Tag Archives: C

Converting to Christianity

Converting to Christianity has been on my mind lately – not for me personally; I’m culturally Christian and happy in a complex and theologically inclusive faith community – but because I’m writing a story set in a time and place when we don’t know how many people had or hadn’t converted. Conversion in historical settings is often described as if it were of a whole community at once – and perhaps sometimes it is. Conversion in historical settings is also often measured by the recorded actions of the ruling class. This has two problems. One is that the people doing the recording, later on, were themselves almost always Christians. The other is that just because the leader of your community has converted, it doesn’t mean that everyone has. (Even if the leader has converted in terms of actions, there’s still the issue of what they actually believe, but we have even less access to that.)

In the case of Europe – my story is set in Wales – we can put down some markers for the groups of people surrounding the right time and place. We know a fair amount about the Roman Empire’s conversion to Christianity, with Constantine accepting it in 312 and Theodosius 1 making (Nicene) Christianity the state religion in 380. We know a little bit about missions to the British Isles, with Ireland converted around 430 and the first Christian king of the English, Ethelbert, converting in 597. What isn’t clear is to what extent the British people in Wales had converted to Christianity, and what their beliefs were in the gap between the Romans leaving (around 383) and the Saxons arriving (from 446, but starting on the eastern side of England). Some of them would have been Christian (and those who were would mainly have been Pelagians – followers of the ideas of Pelegius, who was excommunicated in 418). Some would have followed the Roman religion, especially if they arrived through the extensive movement of Roman soldiers around the empire. And some might still be following a local religion, now mixed with Roman elements but also retaining Celtic ones.


A stone Celtic cross, a symbol which emerged from this period of religious complexity. Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

This ambiguity is attractive to me as a writer, because it gives me space to explore. I’m able to take a range of elements from the evidence – things which might have survived from the Roman period and things which might have begun by this time and be recorded later – to create a fictional society in which these multiple religious currents are meeting and mixing. Of course, historical fiction is always only partly about the past, and quite a lot about now. Finding a time in the past when multiple religions which interest me today where interacting in ways which were obviously complex and aren’t fully know also opens up a space for me to pose, in the past, the questions which I’m thinking about now.

For example, I’m interested in multiple religious belonging – why and how an individual might be part of more than one faith community – and in what it takes to be identified as part of a religion. When it is something the individual can identify for themselves, simply by stating it? When does it require community involvement, and what form does that take? Some religions have clear prescriptions about this, at least for some cases, but there are typically also cases of uncertainty as well. What are the actions which are considered characteristic of a faith in a particular time and place, and when does performing them mean you have joined or at least become associated with that religion? In this early period, baptism hadn’t yet taken up the role which it is given by later Christian communities, of acting as an entry ritual, determining who is and who is not part of the community. In exploring this complexity in fiction, characters can move in and out of different categories, with those around them – and perhaps even the characters themselves – unsure about where they fit.

Converting a person – and so even more a group of people – to Christianity can never have been simple. I’m not going to pass judgement on whether it was a good thing or a bad thing to convert Britain to Christianity. There are later cases where it seems to me to be clearly bad, especially where Christianity was forced on people, used as an excuse to suppress local culture, and put to work to maintain oppressive social structures. There are other cases where people convert because they have found their right spiritual path, and that is, in general, obviously good. And there are lots of situations in between – where people convert because they think it will give them a better life, or because everyone around is converting, or because they are not so much moving from one faith to another as adding something to their religious lives. The extent to which pre-Christian British religion survived in Christianised forms is up for debate, but I think there’s enough evidence to say on the one hand that some pre-Christian British practises were adapted into Christian ones, and that this didn’t result in a long-standing, multi-generational Pagan tradition running alongside the public Christian religion.

