Tag Archives: Meeting for Worship

I think ‘meeting for worship’ is a good enough name.

In the responses to my recent Friends Journal article, one theme was about the phrase ‘meeting for worship’. Commenters on Paul Parker’s public Facebook post raised a number of concerns about the word ‘worship’ in the Quaker context. 

(Other responses focussed on other parts of my article: you might also be interested in this blog post from Clare Flourish about nontheist words for God, and this Tweet from Betsy Cazden about the use of ‘we’ in Quaker minutes.) 

I have heard concerns about the word ‘worship’ before. I haven’t written about it before because it doesn’t bother me at all… but it clearly is bothering some people, so perhaps it’s worth taking some time to explore questions about why it might or might not be an issue.

The main concern raised in the Facebook conversation is, in Matt Moore’s words, that “the general use of the word worship invokes an image of bowing down before and subservience to”. This is not, Matt and several other commenters agree, what we think is happening in meeting for worship, and so it’s not an appropriate name. Turning to other sources, we can see that this concern has been around for a while – our 1994 book of discipline, Quaker faith & practice, addresses this in various ways, including in this much-quoted passage in which ‘worship’ is understood as ‘worth-ship’:

To me, worship is recognising and communing with the divine, whether it is within myself, in others, or in the world. The pre-condition of worship is my belief in worth-ship, my own and that of other people.

Despite these concerns, we still have the phrase ‘meeting for worship’. Why keep it? I think one reason is the wider association of ‘worship’ with religious stuff: OS maps mark (with a small equal-armed cross, suggesting the Christian origins of this symbol) ‘places of worship’ and the phrases ‘public worship’ and ‘collective worship’ have featured in British legislation over the years. (The latter, in the requirement that ‘collective worship’ be provided in schools, is in my limited experience more of a formality than a fact; I went to look up the official situation and discovered that the main guidance document dates from 1994. )

As well as making a clear association of our public meetings with religious stuff, the phrase ‘meeting for worship’ may be appropriate, with exactly the connotations of ‘bowing down before’, in some understandings of the Divine. Here’s another passage from Quaker faith & practice, by John Punshon:

The city of Birmingham, England, where I live, is one of the most racially and religiously mixed communities in Europe. It has a stimulating, challenging and exciting atmosphere. On one occasion, at a big interfaith gathering, I was being very Quakerly and very enlightened. The discussion was about prayer, and I confessed that it was my habit to pray anywhere and that I could do so sitting comfortably in a chair. A devout Muslim woman in the conference was shocked at what she saw as my easygoing familiarity with God, my lack of respect, my denial of my own human dignity. When you think of God, she said, there is only one possible response. It is to go down on your knees.

I recognised the truth in what she said and have acted on it ever since, though I regret I have not yet been brave enough to kneel in the meeting house. That will come. From this unnamed woman I learned something of Islam – submission to God – in a way that no Christian had ever taught me. But the words are immaterial. It was not the Mosque or the Qur’an addressing me, but the living God I know in Christ speaking through her.

We might want to ask questions about some things in this passage (for example, why couldn’t he find out or remember her name?) but he makes the point about the rightness of submission to God very vividly. In this context of this passage, the word ‘worship’ might seem entirely appropriate. If it doesn’t, it may be our cultural assumptions about the meanings of submission, service, and subservience which need examining, and how those interact with our theology.

That said, I don’t think it’s Punshon’s point which leads to my comfort with the phrase ‘meeting for worship’. Some Christian expressions of the ideas of humility and obedience make my skin crawl (and lead to a number of verses in Christmas carols which I will not sing, for example). There is important theological work to be done there, but it isn’t having done it which makes me fine with the word ‘worship’. That’s more to do with my understanding of how language works and how we learn words.

Here’s a paragraph from one of my PhD supervisors, Mikel Burley, about some other words entirely, in which he explains how the use of words can change and why we need to look at the context. 

