Tag Archives: Quakerism

Personal and social transformation: should we share more of our struggles?

What am I going to do about it? This is a recurring question when people bring up this big issues of the day – and I suppose I mainly have climate change and climate justice in mind here, although other forms of social justice will be close behind. Coming away from Yearly Meeting Gathering, a week in which I have heard many people urging the community to act and act quickly, many people talking in more or less abstract terms about movement building, and, as someone put it in conversation, many “impassioned pleas for something”, it seems like an important question.

My instinct is to look for something clear and preferably dramatic to which I can commit in my own life. Change made, rules nice and simple, done. That’s what I did in 2011, when my Quaker community made our original commitment to being a sustainable community and I went vegan as a result. Of course, being vegan isn’t actually a single change, and the rules are neither clear nor simple, and it’s never done. There will always be a time when there’s no vegan option, and an argument about why it would be more environmentally friendly/socially just to eat local venison/sheep’s milk/misshapen avocados/nothing but water, and the eternal shoe problem, and someone on Facebook who thinks I’m the scum of the earth for eating Lockets with honey, and compromises to make even within plant-based food (like this: organic soy milk and a vitamin tablet, or fortified but non-organic soy milk?). For just as long, I’ve wished I could commit to going plastic-free. Wouldn’t it be clean, and simple, and give off the impression of being morally good, to not have anything to send to landfill?

It would also have the consolation of being extremely difficult, taking up a lot of time and energy and attention and thought, and being easy to explain to people and show off about. It would be satisfying because it would be entirely within my control – and its effects would be very minor, because it would involve going to considerable lengths for results which only affect my life. It is, if not a selfish answer, then at least an introverted one. Like other ways of shaving a tiny little bit off one’s own environmental impact, it lends itself to lots of research (and a certain amount of arguing on social media) and not to reaching out or making common cause with others.

(This might, of course, be just another excuse for not doing it, because it’s difficult and tiresome. But I think it can be an excuse AND genuinely onto something about why it appeals.)

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Allotment produce. Easy to brag about on social media, difficult to live on.

When I think about trying to break out of this way of thinking – moving the focus away from controlling the effects of my own life and towards working with others to change the world – I don’t really know what I’m aiming for. I am rather inclined to tell myself, for example, that I don’t really know any people, or that I don’t know the right people, or that I can’t do anything because most of the people I know don’t live in the same city. These things have a grain of truth – but I also have nearly 600 Facebook friends and my blog posts often have fifty to a hundred readers, so my sense of shouting into the void is mainly an illusion.

One of the things which creates this illusion is the choices I make about what to share and what to keep private. Sometimes I think this is right – my online presence is, among other things, a professional one, and some things about my life should be left out of that (everyone moans about work sometimes… except me, obviously, this is still a public space!). Sometimes it’s just a personal choice – I could tell you about the train wreck which passes for dating in my world, or my invisible illnesses, but I don’t think either of us would gain by it. Sometimes, though, it’s easy to post things which are good for my ego – look, I did this and that; look, I got published; look, still vegan; look, no hands! – and keep the moral dilemmas and hard work which underlie these things all to myself. A first step to building a movement around something has to be to talk about it, or I (and you?) will keep imagining being alone with the issue.

That being so, perhaps my next series of blog posts will be about my open questions, the problems I haven’t solved yet in trying to live a sustainable and just life, and the cases where there may be no single right answer. Would you read them? Will you share your own struggles, in writing or in person or somewhere else? (Is it too clear and simple? Too me-focused?)

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A place for nerds in the Society of Friends?

One of the questions asked in this year’s Spiritual Preparation for Yearly Meeting is:

  • Do you consider yourself to be ‘spiritual’, or an activist? Do you find the distinction helpful in considering your own journey and experiences?

My answer to this is: neither, and therefore, no.

When I picture an activist, I think of people who do things for which I don’t have the time, energy, or social skills. I do little bits of activism – the kind of things which get mocked in internet articles – like signing petitions, discussing politics with friends, and donating a bit of money now and again. I very rarely go to demonstrations, I almost never hand out leaflets, I’ve never been arrested, and the ways in which I’ve changed my life to bring it into accordance with my principles are mainly invisible. I’m often practical, but I’m by no means an activist.

When I picture someone who is spiritual, I think of people whose spiritual life works in a way which mine doesn’t. I’ve been going to meeting for worship my whole life and I’ve never really been able to ‘centre down’. I don’t have a prayer life to speak of, I’m immune to whatever people get out of sacred music, I like to look at religious art but rarely get beyond looking, and when I read scripture I come away with more questions than answers. I do sometimes have experiences which I can only describe as ‘spiritual’, and I value being in an organised religion because some of our structures help me feel spiritually connected, but whatever ‘being spiritual’ involves, I feel outside the category.

