Tag Archives: Meeting for Worship

Difficult Quaker Decisions

I’m gearing up to teach a course on Making Difficult Decisions (with Rachel Muers at the beginning of March) and naturally that’s got me thinking about difficult decisions I’ve been involved in making. In Quaker meeting for worship for business as practised in Britain Yearly Meeting, if you are in the meeting, you’re participating in the decision, and although we know that not everyone will always agree, there’s no provision for standing aside from the decision. If you think a wrong answer is being reached, it’s your responsibility to either speak up about it, or try and see why the decision is being reached and accept it – maybe both. I once presented the report and recommendations of a review group to a large Quaker meeting, who promptly rejected everything the review group had recommended. I felt that they were placing too much emphasis on a few powerful voices, and not hearing what I was sharing from people who had spoken to the review group in confidence. But I also had to accept that the group were not ready to hear this, not ready for change for lots of reasons – some of them strong reasons – and once I had explained my perspective, my work was done. After that, it was my job to accept the situation and let it go. (I’m not saying I found that easy to do! But I had to try.)

That decision was difficult because of the conflicting interests involved and the complexity of the situation. Others might seem relatively simple for a Quaker group to make but hard to carry out or hard to embrace because of their effects on other people. I was at Meeting for Sufferings when the decision was made to boycott goods from Israeli settlements, and I have often wondered since whether that was the right decision (I still don’t know). At the time it felt clear and we heard from people with direct experience of the situation that it would be helpful. On the other hand, it was probably easier for us to say than for people to put into practice (not least because a boycott of certain settlements too easily turns into a general boycott of Israel, which some Quakers took up personally but was not what we were aiming for collectively). It also had serious consequences for our relationship with the Jewish community, for obvious reasons. The difficulty here lies, I think, in understanding and assessing – from a faith perspective and not necessarily a logical or worldly one – what the consequences might be and whether it’s right for us to take those risks. Sometimes we are called to disagree with others, but discerning when and how to do that can be complex.

Sometimes we make a decision more difficult, especially if we are struggling to work out what the question actually is. One of the times when Quaker meetings for worship for business surprise their clerks – or everyone – is when a question which appears to be straightforward or practical turns out to have hidden depths. A classic example of this is when the meeting owns a building and it’s time for it to be refurbished. All buildings need work from time to time, and some decisions can feel obvious, but deciding on the nature and extent of changes to a major resource which belongs to a whole community often brings up all sorts of associated stuff – memories and emotions, different ideas about the purpose of the building, and sometimes conflicting needs or desires. This doesn’t have to take us by surprise, of course, but it still can, even when the pattern is familiar. What seems obviously needed to me can be obviously a waste of time or money to someone else!

There are also cases when a decision which seemed obvious to some people hits a bump in the road and needs to go through a much more extensive consideration – and ends up feeling obvious to many more people. In an ideal case, the Quaker way of making decisions tries to take the whole community along, with everyone understanding the decision and okay with it even if they wish it could have been otherwise. Something like this happened with Britain Yearly Meeting’s decision to revise our book of discipline. Meeting for Sufferings had consulted Area Meetings, and discerned that the revision needed doing. But when the recommendation to revise was taken to Yearly Meeting, people expressed doubts and hesitations, and there wasn’t time to explore them properly. Instead, a Revision Preparation Group – already planned by Meeting for Sufferings but expected to serve for perhaps a year, while the Revision Committee got ready, rather than several years – conducted an extensive process, and four years later the question was brought back to Yearly Meeting and given extensive session time. By then, some people wondered why we needed to spend so long on it! The need for the revision was agreed by the whole community, anxieties were named and addressed, and the process is now underway.

In the Quaker tradition, we actually have lots of ways of approaching these questions. We might use a threshing or listening process, take our time, form a committee to look into something, ask an expert or outside facilitator to help us, and so on. But I think it’s also important to acknowledge that some decisions just are difficult. There may be no single right answer, because of the complexity of the situation or an inability to meet everyone’s needs. We try to get into God’s perspective, but we always miss some things. We try to listen for the guiding Light, but other stuff – our egos, our wants, our haste, our fears – can distract or mislead us. We hope to get better with practice.

I had to speak – but not in Quaker meeting

What is the difference, or what are the differences, between different strengths of call to speak and different contexts within which the call comes? I’ve had a few occasions recently when I felt that I had to speak – to register disagreement or an alternative viewpoint, or because it was important that someone in my position be seen to speak out, or because I had a point which I needed to share – and it brought me to reflecting on the ways in which this is and isn’t like giving spoken ministry.

