Tag Archives: books

Quakers Do What! Why?

My second book in the Quaker Quicks series from Christian Alternative Books is coming out soon – I have some early copies to sign and sell, as pictured – so I wanted to say a bit about this book. What is it and why did I write it?

A box of copies of ‘Quakers Do What! Why?’

At the core of this book is a series of questions. I’d been collecting questions for a while – all my life, probably, because I’ve been a Quaker all along and from the time I was at school I was trying to explain what I was on about and where I went on Sundays. In this book I try to answer the most common questions, and some of the most difficult. There are questions in here which I’m practised at answering: I didn’t have much problem writing an answer to “What’s this about Quakers who don’t believe in God?” because I’ve already answered it so many times. It’s not a simple answer, but it’s not especially difficult for me at this point. Actually, the hardest answer to write was for “Do Quakers have structures like parishes?” – the initial answer is ‘yes’, but when I tried to say slightly more, I had to try and cover all the possible options, and Quakers around the world have lots of different structures. 

At the impersonal level, I thought it would be useful to have a recent and brief book which addresses these issues – partly for Quakers who might find it useful as a reference work, but mainly for people who are new to Quakers or want to find out more. There’s a chapter on Quaker weddings and funerals, for example, since that’s a time when people often encounter Quakers for the first time. There are chapters on Quaker worship and things which are sometimes mentioned (but not usually properly explained) when Quakers get into the news, like the way we make decisions. 

More personally, I started writing this book from a sense of frustration. I like answering questions, and I’ll be happy to keep repeating these answers in conversation – but there isn’t always time to give a full answer. I can and do refer people to other sources – for some of the topics in this book, specific Quaker groups have already produced good leaflets or videos or other materials – but sometimes there’s not a single good source for follow-up reading, or the best descriptions are aimed at people who already know about how Quakers do things. So I wrote this book so I have given the full answer somewhere, and if I give a brief answer I know there’s a full version easily accessible as well.

You can preorder this book from Christian Alternative Books or any other bookshop of your choice. Or if you’d like a personally signed copy, email me at rhiannon.grant@woodbrooke.org.uk with your details and I can arrange to post you one (and ask if you’d like to buy Telling the Truth about God or Between Boat and Shore at the same time). There are only 25 in the first box, so get in touch now!

Last Day of 2019

It’s the last day of 2019, the last day of the year and (depending on your counting system, possibly) the last day of the decade. I haven’t been blogging as regularly over the last few months – my energy has been taken up elsewhere – but it seems like as good a time as any for a quick review of the year, the last ten years, and some thoughts about what’s coming in 2020. I’m going to split my review into four themes: reading, writing, teaching, and personal.

Reading

In the last decade, I’ve read a lot. I’ve always read a lot, but what I read has shifted over that time. It was probably about ten years ago that I got a kindle for the first time, and that opened up two worlds for me: downloading fanfiction from AO3 (rather than reading it on my laptop), and buying cheap ebooks from Amazon. The latter especially has been a big shift in the publishing market and probably affects the next section, too, because when it’s easier to self-publish or to run a small press, because it’s easier to create and sell ebook-only editions, it becomes possible to cater to niche audiences (like people who want to read LGBTQ+ romances) in a way which was previously… well, which was previously happening mainly in fanfic.

I’ve also made extensive use of libraries, second-hand bookshops, and new bookshops throughout that time. The horrified book-shop running friend who almost refused to speak to me after seeing my ebook reader can relax: as far as I can tell, being able to read in more ways just means I read even more, it doesn’t mean I’m buying fewer physical books.

In 2014, I had a bookshelf full of ought-to-read-that books which I hadn’t had time for, and to encourage me to get through them I started tracking my to-read and read numbers. In 2017 I moved my record keeping into the public domain on Goodreads. These two things mean that I can now offer you a graph of my reading habits and a link to find out what all those books were. Mainly due to taking twelve weeks of study leave (see also the next section), I have read 257 books this year.

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Graph of number of books read, by month, since 2014, with an average line and some notes about events during that time.

