Tag Archives: learning

What have you learnt from the process of reading Quaker faith & practice?

Being on the team who are asking everyone else this question – the ‘Reading Qf&p’ subgroup of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group – I feel like I ought to have a go at answering it myself!

I’ve learned that it is possible to get Quakers on board with this kind of project. It hasn’t involved absolutely everyone in the Yearly Meeting – it never could have done, for all sorts of reasons – but it has reached a large number of people, and many who haven’t read every chapter or who stopped or had to take a break nevertheless picked up ‘our red book’ more than they would have done otherwise. Some of them have even used and appreciated the calendar, which I was a bit dubious about when we were putting it together – but although a few pairings were awkward, and some months seemed harder to read than others, the basic idea of offering a structure so that people moved around the book rather than trying to read it from start to finish seems to have worked in many cases.

I’ve learnt that I am not at all consistent in using learned vs learnt.

I’ve learned that there is always something new to be found on re-reading a chapter of Qf&p. I could have told you this before, but I’ve learnt and re-learnt it every month for the past eighteen months, so it bears repeating. This is a hugely rich and nourishing book, and – especially now that I know it that much better – I’m sure it will always have a place on my bookshelves. Every month I’ve found something new to treasure (and sometimes I’ve noticed that I skimmed right past previous favourites). I’ve even found something to blog about every month, another thing I doubted when I began!

I’ve learnt that while there is much in Qf&p which resonates with me, there are also things which do not feel useful or relevant any more, and aspects of life which are significant to my Quaker journey which are absent or only scarcely represented. For me personally, the brief sections on environmental matters seem inadequate to represent the depth of commitment which I now take the Yearly Meeting to have. Individuals and meetings express it in many ways, but a huge amount of work is going on, and has gone on since 1994, to express this commitment, and it often involves very visible choices. Being vegan is one of the most obvious aspects of my witness to the glory of the Goddess, and the one which I explain to strangers perhaps more often than anything else, but if they heard that being vegan was somehow linked to being a Quaker and came to Qf&p to see if other Quakers did likewise, they’d have to do a lot of work to see how what I was doing related to this other stuff!

I’ve also confirmed a previous hypothesis, namely that there’s nothing that’s good for the visitor statistics of a Quaker blog like having Paul Parker link to it from his Facebook page. (Thanks, Paul!) More seriously, and more generally, I’ve learned that I really enjoy discussing Quaker matters, and that online discussions can be a good way to make that happen. These may or may not focus around Qf&p – some good ones have, others have come from other sources – but I’ve always appreciated the thoughts others have chosen to share in blog posts, Facebook comments, and sometimes Tweets or other formats. During the calendar I worked and had job interviews all over the country, moved house, and moved my membership, but I was able to continue to interact online without geography becoming a barrier. I was able to offer responses to each month’s reading in my preferred way – writing – and hear from others. I hope we can maintain and build on this interactivity and the community which has gathered around this project.

In the meantime, I’ll be taking suggestions for topics for future blog posts! It suited me well to have a chapter or two a month to discuss, but I don’t think I’ll go back to the beginning and start again because it might get repetitious.

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Spring blossom on the probably-a-damson tree on my allotment. Nothing to do with this post but it’s pretty.

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Finding out what I already know

There’s a chant, circle dance, song – one of those things that’s just Around, and even Google doesn’t seem to know where it’s from – which goes: We are angels, we have forgotten these things/Trailing clouds of glory, we are remembering.

At one level, I don’t get on with this at all. I’m deeply suspicious of most of the metaphysical propositions people put forward to try and make this kind of thing ‘make sense’ – if you can even do this which such a brief and evasive text.

At another level, I have been sitting with these evocative words recently and finding that they reflect some of my experience beautifully. This isn’t a matter of ‘not thinking about it’ as sometimes advocated when people feel like mysticism and intellectualism are opposed – I have thought very carefully about what I’m about to write – but thinking about it in a metaphorical, exploratory way rather than asking, for example, what angels really are.

One of the pleasures I have had in the first few months in my new job as Tutor for Quaker Roles at Woodbrooke is the opportunity to assist with, and hence sit in on, some events for people who are taking on roles which I’ve heard of, but never been directly involved with. Almost nobody else comes to learn about being a trustee, for example, unless they already are or soon will be a trustee themselves. (You’re welcome to if you like – but it’s unusual.) I have gone into these events assuming, and assuring everyone else, that I knew nothing about the topics at hand.

