Tag Archives: history

Putting Quaker faith & practice in context

This is the last month of the project to as Quakers to read Quaker faith & practice together. Many groups won’t finish yet, some people are just starting, and I hope we’ll all go on engaging with the book in different ways. If you’ve been reading and you’d like to give some feedback, you can do that through this one-question survey. The material suggested by the calendar for this month, though, falls nearly-but-not-quite outside Qf&p itself: the ‘Introduction’ at the beginning, and the ‘Notes on the history of the text’ at the end (no link because it’s not, currently, in the online version: I’ve made enquires about that). Layout nerds will note that while most parts of Qf&p have paragraph numbers (chapter number, dot, paragraph number, like this: 13.02), both these sections have page numbers.


The first page of the Introduction, showing page number rather than paragraph numbers.

Both sections also have the function of putting Qf&p into a broader context. The Introduction describes some of the history of the text and also talks in some detail about the composition of this text, noting concerns of the Revision Committee: “special attention has been given to the inclusion of a wider range of contributions from women”, for example. It ends with this comment: “In the Religious Society of Friends we commit ourselves not to words but to a way.” This isn’t, as I read it, intended to diminish the value of the book, but rather to point to the purpose of the book. A book of discipline, of which Quaker faith & practice is an example, aims to steer the reader towards the right way of living. In some cases it will be very specific about that (about the right ordering of meetings for worship for business, for example). In other cases it will offer the prayerful reflections of some who have faced the same or similar challenges before, and leave the reader to discern their own way forward.

For me, the value of reading these sections right at the end is that they help to make sure we understand what Quaker faith & practice thinks it is, and how it came to be. The ‘Notes on the history of the text’ are especially useful in clarifying that Qf&p is one stage in a process, a process which has been changing with technology (books of extracts were circulating in manuscript form before a printed volume was produced in 1783) and with the needs of the Society (people often tell me it should be produced in two volumes, but in the late nineteenth century our book of discipline was printed in three volumes). I don’t know where that process will take us next, but I hope and pray that knowing this text – and some of its history – will help us make good decisions in due course.

If you haven’t started reading yet, there’s still time: at the moment it looks like the question of whether this is the right time for the next revision of our book of discipline will come to Yearly Meeting in May 2018.

Openings: Qf&p chapter 19

This is a chapter with a lot of famous passages in it; I’m no historian, but skimming through, I find that I recognise a lot of the stories. Here’s George Fox on top of Pendle Hill, seeing the sea and the people to be gathered. Here’s James Naylor called away from his plough. Here’s Thomas Ellwood pretending to be hunting when he’s actually gone to meeting. Here’s Mary Dyer, executed for her religion.

Skimming through also reveals the structure of the chapter. Some of the material is chronological, but there’s no attempt to provide a complete history. (There’s no need to; plenty of other histories of early Quakerism exist.) What is does do is to try and provide some examples of the historical roots of things which are now important to Quakers: universal access to the Inward Light, our structures or ‘gospel order’, and our testimony or witness in the world (here presented as a list of four ‘testimonies’). For me, the benefits of this approach are that it shows us how we are part of a continuity, working along the same lines as our forebears, worried about the same kinds of issues and using the same kinds of methods. Some of them have even more or less worked – English did abandon the you/thou distinction, and affirming rather than swearing is well recognised in law. Bigger goals, like the abandonment of outward warfare, are still works in progress!

Feeling part of the community who have never been afraid to stand out, to be different, to work by our own values and not those of the rest of the world, can be a real aid to taking courage and continuing the work.

There are disadvantages to this presentation too, of course. It could gloss over all sorts of things that I don’t at all have in common with early Friends. Sometimes I’ve felt that this was a real weakness of the book – especially when this book is treated as the only book, as if it’s called ‘All About Quakerism’ or ‘Everything You Need To Know About Quakers’ – but actually there are lots of other resources out there about Quaker history. (Books, films, a free online course running again this May…) We might benefit from being reminded of some of the ways in which early Friends disagreed with us, but we also gain a lot from the sense of community created by focusing, in one chapter at least, on what we do have in common.

That being so, I want to end with someone from this chapter with whom I feel a commonality: Samual Bownas, perhaps one of the first people able to write about the experience of having grown up as a Quaker. Among the very earliest Friends, that experience didn’t exist; then it came to dominate the Society for hundreds of years; but today, it’s almost gone again, with a majority of Quakers arriving in adulthood. Samuel Bownas describes very vividly the need to move from merely being a Quaker because you have always been one, to being a Quaker because you want to be one. My own experience isn’t like his at all – except that in some ways, it is. These experiences doesn’t fit the ‘convincement’ narratives often preferred by Friends, especially if it happens more slowly and less dramatically than it did for Bownas. I sometimes need to be reminded that it is no less valid for that.

