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Study leave progress

I’m coming to the end of a six-week block of study leave – I have twelve to take throughout 2019, and I took three weeks in March and will take three more in October, so this is a significant part of the whole. I’ve been working on my next book for the Brill Research Perspectives in Quaker Studies series – the last one was British Quakers and Religious Language, a middle stage between my PhD thesis and my Quaker Quicks book, Telling the Truth about God. This one is currently called Theology from Listening: an overview of liberal Quaker theology in the long twentieth century. It looks at Quaker documents which have embedded theology – a selection of books of discipline and books of faith and practice, samples of material by individuals and small groups, and work by Quakers with academic training in theology – to form an impression of the core theology of liberal Quakers.

The main argument of the book is that there is such a thing – Quakers do have theology, and while it might not be systemic, it’s clearly recognisable and fairly consistent – and that although it changed through the twentieth century (I use the phrase ‘long twentieth century’ because liberal Quakerism started a little before 1900 and I’m including some examples from after 2000), the changes were slow and did not affect all the core claims. Yes, I include nontheism in that assessment. And evangelical or Christocentric movements within liberal Quakerism – my definition of liberal Yearly Meetings is a broad one, based on history and practice rather than theology. That both prevents my argument from being circular (if I assessed the theological content of material I’d only chosen for specific theological features, I wouldn’t show anything at all except that I can read), and means that my stock of source material includes items which make a lot of liberal Quakers raise their eyebrows and ask whether that’s really liberal. Well, yes, and if I can include it and still show that there are core theological ideas shared between all this material, I’m really saying something.

No, I’m not going to share with you what those core theological ideas actually are! Mainly not yet, because I’m still writing and I might change my mind or want to rephrase some of them. And a little bit because I have to sell books. 🙂 (I do know almost nobody can afford Brill books, and have already put in a proposal to Christian Alternative to write a Quaker Quicks book based on this material – even if they accept and I get on as fast as possible, it won’t have a publication date before 2021, though.)

What I do want to talk about in the process I’m using in writing. The method I’m adopting needs to give a very wide sweep – liberal Quakerism is a broad movement, historically, geographically, and in terms of material: liberal Quakers love to write books and magazine articles and journals and blogs and make videos and podcasts and all kinds of stuff. It also needs to give context to examples, so that the changes over time and between different cultural contexts can be tracked, and pay close attention to what might apparently be small variations. And when I talk about those small variations, it’s not enough to describe them, I need to give evidence of them. So what I’m doing is taking examples – lots of them, it feels like, but actually only a very small percentage of the possible examples – and working them through in detail, with context and a close reading of the parts which seem to me to be most significant. That’s the part which makes me most anxious. Although I think carefully about what’s significant, try to explain why, and give full references so a reader can look it up for themself and see they agree, basically most readers just have to trust me that I’m choosing the parts which are important to focus my discussion.

The advantage of this method once I get into it is that it does give both depth, via the detailed work on examples, and breadth, via a series of comparisons which I can build as I work through a series of examples in a chapter. It wouldn’t work for every topic, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for others, but it does provide good evidence for the kind of argument I’m trying to construct. It lets me look in detail at a specific writer and their theological ideas within the context in which they’re working – so, for example, today I’ve been writing about Rufus Jones and his book Social Law in the Spiritual World. I can take the time to tell the reader a bit about Jones and to describe the overall argument he is making in his book – I’m not just dropping in a quotation to support some wider point and hoping that the reader knows who is he and what he thinks, risking something being misunderstood because it was too far out of its original context – before digging into some of the specific things he says and comparing them with the work of other, later liberal Quaker writers. If you do know who Jones is, it won’t be a surprise that many of the ideas which appear in later liberal Quaker writers are also in Jones, since he was one of the most influential early liberal Quaker writers. But by dealing just with the one book, and not trying to include all of his writing or compare him in detail with many contemporaries, I’m able to look at his specific claims and how he puts himself into the broader picture by referencing psychologists and other scholars active at the time.

