porn, but probably also blocks anything LGBTQI+ related) would be the right way forward for me. 

Cars, buses, trains, dry air, and snow

The least said about being in Greensboro and not able to drive, the better. I did cross the road from my hotel to a shop on foot… but I wished I hadn’t. Fortunately, Wess and family and friends were very generous about lifts! 

On the other hand, Denver was a welcoming city from this point of view. I left the airport and easily got on a train to the city centre, then a free bus to a stop only one block away from my hotel. The hotel and the conference centre were within walking distance, and on Sunday I was able to use buses to get to church (and back) without any problems. The fares were simple, clearly explained on the website, and the stops were announced regularly. There was even a notice, in English and Spanish, explaining that they are reviewing their fares with the aim of creating a more equitable fare structure. Excellent work on that front, Denver!

This giant blue bear sculpture stands outside the convention centre in Denver, a handy landmark for meeting people. In this picture you can also see some of the weather – snow on the ground, ice on the paths in places, and a bright, cold, dry, clear blue sky.

And it wouldn’t be right to finish this post without some comments on the weather. In Guilford it was mostly nice – we had one day of rain, but otherwise dry, and in fact I struggled with the dry air which tended to make me cough. In Denver it was dry but cold – snow had fallen before I arrived, and although it had mostly been cleared from the paths, it was lying with no plans to move. What was most striking from a British point of view is that everyone was ignoring it. No snowballs, no snowmen, no playing around – in England snow is a novelty and if there’s even a little, there will be a tiny snowman melting on a lawn the next day. In Denver, it’s more like a fact of life and there was none of that.

Meeting in Silence? Quakers and Inter-religious Ritual

I wrote the following as a conference paper, for a conference on Inter-religious Ritual which was held in Glasgow early in 2020. It’s been sitting around for a while – I hoped some of it might contribute to a book chapter, but that hasn’t been possible. Recently, Mark Russ wrote in a blog post called Should Quakers Drop ‘Worship’ to be More Inclusive? that “this kind of pluralism treats Quaker Meeting as an empty space in which we can all play our own individual games of solitaire.”

It reminded me of this paper – specifically, that I had written before about how Quaker worship might be silent but that doesn’t mean it’s blank. Instead, in this paper I argue that practices of silence (including Quaker worship, moments of interfaith silence, and Remembrance Day silences) can be rich with content, and that we can notice this when we look at the rules which create the silent practice. I might put some of these points differently today, but have resisted the temptation to start re-writing the whole thing; I don’t expect everyone to agree with it all, but hope it’s a helpful exploration of one possible way of thinking about this.

A Quaker who is also a member of the committee for a local interfaith group explained to me a while ago that their committee meetings begin and end with a short period of silence. This practise was introduced by the Quakers, she told me, and everyone else likes it too. Although I haven’t been able to check either of those claims, they both seem plausible. From her point of view as a Quaker, this account makes it seem that everyone is welcomed by this Quaker practice. Quakers often suggest such silences for inclusion in interfaith ritual – ranging from two to perhaps ten minutes. It is common to make the assumption that everyone can participate in silence, at least for short periods, and that silence contains no theological content – nothing you could disagree with. In this paper, I want to explore this claim enough to see whether, theoretically, it might be true or not, and to suggest some ways in which silence might be disruptive or objectionable. To do this, I am going to look briefly at what silence is and how it is used in the Quaker context, compare this with the ways in which silence can be used in interreligious ritual, raise what I think are some of the significant problems, and finally offer an example from the Quaker tradition which makes them explicit.

If you know one thing about Quakers, it’s probably that… well, actually, it’s probably that Quakers are pacifists or that some porridge sellers used their name because it sounded honest. But if you know one thing about Quaker practice, it’s probably that Quakers worship in silence. Although some Quakers internationally have developed other forms of worship, the use of silence – or what might be better described as unprogrammed worship – is an important Quaker tradition and remains the most widely used form of Quaker worship in Europe, many parts of North America, Southern Africa, and other places.

