Tag Archives: community

Afterwords: coming towards the end

I’m now in my last week as an Eva Koch scholar. Over the weekend, the four Eva Koch scholars gave presentations to some local Friends and those who happened to be at Woodbrooke, outlining our findings and sharing some of our experience. Here are some of the headlines from mine – things which haven’t yet been covered in blog posts (see my afterwords tag to find them all). I’ve also included a few of the pictures I used in my presentation, all taken in Woodbrooke’s garden during my time here.DSCF7947

Afterwords has three main purposes: community building, improving ministry, and smoothing transitions. Unfortunately, these all have a flip side. Afterwords can help a meeting to flourish as a community by helping people to get to know one another better – especially in ‘the things which are eternal’. It can move a community beyond chatting about daily life and into a deeper sharing about experiences of worship and spiritual insight. However, it can also split the community: either physically, if the afterwords is held in such a way that not everyone participates or feels able to participate, or emotionally, especially if people in the meeting have very strong and opposed views about afterwords. Because people tend to really like or really dislike afterwords, with the middle ground sparsely populated,  the whole idea can be polarising.

Afterwords can improve ministry. This can be by encouraging people who are perhaps newer or shyer to speak in a space where there is less pressure tDSCF7853.JPGo give ‘true ministry’. It can also be by moving contributions from those who need to speak often, or who need a more direct response than is acceptable during worship, into a space where that’s acceptable. (Whether this actually is seen as acceptable depends a lot on how the Friend concerned is characterised: there’s sympathy for cases where a mental health or emotional need is hinted at, but very little for cases where something is thought to be a hobby-horse or campaigning point.) On the other hand, afterwords can also confuse newcomers (how do you know what’s nearly ministry if you don’t have any idea what ministry is?) or encourage people to hold back from ministry, thinking that if they are at all unsure of their leading to speak they should wait until afterwords. Some people in the survey reported that having introduced afterwords, their meeting now has very little or no ministry during worship.

For some people, afterwords smooths over a transition from worship into the ordinary world. If notices seem like a jolt after the silence, afterwords – held in a spirit of worship, but with more relaxed rules on speaking – can feel like a gentle introduction.
Unfortunately, there are also (sometimes in the same meeting!) people wDSCF7880ho feel that moving into too many words is a rough road, and would find well-given notices and a cup of coffee provide a smoother transition. In a way, this finding is even less of a finding than the others – you can look to see whether community building is needed in your meeting and whether afterwords might help, and you can put in other ways of explaining and improving ministry, but you can’t do much else about the transition. However, I also think that this finding is more interesting than the others, because so little attention is usually paid to the spiritual experience of the ending of a meeting for worship. The advice on centring down is not paired with advice on ‘rising up’ – except in the activist sense – and yet the movement out of waiting worship is clearly important to people and deserves further attention.

How do we take what we have learned during meeting for worship out into the world? Can we find ways to clarify and consolidate what our Inward Teacher gives us while we are listening, and apply it to our whole lives? To answer these questions, I think we need to consider and review all our practices around the end of worship, including afterwords, but also how we give notices, how we use social time, and our mixed bag of current taboos about discussing and building on spoken ministry.

 

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Reading Qf&p 10 & 11: Belonging to a Quaker meeting/Membership

A friend of mine who has been attending Quaker meeting regularly for several years now has said a couple of times recently that she finds Quakers very smug. She also commented that other churches she has been part of do not spend nearly as much time as time as Quakers do talking about themselves, amongst themselves.

I’m not entirely convinced that Quakers are unique in having these conversations (I’m not sure about other churches, but I know that any online pagan community will go through a round of ‘real Pagans don’t do that!’ or ‘but surely all Pagans agree about…’ from time to time). I do agree that we have these conversations a lot among Quakers, and I’m about to add to the problem by writing another blog post about Quaker membership and community (yet another – see the rest of my tag on ‘membership’). I also suspect that there are a couple of underlying factors here: one is that a lot of Quakers wish they felt more secure and welcome in their Quaker meeting, and the other is that many Quakers believe, often subconsciously, that you can create community by talking about community.

There are, of course, lots of problems which can be helped by talking about them. Quakers are often reluctant, despite a few wise passages in Qf&p and the efforts of Living with Conflict and other projects, to talk about conflict as a problem in meetings, even when that would help. It seems to me, though, that when I feel most part of a community, it’s because we’re doing something together and/or genuinely like one another, rather than because we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the structure and formation of our community.

If we didn’t ever talk about the structure of our community, though, there are things I would get away with not thinking about. Reflecting on chapter 11 has brought to the fore my insecurity about my membership. Every time the issue of membership is discussed, I deal, not always consciously, with the fear that my membership will be taken away from me. My reaction to the suggestion that membership as a category should be abolished – no! I struggled to get that, don’t take it away! – and my reaction to any idea of restricting membership by belief – surely I wouldn’t pass? what about times when I doubt/think x/prefer different words? – are both deeply shaped by a worry that my membership is bogus, that if people knew what I really thought or felt they would reject me, and that although I am very committed to the Quaker community, the community doesn’t really want me.

