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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.

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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.

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Stone Age Speech

My novel about Neolithic lesbians on Orkney, Between Boat and Shore, was published on Friday by Manifold Press – information and purchase links. In this post I want to explore one of the challenges of writing a novel set in the Neolithic period, about six or seven thousand years ago: namely, deciding what words to use. At times it felt more like writing fantasy or sci-fi – constructing a different, unknown world and working out how to translate it into our own – than writing something historical.

Warning: this post contains minor spoilers about the book, the setting and the characters, although not about any major events of the plot. 

Some things were actually easier. I think if I were writing a novel set a hundred years ago, I might be tempted to spend ages consulting timelines of slang and other resources, and write at least some of the dialogue in the language of the time. For the early Neolithic, this just isn’t possible – not even because it would need translating, but because we have very little idea what language was spoken anywhere in the world at that time. In Europe, it was probably whatever language became Proto-Indo-European, a language we don’t have in full but linguists can reconstruct in parts from the commonalities between later languages. I used Proto-Indo-European and its wide geographic spread in two ways: firstly, as a justification for characters who had travelled some distance around the coast of Europe being able to basically understand those in the new community where they had arrived; secondly, as inspiration for the names of characters. I applied a liberal amount of poetic license to adjust for ease of pronunciation etc., but almost every character in the book has a name based on a word calculated to have existed in Proto-Indo-European. For example, Trebbi is named from the root treb-, dwelling or settlement, which survived in the Celtic languages and will be familiar to map-readers in Cornwall and Wales as the prefix Tre-.

The low remains/reconstructions of a house built from wide, flat stones. In the front of the picture an entrance way is visible; in the middle there are the thick outer walls and single-stone inner walls of the house, including two hearth spaces; and in the background there's water, both the near and far shores of a loch. The sky above is grey and cloudy.

A house at Barnhouse Neolithic Settlement on Orkney, one of the inspirations for the novel.

Apart from that, I used casual, modern British English, including a set of neopronouns. Of the many options available for nonbinary pronouns, I tried to choose a set which would suit my characters, be clear enough not to need explicit discussion in the text, and also not introduce confusion. With that in mind, I used ey/em/eir. The parallel with the sort-of patterns of he/him/his, she/her/hers, and they/them/theirs seems close enough that readers won’t need it explaining, or have to re-read sentences to clear up confusion about plural/singular, and the sounds work with the sounds of the names I used. (It doesn’t work with Proto-Indo-European, which apparently didn’t have third person pronouns at all… I briefly considered taking that on as a writing challenge, but couldn’t face ‘this one’ and ‘that one’ for a whole novel!)

I also gave some thought to the question of swearing – what does a Neolithic person say when they want to be rude? I found N. K. Jemison’s blog post on Fantastic Swearing very helpful here, and essentially ran with her observation that scatological language is crude almost everywhere. I also adopted her position that there was no reason for my characters to treat sexual language as swearing – and extended that to not included swear words in my sex scenes. The descriptions there use plain but specific language: ‘vulva’ rather than ‘cunt’. (The Proto-Indo-European word was something like pisda or pisdeh, by the way.)

Other choices about language followed in a similar vein. They talk about doctors rather than healers, for example, choosing modern terms rather than trying create a ‘primitive’ atmosphere. Some of the choices about language for religion were shaped by my Quaker sources of inspiration, although I tried to steer clear of technical terms. The village has a leader rather than a priest or a king, and alert readers will recognise the functions of clerk and elder in the decision-making meetings of this pre-literate society. They have ideas about the ancestors, something implied by the way people of that time and place built tombs (I invented this specific village, but their tomb is real and archaeologists do think megalithic tombs went with territory and communities). They also talk about Goddess; not the Goddess, as it would usually be put in modern English, but Goddess as a fact of life the way some people are able to talk about God.

Another question which didn’t appear until I’d finished writing the novel is how to describe the characters and their relationships. The main story line is about two women who start a romantic and sexual relationship, but is it really a lesbian romance when the story is set three thousand years before Sappho was born? On reflection I think it is. There are sensible arguments against putting modern labels on historical figures (e.g. if you call Alexander the Great bisexual, you might be describing some things about him but missing a lot about how he and his contemporaries understood sexuality). However, I don’t think those apply in the same way to fictional characters, who are at least as much a product of my culture and imagination as of the Neolithic, and probably more. My characters can be lesbians (or bisexual or nonbinary or whatever) if both I and my readers are happy to say so.

