Tag Archives: identity

Fresh eyes on Multiple Religious Belonging

I’ve worked on Multiple Religious Belonging on and off for a long time now (as evidenced by my academic publications on it from 2015, 2017, and 2018, as well as previous blog posts, and perhaps the title of my blog!). Having had a break, I’m thinking about these things again as I prepare to run a Woodbrooke online course about Multiple Religious Belonging next month. There are big questions involved, of course – like what counts as belonging (who has to recognise it? does it require practice, or social connections, or belief, or all of those or none?), and what counts as a religion (do we mean ‘world religions’ or ‘traditions’ or ‘faith communities’?) Those are good questions, but rather than start with them, then rule things in or out of ‘multiple religious belonging’ on that basis, it might be as useful to start by looking at what people call ‘multiple religious belonging’ and use that to reflect on the understandings of religion and belonging which appear.

For example, being a Jewish Buddhist is common enough that there’s a Wikipedia page listing notable people who have this joint identity. The introduction to it, though, points out that this looks different for different people in the list: some might have a Jewish identity through their family (because Judaism functions in this context as both religion and ethnicity) and be mainly Buddhist in terms of religious practice, while others, like Alan Lew, actively practice both religious Judaism and Buddhist meditation. Just in describing that example, I’ve started to uncover ideas about what religion is: it can be inherited or acquired; it can be practised or ignored; both Judaism and Buddhism are seen as religions, or there wouldn’t be the same need to point out and explain people’s dual affiliations; and a specific religion can have characteristic practices, such as meditation.

Other examples might add other ideas. Sometimes people name a specific tradition within a religion (Anglican-Wiccan) but at other times they use broader terms (Christian-Pagan). That might reflect an understanding of their tradition as importantly distinct from other traditions: for example, saying ‘Quaker’ rather than ‘Christian’ because although Quakerism is historically part of the Christian family, that individual doesn’t identify as Christian, or saying ‘Anglican’ rather than ‘Christian’ as part of an understanding that combining Anglicanism with something else is different to combining Roman Catholicism with something else. This might be hard to untangle from a single use, or without asking the speaker for more information. A broader term might be employed to show solidarity or because more specific terms get misunderstand (compare the PaganDash campaign, in which Pagans tried to get greater recognition on the census results by starting their write-in answers with the same, recognisable, word).

In my own life, I tend to speak differently about different communities. I’ll say I’m a member of a Quaker meeting, usually before anything else; if it comes up, I say I’m a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD). By contrast, I usually say I have experience of or have participated in the Community of Interbeing, forms of Buddhism, or various kinds of Paganism. That partly represents my level of commitment – although I probably use a Community of Interbeing practice, reciting the Five Mindfulness Trainings, almost as often as I use a formal OBOD practice – but also how I feel about the traditions and the communities. OBOD works mainly through correspondence course, and it’s easy to feel connected without an in-person community; the Community of Interbeing works a lot through local sanghas, and I’ve never joined one; Quakers work through meetings, and I’m both part of a local Quaker meeting and (very!) involved in wider Quaker activities. In this perhaps I’m revealing my own ideas about what it means to belong to a religion – very much about participation, community acceptance, and regular activity. I didn’t mention belief at all, for example, which would be highly important in some other understandings.

How do you talk about multiple religious belonging, whether or not you practise it? What ideas about religion do you have, or have you spotted one in this post which I didn’t mention?

Labels: good or bad?

I was indirectly compared to a Nazi on Facebook the other day. It made me feel a bit sad, a bit nostalgic, and a bit smug. Smug because by Godwin’s Law, that’s a win. Nostalgic because since I started mostly been spending my internet time talking about Quaker stuff, it hasn’t happened often. And sad because someone in my community thinks that friends of mine are worth comparing with Nazis.

In order to discuss this properly, I want to begin with a philosopher’s move, and lay out the strongest version I can concoct of the opposing argument (‘argument’ in the philosopher’s sense, too: the case someone is putting forward). This isn’t exactly what was said, but represents what I take to be the points involved. The arguments begin with something which everyone can agree on: people these days are, as a matter of fact, using more categories than just ‘male’ and ‘female’ to describe gender. Terms such as transgender, non-binary, and genderqueer have been invented and are in use. So far so good. We also all agree that some Quaker meetings have noted this fact and decided to take steps to make sure they are inclusive of people who identify as something other than simply ‘male’ or ‘female’. Recently, a national Quaker body noted this – which was the occasion for the discussion.