The aim of Quaker silence is stillness – to “give over thine own willing” – but also listening – to hear the “still small voice” of “that of God within”. Allowing space for these complex processes, Quaker meeting for worship usually allows about an hour of silence. The first part of the process might be compared with the submission to the will of God of other faith traditions, such as Islam, although it is also often compared to the quieting of the mind characteristic of some forms of Buddhist practice. The second part, listening for God’s voice, gives rise to a practice which might be better compared to a charismatic or Pentecostal church tradition, as Quakers “feel led” or are moved to speak into the silence. This practice, of giving spoken ministry as directed by the movement of the Spirit, arises from silence but clarifies that silence itself is a tool used in Quaker worship rather than the core of the Quaker worship practice. Using terminology drawn from Wittgenstein’s talk of ‘language-games’ (things like telling a joke or asking for something), I sometimes talk about ‘religion-games’. In order to be playing the Quaker worship religion-game, the rules have to allow for the possibility of spoken ministry, even if on a particular occasion nobody is so moved. 

The silence used in interreligious ritual is probably not of this type. Very roughly, I distinguish between two religion-games which both look like short silences: one where the purpose is to be fully present and settle oneself in the silence, and one where the purpose is to recall personally aspects of some specific theme. The silences described to me as being used at the interfaith committee meeting where probably of the first type – a short pause in which people were able to focus on the task at hand, setting aside other concerns. A Quaker grace, a short period of silence before or during a meal, would probably be of the second type, especially if someone introducing it directs the diners to “give thanks for food and fellowship” or something similar. Indeed, both types of silences are used among Quakers – but sometimes, especially a longer pause at the beginning or end of a committee meeting, can be under the full rules of Quaker worship, so that from time to time someone will speak during it. Thoughts on the work before the committee or requests for ‘upholding’, a Quaker form of supportive or intercessory prayer, are common. 

However, both forms of silence can also avoid this characteristic of Quaker worship. Unless someone tests it, it can be difficult to know in a specific case whether it would be acceptable – but we can give examples where it would certainly be unacceptable. Consider a silence of the second type, the pause for remembrance often used in churches and secular spaces on occasions of national importance. If the group have been asked to hold a two minute silence to remember the fallen, for example, giving spoken ministry during that silence is clearly inappropriate. It is a silence, but not a Quaker silence, because although one might be open to hearing the voice of God during that time, it would be socially unacceptable to act on any promptings to share that message with others. If the silences used in interreligious ritual are of this kind – and in my experience they frequently are, even when introduced by Quakers – it isn’t clear that they are specifically Quaker silences, since they don’t follow the rules for Quaker silent or unprogrammed worship.

If that’s so, why are the claims about the universal accessibility of silence so attractive and why do Quakers like to see themselves are offering something particular when they suggest silence as a mode of interreligious participation? Perhaps they’re just egotistical! Any group can fall into the trap of imagining that what they do is unique and that they make a special contribution, when this is not in fact the case. I’m sure that there is some of this happening. However, I think there are also some other dynamics at work. 

Firstly, it is true that there is a universality about not speaking. Chris Lord, a PhD student at Birmingham, is currently working on the connections between silent worship practices and animal rights – he argues that even for animals like humans which can speak, refraining from speaking may be a way to come closer to a non-human animal consciousness and form bonds of equality, not just between humans, but across species. Demographic data on Quakers might lead us to question some of the assumptions here – the use of silence in Quaker worship does not actually result in a fully just faith community where people of all ethnicities and social backgrounds are included equally – but it does get at something true about the experience of silence as something which can be, whether of choice or necessity, shared across cultural and other boundaries. 

Secondly, there are also the psychological aspects of silence. It may be good for your mind, as recent studies have suggested, but it can also be daunting. One of the reasons I think Quakers often back down from offering true Quaker worship in interreligious spaces is that it requires a long period of silence, perhaps at least ten or fifteen minutes, in a world where the two minutes of remembrance is often felt to be a long period of public silence! In open silence, many people find unwanted thoughts rising up – meditation teachers offer a wide range of techniques to deal with this, suggesting that it’s an extremely common experience – and some may find that silence triggers specific recollections of trauma or reminds them of previous distressing circumstances. Particularly of interest here are those for whom silence is a reminder of being silenced, either speaking and being ignored or being unable to speak for whatever reason. The silence of Quaker worship can come with other rules which turn out to silence some voices, but it is intended to have space for people – and through them, God – to speak. Public silences which do not allow that possibility may be even more distressing.