See how these choices work out in a novel by reading Between Boat and Shore now. 🙂

Many thanks to Martel Reynolds who discussed these topics with me throughout the writing process. 

Do Quakers have Christian privilege?

Last week, Britain Yearly Meeting considered the theme of privilege – you can watch videos from the event, and read the minutes or the epistle. It became apparent that the newer pattern of use for the word privilege – as in white privilege, male privilege, cisgender privilege, straight privilege, middle and upper class privilege, able-bodied privilege, neurotypical privilege, etc. – has caught on in some ways, but it’s easy for people to default back to an older pattern which may also be less emotionally and socially disruptive – as in it’s a privilege to serve, it’s a privilege to be here, it’s an honour and a privilege. When I was thinking about how to unpack this and explore it in a more nuanced way, I found myself thinking about a question we didn’t consider explicitly: do Quakers have Christian privilege, at all or to some extent?

I think the answer to this question is ‘yes and no’, but also that it’s useful to explore why. I’ll start with Christian privilege – what is it, anyway? It’s the ways in which people who are Christian benefit from the structures of societies such as the UK in which Christianity is the majority religion and/or the assumed or historical norm. Sam Killermann put together this list of 30+ examples, including “You can worship freely, without fear of violence or threats” and “Music and television programs pertaining to your religion’s holidays are readily accessible”. There are some of these which Quakers clearly have; for a long time now, Quaker worship has been acceptable and free from violence or threats. This is very much a privilege which I think Quakers would want to share with everyone – and yet Jews, Muslims, and others in the UK today do feel this fear and experience both threats and violence against their communities.

On the other hand, the Quaker relationship to Christian holidays is complicated, and specifically Quaker music, films, and so on are not part of mainstream broadcasting. Such things do exist can be found online or at specialist Quaker shops or libraries, but many people – with no internet access, not knowing what to search for, distant from London or Birmingham, and/or short of money – would find it difficult to access them. Some Quakers may include some or all Christian content as reflecting their personal faith, but others find traditional Christian language for God and liturgical practices alien or upsetting. Compared to other privileges Quakers do have, this lack seems relatively minor, but I know that it’s felt by the wave of rejoicing which crosses my social media feeds when a mainstream news source, TV programme, or radio station does mention Quakers. (A recent example: Fleabag.)

I won’t go through all 30 examples, but here are some more:

  • “A bumper sticker supporting your religion won’t likely lead to your car being vandalized.” As a Quaker, I’m sure I have that privilege (I don’t have a car, but I wear a badge which declares that I’m a Quaker and have had nothing but polite, puzzled, and/or positive responses).
  • “Politicians responsible for your governance are probably members of your faith.” Taken as percentages, probably yes: there are more Quaker MPs and MEPs than would be expected if politicians were statistically representative of the population, and fewer than expected of other non-Christian faiths.
  • “You can reasonably assume that anyone you encounter will have a decent understanding of your beliefs.” Not really. Some people have misconceptions, some only know a few basics, and many know nothing about Quakers.
  • “You are never asked to speak on behalf of all the members of your faith.” Debatable… but I use phrases like ‘I can’t speak for all Quakers, but…’ and ‘Quakers don’t all agree, but speaking personally…’ often enough that I think this expectation is sometimes an issue.
  • “Without special effort, your children will have a multitude of friends who share your faith.” It seems to me that Quaker parents often make special efforts, travelling considerable distances or planning family holidays around annual events, to make sure their children can meet other Quaker children.
  • “You can travel to any part of the country and know your religion will be accepted, safe, and you will have access to religious spaces to practice your faith.” I think Quakers do have this privilege (it helps that meeting for worship can be held anywhere). There are a few places in Britain where the nearest Quaker meeting is too far away to attend regularly, but none where I’d expect to feel unsafe as a Quaker.
  • “You can be polite, gentle, or peaceful, and not be considered an “exception” to those practicing your faith.” In bucket loads! A rude or angry Quaker is more likely to be breaking the stereotype (and so that pressure, in turn, means that some find it difficult to express themselves).

It seems like Quakers have more Christian privilege than some, and less than others. These are just some preliminary thoughts and I welcome extensions, additions, and alternative perspectives in the comments. Perhaps it’s a profitable case for Quakers to discuss among ourselves because we are likely to have much of it in common with one another, we can’t learn about the Quaker situation by listening to other people, and the situation of having and not having simultaneously encourages a more nuanced understanding of what is actually going on with privilege in general. In the process we might uncover ways in which we can both be better allies to our interfaith friends, and pose better challenges to dominant structures which may be restricting everyone’s freedom of religion and expression.

