Tag Archives: history

Two excellent books for Black History Month

I don’t normally do ‘months’ and Black History Month in the UK isn’t until October and reading books isn’t enough… but I happen to have read a couple of excellent books on Black history lately, and it’s Black History Month in the USA and Canada, and Quakers celebrate festivals all year round, so I’m going to do this anyway. 

Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga is a richly detailed account of Black history as it relates to the British state. It took me two weekends to read and I had a break in the middle, because it’s emotionally intense at a times as well as a long read. I wouldn’t call the text dense, exactly, because it’s always clearly written, but there’s a lot, simply because there is a lot to say on these subjects. I haven’t read either the illustrated or teenage versions or watched the TV show, but hopefully those make the material accessible to more people. 

Overall, I found Black and British helped to tie together many different strands, often of history where I knew a little bit or had read something before. One example would be Black Tudors – I had read Miranda Kaufmann’s book on Black history in the Tudor period, and Olusoga’s work helped to put that into context for me. Another example is the ‘struggle for Africa’ – I knew that European countries had colonised much of Africa, but I knew more about the later effects than the original process, and in the context of the whole sweep of Black and British it became obvious how relatively recently that colonisation took place. Olusoga’s book also does really useful work in revealing things which might be relevant to the political situation today, including addressing different manifestations of racism in different parts of British society over time, and I’d highly recommend this as a background to anyone wanting to understand some of the more complex interactions of race and class in Britain.

Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts by Rebecca Hall (illustrated by Hugo Martinez) is a graphic – novel? I feel my genre vocabulary failing here; a book which uses sequential art to tell a true story – which combines the story of Hall’s research, including her encounters with racism in the process, with the stories of slave revolts which she researched. I really appreciated the way Hall wove together the different elements of the story, so that as a reader I was clear which parts were fact and what was imagination, but she was free to imagine and fill in the gaps when necessary. I was really engaged by the process – I felt a surge of anger when she was shut out of an archive which might have revealed some of the lost material. I see that Lloyd’s Bank, one of the archives mentioned in the book, now has a section about enslavement on the history page of their website, but it’s worded in a distancing sort of way. I hope they have now allowed Hall and other researchers access to check for records which might be useful.

As well as the racism and reluctance to face up to history which Hall encounters in her research, she also uncovers the sexist assumptions made by both enslavers and historians of the slave trade. The book details several slave revolts in which women, often women not even named in the historical record, were leaders in resisting and were punished accordingly. Sometimes it seems that even people who were in a position to see it happening directly failed to understand the agency women had and the active roles they took, unable to believe that women would handle weapons or organise co-ordinated attacks. I found this a really important counter to the dominant narrative about the antislavery movement, which tends to centre white British men (many of them Quakers – see the Lloyd’s page linked above for some examples – which means that as a member of the Quaker community I hear it especially often). 

As Banseka Kayembe said in the article I linked at this beginning of this post, “a true commitment to anti-racism can’t be about just yourself or reading a couple of books – it’s got to be about the collective power of all of us.” Hopefully these books leave us better equipped to focus on that.

Search terms: “rhiannon grant jesus”

What I love about this search term is that it’s suggestive, but ambiguous. What did the searcher actually want to know when they put “rhiannon grant jesus” into the search engine of their choice? They could have been implying that I am Jesus, but that seems unlikely. (Not impossible – the Quaker idea that Christ is within us all can come to something similar – but unlikely.) Perhaps they wanted to know about a course I’m teaching soon, with my colleague Mark Russ, called “Who is Jesus?” Or perhaps they wanted to know what I think of Jesus. What do I think of Jesus? That’s a simple question to pose and a complex one to answer.

Sometimes I think of Jesus as a character who appears in the Gospels and other stories in the New Testament. I think of him as a character when I’m thinking about things like how he compares to other characters – how he is like and unlike Adam or Moses, like and unlike Osiris or Odin. I also think about him as a character when I think about the symbolise of the actions he takes – about what performing a healing might mean as a metaphor, for example, rather than a story about physical health conditions. 