So, what I am? I’m a nerd, a swot, a geek, an over-educated over-thinker. This is, as that link suggests, common among Quakers – but it also, often, unwelcome. In a time when rationality has been staked out as the realm of atheism, there seems to be a trend among the religious towards rejecting thought and rigour. I’ve considered it carefully, and concluded that this could be a terrible mistake. However, because I’ve ‘considered’ and ‘concluded’, I suspect my ideas are liable to be thrown out without being heard, on methodological grounds.

When I call myself a geek or a nerd, people sometimes tell me off for putting myself down. This tells me that these words still have a power which can be reclaimed. After years of bullying and social exclusion for being ‘weird’ and ‘clever’, for being articulate enough to give right answers in class and bothering to do so, for enjoying learning and working hard at it, I’m not going to start pretending not to think. I admit it: I think about things at home, I think at work, I even think in Meeting for Worship.

I’m not suggesting that you should do this too (unless you want to). For me, though, prayer and philosophy are closely connected. To think something through, to consider it from all angles, to ask questions like “what do I really know about this?” or “what assumptions underlie the way I am approaching this?” is a way of holding an issue in the Light. Sometimes this leads to activity: “if I hold this view, and this view, then I ought to…” Sometimes this lead to spiritual perspectives: if God loves me as I am, then She’ll love me even if I ask the hard questions.

I am neither spiritual, nor an activist, but approach the world through questioning, thought, and wondering. My Quaker journey is strongly shaped by that even – especially? – when it seems unpopular.

My experience of Meeting for Clearness

I was teaching about Meetings for Clearness the other week – offering people the chance to try it out for themselves using a ‘mini Clearness process’ in which a small group takes it in turns to be the focus person – and that led me to notice and reflect on the extent to which I use my own experience of having a Meeting for Clearness in teaching. In particular, I try and give people the chance to have an experience of the process something like my experience. Even if I don’t, can’t, achieve that, it’s guiding my decisions about how to describe the process and how to introduce people to it.

It also led me to reflect on the fact that I haven’t come across detailed descriptions of individuals’ clearness processes. There are some sets of instructions around, but – perhaps because the process is both relatively unusual, and where it is used in its full form it’s mainly for very personal things, like ‘shall we get married?’ or ‘should I have major surgery?’ – not much in the way of accounts of experience. (If you know of a published account of someone’s Meeting for Clearness, please do let me know in the comments!) That being so, I offer my story here.

I asked for a Meeting for Clearness as part of a wider process of discernment. I was applying for funding to offer my PhD work in Quaker Studies as a workshop which would be free for Quaker Meetings. The funding application called for a ‘market research’ exercise with a Quaker meeting, which I carried out, and for references, which I had; but I felt that this process was a bit thin on its own. The formal demands of the funding application were, for excellent reasons, entirely secular, but the work I wanted to do felt like ministry, so I asked for a Meeting for Clearness in order to bring some spiritual depth to my process of deciding to apply.

I was serving as an elder in my local meeting at the time. I discussed my idea with some other elders – if I remember rightly, this was done informally, and didn’t appear in our minutes. One person agreed to act as a convener (although my impression is that I invited people, double-checked times, etc.). Another offered her house as a venue – my flat was too small, and I was very grateful to be offered hospitality rather than worrying about cups of tea and things on the day! The final group were all people from my local meeting, and included elders, at least one overseer, people with experience of clerking and minute writing, at least one person who had used a Meeting for Clearness for an important decision of her own, and a friend whose similar academic background helped him understand the specifics of the question I was facing. On the day, one person volunteered to write a minute at the end of the process.

I had read up about the process in advance, and talked to some people about it, but in the end we made some adaptions on the day. The one which stands out in my mind is that where much advice suggests that the focus person should listen to but not try to answer open-ended questions which seek to shed light on the issue, I decided to answer them as best I could. We had allowed plenty of time for the process, which made this possible. My answers didn’t lead to a discussion as such (although sometimes there was a bit of back-and-forth), but relieved me of the need to try and remember my responses for later, helped me to find out what I really thought and felt (on the spot responses can be much more revealing than later ones!), and enabled later questions to go deeper rather than working off assumptions about my responses to earlier ones.

We did follow the usual process in other ways. We used silence at the start, at the end, and between contributions. I, as the focus person, explained my question and why I was seeking clearness, uninterrupted. People asked questions which probed my feelings and approach, but didn’t try to relate the issue to their own problems or the needs of others. Perhaps the most powerful part – certainly the part I hope I can reproduce for those who try out ‘mini’ versions of the process – was the feeling of being the centre of attention in a wholly positive way, heard, accepted, lovingly challenged, and supported.