One of the reasons I think the conversion of Britain isn’t directly comparable to some more recent cases of countries being converted is that Christianity didn’t arrive in Britain with an oppressive ruling class. It arrived through the Romans – who had invaded long ago by time they adopted Christianity, and who gave up trying to rule Britain soon afterwards. And it may also have arrived through independent routes; if Christianity came to some parts of Scotland, Wales, and England via Ireland, for example, that separates it from Roman involvement. It did pick up some Roman ways of structuring administration, and we have some evidence of bishops in Britain in the 300s (if Restitutus was indeed Bishop of London, for example). Instead, it seems that, in this period when few records were produced, that there would have been multiple religious traditions all common in the community, and people perhaps moving between them, combining them, and trying to work out what the relationships between them should be.

Fun times for writers who want also want to explore those things!


At the end of Telling the Truth about God, I suggest that Quakers – and maybe other people who struggle with these issues around religious experience and how we express it, but are committed to remaining a community – should “try, cry, and clarify”. The idea is that you have to say something, but it will fall short in some ways and you or others may be hurt by that, but then you try and work out what went wrong so that you can try again. In this post, I want to explore some more practical things which might be meant by ‘clarify’. If you’ve got to that stage, what can you actually do?

Listen to find out where the questions are.

Is there a misunderstanding? Is someone else in the conversation using the same words or metaphors, but in a very different way? (‘Lamb of God’ might be a gentle, rural image; it might suggest a vicious killing; or call for mint sauce!) Are you making a reference that not everyone gets?

Try telling your stories about the words you use.

By telling your personal story about a word – where you learned it and how you use it, what historical and cultural touchstones it brings to mind for you – it is sometimes possible to help others see the word in your way. Even if they can’t use it themselves (especially if it reminds them of very different cultural and historical connotations), knowing why the word is significant to you can help a lot.

Try a different word from the same framework.

If you’ve tried expressing your theology – here understood very broadly, your understand of God and the world – in one way, but it didn’t seem to work, you could try using different terminology. Within the Christian theological framework, for example, I hear Quakers switching between Christ and Spirit (perhaps to the confusion or annoyance of careful Trinitarians!).

Try a different framework.

Not everyone will feel comfortable doing this, but some people who have experience with more than one faith tradition feel able to switch between ways of thinking: to redescribe God Within as the Inner Buddha Nature, for example. This sort of move is encouraged by some of the lists of apparent synonyms which I discuss in Telling the Truth about God, and it fits with some versions of the Quaker universal approach to truth.

Try inventing a new word (or repurposing an old one).

This might not be an approach for every day, but sometimes it’s possible to coin a new phrase, pull a new word out of thin air, or take a noun and verb it, or something similar. If the words you have all seem to lead to confusion, clarity is sometimes achievable by making up something fresh. The trick is usually to use it: use it often and consistently so that others can learn the pattern you have in mind for it.

Listen some more.

Even when you’ve improved the clarity and all involved in the conversation have a greater understanding of each other, there’s bound to be something else to work on. Taking time in silence can help – but silence can’t be the last word. In my experience, we will eventually be led to try again.

C is for Community

‘Community’ is another word I use a lot. I talk about ‘community contexts‘, for example, and ‘belonging to a community’. I don’t, I think, use it in any very technical way. In fact, the reverse: I assume that everyone knows what a community is and that I therefore don’t need to explain anything about the general concept. Instead, I focus on exploring specific examples from real communities (as opposed to generalising about them too much – not that I can always avoid it).

It’s possible, though, that this tends to elide or disguise the differences between different communities and different forms of community. People form communities around all kinds of things, some more central to their identities and ways of life than others: religious belief and practice, locality, sexuality, disability, culture, ethnicity, employment, looking at pictures of cats that look like Hitler. For example, if you’re a professional folk musician you might belong to a specific folk music group or community, or to the folk music community in general, and your experience of those communities will be different to the experiences of folk music fans who also belong but don’t themselves play folk music, or who only play as amateurs. If you’re a lesbian you might belong to a specific group, in person or online, and you might consider yourself part of a worldwide community of lesbians, or LGBT people more broadly, but in some cases you might not participate in these communities in any visible way – choosing to be celibate or in the closet, for example. There could be invisible participation in a community, if you donate to a charity in secret or feel like you belong, although it’s obviously hard to say what this would look like. (Sorry!)

