Tag Archives: Quaker faith & practice

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.

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Cyn (before); wedi (after)

There are some times which seem to split a life, or a project, or a community, into Before and After. For me, Sunday afternoon was one of those. Maybe in ten year’s time it will look like just another step in a much longer path – but just now, it feels like the brow of a hill, with a lot of climbing before it and a long way home (but downhill!) afterwards.

On Sunday afternoon, Britain Yearly Meeting united with the recommendation from the Revision Preparation Group that it is now time to revise our Book of Discipline. (The minutes will soon be online on the Yearly Meeting documents page of BYM’s website; the current book of discipline, Quaker faith & practice, is online; you can look at my previous posts about it on the Reading Qf&p tag). It feels like that split my life into “before we agreed to revise” and “after we agreed to revise”.

Not very much has happened in the ‘after’, yet, but so much could! It would be easy to get carried away with all the things a revision group could do. They could try and explain the theological principles behind our method of discernment. They could commission a professional writer to create clear, dyslexic friendly and easy to read descriptions of our processes. They could look for images, videos, audio, music, photographs, artwork, sculptures, 3D printing instructions which would express our spiritual lives in entirely new ways. They could suggest we publish a book, or several books, or a website, or an app, or a loose-leaf folder, or an audiobook, or all or none of those. They could think about version management software and how to keep everyone up-to-date. They could choose new sections to quote from historical materials, bringing neglected periods into the light and refreshing our understanding of familiar characters. They could… but they have to be nominated and appointed first!

Over the weekend, I was very glad to realise that while everyone at Yearly Meeting seemed to be following along the same road the Revision Preparation Group had travelled – seeing the same sights, admiring the same views, stopping at the same service stations, noticing the same potholes – they were also looking ahead to the same questions we had asked. Even where the Revision Preparation Group hadn’t put our unanswered questions into our report, people at Yearly Meeting were considering the same issues. Sometimes Quakers talk about ‘uniting’ with a decision, and it really did feel like the whole community were uniting with the recommendations.

And now after. The RPG will meet one more time, to put our papers in order and be ready to hand them on. You can read the epistle and minutes from Yearly Meeting, and see videos of some of the introductions, on the BYM website. Meeting for Sufferings will look at terms of reference for a revision group, and probably ask Central Nominations Committee to find names. You can help them by offering your own name or suggesting others using the ‘Interest in the book of discipline revision’ form. Once there’s a revision group, they’ll be looking for all sorts of ideas about what to include, and you can help them with that using the ‘Qf&p: submit ideas for the next revision’ form. And in the meantime, why not read Quaker faith & practice? It needs work but there’s still some pretty good stuff in there.

Blogging about Yearly Meeting… elsewhere

I’ve been a bit busy to write here – mainly because I’ve been writing! Watch this space for more information about my forthcoming books (yes, plural; I’ve sent two manuscripts into production in the last month). In the meantime, I’ve written two blog posts about preparing for Britain Yearly Meeting.

One was for BYM’s own blog, on Spiritual Preparation for Yearly Meeting. This is the shorter one, about 600 words, with a focus on the preparation materials.

The other was for Woodbrooke’s learning blog, on What’s the question? Reading Quaker faith & practice, Yearly Meeting 2018, and books of discipline. This is longer, about 1000 words, and focuses more on explaining what our book of discipline is and why it might be time to revise it.

I hope you find them interesting, whether or not you’ll be at Yearly Meeting this year.

‘God, words and us’: being on the Theology Think Tank

With the publication of ‘God, words and us: Quakers in conversation about religious difference‘, the work of the Theology Think Tank (for committee detail nerds: a process run by the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group on behalf of Meeting for Sufferings) is in one sense finished, and in another way starting a new phase. The group was convened to address the issue formerly known as ‘theism/nontheism’ – one of our conclusions is that we should call it something else, like ‘religious difference’ – and to see whether Britain Yearly Meeting as a whole can address it productively. The main answer to that question, as embodied by the book, is ‘yes – through honest and caring conversation’. Seeing the book as a starting place as well as a finished product, this seems like a good time to share some of my thoughts about this conversation.

It does matterSometimes when I start talking to Quakers about theology – especially if I use the word ‘theology’ or make it clear that I regard the intellectual processes as important – people try and move away from the whole idea. I can understand this in some ways, especially as a reaction to a dualistic view in which embracing the intellect means rejecting the emotional, but I also think it’s easy to go too far the other way. My thoughts are as much a part of me as my feelings, and to reject the processes by which we try to understand our experiences and create knowledge is to miss out on a huge amount. The includes whatever we can know – and the ways in which we decide that we can’t know – about God.