Sometimes I think about Jesus as a historical figure. I usually bounce of this pretty quickly, though, partly because I’m pessimistic about how much historical fact is included in the records we have, and partly because that’s not the question about Jesus which interests me most.

Sometimes I think about Jesus as an example which tells us something about a broader situation. I can think about Jesus and the stories about him as an example of the kinds of things the Spirit would do if the Spirit had a body. I think this is the closest I get to understanding what is meant by ‘incarnation’ and I might call this a view of Jesus as Christ – Jesus not as an individual but as part of a story about how God works, one particular version of a story which had happened before and continues to happen as the Spirit or Light of Christ speaks to people and supports us to act in God’s ways.

Sometimes I find Jesus profoundly annoying. Some versions of the story make him seem smug and know-it-all. Some of his followers hate my body and sexuality and are convinced Jesus would hate me too, which doesn’t make him seem friendly. Sometimes the Spirit asks me to do things I really do not want to do, and it can be tempting to blame that on Jesus. Sometimes he really is shown, in the stories we have, doing things which are either profoundly challenging (that is, doing things I should do but don’t want to) or profoundly disturbing (I don’t want to do that kind of thing and can’t understand why Christ would either). Of course, the story also says he got put to death by the Roman authorities, so perhaps this annoyance is a way into understanding the situation – and noticing what I cannot understand about his actions and why I sometimes find them baffling as well as annoying may be important to applying the lessons of this story to modern situations.

One way I don’t usually think about Jesus is as a saviour or redeemer. Those versions of the story are very important to some Christians, but I can’t make them fit with my other understandings of the world and God. 

Overall, thinking about Jesus always makes me think about what I don’t understand, both emotionally and intellectually. I have never experienced the personal closeness with some people feel with Jesus. I’ve had experiences I think are similar in some ways – a sense of the movement of the Spirit in my life, visions of and direct encounters with Brigid and Hecate and other goddesses – but the Jesus story doesn’t speak to me that way. Similarly, I’ve studied theology at various levels and although I can follow the philosophical moves well enough, the metaphysics around incarnation, redemption, and resurrection continue to feel weird to me. I’ve been reading up on Hebrews recently and one of the commentaries I looked at noted that the ideas often seem alien to modern readers. Perhaps they should: paradox and mystery are always part of the theological process.

Queer History in Fiction

One way to approach queer/LGBTQ+ history in fiction is to set stories in the past and create lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and other queer characters there. That’s the approach I took in Between Boat and Shore, and it’s been done by lots of other writers as well. However, I realised recently that I’ve read three books which take another approach, setting a story in the present and giving characters evidence of a queer past to reckon with now. I think this is interesting for the way it allows authors to explore both the possibilities of the past and how we, as a modern interpretative community, relate to it. In this blog post, I want to talk briefly about these three, all very different, books and comment a little on what insights they might have for other readers and writers of both real and fictional LGBTQ+ histories.

The three books are:

The Bones of Our Fathers, Elin Gregory

Documenting Light, E. E. Ottoman

Little Fish, Casey Plett

The three are very different in style and genre. Gregory and Ottoman are working within the romance genre, with their focus on a couple; Plett’s novel is more literary, with the focus on a single central character. All three involve some difficulty, and Ottoman’s deals with poverty, illness, and the closet, but Plett’s is noticeably grittier in tone, with poverty, suicide, alcoholism, and sexual abuse recurring themes. Gregory’s central characters are gay men, while Ottoman’s are a trans man and a nonbinary person, and Plett’s is a trans woman. The narrative voices tend to be clear about this, taking advantage of the modern setting to use explicit language, but at times older confusions surface: can the past be understood in modern terms, and is it possible for someone who thought of himself as a gay man, for example, to have actually in some sense been a trans woman? An advantage of exploring these questions in fiction, as opposed to academic or other theoretical writing, is that they can be approached indirectly and their complexities and unanswerableness given space.

