Tag Archives: Quaker faith & practice

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.

What does membership mean to you?

I’m on a subgroup of the Book of Discipline Revision Committee which is looking at how we understand and describe membership. I wrote the following as part of our initial reflections; I’ve written before about membership and I know lots of meetings and committees have considered it in various ways. How do you feel when you think about membership? What do you think the Revision Committee needs to know about the current situation?

When I think about membership I feel happy and annoyed and sad and the ache of a missed opportunity. I’m happy to be in membership: I’m happy to be part of crew, to be trusted to do Quaker work, and to make a public statement of my commitment to the community. Sometimes I feel annoyed that I didn’t get a birthright membership, and that my process of applying for membership felt like paperwork and not deeply spiritual in the way some other people describe. It sometimes bothers me that membership doesn’t actually mean the difference between crew and passengers: we trust lots and lots of attenders to serve in all sorts of roles, including handling our money and encouraging other people into membership. And although I’m pleased we are flexible about membership in some ways, no longer insisting on a written letter and finding less intimidating ways to have visits and other conversations, there are so many people out there who are Quakers, who are doing Quaker work in the world, who are in or known to our meetings, who participate in Quaker worship other than with a local meeting, who could be better supported by our communities but aren’t in membership because they can’t attend on Sunday mornings or don’t find the community as welcoming as it should be or aren’t sure they would be accepted or think they aren’t ‘good enough’… so many of them that I can’t help feeling we are not using membership as well as it could be used. 

Membership at the moment is very geographical. This doesn’t reflect my life or experience – of moving repeatedly for study and work, and struggling to move my membership in a timely way; and of worshipping online with international communities, some not tied to geographical structures. 

It can also have a very different focus depending who is looking at it. It would be possible to describe membership mainly from a nominations perspective in terms of people being available for roles or not. (Suppose we gave membership as a gift to anyone who accepted a significant nomination – the membership list in many meetings would undergo some major changes.) It would be possible to describe membership mainly from a resources perspective, looking both at who gives money and energy to the meeting and who receives support from the meeting. (Suppose we gifted membership to anyone who donated to us or to whom we wanted to give practical or financial support – the membership list in many meetings would be quite different.) It would also be possible to describe membership from a spiritual perspective, finding those who are most deeply rooted in the Quaker tradition, give most in ministry (not just spoken ministry) and are most important to the quality of worship. (Suppose we gifted membership to all those who deepen and enrich our worship – the membership list would look very different again.) In fact, some of these forms of membership have existed or do exist: nominations committees in local meetings tend to have a de facto ‘active’ list of names to consider, treasurers know who to send a schedule for donations, and the identification of people who have a gift for improving worship might be compared to the historical process of recording ministers. We just don’t call them ‘membership’.

At the moment membership seems to often mean a problem and a debate. Many of those who have it cherish it. I would be sad if we abolished it and I felt I had lost something. But I also know that sometimes we have to knock down an old building in order to clear the ground and create something better, and membership seems to me to be crumbling in some places. It has been renovated repeatedly, but there’s still a steep staircase and some other bumps which exclude people, bits of ancient plaster fall off the ceiling sometimes, and even when you’re inside the space it isn’t always ready for modern life – like that charming hotel room with the exposed wooden beams where there’s only one plug socket.

You can find out more about the revision process, including how to contact the committee directly, on Britain Yearly Meeting’s website.

29.04 – anti-vivisection?

This blog post is part of my series on passages in Quaker faith & practice which were written specifically for it, in 1994.

The status of the passages in the final chapter of Quaker faith & practice is a little different to the rest of the book: this chapter, called ‘Leadings’, is an attempt to predict which issues Quakers in Britain might deal with in the future. Since we are now in or beyond that future – I think that, twenty-seven years on, we’re probably past most of what the 1994 Revision Committee could have called ‘the foreseeable future’ – we can ask whether or not the community did move in the directions predicted.

As far as I know, the Yearly Meeting as a whole did not in any formal way take up the challenge presented in 29.04, which asks us to oppose vivisection, the testing of medical and cosmetic products on live animals. This is partly because wider society moved fairly quickly on one part of the issue: other methods were created and testing cosmetics on animals was banned in the UK in 1998. Animal testing in medical research is heavily regulated but also still an important part of the process for some fields. I haven’t heard debate about this among Quakers recently. I get the impression that there’s a general acceptance of a minimisation of harm: a small amount of carefully regulated testing on animals which enables us to relieve suffering in humans is a balance a lot of people can live with. Even if we have worries about it and hope other processes for medical testing will be found in future, it’s a compromise which reflects the reality of a complex situation at the moment. Or perhaps it’s just something people don’t talk about at the moment.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a good deal of concern about animal welfare among Quakers. Quaker Concern for Animals is still going strong and with increasing awareness of the role of animal agriculture in the climate crisis, arguments for reducing or removing animal products from our diets are more visible in wider society than ever before. With convenient vegan foods becoming much more widely available, and debates about the role of sheep in damaging the ecosystem and the role of cows in creating greenhouse gases reaching the mainstream media, Quakers are also engaged in these discussions. 

