Tag Archives: Quaker

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.

Review of ‘The Good Priest’

Tina Beattie’s novel, The Good Priest, is a gripping read with an engaging central character – John, the eponymous good priest – and an intriguing premise. In this review there will be some spoilers, although I’ll try and steer clear of the main plot. I won’t be discussing the murders, which are a significant feature of the novel, but I will talk about sex and sexual abuse.

It is a deeply Catholic book, as one might expect from the title and the author (Beattie is a well known Roman Catholic theologian), but I’m not a Catholic and it isn’t for me to assess the quality or impact of her description of the church. I did look to see whether others had already covered this in reviews, but didn’t find anything with a deep level of engagement – and some obvious venues, such as The Tablet, have yet to review it. It seems to me as an outside that it is deeply loving and equally critical – but perhaps this is an effect of her excellent writing rather than the content. I also think it might turn out to be a novel of the moment; in the same way that some twentieth-century writing is identifiable as ‘post Vatican II‘ or similar, in a few decade’s time this book might seem ‘post sex abuse scandal’. This doesn’t detract from it; indeed, it might make it all the more important to read it now. However, rather than going into this aspect in detail, I want to focus on what it might have to say to two audiences to which I do belong: Quaker readers and queer readers.

Queer readers, I think, may find it compelling, comforting, and disturbing, in various ways. The good priest of the title, John, is gay. He’s clear and straightforward about this even when it comes as a surprise to others – towards the end of the book, he says so plainly in public, on the street, and another character responses with a startled, “You’re wot?” She knows what he means, may even already have known this about him, but is not expecting a Catholic priest to be calm and open about this aspect of his personality. In this, she might serve as a stand-in for the reader, because the calmness and acceptance with which most characters throughout the book, including John himself, treat this fact is noticeable. Sometimes it is highlighted by the narrative, as when a dying parishioner makes a point of mentioning it, but often it is simply there. This is the comfort.

It is interwoven with other aspects of the narrative, though, inextricably so: I read a comment from someone on Twitter who wished Beattie hadn’t ‘made him gay’ – not an option, it is vital to this character’s interaction with the world and especially the church within which he lives and has his livelihood. This is, for me, one of the most compelling aspects of the novel. Sexuality is not bolted on, but nor is it the main focus. Things would go equally badly wrong if he were straight and subject to similar temptations and stresses, but the details of what happens are intimately related to his sexuality (and to his intimate relationships, platonic as well as erotic). It is also related to the gendered structure of the social world within which he lives: both priests and the most ardent atheists are men, while women occupy a host of positions but are disempowered by their society, even though they often have agency within the narrative. In the same way, although a review in the Church Times suggests that the focus on sex is “verging on prurience”, I didn’t find this so at all. The sex is dealt with in mainly a factual way, and a way which brings out the conflicts, sometimes the horrors, associated with it. The only non-abusive, fully consensual sex is fade-to-black, so much so that I almost wondered whether it had actually taken place.

It is those horrors, faced directly and from both perspectives, which make the book disturbing, but are also one of the important parts of the narrative. John realises during the course of the novel that he has both abused and been abused, another example of the moral complexity which makes the novel compelling. Of course, by writing a gay character in this position, Beattie runs the risk of further associating homosexuality with abuse and continuing a pattern of false charges against the gay community as a whole. However, it could also work the other way: John’s horrified reactions to realising that he unknowingly had sex with a child, and his subsequent compassionate responses and adult, if difficult, relationship, subvert that frequently told story about the role of homosexuality in social life.

And what about reading from a Quaker perspective? Perhaps there is a temptation at first to feel smug about how much more equally Quakers treat LGBTQ+ members of our communities, even while acknowledging that we can always do more to be welcoming and to make sure everyone is treated justly. But Beattie is a Catholic and it is clear that she has a great deal of compassion for the situation John is in, and is critiquing the ways in which his church makes life more difficult for him. For those Quakers with little knowledge of the Roman Catholic tradition, too, the focus on the rituals of Lent and Holy Week – and especially confession, which is pivotal to the plot – may be difficult and alienating. However, I found that the way John’s perspective leads the reader into the rituals and their spiritual meanings was easier to deal with than much teaching on these topics. It didn’t make me want to go to confession, but I think it did help me see why some people might find it helpful. (And the novel doesn’t shy away from the practical and theological problems it creates, either.) It might be worth reading for that interfaith understanding.