Potential problems and negative feelings were held tenderly rather than glossed over, and, unusually for me, I spoke extensively without going away afterwards thinking ‘I shouldn’t have said that’. (It’s not unusual for me to talk a lot, but I normally spend a lot of time in the middle of the night regretting things I’ve said.) In some ways, it healed wounds from previous Quaker processes where I felt important things had been ignored.

Most of the specific questions have faded with time – this was four years ago now – but one stands out in my memory. Someone (I remember who, I can still see her face) asked what I would do if I applied but didn’t get the funding. I said, roughly, that I would be disappointed, but that I would look for other ways to do the work. I have thought back to that answer many times since then, especially when the work is difficult or frustrating. The final minute says, “we are clear that Rhiannon is led to take this work forward in some way; and we are clear she is the right person to do it”. When I’m stuck with it – even now, well after the end of the funding which prompted the initial process and when the work is taking on new forms – I can come back to this and think: it isn’t just me. Other people, joining with me and paying close attention to pick up even the faintest signals from the Spirit, have seen that there will be a way forward.

As well as producing a minute, the Meeting for Clearness brought me closer to the five Friends who met with me, and offered a support structure for the work in the early stages. I’ve moved away from that local meeting and am no longer in regular contact with all of them, but for some time afterwards people would check in with me: how’s it going? how many workshops have you done? what next? Because they understood that much better what I was doing, they were able to ask more specific and deeper questions, which helped me to feel fully part of that community in a way that routine small talk never seems to achieve.

In Britain Yearly Meeting at the moment, Meeting for Clearness is routinely used in many Area Meetings for couples considering marriage, but rarely for other purposes. I found it so helpful that I think it’s a shame we don’t use it more. What could you benefit from bringing to a Meeting for Clearness? Have you had one before, and if so, was your experience similar or different to mine?

Queer Quaker theology: abundance as resistance

“Whoever has, will be given more.” (Matthew 25:29)

A little while ago I wrote a post about labels. Afterwards, I thought: how does this affirmation of the need for more and richer labels for all sorts of genders and sexualities fit with the queer theory I use in some of my academic work? The very use of the label ‘queer’ implies a resistance to narrowing down, definition, or precise identification.

In this blog post, I want to argue that the abundance of labels can lead us to a place which is deeply queer. To argue that, I’m going to compare the situation of multiplying gender and sexuality labels with a situation I’ve already written about – the multiplication of names for God among liberal Quakers. Just as having more and more words for the Divine seems to bring Quaker writing back to the same place as Quaker practice – a place of silence and the acknowledgement of mystery – so having more and more words for sexuality and gender might bring our society round to a deeply queer place, a place of resistance to the oppression of pre-determined categories.

The two situations which form the background to this discussion can be quickly summarised as follows, in the form of two observations.

Observation 1: the English language is quickly developing, especially on the internet, a wide range of terms for sexualities and genders which were previously unnamed and hence invisible. Examples include terms like ‘non-binary’, ‘asexual’, ‘cisgendered’, and ‘gray-a’. At first glance, this appears to run completely counter to a previous movement which aimed to unite all sorts of alternative sexualities, and maybe genders, under the term ‘queer’ – queer is not just lesbian, not just gay, not just bi, not just kinky, not just pegging, etc.

Observation 2: modern British Quaker publications about Quakerism often include a disclaimer about the use of the word ‘God’, either offering a list of alternatives or inviting the reader to swap the word for another of their choosing (which presupposes a list of possible acceptable alternatives). These lists typically include words like ‘light’, ‘love’, ‘God’, ‘Spirit’, ‘Divine’, ‘Christ’, ‘Allah’, and ‘Being’. At first glance, this appears to be both the complete opposite of silence, and hopelessly confused, especially when the words are not used as synonyms in other contexts.

In many situations, including their worship, liberal Quakers prefer silence, or the specific forms of speech which create vocal ministry during worship: words which are held in the context of silence. When the situation forces the use of ordinary words – as when someone sits down to write a book about Quakerism, so that they can neither remain silent (by leaving the page blank?) nor assume that the words will be read in the context of silence – the use of a list, whether stated or assumed, allows the author to say something without being bound to connotations of a word, like ‘God’, which can be radically different for those outside the community. (To start thinking about the ways a word’s connotations are affected by its context and use, consider this: the ‘God’ discussed in New Atheist publications has very little in common with the ‘God’ described by Quaker publications.) It often seems that the very act of making a list, of using lots of words, draws attention to the fact that no one word will do. The abundance of words becomes a resistance to words, or to put it another way: in saying too much, Quaker authors are able to come back round to their starting point, not wanting to say anything.

This is not to say that the words are not important, or that we could do without them. They are absolutely vital. You can’t get a reader past their other ideas about ‘God’ without some form of extra words showing how their use of the word is different to yours. This is not a development process in which we can hope one day to skip a step and do without the words, but a way of using language as a tool to point beyond language.