The present study makes use of both ‘reincarnation’ and ‘rebirth’. I take the view that, rather than words carrying their meanings around with them like a halo or an aura that remains unchanged in every context (to paraphrase Wittgenstein 2009a: $117), it is the uses to which the words are put that imbue them with life: ‘Practice gives the words their sense’ (Wittgenstein 1998: 97e). Pace Aurobindo, I hold it to be misleading to speak of ‘the idea in the word’ (emphasis added) or to imply that the etymology of a word somehow determines its meaning for all time. There is no reason why talk of reincarnation must commit the speaker to belief in a psychic entity’ getting out of one ‘case of flesh’ and into another. And even when imagery of souls inhabiting fleshly bodies does occur, it would be ill-advised to assume that such imagery is tied necessarily to any particular metaphysical theory. There are many meanings that the imagery might convey, and these cannot be known in advance, prior to an investigation of the contextual surroundings.

(Rebirth and the Stream of Life, page 8)

If we apply this approach to the word ‘worship’, what do we find? The first main point has to be that ‘worship’ can be applied in a range of different situations – dictionary entries give examples including formal acts of worship such as church services, worship of a loved one or family member (“Her parents worship her”), and the use of ‘Worship’ in titles of respect for mayors and magistrates (“Thank you, Your Worship”). Putting it into a sentence makes it clear that even a small amount of contextual change can change the meaning, and if we dug deeper into specific cases – asking, for example, under what circumstances are people inclined to say that parents worship a child? what behaviours on the part of the parents and/or the child lead to that conclusion? – we would probably find many more shades of nuance as the context changed. ‘Bowing down before’ the worshipped person is not universal. There is a power relationship in many cases, as in the titles, but it’s not always straightforward – adults are more socially powerful than children, and the parents who worship their child complicate without reversing that situation.

The use of ‘worship’ in ‘meeting for worship’ is one such specific context. In English we don’t tend to stick words together by removing the spaces, but we have any number of phrases in which several words work together as a single unit. ‘Noun phrase’, for example. Some become almost completely divorced from their original components – consider the term ‘House of Commons’ for example. We can use the words ‘house’ and ‘common’ in all sorts of other contexts (‘to house people’, ‘meeting house’, ‘a walk on the common’, ‘common people’), and we can say things of the House of Commons which would not make sense to say of other houses – that it sits, for example. And we might have all sorts of problems with the House of Commons, but when I hear people complaining, it’s about the members of the house and their behaviour, not about the word ‘commons’. 

Where does that leave ‘meeting for worship’? It’s not as absolutely set as a phrase as ‘House of Commons’, so you may think that example misleading. Some words will always have a negative feel for individuals, even when they learn new phrases and contexts for them. However, I think this is something we can recognise and work with.

When I join a new community, start a new hobby, or begin a new project, I expect to learn some new vocabulary for it. Often this is words which I already knew, but which have a technical purpose. When I started learning to drive, my instructor explained that although the pedal is technically called the accelerator, and the stuff it delivers is called petrol in British English, we would call that pedal the gas pedal for short. (This was a good choice because it’s shorter and she had to say it a lot.) When I meet a new group of people, I encounter new names – sometimes entirely new names, but often names I already know applied to a different person. I can easily think of multiple people called Ben, Peter, or Emma – and a few others called Rhiannon. Both of these situations have the potential for confusion, but usually we manage to sort it out. Like my driving instructor, we can give an explicit clarification. With names, we might choose to add a surname or nickname when it’s needed. 

Both of those examples are relatively minor. What about bigger changes? It can be hard to learn a new term which goes against your expectations or where you have had negative experiences. That might be because you have a core meaning for the word which isn’t held by other users – as when I have to double-check pants/trousers with American English speakers because I expect ‘pants’ to mean underwear and then it sometimes doesn’t. It can also be about bad memories. For example, there’s a perfectly nice person who posts interesting content on Twitter who I don’t follow because they have exactly the same name as someone who bullied me, and if I see one of their posts I think about how much the bullying hurt rather than what the post actually said. Still, these bigger issues are ordinary parts of communication and we have lots of ways to handle them – to ask, to say to ourselves ‘no, this is Nice Person’, to keep listening to others and ourselves until we can make sense of the situation.