Writing

Some writing which I began long ago came to fruition in 2019 as two of my books were published. Telling the Truth about God, based on my earlier academic book British Quakers and Religious Language, which in turned was based on my PhD thesis, came out in 2019 and we held a book launch at CLC in Birmingham.

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With the bookshop manager at CLC at the launch of ‘Telling the Truth about God’.

I also began January 2019 asking questions about this novel manuscript I’d accidentally written in some spare time. (No, really, I had a gap between other books and wanted to maintain a writing habit… it isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened to me, just the first time I’ve had something good enough to show other people at the end.) Manifold Press picked it up and it was published in the summer of 2019: Between Boat and Shore. In a genre which clearly exists, and seems extensive for those in it, but is small enough that people outside laugh and think I’m joking when I call it a genre, this is probably one of those things which wouldn’t be possible without the internet.

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‘Between Boat and Shore’, a lesbian romance set in Neolithic Orkney, was published in 2019 by Manifold Press. It can be purchased from https://manifoldpress.co.uk/book/between-boat-and-shore/.

My main writing project in 2019, and the reason for my study leave, has been my next academic book – currently called Theology from Listening and due with my editor in January 2020. (One reason why I haven’t been blogging so much!)

Next year’s writing projects include a novel which I don’t really have spare time for, another Quaker Quicks book based on this year’s research, and who knows what else. Hopefully some blog posts and poems! I’m reducing my hours at Woodbrooke a bit to make room for more writing, so there will definitely be something. If you want to watch this space for news, why not sign up to get blog posts by email? (There’s a form in the sidebar on the right.)

Teaching

I did various forms of teaching in 2019. (Back in 2009 I was watching lots of my graduating classmates going into secondary school teaching and promising myself I’d never teach at all… universities and adult education are very different to schools! I’m still sure I couldn’t cope with that, and massive respect to everyone who does teach in schools.) I ‘m now co-supervising more research students, which is always interesting and one of my favourite jobs, and have been glad to be involved in various conferences, events for researchers, and academic processes like PhD vivas.

Five courses I taught for Woodbrooke stand out as highlights of 2019. Early in the year I co-taught a course called ‘The Changing Shape of Eldership and Oversight’ with Zélie Gross. We looked at the ways Quaker communities can provide spiritual and practical pastoral support, exploring a range of options and how things are changing in general. Some of this is about the wider changes in the Quaker community – more smaller meetings, for example – and some about changes in society as a whole – like the fact that there are fewer people retiring with time and energy to spare for voluntary work.

Directly relevant to this blog, Gil Skidmore and I ran a course called ‘Spiritual Blogging’. We looked at the Quaker tradition of spiritual journals and how that might relate to modern ways of communicating. We identified some differences but also lots of interesting similarities and cross-cutting themes, like issues around editing your life, choosing what to say and what to keep to yourself.  Ben Wood and I collaborated on a course called ‘Truth is What Works’, in which Ben brought a whole load of interesting philosophy and we spent time as a group playing with those ideas.

I taught a full online course on my own for the first time. In ‘Multiple Religious Belonging’, course participants explored their many complex experiences of religion and read (or watched videos) about different perspectives of, and opinions on, situations where one person might be participating in more than one religious tradition or community. And right at the end of the year, Jon Martin and I worked together on a course called ‘Speaking to That of God’, which was about finding new audiences and building Quaker presences online. This is something that I’ve worked on in various ways over the years, but usually for myself and my own purposes – to network with people, to get new perspectives, to form different communities within the wider Quaker world, to learn, to share ideas and practice writing – rather than on behalf of a meeting. I learned a lot from our participants and their questions, and sharpened up some of my own thoughts about what is or isn’t possible or desirable online.

In 2020 I’ll be continuing to work on some of these topics – search Woodbrooke’s online brochure or order a paper copy if you’re interested.

Personal

Outside work, I continued to settle in to living in Birmingham. I visited Belfast twice to spend time with my partner, who’s studying there, and she came to Birmingham several times as well. We went on holiday in the Republic of Ireland with my parents, and had a good time including seeing puffins and stone circles.