Of course, the situation is not simple. We need to pay attention to the circumstances in which human beings produce food, including ensuring there is fair pay for work done. The non-human animals involved are not just those which might be killed and eaten, but all those which live alongside crops: the mice in the wheat field and the bees pollinating the fruit as well as the cows who produce milk and the male chicks thrown out because they won’t lay eggs. And some animal involvement in a wider farming practice supports the fertility of the soil, and issues about what can be farmed (or picked or caught) locally and what is a sustainable use of wild resources and what is culturally appropriate all factor in as well. Mention veganism or plant-based diets in a general Quaker Facebook group and you are likely to hear from people concerned about all these aspects and more – and trying, as we saw with the example of animal testing in medical development, to hold all these perspectives in balance at once. Working out what is best for people and plants and ecosystems and the earth and every living thing is not simple and the rules of thumb we develop to make decisions on a day-to-day basis, like, ‘I’ll try and eat only plants whenever I can’ or ‘I’ll try and eat things produced as close to home as possible’ are compromises which let us get on with life but cannot be pushed as universal solutions.

In 2021, animal ethics are important to many Quakers but in the Society as a whole they tend to be positioned within a wider discussion about sustainability rather than an end in themselves. If I had to guess, I would predict that over the next thirty years, some other aspects of animal ethics might come to the fore – perhaps through debates about rewilding in Britain and the role of native animals (say, wolves, beavers, and wild boar, rather than the animals our Neolithic ancestors brought from the Middle East), and perhaps through ongoing research about animal intelligence and the complexities of ecosystems (involving all animals including humans but also plants, like the recent work on tree communication). In this process, Quakers might become more sensitised to our interdependence with the whole of existence, less focussed on single issue campaigns and more aware of the endless web of connections.

Am I right that Britain Yearly Meeting didn’t take a formal stance on vivisection? Are there Local or Area, Preparative or Monthly Meetings who have made minutes on these issues?

Am I right that vivisection is now not so commonly discussed, with animal ethics debates focussed on other issues? If I am right, is that change happening because of the move I describe in towards a focus on sustainability or for other reasons?

Where do you think this discussion will go in the next thirty years? Are there factors you think are relevant to this which aren’t being considered at the moment?

A book of discipline blogging challenge

In a Facebook discussion about Christmas, Janet Scott noted that her often-quoted piece in Quaker faith & practice (Qf&p) which describes Quaker approaches to ‘times and seasons’ in 1994 was written especially for that book, suggesting that there was a lack of other writing available on the topic. This prompted me to wonder about two related questions: besides times and seasons, which other topics needed new material writing in 1994? and what might there be to say about those topics in 2021?

I answered the first question with a fairly simple research method – I searched the online version of Qf&p for ‘1994’, and then checked the paper version (since the online version doesn’t include it) to see which passages were written specifically for the book and which were published elsewhere, coincidentally in 1994. This enabled me to make a list of 35 passages written either by individuals and submitted to Yearly Meeting in 1994 or drafted by the 1994 Revision Committee. (I left out passages drafted by previous revision committees and edited in 1994; one has to draw a line somewhere.) From those passages, I made a quick list of topics which includes conflict in meetings, intervisitation, prayer healing, marriage, and many more (the full list is at the end of this post).

The second question I propose to answer during the year by running through that list of topics and writing a blog post about each of them. I don’t expect that my posts will be the final word on many of the topics – indeed, on a number of them I am not well qualified to comment – but I hope to be able to point to other Quaker writing and to raise relevant questions, with the intention of starting conversations. The comments on my blog posts are open, or if you have a lot to say you could set up your own blog. (Free and easy! Here are some tips.) Of course, there will also be all sorts of issues which didn’t exist in 1994 or weren’t included. I might tackle some of those, if they occur to me or someone points them out – and again, please feel free to contribute your own perspectives.

In this post, I want to start the project off with brief remarks on two topics which I’m clear that other people need to discuss as well. There are some topics for which, even without direct experience, someone who is interested in the community’s response can make some small but potential useful contribution through a reflection on the wider issue: for example, I’m not a parent and I’ve never had an abortion, but I might be able to say something about how Quakers generally in my experience talk about parenting and abortions. However, here are two topics on which this approach doesn’t seem so relevant: the role of the Welsh language in British Quakerism, and the tradition of making affirmations rather than taking oaths in Scotland. (That’s passages 10.14 and 20.54 if you’re interested.)

In most of British Quakerism, as in much of British society, the role of the Welsh language is largely to be ignored. This is probably to our detriment, as Welsh is an important part of the history and culture of these islands, but it generally just doesn’t come up. There are notable exceptions and the formation of Meeting of Friends in Wales has enabled Welsh-speaking Quakers to become more visible. As far as I know, there is one meeting where Welsh is the normal language of spoken ministry, and in other Quaker meetings in Wales I have heard Welsh spoken sometimes (and probably at least as often language learners comparing notes, in English). Once in a while it’s used in other contexts – I’ve heard Advices and Queries read in Welsh in other places occasionally. The publication of Tua’r Tarddiad/Towards the Source hopefully provides a starting point for a wider appreciation of the language among Quakers. But we need to hear from Welsh speakers: what would you like to say about the role of your language among Quakers in 2021?

On a similar theme, I would guess that the passage about oath-taking in Scotland might have been written specially for the 1994 book because the differences between the legal situations hadn’t been dealt with in the appropriate way or at the appropriate level of detail before. This kind of issue, not related to oaths but to other aspects of the law, has occasionally surfaced since: for example, I remember a question about the differences between the law in England and Wales and the law in Scotland being raised in a Yearly Meeting in relation to prison chaplains and other visitors. It also comes up in relation to the trustees of Quaker bodies and a few other matters, as charities in Scotland are regulated by OSCR while charities in England and Wales come under the Charity Commission. Friends in Scotland may be able to tell us: what issues are not fully taken into account at the moment, and what differences do we need to be more alert to?