My Peace Testimony in a time of terrorism

Repeatedly over the last decade, there have been attacks in which one or a few people take weapons into a public places and kill as many other people as possible, often dying themselves in the process. This has happened throughout the world, but periodically it has been happening in Europe, circumstances under which the British media spends more time bringing it to the attention of people I know.

When this happens, it is sad and distressing, and the closer to home it seems, the more frightening it is. When it happens, there’s often a lot of talk about it – sometimes running in advance of the evidence, or at least of the release of real evidence to the public. When it happens, I often hear people say, including in spoken ministry during Meeting for Worship, that these attacks are mindless or random and that they cannot be understood.

I cannot believe that. The more I read about such attacks, the more I pray about such attacks, the more I come to believe that everyone involved has motives for their actions. What they do is not mindless, or random, or careless, and so – however difficult I might find it to understand their reasons – I have to accept that they do have reasons. Based on what they know and their experiences, they think they are acting for good. To me, this is part of accepting that everyone, however much I disagree with them and am disturbed by their actions, is a full person and has that of God within them.

This isn’t to say that such violence is always rational. Both violence and nonviolence are often, in the moment, irrational. If, under the same circumstances, you would punch someone and I wouldn’t, that isn’t necessarily because we have laid out logical arguments for our different positions. It’s as likely to be about our personalities, habits, training, and emotions – or to put it another way, the kinds of virtues we cultivate in our whole lives, not just our thoughts.

Accepting that the people who choose to carry out terrorist attacks have reasons for their actions does not mean agreeing with or condoning them – but my government also carries out many actions with which I do not agree, and I don’t have to call them mindless or random. (People I know do sometimes call them stupid, which falls into much the same trap.) It does commit me to a different model of responding to this sort of violence: rejecting ‘we must fight fire with fire’ and ‘ignore them and they’ll go away’ in favour of seeking to understand the circumstances which give people reasons to act in this way.

I have been thinking about this today, November 11th, because this view also alters my approach to remembrance. When I was at school we were taught about the First World War, and what I remember learning (rather than what they thought they were teaching!) was that it had something to do with an assassination, and that we had to memorise the diagram of how to build a trench. Similarly, I learned the outlines of the Second World War without feeling that I really knew why, at the time, people had acted in the ways they did. In my late teens, I first heard the idea that Germany’s actions, especially Hitler’s rise to power, could be explained by economics – today, I think that’s too simplistic, but I also think it’s a valuable insight to see that many evil situations aside from systems, not individuals.

Sometimes people challenge pacifists and those of us who say that there is that of God in everyone by naming people they think are evil: Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden have featured heavily in those conversations in my experience. For me, a stepping stone between ‘yes, people do truly evil things’ and ‘yes, everyone still has that of God in them’ is this: everyone has reasons for their actions, and they do what they think is best with the tools they see they have. I can disagree about what’s best. I can try and point out other tools, other ways of solving the problems. But I have to start by acknowledging that they are people, who have feelings and needs and motives. I might not know what those motives are in any particular case, but I’m committed to holding open a space, a question mark, which assumes that they exist.

If you are interested in exploring the roots of today’s terrorism, I recommend Riaz Hassan’s short book ‘Suicide Bombings‘ as a clear and approachable introduction to recent research on the topic.

Reading Qf&p: chapters 5 and 6

Chapters 5 and 6 look at aspects of the internal organisation of Quakers in Britain – chapter 6 deals with the meetings of our main body, Yearly Meeting, and chapter 5 covers ‘Other Quaker groupings’, of which most are regional (and one is for an age-band, Young Friends General Meeting). Reading these chapters is mostly a very different experience from looking at a chapter like 21 or 3 in which most of the passages are by individuals. There are some extracts from personal writing, but the bulk of these chapters has been written by committee or group – sometimes as minutes, sometimes specifically for this purpose.

These are not, then, chapters which most of us read for inspiration, or just dip into. If I open the book at random and it lands here, I confess I’m likely to try again or flip through for a more likely-looking section! They are, however, very important chapters, and reading them carefully turned out to make me think about a range of issues. (Many thanks to the Being Friends Together resource which offers interesting and enjoyable comprehension activities and greatly increased my engagement with this material!)