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By the shore of an Irish lake, my parents pose for my partner’s camera – she’s standing with her back to me while I take a picture of the photographer at work. 😀

Having resigned at the end of 2018 after volunteering with GirlgudingUK for over a decade, because of their partnership with the armed forces, and stepped back from some other tasks, I started 2019 without much by way of voluntary work. During the year, the Book of Discipline Revision Committee started our work, and I got involved with the Society of Authors including starting a local branch. I kept up my allotment, having some successes (tomatillos, cherry tomatoes, raspberries, broad beans, a couple of good squashes), and some failures (lettuce seeds that never germinated, leeks which… went weird?, some seedlings I thought I’d sown which turned out to be weeds!).

In 2020, my main aim is to let things in my life happen as they happen. I want to enjoy the opportunities I have – some funding to keep writing, an exciting holiday, a big work trip, potential new directions for my research, and all the usual hopes allotment holders have in spring – and I’m not setting big or dramatic goals. I’m aware that’s the opposite of what I want to see in the world (governments setting ambitious targets for fossil fuel reduction, electoral reform, a welcoming rather than a hostile environment, etc.), but I also need to give myself some space. The last few months have been very crowded with stuff, and seeds (mostly metaphorical but also literal!) which have been planted need time to grow.

Book structure

or, what have you been doing on your study leave?

I often ask research students about the structure of their paper, thesis, or argument. I ask this and sometimes people are ready to answer, but it also sometimes happens that people look at me blankly as if they aren’t entirely sure what the question means. That’s a shame, because I find it a really useful way to think about my own writing – and so, in order to show that I am willing to do the things I ask other people to do, I thought I’d take some time today to describe the structure of the book I’m writing.

The project is an overview of liberal Quaker theology (for, eventually, Brill’s Research Perspectives in Quaker Studies series). The aim of the book is to show that liberal Quaker theology exists, that it’s coherent, that it might sometimes seem vague or diffuse but is actually a single tradition – admittedly with multiple sub-traditions and complexities – which can usefully be analysed and discussed together. In order to show this, I look for places where liberal Quaker theology can be found and try to gauge their unity and diversity in different areas.

I start off in my introduction with an assessment of what has been said so far about liberal Quaker theology, and by clarifying how I’m using those terms. I make sure everyone knows what will count as Quaker or not, what it means to say that something in the Quaker tradition is part of the liberal sub-tradition, and what I think I’m looking for when I say that I’m looking for theology. I don’t, for example, think that theology can only be done if you have a university degree in theology – so it’s important to make sure readers know what I’m on about. Having set the scene in this way, and thereby laid the foundations on which I’m going to build a tower, I start looking at my three bodies of evidence.

In this first chapter, I look at one place where I expect to find liberal Quaker theology represented in a formal way, in statements which have the approval of the whole community. Quakers don’t write creeds but do have books, books of discipline or books of faith and practice, which try to bring together the important things they think they need to record and teach people within the community. They typically revise these books from time to time, when they seem outdated or something has changed in their community. Each Yearly Meeting might have its own, and can split up the material in various ways – but they all include the sorts of theological thinking I’m looking for. In order to get a really broad picture, I picked eight different examples of these books. I describe each one and analyse some key passages from it to look for the theological material. This is the evidence: if I find theology in liberal Quaker books of discipline, it’s evidence that there is liberal Quaker theology; if it’s coherent, or I can at least trace a continuity within the change through time and around the world, it’s evidence that there is a single liberal Quaker theological tradition. I was able to find both of those, so that’s brick 1 laid on my foundation.

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A rough diagram of the book structure I describe – with a black line for my introduction/foundation, a nice solid rectangle for chapter 1, a square-ish shape at a bit of an angle balancing on top for chapter 2, a small but firm square for chapter 3, and a arching grey line down the left hand side to take it all in and be my conclusion: tower!