It never ends. There are always new things to be learned. In the field of theology, that might mean there are new spiritual experiences to be had, new ways to understand and describe our encounters with the Divine, and new insights to be gained from reflection on old texts and experiences which in turn shape our fresh reality. It can be tempting to allow the patterns we can see in cycles of discussion within a community to turn into ‘eras’ with beginnings and endings (everything from the Reformation, to the liberal turn in Quakerism, to the rise of New Atheism), but a movement always has a forerunner – and someone, somewhere, hasn’t yet had whatever debate you thought was settled. It is impossible to divide these discussions from their history and context, and the fuller a picture you have of that, the more likely it is that you will see connections across apart boundaries of time, space, denomination, and religion.

It can be fun. Discussing our spiritual experience and ideas isn’t always fun. It can be vulnerable – especially if some people are sharing more deeply and personally than others. It can be frightening – especially if it seems that in return for their honesty, some people might be rejected from a community which they hold dear. It can be boring – if one question or one person is allowed to dominate, or if the relevance of a discussion isn’t clear, or if it goes round in circles. But I hold, as a matter of faith as well as experience, that talking about the Mystery can be enjoyable. I find it enjoyable in at least three ways: it’s a way to get to know people better, it’s a workout for the parts of the brain which deal with empathy and logic, and there’s always the possibility of novelty, of a new idea arising.

You should try it. I felt incredibly blessed to be able to participate in the Theology Think Tank process. I hope this book will help everyone who wants to join in with these conversations to participate. I particularly hope that it will be a tool to help those who are carrying anxiety about belonging (“would they still like me if they knew what I really believe?”) or about community (“can we really be friends if we disagree about something so important?”) to engage with discussions about theology in a supported and productive way. The book is aimed mainly at Quakers, but I have already had one chat with someone who is interested in looking at it with their non-Quaker church community. You can hold a discussion group or invite in a facilitator or post something on social media – anything, really, as long as it creates a space for honest and caring conversation.

What have you learnt from the process of reading Quaker faith & practice?

Being on the team who are asking everyone else this question – the ‘Reading Qf&p’ subgroup of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group – I feel like I ought to have a go at answering it myself!

I’ve learned that it is possible to get Quakers on board with this kind of project. It hasn’t involved absolutely everyone in the Yearly Meeting – it never could have done, for all sorts of reasons – but it has reached a large number of people, and many who haven’t read every chapter or who stopped or had to take a break nevertheless picked up ‘our red book’ more than they would have done otherwise. Some of them have even used and appreciated the calendar, which I was a bit dubious about when we were putting it together – but although a few pairings were awkward, and some months seemed harder to read than others, the basic idea of offering a structure so that people moved around the book rather than trying to read it from start to finish seems to have worked in many cases.

I’ve learnt that I am not at all consistent in using learned vs learnt.

I’ve learned that there is always something new to be found on re-reading a chapter of Qf&p. I could have told you this before, but I’ve learnt and re-learnt it every month for the past eighteen months, so it bears repeating. This is a hugely rich and nourishing book, and – especially now that I know it that much better – I’m sure it will always have a place on my bookshelves. Every month I’ve found something new to treasure (and sometimes I’ve noticed that I skimmed right past previous favourites). I’ve even found something to blog about every month, another thing I doubted when I began!

I’ve learnt that while there is much in Qf&p which resonates with me, there are also things which do not feel useful or relevant any more, and aspects of life which are significant to my Quaker journey which are absent or only scarcely represented. For me personally, the brief sections on environmental matters seem inadequate to represent the depth of commitment which I now take the Yearly Meeting to have. Individuals and meetings express it in many ways, but a huge amount of work is going on, and has gone on since 1994, to express this commitment, and it often involves very visible choices. Being vegan is one of the most obvious aspects of my witness to the glory of the Goddess, and the one which I explain to strangers perhaps more often than anything else, but if they heard that being vegan was somehow linked to being a Quaker and came to Qf&p to see if other Quakers did likewise, they’d have to do a lot of work to see how what I was doing related to this other stuff!

I’ve also confirmed a previous hypothesis, namely that there’s nothing that’s good for the visitor statistics of a Quaker blog like having Paul Parker link to it from his Facebook page. (Thanks, Paul!) More seriously, and more generally, I’ve learned that I really enjoy discussing Quaker matters, and that online discussions can be a good way to make that happen. These may or may not focus around Qf&p – some good ones have, others have come from other sources – but I’ve always appreciated the thoughts others have chosen to share in blog posts, Facebook comments, and sometimes Tweets or other formats. During the calendar I worked and had job interviews all over the country, moved house, and moved my membership, but I was able to continue to interact online without geography becoming a barrier. I was able to offer responses to each month’s reading in my preferred way – writing – and hear from others. I hope we can maintain and build on this interactivity and the community which has gathered around this project.