(Some readers might now be wondering about Northern Ireland, because if this was a news run-down of the current coronavirus rules we would now need an update on the situation in Northern Ireland. But there’s nothing to say on that in this context, because Quaker meetings in Northern Ireland are part of Ireland Yearly Meeting, which has its own book of discipline. That said, I’d be delighted if Irish Friends, and people from other Yearly Meetings as well, want to give their own perspectives on these topics.) 

Over the course of 2021, I plan to blog about many of the topics which needed updates in 1994, and I invite others to do the same – I include the list below for anyone interested.

Chapter 10: 14, 16, 21, 23, 30, 31

Topics: 

  • place of the Welsh language in the RSoF
  • Leaveners; communities with purpose
  • conflict in meetings
  • divorce within a community
  • dual membership (two passages)

Chapter 13: 26, 31, 32

  • travel in the ministry
  • intervisitation (two passages)

Chapter 20: 40, 53, 74

  • drug use (moderation/avoidance)
  • oaths in Scotland
  • legal proceedings in divorce

Chapter 21: 05, 31, 37, 38, 71

  • impromptu and healing mfw with Leaveners
  • music
  • places to find beauty
  • prayer healing

Chapter 22: 02, 11, 14, 21, 33, 44, 54, 56, 57, 58, 59, 73, 88, 92

  • friendship
  • sexuality
  • making a home
  • marriage
  • celebration of commitment
  • problems in relationships
  • abortion
  • adoption
  • parenting
  • ending relationships
  • death – terminally ill, by suicide
  • bereavement

25.04

  • interdependence

26:36

  • religious language

27.04, 42

  • universalist/Christocentric
  • sacraments/times and seasons

29.04, 05

  • anti-vivisection
  • genetic engineering

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.

Ethics and other people’s words: Quakers, ‘Living our Beliefs’, and appropriation

When is quoting from someone else a good thing – acknowledging your sources, learning from different people – and when is it problematic – risking stealing ideas or co-opting content without enough attention to its original context? In this post I want to consider a specific case which seems to me to raise a number of complex ethical questions about what is sometimes called cultural appropriation.

In 2016, a group of young British Quakers, supported by Graham Ralph, produced a volume called Living our Beliefs: An exploration of the faith and practice of Quakers. Overall, I think it’s a great project. Much of it is clear and well-written. It uses a wide range of engaging short extracts to present multiple perspectives alongside brief explanations in plainer language than often used in documents aimed at adults. It supplements and expands on Britain Yearly Meeting’s book of discipline, Quaker faith & practice. It’s well-produced with good quality paper, printing and design. It’s potentially really useful for the Quaker community, and the way it was created and the fact that it exists are signs that we are taking the contributions of young Quakers seriously. All good.

I have also heard it praised because, unlike Quaker faith & practice, it includes extracts which are not by Quakers. I’m very much in favour of learning from other people. But I think reprinting their words in a book which aims to explain Quakerism potentially goes beyond learning from other people – there’s a sense in which it involves making their words part of our own tradition, and as I said at the start of the post, this raises complex ethical questions. If we are going to include material from outside the Quaker tradition, we need to think carefully about what that is and whether we have the right to use it. (I mean here the moral right – the legal issues, about copyright etc., are separate.)

I think there will be cases where something written by someone who was not Quaker is genuinely part of our tradition. For example, although Quaker faith & practice‘s general policy is only to include quotes by Quakers, there are a few exceptions. One major one is Biblical quotations. The authors of the Bible were not Quakers, and couldn’t have been – although early Quakers sometimes argued that they were returning to the position of the early Church, as much as creating something new, Quakerism just didn’t exist as such until the seventeenth century. But it came into being with (English translations of) the Bible at its core, and the Bible remains a significant part of Quaker tradition. Quoting from the letters of Paul, for example, seems more like acknowledging our roots and showing the sources of our ideas than like taking something from another tradition. I’m not sure, though, that most of the cases in Living our Beliefs are like this. 

To consider this in more detail, I went through the whole book and looked at the authorship of the quoted passages. I identified 34 passages in Living our Beliefs which are, as far as I can tell, written by non-Quaker authors.

Three notes about my process for this: 1) I made a complete list of these passages in the course of preparing this post, but don’t discuss every single one of them here – if you want the details, comment or email me and I can share the list. 2) Some modern authors could have a Quaker affiliation which isn’t reflected in their public internet presence. 3) It’s possible that not all those individuals quoted anonymously as “participant in” a Quaker event identify as Quakers, but under the suggestion I made about thinking about Quaker belonging in terms of participating in religion-games, participating in a Quaker event seems like a reasonable level of participation in the Quaker community and I therefore count those as Quaker sources. 

Of the 34 passages which appear to be have been written by people who are not Quakers, I identified some broad groups. 

There are quotes from the Christian or broader European tradition, which although not Quaker in origin do not involve a power imbalance between quoted and quoter. For example, there’s a quote from the Gospel of Matthew (p21), which is in the same position as Biblical quotes in Quaker faith & practice, discussed above. John Donne (p72), William Shakespeare (p28), and William Wordsworth (p75) are all staples of the ‘dead white men’ canon – and that might be a reason not to use them (boring, done before, reinforcing power structures which value those voices above others), but might also make them seem like reasonable sources to include (they, their communities and their reputations aren’t going to suffer from their words being used by Quakers). Closer to the edge but still in this category might be Elvis Presley (p28), although we might want to note the issues around musical appropriation, and Aristotle (p74), who although not Christian is still widely read as a foundational author in the philosophical canon, influential in many European and Islamic cultures. I also think that public documents, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (p55), are in this kind of situation – it’s more like the Quaker community are endorsing than stealing a statement intended to be widely (indeed, universally) applicable.

