Tag Archives: faith

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!

Asexuality, aromanticism, and Quakers

This week it is Aromantic Spectrum Awareness week. It’s also a week when I found “quaker asexual” in the search terms – the phrases people put into an internet search before they ended up on my blog. Although asexuality and aromanticism are not the same thing, I think they’re related or at least easily confused enough that it makes sense to discuss them together. I’m not asexual or aromantic but I’ve chosen to write about this because I think it’s helpful for the whole community to be more aware of those of us who are aromantic and asexual, and how we might exclude people accidentally by making assumptions about what is ‘normal’.

Before that, though, I want to clarify how these terms are being used. ‘Asexual’ might bring to mind asexual reproduction, like single-celled organisms which just divide – a proper use in biology, but not the meaning of the word in this context! Here, we are talking about human experience, and asexuality refers to the experience of not feeling sexual attraction. There are different ways someone might be asexual – they might simply never feel sexual attraction or arousal. They might feel a small amount, sometimes or in particular circumstances, but not as much or in the ways expected by their surrounding culture. They may or may not experience other feelings often associated with sex, such as romantic feelings. The AVENwiki, produced by the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, gives more information from the point of view of people who are asexual.

512px-Aromantic_Pride_Flag.svg

The Aromantic Pride flag, created by Cameron Whimsey and in the public domain.

Someone aromantic doesn’t experience romantic feelings. They may or may not experience sexual attraction – someone can be aromantic and asexual, or aromantic and sexual. They may have strong platonic connections with people – aromantic people aren’t automatically loners or introverts. Identifying what is and what is not a romantic feeling can be complicated and being aromantic, like being asexual, is not always clear-cut. Someone might experience very few romantic feelings, or only in very specific circumstances, and still identify as aromantic.

Terminology in this field continues to develop as people find ways to connect with others who have similar experiences – experiences which haven’t previously been validated or accepted by wider culture. These experiences are often regarded as damaged or pathological, with people assuming that an asexual must have a physical problem with sex or an aromantic just hasn’t met the right person yet. Neither of these things is necessarily true and leaping to such conclusions can be very dismissive of someone’s experience and feelings.

So, is there anything which Quakers can say about these experiences? Firstly, I think it’s important to say that the Quaker emphasis on personal experience and truth-telling means we start from a position of accepting people’s accounts of themselves. Secondly, Quakers value diversity in community and see no reason to encourage everyone to be the same – the existence of sexual and asexual, aromantic and more romantic, people of all sexual orientations and none within our community is well documented, and if we are able to create an atmosphere of trust so that everyone can be open about their experiences we will be the stronger for it.

We might be able to go further. As the Religious Society of Friends, we should be especially good at valuing friendship! Actually, I don’t know that we are any better than our surrounding culture at celebrating platonic friendship – we certainly like to make more of a fuss of weddings and traditional romantic and sexual relationships – but perhaps this is something we can work on. Being honest and accurate about people’s relationships and the importance of connection in people’s lives means not just avoiding errors (not describing a lesbian couple as ‘friends’, but also not downgrading a non-sexual friendship to ‘just friends’) but naming and celebrating them. This takes courage. Perhaps it can begin with an increased appreciation of nonsexual and nonromantic relationships in all our lives – having a romantic and/or sexual partner is not the end of a relationship game, tick, married, you’re done. I think sometimes we do okay at recognising this, in our pastoral care for one another, but it isn’t described or discussed openly as often as might be beneficial.

What would it look like if we did better at this? Being more aware of the range of human possibility, as brought to light by these and other emerging descriptions of identities and experiences, would be helpful. We could make sure that people in our local Quaker communities know that the Quaker Gender and Sexual Diversity Community includes asexual people. Treating experiences like getting married as just that, experiences, rather than inevitable life stages, would be good too, and being positive about sex but not treating it as essential. Alongside that, some assumptions we ought to be dropping anyway would have to go – no more hinting about having children, no more assuming that single people are lonely, and asking rather than guessing when we aren’t sure about the nature of a relationship. But do note the case recently reported on Twitter of two visitors at meeting who were asked “are you two friends?” and heard “are you two Friends?” Careful phrasing may be required!