Thirdly, although silence in all its complexity and difficulty is universal in some ways, the decision to champion it is relatively unusual in modern society. This is not just about recent developments in terms of technology, but might date back to the industrial revolution or before – the attitude wider society takes to silence is deeply bound up with ideas about waiting, wasting time, and the need to be productive. Many traditions could bring silent practices to offer in interreligious spaces, but at the moment, it seems that Quakers often take the role of championing this option.

They may do so for the wrong reasons. The choice of Quaker worship is often related to a desire to embrace the creedless and non-doctrinaire approach which Quakers take to theology. In Britain today, the average age of becoming a Quaker was 43 in a recent study, and many of those people who arrive at Quaker worship have previous experience of one or more other religious traditions. There’s a strong sense sometimes that people embrace Quaker silence because they see it as open to all interpretations and as having no theological content. This is understandable because of the Quaker rejection of creeds and frequently refusal to discuss theology in formal ways – people should discover theological truths for themselves, through experience – but it also underestimates the amount of theological content which is present in the rules of the Quaker worship religion-game.

To set out in silence to listen for the voice of God (or the movement of the Spirit, or the Inner Light, or any number of other ways which Quakers might express this process), participants need to accept that there is something to listen for, speaking now, and that it can be heard through this route. Members of other faiths may not accept these claims for all sorts of theologically well-grounded reasons. (How do you know it was God you heard and not Satan? If you want to know what God says, why not read the Bible or Quran? If God is internal or maybe non-existent or irrelevant to our path to enlightenment, why think of it in these terms?) Quakers can suggest answers to many of these questions, but they are usually not raised or addressed in the context of interreligious liturgy. Instead, the sense of silence as a universal is allowed to stand instead.

To close this paper, I want to offer an example of time when Quakers – noticing some of the issues which I raise here – rejected a silence which was felt to be too secular and to be serving purposes which opposed Quaker ones. I give this example to explore a case in which Quakers themselves were aware of the theological laden and open quality of Quaker silence, as opposed to some other silences. This symbolic rejection of silence took place at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, where my colleague Mark Russ and some others left the building before a Remembrance Day silence was held inside. Instead, they gathered around an apple tree in the garden and sang a peace-themed Taize chant. (The relationship between Taize and Quaker practice is a paper for another day!) When I asked Mark about this, he explained that he had felt the silence in remembrance of war was too secular and lacked freedom of choice; it seemed imposed from outside and the reasons for holding it were not in line with his pacifist convictions. It was a silencing silence, rather than one into which people would be free to speak if moved by God to do so.

What I think is happening in this case is the reverse of the interfaith cases I discussed earlier. Rather than silence being seen as empty and universal, the Remembrance Day silence is clearly located in a social context which links it to specific previous events – and, sometimes, to specific views of those events, including the idea that remembrance can be used for political purposes or to justify future war rather than as a reminder of the need to work for peace. If Quakers took this view more widely, they might be more cautious about both imposing silences on others, and about clarifying the rules of Quaker silence. A moment’s hush can be universal, or at least widely beneficial, for practical and psychological as well as spiritual reasons. But we should be careful about any claims that this practice is specifically Quaker. The rules of Quaker worship are not those of a minute’s silence, and just because silences seem superficially similar, we should not make the mistake of assuming they are the same or interchangeable. 

New Book! The Quaker World

It’s here! Wess Daniels and I have been working on this book for years – with more than 60 chapters by an international team of more than 50 contributors, it’s been a huge project. The Quaker World won’t be the final word on the topics it covers but aims to explore the breadth of Quaker studies and highlight a wide range of scholarship in the field.

[Image: in a cardboard box with some packing paper, copies of a large hardback book called The Quaker World, edited by Rhiannon Grant and Wess Daniels, published by Routledge, with a image of tree-covered hills.]

