Tag Archives: god

Reading Quaker faith & practice: Chapter 3

Chapter 3, ‘General counsel on church affairs’, is one of several chapters in this book which seems to me to really start with the second item in it. The beginning of 3.02, “In our meetings for worship we seek through the stillness to know God’s will for ourselves and for the gathered group.” is so much better, such a stronger beginning to ‘counsel on church affairs’ than “This chapter refers especially to…”! Apologies to whichever committee member painstakingly drafted 3.01 in order to meet someone’s need to have this and that clarified at the beginning, but couldn’t we at least take the ‘this chapter includes…’ stuff after a little bit of inspiration?

That said, once I get into Chapter 3 there are a number of passages which seem to me both helpful and inspiring. Some which stood out to me on reading it through are:

  • 3.05, “… open minds are not empty minds, nor uncritically receptive: the service of the meeting calls for knowledge of facts, often painstakingly acquired, and the ability to estimate their relevance and importance.” I think this is hugely important, partly in pointing out the role of preparation before a Meeting for Worship for Business (n.b. this is my blog and I reserve the right to capitalise whatever I like even if contrary to the house style of the Qf&p/F&P!). It is especially important, though, in demonstrating how ‘head’ and ‘heart’ are brought together in the process. Later on in 3.05 there is a line about the need for “sharing of knowledge, experience and concern”, and I think this too reminds us that our intellects, our emotions, and our spiritual selves are not separate. The business method actually requires our whole selves, including our minds, though it may sometimes led us in irrational directions just as it can led us in directions which we find emotionally distressing.
  • 3.15, which is about the acceptance of minutes. This is, I think, most of the most important and distinctive things about the Quaker way of working, and one which it is easy to fail to grasp. However, 3.15 puts it very clearly: “It is at the moment of accepting each minute that the united meeting allows you [the clerk] to record it as a minute of the meeting.” Before the moment of acceptance, it is a draft minute, and no more; after that, it is a minute owned by the whole meeting, and only the meeting have the power to change whatever decision is recorded in it. It’s easy to forget how important the acceptance of the minute is – especially for minutes of record, where the draft is good enough, clerks sometimes forget to ask the meeting to formally accept it; at other times, people forget that the minutes are accepted one by one as a Meeting for Worship for Business progresses and ask a meeting to approve a fair copy later on. These are significant mistakes because the moment of acceptance should be doing a good deal of work: it is, in a sense, the pinnacle of the business process, the point at which the consideration of a matter is over, at least for now, and we recognise ourselves as a united meeting.
  • 3.22: “It is a responsibility of a Christian community to enable its members to discover what their gifts are and to develop and exercise them to the glory of God.” Working on nominations matters over the last year – in the context of the review of our central or national nominations processes – has made me more sharply aware of the ways in which we sometimes fail to do this. One problem is that we start with the hole, the need for someone to do a job, and look for someone to fill it, rather than beginning with the people and seeing what each is led to do at present. Another is that we sometimes have a narrow view of what will count as a ‘gift’. Some of the qualities which I and others find most irritating about me – that I’m loud and outspoken, that I have very strong emotions, that if you put a case to me I will always, always try and see what the other side would say, even if I agree with you – can be positives if found the right space. I try and remind myself of that when yet another person tells me to keep my voice down or that I’m talking too much or that I’m overreacting or being contrary! This passage prompts me to ask how I can use these gifts to the glory of God – including in ways which might fall completely outside the Quaker nominations process.

Overall, Chapter 3 seems to me to be an uncategorisable chapter. Many Friends talk about a division between ‘governance’ and ‘inspiration’ and sometimes that divide is clear – 16 is a procedural chapter about marriage and how Quaker marriage relates to the law, while 22 is an inspirational chapter about people’s experiences of close relationships. In this case, though, where would you put it? On the one hand, church affairs are a governance matter, and this chapter does include directions for clerks and others which clearly belong in church government. On the other hand, Meeting for Worship for Business is a form of Meeting for Worship, and as such it is as much at the heart of our spiritual practice, as many other ‘inspirational’ topics such as our testimonies.

D is for Divine

I spent a while trying to work out which letter to put this under. G. S. D. L. W. In my recent academic work I’ve talked a lot about the ‘or whatever you call it’ style of talking about God (or the Light, or the Spirit, or… you get the idea). I’ve written about this both here and for other sites before; recently I used it as an example of disagreement success. I think it’s fair enough, though, to ask: what actually is this it which we might name in many ways?

