Tag Archives: Quaker

Worlds of Women: review of A Door Into Ocean

A Door Into Ocean is a 1986 sci-fi novel by Quaker author Joan Slonczewski. It’s interested in nonviolence and the creation of a culture focussing on sharing and equality. One of the ways it explores these themes is through the invention of a society in which there are only women. I picked this up because it was recommended in a Quaker context, but as I was reading I soon realised that it’s relevant to another discussion I’ve been reading recently – the extensive discussions about gender plague/gendercide stories. I mostly read these conversations on Twitter, but I recommend Ana Mardoll’s blog if you need to catch up on the latest round. On Twitter, and I’m sorry I can’t find this again, someone said something to the effect that perhaps authors look for ways to kill off all the men in these stories because they want to create a matriarchy but they don’t know how to do that without murder.

I think that might be true about this book. And if it is, that would be deeply ironic for a story so concerned with nonviolence and the avoidance of death-hastening. Before I get into the details, I should say that this isn’t a discussion of the mechanic presented in the book for the creation of an all-women society or how it works: the sci-fi explanation offered is that in the distant past, the life-shapers in this ocean-dwelling society discovered how to create pregnancies by fusing ova, and the group evolved to no longer have men. (Exactly how this squares with their vague belief in a creating deity who set the entire ecosystem up in balance isn’t explored.) But it has an extremely similar vibe to Nicola Griffith’s book Ammonite, in which a virus kills all men who land on a particular planet, and it’s still very much the case that the author made these decisions. 

Both books also have a kind of situational lesbianism, in which it feels like the author wanted to create lesbian relationships (which is great!) but didn’t believe women would really be attracted to other women if they had the choice of men. In particular, in A Door Into Ocean, although women in the all-women society take women as lovers, a man who goes to live in the all-women society easily finds a lover there, and the woman who crosses from another world into the all-women society retains her attachment to the men in her previous society. It imagines women loving women but always being attracted to men as well. In a somewhat similar way, A Door Into Ocean is aware of trans possibilities in a way I don’t recall in Ammonite, but it shies away from exploring them – there is just one scene in which a woman from the all-women society suggests to her lover, the man from the other world, that he could simply go to the local medic and be reshaped into what she regards as a normal female body. He immediately and emphatically rejects the idea and it is never mentioned again.

Joan Slonczewski has good reasons for wanting to create a society very different to her own. In fact, she creates two societies: one, associated with stone and metal, which seems to reflect real-world situations, with men mostly in charge (and some women in military roles), a strong military, lots of invasions, communities controlled by violence and fear, hunger and homelessness, etc. The other, represented by the world of water where everything is fluid and growing (a metaphor made literal which Slonczewski uses extremely well), is all women, nonviolent, governed by gatherings of people at which all adults can speak and a consensus is sought… in fact, funnily enough, the women of the ocean world make decisions in a very similar way to the characters in my novel Between Boat and Shore. This other Quaker author and I might be drawing on, err, Quaker discernment processes? All this is good in some ways. But what is the message given by the conclusion she apparently reached before writing, namely that such a society could not have, or would be much better off without, men?

I think it normalises the assumption that masculinity and violence go together. If it was a one-off, there wouldn’t necessarily be any harm in this creation in a sci-fi; but this book is part of a much larger pattern, in which it’s clear that the opposite – a society of all men, which is completely peaceful and loving and nonviolent – is not being imagined. (And if you are about to tell me that they couldn’t reproduce, remember that in these stories we’re talking about speculative fiction in which a wide range of currently impossible surgeries are made possible, and mpreg is already a genre, and also some trans men carry pregnancies…) It also tends to ignore trans experience, as already mentioned. And, to return to the idea from the first paragraph, it is interesting that authors trying to create societies where women lead need to do so through the nonexistence of men. 

Whether men are killed by a virus or other plague, or die off when they become unnecessary, this creation of matriarchies through death undermines the nonviolent results Slonczewski wants it to have. It can imply a bio-essentialism, because it suggests that violence is inextricably entangled with the male body rather than being a social problem. Those results are so at odds with the other values expressed in A Door Into Ocean (such as the belief that every person can learn and grow, and the possibility of social change through nonviolent pressure) that it seems unlikely to Slonczewski intended them. Now they’ve been pointed out, hopefully future authors with similar social agendas (myself included) can avoid them.

