Tag Archives: Meeting for Worship

#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?

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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?

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 3

Chapter 3, ‘General counsel on church affairs’, is one of several chapters in this book which seems to me to really start with the second item in it. The beginning of 3.02, “In our meetings for worship we seek through the stillness to know God’s will for ourselves and for the gathered group.” is so much better, such a stronger beginning to ‘counsel on church affairs’ than “This chapter refers especially to…”! Apologies to whichever committee member painstakingly drafted 3.01 in order to meet someone’s need to have this and that clarified at the beginning, but couldn’t we at least take the ‘this chapter includes…’ stuff after a little bit of inspiration?

That said, once I get into Chapter 3 there are a number of passages which seem to me both helpful and inspiring. Some which stood out to me on reading it through are:

  • 3.05, “… open minds are not empty minds, nor uncritically receptive: the service of the meeting calls for knowledge of facts, often painstakingly acquired, and the ability to estimate their relevance and importance.” I think this is hugely important, partly in pointing out the role of preparation before a Meeting for Worship for Business (n.b. this is my blog and I reserve the right to capitalise whatever I like even if contrary to the house style of the Qf&p/F&P!). It is especially important, though, in demonstrating how ‘head’ and ‘heart’ are brought together in the process. Later on in 3.05 there is a line about the need for “sharing of knowledge, experience and concern”, and I think this too reminds us that our intellects, our emotions, and our spiritual selves are not separate. The business method actually requires our whole selves, including our minds, though it may sometimes led us in irrational directions just as it can led us in directions which we find emotionally distressing.
  • 3.15, which is about the acceptance of minutes. This is, I think, most of the most important and distinctive things about the Quaker way of working, and one which it is easy to fail to grasp. However, 3.15 puts it very clearly: “It is at the moment of accepting each minute that the united meeting allows you [the clerk] to record it as a minute of the meeting.” Before the moment of acceptance, it is a draft minute, and no more; after that, it is a minute owned by the whole meeting, and only the meeting have the power to change whatever decision is recorded in it. It’s easy to forget how important the acceptance of the minute is – especially for minutes of record, where the draft is good enough, clerks sometimes forget to ask the meeting to formally accept it; at other times, people forget that the minutes are accepted one by one as a Meeting for Worship for Business progresses and ask a meeting to approve a fair copy later on. These are significant mistakes because the moment of acceptance should be doing a good deal of work: it is, in a sense, the pinnacle of the business process, the point at which the consideration of a matter is over, at least for now, and we recognise ourselves as a united meeting.
  • 3.22: “It is a responsibility of a Christian community to enable its members to discover what their gifts are and to develop and exercise them to the glory of God.” Working on nominations matters over the last year – in the context of the review of our central or national nominations processes – has made me more sharply aware of the ways in which we sometimes fail to do this. One problem is that we start with the hole, the need for someone to do a job, and look for someone to fill it, rather than beginning with the people and seeing what each is led to do at present. Another is that we sometimes have a narrow view of what will count as a ‘gift’. Some of the qualities which I and others find most irritating about me – that I’m loud and outspoken, that I have very strong emotions, that if you put a case to me I will always, always try and see what the other side would say, even if I agree with you – can be positives if found the right space. I try and remind myself of that when yet another person tells me to keep my voice down or that I’m talking too much or that I’m overreacting or being contrary! This passage prompts me to ask how I can use these gifts to the glory of God – including in ways which might fall completely outside the Quaker nominations process.

Overall, Chapter 3 seems to me to be an uncategorisable chapter. Many Friends talk about a division between ‘governance’ and ‘inspiration’ and sometimes that divide is clear – 16 is a procedural chapter about marriage and how Quaker marriage relates to the law, while 22 is an inspirational chapter about people’s experiences of close relationships. In this case, though, where would you put it? On the one hand, church affairs are a governance matter, and this chapter does include directions for clerks and others which clearly belong in church government. On the other hand, Meeting for Worship for Business is a form of Meeting for Worship, and as such it is as much at the heart of our spiritual practice, as many other ‘inspirational’ topics such as our testimonies.

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.