For some people, the proliferation of identity labels looks like a problem. There are, I think, two subtly different forms of the case they put from here on. In the first one, labels are a problem in relationships. For example, if I am trying to get to know someone, and I have been told that they are a woman, I might be inclined to make assumptions about them: that they are likely to be smaller and weaker, that they are likely to be interested in fashion, or whatever. Probably in a real situation the examples are more subtle than this – but they are real and pervasive. The cure for this is not to create and use more labels, but to get to know people as individuals. As the saying goes, if you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism – the label ‘autism’ may tell you very little.

In the second version of the argument, labels are a social problem. For example, if I am trying to describe society, and I pick out a group such as ‘immigrants’, I can then say certain things about them. I have, by the way, chosen this example as a case which seems to me to be a real, current case of the pattern which worries people who put this argument. However, I think it’s a group label used much more by people outside the group than people inside the group, and that might make a significant different to the ethics of using it at all. That, though, isn’t the line of argument which is pursued here – and proponents of it might well say that all labels can be used in similarly bad ways regardless of who applies them first. Anyway: having identified the group ‘immigrants’, I might say positive things, such as ‘immigrants make a huge contribution to the nation’s economy’, but I might just as easily say negative things, such as ‘we’d all be better off without immigrants’. This is where people like to mention Nazis. In particular, the Nazi practice of picking out individuals and forcing them to make their group membership visible – the imposition of yellow stars, pink triangles, and so on – makes the mere act of labelling, rather than saying horrible things about groups of people, seem like the problem.

I hope that these are fair representations of the positions involved. (If not, my comments section is open to you.) I think that both of these views catch something useful, but that ultimately both are mistaken about the value of terms such as ‘genderqueer’.

I can recall holding a view much like the first one myself. I remember expressing it in an online conversation with a non-white friend, who had posted to say that she was feeling a need to take her racial identity much more seriously. This made me uncomfortably aware of the ways in which my whiteness separated me from someone I liked to think I was close to, and I commented to say that I thought it didn’t matter much and we had lots of other things in common. Her reaction quickly let me know that in trying to bring us back together in this way, I’d actually made a much worse gap between us, by downplaying the significance of something which I had the privilege to ignore and she, in our racist society, had to acknowledge every day.

Nothing about that negates the need to get to know people as individuals – my friend is as different from others of her ethnicity as I am from other white people – but it does point to an uncomfortable truth. By focusing on individuals, we can miss two things. We can miss the effects of systems on them – while I focus on my friend as an individual, I might assume that her experiences of racism are somehow just about her and not examples of a system problem. And we can miss how different we really are by paying more attention to what we have in common. However much we have in common, we’ll always be different (another white middle-class cissexual woman from the south of England and I can be very different indeed, as a survey of my school friends will tell you). If in our personal relationships we try and ignore the labels which pick out our differences, we might fool ourselves into thinking we have more in common than we really do – especially because it’s a common human error to fill in the blanks with more of the same. If I don’t hear about (or listen to) how your experiences are different to mine, I’m liable to assume that your experiences are the same as mine, in the same way that as a child I assumed all families ate supper at 6pm because that’s what my family did.

I can also see the appeal of the second position. When people pick out groups they don’t belong to, they almost always at least simplify and generalise, and often make crass mistakes, or, as in the examples above, blame the group for whatever social problem worries them. However, I also think something must have gone wrong with this argument: despite the actions of the Nazis, I still see the six-pointed star outside synagogues, so putting up a label must have some uses for the Jewish community. (I also see security fences, so I’m not claiming that it doesn’t have drawbacks as well.) The gender-identity terms which were immediately under discussion are labels which people claim for themselves.

The uses of labels seem to me to fall into two forms. One is self-knowledge. Especially if the label you need wasn’t readily available to you, there can be a huge relief – and sometimes straightforward practical advantages – in finding the right one. Someone who discovers the word ‘asexual’, for example, when their partner has been calling them ‘frigid’, suddenly has a different perspective on their own desires. They also have a way to explain their preferences to others, and this is the second use of labels: to give others some idea. Any term will need extra clarification in a deeper relationship, but often a label that gets you into the right area helps to decide whether or not you want to develop the relationship further, and how to go about it if you do. The clearest cases are sexual relationships (woman to man: “No thank you, I’m a lesbian” – three labels in the space of nine words, and you’ve got the picture) and community formation (we’re here, we’re queer, we could have a Pride march). I think it applies in lots of other circumstances too, though, even if the decision isn’t so clear cut: having just met someone who identifies as a Christian, I might ask different questions to if I meet someone who identifies as a Pagan. Neither label tells me what the person believes, but both give me a nudge away from putting my foot in my mouth – and will help me explain Quakerism in terms they are likely to recognise.