Social Media Feelings

In my previous post, I wrote about the social media experiment I did during Lent. In the comments on that post, I was asked:

How did you feel after the experiment? Would you maintain across all platforms and channels a sustained social media presence for longer or have discerned your preferences? How do you think it benefitted you and your loved ones? Did you have a disciplined set time each day devoted to social media work? What were your thoughts on it for your future – in your own life and your career?

That’s a lot to answer in a comment so I’ve turned my responses into this post.

I didn’t have especially strong feelings about the experiment. Afterwards, I was pleased I’d done it, and interested in the results, and happy that it produced some more connections and encouraged me to do more of things I wanted to do anyway.

I probably will stay active across a range of social media platforms. It suits me to have a range of different spaces in which to connect with people in different ways. In the past, there have definitely been platforms which came and went in my life (for example, LiveJournal and Tumblr are places where I’m no longer active) – some of that is personal preferences changing, some of it is communities moving, and some of it is my interests changing. To some extent, the communities I’m involved in vary across the platforms – for example, when I say I’m on TikTok, I’m really mostly talking about BookTok, the community of TikTok users who mostly talk about books. On Facebook, I’m much less active in general book-themed conversation and more involved in Quaker groups. There’s often a natural ebb and flow to this as the people, platforms, and resultant communities all change.

It benefited me by prompting me to do something I wanted to do anyway. I’m not sure most of my loved ones would have noticed much! I asked my wife, who is at least as active on social media as I am, and she said that it was nice when I posted about her a bit more than usual, but otherwise it didn’t make any difference. In general, I think social media benefits us both by helping us to connect with people with similar interests – to share ideas, explore hobbies, learn new skills, hear different perspectives, engage in conversations…

I didn’t set aside a specific time for social media. I normally find some time to look at social media on my phone anyway – downtime, waiting for something, a quick break between other activities – and I was usually able to include posting in that space. I also split up the steps, so I might play with an idea in Canva one day, download the finished image the next day, and post it to Instagram when I happen to be looking at my feed anyway the day after. I think if I did have a set time every day for social media I’d probably find it difficult to use unless I also had a much more detailed task list. Instead, my approach is to be playful and responsive, picking up trends (like Twitter memes) and sharing things I’m doing anyway (like reviewing books I would have been reading whether or not I was going to post about them).

In the future, I hope that social media will continue to provide spaces for sharing, learning, and connecting with people. I hope we’ll continues to develop ways to prevent the abusive, bullying, and hurtful behaviour which is common both on social media and in lots of other social spaces, and focus on using technology positively. In my experience, social media can help reduce loneliness, entertain and inform. In particular, the internet in general and social media in particular has a unique power to enable us to connect with others who are interested in the same thing. Sometimes this creates communities around dangerous or mistaken ideas, and I wouldn’t want to restrict myself to one platform or one topic for that reason. Sometimes, though, it can be extremely positive, and enables in-depth discussions and sharing of knowledge in a way that’s difficult to achieve offline unless people are able to commit to travel etc.

It’s that power to reach people interested in a specific topic which makes social media relevant to my career. It makes possible different approaches to networking, to finding out about potential contacts, to sharing information about my work, to inviting people to attend events or courses. It supports communities of Quakers, of readers, of writers, of religious people from many traditions, of people who are interested in editing or prayer or language or LGBTQ+ stories… Like any powerful tool, it has risks, but I find it extremely useful.

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.

Which of your books should I buy?

With the publication of my third Quaker Quicks book, Hearing the Light, I now have six published books and a few people have asked questions about what distinguishes them. It seems like a good time to share some observations about all my published books so far – especially who might want to read each of them.

The two academic books, British Quakers and Religious Language and Theology from Listening, were both published by Brill. These are mainly for people who want all the references and the details. Practically, the price restricts readership to those with deep pockets and those with access to university libraries. The first one was based on the Quaker part of my PhD thesis and looks at how British Quakers use the list format as an inclusive way of naming God. The second one details my research on the core of liberal Quaker theology, based on a wide range of books of discipline and an analysis of some key popular and academic publications.