What do these examples mean for the words we choose to use when we describe Quakerism to ourselves and others? I think it means that we should start from the expectation that people can and will learn the words and phrases we use, and how we use them, if we take the time to explain and make space for questions. We will also need to sort out some of the ways in which the negative associations an individual might have are different to population-wide connotations. The person on Twitter doesn’t have to change their name because I was bullied by someone with the same name – that’s my individual association. Quakers in Britain did change the name of Monthly Meetings (to Area Meetings) because they no longer met every month – that was a clearly accepted general meaning which was no longer accurate.

Does the word ‘worship’ cause widespread confusion or hurt? People who are new to the Quaker community often have questions about what is involved in meeting for worship – just as people new to other religious communities will have questions about what is involved in communion, meditation, davening, salat, and other practices. Unless we could get a single phrase which summarised all the rich experiences of meeting for worship – of listening and waiting and silence and speech and stillness and fidgeting and resting and dozing and shaking and standing and rooms and software and memories and prayer and emotions and Spirit and everything – changing the name wouldn’t help with that. The phrase ‘meeting for worship’ is a name for our practice, not a guide to what happens during our practice. (My name is Rhiannon Grant, and knowing that won’t tell you what’s on my CV; I have an IKEA bookcase called Billy, but I also need the instructions to assemble it.) The word ‘worship’ has negative associations for some individuals, who might prefer to avoid it, or need to remind themselves that this is the Nice One, or swap it for a different term. That isn’t the same as having a population-wide problem. The associations of ‘worship’ – with religion, with a deliberate act of a spiritual nature, among other things – have advantages as well as disadvantages.

In short, I think ‘meeting for worship’ is an adequate name for the practice of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain. If we changed it, not only would all we all have to remember the change, but we would spend just as much time explaining what we meant by the new name. We would have set ourselves further apart from Quakers internationally and our friends in other religious communities. If we want to be clear about how our practice is different, it would be better to be specific and explain further.

Meeting for worship: questions welcome.

Meeting for worship: space to listen.

Meeting for worship: meet reality however you understand it.

Meeting for worship: together, we attend to what is worthwhile.

Meeting for worship: warning, may contain God.

The complex futures of blended meetings for worship

Is your Quaker community struggling with decisions about online worship, in-person worship, and how and when and whether to combine them? If not, great. But if your community is finding this difficult, it might help to know that you’re not alone. In this blog post, I want to share some things I’m hearing from Quakers in meetings around Britain, and pose some questions which I think need further exploration. Please share your own experiences in the comments – there are clearly a wide variety of situations and it’s beneficial for all of us to hear from as many as possible.

So far, I’ve heard…

…that some meetings are having a lot of success with blended worship (with a group in a room together, perhaps in a meeting house or rented space, connected via microphone, speakers, camera and screen to a group online, usually on Zoom). When it works well, it gives everyone the option to attend in-person or online as they choose, it brings the whole meeting together, and everyone can see and hear each other. Even when there are minor problems, it shows a willingness to work to include everyone, and we can keep improving. It needs enough people to act as hosts and elders and provide technical support, and when it works, it can be flexible and gathered and moving. I put this first because although it’s not everyone’s experience, it’s important to know that it is good for some communities.

…that some meetings are experiencing conflict over the options. This is often a hard thing for Quaker communities to admit, because we would love to be wonderful peaceful loving harmonious pacifist groups, but we also need to be truthful about it. In a way, it would be surprising if we didn’t have some conflict over major and complex transition periods. The last nineteen months have been hard on everyone, but the effects have been very different, and some people have experienced bereavement, illness, loss of income, isolation, and other effects of the pandemic much more directly and extensively than others. As the pandemic continues but social expectations shift again, everyone is constantly renegotiating everything from meeting locations to mask wearing rules, and this affects our Quaker meetings as much as any other community. So it’s not really a surprise, even if it can be difficult to accept, that there might be painful disagreements and arguments over questions like the use of technology in worship and the range of worship options we offer at the moment.