Review of ‘Nephi’s Courage’

Nephi’s Courage: Story of a Bad Mormon by Rory McFarlan is about a man who is actually a good Mormon, but also gay. The story follows his life as he tries to balance the demands of his church with his real beliefs about a loving God and his own nature. There is so much here that interests me! And some things which had me questioning or made me uncomfortable.

If you are interested in religion and sexuality I recommend this book, with a few caveats. The first of those is that it might be a very distressing read – the whole plot turns on homophobia, which is extensively and realistically depicted, including the horrible consequences it can have (family conflict, psychological distress, need for mental health support, drug abuse, suicide), and there are cases of family abuse. The second is that the writing is not always great. There’s a lot of dialogue which is sometimes stilted – not bad, but slightly short on contractions and sometimes full of info which the reader might need but the characters would already have. I found I was reading some of it in Data’s voice, which is enjoyable in a different way but not I think the intention! With those things in mind, I thought it was a good example of a niche book which wouldn’t find an audience at all pre-internet, but can now be shared internationally and reach people, like me, who are interested in this specific subset of things.

There will be spoilers in this post, so if you want to read the book unspoiled please go and do that now and come back!

I learned a lot about the Church of Latter-Day Saints from this book. I was already reasonably well informed, I think, and had read up on feminist Mormon perspectives before. However, because Nephi is both deeply committed to the religious practices (and loves them, and so they are described from an insider and sympathetic point of view) and deeply entangled with the community and its structures (which don’t always treat him well), there’s a level of detail which I didn’t have before and an engaged and affectionate perspective which is sometimes difficult to get. For example, I was aware of the practice of performing rituals, including baptisms, for deceased family members – like many amateur historians and genealogists, I’ve benefited directly from work done to enable this, but also like many people outside the church (and as a member of a faith community which is specifically not interested in baptism) I’ve thought of this as ethically disturbing because it feels like imposing a religious ritual on someone who can’t consent. Seeing this from Nephi’s point of view, where the sense of love and desire to be close to his ancestors is strong, puts a different perspective on this.

I already knew a good deal about homophobia, and although some of the details of the depiction are interesting, what makes the story compelling is Nephi’s commitment to bringing together his faith and his sexuality – having tried living alone, he decides to try and forge a new path, one in which he keeps not just God and Jesus but the church in his life, while also dating and then marrying a man. There are some tragi-comic episodes as he experiments with the wonderful and confusing world of online dating (perhaps not handled entirely realistically, since most people would do some Google searches to find out about otters and bears and twinks… but Nephi’s decision to ask a friend instead produces some entertaining scenes, so I’m not complaining). Among other things, Nephi comes into contact with a series of people who are also in his position but making different decisions or failing to cope with the tension between the church and their lives. One character is rejected by his family and dies by a drug overdose. Another rejects the church, and some within the church fail to understand why anyone gay would want to remain.

This is the core conflict of the novel and one which is very relevant to me – and resonates with Tina Beattie’s The Good Priest which I reviewed last year. In a church where being gay makes you a bad church member, how do you strive to stay right with God? (Side note: I know you all know this, but just in case – this is not all churches and certainly not all religions, lots of people who believe in God are also gay and happy about it, so if reading about this is filling you with dread why not check out some affirming faith groups instead?) One of Nephi’s answers is to try and stay as involved with his church as that church will allow, even when they’re trying to kick him out. His consistency in this, and struggles to balance his need to attend church with other demands (like his partner’s desire that they attend a Pride parade together), is admirable even as it sometimes reaches the point of damaging stubbornness.