My first novel, Between Boat and Shore, was published by Manifold. It’s a lesbian love story set in Neolithic Orkney. Unfortunately, Manifold have now closed and the ebook is now unavailable, but you can still buy paperbacks from a few places, including the Quaker Centre bookshop and direct from me.

And that brings me to my Quaker Quicks books. 

The first one, Telling the Truth about God, is about how British Quakers speak about the divine, some of the challenges involved, and how we use lists and other inclusive structures to both name and contain the diversity of theological views in the community. It’s based on my PhD research and my experience running workshops on the topic. It has two introductions, one for Quakers and one for everyone else, and might be of interest to anyone who has struggled with discussing the ineffable. For Christmas or other present-giving occasions, buy it for: Quakers who have questions about words, non-Quakers who have questions about Quaker nontheism, people who sit in worship services wondering what we could say instead of ‘Lord and Father’, anyone who reads ahead on the carol sheet and changes the words.

The second one, Quakers Do What! Why?, tries to give short and accessible answers to a wide range of commonly asked questions about liberal Quakers. It’s based on a lifetime’s experience of being asked questions about Quakers, from the ordinary to the strange, and trying to answer them quickly and clearly. It’s aimed at people who don’t yet know much about Quakers but want to know more, but it might also be useful for people who know some things already. If you’ve found this blog post by searching the internet for ‘Quakers’, and haven’t yet read much else, you could start with this book. If you’re thinking of buying for someone else, this book might be good for: that friend who doesn’t come to Quaker meeting but always asks questions about it, someone who’s come to meeting a few times and looks puzzled during the notices, people who seem like they would get ‘Quaker’ if they took an internet quiz about what religion to be.

The third and most recent one, Hearing the Light, is an attempt to describe the core of liberal Quaker theology. It argues that liberal Quakers do have a theology – one which is embodied in our practice of unprogrammed worship – and that enough of it is shared that it can be said to have a core. (Spoiler: the core is the process of watching for the Spirit moving.) It talks about how Quakers make decisions and why. It talks about how we know things, how we record and share what we know (especially through books of discipline/faith and practice), and how readers can experiment for themselves with Quaker ways of doing things. The main audience for this book is Quakers who want to explore our tradition further, but it will also be of interest to people who ask questions about why Quakers feel they can trust what they discern in meeting for worship for business. You might want to buy this book if: you have questions about the Quaker tradition and how worship and decision-making relate, you want to explore our worship process further, or you want to know more about liberal Quakers beyond your Yearly Meeting. It might make a good gift for someone getting further into the Quaker way, or someone with questions about Quaker discernment.

Of course, you can recommend all of them to your library! All three Quaker Quicks books would probably be a good fit for a local meeting library, and many other libraries will consider buying them if you ask. Similarly, asking for them at your local bookshop helps to raise the profile of the whole series and supports your local bookshop, so that’s good all round. You can also find them all on the usual online bookshops, including Amazon and Hive.

If you have other questions about these books or any of my other writing projects, please drop a comment below or come over to my Goodreads profile where you can ask questions for everyone to see.

Different Moves in the Meeting Game?

Sometimes I use the idea of ‘religion-games’ to help me understand what is happening in complex religious situations – I’ve written before about how this might help to explain what is happening when people belong to more than one religious tradition, and how this might inspire new approaches to Quaker membership, and recently I gave a conference paper in which I talked about how this might apply to bringing a practice from one tradition (my example was Quaker worship) into interreligious settings such as joint worship services. After that paper, Rose Drew asked a really good question: what does this say about cases where someone uses practices from another tradition, like a Buddhist breathing mediation, in Quaker worship? Rose gives a real example like this in her excellent book, Buddhist and Christian?: someone who is both a Buddhist and a Quaker says (page 174) that she “uses Buddhist meditation techniques (focusing on the breath, for example) to assist her at the beginning of each Meeting in the process known as ‘centring down’, in which one quietens ones’ mind in preparation for the silence and openness of the Meeting.” In the religion-games picture, what is happening here?