In some cases, it’s obvious that one person can belong to more than one community. Buddhist folk musicians who support Liverpool are not a category problem – although there are issues about the relationships between categories at times, such as if your religion and your hobbies (or, classically, sexuality) are thought to conflict, having both a religion and a hobby and thus belonging to two communities isn’t puzzling to anyone. In some categories, too, you can have multiple affiliations: you can be a fan of a TV show and collect souvenir pencil sharpeners. In others, though, there’s often a challenge: people who claim more than one religious identity are not so immediately comprehensible. You can’t tick multiple religion boxes in most survey questions about religion; you have to pick one.

Some of our attitude to this will depend on the community concerned. If you belong to more than one model railway building society, nobody usually minds unless they meet at the same time and you can’t attend both meetings. If you support two football clubs, you might get asked which one you prefer or ‘really’ support, and you might get into trouble when they play each other, but you might get away with it in they’re in completely different leagues. If you identify as bisexual, often understood as ‘being both straight and gay’, you’re likely to encounter stereotypes of being greedy, immature, unfaithful, and/or a liar. If you try and join two political parties – especially in a two party system! – you’re likely to be considered incoherent. The question about religion could be framed as: what kind of community is a religious community? Is it more like a model railway society or more like a political party? What does it mean when some people are members of more than one religious community and other people are, at the same time, claiming that to do this or do it properly is impossible?

C is for Context

Context is a word I use a lot in discussing my academic work; I use it, for example, in the context of the Wittgensteinian slogan “Meaning is use in context”. But what is context?

I think of it as the stuff around something which helps you make sense of it. I might also use words like ‘setting’, ‘surroundings’, or ‘connotations’. The context of an event is the other stuff happening before and around that event: the Second World War needs to be understood in the context of the economic situation in the 1930s, for example. The context of a word is the other language – and maybe other actions or events – which surround it: the word ‘queer’, for example, comes over very differently in the context of someone yelling “you dirty queer” compared with someone talking about “queer theory”. Sometimes the context contains important clues: the context of a picture in an art gallery, for example, might include a notice with the title and the name of the artist, and maybe some other comments, which help you to contextualise that image. In particular, the date of the painting and the identity of the artist might help you to connect it to other, related, paintings, and put it into a broader context of art history.

Contexts, as that last remark reveals, can be narrower or broader. The context of a word in a particular book, on a particular page, in a particular sentence, gets narrower and narrower, and it can be very informative to look at this context in a tightly focussed way. In a poem, for example, we might find that the juxtaposition of two specific words – which alliterate, to give a simple example – might be very important. In other cases, it’s helpful to broaden our search to a much wider view of the context – to put a Biblical passage, for example, in the context of the whole book which contains it, and then into the genre (is it from a gospel? Psalms? A letter?) to which it belongs. We might find it contains allusions to other texts and want to put those into their original contexts, too.

Words, objects, and people move between contexts, too, of course. Have you ever met someone in the street, whom you would know and recognise in a particular meeting or in another city, and completely failed to recognise them? Many people have highly contextual memories – we often link information to other information relating to a specific context, and struggle to retrieve it outside that context. An object in a museum is obviously not in the original context, and it can seem weirdly alien (have you ever seen one of your childhood toys in a museum?). Similarly, when words cross between contexts – if someone uses technical computer terminology in a casual conversation, or Buddhist words in a Quaker setting – they can come over very differently. This experience is heightened if the audience don’t have the speaker’s background with a word: if the Quakers aren’t familiar with the term ‘Sangha’, if the participants in the casual conversion aren’t sure what a Chrome app is, if your friend has spotted her favourite childhood toy in the museum display but you never owned one. In this case, the previous contexts in which the speaker has encountered a word – which may be more or less visible to the audience – can be vital to understanding not just what is meant at the straightforward level but the emotional resonances which it carries for the speaker.