It might also be worth Quakers reading for the reminder than there is significant disagreement within the Catholic church – not just on social questions, but also on theology. In the course of the novel, characters who doubt and lose their faith, characters whose faith takes on new forms, and characters who disagree about interpretations of theological questions are all treated as fully part of John’s community. I am told frequently by Quakers that it must all be easier in churches where they have creeds and everyone believes the same thing and there aren’t any doubters… but having a written creed, and all agreeing with it, and nobody doubting are three very different things. In this story, as in real churches, disagreement and lapsing flourish alongside co-operation and multiple patterns of engagement.

In conclusion, if you are interested in murder mysteries, novels with religious characters, and/or books which grapple with moral complexity, I highly recommend this book.

“Quakers Do What! Why?” – coming next year

QsDoWhatcoverdraft

The cover of ‘Quakers Do What! Why?’ – as well as the title and my name, it has a picture of someone shrugging with a big question mark over her head.

I now have a publication date for my next Quaker Quicks book – 31st July 2020.

My previous entry in this series, Telling the Truth about God, has quite a narrow focus, looking at how Quakers try and say the unsayable by using techniques such as lists of apparent synonyms for God, the Divine, the Spirit, the Light, Love, the Universe, Energy, the Inner Buddha Nature… you get the idea.

My next one, Quakers Do What! Why?, is much more general. It uses a question-and-answer format to explain different aspects of Quaker practice in a light-hearted and accessible way. It covers questions like how Quakers worship, how Quakers make decisions, how people can be Quakers without believing in God, and why Quakers don’t use water baptism. I hope it will be useful for people who have just discovered or remembered Quakers and want to fill in some gaps, and maybe for people who’ve known a little bit about Quakers for a long time but have more questions.

I know this announcement is well ahead of the actual event – watch this space for more information as publication day gets closer, and in the meantime, feel free to ask me questions in the comments or on CuriousCat.

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!

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.

I’m a Quaker – ask me why

For several years now, I have – on and off, depending on weather, reliability of pins, mood, etc. – worn a badge which says, “I’m a Quaker – ask me why”. Since there’s a chance that some readers of this blog might want to take up that invitation, here are some sample answers. In reality, of course, I reply in the moment and what I actually say might not be anything like what I’ve written here. However, I’ve tried to reflect the real situations in which people have seen the badge and actually asked. Some of my responses leave considerable room for improvement; your comments and further questions are welcome below!

Barista in a coffee shop: “Go on, then, why?”

Me: “I enjoy the silent worship and it’s good to have a community who support my ethical choices.”

Typical response: “Ah, great, here’s your soy chai latte.”

Slightly less common response: “Ah, my great-aunt was a Quaker but I never knew much about them.”

Man on a London Underground escalator: “Quakers, they have a place in Euston, don’t they?”

Me: “Yes, we do.”

Him: “I keep meaning to go and find out about them.”

Me: “I’m sure you’d be welcome – or at any of the other meeting houses around London.”

Him: “There are more?”

Me: “Several.” *trips over as we reach the top*

Him: “Quakers sound peaceful.”

Me: “We try to be!”

Awkward date trying to make conversation: “So, ah, you have a badge about Quakers.”

Me: “Yeah, err, I do. Um, have you heard of Quakers before?”

Her: “Err, my GCSE RS textbook said they were, like, pacifists or something?”

Me: “Yeah, yeah, that’s right.”

Her: “So, err, the weather’s been nice.”

Undergraduate realising I have a clear position on the just war argument: “Is that because you’re a Quaker?”

Me: “Yes, my religious belief and my ethical reasoning are clearly linked here. Of course, it’s also possible to support a pacifist stance with atheist principles.”

Another undergraduate: “Will you mark us down if we say we’re in favour of war in our essays?”

Me: “Not if you provide an argument in support of what you say.”

Another Quaker looking at the badge: “I don’t think I could wear one of those.”

Me: “It’s not always easy, but it’s not that hard, either.”

Me asking myself in the safe confines of a blog post: “So, why are you a Quaker?”

I enjoy silent, waiting worship. I appreciate the equality and the openness of the situation it creates. Modern British Quakerism allows me to value tradition, such as Quaker history and ancient mythology, while at the same time exploring new riches, such as fictionalist perspectives and fresh Biblical criticism, and weighing all these against my own experience.

I’m a Quaker because the Quaker community provides a combination of spiritual depth, social support, and freedom to seek which I haven’t encountered anywhere else. I was born and raised a Quaker but I stayed for the worship, the community, and the discussions.