Another of Nephi’s answers, and a more theologically interesting one in some ways, is that he tries to work out what God’s commandments for a gay man would look like if they treated homosexual and heterosexual relationships fairly. Accepting as much as he can of the church’s rules, and taking on board – after a struggle – his own conviction that he is loved by God and worthy of human love, not called to remain entirely single or celibate, he tries to adjust the rules the smallest amount possible to make space for his own happiness. From a Quaker perspective, this story of trying to incorporate new light, fresh revelation not accepted by the hierarchy, into an existing structure is perhaps especially compelling – and frustrating, since nobody shows much sign of listening to him. For example, he knows he can only be attracted to men and decides to pursue a relationship with another man, but he commits to not having sex before getting married. (I really thought he wouldn’t succeed… but we don’t have Vegas in the UK!) Although eventually convinced, people around him find this very hard to believe – and after his marriage, he continues attending church services in a single’s ward, partly because he now has a group of friends there but also because the church don’t recognise his marriage.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and found it well worth reading. I braced myself to be horrified at several points (as well as the homophobia, there are extensive shooting and hunting sequences, which were actually fine for this relatively unsqueamish anti-gun pacifist vegan, but could have been much harder to read). I had questions sometimes (I can’t always tell what’s artistic license for the sake of the story and what’s genuinely vastly different systems in terms of the treatment of mental health, for example – there’s a massive lack of waiting lists). I recommend it to anyone interested in the overlapping issues of religion and sexuality, especially if you want to learn more about the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and I hope Rory McFarlan will continuing exploring these questions in fiction.

Qui-Gon Jinn, most Quakerly Jedi?

I’ve been saying for years that I think Qui-Gon Jinn, as well as being the most important character in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and probably the most likeable character in the prequel trilogy, is the most Quakerly Jedi in the Star Wars universe. I’ve just read Claudia Gray’s new novel, Master & Apprentice, and I think it proves me right.

Before I go any further, let me clarify the limitations of my claim. I’m not arguing that the Jedi are Quakers, or that Qui-Gon Jinn is a Quaker. Jediism, both as a fictional faith and a real one, has both significant commonalities and differences with Quakerism: Jedi and Quakers both like being calm and aware of their connectedness with the world; fictional Jedi often use violence while Quakers usually reject it; real Jedi usually adopt that faith as adults, like most Quakers today; Quakers have at least a historical connection to Christianity and often a role for Jesus in their spirituality, while Jedi don’t (counter-arguments involving members of the Skywalker family on a postcard, please); and there are more nuanced cases – in some other post perhaps I’ll compare the minister/elder system used by the Valiant Sixty with the master/apprentice structure.

The Jedi are not Quakers. Some of the Jedi are deeply unQuakerly – and not just the ones who become Sith, but also those who accept the status quo, use violence before other methods, and support their political leaders in immoral courses of action.

That said, there are general similarities between some aspects of the Jedi way and some parts of the modern Quaker way, and in Claudia Gray’s novel Qui-Gon Jinn becomes a spokesperson for them. I’ve picked out three short passages which will illustrate what I mean. There are minor spoilers in what follows, so if that’ll bother you, go and read it first. (It is worth reading: it’s an excellent example of what Star Wars extended universe writing does well with a great mix of mission-focused plot and character exploration).

In the first passage which caught my attention, Qui-Gon Jinn is talking to Rael Averross, a fellow Jedi (and fellow student of Dooku’s, cue ominous music). Rael has gone a bit off the rails before and during a long stay on the distant planet Pijal, and seems to be going further. Here (p124), he and Qui-Gon discuss the Jedi code.

It had been a long time since Rael Averross felt the need to justify himself to anyone on Pijal, but as he walked Qui-Goon to the door, he found himself saying, “You know, there’ve always been a few Jedi – let’s be honest, more than a few – who see celibacy as an ideal, not a rule.”

“I’m coming to believe that we must all interpret the Code for ourselves,” Qui-Gon said, “or it ceases to be a living pact and becomes nothing but a prison cell.” Which sounded nice and all, but was a long way from letting Averross off the hook.

Point one is another difference: Quakers have had different codes of sexual ethics over time, but have never embraced celibacy as a path for the majority, let alone something enforced! Point two, though, is a similarity about the relationship expressed here between the rule, the Jedi Code, and the way it is lived out. Rael suggests a difference between an ideal (presumably a good idea but not a realistic one) and a rule. Qui-Gon suggests that what matters is not so much the rule itself or the way the Jedi act, but the relationship between people and Code.