Seeking and answering spiritual questions

In her work on spiritual autobiographies, Gil Skidmore has identified stages which writers typically describe. One of these is a stage in which the spiritual search coalesces around a particular question.

Gil and I recently ran a course together in which we looked at spiritual autobiographies, blogging, and other ways of sharing. As a writing exercise, I asked people to consider writing a tweet (or some other short statement!) in which they compared themselves to one of the historical writers Gil had described, or fitted their own spiritual life into the stages she identified. For one of my answers, I wrote:

My spiritual seeking centred on two questions. Firstly, why is it so hard to talk about God? Secondly, if it’s so hard to talk about God, how does everyone know he’s a He?

Writing out the questions like this made me realise that, although it’s taken me perhaps fifteen or twenty years, I have now answered them. The answer to the second question I would summarise with the single word ‘kyriarchy‘. The answer to the first question I explored at full length in my book, Telling the Truth about God. There are definitely more things to say about both of these questions, and many related issues, but over the past few years I’ve become gradually more and more relaxed about them. I’m still interested, still happy to have these conversations, but the urgent drive I once felt to start those conversations has faded.

I also realised recently that an answer I’ve had for a long time, ‘I’m a writer’, has finally met the right questions. It’s no longer the answer to future-focussed questions like, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ or ‘what do you aspire to be?’; no longer the answer to counter-factual questions like ‘what would you do if you weren’t doing this job?’ or ‘if you had a million dollars how would you spend your time?’; no longer the answer to inner-world questions like ‘what is your favourite hobby?’ or ‘what is your vocation?’ Instead, it’s a real answer to here-and-now question, ‘what do you do?’ and I have the ISBNs and Goodreads profile to prove it.

This does lead to the question: what next? I have some ideas – actually, I have a list of 17 ideas for things I want to write, including more novels, more books about Quakers, more academic articles about how multiple religious belonging works, and more poetry. I also know what some of the next questions are going to be, although I don’t know which ones will end up being the next stage of my spiritual journey. Some which are in the air for me include:

  • How will my own journey of multiple religious involvement develop? Will I drop or come back to Buddhism, especially the Community of Interbeing? Will my connection with Druidy, especially OBOD, weaken or strengthen as I approach the end of my Ovate work? Are there other things I want to explore? How will my relationship with Quakerism develop as I spend more time teaching and writing about it? (And now working on the revision of my community’s core text?)
  • How will my commitments to social justice, climate justice, and resisting climate collapse develop? At the moment these are areas where I read and retweet and think and sometimes discuss or facilitate discussion but rarely write or teach in my own voice. (Unless writing a novel full of LGBTQ+ characters counts.) For a little while I thought I might end up being much more politically active – but then I moved and still haven’t found my place in local campaigning. I also haven’t found a specific topic or piece of work where I feel there’s both leading to act and space to make a difference, but I am looking for that. I feel like I’m tuned in and waiting for a signal to find out what I need to do.
  • What are my questions? In a meta way perhaps this is the biggest question!

What questions, if any, have guided different stages of your spiritual life? Do you have any questions for me? (Would you like to ask them on has-existed-for-years-but-suddenly-reached-my-social-networks social media site Curious Cat?)

Qui-Gon Jinn, most Quakerly Jedi?

I’ve been saying for years that I think Qui-Gon Jinn, as well as being the most important character in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and probably the most likeable character in the prequel trilogy, is the most Quakerly Jedi in the Star Wars universe. I’ve just read Claudia Gray’s new novel, Master & Apprentice, and I think it proves me right.

Before I go any further, let me clarify the limitations of my claim. I’m not arguing that the Jedi are Quakers, or that Qui-Gon Jinn is a Quaker. Jediism, both as a fictional faith and a real one, has both significant commonalities and differences with Quakerism: Jedi and Quakers both like being calm and aware of their connectedness with the world; fictional Jedi often use violence while Quakers usually reject it; real Jedi usually adopt that faith as adults, like most Quakers today; Quakers have at least a historical connection to Christianity and often a role for Jesus in their spirituality, while Jedi don’t (counter-arguments involving members of the Skywalker family on a postcard, please); and there are more nuanced cases – in some other post perhaps I’ll compare the minister/elder system used by the Valiant Sixty with the master/apprentice structure.

The Jedi are not Quakers. Some of the Jedi are deeply unQuakerly – and not just the ones who become Sith, but also those who accept the status quo, use violence before other methods, and support their political leaders in immoral courses of action.