There are also quotes from named individuals who were not Quakers and may or may not have been sympathetic towards Quakers. For example, on page 13 there’s a quote from Moses Shongo, who is described as “a Seneca elder, 1800s”. I haven’t been able to find the original source for this quote – Google searches for it only turn up recent Quaker contexts – but I did find out a little more about Moses Shongo. He was opposed to white colonial settlement, but fought in the British army during the revolution. Given his complex relationship with the British, would he want to appear in a book produced by British Quakers? On what grounds do we take his words and print them in a work of our own? We undoubtedly have things to learn from his perspective, but does a quotation given without his life story and context enable us to do that in the most rewarding way?

There are two quotes from Gandhi, or allegedly from Gandhi (p22, 28). This is a complex one – Gandhi knew about Quakers, was friends with Quakers, and visited Woodbrooke. On the one hand, this makes it easy for Quakers to feel a friendship with him, and there was some form of relationship. On the other hand, Gandhi didn’t become a Quaker despite being well aware of the option, and he was definitely against British colonial action. In reprinting his words, where is the line between learning from him and bringing him into a community which he did not join?

One of these passages also raises another issue about the accuracy of citations, because “Be the change you want to see in the world”, didn’t originate with Gandhi in this form. This is a complex case but we should perhaps be crediting Arleen Lorrance instead.

There are a number of quotations which are attributed to groups rather than individuals. For example, on page 23 there’s something cited as a “Sufi teaching”, but I have been unable to find out where it’s really from. It’s cited in several places online as a Sufi saying, and something similar appears in a song by Matthew West – but it’s cited in Christian and Jewish contexts, not Sufi ones, so it may be that it is attributed to but not actually from the Sufi community. That being so, I have doubts about whether in this case we are succeeding in learning from the Sufi community (with which, it has been suggested, Quakers have much in common). 

Also in this category, there’s a “Kikuyu Proverb” on page 55, a quote from “Ubuntu philosophy” on page 72, and a “Cherokee legend” on page 34. Quoting something so general, rather than a named person, seems dehumanising when almost everything else is attributed to an individual. Is there a writer from that culture whose specific expression of this idea could be cited? For example, Nelson Mandela is cited by name (p56) as is Kenyan activist Wangaria Maathai (p56), so could Desmond Tutu, whose ‘ubuntu theology’ did much to popularise ubuntu ideas outside South Africa, be quoted directly on this idea? 

That said, cited individuals directly is not a complete cure for the problems of appropriation and misuse. The pattern of quotation of black leaders by white people who take words out of context, choose extracts which appear to support the status quo, or behave as if quoting a black leader is enough to end racism, has been written about by others in relation to Martin Luther King Jr (who is cited on pages 35 and 41). British Quakers are not an entirely white community, but at the moment we are a majority white community, and because we are proudly pacifist we may be especially prone to taking out of context quotes which support nonviolence and ignoring the parts of someone’s larger body of work which reflect on the difficulties of the struggle and the injustices faced by oppressed communities. King could be one example – Gandhi and Mandela, mentioned above, are also open to mistreatment in this way. 

I could go on. It’s not clear to me, for example, whether the quotations from Buddha (p27) and Confucius (p48) follow one of the patterns above, or form a distinct pattern of the use of other religious writings – which might include the “Sufi teaching”, if it is in fact Sufi in origin, and perhaps also a quote from Joseph Bracket (p48), who was a Shaker rather than a Quaker. However, I feel like I’ve raised more than enough complex questions for one blog post! 

Having considered these examples, what can we say about the book as a whole, and what implications does this have for future projects? I don’t want to hold any individuals blame-worthy here – a project like this is a vast undertaking, and the kind of detailed cross-checking and referencing-hunting which I have chosen to engage in for a few cases where I already suspected there might be problems is a huge amount of work. (This blog post has taken me perhaps eight or ten hours, and these are among my professional skills – and you might think it unfair to subject a work mainly by young people and produced by and for a faith community to the same standards of checking which are required for a PhD thesis.) However, the various specific problems raised by the examples discussed above are worth understanding and taking forward into future projects. They include issues of attribution, of generalisation over some populations and not others (there are such things as European proverbs, but they don’t appear, or perhaps don’t get cited in that way, in this collection), and the problems of different power relationships and often power imbalances between colonisers and colonised or differently racialised communities

As in Britain Yearly Meeting at the moment we are currently revising our book of discipline, and I think we need to give careful attention to these questions, especially as we consider big issues like whether to include quotations only from Quakers, or from a wider range of authors. How do we provide appropriate context to help people understand what is being quoted and why, and the different relationships between the sources and the context in which their words appear? How do we express respect and admiration, and acknowledge the people we have learned from, without ignoring the complexities of the situations involved or crossing the often contested boundary between accepting gifts and taking without consent? 

Quaker Generations?

Is the concept of ‘generations’ useful to revising our book of discipline?

This was a question which came up in discussion at a recent weekend event about the book of discipline and what it’s for. I think the idea of generations probably is useful in some ways in thinking about the revision and how revision processes work – but it needs a bit of nuance and some care in how we apply it, so in this blog post I want to explore different approaches to ‘generations’.

