Tag Archives: B

B is for Belonging

What does it mean to belong to a religious community?

In 2014, my most popular post was about Quaker understandings of belonging, and our struggles with them. (If you didn’t read it, it was: Yearly Meeting considerations of membership.) In my post this Wednesday, I talked about the boundaries of religions, relating this to issues around appropriation and belonging. In this post, I want to make some general observations about two groups with which I am familiar: Quakers and Pagans.

Quakers in Britain have two official levels of belonging: attenders and members. There are also a number of visible variations on these: the very-long term attender who calls themselves a Quaker but is not in membership (sometimes even having resigned from membership) is one, and another is the member who almost never attends (sometimes for practical reasons, sometimes because they no longer wish to, but nevertheless feel part of the Quaker community – if they grew up in a Quaker family, for example). Being born into Quakerism is unusual (14% of the community in Britain, according to a recent survey). Being an ‘attender’ or a ‘member’ says little about how often you attend Quaker events, or whether other people in your life know you are a Quaker. Not being in membership does hold people back from serving in certain roles (except when someone finds a work-around for this or an appointing meeting decides to ignore it). There are thus many less formal ways of belonging to the Quaker community.

Pagans in Britain are a much more diverse and less organised group. No one organisation is in a position to administer membership for all Pagans, although some groups such as the Pagan Federation try to encourage all Pagans to support them. Where groups do have tightly controlled membership arrangements, it is often related to esoteric material – many Wiccan groups will have oath-bound material, for example, and OBOD has the correspondence course which is members-only. That said, OBOD don’t, to the best of my knowledge, have a procedure for removing members from their list, although they do stop sending the magazine if you stop paying. Here, a distinction between a ‘member’ and a ‘subscriber’ comes into play – while paying, you are both. Before paying, you are neither. After ceasing to pay, you may be a member (allowed to read the correspondence course material for which, after all, you have paid) but you are no longer a subscriber.

Quakers ask for money from their members, but don’t make payment a condition of membership in the first place, so there isn’t the same level of ‘subscription’. They might ask you to subscribe to certain claims – not theological ones but ethical ones, such as ‘war is wrong’. (They might. It’s not clear to what extent these questions are actually asked directly when someone is applying for membership.)

For myself, Quaker belonging is mainly about the community; about participating in waiting, listening worship with others, and working on issues which matter to the community. There are other aspects as well – the principle of listening worship, for example – but my belonging is focused on the community. On the other hand, my Pagan identity and my Druid membership are more focused on solitary spiritual development – on having a framework in which to practice (in the sense of play with, work on, get better at) things which help me to be grounded and connected. I like going to Pagan rituals and Druid gatherings sometimes, but if I never went again I’d still be very much a Druid. If I couldn’t go to a Quaker meeting at all, I’m not sure I’d still think of myself as a Quaker.

One of my ongoing interests in multiple religious belonging: cases where people are fully members of more than one religion at once. This can be by birth (where the parents are of two different faiths – for a detailed discussion of this see Susan Katz Miller’s book Being Both), or a position, like mine, evolved in adulthood – sometimes one religion is from childhood, sometimes a childhood position is abandoned and multiple new religions are adopted. I think that it’s especially interesting that some religious groups seem to be very open to this; Quakers, for example, who already have a large number of ‘seekers’ among them, people who have explored a variety of religious traditions in their lives, are generally (not always – remember that for any claim about Quakers, some Quaker will be trying to disprove it!) generally more supportive of those trying to practice multiple religious belonging than some other groups would be.

B is for Boundaries

A question raised by the issue of appropriation (previous blog post) is about the boundaries between cultures, religions, or other groups. How do you know whether something – a word, practice, or object – has moved from one tradition to another if you don’t know where the boundaries between the traditions are? It often seems obvious that this movement has occurred, but articulating the details of when we say that is has happened and when we say that it hasn’t is much more difficult than establishing that some clear cases exist.