In the meantime, I’ll be taking suggestions for topics for future blog posts! It suited me well to have a chapter or two a month to discuss, but I don’t think I’ll go back to the beginning and start again because it might get repetitious.

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Spring blossom on the probably-a-damson tree on my allotment. Nothing to do with this post but it’s pretty.

Putting Quaker faith & practice in context

This is the last month of the project to as Quakers to read Quaker faith & practice together. Many groups won’t finish yet, some people are just starting, and I hope we’ll all go on engaging with the book in different ways. If you’ve been reading and you’d like to give some feedback, you can do that through this one-question survey. The material suggested by the calendar for this month, though, falls nearly-but-not-quite outside Qf&p itself: the ‘Introduction’ at the beginning, and the ‘Notes on the history of the text’ at the end (no link because it’s not, currently, in the online version: I’ve made enquires about that). Layout nerds will note that while most parts of Qf&p have paragraph numbers (chapter number, dot, paragraph number, like this: 13.02), both these sections have page numbers.

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The first page of the Introduction, showing page number rather than paragraph numbers.

Both sections also have the function of putting Qf&p into a broader context. The Introduction describes some of the history of the text and also talks in some detail about the composition of this text, noting concerns of the Revision Committee: “special attention has been given to the inclusion of a wider range of contributions from women”, for example. It ends with this comment: “In the Religious Society of Friends we commit ourselves not to words but to a way.” This isn’t, as I read it, intended to diminish the value of the book, but rather to point to the purpose of the book. A book of discipline, of which Quaker faith & practice is an example, aims to steer the reader towards the right way of living. In some cases it will be very specific about that (about the right ordering of meetings for worship for business, for example). In other cases it will offer the prayerful reflections of some who have faced the same or similar challenges before, and leave the reader to discern their own way forward.

For me, the value of reading these sections right at the end is that they help to make sure we understand what Quaker faith & practice thinks it is, and how it came to be. The ‘Notes on the history of the text’ are especially useful in clarifying that Qf&p is one stage in a process, a process which has been changing with technology (books of extracts were circulating in manuscript form before a printed volume was produced in 1783) and with the needs of the Society (people often tell me it should be produced in two volumes, but in the late nineteenth century our book of discipline was printed in three volumes). I don’t know where that process will take us next, but I hope and pray that knowing this text – and some of its history – will help us make good decisions in due course.

If you haven’t started reading yet, there’s still time: at the moment it looks like the question of whether this is the right time for the next revision of our book of discipline will come to Yearly Meeting in May 2018.

On connections and not being connected: BYM, Quakers worldwide, chapter 9, and me

Chapter 9 of Quaker faith & practice is called ‘Beyond Britain Yearly Meeting’. I read this chapter through and I thought: I don’t have anything to say about this. I don’t have a personal connection to any of this work. I know people who have been to FWCC events, but I’ve never been to one myself. I know people who know about the work of QCEA, but have only a vague awareness myself. I know people who have visited other Yearly Meetings, but I’ve never done that myself. I know people who are involved in QCCIR, but I’ve never served there myself. I know people who are involved with ecumenical and interfaith work, but my involvements have always been minor and are now well in the past.

I nearly ignored the chapter. I don’t feel connected to it. But I do wonder whether it’s worth staying with this sense of disconnection for a little while, especially in the context of a chapter which is all about how we as Britain Yearly Meeting are connected to bodies and communities beyond ourselves.

When I was grasping for a personal connection, in the thoughts I outlined in the first paragraph of this post, I tried to think of my own actions – but as a second best, I thought of the people I know and the things they do. It isn’t the same, but it does give me a feeling of semi-connection. I might not have done this or that myself, but hearing a first-hand report from someone at least makes me aware of the possibility.

I happen to have that second-hand connection because, within BYM, I’m a generally well-connected Friend. My personal friends and family are involved in some of these things; I’m connected to several local meetings, which increases my chances of meeting someone who serves on any given committee; I attend committee meetings where I meet people who are also involved in these aspects of BYM’s work. I note that I wouldn’t get that from this chapter, which gives generalities and guidelines and gestures at the experiences, but doesn’t contain accounts of personal experiences.

I don’t want to generalise too far from my responses to this chapter. However, I have to imagine that many people feel this way – or even less connected – to much more of the book than I do. For me, this feeling of disconnection from the text was unusual enough to be notable. Ten years ago, before I came into membership, before I attended Yearly Meeting regularly, before I served on Sufferings and before I wrote a PhD about Quakerism and before I got a Quaker job, I think I would have felt like this about much more of it, perhaps even about all of the church government chapters. Could the text do more to make it easy to feel connected with these aspects of the Quaker community? Could we as that community make it easier to ‘come inside’ and discover all this stuff?