Using a label will always carry risks. People will make assumptions – because that’s how labels work. People might try and attach negative ideas to your label. People might attack you because of your label. However, what I am hearing from many people who use labels like non-binary, trans*, or genderqueer is that the advantages outweigh the risks.

In particular, the risks of a new label which is correct are much easier to bear than the pains of an old or accidental label which is wrong. I’m a cissexual woman and I can laugh it off when someone calls me ‘sir’ when they ask for my train ticket – but it’s still an awkward moment for both of us. If I wasn’t cissexual, I imagine that would be a moment of real fear – am I being ‘found out’, will they be angry with me when they realise – and if I was non-binary, identifying neither as a woman or a man, it might take a lot longer to sort out. Indeed, in that kind of very short interaction, I suspect complex genders are often not understood at all. To me, that makes it even more important to name and accept them in communities where we have longer and hence more time to explain. Similarly, I am queer – I could easily let that slide, I’ve dated people of several genders and I could let you assume I was straight – but I don’t want to. Politically, I want to be visible, and personally, I don’t want you to be surprised when my in-depth analysis of The Night Manager includes a hotness rating for Olivia Colman as well as Tom Hiddleston.

The biggest risks of not using the label, though, are the gaps in knowledge. You can just about have a label and not use it, gaining the self-knowledge without sharing it, but humans are social and we want to connect with people. Authentic connection involves sharing that self-knowledge and recognising, not only what we have in common, but what is genuinely different. If we deny those differences in an attempt to create the illusion of unity, we actually slip back into another oppressive pattern: the desire for everyone to be like me.

We’re not alike. As humans, we’re immensely different, and hugely creative, and people bring new labels into being and repurpose old ones in order to communicate as well as they can. That process of communication absolutely has risks – but those risks are often worth taking. This blog post, for example, risks re-opening conversations which quickly turned unproductive – but I hope it helps us understand one another better.

C is for Community

‘Community’ is another word I use a lot. I talk about ‘community contexts‘, for example, and ‘belonging to a community’. I don’t, I think, use it in any very technical way. In fact, the reverse: I assume that everyone knows what a community is and that I therefore don’t need to explain anything about the general concept. Instead, I focus on exploring specific examples from real communities (as opposed to generalising about them too much – not that I can always avoid it).

It’s possible, though, that this tends to elide or disguise the differences between different communities and different forms of community. People form communities around all kinds of things, some more central to their identities and ways of life than others: religious belief and practice, locality, sexuality, disability, culture, ethnicity, employment, looking at pictures of cats that look like Hitler. For example, if you’re a professional folk musician you might belong to a specific folk music group or community, or to the folk music community in general, and your experience of those communities will be different to the experiences of folk music fans who also belong but don’t themselves play folk music, or who only play as amateurs. If you’re a lesbian you might belong to a specific group, in person or online, and you might consider yourself part of a worldwide community of lesbians, or LGBT people more broadly, but in some cases you might not participate in these communities in any visible way – choosing to be celibate or in the closet, for example. There could be invisible participation in a community, if you donate to a charity in secret or feel like you belong, although it’s obviously hard to say what this would look like. (Sorry!)

In some cases, it’s obvious that one person can belong to more than one community. Buddhist folk musicians who support Liverpool are not a category problem – although there are issues about the relationships between categories at times, such as if your religion and your hobbies (or, classically, sexuality) are thought to conflict, having both a religion and a hobby and thus belonging to two communities isn’t puzzling to anyone. In some categories, too, you can have multiple affiliations: you can be a fan of a TV show and collect souvenir pencil sharpeners. In others, though, there’s often a challenge: people who claim more than one religious identity are not so immediately comprehensible. You can’t tick multiple religion boxes in most survey questions about religion; you have to pick one.