The intended audience is mainly students – this might be useful for a undergraduate course on Quaker Studies, or as supporting material for a range of other undergraduate courses. It will give an introduction to the diversity of the Quaker movement for people starting research or wanting to compare Quakers with other religious groups. It could be used by A-level students who want to read a chapter on Quakers and equality, or peace, or sexuality, or many other topics which come up in essays. It would be useful for a researcher who thinks Quakers might be relevant, but isn’t sure where to start.

As such, the publisher’s pricing reflects the idea that it will mainly be bought by libraries, especially university libraries. As an editor, I know there will also be interest in the Quaker community, but it will be difficult for individuals to buy. Could you recommend it to a library near you? That could be a university library, if you have access (many have arrangements for local people as well as students and staff), or a local council or city library, or a library run by your Quaker meeting or Friends Church. If you want to buy, there are some less expensive options: there’s a discount on pre-orders at the moment, or you can ask me for a discount code, and the ebook and paperback will be cheaper than the hardback.

When you do get a copy, you’ll find 61 chapters in three sections: Global Quakerism, Spirituality, and Embodiment. You’ll find some names of scholars you probably recognise, and hopefully some new names as well. Wess and I specifically set out to find people working around the world and in different contexts to provide fresh perspectives. You’ll find biography chapters which put Quaker principles into the context of real lives, and chapters which explore Quaker history, and chapters which are realistic about Quakers today. From autobiography and animals to worship, workcamps, and young adults, this book covers almost the entire Quaker World. Let me know what we should have put in for Z.

so you found Quakers on the internet…

You’ve seen a Tweet, TikTok, or other social media post about Quakers, and they sound great. Or you’ve read a Wikipedia article or a blog post or you’re just curious… you want to know more about Quakers. Where can you go?

In this blog post, I’ll run through three basic options for finding out more, depending what you want to know. In short, these are: the practical method, where you meet Quakers and try out Quaker worship; the more information method, where you learn more about Quakers in theory; and the historical approach, where you explore Quakers as they have been in the past. Of course, you don’t have to pick just one.

Practical. If you want to try out Quaker worship, what can you do? You can start on your own, right now, by looking for ways to be calm and quiet, and listen for an inner voice that helps you to understand things better and make good choices. Most Quakers find that our method works better in company, and you have options for that as well. Since you’ve found Quakers on the internet, you might want to try a Quaker meeting for worship online. There are some which are public, and you can just turn up: Woodbrooke and Ben Lomond Quaker Centre, for example. Many Quaker communities which meet in person also have an online element – to get the details for these, you usually need to contact the specific community you want to join. A selection are listed by the Friends World Committee for Consultation. And you can find an in person meeting by searching online: Friends Around the World is a good starting place, or there may be a more local database such as Britain Yearly Meeting’s Find a Meeting.

Theoretical. If you want to know more about Quakers in theory, you have lots of choices depending how you’d like to get your information. There are probably the widest range of choices for people who like to read: free leaflets to download, websites to explore, and books such as my Quakers Do What! Why?. If you’d like to see videos, QuakerSpeak is the big one, and check out srekauq on YouTube. For shorter bites, you could explore the TikTok channels run by Makenzie Morgan, Rory Kennison, and me. There are also some Quaker podcasts if you prefer to listen: you could start with A Quaker Take and Quaker Faith & Podcast. Lots more resources for this approach are linked from Wess Daniels’ Quakerism 101 page.

Historical. Perhaps you’ve interested in Quakers because you have Quaker family or ancestors, or because they’ve come up in relation to another area of history you’re interested in – the founding of America and especially Pennsylvania; the Civil War and Commonwealth in 17th Century England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland; or lots of other times and places. Finding out about Quakers today, through either of the methods above, might not answer your questions. In fact, because Quakers have changed a lot in some ways, it might just leave you more confused – if you want to know about Quakerplain dress, and you visit a Quaker meeting today, you’re unlikely to come away much clearer, because very few Quakers wear plain dress now. For a very quick starting point (5 minutes), this video by Young Friends in Richmond is good. You could also try the free three-week course from FutureLearn, Radical Spirituality or Pink Dandelion’s book An Introduction to Quakerism. If you want to dive deeper, you could start with this research guide from the TriCollege libraries, or contact the Library of the Society of Friends or the Friends Historical Library. To search for an individual, the family history website Ancestry has lots of Quaker records digitised and the Quaker Family History Society may be able to help.