One issue which comes out of this – especially out of chapter 5 and the differences between Meeting of Friends in Wales/General Meeting for Scotland on the one hand, and other regional groups on the other – is about the relationship between our internal structures and the structures of our civil society. At the moment, Britain Yearly Meeting includes most of what is governed as the UK, except Northern Ireland (which belongs to Ireland Yearly Meeting). Because Scotland and Wales have devolved governments, the regional meetings in those areas have specific relationships with government. If the people of Yorkshire voted to have a devolved government of their own, would Quakers in Yorkshire – which already exists but is in a different position in our structures to the equivalent meetings in Scotland and Wales – need to take on this role in relation to the new parliament? A different but related question about our boundaries would arise if the people of Scotland chose, as they nearly did but actually didn’t, to leave the UK. Presumably we would have things to learn from Ireland Yearly Meeting, who have direct experience of operating across national borders.

Another issue is about the things we choose to include in the book. When explaining the book to non-Quakers, I sometimes say that Yearly Meeting decides what’s in the book, and the book tells you how to run the Yearly Meeting. This captures the sense of the mutual interdependence of the body (both the Yearly Meeting as a whole community of people and Yearly Meeting as the decision-making event). In chapter 6, it’s very close to being exactly true – there are places in chapter 6 which tell you which business to bring to which session of the meeting, for example – but it’s also not really true. If you started from scratch with only the book, I think the Yearly Meeting you would run would be quite different, in some subtle and some important ways, from what I expect from my attendance. You wouldn’t know about shuffle breaks. You might choose a very different pattern for the appointment of clerks. That in itself is probably inevitable, as no text can capture the constantly evolving expectations without describing every event in detail, but it does raise the question: which things do we need to lay down, and what can we leave open?

The other section which caught my eye was the paragraph within 6.01, a potted history of Yearly Meeting, which is about the Women’s Yearly Meeting. Women had been joining the main/men’s Yearly Meeting since the 1880s, and the separate women’s meetings were laid down in 1907. Gender balances and/or imbalances in the Society were on my mind anyway  when I discussed this with my local meeting last week, and I remembered having mixed feelings about a Young Quaker Women’s weekend I went on during my teens – many positive, some confused, only some of which would later be resolved by learning the word bisexual. If my local meeting held separate men’s and women’s business meetings this coming Sunday, the women’s meeting would be much larger than the men’s (typically our attendance at worship on Sunday is about a quarter to a third men). Some of our committees might not be represented at both meetings. Most but I think not absolutely all of our attenders would know which meeting they were expected to attend, and some might boycott both in solidarity. Our current clerking team would be able to provide one clerk for each meeting. I wonder which agenda items each meeting would discern required their attention, and whether they would reach the same conclusions.

Chapters 5 and 6 talk about how things are, and a little about how they have been. Reading them carefully has made me ask why things are as they are, and think about how they could be different under different circumstances. Overall, I’m actually very happy with how things are, but perhaps there are improvements and there will always be changing circumstances which make this kind of exercise a useful one.

Book review: Paul Among the People, Sarah Ruden

Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, Sarah Ruden

Paul is, as Sarah Ruden rightly points out, a misunderstood, misinterpreted, and widely disliked author – and one who is generally regarded as, at least, down on women, sex, and fun. Ruden does a good job of arguing that much of this is misunderstanding, brought on chiefly by a complete lack of contact between people who study the Bible in Greek and people who study other Greek texts written at around the same time. Ruden, having started out as a Classicist reading material from the polytheistic Greeks and Romans, is in a good position to bridge this gap by bringing her knowledge of the classical languages and cultures to bear on Paul’s writings.

In fact, in this slim volume that’s most of what she does. It’s often effective, sometimes shocking, and often challenges accepted views of the Greek world as well as common views of Paul. For example, she challenges the view of the Greek world as a “gay idyll”, arguing that reading Plato but not other texts, less philosophical and perhaps closer to reality, has given a misleading picture (p58). On the one hand, I’m a bit sad to see this picture torn down, because a picture of a society in which sexuality is viewed very differently is a useful one in all kinds of ways. On the other hand, my feminism survived the destruction of the myth of a matriarchal past, and these pictures can be useful even when known to be fictional.