Some of our attitude to this will depend on the community concerned. If you belong to more than one model railway building society, nobody usually minds unless they meet at the same time and you can’t attend both meetings. If you support two football clubs, you might get asked which one you prefer or ‘really’ support, and you might get into trouble when they play each other, but you might get away with it in they’re in completely different leagues. If you identify as bisexual, often understood as ‘being both straight and gay’, you’re likely to encounter stereotypes of being greedy, immature, unfaithful, and/or a liar. If you try and join two political parties – especially in a two party system! – you’re likely to be considered incoherent. The question about religion could be framed as: what kind of community is a religious community? Is it more like a model railway society or more like a political party? What does it mean when some people are members of more than one religious community and other people are, at the same time, claiming that to do this or do it properly is impossible?

B is for Boundaries

A question raised by the issue of appropriation (previous blog post) is about the boundaries between cultures, religions, or other groups. How do you know whether something – a word, practice, or object – has moved from one tradition to another if you don’t know where the boundaries between the traditions are? It often seems obvious that this movement has occurred, but articulating the details of when we say that is has happened and when we say that it hasn’t is much more difficult than establishing that some clear cases exist.

Another issue which raises related questions is the existence of multiple religious belonging – people who are (or claim to be, I suppose we don’t have to agree with them although it seems rude to discount their description of their lived experience) members of more than one religion at once. Some of these people might choose to hyphenate their religious identities – Buddhist-Christian – and others just think of themselves as both at once, Jewish and Pagan. Here, the question is: don’t some religions have boundaries which prevent a person from simultaneously belonging to another religion? Generally, we assume that a religious identity is singular – it might change through time, but one person only has one at once. This is reflected in, for example, the ‘tick one box’ approach used for religion on the census. (For much more about religion on the census, explore Abby Day’s work.) If it is possible to belong to more than one religion at once, we might need to rethink our ways of talking about religion. Why is it ‘weirder’ to be both a Christian and a Pagan than to be both a Christian and a Friend of the Earth?

I am at the stage of articulating these as research questions, rather than having any clear answers. However, I do have some directions in which I hope to look. One place I hope to look is other work on identity; in particular, I’m interested to know whether it’s useful to think of religiosity as performance, of religion as something that one does rather than something which one has – an analogy here to the work that Judith Butler and others have done on gender. Are the questions about multiple religious belonging in any way comparable, or in any useful was comparable, to the questions which have been asked about bisexuality or non-binary genders, for example? That many authors start from a question about whether these positions ‘really exist’ suggests to me that there might be points of commonality, but any comparison will need careful exploration.

Overall, because religious traditions are communities consisting of people, their boundaries seem to be closely related to issues around membership: who belongs to, or in, the faith. This in turn raises a whole new set of questions: how do you know who is a member of which religion? Some religions have very explicit positions on this, while others don’t seem to be very sure themselves about who counts as a member. This doesn’t just apply to people, of course; we often ask this question about practices (did you read an article this winter about whether putting up and decorating a tree is ‘Christian’ or ‘Pagan’? There always seem to be a few). Practices, though, are practised by people, and so we come round again to the same issue. Boundaries are tied up with belonging – to be the subject of a future post!

Book collections

I’ve been rearranging my books again – I had to unshelve a lot of them to wash some mould off the wall, and I took the opportunity to start sorting them out a bit. This was also much needed due to the seven+ years of comings, goings, and general muddle.

Although there are overlaps and grey-area cases, my books do roughly break into a series of collections.

Fiction. Novels and short stories, all of which I only keep in the long-term collection if I’m likely to read them again – these are mainly the exceptionally good (e.g. Lord of the Rings, Good Omens), the fannishly relevant (e.g. novelisations of Star Wars, Harry Potter), the somehow distinctive (including a few which are hilariously bad – e.g. Druid’s Blood), and fantasy epics so long and/or complicated that you need to re-read the previous parts before the new one comes out (e.g. Katherine Kerr’s Dverry cycle).

Poetry. Individual authors and anthologies. In the recent weeding, I decided to only keep these if they were one of the following three things: a) something I’d studied, 2) something I really liked, or 3) something I found intriguing.

Archaeology. The majority of this collection is about British prehistory, with a particular focus on stone circles and other monuments. There are a few forays into other areas – cathedrals, for example – and a steadily growing range of specific guidebooks, both thematic (bog bodies, fogous, religion) and geographic (Lewis and Harris, the Llyn Peninsula, Cornwall).

Miscellaneous fact. I suspect this is actually two collections, one of the sort of fact books I read from cover to cover (Table-Rappers, anything by Jon Ronson), and one of the sort of fact books I dip into sometimes (the dictionary of place names, Mythic Woods). This division is somewhat blurred by books which are not quite either – Seals, Peter Sellers: A Celebration). At the moment I haven’t decided on an order in which to put them, except by size. Maybe I’ll do it strictly by size, then at least they’ll look neat.