One of the points about most games is that you can’t play more than one at once – you are either playing football or rugby, either cricket or tennis, either Scrabble or Monopoly, and putting a seven-letter word down on a chess board won’t get you a triple word score or two hundred pounds, just a lot of confused looks from other players! There are cases, perhaps, when you can be playing two games at once if they are of very different kinds or if you have changed your mind about the objectives. For example, when I was a child who was required to participate in PE lessons, I might officially be playing rugby – in the sense of being on a rugby field – but I would set myself other goals, like ‘how long can I go without moving my feet at all?’ In that case, actually, it’s not clear that I’m really playing rugby at all; I’m mostly playing with the boundary between apparent compliance (enough not to get punished) and actual disobedience (because I loathe PE and have no intention of trying to do the things I’m being told to do). If I went into meeting for worship and – even while sitting in silence – ignored the rules about listening and being open to spoken ministry, and instead determinedly did a visualisation throughout, perhaps it would be like this. Unlike my childhood PE lessons, though, meeting for worship is entirely optional in most circumstances, and people who don’t want to even try out Quaker rules usually quickly work out that they’re in the wrong place.

But I can imagine a case where someone was genuinely playing rugby, wants to play rugby, but also played another game at the same time, perhaps ‘count how often the PE teacher says ‘try harder!”. If your PE teacher has a distracting verbal habit like using the same phrase over and over, you could be playing rugby and phrase-counting games at the same time. This could be what’s happening when someone uses a Buddhist meditation technique in a Quaker meeting for worship – they are playing two religion-games at once. However, I don’t think this fits all the facts in this case. In particular, counting how often your PE teacher yells “try harder!” isn’t likely to make you play better rugby, and it might have the opposite effect. But when Quakers who find a breathing meditation technique useful in general bring it into meeting for worship with them, at least some of them find that it is actively helpful: that it helps them settle into the silence, focus on worship, and so on. In that case, they aren’t just playing two games at once – the two games are interacting in some way, despite having different rules.

There are also cases with ordinary games where you can cross-train – where being good at one games tends to help you with another game. Long ago comedian Tony Hawks challenged the members of a football team to games of tennis. As I remember it, one of his findings was that, even if they never usually play tennis, practice at playing football makes footballers into better tennis players than he had expected. I think this might be closer to what is happening with the meditating meeting attendees. Practising one game – mediation – outside meeting for worship helps them to develop skills which are relevant, even if not directly, to participating well in meeting for worship. 

When we look at things from this point of view, we can also see some other practices which are well-established as ‘things people sometimes do in Quaker meeting’ as also separable, capable of being played as games on their own. For example, reading a passage from the Bible is an acceptable move within the meeting for worship game, and reading Biblical passages is also something we can do outside meeting for worship – indeed, reading and studying the Bible in different ways probably makes up several different games (some more religious, like devotional reading; some more secular, like academic study). In this account, bringing into a particular practice skills and techniques – and knowledge and experience and feelings and lots of other aspects of life – from elsewhere doesn’t stop you playing by the rules relevant to the current practice: the footballers play tennis according to the rules of tennis. It might, done with sensitivity to the origins of the practice you are borrowing from and the ethics of transporting ideas and practices across cultural and religious boundaries, be actively helpful.

Asexuality, aromanticism, and Quakers

This week it is Aromantic Spectrum Awareness week. It’s also a week when I found “quaker asexual” in the search terms – the phrases people put into an internet search before they ended up on my blog. Although asexuality and aromanticism are not the same thing, I think they’re related or at least easily confused enough that it makes sense to discuss them together. I’m not asexual or aromantic but I’ve chosen to write about this because I think it’s helpful for the whole community to be more aware of those of us who are aromantic and asexual, and how we might exclude people accidentally by making assumptions about what is ‘normal’.

Before that, though, I want to clarify how these terms are being used. ‘Asexual’ might bring to mind asexual reproduction, like single-celled organisms which just divide – a proper use in biology, but not the meaning of the word in this context! Here, we are talking about human experience, and asexuality refers to the experience of not feeling sexual attraction. There are different ways someone might be asexual – they might simply never feel sexual attraction or arousal. They might feel a small amount, sometimes or in particular circumstances, but not as much or in the ways expected by their surrounding culture. They may or may not experience other feelings often associated with sex, such as romantic feelings. The AVENwiki, produced by the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, gives more information from the point of view of people who are asexual.