I also enjoy it. I like the business of writing anyway – research and reading, taking notes, shaping material into arguments, looking for the thread which will structure my book, and then actually writing it – and I’ve been having a good time on my study leave. I’m going to miss it when I go back into the office on Monday, and I’ll have to give myself a firm pep-talk about how I also enjoy teaching, working with colleagues, having meetings, and all that stuff!


Choosing how to help your community

In my recent post, ‘Choosing what to be good at‘, I wrote about how I made choices throughout my life, but especially as a teenager, about what skills I would work on and which things I would choose not to be good at. In discussion of this on Facebook, one of the themes which came up was: how does this interact with other people? How do my choices about what to do and what to be good at affect people in my community, whether that’s a small community like a household or family or a larger community, like social groups I might belong to? I want to spend a bit longer exploring this now because I think it raises all sorts of good questions about expectations, needs, agency, and the relationship between an individual and a community. I’m going to keep using personal examples because that’s what I have to go on, but of course my experience as a white middle-class British cis woman may not generalise.

Here’s a story from when I was about thirteen. At my school we had ‘food technology’ classes, mostly cooking but with a veneer of industrial process. I had mostly already done all the forms of cooking involved at home, I intensely disliked the way that ‘team work’ in the kitchens mostly meant boys threatening people with knives and girls doing the washing up, and I found some of the activities, such as ‘designing’ a pizza topping, laughable. One day the exercise was to bake bread rolls. My mother bakes bread at home, all the bread the family eats and almost all the bread I had ever eaten was homemade, and I had been joining in and making my own bread since… well, for longer than I could remember. I could make loaves and rolls and hedgehogs and basically any shape of bread. So I baked a batch of bread rolls in the classroom. They were fine. They looked just like the bread I ate every day. The teacher came over and she said, “I don’t think anyone would want to buy those, they’re a bit uneven.”

(I hope this teacher is now cringing every time she sees something ‘artisan’ for sale.)

Here I was at the crossroads between two sets of expectations. The expectations of my family about the right appearance for bread, about what qualities mattered in bread, and how to make bread rolls were at odds with the expectations my teacher wanted to create about quality control, regularity, the relationship of appearance to acceptability, and where I should focus my efforts. I hadn’t baked bread for sale, I had baked bread for eating. I was, unwittingly, choosing which community and set of values to follow.

Years later, I laid some of my frustration at what I saw as an unfair criticism to rest when I used my skills in bread making to make the bread which would be used in the communion service in Iona Abbey. That’s bread to be seen, but also bread to be eaten, and bread to bring us closer to God. (As a Quaker who had never taken physical communion before, I did put myself in a slightly tricky theological spot that way, but I really couldn’t think of the God I knew having me qualified to bake the bread but not eat it. And there was a non-alcoholic option. So I took communion there.) It’s also bread for the community of worshippers, and their expectations are not so much about the quality of the bread – although using ordinary home-baked bread instead of wafers does attract attention – but about the way it is used within the ritual to form spiritual connections.

If I hadn’t been so well supported in bread making at home, so relatively experienced and used to eating my own baking, I might have concluded from that lesson that I couldn’t bake bread. I’m sure some of my classmates did. I don’t know whether the teacher at some level intended us to conclude that home-baked was inferior to factory made bread; perhaps she did mean for us to appreciate how difficult it is to make and therefore learn not to waste it, or something of the sort. Instead I chose to reject her feedback and go on thinking that I was perfectly capable of baking bread. If I had drawn other conclusions, would I have been willing or able to serve a later community by getting on and baking the bread we needed on Iona? I would certainly have needed more and different support from the colleagues in the kitchens there.