C is for… Christianity

Quakerism has its roots in Christianity. George Fox was a Christian. Many Quaker ideas, terms, and values come from Christianity. Worldwide, the majority of Quakers today have no doubt that they are Christian.

I don’t think anyone is arguing about the foregoing. The problem comes in when we look at British Quakers today, many of whom have troubled relationships with Christianity. (This is a casual blog post and contains no statistics or footnotes. People have done surveys, though, and they usually publish them in the journal, Quaker Studies.) People, quite reasonably, start to ask questions like: Are Quakers Christian?

For example, if you’re a university chaplain and you want to know whether to file the Quaker leaflets in the Christian box or the Other box, you might ask that question. In that case, I think we got a compromise and half the leaflets went in each box, but not all such questions are so easily settled.

I don’t generally call myself a Christian, but sometimes I use the ambiguity of Quakerism to claim Christian privilege – I say, “I’m a Quaker”, and let people make their own assumptions, in situations where the easy assumption is that I am therefore a Christian (a bit low church, left of the Methodists but still on the chart).

Actually, sometimes people tell me that I am a Christian. “I thought you were the most Christian Guider here, because you do all the prayers and things,” a very confused Brownie said to me once. “You’re as Christian as I am, and I’m a Christian,” a rather more theologically sophisticated f/Friend told me another time.

I think I’m not a Christian because I take it to be the case that to use the term ‘Christian’ you have to think that Christ is important, probably the most important thing, in your religious life. I’d expect maybe some beliefs about Christ being manifest in a bloke called Jesus, that sort of stuff, but I can be flexible there; but Christians have Christ.

Christ is basically meaningless to me. I can relate to some of the things that Jesus is reported to have said, though I’m a little wary that accepting him as the highest teacher boils down to having a man tell me what to do, and I’m not keen on that. I don’t know – spiritually, I’ve read theology about this but it doesn’t make any sense – I don’t feel how one can tell the difference between the Christ, eternal and sometimes incarnated, and the Spirit, moving through and working in the world.

I’m fine with Spirit language (though you’ll notice that in casual uses I tend to drop the ‘Holy’ – not because it isn’t, just because I don’t want to sound churchy when I ramble on about mad religious stuff). I don’t sense Christ in the world, and if I feel the Presence in the Midst I call it the Spirit covering us.

I guess the real issue here is about boundaries – where is the edge of the Christian community, and am I still inside it? I read a blog post recently about boundary dwellers along the US/Mexico border. I think there’s a metaphor in that – I have a passport which I can use to enter some Christian spaces (theology conferences, church services, cathedrals), but I also live much of my life in nearby countries, where a lot of the culture is similar but the laws are different. In this metaphor, I think Quakerism is an organisation with offices in a lot of different cities, so I can pop in and out wherever I am.

C is for… Concern

Quakers have a peculiar use of the word ‘concern’. It can be used in its ordinary sense, as a near-synonym for ‘worry’, but also in a technical sense: a concern is a worry that is taken up by a Meeting, perhaps passed up through a series of Meetings, to become a Concern. Some examples of these meanings in use: I’m concerned that we won’t have any vegan cake at shared lunch today, I have a Concern about asylum seekers going hungry, members at Area Meeting are concerned that we won’t get to tea on time, Area Meeting is Concerned that animal charities in our region need more support, our Friend is much concerned with other people’s business, Meeting for Worship for Business has carried forward our Concern about deforestation in the Amazon by asking our Clerks to write a letter to amazon.com.

(For bonus points, experienced or Weighty f/Friends may wish to identify which one of these examples is real as opposed to merely plausible.)