There are, as I expected, all sorts of things I didn’t know about these roles. I’d never thought before about the problem of lone working in relation to meeting house wardens, although I’ve known several wardens well over the years and am aware of issues about lone working in other contexts. There was a lot I didn’t know and couldn’t have guessed in  presentation the trustees conference were given about employment. There were things I became aware of but couldn’t learn directly – the feeling of responsibility which goes with being a trustee, for example, I can imagine but have never experienced.

What surprised me was how much I did know – not the details, but the principles; not the answers, but the methods suggested for working them out or looking them up; not how to do the jobs, but how to learn how to do the jobs. I’d forgotten this, but I think I had a similar experience when I became an elder. I needed to spend time thinking about, for example, how to help people have a better experience of Meeting for Worship, and I was glad to be able to read about my duties in chapter 12, but I’d have been able to guess at most of them (although I’d have put a few I don’t like doing on the overseers list!). There were things to learn, but also a deep sense of when things were ‘in right ordering’ and when they were ‘off’. It’s a bit like knowing whether a sentence is grammatical, without being able to explain why!

If when we take on these roles, whether we are nominated or offer them as unpaid ministry or take on paid Quaker work, we are becoming angels – God’s messengers, give or take whatever struggles you have with the word ‘God’ – then, as in the song, we will remember what we need to know, even if we never knew it before. We’ll still have to look things up (whose responsibility is such-and-such? does employment law really say so-and-so?), but the underlying principles don’t have to be a struggle. Putting them into practice sometimes will be, especially when they run counter to the prevailing culture (try insisting on the correct use of ‘fewer’ while standing in a supermarket’s ‘ten items or less’ lane!), but we’ll know – perhaps by the clouds of glory! – where we should be going.

(Could you benefit from finding out what you already know, and maybe learning some other stuff as well? Search Woodbrooke’s courses online.)

Afterwords: coming towards the end

I’m now in my last week as an Eva Koch scholar. Over the weekend, the four Eva Koch scholars gave presentations to some local Friends and those who happened to be at Woodbrooke, outlining our findings and sharing some of our experience. Here are some of the headlines from mine – things which haven’t yet been covered in blog posts (see my afterwords tag to find them all). I’ve also included a few of the pictures I used in my presentation, all taken in Woodbrooke’s garden during my time here.DSCF7947

Afterwords has three main purposes: community building, improving ministry, and smoothing transitions. Unfortunately, these all have a flip side. Afterwords can help a meeting to flourish as a community by helping people to get to know one another better – especially in ‘the things which are eternal’. It can move a community beyond chatting about daily life and into a deeper sharing about experiences of worship and spiritual insight. However, it can also split the community: either physically, if the afterwords is held in such a way that not everyone participates or feels able to participate, or emotionally, especially if people in the meeting have very strong and opposed views about afterwords. Because people tend to really like or really dislike afterwords, with the middle ground sparsely populated,  the whole idea can be polarising.

Afterwords can improve ministry. This can be by encouraging people who are perhaps newer or shyer to speak in a space where there is less pressure tDSCF7853.JPGo give ‘true ministry’. It can also be by moving contributions from those who need to speak often, or who need a more direct response than is acceptable during worship, into a space where that’s acceptable. (Whether this actually is seen as acceptable depends a lot on how the Friend concerned is characterised: there’s sympathy for cases where a mental health or emotional need is hinted at, but very little for cases where something is thought to be a hobby-horse or campaigning point.) On the other hand, afterwords can also confuse newcomers (how do you know what’s nearly ministry if you don’t have any idea what ministry is?) or encourage people to hold back from ministry, thinking that if they are at all unsure of their leading to speak they should wait until afterwords. Some people in the survey reported that having introduced afterwords, their meeting now has very little or no ministry during worship.

For some people, afterwords smooths over a transition from worship into the ordinary world. If notices seem like a jolt after the silence, afterwords – held in a spirit of worship, but with more relaxed rules on speaking – can feel like a gentle introduction.
Unfortunately, there are also (sometimes in the same meeting!) people wDSCF7880ho feel that moving into too many words is a rough road, and would find well-given notices and a cup of coffee provide a smoother transition. In a way, this finding is even less of a finding than the others – you can look to see whether community building is needed in your meeting and whether afterwords might help, and you can put in other ways of explaining and improving ministry, but you can’t do much else about the transition. However, I also think that this finding is more interesting than the others, because so little attention is usually paid to the spiritual experience of the ending of a meeting for worship. The advice on centring down is not paired with advice on ‘rising up’ – except in the activist sense – and yet the movement out of waiting worship is clearly important to people and deserves further attention.