…that some Quakers need, or really benefit from, being able to attend meeting for worship online. That might be worship in general, or it might be a specific Quaker community. It might be because of distance, health, personal preference, risk, or other things. It might be to do with the pandemic, or something which existed anyway. It might be related to the individual’s risk factors for coronavirus or to the infection risk they carry to others. This message has been around for a long time (and some Friends with long distances to travel or other situations preventing them attending in-person worship were meeting online before the pandemic), but the forced move online prompted by lockdown meant that it has been understood much more widely. I hope that we won’t lose it in the next round of changes.

…that some Quakers don’t experience online worship as fully gathered. The awareness of physical separation, the distractions of being at home, the intrusion of computer screens and other kit, difficulty settling down, loss of body language and other nonverbal connections, emotional and spiritual reactions to the situation, and probably all sorts of other things make it difficult or impossible for some Quakers to worship online, or enjoy the same quality of worship online. This is also not a universal experience – there are plenty of people who report that online worship is just fine or better for them – but it’s widespread and important. Some of the issues apply to computer screens, microphones, and other kit in the physical meeting room as well as to meeting entirely on Zoom.

…that it’s easy to unthinkingly talk about one experience as ‘real’ or ‘better’ and put down the other side. All sorts of comments can reflect assumptions that either online or in-person worship is the actual meeting and the other kind is an add-on. These might be based on markers that Quakers do traditionally take as important. For example, consistency in attending worship is often valued, so people who worship every week online might think of themselves as the real community when people who only attend in-person seemed to vanish during lockdown. (Even when we know intellectually that it’s an illusion, we can feel or speak that way.) Alternatively, some people put a high value on physical presence with people or in a specific place, and might think of returning to in-person worship as restarting real worship after making do without or with a feeble approximation. If both of those views are present in one community, at least some people are likely to feel put down and dismissed!

…that Quaker communities are already working on, and sometimes struggling with, decisions about how to move forward. Learning about the spiritual and practical needs present in a worshipping community, finding ways to meet them, balancing different and sometimes conflicting needs… none of this is new, but it has taken new forms, and lots of communities are facing decisions about online, blended, and in-person worship at the moment.

With all that in mind, questions I’m interested in exploring further include:

  • Do you recognise yourself and/or your community in the things I’ve said here? What else is happening?
  • How do we make sure we are finding out about the needs of everyone in our communities? What about people who are on the margins or who want to join but can’t or who aren’t made welcome? How does internet technology affect our ability to discover these things?
  • What do our discernment processes need to do to enable our communities to make good decisions about these issues?
  • Whatever format our worship takes, how do we ensure its quality and depth? What helps to make a meeting gathered? How do we detect that, how do we talk about it, and how do we support one another to participate in worship as fully as possible?

Which of your books should I buy?

With the publication of my third Quaker Quicks book, Hearing the Light, I now have six published books and a few people have asked questions about what distinguishes them. It seems like a good time to share some observations about all my published books so far – especially who might want to read each of them.

The two academic books, British Quakers and Religious Language and Theology from Listening, were both published by Brill. These are mainly for people who want all the references and the details. Practically, the price restricts readership to those with deep pockets and those with access to university libraries. The first one was based on the Quaker part of my PhD thesis and looks at how British Quakers use the list format as an inclusive way of naming God. The second one details my research on the core of liberal Quaker theology, based on a wide range of books of discipline and an analysis of some key popular and academic publications.

My first novel, Between Boat and Shore, was published by Manifold. It’s a lesbian love story set in Neolithic Orkney. Unfortunately, Manifold have now closed and the ebook is now unavailable, but you can still buy paperbacks from a few places, including the Quaker Centre bookshop and direct from me.