One big difference is obviously the situation. In an auditorium where I am probably the only Quaker, where I spoke from the audience to challenge an idea put forward by a panel member, the image of being called to deliver the word of God may be out of place – although my experience in the moment was that while I felt afraid, something was present with me and I was given the skill and the words to try and speak up on behalf of a group to which I do not belong. In that way, it was remarkably like giving spoken ministry. Other similar situations have arisen online, where due the to asynchronous nature of the communication perhaps it’s easier for me to sit at home at my keyboard and take a moment of silence before responding, but where not all the other participants are necessarily Quakers.

But I think perhaps there are also gradations of being called to speak. Not necessarily in order, I think some forms might include:

  • being led to speak prophetically, perhaps the most traditional experience of spoken ministry
  • having a need or duty to speak for a moral reason, and being supported by the Spirit in that process
  • having something to say and being prompted to say it at a specific time for the good of the community
  • having something to say which is useful but not inspired in content or timing
  • needing to say something, not because others need to hear it, but because I need to be heard
  • needing to say something because it is in the process of speaking aloud that I find out what I think

I’m sure these are different for everyone. I also don’t think these are restricted to speech as such, although that’s the most traditional form; writing, artwork, and other forms of expression might work in similar ways. I think I have blogged from most of these motivations over the years! (And this post is probably in the final category, thinking aloud.) They also don’t translate neatly into ‘what should be allowed or not allowed in meeting’, since God might be working through any of them, although the first and the third are probably closest to what Quakers usually mean by ‘spoken ministry’.

When have you had to speak or otherwise make sure your message got through? Who might need to speak but not be heard?

Reading the Psalms in Meeting for Worship

In conversation with a f/Friend yesterday, I happened to recall a curious episode in my life as a Quaker which I don’t think I’ve written about before. Enough time has now passed for me to think of this as a finished pattern – what I’m about to describe took place roughly between three and four years ago. I haven’t entirely stopped reading Biblical passages in Meeting for Worship occasionally (I was led to read a section of the Sermon on the Mount a few weeks ago, with a few comments about why), but it feels like a more normal part of a mixed pattern of different kinds of spoken ministry, including many meetings when I don’t speak, times when I speak entirely from personal experience, and reading from Quaker faith & practice

For a while, though, I felt strongly and repeatedly (I’d guess this happened perhaps four times over the course of several months) led to read whole psalms in Meeting for Worship. I read them plain, without commentary or even giving the Biblical reference. I read them as well as I could within the skills I have – for example, I have a loud voice, and I tend to speak clearly and expressively, even dramatically. I didn’t always read the whole Psalm, but I usually did. I sometimes changed a pronoun, so that I alternated between masculine and feminine words for God, but I don’t remember changing any other words (although of course I could have mis-spoken or something). Some of the Psalms I was led to read were challenging, especially ones which use violent language not usually heard in Quaker meetings.

I would say I tested the leadings fairly thoroughly. I tend to be more confident about being led to read from Qf&p or the Bible than about being led to speak in my own words – texts have the advantages of being tested already, by time and other people, and it’s harder to go wrong. (Not impossible; I remember being relatively new to a meeting, reading from Qf&p in worship, and being told afterwards that it ‘would have sounded different to people who’d been in the meeting for a long time’; I never did really work out why.) I think I was more hesitant the second time it happened – I remember someone commenting on one of these occasions that she knew I was struggling with whether to speak or not because I kept picking up the Bible, looking at it, putting it down again on the seat next to me with the page open, waiting a while, and picking it up again. By the third time the calling was clearer and I was quicker to obey. And maybe that was the point, or some other message got through, because it didn’t happen much more.

It got mixed reactions. Often people asked me afterwards which Psalm it was, which I was able to tell them at the time although I can’t remember now. Some of them wished I’d announced that before reading – which I sort of did, too, because it would have felt much safer and more comfortable. It also wasn’t what I was being asked to do. Some noticed the style in which I read (one person described it as ‘fire and brimstone preaching’ style, which might have been an exaggeration for comic effect). Some in the meeting were, I think, discomforted by the language of enemies and war which is native to some Psalms; as I read, I was typically discovering meanings which related more the the metaphorical Lamb’s War than an outward war – but of course texts have many meanings, and I was not guided to share those interpretations in ministry (although I did discuss some of them in conversations after meeting). One effect of giving this ministry for me – not, I’m sure the main one, but worth noting – was that tea-and-coffee times which were sometimes filled with awkward questions about my job search and un/employment situation were changed into much more fulfilling conversations which included theology.

