Tag Archives: C

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.