What about a case where I am on the other side, lacking or refusing to get a community-useful skill? These are harder to identify and own up to because of course I think that my reasons for refusing some tasks are legitimate and discerned rather than excuses to get out of an unwanted task! However, I think I do have an example: hospitality. I am not naturally a very welcoming or indeed a social person; I find most people tiring and anxiety-inducing, and it usually takes a really friendly extrovert or a particularly close match of common interests, or a long time, to overcome that. At some times, I have made the effort to perform hospitality. As it happens, I also have an example of this from Iona. When I arrived to work in the kitchen there, I was told that part of the job was to eat meals with the guests, talk to them, and create a welcoming atmosphere. It was one of my least-favourite parts of the work, but because I had been told it was part of the job I did my level best. I did have good conversations and I hope I made people feel welcome. I also spent moderate amounts of time lying awake at night going over and over what I’d said or people’s reactions, frightened of doing it wrong, and thinking of ways to get time alone despite working in team, sleeping in a shared bedroom, etc. Near the end of my seven weeks there, someone else on the team said me, “I really appreciate how seriously you take the hospitality part of our work. So many people don’t bother but you’re really good at it.” Now, actually I think that people who are truly good at something make it look effortless, and it wouldn’t have occurred to anyone to say this to them; but it is evidence that I tried and mastered some of the skills involved.

I know that my Quaker community also needs those skills. All communities need some hospitality work doing, and Quakers can fail at this easily. I have felt unwelcome or been ineptly welcomed at many meetings over the years. Even at the local meeting where I attend now, I wish I felt more welcome, and I don’t stay for refreshments after meeting because I don’t want tea or coffee or biscuits of unknown ingredients (and hence probably not vegan). That’s my fault – I could sign up for the rota and change things. I do sometimes welcome people at the door, and I can do door-holding and hand-shaking, and if necessary answer questions about Quakers and meeting for worship, but I very rarely know people’s names and I have to leave the small talk to others. I like it best when the weather is unusually hot or wet because then there’s something easy to say! I could try harder, as I did on Iona. But the fact is that I don’t.

Why not? Partly because I do at lot of this sort of work in my paid work, so I don’t feel I have spare energy to do it on a voluntary basis as well. I find it a little bit easier at work, where my role gives people a reason to engage with me and I don’t count ‘discussing something on which I am knowledgeable’ as hospitality in this sense. I still find it stressful and worry a lot about all my minor failures, though. And, ironically, I sometimes teach about pastoral care, of which hospitality is an important competent. I say ‘teach’: I don’t try and tell people what to do, but instead ask them to reflect on their experiences and compare with others to get a better of idea of what works and what doesn’t.

I could give other reasons, about the situation and the timings and lots of practical stuff, but the deeper truth is that I don’t want to and at the moment improving hospitality in my meeting doesn’t feel like a good use of my energy. There are other people who can attend to it, and many of them are better at it than me; and some of them, whether they have the skills or are learning them, are led to offer that service. I think I’m also especially resistant to the idea that I should be good at some aspects of caring and hospitality which are stereotypical traits of women: when I’m not good at them, I’m not going to work harder to correct that than a man would be expected to.

Is it fair or wise to expect from a community something which I am not willing to give? Yes, it is. If I trust that the community is diverse enough, large enough, strong enough – Spirit-filled enough – to work as a community, I have to do exactly that. Sharing is a community function. If I had to do everything myself, I might as well be alone. Sometimes, especially in a small community, there needs to be compromise and I will need to step up to do things I’d rather not do, but am more or less capable of. (Some jobs are better done adequately than not at all: I’m no good at arithmetic, but I can make a computer do sums for me, so I’ll step up to run the accounts if nobody else is better qualified. Other jobs should be skipped or passed on if they can’t be done well: it might be better to donate to someone else running a foodbank than to start one and run it badly.) I think what I’m talking about here is a finer grain of discernment. We might need to distinguish not just between what makes the heart sing and everything else, but between ‘makes my heart sing splendid operas’, ‘makes my heart sing an acceptable pop song’, ‘more like my heart having an earworm but I can live with it’, and ‘not so much singing as a horrible grinding noise’. A few horrible grinding noises and some earworms are necessary parts of life, but it’s okay to ask whether someone else might get at least a pop song if not an opera out of the same task.

Quakers and Dreams

A few months ago, I had a dream in which I had exactly 701 followers on Twitter. It was vivid and specific and nowhere near true, so I posted about it on Twitter, because… because performing the mildly amusing self is the life-blood of building a social media brand. And when I had more followers and it got close to being true, I asked my followers how I should celebrate.