(I am not, by the way, claiming that any of this is true or logical. My local Quaker community do value some things about me – they like my clear speaking voice even if they don’t always want to hear what it says – and there’s some evidence that I can be useful in the wider community. Nevertheless, a fear that I am not really accepted colours all my reactions to discussions of this topic.)

There are always areas of life in which we try to do things differently, where we think mistakes were made. There are aspects of teaching when I promise myself I’ll never do it that way; when I was asked to participate in a membership visit, I wanted to include a whole list of things which I felt were not considered during my membership application process, as well as some things I valued and wanted to replicate.

Overall, I do think that the process itself is valuable; asking people whether they are really committed to the community offers – if it is done well – both the individual and the Meeting an opportunity to reflect on how they relate to one another. Of course, this needs to be reviewed over time, because needs and abilities on both sides will change, but a membership application process can offer a foundation for this. Confirming that commitment through a formal process also enables us to trust one another with roles which involve taking on responsibility and dealing with vulnerability; this is why some roles in a Quaker meeting are, and in my opinion should remain, restricted to members.

To return to the comments of my friend, mentioned at the beginning: if we never reflected on these things, what would happen? It’s possible that we would all just get on with it, feeling secure in our personal relationships to one another and trusting the Spirit to look after any structures the community needed. I don’t think I’d experience it like that, though. If we never talked about these things, I think many of us would just worry about it without discussing it, as we currently do with many other potential conflicts in our meetings, and sometimes that would turn into a real problem. I’m prepared to say that we may sometimes spend too long on internal issues – but I also think that if we cannot get relationships right amongst ourselves, we don’t stand a chance of changing our wider society.

U is for Use

In Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, the idea of use of very important: he says that for most of the ways in which we use the word “meaning”, “the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (Philosophical Investigations section 43). How are we to understand this claim? His examples, both explicit and embedded in his method, suggest that when we are looking at a speciic word or phrase and asking ourselves “what does this mean?” we need to turn, not to a dictionary or a definition provided by a single person, but to the ways in which fluent speakers of the language actually use the term. This might include ourselves, and Wittgenstein sometimes invites us to think about the ways in which we ourselves would use a term. Because natural language is complex and multilayered, these patterns of use usually turn out to be complex and multilayered, and a single word can have a variety of uses – and, hence, meanings.

(For example, think about the word ‘mouse’. What are the ways in which you use this word? “I saw a mouse in the kitchen.” “Do you remember that red rollerball mouse that came with our first computr?” Sometimes it won’t be instantly clear whether we’re talking about a rodent or a digital input device, but it will almost always become clear if we take into account the whole context of what is being said. This points us back to the importance of context, discussed in a previous post.)

“Meaning is use” is, in a way, very clear, and some scholars are opposed to extending or explaining it too much. However, it doesn’t, unfortunately, fit in with a very common use of the word “meaning”, which often conjures a picture of something like a halo around a word or something above and behind it which gives force to it. To get over this, I often start non-academic discussions by asking people how they think a word gets its meaning (most actually arrive at a Wittgensteinian view without a lot of effort, talking about learning from others and community agreement – this saves a lot of time if we don’t need to debunk ideas about stating definitions first!). Meaning consists in regular and comunally agreed uses. Mistaken uses are possible, but can become part of the meaning if repeated; a mistaken use can eventually become accepted, at which point it is no longer mistaken (“10 items or less”).

I also extend the analysis of use beyond words and phrases to look at structures within language – lists are my big example, but we could also look at the use of nouns and verbs, or metaphors, in much the same way. The question here is always: how does this community use this structure? The community – the context within which the linguistic structure is being used – is always as important to this analysis as the use itself. Meaning is use, which is always within a context.

Reading Quaker faith & practice: Chapter 21

Personal journey: reading Qf&p on the train

Personal journey: reading Qf&p on the train

Friends in Britain Yearly Meeting have been invited, by the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group of which I am a member, to read and get to know our current Book of Discipline – Quaker faith & practice – before deciding whether or not it is time to revise it.

We are beginning with Chapter 21, Personal journey. This chapter contains selections of extracts about youth, age, living a full life, creativity, and death; these are partly arranged in a chronological way, with youth first and death towards the end, and partly not – some could be part of life at any age, and by ending the chapter with ‘Suffering and healing’, rather than death, reading it as a whole is not as bleak as it could be.

One thing that struck me about the chapter as a whole is the metaphor of journey for life. This is a familiar and much used one – we talk about spiritual journeys often, for example, and the image of travel underlies talk about finding Quakerism being like coming home. However, it isn’t always a helpful image. Many of us only set out to travel physically when we have an aim n mind, and the spiritual search does not always or even often work like that. Many of us find travel uncomfortable, something to be endured until we can arrive, and but this is not at all the attitude to life I find in these extracts. It’s all very well to say that the journey is more important than the destination, but that’s very rarely been my experience of actual travel. (In the picture at the top of this post, I’m travelling to work; I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be going if the destination weren’t important to me.)