In the current book of discipline of Britain Yearly Meeting, Quaker faith & practice, it says that we revise it about once a generation. This is only sort of true. For one thing, it’s an attempt to tidy up and explain briefly what has actually been a complex series of processes in which a text has developed, been added to by hand and by supplementary publications, been edited and revised, been split into multiple volumes (repeatedly, several different ways) and recombined into a single volume, until there are very few parts of the text which have remained the same throughout. (Perhaps none; if you’d done a detailed textual analysis of this, currently difficult because the texts are mainly not digitised, please let me know!)

However, I think there’s a sense in which this a self-fulfilling prophecy. What if it’s not so much that each generation of Quakers creates a book, as that the process of revising the book creates a new generation? This means letting go of a numerical definition of a generation. In some contexts, it might be useful to reckon, for example, that a prehistoric society probably had generations of 25 years, so a century is about four generations – but long-lived individuals might meet someone from two generations before or after them, so there can be a direct word-of-mouth memory of an event over that period of time. That isn’t the kind of generation we’re dealing with here. Nor it is the pop-history version of a generation, in which generations in a society (let’s face it, we usually mean Western or even American society) are defined by social events, whether that’s people who were aged between 5 and 18 at the turn of the millennium (Millennials) or people born in a period of rapid population increase (Baby Boomers). Instead, what I want to propose is perhaps related to that concept, but unique to Quakers.

It’s also related to the alternative generational scheme which Gretchen McCulloch describes in her book Because Internet. Very roughly – please do go and read it for yourself – she lays out a scheme in which your relationship to the internet does put you into an ‘internet generation’, but one defined not by when you were born but by what the internet was like and how you used it when you first encountered it. By birth I’m a (relatively old) Millennial, but by McCulloch’s system I’m somewhere between Old Internet and Full Internet. For me the internet is a vitally important way of connecting with people who have similar interests, which I originally did through mailing lists and bulletin boards. That’s characteristic of the Old Internet, an internet in which a few people who had access connected around common interests, usually using pseudonyms. The Full Internet generation comes with its own technology, but also with a particular set of assumptions – especially that the internet is real, that a friend online is a much a friend as a friend in person, and that there is no necessary  limitation to the success of communication online versus communication by other routes. Other generations, especially the Semi Internet generation who regard it as supplementary to in-person connections, may not share these beliefs about the possibilities of online communication.

What if we combined that idea with what we know about the development of the books of discipline? If a book of discipline creates a generation within a Yearly Meeting, we could talk about a Church Government/Christian Faith and Practice generation, whose first encounter with the book of discipline was with a two volume system. Before that, the older generation knew a three-book system. People who have become Quakers since 1995 have only known Quaker faith & practice, a one-book system. Of course, people who knew CG/CF&P have had plenty of time to also encounter Qf&p – but just as my assumptions about the purpose the internet are shaped by the technology and common uses of the internet when I first encountered it, the assumptions Quakers have about the form and uses of the book of discipline might be shaped by the way that it was when they first encountered it. How things are when you first notice them can easily, sometimes accidentally, become your idea of ‘normal’ – an issue ecologists have pointed out in other areas of life.

Of course, this will never be the only factor in someone’s approach to the revision, and there won’t always been a straightforward correlation between ‘generation’ and opinion. People who first knew two books might have a deep appreciation of the good reasons for making it one book, even more than people who have only ever known one book but find it vaguely unsatisfactory and wonder whether it would be better as two. Growing up in the age of the internet doesn’t make you like it – and growing up without the internet, as I did, doesn’t make you dislike it. When I discovered the internet as a teenager it was literally life-changing, and my life wouldn’t be as good as it is today without it. By contrast, the change when I was about ten from one book of discipline to another had, as far as I can remember, no impact at all on my life at the time, probably because I was already embedded in a Quaker family and community which knew about the changes as they came and rolled with them rather than making any sudden adjustments.

What this idea might help us to do is to put the revision into a wider context and to detect patterns in the responses to suggestions for change. People don’t usually fit exactly into a generational pattern – but recognising that world events, like the arrival of a new technology or a major economic shift, do shape people’s lives enables us to make connections, to feel less alone when we are lost or failing to explain something (for example: trying to explain why it’s now much harder to get a job than it was for my grandfather). In the same way, playing with the idea of ‘Quaker generations’, without taking it too seriously, might help us to talk about the ways our Quaker experiences differ and engage more fully with the complexity of our whole community. It’s going to be at least as useful as talking about the ordinary concept of generations in a Quaker context – where, while it’s true that something like your age when you first accessed the internet may be relevant to your willingness to embrace the internet as a Quaker tool, it’s also the case that your age on becoming a Quaker, and experiences you did or didn’t have prior to that, are relevant to your interaction with the Quaker way.

Book structure

or, what have you been doing on your study leave?

I often ask research students about the structure of their paper, thesis, or argument. I ask this and sometimes people are ready to answer, but it also sometimes happens that people look at me blankly as if they aren’t entirely sure what the question means. That’s a shame, because I find it a really useful way to think about my own writing – and so, in order to show that I am willing to do the things I ask other people to do, I thought I’d take some time today to describe the structure of the book I’m writing.

The project is an overview of liberal Quaker theology (for, eventually, Brill’s Research Perspectives in Quaker Studies series). The aim of the book is to show that liberal Quaker theology exists, that it’s coherent, that it might sometimes seem vague or diffuse but is actually a single tradition – admittedly with multiple sub-traditions and complexities – which can usefully be analysed and discussed together. In order to show this, I look for places where liberal Quaker theology can be found and try to gauge their unity and diversity in different areas.