Plays and scripts. Unsure what to do with my Greek tragedies, set of Bernard Shaw plays, Two Ronnies scripts, and Richard Curtis screenplays, I have put them all together. The logic of this is a little dubious but perhaps I’ll sort them chronologically so they are easier to find.

Humour. These are the sorts of books which I used to read in odd moments where I now do Facebook quizzes and browse Tumblr tags. I have sent a lot to the charity shops but some old favourites remain (Max Headroom, The Deeper Meaning of Liff, The Unadulterated Cat, etc.).

Children’s books. This is a mixture of classics from my own childhood (Thomas the Tank Engine belongs to my parents and I don’t know what became of Ben Goes to Hospital, but there’s still The House at Pooh Corner and some others of that sort), together with recent acquisitions aimed at doing ‘religion stuff’ with my Brownies. The latter probably needs weeding now I’ve tried some of them out and have a better idea what goes down well.

Spike Milligan. I hunt all over for these when they’re spread out in fiction/poetry/scripts/(auto)biography/children’s books/humour/something else again, so I decided to give them their own space. I have more than I thought I did, although I’m a long way short of a complete collection.

Religion. Mainly academic books, mainly on subjects I have studied in the past or needed as background but not pursued further – when I have, they tend to be in one of the categories below. There’s also the kind of ‘religion’ book I pick up as general reading – Why I am a Muslim, Principles: Zen, that kind of thing.

Quakerism. We might be quiet in Meeting, but we are very willing to talk, and publish, the rest of the time. I’ve been collecting recent Quaker literature for over three years, and the shelf – and the box of pamphlets – have extended rapidly.

Gender studies and sexuality. I haven’t added much to this collection since I finished my MA, but it’s a useful core to which I refer from time to time. It also complements another specific collection:

Jewish feminism. Very much at the overlap of gender studies and religious studies, I bought all kinds of fascinating books in the course of my theology undergraduate dissertation and my MA dissertation, and have been pleased to use and extend my collection in teaching about this as well.

Philosophy. Again, a background collection of a) things I studied and might want to go back to one day, and b) those pop culture and philosophy books (I can’t recall ever buying one for myself, but I can see why they appeal when people are trying to buy presents for me).

Theology. Post-PhD, this collection is heavily focused on George Lindbeck, John Hick, and Don Cupitt, although it does also contain a lot of feminist stuff and bits of this and that.

Wittgenstein. Both primary and secondary texts, things I just ended up consulting so often – or didn’t find in the library – that I bought them.

Paganism. More a practitioner’s collection than an academic one, this has been formed by periods (perhaps I should say spells) of buying everything relevant I could find, or could find second-hand, and then times of weeding as it became clearer what my real interests are. It’s now so large I think it’s about to need splitting into a series of smaller collections, probably including mythology, Wicca, Druidry, the Northern Traditions, hilarious 101 books, herbals, and a small shrine to Ronald Hutton.

Practical reference books. Distinct from mere factual books in virtue of being useful, these include craft books (cross stitch patterns, bead jewellery), recipe books (The Bean Book, Nanny Ogg), and Girlguiding publications (four or five generations of Brownie handbooks, among other things).

Graphic novels. Some of Sandman, some Hellblazer, a variety of superheroes, a few serious ones like How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, and of course some Wolverine, because he gets everywhere.

Books I haven’t read yet. These have now run to two shelves and are threatening to start a third, so I think I’d better stop writing blog posts and get some reading done!

Mission Statement

At a careers training a few weeks ago, someone suggested that it might be helpful to write a mission statement for your life. I’m not at all sure that this is what they had in mind (I think they were thinking of an ‘in a five years I will have…’ business-plan type thing), but I did find it a useful exercise.

Rhiannon’s Life Mission Statement, 2014

I aim to listen and to be heard.

I put the Still Small Voice at the centre of my life, and rejoice to hear Her through trees, books, websites, animals, silences, and all people.

Language and dialogue are important to me. I am good at writing and at facilitating conversation. The thoughts and feelings of others matter to me, and I try to support people, especially marginalised people, to speak out for themselves.

I am proactive and self-motivated – a go-getter – but I do not
aspire to be rich. I want to live a balanced life which includes discussion, learning, sharing, time alone and space for fantasy.