512px-Aromantic_Pride_Flag.svg

The Aromantic Pride flag, created by Cameron Whimsey and in the public domain.

Someone aromantic doesn’t experience romantic feelings. They may or may not experience sexual attraction – someone can be aromantic and asexual, or aromantic and sexual. They may have strong platonic connections with people – aromantic people aren’t automatically loners or introverts. Identifying what is and what is not a romantic feeling can be complicated and being aromantic, like being asexual, is not always clear-cut. Someone might experience very few romantic feelings, or only in very specific circumstances, and still identify as aromantic.

Terminology in this field continues to develop as people find ways to connect with others who have similar experiences – experiences which haven’t previously been validated or accepted by wider culture. These experiences are often regarded as damaged or pathological, with people assuming that an asexual must have a physical problem with sex or an aromantic just hasn’t met the right person yet. Neither of these things is necessarily true and leaping to such conclusions can be very dismissive of someone’s experience and feelings.

So, is there anything which Quakers can say about these experiences? Firstly, I think it’s important to say that the Quaker emphasis on personal experience and truth-telling means we start from a position of accepting people’s accounts of themselves. Secondly, Quakers value diversity in community and see no reason to encourage everyone to be the same – the existence of sexual and asexual, aromantic and more romantic, people of all sexual orientations and none within our community is well documented, and if we are able to create an atmosphere of trust so that everyone can be open about their experiences we will be the stronger for it.

We might be able to go further. As the Religious Society of Friends, we should be especially good at valuing friendship! Actually, I don’t know that we are any better than our surrounding culture at celebrating platonic friendship – we certainly like to make more of a fuss of weddings and traditional romantic and sexual relationships – but perhaps this is something we can work on. Being honest and accurate about people’s relationships and the importance of connection in people’s lives means not just avoiding errors (not describing a lesbian couple as ‘friends’, but also not downgrading a non-sexual friendship to ‘just friends’) but naming and celebrating them. This takes courage. Perhaps it can begin with an increased appreciation of nonsexual and nonromantic relationships in all our lives – having a romantic and/or sexual partner is not the end of a relationship game, tick, married, you’re done. I think sometimes we do okay at recognising this, in our pastoral care for one another, but it isn’t described or discussed openly as often as might be beneficial.

What would it look like if we did better at this? Being more aware of the range of human possibility, as brought to light by these and other emerging descriptions of identities and experiences, would be helpful. We could make sure that people in our local Quaker communities know that the Quaker Gender and Sexual Diversity Community includes asexual people. Treating experiences like getting married as just that, experiences, rather than inevitable life stages, would be good too, and being positive about sex but not treating it as essential. Alongside that, some assumptions we ought to be dropping anyway would have to go – no more hinting about having children, no more assuming that single people are lonely, and asking rather than guessing when we aren’t sure about the nature of a relationship. But do note the case recently reported on Twitter of two visitors at meeting who were asked “are you two friends?” and heard “are you two Friends?” Careful phrasing may be required!

how to write a paper on liberal quakerism religion

The title of this blog post, “how to write a paper on liberal quakerism religion” appeared in my search terms recently. It was too good a prompt to resist. I periodically get emails from people who have decided to write an essay/paper/dissertation/similar about Quakers and want to know how to get going. Obviously this varies depending on your level of study and exact topic, but here are some starting points with links to more resources.

Be clear about which Quakers you’re going to study – when and where are they?

Are you interested in the formation of the movement in the seventeenth century? Do you want to look at how Quakers spread from Britain to America and Africa? Do you want to look at Quakers local to where you are or internationally? Sometimes you’ll be able to generalise about all Quakers, but usually it will be better to focus on some – or perhaps pick two or three groups to compare, if there’s room for that in your project. If you’re not sure or you don’t know what your options are, you might want to start with an overview textbook and narrow it down later.

Think about whether you are looking for material from inside the Quaker community, or about it.