I start off in my introduction with an assessment of what has been said so far about liberal Quaker theology, and by clarifying how I’m using those terms. I make sure everyone knows what will count as Quaker or not, what it means to say that something in the Quaker tradition is part of the liberal sub-tradition, and what I think I’m looking for when I say that I’m looking for theology. I don’t, for example, think that theology can only be done if you have a university degree in theology – so it’s important to make sure readers know what I’m on about. Having set the scene in this way, and thereby laid the foundations on which I’m going to build a tower, I start looking at my three bodies of evidence.

In this first chapter, I look at one place where I expect to find liberal Quaker theology represented in a formal way, in statements which have the approval of the whole community. Quakers don’t write creeds but do have books, books of discipline or books of faith and practice, which try to bring together the important things they think they need to record and teach people within the community. They typically revise these books from time to time, when they seem outdated or something has changed in their community. Each Yearly Meeting might have its own, and can split up the material in various ways – but they all include the sorts of theological thinking I’m looking for. In order to get a really broad picture, I picked eight different examples of these books. I describe each one and analyse some key passages from it to look for the theological material. This is the evidence: if I find theology in liberal Quaker books of discipline, it’s evidence that there is liberal Quaker theology; if it’s coherent, or I can at least trace a continuity within the change through time and around the world, it’s evidence that there is a single liberal Quaker theological tradition. I was able to find both of those, so that’s brick 1 laid on my foundation.

book structure tower

A rough diagram of the book structure I describe – with a black line for my introduction/foundation, a nice solid rectangle for chapter 1, a square-ish shape at a bit of an angle balancing on top for chapter 2, a small but firm square for chapter 3, and a arching grey line down the left hand side to take it all in and be my conclusion: tower!

In the second chapter, I look at some works by individual Quakers or small groups which might be expected to be more diverse. They might be working outside an institutional context, or in a situation where a group has been specifically gathered to try and represent the theological diversity present within a Quaker community. I do find more diversity of theology, but I’m also able to show that everyone involved in engaged with some core liberal Quaker theological themes (as identified in the previous chapter). The tower is now taller and more likely to wobble, but I’ve got brick 2 balanced.

In the third and final major chapter, I extent the argument in one way – aiming to show that as well as ordinary theology, there is also academic liberal Quaker theology – and in order to do so within the space available, I compromise a bit. I let go of trying to show the full diversity and range of this area of work, and instead pick four examples which showcase some of the relevant ways of doing theology – not all, and without much spread in time or geography – and look at how each of these four examples relates to the picture of a coherent single tradition of liberal Quaker theology which I’ve been trying to build through the previous chapters. With brick 3 on, I’ve narrowed the tower a little bit, and that helps it to stay upright.

In the conclusion, I say… well, among other things, I make the structure of the book clear. I comment on how my new tower relates to other people’s towers and also talk about how it could be improved: what future work could build it taller or make it stronger? Among other things, I point out a brick I missed out on using. It’s only in the final chapter, when I look at a committee-produced document, that I bring in all the things which sit between the levels of chapter 1 and chapter 2 – things like minutes and epistles, things which might be written by individuals or small groups but are approved by large Quaker bodies without making it into a book of discipline. That could have been another brick. I left it out because I suspect it’s a difficult brick to get together – the documents aren’t necessarily easily available, they’d be in lots of places and understanding the context of each one would be time consuming – and even if I did, I wouldn’t expect it to show much that was different to both the books of discipline (which include that kind of material if it stands the test of time), and the books and other works by individuals and small groups (who are, at least at some level, the same individuals and small groups who participate in the meetings for worship for business which also produce the minutes and epistles. Differences between the highly tested books of discipline and the highly personal individual statements seemed much more likely (and indeed, I found some but none which were too damaging to my argument…!)

If I’d done the reading and found something different, I would have built a different structure. I had a fair idea going into this project that I was going to find something like this, but I was also already broadly familiar with all three areas of investigation. What did change was the order and the emphasis; looking back through my research journal, I can see that I considered and rejected structures based on history (so probably these kinds of materials, but in chronological order rather than themed by type) or topic (again, these materials but themed around issues which frequently arise in liberal Quaker theology) before working out this approach. The big emphasis it places on the books of discipline came from a comment made when I gave a conference paper on the project, and although I might have got there by another route I think it proves the effort of writing a paper was worth it!

Another way to think about the structure would be as a story – this kind of investigation is like a missing-person story, or maybe actually like three lost cats. The detective first establishes what cats she needs to look for (in the introduction), then hunts down cat one (surprise! it was at home by the fire, but it’s a striped cat and is almost completed hidden on the stripy rug), then looks for cat two (which has been all over but comes home for a favourite food), doesn’t spend that long looking for cat three (but shows that it has been seen chasing a laser pointer in next-door’s living room), and concludes that the cats, although thought to be lost, weren’t actually very lost at all.

So, there’s mine. What’s the structure of your project?

Reading theology as a spiritual adventure

People sometimes talk about theological research as if it is, of necessity, dry, boring, narrowly intellectual, and completely devoid of feelings. In my experience, it isn’t like that at all – okay, it can be boring, like any other work, but actually that’s a feeling! – so in this blog post, written while I’m in the middle of a period of study leave and doing theological research very intensively, I thought I’d try and give some examples of the ways in which my whole self gets involved in the work. When I was a undergraduate studying philosophy, I used to say that it was a dull week if I hadn’t changed my mind about some core aspect of existence, and this process is a bit like that – a spiritual adventure.