What does a committed life look like?

On Twitter recently there’s been some discussion of what a committed Christian life should look like – raised initially by the suggestion that especially in liberal churches, some people who don’t belong in seminaries may end up there because they can’t see a way to express their commitment and engage with their religion in depth without ending up on a track to ordination.

I can relate to this in some ways. Although there’s no danger of a Quaker ending up on a path to ordination, and ordination for Pagans and Buddhists looks very different (for the former, it’s much less structured and unlikely to provide a whole livelihood; for the latter, it’s often more about joining a monastic community – another thing liberal Christians often can’t do), I relate strongly to the situation: wanting to live a committed life in which your religion and religious values are central, but not seeing how to put that together.

I suspect that for those for whom a paid religious role isn’t an option, this is going to require a kind of portfolio life – a reasonable job, a friendship circle, and a religious community outside both of those (perhaps itself built from several elements: a online discussion group, an in-person worship service, a once-a-year camp or festival with the like-minded). Careers centres are encouraging people to consider ‘portfolio working’ (which means having more than one job at once and hoping the lean times in one line of work balance out the busy times in another). I am strongly opposed to the mode of thinking which says that a job is just something you struggle through in order to have money to spend at the weekends – for one thing, the people I know who’ve lived like that often don’t have the energy to enjoy their weekends as much as they’d like. However, bills have to be paid and in the current market you only get a certain amount of choice about what you do.

One of the issues here might be summed up in the Buddhist concept of finding a ‘Right Livelihood’ – a way to make a living which does not conflict with your ethical values or religious practices. How far am I willing to bend my ethical considerations? Am I willing to sell products that I wouldn’t buy, for example? Am I more worried about the ethics of the organisation for which I work, or the opportunities they give me to use the skills I have to good effect? Is it better to neglect my skills and abilities and do something menial for a good cause, or better to be happier in my work for a more morally ambiguous employer? How do you even judge the morality of employers, especially when they are large organisations?

Although at the moment I’m applying for academic jobs, I went to a training recently about making the transfer from academia to the non-academic world. Since only a small number of people with PhDs get academic jobs (between one in five and one in ten depending who you ask and which subject areas they are considering), this is something I need to have considered. I was somewhat dismayed when I asked a question about working in the charities/non-profit sector and the only answer the speaker really had was ‘well, remember that the pay is worse’. I don’t want to be rich. I want to be a Quaker-Pagan who brings their religious values into the whole of life.

Guides and Quakers – being a member of two organisations

I promise that I will do my best
to be true to myself and develop my beliefs
to serve the Queen and my community
to help other people
and to keep the Guide law.

Someone asked on Twitter this week about whether it’s possible to be a Quaker and a member of Scouting and/or Guiding. On the practical level, it certainly is – significant numbers of people are members of both, and have been for many years. I am both a Quaker and a Brownie Leader. On a more theoretical level, I’m aware of two specifically Quaker objections to joining Guiding, and no specifically Guiding objections to being a Quaker.

The first Quaker objection is about oaths. Quakers don’t take oaths, choosing to affirm instead, because they let their yay be yay and their nay be nay. The question, then, is whether the Guiding Promise, quoted at the top of this post, is an oath, and if it is, whether it’s the sort we should be worried about. Although I can argue that it’s quite a weak oath – I use the term ‘promise’ quite casually, to mean ‘I said I would’ – I also see that it is, in a sense, an oath, and I suspect Scouting is clearer about this than Guiding. However, does using the formula ‘I promise that I will do my best’  imply that I am less honest at other times? I don’t think it does. When a fellow Brownie Leader asks me if I can do such-and-such for next week, I don’t have to say that I promise I’ll do my best; I just say yes, I will, and the rest is taken as read. Rather, the use of ‘I promise’ makes a degree of commitment clear, in ways which are accessible to children (remember, the target audience of this text is aged seven and up).

The second Quaker objection, which has I think faded a bit in recent years as the uniform worn by Guides and Scouts has modernised and become more casual, is that these are proto-military organisations. In a sense, this is true. They have their roots in Baden-Powell’s wartime experience and military training, they have often borrowed from military ideas, and even now you’ll find the army advertising to children through Guiding events. (Although you’ll also find Quaker leaders like me refusing to let children in their care go on bouncy castle/assault courses which are army branded.) Even in my lifetime, however, the degree of ‘military’ style material in the Brownie and Guide programmes has dropped significantly – marching into a circle has gone, ‘uniform’ which had to all match has gone, and even at church parade at St High C of E we are very casual indeed about the whole flag business.

