Tag Archives: outreach

#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?

I’m a Quaker – ask me why

For several years now, I have – on and off, depending on weather, reliability of pins, mood, etc. – worn a badge which says, “I’m a Quaker – ask me why”. Since there’s a chance that some readers of this blog might want to take up that invitation, here are some sample answers. In reality, of course, I reply in the moment and what I actually say might not be anything like what I’ve written here. However, I’ve tried to reflect the real situations in which people have seen the badge and actually asked. Some of my responses leave considerable room for improvement; your comments and further questions are welcome below!

Barista in a coffee shop: “Go on, then, why?”

Me: “I enjoy the silent worship and it’s good to have a community who support my ethical choices.”

Typical response: “Ah, great, here’s your soy chai latte.”

Slightly less common response: “Ah, my great-aunt was a Quaker but I never knew much about them.”

Man on a London Underground escalator: “Quakers, they have a place in Euston, don’t they?”

Me: “Yes, we do.”

Him: “I keep meaning to go and find out about them.”

Me: “I’m sure you’d be welcome – or at any of the other meeting houses around London.”

Him: “There are more?”

Me: “Several.” *trips over as we reach the top*

Him: “Quakers sound peaceful.”

Me: “We try to be!”

Awkward date trying to make conversation: “So, ah, you have a badge about Quakers.”

Me: “Yeah, err, I do. Um, have you heard of Quakers before?”

Her: “Err, my GCSE RS textbook said they were, like, pacifists or something?”

Me: “Yeah, yeah, that’s right.”

Her: “So, err, the weather’s been nice.”

Undergraduate realising I have a clear position on the just war argument: “Is that because you’re a Quaker?”

Me: “Yes, my religious belief and my ethical reasoning are clearly linked here. Of course, it’s also possible to support a pacifist stance with atheist principles.”

Another undergraduate: “Will you mark us down if we say we’re in favour of war in our essays?”

Me: “Not if you provide an argument in support of what you say.”

Another Quaker looking at the badge: “I don’t think I could wear one of those.”

Me: “It’s not always easy, but it’s not that hard, either.”

Me asking myself in the safe confines of a blog post: “So, why are you a Quaker?”

I enjoy silent, waiting worship. I appreciate the equality and the openness of the situation it creates. Modern British Quakerism allows me to value tradition, such as Quaker history and ancient mythology, while at the same time exploring new riches, such as fictionalist perspectives and fresh Biblical criticism, and weighing all these against my own experience.

I’m a Quaker because the Quaker community provides a combination of spiritual depth, social support, and freedom to seek which I haven’t encountered anywhere else. I was born and raised a Quaker but I stayed for the worship, the community, and the discussions.

On doing Quaker outreach

One of this month’s chapters in our process of reading Quaker faith & practice is chapter 28, ‘Sharing the Quaker experience’. It’s a short chapter and not, in my experience, one which is often quoted. I think it’s about an important subject, though: how we talk about Quakerism beyond the confines of our community. After some thought, I’ve decided to respond to this chapter in two blog posts: this one is about outreach but aimed at Quakers, while the next one will be about Quakers and aimed at non-Quakers, i.e. will itself be outreach.

At the very end of chapter 28, a passage in italics – written, I guess, by the committee who compiled the book – reminds us that “Each meeting must find its own way of sharing the Quaker experience, each Friend remember ‘that we are each the epistle of Yearly Meeting’.” If we are each epistles, letters, from our Yearly Meeting to those who are not members of it, what we do we say?

I think I know some Quakers who might be very good epistles but the letter hasn’t been signed, or they hide the address it comes from. Are there people in your life who don’t know that you’re a Quaker? Of course, it doesn’t have to come into every interaction, but if I get to know someone more than a very little bit I usually find it does come up.

Sometimes I might be a good enough letter, but I’m not phrased in a way people can hear. I try and adapt my language to the audience, but it’s easy to make mistakes with this: I once refused to buy a raffle ticket, and although I thought I’d used quite neutral terms something in what I said made the women selling them very cross indeed! Her rant turned out to be about Methodists as much as Quakers, so perhaps I’d stepped on a hidden landmine, but it’s also possible that something I said was more inflammatory than I intended. People who turn away at the idea of organised religion or the word ‘God’ might be other examples here.

Sometimes people might see the headlines of an epistle, but miss the real content. What can be a chance to express Quaker ideas in one setting gets sweep up by unrelated assumptions in another: one waiter who is interested to hear that I choose to eat vegan because my religion inspires me to look after the environment is usually balanced by another who assumes that I’m claiming to be vegan because women are always trying to lose weight. I think that’s them, not me, or at least I don’t yet have a solution to this!

And sometimes I try and leave the whole thing at home, hoping not to have to provide any explanations – with varying degrees of success. Sometimes I can go a whole evening without thinking about it (top tip: if your D&D character is firebombing a hospital, people will probably be too distracted by that to quiz you about your religion). Other times, setting it aside doesn’t work. I remember going for a job interview for Christian but not Quaker employers. I tried quite hard to leave Quakerism out of it, knowing that it was highly likely to be a disadvantage, but people kept asking me questions about my own faith and ideas. Afterwards, as well as deciding not to employ me, the interviewer did note that the whole panel had learned a lot about Quakerism. I wasn’t very impressed at the time – I wanted the job! – but perhaps in the long run it illustrates that, whatever my thoughts on the matter, I am indeed an epistle from the Yearly Meeting.

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.