Writing this, I am imagining some Friends worrying about whether it is right of me to frame so much of this in the Quaker passive (‘I was led to…’ – I did it, someone else is to blame, and readers are expected to infer the elided deity). Should I take more responsibility for my actions? For example, if someone had been deeply upset by the words I read, should I own that as the consequences of my choice, rather than claiming that it was God’s choice and I was only an agent? I’m willing to take some responsibility because I did choose to follow my Guide: I don’t have the experience that I have to speak, only that I should and am led to do so. I trust God to give me words which are needed and which those present can cope with, even if it’s difficult. And perhaps that’s why I don’t want to accept the full responsibility. If I’m not picking up something from my co-creators of the meeting for worship, from Goddess and everyone else present, how can I have faith that such apparently random utterances are helpful?


 

Writing this, I’m also aware that I’ve been thinking more about how I shape the narratives of my spiritual life recently because I’m preparing to run a course on it. There are still places to come and talk about Spiritual Blogging with me and Gil Skidmore, 7th-9th May, if you’re interested.

#oceanofdarkness: early Friends today?

At the end of a recent blog post about Quaker structures and our future, Alistair Fuller asks an interesting question: ” if [early Friends] were forming a new and radical religious society today, what might it look like?”

I’ve no idea what it would really look like. But here are three ideas.

They would use Twitter. Early Friends were all about communicating, whether through preaching in the street or printing pamphlets. They went where people were, and gave their message. Today, that’s Twitter – not just Twitter, but the circumstances symbolised by the speedy, political, argumentative, and interactive style of that platform. This is about being recognisable, as Alistair says in his post, but also welcoming. Margaret Fell used to write to the king on a regular basis, so I think today she’d be tweeting Donald Trump several times a week. Early Friends could be upfront about their beliefs to the point of being philosophically (rather than physically) combative. Where better to take that stance today than Twitter?

They would create structures for people and for what God was really calling them to do, not try and fit people into structures. Someone else said something like this once. Early Friends were in the business of rejecting and remaking tradition, not upholding it, and they didn’t have any three hundred year old grade 1 listed meeting houses to worry about. I don’t think that renewing our Religious Society means throwing all of that out, but it does mean asking at every turn: are we doing this because we want to or because we’ve always done it? Have we chosen the time and location of our meetings to suit people – those we know and those we don’t yet know – or are we just chugging along like a train on lines built to suit a previous generation? Do we search for, nominate, and appoint a sixteen-person Committee on Thermostat Management* to the glory of God, or is it a guru’s cat?

*I think this is a joke, but please tell me if you’re serving on it!

We might not enjoy having them at Meeting. Someone taking the approach of early Friends today could easily look disruptive in a Quaker meeting as much as in the rest of the world. They wouldn’t respect the unwritten rules about the length or style of spoken ministry (or about acceptable foods for shared lunch). They might embrace new technologies and ideas in uncomfortable ways: broadcasting the discussion group via Facebook Live, using Google during worship to find the right passage in Qf&p, Instagraming the flowers on the table – or throwing them to the floor as idolatrous. (Or maybe the smashed vase would make a dramatic snap.)

They also wouldn’t have much patience with meetings who don’t put a sign outside or Friends who won’t tell their friends about Quakerism – or maybe I’m projecting here! If early Friends were forming a new and radical religious society today, would they get eldered?

A place for nerds in the Society of Friends?

One of the questions asked in this year’s Spiritual Preparation for Yearly Meeting is:

  • Do you consider yourself to be ‘spiritual’, or an activist? Do you find the distinction helpful in considering your own journey and experiences?

My answer to this is: neither, and therefore, no.

When I picture an activist, I think of people who do things for which I don’t have the time, energy, or social skills. I do little bits of activism – the kind of things which get mocked in internet articles – like signing petitions, discussing politics with friends, and donating a bit of money now and again. I very rarely go to demonstrations, I almost never hand out leaflets, I’ve never been arrested, and the ways in which I’ve changed my life to bring it into accordance with my principles are mainly invisible. I’m often practical, but I’m by no means an activist.

When I picture someone who is spiritual, I think of people whose spiritual life works in a way which mine doesn’t. I’ve been going to meeting for worship my whole life and I’ve never really been able to ‘centre down’. I don’t have a prayer life to speak of, I’m immune to whatever people get out of sacred music, I like to look at religious art but rarely get beyond looking, and when I read scripture I come away with more questions than answers. I do sometimes have experiences which I can only describe as ‘spiritual’, and I value being in an organised religion because some of our structures help me feel spiritually connected, but whatever ‘being spiritual’ involves, I feel outside the category.