Ideally, as the Quaker Jargon Buster explains, a Concern is a leading from the Spirit which is tested by a business meeting before being accepted; you can see in my examples that once this has happened, we sometimes speak of the Concern as belonging to the whole Meeting. If a Concern goes through a process of being passed up to a wider Meeting, it can be adopted on behalf of Friends across a whole area. This process of testing is one of the ways in which we seek to protect against unhelpful and non-Spirit-filled ideas, and these acts of group ownership lend a huge amount of support to those leadings which are taken up.

Arguably, a Testimony is a Concern that grew up.

It can also happen that in a Meeting for Worship for Business, a Friend will put forward a Concern – often in opposition to whatever seems to be the prevailing wind of the Spirit – which is not their own, but a third-order Concern. Allow me to give you an entirely fictious example: “Friends, I am fully in support of our warden’s proposal to paint the walls of the meeting room magnolia, but I know that some other Friends, who are not here today, will be very upset if we go ahead with this, as in 1902 it was decided – with the help of Harry So-and-so who was at the Manchester Conference and once clerked the Yearly Meeting for five minutes while William Whatsit was in the lavatory, if you remember – in 1902 it was decided that white walls are part of our Simplicity Testimony, and magnolia might be regarded as less than perfectly simple.”

A true Concern is a powerful thing. Have you ever had a Concern? Have you seen one in action?

C is for… Crafts

the folded corner of a white handkerchief, with an embroidered red cross in the 'Brigid's Cross' style

Altar Cloth for Brigid

I may not be all that artistic, but I like to do craft work and it often comes out pagan-themed. Above is a handkerchief I embroidered – adding a simple Brigid’s Cross made it into a small but useful altar cloth. I carry it in my ‘traveling altar’, a bag of useful pagan bits I can use for rituals when I’m away from home.

three strings of beads on a cloth. one long one is of recycled bottle glass, uneven beads of green and blue, and the other two are shorter with pendants - a knife blade and a tree.

Prayer Beads

I enjoy making prayer beads – sometimes I think I get more out of making them than from using them! Here are three of my favourite strands. Around the outside is a string for Merlin and Nimue, made from recycled bottle glass beads. I love the mixture of earthy and watery tones. On the left is a string for Brigid – the knife blade represents Her three aspects of smith-craft, surgery (an aspect of healing), and cutting, incisive or satirical poetry. Finally, on the right is a string for Bile, a Celtic Tree God important in some understandings of Druidry.

a clear glass candle holder painted with, in blue, the Awen symbol: three line point upwards and inwards to three dots, the whole surrounded by three circles.

Bardic Votive Candle Holder

Painting a candle holder with glass paint pens is a quick and easy way to dedicate a candle to a particular cause. Here’s one where I drew the Awen symbol, in the blue of the Bardic grade, to use in my Bardic Grove rituals.

None of these craft projects took long, or many materials – needle, thread, cloth, embroidery hoop; beads, cord or beading thread; candle holder, glass paint pens. But sometimes simple is best. 🙂

What crafts do you make for the Craft?

C is for… Chanting

In both Paganism and Buddhism, one of my favourite things to do is to chant. I enjoy singing, but am not good enough to get my head around anything very complex; the simplicity and repetition of a chant is just at my level. Here are a few of the ones I like best.

She Changes Everything She Touches – a classic by Starhawk. I first heard this when I was with a group of Quakers and we bumped into a group of American Wiccan woman in West Kennet Long Barrow. It’s an amazing place to sing, spiritually as well as acoustically.

Om Tare Tuttare Ture Soha – Tibetan Buddhist mantra for the Bodhisattva Tara. This is one of many versions on YouTube, but the one I actually listen to at home is Steven Halpern’s version.

We Are The Old People – simple lyrics by Morning Feather and Will Shepardson make a strong chant.

Ubi Caritas – a Christian chant, from the Taize community, with simple lyrics.

May The Circle Be Open But Unbroken – a very well known and widely used chant. My favourite recording is on the Findhorn Foundation’s CD, Garden of the Goddess.