What’s Quaker about that? Well, it could be compared both to a traditional Quaker approach to the Bible, and to the relationship Quakers have with their own tradition. The first of these could be illustrated with an old but still much quoted passage from first-generation Quaker Margaret Fell, who became a Quaker when she realised that she and her existing church had not made the Bible into a ‘living pact’: “we are all thieves, we have taken the Scriptures in words and know nothing of them in ourselves” (link to longer quote with context). As a movement, Quakers have acknowledged the need for each generation to make the tradition its own. This is sometimes explicit, as in these words from Young Friends in 1926: “each generation of young Friends by its experiments must discover for itself the truths on which the Society is built if it is to use those truths and to continue and enlarge the work of the Society”. Sometimes it’s built into the practice, as in the ongoing process of revising the very book from which those quotations are taken. Like the Jedi Code which Qui-Gon follows, it contains rules – but it is meant to represent a “living pact” not a “prison cell”.

The next passage is from much later on in the story (p217). Qui-Gon has had a vision of the future, and has decided that although he will act on it, he won’t share it with his superiors, the Jedi Council.

Qui-Gon had not yet shared his vision with the Council, nor did he intend to. They would spend all their time bickering about the viability of the hyperspace corridor. They were too bound to Coruscant. Too bound to the chancellor. Too far from the living Force.

They were no longer the sort of Jedi who could trust in a pure vision.

It shocked him that he was that Jedi. That he could still find it in him to believe so profoundly, so unshakably, in pure mysticism. Qui-Gon had so often felt out of step with the Order as a whole, but never to this degree.

He had also never felt this close to the Force.

There are more differences here, of course. Although I know some Quakers who study and interpret dreams or Tarot cards, having visions of the future isn’t part of Quaker tradition generally. However, I think Quakers could easily come down on either side of the hyperspace corridor debate (it has political elements familiar from closer to home: questions about economic justice, access to transport, political representation, slavery, and the power of large corporations are all involved). And there is a deeply Quakerly element in Qui-Gon’s rejection of authority in favour of trusting his own connection to the Divine. For him that Divine is the Force, and it might be known as God or Spirit in traditional Quaker understandings – but Quakers use many, many words to talk about God and some of them are remarkably similar. I’ve heard terms like Energy, Universe, and even the Force used in workshops! However they understand it, Quakers seek to contact the Divine directly, not needing any particular person or practice to mediate their knowledge of the Divine. They can use a group process but also listen for leadings from the Divine – much as Qui-Gon does in this passage.

My final passage also comes from a discussion between Rael and Qui-Gon. (Another similarity with Quakers? Jedi in this book seem to discuss their beliefs mainly with each other, and mainly when they disagree, never explaining to non-Jedi characters!) Rael starts by putting a case that if the light and dark, good and evil, sides of the Force should be in balance, their actions are irrelevant (p259):

“…the darkness would be just as strong as the light. So it doesn’t matter what we do, because in the end, hey, it’s a tie! It doesn’t matter which side we choose.”

… “It matters,” Qui-Gon said quietly. “It matters which side we choose. Even if there will never be more light than darkness. Even if there can be no more joy in the galaxy than there is pain. For every action we undertake, for every word we speak, for every life we touch – it matters. I don’t turn toward the light because it means someday I’ll ‘win’ some sort of cosmic game. I turn toward it because it is the light.

One point here is that the language of ‘light’ and ‘dark’ is very popular with Quakers, even though it can be racist – and I think the Star Wars use, where light and dark map directly to good and evil, is also problematic in that way.

If we replaced ‘light’ with ‘good’, here, though, there would still be another similarity to Quakers: something which might be called idealism or working from principles rather than pragmatism. In a piece of research which involved interviewing Quakers about social justice work, I found they often mentioned the way in which a long-term, ideals-focused approach won respect from other campaigners. These campaigns are not run in order to win (although, as described in that link, there have been successes along the way). Rather, campaigns against war and for equality are based on a Quaker faith in the importance of doing what is good and what God asks.

Would Qui-Gon Jinn be accepted for membership if he applied to a British Quaker area meeting today? I’m not sure – at the very least, there would have to be a serious conversation about lightsabers and maybe a chat about gambling. But based on the evidence I’ve gathered in this post, I think that theologically he might fit right in.