Another difference between them is the explicitness and nature of the evidence each author creates. I think all three are fictional but plausible. In Gregory’s novel, the archaeologist main character is excavating a Bronze Age burial cist (small stone chamber) in which two men were placed together – I don’t know of a case exactly like that, but the Weerdinge Men, a pair of bog bodies initially assumed to be a male and female couple because of their pose but now interpreted as two male bodies, would provide a very similar example. In Ottoman’s novel, an old photograph is the central piece of evidence – again, one of the main characters has professional expertise as an archivist, although perseverance is shown to be just as important in the research process. Old photographs with similar aesthetics, if not the same level of known background, circulate frequently online and some have been researched and published. The evidence Plett gives her main character is thinner, less concrete – stories from someone who knew her grandfather, a letter which says nothing explicitly – and extremely plausible. Having an ancestor about whom there are suggestive stories or some things which make you wonder is a common enough experience that the situation felt familiar to me. There are few ways to prove or disprove such theories, though. 

What they have in common is the challenge of discovering more about the past. This is most central in Ottoman’s novel, a bit less so in Gregory’s, and more like a background or framing device in Plett’s. Together, they ask questions about the relationship we have with the past. Does it matter whether people long ago had similar experiences to our own? Is it useful to know whether they were happy or sad in their situations, whether they embraced their sexual desires and expressed the genders they felt, or whether they embraced social or religious rules which encouraged them to focus on family, tradition, or heaven? Many of the characters in Plett’s novel are Mennonites and the religious background of the community heavily shapes what can be said and done both by the main character, Wendy, and her grandfather. In contrast, in Ottoman’s novel the characters’ own hesitations about what they can claim to know become more of an issue.

As both a reader and a writer of queer stories in historical (and prehistoric!) settings, these books helped me to think about the kind of emotional feedback I and others like me might be seeking in such stories and in historical and archaeological research. There is a sense of recognition, of seeing oneself in history, which is similar to the desire to be represented and see oneself in fiction set in the present. (And these novels also do that – for example, although Plett’s main character is trans and I’m cis, she has sexual relationships with both men and women and I found her reflections on changing sexual attraction over time very relatable.) However, I think it goes beyond what can be broadly characterised as representation. Finding or creating historical characters who are LGBTQ+ also allows the creation of a continuity. It’s not an accident that in Plett’s novel the potentially queer historical character is literally family, the main character’s grandfather. In Gregory’s novel, the connection is more about locality, the place in Wales where the burial is found – but the title, with its reference to ‘Our Fathers’, makes the image much more explicit. And in Ottoman’s writing, the theme of kinship and recognition, knowing about the past by finding something there which matches present experience, becomes a key research tool for the characters. 

To give an example from another area of life, I had accepted that being vegetarian was a modern thing and, while convinced about the moral rightness of my decision, it hadn’t occurred to me to look for other people in the past who made the same choice. There are plenty throughout the centuries, of course, but the possibility only really opened up to me when I read a label in a museum which identified the bones of an Iron Age man who, according to a chemical analysis of his remains, derived his protein mainly from plants. Bam! An ancestor in the tradition. (If memory serves this was the East Riding of Yorkshire Museum in Hull, but I don’t have details of the find location etc.) Finding examples like that enables us to broaden our imaginations and widen the network of connections in our chosen families. This is important in many areas of life, but especially if – as many people who are other gender conforming and straight are – you are told that your experience is a phase, a trend, etc. 

It also enriches our understanding of people in the past – however much I know intellectually that people in the past were the same species with the same cognitive and emotional skills (and diversity) as people today, just with different technology and culture, it can be hard to understand this. That’s especially true of prehistory (someone said of my novel that it was a surprise at first to read about Neolithic people speaking in such a modern way – but genetically, they were modern humans the same as us, and their language would have felt modern to them), but it can also be true of much more recent periods. When I was at school, there was a brief attempt to help us connect with history by working backwards from our family trees towards the Victorians… but even though that is only a short gap, even though I remember meeting my great-grandparents who were born only ten years after Victoria died, it can still be difficult to make that imaginative leap if the people described there seem to have little or nothing in common with you. The evidence of queer pasts explored in these novels helps the characters to make that leap in various ways, and to look at the past with insight and compassion, even love.