Another issue which raises related questions is the existence of multiple religious belonging – people who are (or claim to be, I suppose we don’t have to agree with them although it seems rude to discount their description of their lived experience) members of more than one religion at once. Some of these people might choose to hyphenate their religious identities – Buddhist-Christian – and others just think of themselves as both at once, Jewish and Pagan. Here, the question is: don’t some religions have boundaries which prevent a person from simultaneously belonging to another religion? Generally, we assume that a religious identity is singular – it might change through time, but one person only has one at once. This is reflected in, for example, the ‘tick one box’ approach used for religion on the census. (For much more about religion on the census, explore Abby Day’s work.) If it is possible to belong to more than one religion at once, we might need to rethink our ways of talking about religion. Why is it ‘weirder’ to be both a Christian and a Pagan than to be both a Christian and a Friend of the Earth?

I am at the stage of articulating these as research questions, rather than having any clear answers. However, I do have some directions in which I hope to look. One place I hope to look is other work on identity; in particular, I’m interested to know whether it’s useful to think of religiosity as performance, of religion as something that one does rather than something which one has – an analogy here to the work that Judith Butler and others have done on gender. Are the questions about multiple religious belonging in any way comparable, or in any useful was comparable, to the questions which have been asked about bisexuality or non-binary genders, for example? That many authors start from a question about whether these positions ‘really exist’ suggests to me that there might be points of commonality, but any comparison will need careful exploration.

Overall, because religious traditions are communities consisting of people, their boundaries seem to be closely related to issues around membership: who belongs to, or in, the faith. This in turn raises a whole new set of questions: how do you know who is a member of which religion? Some religions have very explicit positions on this, while others don’t seem to be very sure themselves about who counts as a member. This doesn’t just apply to people, of course; we often ask this question about practices (did you read an article this winter about whether putting up and decorating a tree is ‘Christian’ or ‘Pagan’? There always seem to be a few). Practices, though, are practised by people, and so we come round again to the same issue. Boundaries are tied up with belonging – to be the subject of a future post!

B is for Bible

The Bible is one of those topics on which I feel profoundly ignorant, and a lot of people assume that I’m an expert. Both are probably true: on the one hand, I have both read the Bible and studied it, and on the other hand, I know some people who specialise in Biblical Studies and are always ready with some aspect I’d never known about or considered before. Because I did joint honours for my BA, I was excused from languages (I did logic instead, basically) and have never formally studied either Greek or Hebrew (although I have dabbled in both in informal settings). I am interested in the Bible, but I’m not interested in quite a lot of the questions which are asked about it. For example, I understand the intellectual interest in asking which sentences of which letters were actually written by Paul, but I’m not very moved by the argument that we should excuse the misogyny of some letters because it’s not original to them – it’s still there and still damaging, and unless you’re going to edit the canon or print all the Bibles with strikethrough text for those passages, it’s part of the Bible and who cares who wrote it originally?

That said, I do think it’s important to realise that the Bible is not a single text, and that even apparently single texts have multiple authors and editors. My Quaker Bible Study group are reading Exodus at the moment, and with the aid of the notes in my study Bible, I gave them a five-minute run-down of the J/E/D/P theory about the sources of the text (which I haven’t studied since 2006, but at least I have studied it…). In that setting, even a simple version of the theory helps to open up questions about what this text means, at what level it can be said to be true, and how narrative devices are employed within it.

Sometimes a simple version is not enough, though. I do get asked highly technical questions about the translation of particular Biblical phrases, especially when I am talking about religious language. My research focus is on religious language as used today, but this is hard to convey to people, and when a debate begins in a workshop they often turn to me as an expert. Even if I have heard an answer, more by luck than effort, I’m not confident to give it with the air of an expert opinion – because I’m really not an expert – so I end up shrugging. That’s okay inasmuch as it allows me as a facilitator to refocus on the real issues in the workshop (getting stuck in intellectual or historical stuff rather than talking about what we think and feel now is a common problem), but sometimes I sense people’s frustration with it. There is often a desire to know more about the Bible, and a hesitation about where to start reading.