In the second chapter, I look at some works by individual Quakers or small groups which might be expected to be more diverse. They might be working outside an institutional context, or in a situation where a group has been specifically gathered to try and represent the theological diversity present within a Quaker community. I do find more diversity of theology, but I’m also able to show that everyone involved in engaged with some core liberal Quaker theological themes (as identified in the previous chapter). The tower is now taller and more likely to wobble, but I’ve got brick 2 balanced.

In the third and final major chapter, I extent the argument in one way – aiming to show that as well as ordinary theology, there is also academic liberal Quaker theology – and in order to do so within the space available, I compromise a bit. I let go of trying to show the full diversity and range of this area of work, and instead pick four examples which showcase some of the relevant ways of doing theology – not all, and without much spread in time or geography – and look at how each of these four examples relates to the picture of a coherent single tradition of liberal Quaker theology which I’ve been trying to build through the previous chapters. With brick 3 on, I’ve narrowed the tower a little bit, and that helps it to stay upright.

In the conclusion, I say… well, among other things, I make the structure of the book clear. I comment on how my new tower relates to other people’s towers and also talk about how it could be improved: what future work could build it taller or make it stronger? Among other things, I point out a brick I missed out on using. It’s only in the final chapter, when I look at a committee-produced document, that I bring in all the things which sit between the levels of chapter 1 and chapter 2 – things like minutes and epistles, things which might be written by individuals or small groups but are approved by large Quaker bodies without making it into a book of discipline. That could have been another brick. I left it out because I suspect it’s a difficult brick to get together – the documents aren’t necessarily easily available, they’d be in lots of places and understanding the context of each one would be time consuming – and even if I did, I wouldn’t expect it to show much that was different to both the books of discipline (which include that kind of material if it stands the test of time), and the books and other works by individuals and small groups (who are, at least at some level, the same individuals and small groups who participate in the meetings for worship for business which also produce the minutes and epistles. Differences between the highly tested books of discipline and the highly personal individual statements seemed much more likely (and indeed, I found some but none which were too damaging to my argument…!)

If I’d done the reading and found something different, I would have built a different structure. I had a fair idea going into this project that I was going to find something like this, but I was also already broadly familiar with all three areas of investigation. What did change was the order and the emphasis; looking back through my research journal, I can see that I considered and rejected structures based on history (so probably these kinds of materials, but in chronological order rather than themed by type) or topic (again, these materials but themed around issues which frequently arise in liberal Quaker theology) before working out this approach. The big emphasis it places on the books of discipline came from a comment made when I gave a conference paper on the project, and although I might have got there by another route I think it proves the effort of writing a paper was worth it!

Another way to think about the structure would be as a story – this kind of investigation is like a missing-person story, or maybe actually like three lost cats. The detective first establishes what cats she needs to look for (in the introduction), then hunts down cat one (surprise! it was at home by the fire, but it’s a striped cat and is almost completed hidden on the stripy rug), then looks for cat two (which has been all over but comes home for a favourite food), doesn’t spend that long looking for cat three (but shows that it has been seen chasing a laser pointer in next-door’s living room), and concludes that the cats, although thought to be lost, weren’t actually very lost at all.

So, there’s mine. What’s the structure of your project?

“Quakers Do What! Why?” – coming next year

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The cover of ‘Quakers Do What! Why?’ – as well as the title and my name, it has a picture of someone shrugging with a big question mark over her head.

I now have a publication date for my next Quaker Quicks book – 31st July 2020.

My previous entry in this series, Telling the Truth about God, has quite a narrow focus, looking at how Quakers try and say the unsayable by using techniques such as lists of apparent synonyms for God, the Divine, the Spirit, the Light, Love, the Universe, Energy, the Inner Buddha Nature… you get the idea.

My next one, Quakers Do What! Why?, is much more general. It uses a question-and-answer format to explain different aspects of Quaker practice in a light-hearted and accessible way. It covers questions like how Quakers worship, how Quakers make decisions, how people can be Quakers without believing in God, and why Quakers don’t use water baptism. I hope it will be useful for people who have just discovered or remembered Quakers and want to fill in some gaps, and maybe for people who’ve known a little bit about Quakers for a long time but have more questions.