With all those factors in mind, my conclusion at the moment is that the emotional impact of that connection is strengthened when it is personal and felt directly in some way: family connections, connections through place or religion, connections through shared experiences of some kind. Sharing this experience with a fictional character through reading a novel about it might help readers to create those pathways for ourselves, and seeing the possibility of ancestral connections can bring us to the existing evidence in new ways. This might help us to create a more accurate image of the past – one which gets closer to taking into account the full range of human experience – but also opens up new directions for telling stories about the past. All historical work involves interpretation, always drawing on our own experience and ideas as well as original artefacts and documents, and although these examples are stories of fictional pasts as well as fictional presents, understanding better the motivations and feeling involved in interpretation can help us to navigate the complexities of it better.

Book review: The Faithful Spy

Note: I was sent a free copy of this book for review by Speakeasy

The Faithful Spy is a graphic novel which tells the true story – or at least, selected highlights of the true story – of German Lutheran theologian, pastor, and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The format makes it an accessible read, and the content contains some hopeful notes, although ultimately Bonhoeffer and his group do not succeed in killing Hitler. (Spoilers – which are a matter of historical fact, fairly widely know, and I give here because I think in this case knowing the ending enhances appreciation of the storytelling – they made three attempts, and most of the conspirators including Bonhoeffer were executed for it, some of them very shortly before the end of war.) As well as travelling to the UK, the USA, and other countries around Europe and choosing to return to Germany, Bonhoeffer spends a considerable amount of time in prison. 

The Library of Congress Catalogue codes on the end-paper of this volume all list it as ‘juvenile literature’. On the one hand, I agree that the illustrated format, straightforward story telling style, and important historical content make this suitable reading for some teenagers. On the other hand, I have two objections. First, I worry that some readers without a reasonable historical background might not be able to grasp the context of this story (which centres Christians rather than Jews, for example – a sensible choice for a book about the life of Bonhoeffer, a somewhat problematic choice if it’s your first introduction to the story of the Shoah). Secondly, that such a label might mean some adult readers who would benefit from it, might miss it. 

Readers of all ages might, rightly, be disturbed by some of the content. There are no graphic deaths, but there are details of assassination attempts and prison conditions, and torture, war, poverty, and death are a constant background. The insights into Hitler’s rise to power are important and need to be read and remembered – but this isn’t a cheerful book or one to escape into if current politics is getting you down. It might be one to study if you are thinking about ways to channel your anger.

So who would benefit from reading this book?

  • People who already know a fair amount about the Second World War and want to fill in more details or get a different perspective. ‘Assassinate Hitler’ has become an almost proverbial option – would you or wouldn’t you? how would it affect the timeline? – and here is the story of a man who was involved in several attempts to do just that, and who grappled in a serious and informed way with the moral implications of such an action.
  • People who study theology and want to think about the ways in which a life shapes someone’s theological ideas. In particular, Hendrix shares a very clear narrative about the ways in which Bonhoeffer was influenced by the Roman Catholic and American Black churches, and about the ways in which he struggled to fit ethical principles to complex realities. 
  • People who are looking at a dangerous political situation and considering when and how to act. Before the famous ending, there are a lot of other steps Bonhoeffer and his friends try out. They find ways to help Jews out of Germany. They build theological arguments which counter the allegedly Christian positions being taken by the German churches under Nazi orders. They form a revolutionary theological school in a remote place where they can teach alternative ideas. They enlist the help of Christians outside Germany. They build communications networks, search for allies, and draw inspiration from other, more or less comparable, movements. 

Overall, I was impressed with the research and story-telling in this book. Direct quotes from historical sources are clearly marked, and despite some simplifications I’d happily recommend this to a student wanting a quick overview to get started with Bonhoeffer’s work as well as to casual readers. Well worth picking up, with no easy answers but a thoughtful and accessible engagement with important questions.