I can relate to that because I experience it too. Having learned some things about the Bible, and found many of them useful and interesting – I wrote recently about John Shelby Spong‘s explanation of the Gospels as liturgical texts, for example – I know I’d like to know more, but where to begin? I’ve read the Gospel of John, but never really studied it. At one time I tried to blog about the lectionary readings for the week, but didn’t know enough to say anything useful in the time available. Sometimes I’ve used the plans in the Gideon Bible or a Bible-reading phone app to have daily passages, but found myself wanting more commentary and context than this approach provides. Reading right through the Bible helps with context – you know which passages come before and after this one – but not with understanding them. I’ve heard fascinating things about Isaiah, but wouldn’t know where to start. And so forth – in a complex library like the Bible, where do you begin? The obvious answer – Genesis – does not turn out to be an easy beginning, nor is it automatically the most interesting one.

In the end, I’ve concluded that the kind of Bible knowledge I want needs to be built up, piece by piece, over a lifetime, rather than gained in a single reading or qualification. Biblical texts really become interesting to me when they relate to my experience, and that cannot be forced, although I can encourage it by asking the right questions. The other thing which really interests me is the way in which sometimes a Biblical reference or allusion will appear in my speech or writing without my noticing at first; somehow it has snuck in through my general knowledge or the English language and it only comes to me later that this refers to a Biblical source. Tracking these down, and understanding why and how they have come to be meaningful to me, can be very rewarding – and serendipitous.

B is for… Bodies

My friend Ben talks sometimes about the power of incarnational theology – he’s thinking of the ‘God becomes human in Jesus’ thing – as a theology which is accepting of bodies, even or perhaps especially disabled and suffering bodies. I think it’s fair to say that to him, it’s one of the things which makes Christianity attractive.

His experience of that theology is very different from mine, because when I look at the Incarnation I mostly see a male God who favours his son (and the things people point to and say, ‘Look, Jesus was nice to women!’ seem like the scraps from a table at which I don’t even want to eat).

It is a theology which informs Quakerism, though, and it does make a powerful statement. I sometimes wonder whether British Quakerism isn’t more British than it is Quaker: we have the British revulsion for all things bodily or emotional. We’ll make jokes about the way that Quakers dress – and I think it is true that Quakers today dress differently, on average, from the rest of the population – but we very rarely talk about it seriously. We’ve curbed our shaking, if we weep in Meeting we try and do it quietly and neatly, if you’re angry about something it’s often dismissed as too emotional to be a real concern.

(‘Concern’ is for next week.)

People do have opinions about Quaker bodies. There’s a subtle pressure group in some meetings that I call the Pilates Police – the people who have done yoga, or pilates, or the Alexander Technique, or chi gung, or whatever – and now Know How To Sit. Now, if they know how they should sit, that’s fine by my and I hope they enjoy sitting. It’s when they know how I should sit that I think there’s a problem.

Fortunately, it’s been a year or two since I met a member of this well-meaning but unfortunately irritating group. More recently, I think we have been addressing Quaker bodies less directly but perhaps more urgently, through our explorations of sustainability. I was reading the Good Lives study pack recently – four sets of four sessions each addressing a different aspect of sustainability (download it here (pdf)); I started reading and was itching to start doing the activities, which I think is a recommendation! Anyway, in the introduction to the final series of sessions it says, “For sustainability, we need communities where most of what we need can be found within walking and cycling distance.”

This seems right to me, but it also seems to me that this raises a clear and very challenging question which is not addressed in the pack: what demands does sustainability make on the body? To travel on feet or human-powered wheels, firstly. Beyond that, I suspect that it also demands that we endure the cold better than my body will at present. And issues like nutrition (can you get all the vitamins you need only off your allotment?), and disability (and the social status and payment of carers) will become even more urgent. Not to mention, among other things, sex and death: the latter we sometimes manage to address in Quaker settings, the former almost never (sexuality yes, children yes, marriage yes, but actual sex no).

B is for… Britain Yearly Meeting

I don’t know quite what to tell you about Yearly Meeting. I don’t think I want to tell you about the structural paperwork side of it, and I don’t think I know enough to tell you about all the work it does (although I can tell you that besides doing paperwork and running a bookshop and providing all kinds of support to Quaker meetings, it runs all sorts of projects in line with Quaker testimonies).