A more serious accusation, although I’ve heard it put by feminists more often than Quakers, is that having girls in a single-sex organisation perpetuates inequality. Of course, people who think this can now join the Scouts, who have gone co-ed in the UK. I think, though, that there is a genuine value in women-only spaces for young women, however. You only have to put a Guide unit on the same camping field as a Scout unit to see how they behave differently in the presence of boys. Imagine, if you will, the giggling, the hiding, the screaming. Particularly if you want to offer adventurous activities which might be seen as ‘unladylike’ there’s a real advantage in having a women-only group as it frees up participation from the gendered norms which they – mostly – have plenty of chances to learn at their co-ed schools. If the Scouts do their bit and teach *everyone* to do the washing up, too, rather than bringing in an adult (and usually female) leader to do it, we might manage to improve things this way.

On the flip side, the benefits of participating in such an organisation are probably obvious, and I take them to be wholly in line with Quaker values: team work and sharing, as well as a uniform which takes attention away from differences in background (equality); spending time outdoors and learning about the world (sustainability, truth); having space to develop your own interests and opinions (integrity)… which brings me to the new Promise.

Most people who read the news in the UK are probably aware that last year GirlguidingUK changed our Promise. We made two changes – the thing about taking the word ‘God’ out got a lot of attention, the change from ‘country’ to ‘community’ almost none, and a few people were bothered that we’d kept the Queen. I can say ‘we’ with confidence because this was a democratically made decision – I participated in the consultation, so did my Brownies, so did thousands of others. I’m fine with all the changes, actually. The previous ‘God’ wording – “to love my God” – was a little bit strange anyway, and the new one is accessible to atheists and agnostics without excluding belief. (By the way, ‘be true to myself’ can include my parental, cultural, and other ancestral influences, and commentators who argue that this involves throwing away history have missed something.) I think we kept the Queen for two reasons: firstly, our membership is mainly young women, and many of them are very interested indeed in queens, princesses, etc. Secondly, we are keeping our Guide law: “a Guide is a good friend and a sister to all Guides” – and Elizabeth made her Guide Promise in 1937. When we have a King on the throne I suspect this may change.

As a Quaker and a Brownie leader, I find a number of opportunities to share what I learn between the organisations. I share Quaker values and sometimes ideas with my Brownies – teaching co-operative games, offering open discussion spaces and listening carefully, and refusing to take part in Army-sponsored games or gambling. I share things I learn through Guiding with my Quaker Meeting mainly through children’s meeting, where crafts, stories, and improvisation always come in handy, but also sometimes through vocal ministry.

Spiritual Preparation for Yearly Meeting: question 2

“If you are in membership, did something change for you, and in you, when you became a member? Did you feel different, more responsible, perhaps even transformed?”

(See last week’s post for an introduction to this topic.)

Did something change? No, not at the moment of becoming a member. Yes, before my application; membership was a result of the change not the cause. Yes, but gradually afterwards, as the implications of membership began to sink in and the change of status began to take effect.

In fact, I think it would be more useful to include ‘becoming a member’ in a list of other events in my Quaker life which have created transformations and shaped the way I do Quakerism. It’s impossible to write an exhaustive list of these, but I’d want to include:
– a teenage Quaker women’s weekend with adult leaders who took feminism and mental health seriously;
– the on-again, off-again choices to sit through ‘big meeting’ rather than go out with the children;
– going to Woodbrooke for the first time, on a monthly meeting weekend about Quaker history which turned out to ignite a concern for outreach;
– doing ‘the Whole Banana’ weekend course at Woodbrooke with Alex Wildwood and Tim Peat-Ashworth;
– speaking at Quaker Quest for the first time, a direct result of that first Woodbrooke weekend and a direct cause of my application for membership;
– recognising that I was never actually going to go to Young Friends General Meeting and asking to be released from my appointment as a representative;
– applying for and being accepted into membership;
– becoming an atheist in the library one morning, leaving to go to campus Meeting for Worship, wondering why, and deciding that it didn’t matter;
– noticing that a week later I wasn’t an atheist any more;
– moving cities and making the Quaker Meeting one of my first stops, both before and after coming into membership;
– filling in a yellow (central service volunteering) form, different because of but not directly caused by being in membership…

It would be easy to go on, although to some extent these moments become clearer in hindsight. Equally, although many of mine do involve the formal structures of Quakerism, some are completely disconnected from it, and some – like asking to be released from a service I was never able to start – were hardly positive encounters with that structure. It would also be possible for me to write lists like this about my journey into Paganism and my explorations of Buddhism (or for that matter my membership of GirlGuidingUK, where renewing your Promise becomes a symbol of this continuing process of developing  membership) and those lists would reveal quite different aspects to my spiritual life – and would include things which happened among Quakers, were organised by Quakers, or on Quaker property.