In quoting extensively from classical texts and trying to offer a more accurate picture of what Paul was saying, Ruden uses blunt and modern translations which do not shy away from sexually and other explicit language – which is, I’m sure, to the benefit of the translation. It’s easy to see why people might not want to read this in church – but also easy to see an argument that this is because some of them have a mistaken, overly prettified, view of what is acceptable in church. I found her section on Galatians 5, one of the rare cases in which she takes on the King James Version directly, especially interesting. She offers transliterations of the Greek words in cases where no suitable translation is available, and goes to some lengths to point out how far from that worldview we are now. (She attributes much of the change to Paul – and I’m sure he had a big influence, although I can think of some other possible candidates as well.)

One drawback I found in Ruden’s writing style was a tendency to make her point, and offer her evidence – and then move on to the next point, without wrapping up neatly and restating the conclusion. Sometimes this worked well, and at other times I found myself going back to the beginning of a section to read it again and understand properly how this evidence support that point. However, I didn’t find points which weren’t supported by anything at all – and many of the points she makes suggest that readings of Paul should change a long way from those currently accepted in the traditions of Biblical interpretation (mostly ‘ordinary’ or folkloric) which I encounter most often.

I didn’t come away from the book as converted to Paul-following as Ruden obviously is. (I think that would be difficult to achieve anyway.) I still find writing attributed to Paul, and some probably genuinely by Paul, used as ‘clobber passages’ or turning out to be ‘texts of terror’. However, Ruden is doing her bit to change misinterpretations, and filling out Paul’s context with suitable Greek and Roman material is obviously a helpful step in that direction.

Margaret Fell and Swarthmoor Hall

Last weekend I went to Swarthmoor Hall – an old house in the north of England, and lest that conjure too attractive a picture, let me note that someone else on the course called it “a building only a Quaker could love”. Quakers can and do love it, though, not for beauty but for history. Margaret Fell, an early Quaker and, well after her convincement, wife of George Fox, founder of the Quaker movement, lived here most of her life. She grew up nearby, moved to Swarthmoor when she married Judge Fell, and – apart from a period in Lancaster Gaol and some visits to London – lived in the Hall for the rest of her life.

(I was going to post a picture here but WordPress doesn’t seem to want to do uploads this morning.)

As the building is now in Quaker hands again (it spent quite a lot of the intervening centuries in other hands), it’s the perfect place to run courses on Quaker history and especially Margaret Fell – although they also cover other subjects!

For me, the highlights of the weekend were:

  • playing the boundaries game rather than telling everyone the rules and leaving them to it
  • being out of the city (cities) and actually walking the countryside
  • specifically, walking the path from the railway station to the Hall in darkness – through the woods, over the beck, across the field and along the lane (I was glad of my boots, torch and OS map!)
  • seeing the stone circle at Sunbrick
  • doing the tour of the Hall and reaching the attic, the place which felt ‘thinnest’ to me
  • really realising how much I don’t know about Quaker history – and that I do know some
  • reading Margaret Fell’s own words in her house.

H is for… History

Here’s a controversial opinion: I don’t think history is very important to my pagan practice.

It isn’t that I don’t think that historical research is important. If you’re going to make historical claims, it’s vital, and I use the treatment of history in works about paganism as a marker of their carefulness and reliability: wild, unsourced claims about history are going to make me wary of your work, just like absent or erroneous references to other works. I’m not a reconstructionist but I enjoy and appreciate the rigorous work which has been done on the Celtic Reconstructionist FAQ and other similar sources.

History is important. But it isn’t all-important. I use historical sources, but I am not governed by them. In the end, history – as a guide to practice, belief, morality, and other aspects of pagan religion – is trumped by experience, common sense, and my other prior commitments.

The biggest thing this affects, I think, is the consumable items I use in ritual. Meat, milk, and alcohol are all traditional – but I am committed to non-violence, to lowering my carbon footprint, and to retaining a clear mind (as far as possible!), so I refrain from all of these. That doesn’t mean I can’t use food in ritual, just that my cakes and ale are probably oatcakes and apple juice.

It also shapes, though, my approach to syncretism and other philosophical questions. Syncretism itself, of course, is fairly well historical grounded if you are drawing on Roman sources or sources influenced by the Roman empire (see, for example, Sulis Minerva), but the reasoning behind many such ‘double deities’ is lost; and we often do not know whether two names attested in two places are two deities with similar or related names, or one deity with a variant name (are Brigid and Brigantia one goddess or two?). So when the historical sources run out, or are unclear, or there simply are no extant sources on the question I am considering, I ask other questions: does it make sense? does it conform to my experience? and is it philosophically and ethically acceptable to me?