In the case of the development of lots of words for genders and sexualities, we are talking about people rather than God (although perhaps all of the words can also be applied to the Divine!). Any given person will have some which are true for them and some which are false for them, and perhaps also some which are nonsensical to them. Taken as a group, however, the collection of words seems to me to be forming an ever richer picture of humanity as a whole. By adding concepts like ‘demi-sexual’ and ‘homoromantic’ to our vocabulary, we nuance or break down previous categories. (If someone is homosocial and heteroromantic but asexual, are they gay or not?) Just as the list of terms for God breaks down previous assumptions about what God must be like, the development of more terms for people breaks down previous assumptions about the categories people must fit into. In the process, we see one another more clearly: what was previously hidden under the curtain of a single word is revealed as a shining diversity. The abundance of words, even – no, especially – to the point of confusion brings us to the same place of accepting complexity and multiplicity which was previously captured under the ever-broadening umbrella ‘queer’.

The proliferation of terms can be anxiety-inducing. It’s common to worry that all these lists of not-quite-the-same words for God reveal not a theology but a vagueness. It’s also common to be concerned that all these words for subtly different groups of people mean that we can’t unite around anything. However, I am arguing that both are much more productive than this implies. The Quaker use of an abundance of words to return to a place of mystery and the queer use of freshly created words to resist overly broad categories are both revealing and creative. Rather than allowing a few loud voices in society to tell us what ‘God’ must be (and why we shouldn’t believe in ‘Him’) or what gender and sexuality ‘really’ are (and why we should go on behaving in accordance with their rules), we can use new words and plenty of them to overturn these claims.

Are we giving good evidence this Easter?

Prompted by discussion on Facebook – itself prompted by the arrival of Easter, Passover, and other seasonal festivities – I have been thinking about the Quaker ‘testimony’ of refusing to recognise times and seasons. I’ve written before about how this is a practice more honoured in the breach than the observance (and I plan to stop after this – it probably won’t come up again until December, anyway!). It’s common today to list testimonies in positive forms, often with the capital letter of vague importance – Peace, Truth, Equality, etc. We might not be sure what these look like, but we’re for them. Other discussions make it clear that testimonies can also be against things – against war, against injustice, against fancy clothing, against inequality, against gambling. The stuff about being against times and seasons seems to be firmly in the latter category, although it’s sometimes seen in a positive incarnation, as something like: all days are equally holy.

A testimony, however, isn’t just a practice, like wearing grey, or a position, like being anti-war, or even a value, like thinking equality is good. ‘Testimony’ comes from the same root as ‘testify’, to witness, to give evidence, and we can still use it in this sense as well. The image is of a court of law, where you can give evidence in a trial. However, in order for that evidence, your testimony, to make sense, it has to be given in the right context. You can witness to Jane’s impeccable character until you’re blue in the face, and it won’t make any difference if it’s John’s behaviour which is before the court.

So when we hold to or reject a historical form of testimony, we need to ask: what question is it we are answering? Since we’re witnessing to the world and to each other, this is question which people ask, not a question God asks: it isn’t “will you come and follow me/if I but call your name?” but rather “what would the world be like if it were ruled by God/dess?” We can then talk about there being a spiritual process which leads us to an answer, but also our actions need to answer that question – and our explanations of our actions can link back to the question. For example, one answer to “what does the Divine Commonwealth look like?” might be “everyone is equal”. In order to witness to that possibility, we practice equality – rejecting titles and fancy headstones and all sorts of other things – in order to give evidence about our understanding of God’s way of living.

At the moment, I think a court assembled to take evidence from British Quaker attitudes to times and seasons might conclude that we are hypocritical, unspiritual by our own purported standards, and easily swayed by consumerism and especially sweets. Quakers talk about not recognising times and seasons when it suits them – like when they not giving anything up for Lent or want to put down Friends who engage with Pagan traditions – but pick them up again for other purposes – when they have an Easter egg hunt for the children or Christmas carol concert. Similarly, the reason given for not celebrating times and seasons is that the events of the Christian story which are tied to the festivals early Friends were rejecting is that those events can be remembered every day – but it’s not always clear that modern Quakers think about them on any day at all (or even that the community thinks they should). And the majority of British Quakers participate in seasonal rituals, at home if not at Meeting: the eating of Christmas cakes and Easter chocolates, the giving of gifts and the hunting of eggs.

Can we really maintain this form of testimony? I think it was meant to give the answer ‘in the Kingdom of God we will remember and celebrate Christ’s story every day’, but it’s starting to sound like ‘in the Kingdom of God we will do what we like, picking and choosing when to live the Spirit’s way and when to live the world’s way’. If we can have simplicity without plain dress, maybe it’s time to let this one drop away, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting Quaker faith & practice in context

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

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

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

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

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