That said, there are general similarities between some aspects of the Jedi way and some parts of the modern Quaker way, and in Claudia Gray’s novel Qui-Gon Jinn becomes a spokesperson for them. I’ve picked out three short passages which will illustrate what I mean. There are minor spoilers in what follows, so if that’ll bother you, go and read it first. (It is worth reading: it’s an excellent example of what Star Wars extended universe writing does well with a great mix of mission-focused plot and character exploration).

In the first passage which caught my attention, Qui-Gon Jinn is talking to Rael Averross, a fellow Jedi (and fellow student of Dooku’s, cue ominous music). Rael has gone a bit off the rails before and during a long stay on the distant planet Pijal, and seems to be going further. Here (p124), he and Qui-Gon discuss the Jedi code.

It had been a long time since Rael Averross felt the need to justify himself to anyone on Pijal, but as he walked Qui-Goon to the door, he found himself saying, “You know, there’ve always been a few Jedi – let’s be honest, more than a few – who see celibacy as an ideal, not a rule.”

“I’m coming to believe that we must all interpret the Code for ourselves,” Qui-Gon said, “or it ceases to be a living pact and becomes nothing but a prison cell.” Which sounded nice and all, but was a long way from letting Averross off the hook.

Point one is another difference: Quakers have had different codes of sexual ethics over time, but have never embraced celibacy as a path for the majority, let alone something enforced! Point two, though, is a similarity about the relationship expressed here between the rule, the Jedi Code, and the way it is lived out. Rael suggests a difference between an ideal (presumably a good idea but not a realistic one) and a rule. Qui-Gon suggests that what matters is not so much the rule itself or the way the Jedi act, but the relationship between people and Code.

What’s Quaker about that? Well, it could be compared both to a traditional Quaker approach to the Bible, and to the relationship Quakers have with their own tradition. The first of these could be illustrated with an old but still much quoted passage from first-generation Quaker Margaret Fell, who became a Quaker when she realised that she and her existing church had not made the Bible into a ‘living pact’: “we are all thieves, we have taken the Scriptures in words and know nothing of them in ourselves” (link to longer quote with context). As a movement, Quakers have acknowledged the need for each generation to make the tradition its own. This is sometimes explicit, as in these words from Young Friends in 1926: “each generation of young Friends by its experiments must discover for itself the truths on which the Society is built if it is to use those truths and to continue and enlarge the work of the Society”. Sometimes it’s built into the practice, as in the ongoing process of revising the very book from which those quotations are taken. Like the Jedi Code which Qui-Gon follows, it contains rules – but it is meant to represent a “living pact” not a “prison cell”.

The next passage is from much later on in the story (p217). Qui-Gon has had a vision of the future, and has decided that although he will act on it, he won’t share it with his superiors, the Jedi Council.

Qui-Gon had not yet shared his vision with the Council, nor did he intend to. They would spend all their time bickering about the viability of the hyperspace corridor. They were too bound to Coruscant. Too bound to the chancellor. Too far from the living Force.

They were no longer the sort of Jedi who could trust in a pure vision.

It shocked him that he was that Jedi. That he could still find it in him to believe so profoundly, so unshakably, in pure mysticism. Qui-Gon had so often felt out of step with the Order as a whole, but never to this degree.

He had also never felt this close to the Force.

There are more differences here, of course. Although I know some Quakers who study and interpret dreams or Tarot cards, having visions of the future isn’t part of Quaker tradition generally. However, I think Quakers could easily come down on either side of the hyperspace corridor debate (it has political elements familiar from closer to home: questions about economic justice, access to transport, political representation, slavery, and the power of large corporations are all involved). And there is a deeply Quakerly element in Qui-Gon’s rejection of authority in favour of trusting his own connection to the Divine. For him that Divine is the Force, and it might be known as God or Spirit in traditional Quaker understandings – but Quakers use many, many words to talk about God and some of them are remarkably similar. I’ve heard terms like Energy, Universe, and even the Force used in workshops! However they understand it, Quakers seek to contact the Divine directly, not needing any particular person or practice to mediate their knowledge of the Divine. They can use a group process but also listen for leadings from the Divine – much as Qui-Gon does in this passage.