Did something change? Yes. Was the change precipitated by or located around my application for membership? No, not really.

Spiritual Preparation for Yearly Meeting: question 1

Before Yearly Meeting Gathering in Bath this year, Friends have been asked to consider some questions as a form of spiritual preparation. All the details can be found in this pdf file. I’ll probably participate in this in several ways – perhaps in my local Meeting, perhaps on Facebook, perhaps in the national online forum created for the purpose – but knowing that I only know what I think when I hear what I say, and that I tend to want to answer at more length than is comfortable in those spaces, I’ve chosen to begin my exploration here.

The first question asked in the document is:
How does your being a member or not a member affect your feeling of commitment and belonging to your Quaker meeting and to the broader Quaker community?

Well, first things first, I am a member, and have been since 2008. If anything, I think that my sense of commitment and belonging came first, and the membership afterwards. The belonging certainly came first – I have been a Quaker for longer than I can remember, and my – sometimes, admittedly, frequent – frustrations with Friends do nothing to change that. I was a cradle Quaker, having been born well after the abolition of the category ‘birthright Friend’, but I was never really in any doubt that I was a Quaker. I was even daft enough to say so at school, and to try and explain, in the playground, what that meant; my classmates – mostly Muslim or maybe-kinda-CofE – were broadly sympathetic but bemused and on the whole not very interested.

I explored a lot of other things in my teens, mainly by reading, and long-term readers here will know that I stayed basically Pagan in many ways and that Buddhism has also had an influence – but through all of that exploration I stayed Quaker as well, one foot safely in the ‘silent’ camp while I tried out the other stuff, and although I like to tell an anecdote about how in my first week at university I boycotted Quakers and went to a Christian Union thing which made me so angry I went back to Friends the next week – the truth is that this was more or less a foregone conclusion. I already knew where the Quaker Meeting was and I also already knew that I was very unlikely to enjoy the church service.

(Things might have turned out differently if I’d gone to a different church, mind you. I did attend an Anglican service in Leeds a while ago which was so lovely and welcoming and liberal and feminist and inclusive etc. that I took communion, rather to my own surprise. I was almost reassured after that to go to church parade with the Brownies and hate it and refuse to say any of the words as usual.)

My decision to come into membership, then, was mostly shaped by the pre-existence of a sense of belonging and a commitment to the community. The tipping point which made me decide to apply was active participation in a Quaker Quest planning team. The act of speaking out regularly in public meetings about my Quakerism made it clear to me that I was already a Quaker, acting and speaking as if I were fully a Quaker, and it seemed right to make sure that the paperwork reflected that. My local meeting at the time, somewhat sceptical of central processes, took the approach that this was just some paperwork we should sort out; my membership application process did not have any of the spiritual depth which some people find in theirs (partly because I didn’t have ‘visitors’ in the traditional sense but ‘a supporting Friend and a nurturing Friend’ – I won’t delay this post with the technical details but will supply them in comments if requested). My letter of application centred on all the Quaker things I had done, rather than values or beliefs and there was something of a sense that we were putting right a mistake rather than discerning a truth. I don’t think that was necessarily wrong, although I have sometimes wondered whether a different approach would have reached a different answer.

Because of this experience of membership – as a boring technicality rather than deeply related to my spiritual life – I don’t think that my being a member has all that much effect on my ‘feeling of commitment and belonging’. What it does affect is not my feeling but my action of belonging: in membership, I can serve the community, locally and nationally, in a way which is not open to attenders. This service, in turn, does have a big effect on my feeling of commitment and belonging. In the past few years, I have  – for example – served as an Elder in my Area Meeting, as an (alternate) representative on Meeting for Sufferings, and on the Yearly Meeting’s epistle drafting committee. I have found all of these to be very rich and rewarding experiences – difficult and overwhelming as they are at times! – and these kinds of participation, requiring significant commitment in the first place, in turn tend to increase my feeling of belonging and my willingness to commit further.