This isn’t always a clear distinction – some authors, like me, write both for the community we belong to and about the community for other people to read, as well as for both general and academic audiences – but the intended audience of a piece of writing will affect how you approach it. For example, if the Quakers write a history of their movement and it sounds like they only ever did good things, is that because Quakers are always good or because Quakers wrote the history? If you can, compare multiple sources.

Work out why you want to write about Quakers.

Is it because you are a Quaker, or because you know someone who is a Quaker? Is it because you think the Quakers are interesting, or a good example of a point you want to make, or because Quakers are different or similar to another group you know about? All of these are good reasons to want to do some research and write about a community, but your reasons for writing about Quakers might affect what you need to do. If you already know a lot about Quakers, you might need to find evidence and sources for things which seem obvious to you – or challenge your assumptions and try to find out where you can improve your knowledge. If you’ve picked Quakers because of something you’ve been told about the community, you might need to start by thinking about that source. Is it reliable? Could someone (like this journalist) have been exaggerating or have misunderstood the situation?

There’s been lots of work in the academic field of Quaker studies recently, and some of it is free online.

Some of it isn’t – consult your library about the Brill Research Perspectives in Quaker Studies series – but the journal, Quaker Studies, is now entirely open access and you can search it online (the archive and more recent editions). There are multiple handbooks which will give you introductions to important topics. Some older books can be accessed for free via Project Gutenberg, or if you want to look at originals check if your library has access to Early English Books Online. For what Quakers say about themselves, you might want to look at the websites of their organisations (here’s Quakers in Britain, for example), watch some videos from QuakerSpeak, or check out the Quaker.org directory for more links. In some places, you might be able to consult a specialist library (for example, if you can get to London or Birmingham in the UK, Pennsylvania or Indiana in the USA, or Kaimosi in Kenya). If you’ve heard of a book and want to know which libraries keep it, you can try WorldCat.

…plus all the normal advice about good research and writing.

Check the bibliography of everything you read. What sources were used and might they be useful to you? Can you and should you double-check what you’re read?

Consider your assumptions. You might turn out to be right, but it’s best to know why you’re right!

Answer the question your school/college/university actually asked you, the one you’re being marked/graded on. (Unless you’re not being assessed, in which case, have at it and try to answer whatever question you want to know the answer to!)

Think about what matters and what doesn’t. Does your reader need lots of details, or just enough of the evidence to move on, and a citation so they can follow up for themselves?

Show how your argument progresses. What is your starting point? Where will your reader start? What are the connections between the things you want to say?

Remember to leave it for a little while and proofread to find your typos. Good luck!

I had to speak – but not in Quaker meeting

What is the difference, or what are the differences, between different strengths of call to speak and different contexts within which the call comes? I’ve had a few occasions recently when I felt that I had to speak – to register disagreement or an alternative viewpoint, or because it was important that someone in my position be seen to speak out, or because I had a point which I needed to share – and it brought me to reflecting on the ways in which this is and isn’t like giving spoken ministry.

One big difference is obviously the situation. In an auditorium where I am probably the only Quaker, where I spoke from the audience to challenge an idea put forward by a panel member, the image of being called to deliver the word of God may be out of place – although my experience in the moment was that while I felt afraid, something was present with me and I was given the skill and the words to try and speak up on behalf of a group to which I do not belong. In that way, it was remarkably like giving spoken ministry. Other similar situations have arisen online, where due the to asynchronous nature of the communication perhaps it’s easier for me to sit at home at my keyboard and take a moment of silence before responding, but where not all the other participants are necessarily Quakers.

But I think perhaps there are also gradations of being called to speak. Not necessarily in order, I think some forms might include:

  • being led to speak prophetically, perhaps the most traditional experience of spoken ministry
  • having a need or duty to speak for a moral reason, and being supported by the Spirit in that process
  • having something to say and being prompted to say it at a specific time for the good of the community
  • having something to say which is useful but not inspired in content or timing
  • needing to say something, not because others need to hear it, but because I need to be heard
  • needing to say something because it is in the process of speaking aloud that I find out what I think

I’m sure these are different for everyone. I also don’t think these are restricted to speech as such, although that’s the most traditional form; writing, artwork, and other forms of expression might work in similar ways. I think I have blogged from most of these motivations over the years! (And this post is probably in the final category, thinking aloud.) They also don’t translate neatly into ‘what should be allowed or not allowed in meeting’, since God might be working through any of them, although the first and the third are probably closest to what Quakers usually mean by ‘spoken ministry’.