I know this announcement is well ahead of the actual event – watch this space for more information as publication day gets closer, and in the meantime, feel free to ask me questions in the comments or on CuriousCat.

Ancient Orkney places: locations in Between Boat and Shore

One of the things I enjoyed about writing Between Boat and Shore was getting to imagine my way into a world which I had already almost visited. Many of the places described are real, and the others are based on buildings from the same period or reconstructions. Here’s a quick run-down with pictures and links for readers who might be interested (some minor spoilers but nothing major, so you should be safe to read this if you haven’t read/finished the book yet).

The island on which Trebbi lives is South Ronaldsay, and the nearest modern village is Burwick. Look round that Google map and you’ll find Liddel Loch, and just south of that, a small sheltered bay. Although sea levels have been fairly stable for the last 6000 years, there has been local change and I allowed a bit for erosion and gave myself some poetic license in the details of the shoreline. As far as I can tell there’s no evidence for a village on the site I described – but the people who built Banks Chambered Tomb, also known as the Tomb of the Otters, needed to live somewhere, so I invented Otter Village.

It seems that on at least some of the Orkney islands during the Neolithic, every community has its own tomb. On Rousay, so many of them survive that archaeologists have been able to guess where the boundaries between community areas might have been – in Hedges’ (very useful) book The Tomb of the Eagles he provides a possible map for this (p106). Studying an OS map of South Ronaldsay, I felt pretty close to drawing my own, each ‘slice’ of the island with a tomb, access to the sea, fresh water, and access to the higher land as well. (The small size of the island helps with working this out, but it also gave it an advantage for real neolithic people as well as authors – at just under 50 km², it’s too small to support a breeding community of large predators: even with plentiful food, that’s a home range for just one or two brown bears, i.e, not a breeding population.)

The tombs themselves are interesting. There are at least two distinct styles found on Orkney – some divided into chambers with upright stones, and others with chambers built into the walls. The Tomb of the Eagles is an example of the first kind, but the structure is easier to see in this picture of Midhowe tomb on Rousay.

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Below a white gantry and wooden walkway in the top and right of the picture, a stone structure has a green floor, very thick side walls with a stone facing and rubble core, and thin, upright ‘flagstones’ sticking out in the central space, where the floor is mainly green.

Maes Howe, probably the most famous of the Orkney neolithic tombs, is an example of the second kind with chambers built into the walls; so is the Tomb of the Otters, although (as you can see in the diagram on this page) much smaller. Ordinary people aren’t allowed to take pictures inside Maes Howe, so here’s a picture from Charles Tait’s professional photography website.

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The block walls of Maes Howe showing how the side chambers are built into the thick walls.

The houses in the novel are based on those at Barnhouse and Skara Brae, on the mainland of Orkney. In this picture, which I took at Skara Brae, you can see the dresser – Trebbi keeps her cooking pots on one of these – and the small stone-slab box on the floor, which may (as in the novel) have been used for keeping seafood alive until it was wanted.

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A Neolithic house at Skara Brea, similar to those I describe in Otter Village. The hearth in the centre of the house is on the lower left; there’s a large dresser and at the base of it a box which may have been filled with seawater and used to keep seafood alive; and on the right, a box bed. The sea is just visible at the top of the picture.

Also mentioned in the book are the stone circles, the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness – plus a completely fictional location which is more like Seahenge, even though I know that’s later. Here’s a picture of mine showing the Stones of Stenness.

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(some of) the Stones of Stenness – three huge uprights with sharply angled, ‘scalpel like’ tops, on a grassy area, with water and distant hills behind.

And it’s the Ring of Brodgar which appears on the cover of the book itself, picture by E. James and the cover design by Fiona Pickles at Manifold Press.

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‘Between Boat and Shore’, a lesbian romance set in Neolithic Orkney, was published in 2019 by Manifold Press. It can be purchased from https://manifoldpress.co.uk/book/between-boat-and-shore/.

Paperback copies of Between Boat and Shore are now available – buy from Amazon (UK or US), or get in touch with me directly if you’d like a signed copy.

 

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!

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?)