Tag Archives: Quaker faith & practice

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.

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.