Converting to Christianity

Converting to Christianity has been on my mind lately – not for me personally; I’m culturally Christian and happy in a complex and theologically inclusive faith community – but because I’m writing a story set in a time and place when we don’t know how many people had or hadn’t converted. Conversion in historical settings is often described as if it were of a whole community at once – and perhaps sometimes it is. Conversion in historical settings is also often measured by the recorded actions of the ruling class. This has two problems. One is that the people doing the recording, later on, were themselves almost always Christians. The other is that just because the leader of your community has converted, it doesn’t mean that everyone has. (Even if the leader has converted in terms of actions, there’s still the issue of what they actually believe, but we have even less access to that.)

In the case of Europe – my story is set in Wales – we can put down some markers for the groups of people surrounding the right time and place. We know a fair amount about the Roman Empire’s conversion to Christianity, with Constantine accepting it in 312 and Theodosius 1 making (Nicene) Christianity the state religion in 380. We know a little bit about missions to the British Isles, with Ireland converted around 430 and the first Christian king of the English, Ethelbert, converting in 597. What isn’t clear is to what extent the British people in Wales had converted to Christianity, and what their beliefs were in the gap between the Romans leaving (around 383) and the Saxons arriving (from 446, but starting on the eastern side of England). Some of them would have been Christian (and those who were would mainly have been Pelagians – followers of the ideas of Pelegius, who was excommunicated in 418). Some would have followed the Roman religion, especially if they arrived through the extensive movement of Roman soldiers around the empire. And some might still be following a local religion, now mixed with Roman elements but also retaining Celtic ones.

stone-1205248_1920

A stone Celtic cross, a symbol which emerged from this period of religious complexity. Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

This ambiguity is attractive to me as a writer, because it gives me space to explore. I’m able to take a range of elements from the evidence – things which might have survived from the Roman period and things which might have begun by this time and be recorded later – to create a fictional society in which these multiple religious currents are meeting and mixing. Of course, historical fiction is always only partly about the past, and quite a lot about now. Finding a time in the past when multiple religions which interest me today where interacting in ways which were obviously complex and aren’t fully know also opens up a space for me to pose, in the past, the questions which I’m thinking about now.

For example, I’m interested in multiple religious belonging – why and how an individual might be part of more than one faith community – and in what it takes to be identified as part of a religion. When it is something the individual can identify for themselves, simply by stating it? When does it require community involvement, and what form does that take? Some religions have clear prescriptions about this, at least for some cases, but there are typically also cases of uncertainty as well. What are the actions which are considered characteristic of a faith in a particular time and place, and when does performing them mean you have joined or at least become associated with that religion? In this early period, baptism hadn’t yet taken up the role which it is given by later Christian communities, of acting as an entry ritual, determining who is and who is not part of the community. In exploring this complexity in fiction, characters can move in and out of different categories, with those around them – and perhaps even the characters themselves – unsure about where they fit.

Converting a person – and so even more a group of people – to Christianity can never have been simple. I’m not going to pass judgement on whether it was a good thing or a bad thing to convert Britain to Christianity. There are later cases where it seems to me to be clearly bad, especially where Christianity was forced on people, used as an excuse to suppress local culture, and put to work to maintain oppressive social structures. There are other cases where people convert because they have found their right spiritual path, and that is, in general, obviously good. And there are lots of situations in between – where people convert because they think it will give them a better life, or because everyone around is converting, or because they are not so much moving from one faith to another as adding something to their religious lives. The extent to which pre-Christian British religion survived in Christianised forms is up for debate, but I think there’s enough evidence to say on the one hand that some pre-Christian British practises were adapted into Christian ones, and that this didn’t result in a long-standing, multi-generational Pagan tradition running alongside the public Christian religion.

One of the reasons I think the conversion of Britain isn’t directly comparable to some more recent cases of countries being converted is that Christianity didn’t arrive in Britain with an oppressive ruling class. It arrived through the Romans – who had invaded long ago by time they adopted Christianity, and who gave up trying to rule Britain soon afterwards. And it may also have arrived through independent routes; if Christianity came to some parts of Scotland, Wales, and England via Ireland, for example, that separates it from Roman involvement. It did pick up some Roman ways of structuring administration, and we have some evidence of bishops in Britain in the 300s (if Restitutus was indeed Bishop of London, for example). Instead, it seems that, in this period when few records were produced, that there would have been multiple religious traditions all common in the community, and people perhaps moving between them, combining them, and trying to work out what the relationships between them should be.