So, what I am? I’m a nerd, a swot, a geek, an over-educated over-thinker. This is, as that link suggests, common among Quakers – but it also, often, unwelcome. In a time when rationality has been staked out as the realm of atheism, there seems to be a trend among the religious towards rejecting thought and rigour. I’ve considered it carefully, and concluded that this could be a terrible mistake. However, because I’ve ‘considered’ and ‘concluded’, I suspect my ideas are liable to be thrown out without being heard, on methodological grounds.

When I call myself a geek or a nerd, people sometimes tell me off for putting myself down. This tells me that these words still have a power which can be reclaimed. After years of bullying and social exclusion for being ‘weird’ and ‘clever’, for being articulate enough to give right answers in class and bothering to do so, for enjoying learning and working hard at it, I’m not going to start pretending not to think. I admit it: I think about things at home, I think at work, I even think in Meeting for Worship.

I’m not suggesting that you should do this too (unless you want to). For me, though, prayer and philosophy are closely connected. To think something through, to consider it from all angles, to ask questions like “what do I really know about this?” or “what assumptions underlie the way I am approaching this?” is a way of holding an issue in the Light. Sometimes this leads to activity: “if I hold this view, and this view, then I ought to…” Sometimes this lead to spiritual perspectives: if God loves me as I am, then She’ll love me even if I ask the hard questions.

I am neither spiritual, nor an activist, but approach the world through questioning, thought, and wondering. My Quaker journey is strongly shaped by that even – especially? – when it seems unpopular.

Quality of Spoken Ministry

My previous post on Daffodil Ministry sparked a lot of debate on my Facebook page, and it raised so many questions I thought I’d expand some of my responses here. Many thanks to all who participated in that discussion, with special appreciation for those who had the courage to disagree respectfully.

Should we be judging spoken ministry at all? 

I think we all do – setting aside the question of whether we should or not, everyone makes judgements about what they see and hear. It might be a moral judgement, or an emotional reaction such as liking or disliking, or just ‘I want more/less of that’, but it’s there. Some will then ruthlessly suppress those judgements, others will take them home and moan about them in private, and sometimes I choose to blog about them. I’d have just the same thoughts whether I chose to tell you or not! If I choose not to share them, these judgements can often fester in a way which poisons me against particular people, meetings, situations, etc. Sharing them creates a more honest community in which we know one another better.

And should we? Yes, actually, I think we should. If we are to encourage helpful ministry and address unsuitable ministry, as elders are asked to do in Qf&p 12.12c, we’re going to have to work out which is which.

Reflecting on this, I considered my own experience of giving spoken ministry. Sometimes I am thanked for it, or people comment on the content, and I find that very helpful (although being thanked is sometimes awkward – I’d rather be thanked for being faithful to the leading to speak than for speaking itself or for what I am given to say). I’ve never been told directly that I shouldn’t have said something. I have, though, sometimes given ministry to which nobody referred at all afterwards… and then I go home and wonder what happened. I’m fairly sure they heard me because when I’m not being told off for talking too loudly I’m being thanked for being clear and audible. Did they avoid saying something because I’d outrun my Guide but they didn’t want to be judgemental or critical? In a way, I’d rather be told off sometimes because then I’d know I could trust the meeting to be honest with me.

(I am aware that posting this on a widely read blog might have the effect of producing criticism! And that in the moment I might well find that criticism upsetting. I promise that I’m just thin-skinned and will be fine.)

Shouldn’t we encourage (something which daffodil ministry is taken to have, e.g. appreciation for the natural world, thankfulness)?

Yes – if it really does that. Yes – if it is a real appreciation for the actual world, and not just for a common symbol. (Why daffodils and not dung beetles or Dutch elm disease?) Yes – if it is balanced by other elements. A&Q 10 says “Try to find a spiritual wholeness which encompasses suffering as well as thankfulness and joy.” We don’t have to have all of them in any one piece of spoken ministry, but over a month does your meeting include them all?

How does daffodil ministry relate to other problematic forms of ministry?

In the discussion, ‘media ministry’ (typically Radio 4 ministry and Guardian ministry) were also mentioned, and this led me to reflect on another ministry pattern which bothered me in one of my previous meetings. When there was a terrorist attack in Europe, a Friend would often stand and say how terrible this was and how incomprehensible. That the deaths of tens or hundreds are terrible I agree. That the actions of terrorists are incomprehensible I do not agree – this is the line given by journalists and politicians who don’t want us to understand, but to accept it at face value is to deny that there is that of God in everyone. One of the problems I identified with daffodil ministry was its shallowness. Sometimes we need to be reminded of things, or the obvious needs to be stated, but this is most effective if done in an unpredictable way. Observations about the seasons, and repetitions of news items, are neither deep nor surprising and that increases the chances that they won’t be helpful.