What do you want to learn about Quakers? What resources have helped you? Please comment below with questions and suggestions.

Why worry about spoken ministry?

The other day I was teaching a Woodbrooke Where You Are session about Quaker worship and spoken ministry, and someone asked an excellent question which I think is worth exploring further. We were talking about reasons why Quaker meetings introduce a practice like afterwords, in which there is a space at the end of the unprogrammed worship when people are encouraged to share things they were considering during meeting – things which weren’t quite ministry but might be usefully shared, or which didn’t quite get spoken but might have been ministry. When I was researching this, one of the reasons meetings gave for introducing afterwords was to try and increase the amount of spoken ministry given during worship, by building up people’s confidence that what they have to share is valuable, is real ministry, and can rightly be shared with the whole community. But in my session someone asked: why would we want to do that? Why are we worried if there’s no spoken ministry? Can’t we just let things be and accept what spoken ministry we are given – or not given?

On the one hand, there’s a lot to be said for not worrying about spoken ministry. An hour’s silence can be a deep and rich experience of unprogrammed worship. Trying to encourage spoken ministry can also lead to practices like preparing or semi-preparing ministry – which changes our tradition of spoken ministry in a different way and can lead to trying to take too much control rather than trusting our unprogrammed method. Furthermore, our tradition has changed in the past and it can change again. If speaking during worship went the way of shaking and crying out in worship, as things once done but no longer part of our tradition, perhaps that would simply be where we are now being led to go. 

On the other hand, spoken ministry given in worship is an important part of our tradition. There are reasons why we expect it to happen at least sometimes. I think it’s right for meetings where it’s becoming less common or almost unknown to at least ask why, and to consider whether they are led to do anything about it.

To put this in context, we could start by asking some questions about previous changes.

Why are Quakers no longer led to go around ‘naked for a sign’, wearing only their underwear in the marketplace? Perhaps because it’s no longer an effective way of getting our message across – modern equivalents might include behaviour like holding meeting for worship outside a military base or blocking roads during a climate protest, both things which are outside the range of ‘normal’ behaviour in today’s society but can be read as sending a message to the wider community.

Why do we no longer shake and cry out during unprogrammed worship? Perhaps because we want to be seen as calm and respectable; perhaps because our religious feelings are no longer so intense; perhaps because we express our emotions in other ways; perhaps because we have lost touch with our bodies and over-intellectualised our worship. This gives a good example of the way in which, depending why we think something has changed, we might want to revisit it. At least some Quakers now think that a deeper embodiment might enrich our worship, and things like Meeting for Worship for Dance are bringing some of this back.

So, if a meeting has little or no spoken ministry, over a matter of months, what questions arise?

Do the people attending meeting for worship know that offering ministry in words as well as silence is an option? Is everyone present clear that what’s happening is meeting for worship rather than, for example, a silent meditation session? (Too many spoken messages can raise a similar but opposite question: does everyone present understand what it means to say that this is a meeting for worship rather than, for example, a discussion?) 

Is someone who is being led to give ministry not following that leading, at all or in the right way, for some reason? Quaker faith & practice gives some examples of this, and we can think of lots of possibilities – not feeling confident to speak, not feeling adequate to the message, not knowing whether it will be welcome, knowing that it is unconventional in content or delivery method and worrying about the response… Just as it would be wrong to try and get someone to offer spoken ministry without a true leading to do so, it seems wrong to me to fail to support someone who has a leading but struggles to follow it for whatever reason.

Are we truly not being given ministry to share in words, or are we not really listening? In my own life I know that I can be distracted, even during meeting for worship, and not focus on the Light. The movement of the Spirit can be subtle; what if we are missing it? This isn’t something I would want to judge in others, but I think it’s a question worth asking ourselves if meeting for worship is changing dramatically. For a long time, God’s words have come to Quaker communities through individuals who offered spoken ministry. If that isn’t happening for some of us now, that could be God changing Their approach to us – or it could be us.