Well, I’m not even sure that it is an it in the sense of being an object, for example. I sometimes get the feeling that we are lumping more than one thing together under the same label: Stasa wrote a post after one of my workshops in which she explored the possibility that this is the case. I also think it’s possible that the Divine is multiple at one level and single at another level, maybe even multiple in different ways at different levels or from different perspectives. I absolutely would not want to say that one of those levels was ‘better’ or ‘more enlightened’ than another – do you know Douglas Hoffstadter’s analogy about the ant hill? (It’s about minds, not God, but never mind that for now.) The levels from the single ant to the whole system are all real, and all worth studying, and none of them can be called ‘wrong’.

As a Quaker, I do have a personal position on what the Divine is like. Some of it is actually about what I know God isn’t like: along with Giles Fraser, I don’t believe in the God Stephen Fry doesn’t believe in. I don’t believe in the omni-this, omni-that Deity whom we might call the God of the philosophers. I find some religious stories helpful, and others not so much; my reasoning mind revolts at miracles and I have to work quite hard to see the narrative power of them. That said, some of the stories I do find helpful come either from the Pagan traditions or from the Bible. After many years of thinking about language in this context, I’m quite relaxed about it – it’s hard to shock me with a new word or bore me with an old word, partly because in both cases I’m less interested in the word itself than the ways in which it is used. I do believe – in fact I’d say that I know from experience – that there is some kind of Divine will with which a person or a group can be aligned (or not aligned). This is the ‘will of God’ which Quakers seek in Meeting for Worship for Business; it’s always a bit provisional, it’s ‘what we who are here should do now’, rather than a command to others or for all time. I believe, but I don’t know, that if we do faithfully what we are asked to do we will be taking tiny steps, one after another, towards the Kingdom of Heaven (or the Divine Commonwealth, or the realisation of our true natures, if you prefer).

I also think that our experiences of the Divine – whatever They might really be like – are heavily influenced by our imaginations, our bodies, our world, and our societies. I know that my experience of the Goddess Brigid is very shaped by the reading of Pagan books which I did as a teenager, that my experience of God’s will is very shaped by my participation in the Quaker community and Quaker practice, and that my choice to label some of my experience ‘religious’ (but not ‘Christian’) is very shaped by my encounters with those terms in all sorts of, sometimes irrelevant, contexts. I assume that, whether they like it or not, this is broadly true for other people and act accordingly, trying to understand what the influences are in a particular case before trying to tease out where our understandings might agree or disagree.

G is for… Goddesses and Gods

Sometimes I don’t believe in any.

Sometimes I believe that all names are aspects of one. Or two.

In everyday life, though, I find myself using and enjoying a wide range of names for Goddesses and Gods, and treating them as individuals. I like to read about them, collect images of them, and write prayers, poems, and song words for them. I take a pretty broad definition. I try to be respectful to their places and cultures of origin, but I am aware that I might fail. If you think I’ve done so, please let me know. This post is a public sharing of a small portion of my private practice, and does not constitute a recommendation for anyone else’s public or private practice.

Some Altar Prayers

a green cross, woven out of straws, on a white background

Brigid

Hail, hail, and well met,
Brigid, Lady of the Flame:
forge your words with healer’s hands.

a rough and old carving shows a man's face with horns, each of which carries a large hoop or ring

Cernunnos

Hail, hail and well met,
Cernunnos, Lord of all that lives:
tame the year with healer’s hands.

a dark and strange painting, showing a woman hunched down on the right - she holds a book and is flanked by two other women. a face flies in the sky above, while on the left is a bush in which an owl perches and snake hides. a donkey grazes nearby.

Hecate

Hail, hail and well met,
Hecate of the many ways:
guide me as I walk your paths.

a white marble statue of a man with one hand lifted

Hermes

Hail, hail and well met,
Hermes-Thoth the thrice-great god:
Guide me through my transformation.

Venus

Hail, hail and well met,
Laughter-loving Aphrodite:
Hear Sappho’s prayer and mine as well.

Hermaphroditus

Hail, hail and well met,
Beautiful Hermaphroditus:
May acceptance enter all our lives.

Sekhmet

Hail, hail and well met,
Bast-Sekhmet who purrs and roars:
Lend your strength to all your cubs.

Athena

Hail, hail and well met,
Athena weaving words and thoughts:
Lend your strength to my debates.

Epona

Hail, hail and well met,
Epona on the great white mare:
May your bring my prayers to fruit.

Matres

Hail, hail and well met,
Triple Goddess, Triple God:
Bless your daughters three times three.

So mote it be.