How do we take what we have learned during meeting for worship out into the world? Can we find ways to clarify and consolidate what our Inward Teacher gives us while we are listening, and apply it to our whole lives? To answer these questions, I think we need to consider and review all our practices around the end of worship, including afterwords, but also how we give notices, how we use social time, and our mixed bag of current taboos about discussing and building on spoken ministry.

 

Afterwords: digging deeper

I didn’t feel ready to write this on Wednesday, when I was expecting to post, partly because the news about my new job dominated my attention for a few days. However, I would like to share some of the ideas I’m playing around with at the moment and ask you whether they ring true.

I’m looking at the relationship between afterwords and spoken ministry – in my survey, lots of people said that their form of afterwords was either meant to improve, or had a negative effect on, the spoken ministry in their meeting, and I’ve been trying to think about why this is.

Some of obviously depends on how you think about ministry in the first place. I might think about ministry as a particular way of speaking, with special rules, in which case afterwords has similar-but-slightly-different rules. I might think about ministry as a gift from God or something we channel from the depths we contact during worship, in which case afterwords might seem like a space for sharing small but potentially precious gifts, or a mockery which doesn’t acknowledge the specialness of this contact. I might think about ministry as something we learn to do, whatever else we think it is, and in that case I might ask: what does the use of afterwords teach about ministry?

Sometimes people talk about afterwords moving unwanted contributions out of ministry, by making another space in which they can be shared. Sometimes people talk about afterwords taking wanted contributions out of ministry, because having another space means that people have to be very sure about their leading before they speak during worship. These are obviously two sides of the same coin, and can both be happening at once in the same meeting! Other people talk about afterwords as a space in which people might gain confidence in speaking, and thus feel more about to give ministry during worship in the future. My impression is that this works for some people – where what is lacking is confidence about speaking to the whole group, or feeling that their contribution will be welcomed – but that it just muddies the water for other people, if they aren’t sure what will count as ministry.

A situation which is mentioned sometimes in the survey responses – and which I probably won’t have time to explore fully in this project, but would like to consider in the future – is how people can learn to give spoken ministry in situations where they don’t have experience of hearing it. In a 1988 book chapter on spoken ministry, Alan Davis says that although “like other forms of discourse, it [spoken ministry] must be learned” this is an open process: “anyone may speak, all may learn” (p134, ‘Talking in Silence’, in N. Coupland (ed.) Styles of Discourse). That’s certainly true in the Meetings for Worship he examine, where every meeting had at least four pieces of ministry during their hour of worship, and some had as many as seven. But I know meetings who go for weeks or months without hearing any spoken ministry at all, and several survey respondents told me that their meetings are often entirely silent. In that case, adding an afterword for ‘not quite ministry’ might be tempting, but it might not make sense, especially if many of those attending the meeting have no idea at all of what afterwords isn’t quite.

Have you got experience of any of the situations described here? Has afterwords supported you in giving spoken ministry, or does it encourage you to hold back from speaking during worship?

Reading Quaker faith & practice: Chapter 21

Personal journey: reading Qf&p on the train

Personal journey: reading Qf&p on the train

Friends in Britain Yearly Meeting have been invited, by the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group of which I am a member, to read and get to know our current Book of Discipline – Quaker faith & practice – before deciding whether or not it is time to revise it.

We are beginning with Chapter 21, Personal journey. This chapter contains selections of extracts about youth, age, living a full life, creativity, and death; these are partly arranged in a chronological way, with youth first and death towards the end, and partly not – some could be part of life at any age, and by ending the chapter with ‘Suffering and healing’, rather than death, reading it as a whole is not as bleak as it could be.

One thing that struck me about the chapter as a whole is the metaphor of journey for life. This is a familiar and much used one – we talk about spiritual journeys often, for example, and the image of travel underlies talk about finding Quakerism being like coming home. However, it isn’t always a helpful image. Many of us only set out to travel physically when we have an aim n mind, and the spiritual search does not always or even often work like that. Many of us find travel uncomfortable, something to be endured until we can arrive, and but this is not at all the attitude to life I find in these extracts. It’s all very well to say that the journey is more important than the destination, but that’s very rarely been my experience of actual travel. (In the picture at the top of this post, I’m travelling to work; I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be going if the destination weren’t important to me.)