Not just one but two of them asked for a blog post about Quakers and dreams, and I reached 701 followers:


A screenshot of my Twitter profile taken at 5pm on Friday 2nd August 2019. It shows my name, a cover picture of a pile of copies of my book ‘Telling the Truth about God’, my profile picture which is the Stones of Stenness on Orkney, my Twitter handle and other data, and my following/follower counts: 579 Following, 701 Followers.

…so here it is.

I actually don’t remember my dreams very often and when I do I don’t usually find much of use in them. I have tried keeping a dream diary and all those things; I did slightly increase the number of dreams I remembered, but I still didn’t find anything in them except a jumble of images from my waking life. Like checking how many people follow me on Twitter, for example. I do have some patterns – when I am anxious about anything I will dream about being late for it; my subconscious mind either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about problems like nudity, injury, or suddenly being able to fly. It just doesn’t want to be late. This makes a certain amount of sense when I am worried about an exam – you can be late and that’s a very real problem. Or a job interview – you can be late, makes a bad impression. Or sending in a manuscript – except if you’re submitting speculatively and there isn’t a deadline, how can you possibly be late? And yet I have had that dream.

This probably affects my view of dream interpretation, which is that it might be a fun hobby for some people. As I see it, it’s a little bit more logical than astrology (because it is related to something with some direct connection to your life, even if only a system for turning things into slightly more jumbled versions of themselves) and not a risky as acupuncture (it won’t help you with anything but it doesn’t involve needles). If anything, dream interpretation is a little bit less useful to me than drawing oracle cards, which can help me establish a more nuanced connection between my feelings and my conscious mind, as I become aware of emotional reactions to randomly produced images. The things I learn about my unconscious mind from interpreting my dreams – what’s that, Lassie, you’re anxious about your job interview? – are generally so obvious that the term ‘interpretation’ seems too strong.

That said, I do consider dreams relevant evidence for how I’m feeling and what experiences my mind is still processing, and I know some people find much more of value in their dreams. I can’t put any more stock in someone’s sleeping dream than their spiritual experiences while awake, but I do belong to a tradition which holds that our spiritual experiences, shared in ministry in meeting for worship or in other ways, can become part of a collective process of discernment or greater understanding. Presumably some dreams, likewise, can become part of the wider picture if they are shared.

Someone once said to me, “Quakers don’t pay enough attention to dreams.”

I’m fairly sure he meant sleeping dreams rather than ideals or visions of the way forward, because Quakers pay plenty of attention to those – to imagining and manifesting the Kingdom of God or possibly the Divine Commonwealth, for example. There wasn’t really time to get into the detail and it wasn’t the sort of conversation where I could ask for more information. (Sweeping and strange statements made by strangers in Quaker discussions sometimes haunt me for years, by the way – this is one good example, and the time someone announced, “Stored food is wasted food”, as if we would all both understand and agree. I’m not at all sure I understand and the meanings I can think of I’m not sure I agree about!) So do Quakers pay enough attention to dreams?

Given what I have said above about my own neglect of the topic, I think this speaker would think that I don’t. From my own perspective, I think I pay them exactly the right amount of attention – I notice obvious facts and information, but don’t get hung up on omens, complex symbolism, or whether I ought to dream about flying or whatnot. I think it’s important not to try and turn everyday stuff, like dreaming about doing things I do regularly, into some different. I don’t think there’s any special significance to dreaming about checking how many Twitter followers I have, except perhaps it tells you that I want to know that, and I think it would be a mistake to regard 701 as anything other than a random number my brain picked.

Perhaps some Quakers, for whom spiritual messages might be manifesting through dreams, should pay them more attention. I’m not sure how one would know which to attend to, though. Do spiritual dreams have a certain quality? Does it become clear later that they were spiritual messages, perhaps when you are led to share them in meeting for worship? (Does anyone do that? I can’t remember hearing spoken ministry in which someone described a dream, but it doesn’t seem especially unlikely. A piece of ministry is just as likely to relate to a dream as the sorts of waking experiences like strolls in the park, programmes on Radio 4, and chats with taxi drivers which we hear about regularly.) Here I’m closer to agreeing with the Friend who wants us to pay more attention: not so much that we should pay attention if dreams don’t seem relevant, but if they do, dreams – like other experiences which sometimes feel too taboo to discuss even among Quakers, like sensing the presence of someone who has died – ought to be acceptable topics of conversation.