And that brings me to my Quaker Quicks books. 

The first one, Telling the Truth about God, is about how British Quakers speak about the divine, some of the challenges involved, and how we use lists and other inclusive structures to both name and contain the diversity of theological views in the community. It’s based on my PhD research and my experience running workshops on the topic. It has two introductions, one for Quakers and one for everyone else, and might be of interest to anyone who has struggled with discussing the ineffable. For Christmas or other present-giving occasions, buy it for: Quakers who have questions about words, non-Quakers who have questions about Quaker nontheism, people who sit in worship services wondering what we could say instead of ‘Lord and Father’, anyone who reads ahead on the carol sheet and changes the words.

The second one, Quakers Do What! Why?, tries to give short and accessible answers to a wide range of commonly asked questions about liberal Quakers. It’s based on a lifetime’s experience of being asked questions about Quakers, from the ordinary to the strange, and trying to answer them quickly and clearly. It’s aimed at people who don’t yet know much about Quakers but want to know more, but it might also be useful for people who know some things already. If you’ve found this blog post by searching the internet for ‘Quakers’, and haven’t yet read much else, you could start with this book. If you’re thinking of buying for someone else, this book might be good for: that friend who doesn’t come to Quaker meeting but always asks questions about it, someone who’s come to meeting a few times and looks puzzled during the notices, people who seem like they would get ‘Quaker’ if they took an internet quiz about what religion to be.

The third and most recent one, Hearing the Light, is an attempt to describe the core of liberal Quaker theology. It argues that liberal Quakers do have a theology – one which is embodied in our practice of unprogrammed worship – and that enough of it is shared that it can be said to have a core. (Spoiler: the core is the process of watching for the Spirit moving.) It talks about how Quakers make decisions and why. It talks about how we know things, how we record and share what we know (especially through books of discipline/faith and practice), and how readers can experiment for themselves with Quaker ways of doing things. The main audience for this book is Quakers who want to explore our tradition further, but it will also be of interest to people who ask questions about why Quakers feel they can trust what they discern in meeting for worship for business. You might want to buy this book if: you have questions about the Quaker tradition and how worship and decision-making relate, you want to explore our worship process further, or you want to know more about liberal Quakers beyond your Yearly Meeting. It might make a good gift for someone getting further into the Quaker way, or someone with questions about Quaker discernment.

Of course, you can recommend all of them to your library! All three Quaker Quicks books would probably be a good fit for a local meeting library, and many other libraries will consider buying them if you ask. Similarly, asking for them at your local bookshop helps to raise the profile of the whole series and supports your local bookshop, so that’s good all round. You can also find them all on the usual online bookshops, including Amazon and Hive.

If you have other questions about these books or any of my other writing projects, please drop a comment below or come over to my Goodreads profile where you can ask questions for everyone to see.

Quaker Marriage: couple, God, and community

One of the steps in applying for a Quaker wedding, for people who are not in membership, is to have two Quakers who are in membership check that the applicant understands the Quaker approach to marriage and the way Quakers do things. Because I’m in membership, I don’t have to complete this step – but my partner did, and talking it through with her in advance prompted me to think through some of the questions involved. In this blog post, I share a few personal reflections on them.

Who marries who? This gets framed in different ways at different times. For example, we can say that in Quaker practice, the couple marry each other rather than being married by a priest or other official. This explains what actually happens in a Quaker wedding, when each member of the couple stands, when they are ready, and recites or reads the words of the marriage declaration. We also say that in Quaker understanding, God marries the couple rather than it being a human act (it is “the Lord’s work, and we are but witnesses“). In order to bring those two approaches together, we need the Quaker understanding that God is present in human beings and can inform and guide human actions. In spoken ministry (even prepared ministry, like the exact words of the marriage declaration which have to be agreed with your partner and the registering officer in advance), human beings aim to say – and in this case also to do, since the declaration is a speech act – what God leads us to say and do. 