Doubts about the title asides, this chapter contains some of my favourite passages. I can’t possibly pick out every one, so here are three which I find myself especially treasuring at the moment.

21.01. This passage by Rufus Jones speaks about how he came to learn Quakerism in a Quaker household. He talks, not of being taught, although words were involved, but of being shown, of the religion of his family being something they did together. It’s clear that there was teaching – including Bible reading every day – but that, in memory at least, it was also centrally about experience.

21.19. Dorothy Nimmo’s story is, as she says in the passage, a classic one, and it’s a classic for a reason. This passage reminds me of a debate I sometimes have with my friends about whether I am a  Slytherin. (I am.) It also describes an experience I have had, and I’m sure many others have had, of coming to Meeting with nothing to offer except a need. “Whatever you have.” As someone who has been reprimanded in other settings for being too needy and demanding, I find the idea that I can come to Meeting with nothing but a need very freeing.

21.68. This passage by Iain Law speaks about suffering and death, and how the particular circumstances of Andrew’s death made it difficult to talk about among Friends. The specifics of this passage arise from a historical moment which deserves to be remembered as such; but it also speaks to a broader issues, to the problems which can arise when we are fearful of the reactions of Friends and hold back in ministry. I’ve done this myself – or at other times, not held back, and been met with confused, upset, confusing and upsetting responses.

Before finishing this post, I want to take a moment to address two questions that are asked in the introduction to the Reading Qf&p project: one about the history and development of Quakerism, and one about the authority of the text.

One big issue in the development of Quaker thought is discussed in this chapter – attitudes to creativity and especially to music. This chapter is clear that although early Friends were opposed to music, Friends today are not – indeed, we are broadly in favour of the arts even as we choose to use them not at all or only very sparingly in our worship. There are hints, however, of another shift – Quakers may not officially celebrate Christmas but in 21.25 we can pray for spiritual gifts to be in our Christmas stockings.

What authority does this text have? It inspires and suggests. This chapter doesn’t give instructions but recounts personal responses to situations which we may recognise echoed in our own lives. This chapter can’t have the authority f command because of the subject matter it deals with – too personal, too emotional – but perhaps it can have an authority of guidance: when you are in situations like these, here are some recommendations, some suggestions, some previous experiences to reflect on and, at least, know that you are not alone.

L is for… Learning

Meeting for Worship for Learning is a very powerful tool. As Quakers – in fact, I suspect, as liberal inhabitants of the modern West – we value our freedom of thought; and as a community, so many of us have been damaged one way or another by the teachings of other denominations or religions that we can be quite suspicious of Teaching. We like our questions and don’t want to be told what answers we should accept.

That’s all fair enough, but it would be a shame if our sometimes justified suspicion of Teachers led us to ignore what answers we have – both from those other members of our community who have something worth hearing and what we ourselves might have to share.

One way to facilitate this kind of sharing is Meeting for Worship for Learning, which can take many forms. Recently, I completed a cycle of a programme called Hearts and Minds Prepared – a group of about eight from my local meet met for twelve sessions, to consider a whole range of Quaker topics, including our history, our testimonies, our methods, and our spiritual journeys. I’d been wanting to do Hearts and Minds Prepared since it came out, and kept missing opportunities, so this was a long-awaited treat; and although sometimes difficult and sometimes moving, it was just as good as I’d hoped.

To me, the key aspects of this kind of work are listening to one another, facilitation rather than lecturing (that is to say, one might as the organiser of the session have certain material to put in or specific activities to suggest, but you are flexible, listening to the group as you ask the group to listen to one another), and not too much structure. Like a semi-programmed Meeting for Worship, it needs to have enough space and silence to develop along whatever path opens up. Sometimes I try and put these principles into practice with non-Quaker groups; the Brownies take to it relatively well, but undergraduates are sometimes nonplussed!

I was considering writing about Woodbrooke here, but I see that Stephanie got there first!

You may have picked up by now that I’m a pretty studious person, someone who enjoys learning, and so it’s no surprise that many of my outstanding Quaker moments involve Meetings for Worship for Learning of one kind or another: Quaker Quest, private study and discussion groups, Hearts and Minds Prepared, all sorts of things at Woodbrooke, weekends away with the Monthly/Area Meeting or my local meeting, Bible Study… the list goes on, and I plan to keep it growing.