Are we being given a rich ministry which arrives in some other form? If we each go from meeting for worship as we came to it and are no better for our coming (as Anne Wilson said to Samuel Bownas in spoken ministry), are we at least being changed outside the worship? If a community has a strong tradition of sharing spiritual experience and insight in discussion, there might be less need of spoken ministry; if the ministry arrives as dance or movement or knitting, the question of speaking might be unimportant. 

If all these many questions point in a single direction, it’s to a need for radical openness to different leadings. A leading to entirely silent worship, a leading to offer ministry in worship through screaming rather than speaking, and a leading to offer ministry over coffee instead of during worship should all be tested in the same way – has this come from me and my wishes or wants, or through me from Love? – and taken equally seriously. 

Why Neolithic Orkney?

Why set a novel in Neolithic Orkney? The majority of people writing women loving women romance stories set them in today’s world, and they have good reasons for that – contemporary novels are popular, writing about today’s world is useful and important, it’s easier to see how you research a place or job a character might have, and people associate queerness with modernity so there will be less reader surprise about lesbian, bi, or trans characters in a modern setting. But I didn’t set Between Boat & Shore in the modern world. I set it in Neolithic Orkney. Why?

The first thing to say is that if you’re going to set a novel in the Neolithic – the New Stone Age, about 4000 years ago in Northern Europe – Orkney is a good place to choose. In many places, people in that period built their homes in wood, which doesn’t survive. Some people on the Orkney Islands, in the north of Scotland, built their homes – and tombs and other things – from huge slabs of local stone, which means a lot more has been preserved. Orkney is far from the only place where we have good archaeological evidence about life in the Neolithic, but it has a particularly high concentration of dramatic and famous sites (which is why it’s on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites).

The Ring of Brodgar and the open landscape of Orkney today – my photo from 2018.

Beyond that, and a certain amount of pure whim, I think I had four main reasons to set my story in Neolithic Orkney – escapism, mystery, spaciousness, and sense of place. It’s not possible to separate them entirely, but they have different flavours. 

Escapism is a traditional feature of stories, and many romance novels feature luxurious or ‘exotic’ settings – millionaires and dukes, tropical islands and huge mansions. (Plenty are setting in ordinary homes and workplaces too, of course.) To today’s reader, Orkney has a little of that. It’s a tourist destination and it can feel remote – far from big cities, difficult to reach because it requires a flight or a ferry crossing, a big open almost treeless landscape where the wind blows and the summer sun lasts very late. The Neolithic also has some of these features. We can imagine it but, pending the invention of time travel, not visit. We often have preconceptions about what life and people were like in ancient times – many of them stereotypes or misunderstandings because of the vast lengths of time involved, which means they are ripe to be overturned with the surprises which make engaging fiction. For example, although Orkney seems remote now, people in the Neolithic would have been used to travelling by sea. In the opening chapter, two of my main characters arrive in a skin boat, and when that’s your main means of transport, a sea-side village is easy to reach. 

There are also mysteries to explore. The archaeological remains on Orkney, such as the Tomb of the Otters (which is one of the real places described in Between Boat & Shore), give us lots of information. They also leave lots of questions unanswered. People were buried here – but which people and how and why? Estimates of the population by some experts suggest that not everyone was buried in the tombs, and that their population didn’t grow as fast as might be expected statistically. Was there a lot of infant mortality, or abortion or infanticide, or contraception, or something else? Of course, there’s plenty of academic debate to be had here (and being lucky enough to have access to a university library, I enjoyed reading some of it while I was working on Between Boat & Shore), but also space for the novelist, whose interest is in what makes a good story as well as in facts which might ground it.