What if the way you talk about this stops someone giving ministry?

My intention is not to hold anyone back from following the leadings they are given – and if they are following their leadings faithfully, they’ll say what they have to say whether I like it or not! If people are not following their leadings (and we all do it sometimes, for all sorts of reasons) we have a bigger problem than daffodil ministry.

In practice, I think we all make mistakes. I have held back from giving ministry – I spoke last week, my mother already spoke, it’s nearly the end, that’s too personal – and regretted it afterwards. I have also spoken and regretted it later. I don’t think that discussing ministry openly and seeing that there is a variety of opinion is more likely to prevent helpful ministry than to prevent unsuitable ministry, or more likely to encourage unsuitable ministry than to encourage helpful ministry, so over all, I predict that any effects balance each other out. Please let me know if you have evidence to the contrary!

Aren’t you taking this all too seriously?

I take my faith seriously. Is there really anything else I should be more serious about?

Area Meetings and Local Meetings: chapter 4 of Quaker faith & practice

The first thing which occurs to me when I open chapter 4 is that it begins with a remark which, although true, is liable to be completely mystifying to many. It is the case that “Until 2007 area meetings were known as monthly meetings”, but this doesn’t really tell you anything unless you were already familiar with the term ‘monthly meeting’. Although there will probably always be a few readers of our book of discipline who need the comparison – especially those from other yearly meetings where the term ‘monthly meeting’ is still in widespread use, albeit often somewhat differently from our old use of the phrase – the number of people in Britain who knew what a monthly meeting was, but don’t know what an area meeting is, should hopefully be shrinking every year.

After the history, though, we get into the real stuff: 4.02 explains the responsibilities and importance of the area meeting. It’s where we do much of our business, where we look after all sorts of things which affect us as a church community, and where we hold spiritual, financial, and other forms of responsibility. A group of local meetings make up an area meeting – and it’s at area meeting level that a lot of authority is held.

It’s an area meeting who admit, or don’t admit, people to membership. It’s an area meeting who appoint elders and overseers. It’s an area meeting which is represented at Meeting for Sufferings. Ideally, this hierarchy, in which the area meeting has authority over local meetings, should also go with a widening of participation – if you’re a member of the area meeting, you’re entitled to go to it and participate in the business process, even have a responsibility to do so.

I think it can be easy to forget this, or not realise it. I personally have often struggled to get to area meeting – believing that it’s important to participate does not magically make public transport appear on Sunday afternoons, alas. Sometimes I have put other things first – Brownies who need an adult at church parade, catching a train to go to work, some urgent sleeping I needed to get done. Sometimes it has just come down to the incorrect assumption that I, or someone else in my meeting, would drive a car. When I’ve been unable to attend, I’ve come to value the practice of circulating minutes and reports by email afterwards. Not just those minutes with my name in, either, please! Seeing the whole picture of the area meeting’s business can help me feel part of the wider community even when I can’t be there in person.

When I have been able to attend area meetings, I have often found them interesting and fulfilling. It’s good to see Friends from other local meetings, and to worship with others. Although I have problems with the common practice (thankfully not universal) of holding area meeting on a Sunday afternoon, it does (buses permitting) encourage me to worship with a different local meeting. That in itself can be very enriching. The worship of the area meeting, before, during and after the business, can be very deep, and the area meeting is often a time when people are able to eat together and get to know one another better. The routine business, such as reports from Meeting for Sufferings and charitable trusts the area meeting supports, can be both informative and inspiring. A special area meeting called to write a minute on a particular issue is one of the most gathered and careful business meetings I can remember attending.

I can see glimpses of this when I read chapter 4, but I think I’d struggle to find it if I was trying to get from the text to the experience, rather than reading the experience back into the text. I also find clues that the text has been edited, bit by bit, over the years: compare the technology levels implied in 4.44 with those in 4.45. It’s also technical and detailed – long lists of points, such as in 4.10, are clear in some ways, but can also be daunting and seem disparate, because the connections between the very spiritual (“the right and regular holding of meetings for worship”) and the very practical (“the proper custody of its records”) aren’t immediately obvious.

Sometimes I have felt that we do area meetings a disservice by talking about them as if they are always boring – I’m not denying that they are sometimes boring, since they meet to do work, but they can also be moving, involving, heartening. When a notice or report about area meeting is given in your local meeting, is it merely factual, or off-hand, or does it share with those who hear it something of the power and appeal of a well-held meeting for worship for church affairs?