Tag Archives: Quaker faith & practice

‘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.

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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?

Stewardship of our material resources (Qf&p chapter 14)

There’s a lot in chapter 14 which might be worth dwelling on, but reading through it I’ve found two themes I have strong reactions to – and I’m pretty sure I won’t be alone in that. One is the question about money, and how much we should give to support the work of Quaker organisations. The other is about property, and especially about owning meeting houses. I’d like to explore them both a little in this post.

Money and giving

I remember a Yearly Meeting a few years ago when how, why and what we give to the yearly meeting was a key issue. (Footnote about a technical use of capital letters: Yearly Meeting is the event; the yearly meeting is the community.) I think people had done their best to stress that money is not the only thing we give, but I was in a deeply insecure place both emotionally and financially – and physically tired, and spiritually open in a way that big Quaker worship for business meetings can create – and I sat through session after session in floods of tears. I am a failure, I have nothing to give, I should be doing so much more and I can’t.

Only a year or two later, I was much better off, and when I got a letter from the treasurers at my local meeting asking me to consider donating, I was delighted to simply log into my online banking system and send them some money. At that time, I was also serving on Meeting for Sufferings, and was aware of firstly, exactly how much per member the Religious Society of Friends requires to function, and secondly, much work we actually get done for that relatively modest sum. Being able to give, generously within the limits of my income, felt good.

Having money and being able to donate it should never – I hope this can be taken as read, but sometimes it’s as well to check – be a prerequisite for belonging to the Quaker community. However, that requires those who do have money to give at a higher rate than strictly necessary in order to support those who can’t. Like service on a committee, it’s not required, but it is one of the ways in which we can feel bonded to the community. I became even more aware of that when I moved meeting and didn’t get a ‘please consider donating’ letter. I felt minimized and patronised that meeting for many reasons, but that compound it.

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Picture of my nearest, and very special, meeting house

Owning property

Reading chapter 14 this month has coincided neatly for me with some opportunities at work to talk about meeting houses and Quaker property. I want to pick out some positions I’ve heard people put forward, and explore how I both relate to them all, and worry about them all. (Insert here: joke about typical philosophers.)

We shouldn’t own meeting houses, they tie us down. A meeting house – especially one which is old, or difficult to rent, or expensive to run – can feel like a burden to meeting. There certainly are cases where the meeting is better off without a property. That said, I haven’t noticed meetings who rent space in which to worship being, for example, powerhouses of outreach work or raising vast sums of money for something else, which people who outline this position sometimes imply will happen.

Our meeting house is special because it’s old, beautiful, or associated with a famous historical Quaker. All of that can be true, but it’s not clear to me that this automatically means we should either hold onto it or keep worshipping in it. For some meetings, a useful building and a happy community coincide with one of these things, and I don’t see anything wrong with enjoying that – but I’d be worried if we were holding onto buildings we didn’t like or couldn’t use well for these sorts of reasons. It needs to be held in creative tension with the previous approach.

Our meeting house becomes special because we worship it, perhaps have done so for a long time. This is the one I struggle with most. I think I do know what people mean here: I have had the experience of entering a meeting house (or a stone circle, or a cathedral, etc.) and feeling the sensation of worshipfulness, specialness, magic. Even when there’s nobody there. Even when it’s fallen out of use. The metaphysics of the claim bothers me, though. Is this a psychological thing? (Does it happen to people who don’t know what this building is for? Is it something I imagine, especially when I project it onto a stone circle?) Is it like the energy-signature theory of ghosts, assuming that a kind of prayerfulness is absorbed into the stonework? (Brickwork? Grass? Plastic?) I worry about whether people think this means it’s better to worship in one place than another – in theory, I think all places should be equally sacred, although of course it’s easier to enter a worshipful frame of mind in some circumstances.

Meeting houses are very valuable, and they need to be looked after well. But because we also need to change them and let them go sometimes, I don’t want to be too attached to the specialness of any particular place. It’s the community, and the way that we are able to meet God together by simply listening, which is really the special thing.

I want to end by noting that chapter 14 also contains one of the passages I refer to most often from the whole book, 14:34. It’s not because I need to know about gravestones, but because this paragraph so economically exemplifies how we move from principle to practice.

Unity of… what? Chapter 25

Quaker faith & practice chapter 25 is short chapter, at only 15 passages. I’ve read it a couple of times before – but always to find out ‘what Quakers say about’, and not for personal inspiration. Reading it now, a few questions occur to me.

What do I make of this language about ‘creation’? I don’t have the strong ‘nope! wrong!’ reaction to the term ‘creation’ which I know some people have, but I do see that talking about ‘creation’ implies a ‘creator’ – and although that can be a God/dess whose creative energy flows alongside that of the material universe (or even is the creative energy of the material universe; panentheist, pantheist, pannontheist anybody?), there is little discussion of creation among Quakers and so the standard use of the term tends to be set by seven-day creationists. I think that very few Quakers in Britain today think the world was created in seven days. Some have ways of interpreting the story to make it true in a mythological way, capturing some essence about the way people are – such as the fear of chaos. More probably rare think about it, or don’t consider it relevant to their religious lives. (I don’t have any evidence for this, so please feel free to comment with your thoughts. I wouldn’t like to assume that understandings of the term ‘creation’ mapped neatly onto approaches to ‘God’, but obviously they might be related – how?)