Between Boat and Shore: author reading

See more about ‘Between Boat and Shore’ from Manifold Press, buy it for Amazon Kindle, or read my previous blog post about it, Stone Age Speech. What other online book launch stuff should I do for it? Comment below!

Choosing what to be good at

“You should be good at chess,” said the maths teacher who ran the lunchtime chess club when I turned up to try it one day. I’d played a little bit of chess at home, and I wanted to be in a supervised space rather than in what I experienced as the violent wilderness of the playground, so I went to see what it was like. Despite some initial attractions – indoors, sitting down, not being mocked for being clever – it didn’t keep me. That was partly because I didn’t get on with the company (the football playing boys outside were sexist and loud, while the chess playing boys inside were quieter but still sexist – and teenage girls could tell at a glance that I had Social Death Plague). It also had a lot to do with chess itself: although I’m fine with most of the individual bits of chess, can plan ahead, think about moves, remember patterns, etc., I didn’t actually have any motivation to use those skills for this task. I couldn’t see the point. Nothing much of interest happens during a game. At the end, you might win, but you might not, and both of you take it personally.

I was thinking about this recently when I heard some people making clear pronouncements about tasks they are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ at – specifically, a group were discussing various tasks, including one which involved devising systems and ways of organising things, probably with an IT element. Several people said in conversations about this: “don’t let me near that” or “I’m terrible at those things”. It got me thinking about who is allowed to declare such things and when: in that situation, such declarations were not challenged, while wheelchair users who can also walk even a tiny distance report that they are strongly discouraged from reducing the amount of walking they do, or even told they shouldn’t be using the wheelchair at all. And about how and when we make such declarations: recently, my mother found a list of my strengths and weaknesses which she had written when we were considering where I should go to secondary school. On the ‘good at’ list, she’d written ‘science’. It stood out as something which no longer seems true, although most of the other items were right (for example, the ‘bad at’ list included not getting on well with my peer group, which is probably still true and is much in evidence in the chess-club story above!). Somewhere between 10 and 13, I discovered or decided that I was bad at science. Even though my dad was a science teacher and my grandmother a researcher with a PhD in zoology. Even though my dad had a poster of Jocelyn Burnell in his lab. Even though I was taught science by women. Even though I wanted to be an archaeologist, and knew science would be required. What happened?

Bad teaching and bad school conditions (a top set science class with 36 out-of-control kids, in which it’s never safe to do practicals) probably had something to do with it. Lack of motivation for the immediate work, as with chess, is probably also a factor. But my sense is that there’s a broader issue, which is about capacity and personality formation. An adult member of my Quaker meeting said to me at around this age something like, “It’s hard to be a good all-rounder.” That remark seems to me to be onto something about the general pressures of these situations. I didn’t actually think of myself as a good all-round student – although I usually got good marks in most academic subjects, I was abjectly aware of all the areas of life in which I was a miserable failure. (PE. Making friends. Being happy. Music.) I did see what she meant, though. School performance is meant to be maintained. When you get a good mark, you don’t get to stop, you have to go on and get the same or a better one next time. In the absence of someone else saying, “that’s okay, you’ve done enough”, I found ways to choose to identify myself as good at things I actively enjoyed, things where persisting would be its own reward (reading, writing, and, err, more reading), and to declare myself ‘bad at’ things where I didn’t see the point or felt incapable of the level of effort it would take me to achieve the next thing which would be demanded of me. I did this with maths and PE before secondary school, science, music, and languages while I was there, and with hobbies: swimming, chess, horse riding.

Writing this, I imagine that some readers are judging my actions. (I know the education system was judging me.) People say things like: Try harder! You shouldn’t stop, you should work at it! You can do anything if you put your mind to it! Proof that you’re lazy! Well, maybe. But what if it’s actually more like a process of simplification? In the group who were discussing various tasks, we ended up with four tasks to choose from, and I would honestly have to say that I thought I would be fairly good at and have something to contribute to all four. What I don’t have is the energy and focus to do all four properly, along with everything else which needs doing in life. Perhaps deciding not to try too hard, to allow oneself not to be good at some things – or even more controversially in a world where effort is meant to be key, to give up or not bother – is actually a move towards simplicity and not having too many irons in the fire.