I think I’ll tell you about Yearly Meeting itself, and what it’s like for me. I’ve been going to Yearly Meeting on and off for a long time – I think the first one I can remember is 1997 – but when I became a member I decided to try and attend as often as I could. I think I’ve been every year since 2009.

2009 was a big year. We met in York, and we spent most of our time on the issue of same-sex marriages. After much deliberation, our discernment was that we should treat them just the same as any other marriage, and that we would lobby the government to be allowed to do so – a change in the law which is now close to happening. I remember airing my own doubts about marriage in the threshing meetings (the usual feminist worries: name changes, upholding the nuclear family/woman at home model, and so forth). I remember singing around the lake.

In 2010 we discussed many things, but one of the big decisions was about whether journalists should be allowed in to observe sessions of Yearly Meeting, traditionally closed. I remember listening to other Friends with a growing sense of dislocation – they all seemed to assume, to slide back over and over towards the idea that ‘journalist’ meant ‘newspaper journalist’ and that ‘the media’ meant ‘print media’. It’s always a frightening thing to find yourself on your feet in a Meeting for Worship, and I’m pretty sure I was physically shaking when I stood to tell the Yearly Meeting that anyone can be a journalist now: that’s what blogs mean – news from anyone, anywhere, anytime. We also had a discussion theme something like ‘What are your gifts?’, which put me in tears more than once, not least because I didn’t have anything to give. I’m not sure I do now; and the things I do have and try and give are often not what’s wanted!

What I remember about 2011, Canterbury, is the heat in the Big Top marquee we were using for meetings. We wrote an important minute about sustainability – at the time, I didn’t think we went far enough and I was pretty sure all the environmental groups would just laugh at us; now I think they were all going to laugh at us anyway, and we still have to do what we can. It is a problem, though, because some local groups are so far ahead of us and we are slowed down by having to make our own way.

In 2012 I was jaded. The big topic was about economic justice, and a lot of people said things about how ignorant they/we are, and even more shared their really good ideas about what someone else should do (a fictional but suggestive example: retired white British father of three suggests that people in ‘over-populated’ countries should avoid having children). I became clear early on that I didn’t have the energy to do any of these things – I haven’t done half the things I should about sustainability anyway – and although I disliked disengaging in that way, it seemed necessary.

I hope that in 2013 I will be able to engage again as deeply as I have done in the past (even if it means crying during the worship). I don’t know what the topic will be (although I’ve seen a Meeting for Sufferings paper about the possibilities, all of which I think could be useful), but I’m not sure that matters as much as informed, prayerful, thoughtful participation.

B is for… Books

I expect a lot of people will write about books… most of the neo-pagans I know began their journeys in paganism through a library or a bookshop. Nevertheless, I think it’s good to share some of our favourite books, so here are some of mine. (Note that these are not really recommendations – such a thing needs to be more specifically tailored to a person and a time, as elf said – but notes on what I have found useful to me at specific times in the past.)

Celtic Gods, Celtic Goddesses, R J Stewart
This was one of the first books about paganism I read, as I followed the trails from archaeology and mythology into neo-paganism and the possibility of continuing practice. I had the library copy out for so long that eventually I had to buy a copy of my own! As a very beginning beginner, the images in this book were some of my earliest altars – I love the image of Brigid especially, though others have spoken equally clearly to my condition over the years. It probably had something to do with my choice of the name Rhiannon, too.

Quaker Faith and Practice, Britain Yearly Meeting
I vaguely remember the discussions which happened in 1994 when Quakers in Britain revised this book, which lays down ‘right ordering’ for our practice and collects inspiration and wisdom from previous and present generations. It isn’t strictly pagan – it’s a book of Christian discipline – but the understanding of Christianity presented, and the attitude to other religions, allows for much exploration. I try to take seriously the advice to “think it possible that you may be mistaken.” (17)

The Urban Primitive, Raven Kaldera and Tannin Schwartzstein
This was the book which made pagan practice seem like a real possibility for me, town-dwelling and chronically ill. There’s a lot in it which I’ll never use – but the underlying attitude ‘you can do magic anywhere, with anything, and nobody else has to know’ got me started on magic and magical prayer at a time when more ‘cuddly’ books just set up an impossibly romantic goal. Parts which stand out in particular are the advice about clothes, the city deities, and the poem in the front.