What did Quakers think about these issues between 1772 and 1957? There’s only one early Quaker passage in this chapter – William Penn writing in 1669 – and two from John Woolman in 1772. All the rest are twentieth century. Did those great Quaker industrialists never write about right use of resources? Perhaps they didn’t, or perhaps we disagree with them, or perhaps I am not alone in being ignorant about their ideas.

What would we say now? The passages also stop in 1994, when the chapter was composed. In the last twenty years, scientific knowledge, public opinion, and Quaker understandings of sustainability have all shifted considerably. The 2011 Canterbury Commitment is a landmark in that change, but a lot else has happened as well. Becoming a low-carbon, sustainable community has for some Quakers, myself including, become a significant part of our testimony to the action of God in our lives – or, if I can slip between different patterns of use of the word ‘testimony’, a Sustainability or Earthcare Testimony has been added to many people’s ideas about what it means to be a Quaker today.

My own leading to witness in this area wavers, and helpful suggestions often butt up against the limits of my financial and emotional capacity. I have just written and deleted a paragraph here in which I defended my inability to do X, Y, and Z, which would all lower my carbon footprint but are not feasible at the moment. I recognise the leap to defense from the other side as well – it’s the leap people make when I say ‘I mainly eat vegan’ and they say ‘oh, I could never be vegan because…’. Only months before I moved from vegetarian to vegan, I was saying exactly the same things. I think that at the time I said them, they were true. I certainly believe people who say them to me now. My experience was of a shift – a gift of grace from the Goddess – which enabled me to see that this was a change which I could make.

It was also important to me to see that this change was worthwhile even if it wasn’t complete. When what love requires is a paneer korma, I seek to enjoy it for what it is – and look for a vegan option again at my next meal. (And again this position might sound defensive: sometimes it really does feel like letting go of guilt, and other times I suspect it’s just a suppression of guilt as I fail to face my own failures.)

How does a commitment to caring for the environment connect to other aspects of Quaker testimony? Chapter 25 makes some of these connections – to simplicity, to economics, to peace – but I sense some other areas which could be explored. How do environmental concerns connect to our changing ways of working, especially our exploration of ways of using technology well? How does sustainability connect to our way of worship, especially if I am right that our understanding of ‘creation’ is now somewhat vague? (I’m glad to see my friend and colleague Stuart Masters engaging with other modern Christian thinkers around these issues.) Can traditional Quaker insights about the possibility of transformation in this life, turning away from sinful things when we have worn them as long as we can, and the need to stick close to our Guide help us to get through those tangles of defensiveness, guilt, desire to change and the fear of change which so often knot us up in inaction on issues around sustainability?

11.23: three months?

This morning before Meeting I read passage 11.23 of Quaker faith & practice. It’s a short passage, and it says:

It has been found in general that it can take up to three months for a member to familiarise themselves with their ‘new’ area meeting. When within this time it seems right, the member should ask the clerk of either area meeting to arrange for a transfer of their membership. This can be done by letter, email or phone.

It is now four months since I moved into a new Area Meeting. I’m thinking about transferring my membership, hence looking this up. But the wording of this passage raised some questions for me. For one thing, it leaves me to assume that the procedure is the same after the three months have elapsed… but it doesn’t say so. Is there a punishment for leaving it too long?

I know there isn’t, because on the previous occasions when I’m transferred my membership I’ve left it longer than three months. (In one case, more than a year!) That being so, why is this in here?

The first sentence seems clear in purpose: it’s an offer of general guidance, based on experience. It doesn’t match my experience, but that doesn’t make it wrong – I might just be unusually slow or indecisive about these things. The issue is that it doesn’t sit well with the second sentence, which seems to be saying two things: firstly, that the transfer should take place when the member feels the time is right, and secondly, that the transfer should take place within the three months which have been found to be needed ‘in general’. I didn’t feel the time was right within three months – for the third time in the ten years in which I’ve been in membership. I chose to go with the feeling, but it leaves me a little at odds with the book.

Is this a problem? On one level, no. It’s a minor and probably insignificant detail in a long book. It’s a matter of only a few words, and it isn’t creating a practical issue, because transfers take place when they are needed anyway. I am, you might reasonably think, nitpicking. To notice it is one thing, to pray about it another, but to write a whole blog post about it seems excessive.

On another level, it also seems to me to be typical of a set of problems which occur in lots of places in the book. Guidance and rules are hard to distinguish, and area meetings – acting out of love – ignore them at will. Actual practice drifts away from the text, making the text less useful as a learning tool and the practice confusing for people who turn to the book for guidance. If we don’t catch and fix these things, even the ones which seem so minor as to be silly, they might build up into a collection of errors which would be little use to anyone.