I can indeed do all sorts of things if I put my mind to them. It must have been a great frustration to some of my teachers when they could see that I chose not to. There is a skill which might be learned from this refusal, though: a skill of discernment, a skill of attending to what is top priority, a skill of seeking to become what God needs me to be and not what others want me to be. I’m still working on this skill (there’s a good chance I’ll end up trying at least three of those four tasks…), but I am trying to honour it as a skill and not a failing, in myself and in others – some of whom will be choosing not to do something I think they could or ought to do!

Fresh eyes on Multiple Religious Belonging

I’ve worked on Multiple Religious Belonging on and off for a long time now (as evidenced by my academic publications on it from 2015, 2017, and 2018, as well as previous blog posts, and perhaps the title of my blog!). Having had a break, I’m thinking about these things again as I prepare to run a Woodbrooke online course about Multiple Religious Belonging next month. There are big questions involved, of course – like what counts as belonging (who has to recognise it? does it require practice, or social connections, or belief, or all of those or none?), and what counts as a religion (do we mean ‘world religions’ or ‘traditions’ or ‘faith communities’?) Those are good questions, but rather than start with them, then rule things in or out of ‘multiple religious belonging’ on that basis, it might be as useful to start by looking at what people call ‘multiple religious belonging’ and use that to reflect on the understandings of religion and belonging which appear.

For example, being a Jewish Buddhist is common enough that there’s a Wikipedia page listing notable people who have this joint identity. The introduction to it, though, points out that this looks different for different people in the list: some might have a Jewish identity through their family (because Judaism functions in this context as both religion and ethnicity) and be mainly Buddhist in terms of religious practice, while others, like Alan Lew, actively practice both religious Judaism and Buddhist meditation. Just in describing that example, I’ve started to uncover ideas about what religion is: it can be inherited or acquired; it can be practised or ignored; both Judaism and Buddhism are seen as religions, or there wouldn’t be the same need to point out and explain people’s dual affiliations; and a specific religion can have characteristic practices, such as meditation.

Other examples might add other ideas. Sometimes people name a specific tradition within a religion (Anglican-Wiccan) but at other times they use broader terms (Christian-Pagan). That might reflect an understanding of their tradition as importantly distinct from other traditions: for example, saying ‘Quaker’ rather than ‘Christian’ because although Quakerism is historically part of the Christian family, that individual doesn’t identify as Christian, or saying ‘Anglican’ rather than ‘Christian’ as part of an understanding that combining Anglicanism with something else is different to combining Roman Catholicism with something else. This might be hard to untangle from a single use, or without asking the speaker for more information. A broader term might be employed to show solidarity or because more specific terms get misunderstand (compare the PaganDash campaign, in which Pagans tried to get greater recognition on the census results by starting their write-in answers with the same, recognisable, word).

In my own life, I tend to speak differently about different communities. I’ll say I’m a member of a Quaker meeting, usually before anything else; if it comes up, I say I’m a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD). By contrast, I usually say I have experience of or have participated in the Community of Interbeing, forms of Buddhism, or various kinds of Paganism. That partly represents my level of commitment – although I probably use a Community of Interbeing practice, reciting the Five Mindfulness Trainings, almost as often as I use a formal OBOD practice – but also how I feel about the traditions and the communities. OBOD works mainly through correspondence course, and it’s easy to feel connected without an in-person community; the Community of Interbeing works a lot through local sanghas, and I’ve never joined one; Quakers work through meetings, and I’m both part of a local Quaker meeting and (very!) involved in wider Quaker activities. In this perhaps I’m revealing my own ideas about what it means to belong to a religion – very much about participation, community acceptance, and regular activity. I didn’t mention belief at all, for example, which would be highly important in some other understandings.

How do you talk about multiple religious belonging, whether or not you practise it? What ideas about religion do you have, or have you spotted one in this post which I didn’t mention?