My final passage also comes from a discussion between Rael and Qui-Gon. (Another similarity with Quakers? Jedi in this book seem to discuss their beliefs mainly with each other, and mainly when they disagree, never explaining to non-Jedi characters!) Rael starts by putting a case that if the light and dark, good and evil, sides of the Force should be in balance, their actions are irrelevant (p259):

“…the darkness would be just as strong as the light. So it doesn’t matter what we do, because in the end, hey, it’s a tie! It doesn’t matter which side we choose.”

… “It matters,” Qui-Gon said quietly. “It matters which side we choose. Even if there will never be more light than darkness. Even if there can be no more joy in the galaxy than there is pain. For every action we undertake, for every word we speak, for every life we touch – it matters. I don’t turn toward the light because it means someday I’ll ‘win’ some sort of cosmic game. I turn toward it because it is the light.

One point here is that the language of ‘light’ and ‘dark’ is very popular with Quakers, even though it can be racist – and I think the Star Wars use, where light and dark map directly to good and evil, is also problematic in that way.

If we replaced ‘light’ with ‘good’, here, though, there would still be another similarity to Quakers: something which might be called idealism or working from principles rather than pragmatism. In a piece of research which involved interviewing Quakers about social justice work, I found they often mentioned the way in which a long-term, ideals-focused approach won respect from other campaigners. These campaigns are not run in order to win (although, as described in that link, there have been successes along the way). Rather, campaigns against war and for equality are based on a Quaker faith in the importance of doing what is good and what God asks.

Would Qui-Gon Jinn be accepted for membership if he applied to a British Quaker area meeting today? I’m not sure – at the very least, there would have to be a serious conversation about lightsabers and maybe a chat about gambling. But based on the evidence I’ve gathered in this post, I think that theologically he might fit right in.

Firm or forgiving: what is your ideal Quaker community like?

Let me start with a shout out to everyone already objecting to the construction of a false binary in my title. The word you’re looking for is ‘clickbait’.

When someone finds Quakers, they are usually told early on that Quakers are pacifist. Obviously there are different ideas about what this means – but it’s easy to assume, and I can see why someone would think – that this must include being peaceful within the Quaker community as well as promoting it outside. That can make it extra hard when it turns out that actually, there is a fight of some kind going on in a Quaker meeting. These Quakers aren’t so peaceable after all! As it used to say on Susan Robson’s Living with Conflict website (now available via the Internet Archive):

“Quakers in my sample found that the commitment to public peace in their organization held them back when they came to arguing and disputing. They thought their tradition told them they should live in a peaceable kingdom, like the animals in the Edward Hicks painting appearing on the front page, and therefore not have any hostile feelings. So when they discovered angry feelings they saw this as a failure, and were ashamed.”

Susan has written more about anger elsewhere, such as in this blog post, “F is for ‘so fucking angry’“. My theme today is more about our picture of that peaceable kingdom. How is peace achieved in it? In conversation with some Friends recently, we identified two different approaches. One is characterised by firmness, and is interested in structures, discipline, right ordering, and boundaries. (If it were dealing with animals, it would focus on training them.) The other is characterised by forgiveness, and is interested in relationships, inclusion, flexibility, and acceptance. (If it were dealing with animals, it would focus on finding ways to let them all behave naturally.) In humans we can recognise both sides: the ability to learn and to choose our own disciplines to keep, and the need to be loved as we are and extend the same love to others.

Of course a community cannot live by bread alone, and any group dealing with any conflict will need to balance these – what’s a habit we can change, and what’s a boundary we need to enforce? what’s something we come to accept, and what’s really objectionable? Imagine for example how rude or domineering behaviour can be tolerated and tolerated, especially if it develops slowly, until well past the point where someone who has just arrived in the situation immediately sees it as bullying. But what should the response be? Care for everyone involved, bullied and bully, is obviously indicated, but so are some boundaries, because harm is being caused and it needs to be stopped.

What are we led to do in this type of situation? “What loves requires” is a good attitude to an answer, but it sets intentions rather than consequences. In doing so, it can tend to shield a bully, who “didn’t mean to hurt you”. “What the book of discipline says” might also seem like a good answer, but depending what you need help with, it might seem short on answers or to reinforce the problem of peaceableness identified at the start of this post. Being able to do conflict resolution work in another community may not involve the same skill set as holding your own pain when something goes wrong at home!

Instead, perhaps we sometimes fall back on an unconscious picture of what a Quaker community or even an ideal Quaker individual should be like. For some of us, that ideal picture is of a Quaker community which is safe because it is structured, ordered, follows rules and enforces them, and has a discipline which we accept when we join it. For some of us, that ideal picture is of a Quaker community which is safe because it is open, accepting, takes all those who come and does not reject, and teaches freedom and inclusion. Everyone wants to be safe. It’s legitimate to disagree about how to make our community safer. But when disagreeing itself isn’t safe – for anyone, because it both breaks the rule about peaceableness and involves rejecting some views – it’s very hard to have a real conversation about the best way forward.