When have you had to speak or otherwise make sure your message got through? Who might need to speak but not be heard?

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.

Quaker Stories

An early Quaker felt uncomfortable carrying a sword, though it was socially expected of him. He was advised to “wear it as long as you can”.

The warriors came to attack, but everyone in the meeting kept sitting in silence and nobody was hurt.

She saw that the women in prison needed help so she took them useful things and taught them to sew to support themselves.

The theme for this year’s Quaker Week is ‘Quaker Stories’. That could mean lots of things – personal stories, the history of Quakerism, the place of Quakers within the bigger stories of Protestant, mystical, and twenty-first century Christianity – but it also got me thinking about the stories Quakers tell. Well, I’m not sure how often they get told to Quaker adults; I heard these stories in children’s meeting, and now I hear them told to enquirers and people who are learning about Quakers from an outside perspective, but only some get used in spoken ministry in meeting for worship, for example. (‘Wear it as long as you can’, as Fox probably didn’t say to Penn about his conventional but distinctly un-pacifist sword, is one of the few I do hear regularly.) Some I missed and only picked up in specific discussions of Quaker stories (like Stephen Grellet, the man who probably didn’t actually preach to an empty dining room in the woods). I put some examples, summarised to their bare bones, at the top of this post.

In summarising, I found I was also making visible some of the assumptions which are buried in the way they are told. The story in which Fox tells Penn to maintain a habit which is starting to make him uncomfortable for ‘as long as you can’ speaks to modern Quaker assumptions about the need for change to come from a deeply felt inner transformation and not from mere convention. It might not be historically accurate, but it encapsulates something which was, broadly speaking, true of the first generation of Quakers (Thomas Ellwood went around keeping his hat on because he felt he had to), sometimes got lost in the generations in between (as when Quakers adopted a conventional ‘plain’ dress of their own), and was reclaimed in the twentieth century. In the twenty-first, perhaps it is being twisted or used too much: how many people are keeping on with environmentally unsustainable habits for ‘as long as they can’?

Other assumptions are less welcome. The story of ‘Fierce Feathers‘ as I first heard it in childhood was steeped in unexamined ideas about Native American people – in particular, it tends to be told in a way which positions the Quakers as the knowledgeable experts who are on God’s side, and the people whose space they are invading as suddenly seeing the truth when exposed to Quaker practice. This is in keeping with the Christian understanding of the time, and can be told in a way which suits modern liberal Quakerism’s emphasis on silent meeting for worship alone as a sufficient vehicle for transformation, but is also in tension with other things liberal Quakers want to teach: the equality of all people, the potential for divine truth in all religions. (And the children’s craft which feels like an obvious fit for the story, making a paper ‘Indian headdress’, is likely to be a terrible idea: read about why at the Native Appropriations blog.)

Similarly, stories about Quaker ‘good works’ sometimes focus on the giving of charity and not on the recipients, with the effect that social structures such as class are reinforced – rather than the creation of justice, for example. I picked the Elizabeth Fry story to summarise very briefly at the top of my post, but other Quaker stories have the same core structure. Now I live in Bournville, I hear that story a lot: rich man is kind to his workers. He treats them well, but not the same way he treats his family, and he is kind to his workers who live locally, not everyone who is poor or even everyone in his supply chain. I’m not disputing either the facts or getting into the moral rightness of the actions of George Cadbury or Elizabeth Fry or anyone else – my questions here are: when we retell these stories, what do we expand on and what do we diminish, who do we lift up and who do we ignore, which social structures do we accept and which do we challenge?

I hope that in future, asking these kinds of questions will help us to use our huge stock of Quaker stories in positive ways. Perhaps we will also find different stories from our history and tell those in illuminating ways – as in Kathleen Bell’s work on when Quakers got it wrong. We use stories to make sense of the world around us, and as Quakers in Britain continue our considerations of power and privilege we will need to tell new stories and re-tell old ones in ways which help us to explore those themes.