When does the marriage actually happen? It is solemnised at the wedding, and registered with the civil authorities at that point. However, God doesn’t always work on human timetables. A couple may have been married in a spiritual sense for some time before they get around to the human witnessing part, which involves a fair amount of paperwork and expense (and the legal possibility: some of the clearest examples of this are lesbian and gay couples who have been married in some sense since long before their relationships were legally recognised). On the other hand, it also makes sense to say that the couple get married, and while this doesn’t mark the beginning of the relationship, it may signal a change, not only in legal status but in the strength and commitment of the relationship. Perhaps it is more accurate to think of getting married as a process happening over a period of time rather than a single moment.

Why a Quaker wedding? It’s important to me to have a Quaker wedding for two reasons, one probably more important than the other. The less important reason is because I can. Because I am marrying a woman, and there are places in the world (including the place she was born) and religious communities everywhere in which our relationship would not be recognised as a marriage, just because we are both women. Quakers in Britain do recognise our relationship as possible and real and just as good and valuable as all other relationships, and it’s important to me to lean into that and appreciate the opportunity that gives me to be married in the context of my religious community.

The more important reason is about that community. Having a Quaker wedding isn’t just about the wedding – it’s about the longer term involvement in the community, the way that we can, hopefully, be supported by the Quaker community. I have some insight into this because my parents had a Quaker wedding and I grew up with that understanding, that the meeting was always there. (The meeting wasn’t always able to provide what I wanted from it, spiritually and practically, but those are issues for another post!) It’s important to me to be married in the care of a Quaker meeting because it’s an opportunity – on both sides: an opportunity for me to celebrate something special in my life alongside my religious community, and an opportunity for that community to come together to support us. 

I reserve the right to update my views on these issues – I’ve never been married before and my understanding will probably change over the next few years as we go through the process of having a Quaker wedding and continue our lives together as a married couple! Fortunately, blogging allows me to set a marker in time and write some more later. At the moment, I’m mostly just very happy to have discerned that marriage is right for us, to feel safe and confident celebrating our relationship in public, and to be marrying the woman I love.

Is “a bit of quiet” Quaker worship?

My friend and colleague Maud Grainger asked me this the other day: when people in Quaker settings, like a workshop or a discussion session, say things like ‘let’s just have a moment of stillness’ or ‘we’ll start with a bit of quiet’, are they really introducing a period of Quaker worship? And from that question she drew out a deeper one: is Quaker worship really about being still or quiet, or is something else going on?

Thinking about these questions, I was reminded of a time a few years ago when I was facilitating just that sort of workshop, and we’d just started – we were in silence to begin  the workshop – when someone who was running late knocked on the door. I went to let her in and said as quietly as I could (probably not very – I’m better at being loud and clear!), “Come in, we’re just having some worship.” She came in, we had our worship and our workshop, and at the end of the session, she sought me out to say: “I really liked the way you introduced that. You made worship sound completely ordinary, like having a cup of tea.”

I didn’t do that on purpose, but she was picking up something which is true in my life – worship is part of my ordinary day. In my worship life, I do use silence as a tool. But silence is only one of the tools available for worship, and it isn’t automatically related. I usually live alone, and I like to be in silence most of the time – I’m writing in silence now, in the quiet of an early Saturday morning before other people are mostly awake; I spend time in silence to read, to think, to go to sleep… you get the idea. Of course I try, as Thomas Kelly wrote, to keep up a practice of “inner, secret turning to God” throughout that silence – but silence doesn’t really have much to do with that. Kelly goes on to talk about keeping it up while you “walk and talk and work and laugh with your friends”: he’s writing about a habit which exists in the mind and can be maintained through many situations, rather than an outward practice. I can be as distant from the inner Light in a silence which allows me to get distracted and wrapped up in worldly concerns as I can be close to the Light when I’m holding close to my leadings and inner sense in order to navigate a crowded place or complex situation.