Challenge to the imagination – reading about the dark night

One of the books I read recently was Sandra Cronk’s Dark Night Journey. This provided me with a challenge to my imagination, because the kind of experience she describes, the sense of the absence of God, isn’t really one I’ve had – certainly not to the extent that is being discussed here. I’ve had very difficult times but often had the opposite experience: when everything is against me and I’ve had a run of bad luck and my usual comforts don’t cheer up, a sense of the Presence (sometimes a very strong sense, sometimes so strong that the language of vision and visitation seems appropriate) can appear in Meeting for Worship, or silent prayer at home – or more likely, in a park or garden. (Here I feel like I might hear a voice, the cynic remarking that obviously my religion is just a crutch, a form of psychological illusion to deal with things I can’t cope with properly. Okay, cynic, so what? At least it seems to work.)

Reading about other people’s experiences of ‘dark nights’ challenges me to reflect on my own experience, identify the differences, be grateful for the ways in which my experience seems easier, and find things which do connect. It also feels like this might be a way to pick up tools for the journey – just because something hasn’t happened to me yet, doesn’t mean that it won’t, and the approaches she recommends might be applicable to other forms of spiritual dryness, too, like the drought of doubt and the boredom which comes from habit. Cronk talks about the apophatic tradition as one tool, a way of thinking not about the positive things we might think we know about God but the mystery and lack of knowledge we have, perhaps expressed in negatives. She says (p55), “The apophatic traditions does not try to rescue a person from the darkness, but rather looks for a way to live in the darkness with trust.”

If I were to try and summarise this part of the spiritual adventure in a verbal prayer, it might go something like this: “Goddess, I don’t always feel it or remember it but I’m grateful for your Presence, for your small still voice within me and in the world around me. In your connectedness, our interbeing, you help me to extend my empathy as far as it will go – and recognise it and not doubt people when they have experiences I can’t empathise with.”

a book cover - the top part has a picture of a stylised landscape in four colours, blue sky, white clouds, pink sun, and red and black mountains; underneath the title reads "Dark Night Journey: Inward Re-patterning Toward a Life Centered in God" and the author's name at the bottom is Sandra Cronk.

 

Challenge to the sense of connection – reading which makes me feel excluded

Another book I read was Becoming fully human: Writings on Quakers and Christian thought by Michael Langford. I knew this book would be challenging when I chose to read it, but it wasn’t difficult in the way I thought it would be. I have my own doubts about the Christian tradition (most of them are basically just a dislike of having a man tell me what to do), but I’m accustomed to reading Christian books and comfortable with that language. This book also includes pieces which are more universalist and more open to nontheist ideas than I might have guessed – Langford quotes Cupitt approving in several places alongside his deep engagement with Biblical and early Quaker material. What it did do was really annoy me, press a button, about something almost completely irrelevant to the book’s main themes.

Over educated. That’s the phrase. Langford’s hardly the only Quaker to use this term in describing British Quakers today. Perhaps it’s especially noticeable because he links it to what he calls a ‘literal-mindedness’ among Quakers as well as the rest of modern society which leads to a difficulty in understanding the rich layers of psychological and metaphorical meaning which can be present in religious language and especially Biblical texts. On the one hand, it’s probably ironic that this annoys me, because to be educated – even ‘over’ educated – in theology and related disciplines is more likely to cure than cause the problem he’s worried about. On the other hand, I spent almost all my time at school being bullied and socially excluded, probably for many reasons but often allegedly for being too clever and doing too well in class, so I have a major sore spot around claims that education or being intellectual is a bad thing and should be opposed – and a bit of a sore spot about anything which sounds like I might be excluded from a community which is important to me.

This is, as I said, a minor issue in the book. The comments could have been deleted without significantly affecting the author’s points. But because of my personal history and consequent emotional reactions – perhaps over-reactions, since they’re out of all proportion to the content – to them, there’s a spiritual challenge in both honouring my feelings and setting them aside. My prayer for this spiritual adventure is something like: “Dear God, I know this isn’t badly meant – I know this isn’t a personal attack – help me tend my own wounds, which are reopened but not really caused by this text – and take the author’s words as a whole and on their own merits.”

a book cover, with a picture of a field of ripe wheat and trees in the distance. At the top, on the blue sky, black text reads: "Becoming fully human Writings on Quakers and Christian thought Michael Langford Friends of the Light"

 

Tradition and memory – reading something almost-but-not-quite familiar

Both the books above brought out ways in which my personal experiences and memories were interconnected with the work I am doing now. My last example is a bit different in that it concerns not just my memories but the collective memory (I might say the tradition) of Quakers as a community. The book is The Book of Discipline of Ohio Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Conservative) from 1992. (This an old one, but you can find their 2018 edition on their website.) There’s something tactile about this particular printing and binding, with its soft plain grey cover. Inside, there are also lots of phrases and ideas which I recognise from my own book of discipline – not just a book I’ve studied, although I have, but a book which shapes my religious life, cites the sources for much of my spiritual language, is discussed and disagreed with and depended upon and departed from in the religious community where I both pray and work. A book we’ve agreed to revise, which probably means it’s even more on my mind.

Here’s a line from Ohio’s book which I read several times and had to write down.