Within that space, there are some facts. Some of the reviews of my novel comment on how modern the characters feel despite living so long ago. That was a deliberate decision, because sometimes we assume that people long ago were not as clever or as advanced as us. Really, though, the differences between us are cultural. We have developed new technologies – but also lost some which would have been familiar to them. We don’t know exactly what language they spoke (it may have been a version of or a precursor to Proto-Indo-European and then again it might not; I wrote about the assumptions I used in the book in this earlier blog post [add link]), but we can safely assume they did speak a fully-fledged natural language because writing was already starting to emerge in some other cultures of the time. No grunting cave-people here! For me, that makes it easier to connect with them through imagination and work out possible ways to fill in the gaps – to choose language options which do all the things we know language can do today, to create religious possibilities which are true to my experience, and to explore gender and sexuality and culture and leadership styles in all their real diversity.

Finally, Neolithic Orkney was a place and time which had a strong feeling, almost a character in itself, which I felt I could conjure in fiction. I’ve visited Orkney. I’ve read extensively about the Neolithic period in Scotland and all over Britain and Europe. (Sometimes people ask me how long it look me to write the book, and the answer is somewhere between three months and thirty years – it didn’t take me long to type out a first draft, but I’ve been obsessed with stone circles and all things prehistoric since childhood.) Orkney was a very different place when Trebbi’s ancestors arrived and started farming: today it’s open with fields of sheep, but before people brought the sheep, it would have been mostly woodland. Trebbi and Aleuks live there at a time of transition, when woods are being cleared but before they have been entirely removed. The coastline, though, is still similar, and the tombs and other monuments provide some continuity. 

Between Boat & Shore is ultimately set in Neolithic Orkney because that was a time and place where I wanted to spend time. I wanted to explore it. If you would like to join me, you can read it now – order the second edition ebook from Amazon or the first edition paperback from the Quaker Bookshop.

Republishing Between Boat & Shore

At long last, my novel Between Boat & Shore will be available again as an ebook on Amazon. It’s open for pre-order now and will be published on July 18th 2022.

The new cover of Between Boat & Shore

It’s a gentle story about a woman, Aleuks, who arrives in a new village looking for shelter from a storm and somewhere to trade. She finds those, but also much more: Trebbi, not a traveller or a trader, is a beautiful and compelling woman who is trying to support her community through a difficult times of change. Aleuks and Heln, her young nonbinary relative, find themselves adapting to their new surroundings and getting involved in the life of the village – making friends, helping to uncover a murderer, and realising that they might be going to settle down. The main plot is the romance between Aleuks and Trebbi, but we also explore Neolithic Orkney through other events in the life of the village.

What we know about people of the Neolithic comes from archaeology. They left behind amazing structures, such as stone circles, megalithic tombs, and houses, and more subtle signs which can be found in digs – piles of seashells, charred seeds, post holes, butchered bones. This gave me both a structure to work from and a space to play in: what we don’t know for sure about Neolithic people is anything about their social structure, language, or religion. (I wrote about some of the issues around language in a blog post the first time this book was published: Stone Age Speech.) To fill in the gaps, I drew on my understanding of community and faith from modern-day situations, including Quaker and Neo-Pagan possibilities. 

At the moment, the ebook is only on Amazon. On the other hand, that means supporting Amazon, a huge company with ethical problems and a worrying dominance over the book market. On the other hand, that means having access to Amazon’s market, which is simply the biggest, especially for genre readers of ebooks. Many regular readers of romance books and other genres use Kindle Unlimited, which is great for authors because it means being found by lots of new readers who will take a chance on a book they might not buy under other circumstances. Being in Kindle Unlimited for a while, though, means being Amazon-only for that time. If you want to support me directly and not Amazon, you can get in touch (comment below, use the email on my About page, or any of the social media sites listed to the right) and I can sell you a physical copy of the first edition – I still have a box full! But if you buy from Amazon, including if you pre-order now, your purchase lifts the book up in the site’s rankings and helps to introduce it to other readers. 

Glorious Complexity: Theological Diversity Beyond a Spectrum

Recently, I ran some Woodbrooke sessions on the old but still interesting question: are Quakers Christian? I didn’t expect to reach a yes or no answer, but it was useful to explore the possibilities. One of the things which emerged in the discussion was the idea that it is an advantage, a richness or benefit, to live in the tension of such questions. Yes and No and Maybe all at once could – if we name it and own it – be a strong place, a place of possibility and growth rather than confusion and anxiety.