The phrase ‘outward practice’ raises a more difficult possibility. Do we sometimes risk making the unprogrammed, open, listening space of Quaker worship into an outward ritual – just the kind of ritual early Quakers were rejecting when they threw out the practices of previous generations of Christians and created unprogrammed worship instead – by focusing too much on the fact of silence or sitting still? I think we sometimes do. Actually, I think it can be useful to admit this and to be aware of the liturgies of Quakerism, the ways in which we do have a ritual structure and for some of us that’s really helpful in our worship lives. People who study and create more complex rituals talk about the structure of them – the way a good beginning can help us move from everyday concerns into focusing on the purpose of the ritual, and so on. In Quaker worship, we often have to find a natural structure for ourselves, or we may fall back on using things which are not essential to the process as markers. Moving to online worship has sometimes made this more obvious: for example, I realised that the walk to meeting had been a more important part of my process than I thought, because when it was taken away – because the meeting for worship was right here in my house, on Zoom – the period of time I needed at the beginning of worship to settle and centre myself was longer.

Moving online also came with new freedoms, though. Although there was no longer any need to walk to meeting, I could pick up my colouring book for the first five minutes without disturbing anyone else – since they couldn’t see the book or hear me moving. Walking and colouring aren’t at all the same, and yet for me they can serve the same purpose: engaging my body in something simple and relaxing. Like silence, they’re tools which can help me move into a worshipful perspective.

In that worshipful space, of course, there might not be silence or stillness. “Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts,” George Fox instructed, but life isn’t always like that. Sometimes apparent calm is the swan paddling furiously underneath the water, and sometimes our worship is successful but not at all still – Jane Fenn heard God’s voice and found not only that “my soul and all within me trembled at the hearing of it” but even that “my outward tabernacle shook insomuch that many present observed the deep exercise I was under.” Others find that physical stillness and inward closeness to the Divine don’t go together for all sorts of reasons – as the Quaker Disability Equality Group have recently written (link goes to a PDF document; a Word version can also be downloaded from their resources page).

So what is happening when we open a Quaker session with a request for ‘a bit of quiet’ or ‘a moment of stillness’? The aim, I think, is good: to offer people a short period of time to set aside concerns from outside the session and focus; to give people a space in which to tune in to their inner Light; and to use the tools of unprogrammed Quaker worship, including silence, to do that. However, when we name the tool – quiet, silence, stillness – rather than the goal or the process – settling, worshipping, listening – I worry about two risks. One is conflating them: assuming that for everyone, those are the tools which work. The other is diminishing them: leaving out some of the richness and the complexity of unprogrammed worship, in which anything can happen and we might be stirred up as well as calmed, in favour of a weaker version, a self-fulfilling prophecy in which we know in advance that there will only be silence.

When I ask a group of Quakers in the unprogrammed tradition for a short period of worship, rather than a moment of quiet, I know that there will probably be silence. I’ve participated in hundreds of two minute silences and ten minute silences in which we were open, but nobody had a message to share. However, I’ve also been in just a few where there was a message: either something which came directly to me and for me alone, speaking to my condition even if I was anxious or fretful or clock-watching or whatever, or something which was shared with the group, such as a request to uphold a person or situation or a reading which set the tone for what came next. Whatever words we use to introduce our practice, I want to keep that possibility. Into our lives, through our listening and waiting, can come surprisingly possibilities and divine guidance. Stillness and quiet can help us be responsive to that – but so can anything else which helps us listen and be open, whether that’s walking, colouring, singing, dancing, the outdoors, friends and family, TV shows…

Quakers say that of God is in everyone and everywhere. Our task is to notice that and act on it, in whatever way works for us.


For answers to more questions about Quakers, see my new book, Quakers Do What! Why?

Different Moves in the Meeting Game?