Doubts about the title asides, this chapter contains some of my favourite passages. I can’t possibly pick out every one, so here are three which I find myself especially treasuring at the moment.

21.01. This passage by Rufus Jones speaks about how he came to learn Quakerism in a Quaker household. He talks, not of being taught, although words were involved, but of being shown, of the religion of his family being something they did together. It’s clear that there was teaching – including Bible reading every day – but that, in memory at least, it was also centrally about experience.

21.19. Dorothy Nimmo’s story is, as she says in the passage, a classic one, and it’s a classic for a reason. This passage reminds me of a debate I sometimes have with my friends about whether I am a  Slytherin. (I am.) It also describes an experience I have had, and I’m sure many others have had, of coming to Meeting with nothing to offer except a need. “Whatever you have.” As someone who has been reprimanded in other settings for being too needy and demanding, I find the idea that I can come to Meeting with nothing but a need very freeing.

21.68. This passage by Iain Law speaks about suffering and death, and how the particular circumstances of Andrew’s death made it difficult to talk about among Friends. The specifics of this passage arise from a historical moment which deserves to be remembered as such; but it also speaks to a broader issues, to the problems which can arise when we are fearful of the reactions of Friends and hold back in ministry. I’ve done this myself – or at other times, not held back, and been met with confused, upset, confusing and upsetting responses.

Before finishing this post, I want to take a moment to address two questions that are asked in the introduction to the Reading Qf&p project: one about the history and development of Quakerism, and one about the authority of the text.

One big issue in the development of Quaker thought is discussed in this chapter – attitudes to creativity and especially to music. This chapter is clear that although early Friends were opposed to music, Friends today are not – indeed, we are broadly in favour of the arts even as we choose to use them not at all or only very sparingly in our worship. There are hints, however, of another shift – Quakers may not officially celebrate Christmas but in 21.25 we can pray for spiritual gifts to be in our Christmas stockings.

What authority does this text have? It inspires and suggests. This chapter doesn’t give instructions but recounts personal responses to situations which we may recognise echoed in our own lives. This chapter can’t have the authority f command because of the subject matter it deals with – too personal, too emotional – but perhaps it can have an authority of guidance: when you are in situations like these, here are some recommendations, some suggestions, some previous experiences to reflect on and, at least, know that you are not alone.

I is for Interaction

At the end of last week, I was at the Quakers Uniting in Publications conference for, oh, almost twenty-four hours. In that time, I presented a two different sessions – one with Gil Skidmore on the Quaker Alphabet Blog project, and one with Susan Robson about Living with Conflict (the book, the website and the Facebook page). Both sessions were lively and interactive, and the interaction was at least partly around the topic of interaction: conflict and disagreement in the broad sense require interaction (the ‘it takes two to tango’ principle), and questions about the alphabet blogs sometimes focussed specifically on the nature and purpose of the interactions taking place. Interaction is key to community, of course, and to communication, and also to many people’s learning styles.

In teaching, one of my interests is to encourage interaction with the material and with other students or participants in a course. It’s possible to take this too far – some topics need a certain amount of straightforward input, and some people are much more comfortable listening to a speaker than discussing questions in a group. That said, I think a lot of people don’t go far enough, and much of today’s media (at least, the traditional media: TV, radio, newspapers) don’t readily support interaction with the material they present.

The nature of online material often makes interaction much more possible – comments sections on news articles, message boards and blogging sites where you can share you views with other fans, and of course social media sites which are designed to facilitate interaction (and then market your desire for possible interaction as a point at which you can be shown an advert). It’s not always clear what these interactions mean and what weight they should be given. To some, a handwritten letter is more precious than an email; depending on the topic and recipient, I can spend an hour on an email and dash of a handwritten note (in ink pen on proper letter-paper) in ten minutes, so I don’t tend to share that weighting. Sometimes when people click ‘like’ on Facebook, they also comment to say what they mean (“Liked for happy ending”), but much more often we are left in the dark. Does ‘like’ mean that you’ve seen it, that it made you pause, made you smile, made you happy? All we can say for sure is that it made you click your mouse.

Sometimes, of course, there is a much more substantial interaction – in response to my post last week, Gordon Ferguson posted at Sheffield Quakers, and we continued the conversation a little in the Quaker Renewal UK Facebook group. At other times the interaction is less obvious, or not online: people coming back months or even years later. After my workshops, I try and measure ‘impact’ (an academic ‘i’ word I’m avoiding writing about!) by asking people whether they will change what they do or say. Of course, at 4pm having only met the material for the first time at 10am, they don’t really know. It’s the bits which come back later – the ministry inspired by something which was said, or the way it feeds into another project – which is the longer term and I feel more valuable form of interaction.

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?