Tag Archives: O

O is for Ordinary Theology

Ordinary Theology – the phrase was originally coined by Jeff Astley – is the kind of theology which ordinary believers do everyday, by contrast with academic theology. It needn’t be in opposition to academic theology; people with theological training might do some ordinary theology as well, and people who do ordinary theology might benefit from the work of academic theologians if ways are found for them to access it. Ordinary theology is different to academic theology, though: Astley identifies, as some of its key features, that it is contextual, that it is tentative and more likely to ‘show the working’, and that it is a celebratory or kneeling theology, more closely related to prayer and liturgy than to the intellectual work of a ‘desk theology’. It is also a learning theology, one which is engaging in a continuous process of looking at things in new ways and incorporating new ideas. (Read more about Astley’s understanding of ordinary theology in his book about it.)

What implications does taking ordinary theology seriously have for us? For me, it means that there is a need to take seriously the casual writing and remarks of the members of a religious community, as well as the official statements of their hierarchy or trained commentators. It means that a good number of the Quakers who say things like, “I’m not a theologian, but it seems to me that…” are underestimating themselves: they may not have academic training in theology, but this does not disqualify them from doing theology carefully and thoughtfully and hence from being ordinary theologians.

It also means that there is some Quaker theology to study – although academic Quaker theologians do exist (they didn’t, contrary to some rumours, die out with Barclay), books of academic Quaker theology are few and far between. Ordinary Quaker theologies, if by this we mean the thoughts of Quakers about theological topics, are easy to find. I use the plural because they are very diverse; but because ordinary theology has this tendency, noted by Astley, to be tentative and to show its workings, it’s often possible with a careful reading to get at some of the motivations and community pressures which lead people to speak and write in particular ways.

O is for… Outreach

My concern for outreach as such began the first time I went to Woodbrooke. We were on a Monthly Meeting weekend and we talked about the history and future of Quakerism with the help of Doug Gwyn. I’d been involved with Quaker outreach before, in that casual way that Quakers always are just by existing openly – so you’re a Quaker, huh? What does that mean?

My answers then were not deep: I was young and so were my questioners. We were not about oats and we do like peace, what more could I say?

At Woodbrooke that weekend I began to see that Quakers have something worth saying, as opposed to being a thing you are that makes you even more worth bullying than before. I didn’t mind being a Quaker, as such, before that – I enjoyed children’s meeting and some of the young people’s events and was already embracing my glasses, intelligence, marks, weight, clothing, food choices, lack of social skills, and many other things which made me an outcast on the playground. One more wasn’t going to do much harm. I think I hadn’t seen, though, that it could be something worth actively raising, rather than just a subject on which to react when others said stupid or misguided things.

Even in my mid-teens I had encountered evangelical Christianity (and to a lesser extent Islam) and I’m sure part of my reaction was “if they’re shouting, why shouldn’t I?”

Actually I try not to shout, although it’s sometimes my natural reaction. It’s not exactly Quakerly! I do think we should make our voices heard, though, rather than having a message which we keep to ourselves. Sharing things like this blog publicly, where they can in theory be read by anyone (accepting that almost nobody actually does read it!) is part of that.

In person, it can be both harder and easier to talk about Quakerism: easier because you can see and hear and know that much more about your audience, and tailor what you say to the people to whom you are speaking; and harder because the vulnerability required to share your personal experiences and journey with others is that much more when they can also see and hear your nonverbal reactions to the topic. I suppose these are the two sides of one coin, though!

At one time, I did most of my outreach by being involved in running Quaker Quest – it was actually Quaker Quest which made me resolve to come into membership, because I was standing up in front of strangers and claiming to be a Quaker, so why not do the paperwork to confirm it? These days, I do outreach less formally and more personally, mainly by persistently wearing on my rucksack strap a pin badge which identifies me as a Quaker. Not many people actually ask me why I’m a Quaker, but a lot of people read the badge that says ‘I’m a Quaker – ask me why’. Some say ‘so I am’, which is always a pleasure. Often it’s the people who are looking for a conversational starter who comment – coffee shop staff, for example. It’s just enough to confirm that it’s legible and people do read it, and not enough to feel intrusive or burdensome (worries I had when I began wearing it).

It’s tempting to ask whether any of these things ‘work’ in terms of bringing people to Meeting, but I reject the model of success which focuses on numbers. They do work to sow seeds, to remind people that Quakers exist, to make us a little more visible, and whether those seeds grow isn’t really any of my business.

O is for… Oversight

Although we appoint Overseers to make sure that pastoral care is done, I prefer to think of it as a duty which is shared by everyone in a meeting. I think that even though I’m basically terribly bad at it and frequently feel like I’m neither supporting anyone in my meeting or being supported by them. (This is no critique of any meeting. It has nothing to do with reality; it’s just my wrong emotions coming to the fore.)

One trouble I see is that assigned oversight does not always make the best oversight. Some of the best oversight I’ve had had come from people who have never served as overseers or happened in meetings where nobody had been specifically appointed to the role – in fact, I suspect that the latter position makes it easier to do, in the sense that it isn’t ‘someone else’s job’. People’s tastes in oversight vary, too; I quite liked to be asked where I’ve been if I’ve been missing from Meeting for a week or two, but I know at least one meeting where some Friends are so allergic to being asked that not only do they not ask, if you happen to mention in conversation where you were last Sunday they hurry to assure you that you don’t need to explain your absence!

Similarly, I feel very supported by practical help – lifts, meals, hugs – and by explicit upholding, but struggle to feel supported by the silent meeting as a whole or by people who ask how I am and respond to honest answers with “oh dear, poor you” or “I’m so sorry you have to go through that” or other pitying noises (or “I hope you feel better soon” when the problem in question is caused by a chronic illness). Presumably some Friends find these things helpful, though, or nobody would say them.

(I find it especially difficult when I’m getting that a lot for whatever reason and it puts me off giving honest answers. If you can’t keep the Truth Testimony among Quakers, how are you ever going to manage in the ordinary world? And yet Meeting is one of those places where I find myself telling little lies like “I’m fine, thanks”.)

Oversight is obviously improved by really knowing one another, in the day to day things as well as the eternal things. Less obviously, it relies on people looking after themselves as well as others; especially knowing when they need to stop, and doing so, however much work there is left to be done. If you don’t love yourself at all, it’s not helpful to love your neighbour that much. This is one of the reasons why I am so bad at it.

O is for… Occupation

Occupation – job – career – livelihood.

These, though not the same, are bound up together. How is one to have, as the Eightfold Path asks of us, Right Livelihood? Can you be bothered with a career, as recommended by the Careers Office (all of which seem to be incredibly dull)? Do you need a job, and can you get one when you do? With what are you occupied, and does it earn a living?

At present, I am very fortunate as a full-time postgraduate student to have a occupation which also provides me with a livelihood. It’s work, though not really a job in the usual sense, and is unlikely to lead to a fully-fledged career, although if I’m lucky and work hard such a thing is possible.

How is this pagan? It’s not, and perhaps that’s the point. I have many skills and much experience which it is hard to feed into a single consistent career: research and teaching, child-care and cooking and paperwork, magic and feminism, poetry and blogging and embroidery. What job needs all of that? Many jobs don’t really want any of it, only ‘team players’ who do ‘customer service’.

O is for… Oak

A tree much beloved of Druids.

The Major Oak, Sherwood Forest