The Book of English Magic, Philip Carr-Gomm
I was delighted when I discovered that this heavy book was also out on Kindle – the ebook reader makes it comfortable for me to read things which my wrists and shoulders would otherwise hate. It was one of the first things I bought on the Kindle, and I read it last year when I was going through some very tough times. Besides being a wealth of information and leading me to explore and re-explore several branches of the English magical tradition, further research on Carr-Gomm’s work lead me to the OBOD Bardic Course which is enriching my life at the moment.

Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Druidism, Isaac Bonewits

Bonewits’s writing is witty and accessible and erudite all at once. In this book he gives an overview of the development of Druidism – much of the recent material drawn from his own experience. It’s a good introduction. I enjoyed Ronald Hutton’s work on the history of Druidry, too, but I’m doing a PhD, and academic writing doesn’t seem so heavy any more. I also hesitated over which of Bonewits’s books to include here, as I have also enjoyed Real Magic and Neopagan Rites  as well as his web writing. There’s something down to earth and practical about Bonewits, though, and this is the book I’d recommend to someone just starting to ask, ‘what is this druid thing anyway?’

B is for… Body

I struggle with my body.

My belief, like that of many Pagan paths, says that my body is sacred, something to be honoured.

My experience suggests that my body is usually something disgusting, something to fight, something to resent and fear.

My body makes demands that I cannot meet.
My body is ugly.
My body attacks me without warning.
My body does not cooperate.
My body is ambiguous, problematic, morally wrong, unbelievable.

I have often tried to sort out what of this is ‘true’, and what ‘constructed’, what is the actual situation and what is imposed upon me by the society in which I live. At the moment, I have concluded that what is imposed upon me is still real to my experience, and that the two cannot be entirely separated.

My body demands more sleep than is normal, and hence more sleep than is socially acceptable, and at times which are unacceptable to many. (Some people go to bed ‘early’ at midnight. I go to bed ‘early’ at seven.) My needs to eat regularly, to avoid alcohol and to keep caffeine in moderation, are similarly unacceptable in most parts of society.

My physical needs and my culture are in conflict, a battle which is played out in my body.

My body is ugly by the ordinary standards of the world. I have body fat. I have hair. I need to wear clothes which are comfortable and warm, which do not chafe and yet which protect me. My mode of dress is unacceptable to a significant percentage of the men who pass me on the street, who feel the need to tell me so.

If my body is sacred, it is to a Goddess whom most in my world do not want to meet.

My body attacks me without warning. I get pain with no apparent cause. The doctors look, and some say there is no cause and hence there must be no pain; others take tests which cause more pain and prescribe treatments which are even more painful. This pain is personal and private. Due to its location, it can rarely if even be spoken or expressed. People do not want to know what treatments I am enduring.

My body isolates me and there is nothing in my community which fights against that trend.

My body does not cooperate. It does its best, as I do my best, but the rules my society creates about what a body should be able to do are out of reach. This has been clear ever since my PE lessons at school, and comes into focus again whenever I try and join in with a ‘normal’ activity: driving, swimming, yoga, LARP, walking, shopping. My body can fake some of these things for a while, but it basically cannot do what is expected of it.

When the Goddess was stating me, She got very low rolls on the physical numbers.

My body is ambiguous. Few people mis-gender me at a casual glance, but some who look more carefully have second thoughts. I am rarely if ever mis-raced, but frequently mis-religioned. Most people on most days read me as able-bodied, though, because my illnesses are invisible or at the very least hidden. Some of my illnesses are so invisible that even doctors refuse them; some are widely regarded as jokes or non-existent. The results of lab tests often do not match or make sense of the observed situation.

My body is a mystery.

My Goddess is a Mystery.

In my flaws, in my ugliness, in my strangeness and wrongness, I seek to come closer to Her.

Hail, hail, and well met,
Hecate of the many ways.
Guide me as I walk your paths.