Quaker Studies – a diverse and active interdisciplinary field

This weekend I was at the Quaker Studies Research Association (QSRA) and Centre for Research in Quaker Studies (CRQS) joint conference. QSRA has been running conferences for 25 years, and CRQS (formerly CPQS, the Centre for Postgraduate Quaker Studies) working for 20 years, so we had a joint ‘birthday party’. I am a member of both organisations and was involved in organising the conference, so naturally you’ll assess my opinions in that light, although what I say here is very much my personal perspective and not an institutional one. (Pick up other perspectives with the #QuakerStudies hashtag and get news via the CRQS Facebook page.) There were a few changes from the draft conference programme but that will give you a flavour – and, in particular, make it clear that there were two parallel sessions for almost all the weekend, and so this post is inevitably only really about half the conference.

Overall, it was a chance to observe how diverse and active Quaker Studies is. As an interdisciplinary field – including historians, sociologists, and theologians, but also linguistics, philosophers, literary critics, and others – it’s always going to be diverse in theory, but at this conference the diversity and the benefits of it were clear in practice. For example, this morning Judith Roads gave a paper about early Quaker rhetorical techniques, focusing on how they attempted to persuade people, and Andrew Jack gave a paper about philosophers working in the same period, and why they (almost entirely) rejected Quaker claims. Now, perhaps the philosophers were never going to be convinced by Quaker ideas, and it became clear that the Quakers weren’t using methods likely to convince philosophers (more appeals to emotion than logic), but also that understanding the other forms of writing which were happening at the same time shed light on both sides.


The Cadbury Room at Woodbrooke on Friday afternoon, with rows of chairs, a lectern and laptop, and display of books against the far wall. The wealth of Quaker Studies publications sent by university presses and other academic publishers was very impressive!

It’s also an active field which is attracting new scholars – not, as you might assume in another field, always young scholars, but often people who are extending their studies in new directions or returning to study or research. We heard papers based on Master’s level research or from those just starting PhD work, and from people who mainly work on something else but happen to have developed an interest in a Quaker (like David Pocta, who usually works on Christian spirituality and is currently researching Thomas Kelly), as well as experienced people like Rosemary Moore, who has been working in the field for more than twenty years.

These aspects of the field have their pitfalls as well, of course. It’s hard to keep up – it’s not a huge discipline and I’d say I’m fairly well-connected within it, and yet over this weekend I met people I’d never encountered before and heard about work on subjects I’d never considered. (Some are just areas I happen to be ignorant about, like revolutionary Pennsylvania; some seem surprisingly but actually obvious outworkings, like the way Patricia O’Donnell’s interest in Quaker material culture led to her research on coffins; and some are genuinely surprising findings, like Stephen Brooks who has found an astonishing 170+ examples of Quakers appearing, as characters or mentions, in TV and films).

Different disciplinary norms also sometimes make for difficult conversations. A discussion about the difference between phenomenology and phenomenography left a few of us agreeing that there was probably something involved which we didn’t understand or understood so differently we couldn’t discuss it. A question about which early Quakers counted as ‘ministers’ had some people trying to explain changing linguistic use, others generalising about those who publish and whose books are saved automatically have a ‘ministering’ role even if not formally named as such, and still others worried about circular definitions. There are also the risks, common in academic studies of denominations or other faith communities, of participants who both study Quakers and are Quaker slipping from one perspective to the other – it’s understandable, but not always helpful to author or audience, if a paper about the history or sociology of Quakers gets responses which aren’t about the paper’s contents but about what it says or should say to practising Quakers.

That said, people mostly handled these issues with patience and generosity – in my experience, Quaker Studies doesn’t usually attract the kinds of knock-down questions, I-know-best bragging, displays of superiority, or other unpleasant behaviour seen at some academic conferences. It’s possible that we thereby lose out on rigour in the discussions: there are times when it’s right to ask a challenging question, to point out a mistake or omission, or to ask for more evidence, and people might be holding back from that in order to be ‘nice’. On the other hand, I heard some questions asked which definitely challenged or pushed in that positive way while remaining friendly and supportive, so perhaps it’s possible to have the best of both worlds.