Fun times for writers who want also want to explore those things!

Quaker Stories

An early Quaker felt uncomfortable carrying a sword, though it was socially expected of him. He was advised to “wear it as long as you can”.

The warriors came to attack, but everyone in the meeting kept sitting in silence and nobody was hurt.

She saw that the women in prison needed help so she took them useful things and taught them to sew to support themselves.

The theme for this year’s Quaker Week is ‘Quaker Stories’. That could mean lots of things – personal stories, the history of Quakerism, the place of Quakers within the bigger stories of Protestant, mystical, and twenty-first century Christianity – but it also got me thinking about the stories Quakers tell. Well, I’m not sure how often they get told to Quaker adults; I heard these stories in children’s meeting, and now I hear them told to enquirers and people who are learning about Quakers from an outside perspective, but only some get used in spoken ministry in meeting for worship, for example. (‘Wear it as long as you can’, as Fox probably didn’t say to Penn about his conventional but distinctly un-pacifist sword, is one of the few I do hear regularly.) Some I missed and only picked up in specific discussions of Quaker stories (like Stephen Grellet, the man who probably didn’t actually preach to an empty dining room in the woods). I put some examples, summarised to their bare bones, at the top of this post.

In summarising, I found I was also making visible some of the assumptions which are buried in the way they are told. The story in which Fox tells Penn to maintain a habit which is starting to make him uncomfortable for ‘as long as you can’ speaks to modern Quaker assumptions about the need for change to come from a deeply felt inner transformation and not from mere convention. It might not be historically accurate, but it encapsulates something which was, broadly speaking, true of the first generation of Quakers (Thomas Ellwood went around keeping his hat on because he felt he had to), sometimes got lost in the generations in between (as when Quakers adopted a conventional ‘plain’ dress of their own), and was reclaimed in the twentieth century. In the twenty-first, perhaps it is being twisted or used too much: how many people are keeping on with environmentally unsustainable habits for ‘as long as they can’?

Other assumptions are less welcome. The story of ‘Fierce Feathers‘ as I first heard it in childhood was steeped in unexamined ideas about Native American people – in particular, it tends to be told in a way which positions the Quakers as the knowledgeable experts who are on God’s side, and the people whose space they are invading as suddenly seeing the truth when exposed to Quaker practice. This is in keeping with the Christian understanding of the time, and can be told in a way which suits modern liberal Quakerism’s emphasis on silent meeting for worship alone as a sufficient vehicle for transformation, but is also in tension with other things liberal Quakers want to teach: the equality of all people, the potential for divine truth in all religions. (And the children’s craft which feels like an obvious fit for the story, making a paper ‘Indian headdress’, is likely to be a terrible idea: read about why at the Native Appropriations blog.)

Similarly, stories about Quaker ‘good works’ sometimes focus on the giving of charity and not on the recipients, with the effect that social structures such as class are reinforced – rather than the creation of justice, for example. I picked the Elizabeth Fry story to summarise very briefly at the top of my post, but other Quaker stories have the same core structure. Now I live in Bournville, I hear that story a lot: rich man is kind to his workers. He treats them well, but not the same way he treats his family, and he is kind to his workers who live locally, not everyone who is poor or even everyone in his supply chain. I’m not disputing either the facts or getting into the moral rightness of the actions of George Cadbury or Elizabeth Fry or anyone else – my questions here are: when we retell these stories, what do we expand on and what do we diminish, who do we lift up and who do we ignore, which social structures do we accept and which do we challenge?

I hope that in future, asking these kinds of questions will help us to use our huge stock of Quaker stories in positive ways. Perhaps we will also find different stories from our history and tell those in illuminating ways – as in Kathleen Bell’s work on when Quakers got it wrong. We use stories to make sense of the world around us, and as Quakers in Britain continue our considerations of power and privilege we will need to tell new stories and re-tell old ones in ways which help us to explore those themes.

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.

IMG_20170408_114015

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.