In this blog post, I want to explore some of the ways in which we might be inspired to do that by advances in other fields, and how we might apply a similar strategy to questions like “do Quakers believe in God?” 

Let me start by introducing two other areas of life which have sometimes been conceptualised as a single line sliding scale, from yes to no, from more to less. The first is sexuality, where we have the Kinsey scale – a line from 0 to 6, where 0 is exclusively heterosexual, 6 is exclusively homosexual, and bisexuals like me hover somewhere around 3. But sexuality isn’t that simple, and other tools like the Klein Sexual Orientation Grid take into account different aspects of sexuality: attraction, fantasies, behaviour, social and emotional preferences, and more. Beyond that, we might create a 3D model in which the two-dimensional grid extends to show the strength of sexual feeling – where someone is on the spectrum from asexual to allosexual – as well as the direction of their attraction and the complexities of gender. The grid and 3D model help us to understand that sexuality goes well beyond a gay/straight divide.

The second is neurotype. One form of neurodiversity, the autistic spectrum, is sometimes pictured as a line, from most to least autistic, or with more or less autistic traits showing. However, it can be more useful to imagine it as a circle, like a colour wheel, with different aspects of autism around the edge (things like sensory filtering, motor skills, or language). An autistic individual’s particular pattern can be plotted onto the circle so that it shows how they have more or less difficulty with the different areas: perhaps prone to sensory overload, or perhaps not; perhaps struggling with motor skills or language, or perhaps not. As Rebecca Burgess explains in this comic, that means that different people can experience autism very differently, and the wheel-shaped spectrum helps us to picture these variations.

With those two alternatives in mind, we can go back to the question about Quaker belief in God. Sometimes this is pictured on a single line – we’d put those who confidently say Yes at one end, and those who confidently say No at the other end, and everyone else would spread out in the middle depending on how much doubt they have. The problem is that belief in God isn’t a simple on/off question. What kind of God do you believe in or reject? I think in Quaker circles there’s often an unspoken assumption that the God we’re talking about is related to the traditional Christian God – and not necessarily the immanent, guiding God Within of the Quaker tradition but often the external, order-giving, loving but distant God of many children’s versions of Bible stories. So we already have some diversity. Add some Pagan Quakers who believe in multiple Gods and Goddesses, and some Buddhist Quakers who neither belief nor reject God but simply refuse to speculate, and a lot of other approaches as well, and we need to go beyond the single line to explain this situation.

We could, for example, follow Klein and turn the line into a grid or even a 3D cube. This would give us a chance to explore the contextual and behavioural aspects of belief. It might prompt us to ask questions like: Do you believe in God? Do you want to believe in God? Have you believed in God in the past? Do you pray? Do you pray in some circumstances? Do you meditate? Do you engage in other religious practices? Do you spend time with people who believe in God, or practice prayer, or attend meeting for worship, even if you don’t do those things yourself? Is your doubt, belief, or disbelief stronger at some times than others?

We could take the colour wheel approach. Around the outside we might put aspects of a religious life – practices, experiences, beliefs, and so on. This would give us scope to explore how those things relate – or don’t. One person might have strong spiritual experiences, but understand them as illusions and have no belief in a supernatural divinity. Another might have a strong belief in an external deity, expressed through lots of engagement in religious practice, but not have many internal spiritual experiences. Yet another may change their mind regularly, or go through times of faith and times of doubt, or find that a particular practice or life experience changes their perspective. To map all of that, we might need to combine these approaches.

However we go about thinking about it, it’s clear that Yes and No aren’t going to be nuanced enough for a question like “do Quakers believe in God?” or even in many cases for an individual Quaker answering, “do you believe in God?” We need both, and a wide range of multi-dimensional Maybes. That will be a challenge at times. I think it can also be beautiful.

Readers of this blog may also be interested in my new article in Friends Journal, Not Quite Ministry, which explores the practice of ‘afterwords’ and how it might relate to spoken ministry in unprogrammed Quaker meetings.

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.