It’s possible that the ‘unconscious pictures’ described in this post are different manifestations of the strict father/nurturant parent images identified in politics by George Lakoff – although I’m not suggesting they map to political positions! Do you recognise them in yourself or your community?

Reading the Psalms in Meeting for Worship

In conversation with a f/Friend yesterday, I happened to recall a curious episode in my life as a Quaker which I don’t think I’ve written about before. Enough time has now passed for me to think of this as a finished pattern – what I’m about to describe took place roughly between three and four years ago. I haven’t entirely stopped reading Biblical passages in Meeting for Worship occasionally (I was led to read a section of the Sermon on the Mount a few weeks ago, with a few comments about why), but it feels like a more normal part of a mixed pattern of different kinds of spoken ministry, including many meetings when I don’t speak, times when I speak entirely from personal experience, and reading from Quaker faith & practice

For a while, though, I felt strongly and repeatedly (I’d guess this happened perhaps four times over the course of several months) led to read whole psalms in Meeting for Worship. I read them plain, without commentary or even giving the Biblical reference. I read them as well as I could within the skills I have – for example, I have a loud voice, and I tend to speak clearly and expressively, even dramatically. I didn’t always read the whole Psalm, but I usually did. I sometimes changed a pronoun, so that I alternated between masculine and feminine words for God, but I don’t remember changing any other words (although of course I could have mis-spoken or something). Some of the Psalms I was led to read were challenging, especially ones which use violent language not usually heard in Quaker meetings.

I would say I tested the leadings fairly thoroughly. I tend to be more confident about being led to read from Qf&p or the Bible than about being led to speak in my own words – texts have the advantages of being tested already, by time and other people, and it’s harder to go wrong. (Not impossible; I remember being relatively new to a meeting, reading from Qf&p in worship, and being told afterwards that it ‘would have sounded different to people who’d been in the meeting for a long time’; I never did really work out why.) I think I was more hesitant the second time it happened – I remember someone commenting on one of these occasions that she knew I was struggling with whether to speak or not because I kept picking up the Bible, looking at it, putting it down again on the seat next to me with the page open, waiting a while, and picking it up again. By the third time the calling was clearer and I was quicker to obey. And maybe that was the point, or some other message got through, because it didn’t happen much more.

It got mixed reactions. Often people asked me afterwards which Psalm it was, which I was able to tell them at the time although I can’t remember now. Some of them wished I’d announced that before reading – which I sort of did, too, because it would have felt much safer and more comfortable. It also wasn’t what I was being asked to do. Some noticed the style in which I read (one person described it as ‘fire and brimstone preaching’ style, which might have been an exaggeration for comic effect). Some in the meeting were, I think, discomforted by the language of enemies and war which is native to some Psalms; as I read, I was typically discovering meanings which related more the the metaphorical Lamb’s War than an outward war – but of course texts have many meanings, and I was not guided to share those interpretations in ministry (although I did discuss some of them in conversations after meeting). One effect of giving this ministry for me – not, I’m sure the main one, but worth noting – was that tea-and-coffee times which were sometimes filled with awkward questions about my job search and un/employment situation were changed into much more fulfilling conversations which included theology.

Writing this, I am imagining some Friends worrying about whether it is right of me to frame so much of this in the Quaker passive (‘I was led to…’ – I did it, someone else is to blame, and readers are expected to infer the elided deity). Should I take more responsibility for my actions? For example, if someone had been deeply upset by the words I read, should I own that as the consequences of my choice, rather than claiming that it was God’s choice and I was only an agent? I’m willing to take some responsibility because I did choose to follow my Guide: I don’t have the experience that I have to speak, only that I should and am led to do so. I trust God to give me words which are needed and which those present can cope with, even if it’s difficult. And perhaps that’s why I don’t want to accept the full responsibility. If I’m not picking up something from my co-creators of the meeting for worship, from Goddess and everyone else present, how can I have faith that such apparently random utterances are helpful?


 

Writing this, I’m also aware that I’ve been thinking more about how I shape the narratives of my spiritual life recently because I’m preparing to run a course on it. There are still places to come and talk about Spiritual Blogging with me and Gil Skidmore, 7th-9th May, if you’re interested.