Sometimes I use the idea of ‘religion-games’ to help me understand what is happening in complex religious situations – I’ve written before about how this might help to explain what is happening when people belong to more than one religious tradition, and how this might inspire new approaches to Quaker membership, and recently I gave a conference paper in which I talked about how this might apply to bringing a practice from one tradition (my example was Quaker worship) into interreligious settings such as joint worship services. After that paper, Rose Drew asked a really good question: what does this say about cases where someone uses practices from another tradition, like a Buddhist breathing mediation, in Quaker worship? Rose gives a real example like this in her excellent book, Buddhist and Christian?: someone who is both a Buddhist and a Quaker says (page 174) that she “uses Buddhist meditation techniques (focusing on the breath, for example) to assist her at the beginning of each Meeting in the process known as ‘centring down’, in which one quietens ones’ mind in preparation for the silence and openness of the Meeting.” In the religion-games picture, what is happening here?

One of the points about most games is that you can’t play more than one at once – you are either playing football or rugby, either cricket or tennis, either Scrabble or Monopoly, and putting a seven-letter word down on a chess board won’t get you a triple word score or two hundred pounds, just a lot of confused looks from other players! There are cases, perhaps, when you can be playing two games at once if they are of very different kinds or if you have changed your mind about the objectives. For example, when I was a child who was required to participate in PE lessons, I might officially be playing rugby – in the sense of being on a rugby field – but I would set myself other goals, like ‘how long can I go without moving my feet at all?’ In that case, actually, it’s not clear that I’m really playing rugby at all; I’m mostly playing with the boundary between apparent compliance (enough not to get punished) and actual disobedience (because I loathe PE and have no intention of trying to do the things I’m being told to do). If I went into meeting for worship and – even while sitting in silence – ignored the rules about listening and being open to spoken ministry, and instead determinedly did a visualisation throughout, perhaps it would be like this. Unlike my childhood PE lessons, though, meeting for worship is entirely optional in most circumstances, and people who don’t want to even try out Quaker rules usually quickly work out that they’re in the wrong place.

But I can imagine a case where someone was genuinely playing rugby, wants to play rugby, but also played another game at the same time, perhaps ‘count how often the PE teacher says ‘try harder!”. If your PE teacher has a distracting verbal habit like using the same phrase over and over, you could be playing rugby and phrase-counting games at the same time. This could be what’s happening when someone uses a Buddhist meditation technique in a Quaker meeting for worship – they are playing two religion-games at once. However, I don’t think this fits all the facts in this case. In particular, counting how often your PE teacher yells “try harder!” isn’t likely to make you play better rugby, and it might have the opposite effect. But when Quakers who find a breathing meditation technique useful in general bring it into meeting for worship with them, at least some of them find that it is actively helpful: that it helps them settle into the silence, focus on worship, and so on. In that case, they aren’t just playing two games at once – the two games are interacting in some way, despite having different rules.

There are also cases with ordinary games where you can cross-train – where being good at one games tends to help you with another game. Long ago comedian Tony Hawks challenged the members of a football team to games of tennis. As I remember it, one of his findings was that, even if they never usually play tennis, practice at playing football makes footballers into better tennis players than he had expected. I think this might be closer to what is happening with the meditating meeting attendees. Practising one game – mediation – outside meeting for worship helps them to develop skills which are relevant, even if not directly, to participating well in meeting for worship. 

When we look at things from this point of view, we can also see some other practices which are well-established as ‘things people sometimes do in Quaker meeting’ as also separable, capable of being played as games on their own. For example, reading a passage from the Bible is an acceptable move within the meeting for worship game, and reading Biblical passages is also something we can do outside meeting for worship – indeed, reading and studying the Bible in different ways probably makes up several different games (some more religious, like devotional reading; some more secular, like academic study). In this account, bringing into a particular practice skills and techniques – and knowledge and experience and feelings and lots of other aspects of life – from elsewhere doesn’t stop you playing by the rules relevant to the current practice: the footballers play tennis according to the rules of tennis. It might, done with sensitivity to the origins of the practice you are borrowing from and the ethics of transporting ideas and practices across cultural and religious boundaries, be actively helpful.

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?