“Use vigilant care, dear Friends, not to overlook those prompting of love and truth which you may feel in your hearts…”

This is striking because it’s so close, and the sense has hardly changed, but the words of ‘my’ version are so familiar:

“Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts…”

Later in my research, I might track down earlier versions of both and see if I can see how and where these traditions have differed and yet kept something which is clearly the same. Or I might not – my main project is theological and not historical. For now what matters is my reaction, which is a bit like revisiting a place I once knew well but haven’t been to for years. It’s recognisable but changed. I can see that it’s the same, perhaps there’s a sense of comfort, but also some dislocation because it’s not the place I really know. Sometimes other sections made me want to take them away because they might enrich my own tradition – improvements on the place I knew! I wrote down this one, for example: “The right conduct of our business meetings, even in matters of routine, is important to our spiritual life; for, in so far as Friends are concerned in promoting the Kingdom of God, we should rightly feel that its business is a service for Him.”

For this part of my spiritual adventure, I pray: “Inner Light, I can see you shining in lots of places, even where there are also things which challenge me or don’t reflect my experience of Light. Help us all to be as clear as we can be and let our measure of the Light come into the world unobstructed.”

a plain grey book cover with black text which reads "The book of discipline of Ohio Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Conservative), 1992 Barnesville Ohio".

These kinds of spiritual adventures are hardly restricted to theological research, of course. First-person videos games might lead to explorations of empathy like my first book prompted and passing remarks on Twitter often create reactions like the ones I had to the second book. Where do you take your spiritual adventures? Do you have a spiritual equivalent of a theme park?

With special thanks to the library at Woodbrooke for all these books and more!

Things I might say on TV

If you’ve found this blog by searching the internet for ‘Rhiannon Grant’ and ‘Quakers’ because you’ve just seen me on BBC1’s The Big Questions, welcome. (If I didn’t actually make it onto TV, this post might disappear soon!) Here are some things I might say if I get the chance, in a post written in advance and scheduled to publish while the programme is going out.

Can you be Christian without God?

Yes, you can participate in a Christian community without believing in God. Actually, not all Quakers are Christians – even those of us who believe in God might not call ourselves Christians – and not all Quakers believe in God. What’s important to us is that we all join in with our communities, joining in with our silent worship, our work to help other people, and trying to tell the truth about our experiences.

Why are Quakers getting rid of God?

We’re not. If there is something out there which fits a traditional picture of God – all knowing, all powerful, all loving – it’s way beyond us to get rid of God! And even if there isn’t, we value God language as part of our history and as a poetic, beautiful, moving way of expressing things which are hard to say any other way.

So what are you doing?

We’re revising Quaker faith & practice, which is a book (now also published as a website) that we write to tell us how to be the best Quakers we can be. We make little changes to it every year and rewrite the whole thing once a generation or so – we started the last revision in 1985, so it’s about time. We’re revising the book to bring it up to date and include things which have changed (at the moment it doesn’t mention the internet, for example). I think it’s likely that we’ll include both very traditional ways of talking about God – Jesus, love, the Holy Spirit – and new and creative expressions, maybe drawing on science and other religions.

And do Quakers believe in God?

Some of us do, and some of us would explain our spiritual experiences in other ways.

Do you believe in God?

Yes, in my experience there’s something I can be in touch with, through silent worship and the natural world and relationships with people, which is more than just myself and which is a good thing – loving, hopeful, beautiful.

That doesn’t sound like the God of the Bible.

Depends which bit of the Bible you read! No, it’s a long way from many other people’s pictures of God. My God isn’t a man, my God isn’t supernatural, my God isn’t laying down lots of rules – except “love one another”.

What do Quakers think about the Bible?

Quakers think the Bible is a useful and interesting record of people’s religious experiences. We know it was written and edited by human beings, and not every story in it is historically true. That doesn’t stop it containing lots of emotional and spiritual truths, some of which are very beautiful.

Is Quaker faith & practice the Quaker Bible?

Not really – the Bible is the Quaker Bible! Quaker faith & practice is a collection of rules, guidelines, suggestions, and other Quakers’ experiences, which helps us to work out what to do. It tells you how to have a Quaker wedding and why Quakers don’t swear oaths. It tells you what it’s like to refuse to serve in the army, and how previous Quakers have responded to difficult decisions, like whether or not to have an abortion. It also offers questions and advice which are often read during our worship. Some parts of it, like the bits about marriages and data protection, need updating often. Other parts, like what we say about sustainability and the environment, last longer but we have new things to say as our understanding develops.

What do Quakers believe?

In one of our old phrases, we believe that everyone has that of God within them. That means everyone should be treated fairly, and everyone can have spiritual experiences for themselves. Because of that belief, we fight for peace and justice, and we worship in a way that gives everyone the same chance to join in.

You’ve mentioned Quaker worship a couple of times – what’s it like?

Quaker worship is based in silence. It’s about getting yourself into stillness – Quakers often say ‘centred down’ – and being open. We sit around in a circle or a square, with everyone equal, and wait to see what happens. Sometimes people pray for other people, or the world. Sometimes someone there will be given a message, either an insight into something in their own life or something which they want to share with the whole group. We call that spoken ministry. You can try Quaker worship on your own but in my experience it works best with other people.

What are Quakers best known for?

I guess we’re best known for being pacifists and more recently for our commitment to equal marriage. Both of those are very closely linked to seeing that of God in everyone and, because of that, wanting to treat everyone equally.

Didn’t the early Quakers believe in God?

I’m sure they did. They also believed that people should work from their own experiences, and put a huge value on telling the truth, so I think they’d understand that today, those of us who have different experiences need to use different language to express that. My experience fits with something I call God, so I use that word; other Quakers have different experiences and use different words, but all of us are working from the same principles.