Tag Archives: Quakerism

Reflections after our wedding

Ten days ago, my partner and I married each other in a blended Quaker meeting for worship. There’s so much I could say about this I’m not entirely sure where to start – in this post, I want to share some reflections about the process and our experience partly in case they can help others but also to remember them for myself.

Overall, it was a lovely day and we were very happy. Looking back, we’re pleased that we went ahead at the earliest reasonable date: worries about unstable health and employment situations, not to mention possible future changes to coronavirus restrictions, seem easier to face with the certainty that our partnership is solid, recognised in law, and supported by our communities. It wasn’t easy to hold a pandemic, especially to get the people physically present in the meeting room down to only six, including ourselves. However, that did make it obvious that we needed a Zoom connection with all the technology and global connectivity that goes with it, and we were delighted that people were able to join us from around the world. That included people who wouldn’t (because of other commitments or the time and cost involved) have been able to join us in person even without the barriers created by the pandemic. As we weren’t able to have a reception at all, we hope to hold a big party for our first anniversary!

One of the things we couldn’t do was get someone else to do our hair or anything. Flower crown made by me. My beautiful bride all her own!

We both cried a bit during the ceremony. I cried when my mother gave ministry about a couple who had spoken during Britain Yearly Meeting’s 2009 discernment process, at the end of which we agreed to try and treat same-sex marriages equally with opposite-sex marriages. (I know, and we knew at the time, that this language doesn’t reflect the full richness of human sex and gender… but it’s the language we chose at the time because it was the language of legal discussions on the topic.) That Yearly Meeting was a big one for lots of reasons, for the Yearly Meeting as a community and for me personally. (For example: I went in thinking that we should abolish marriage because it’s patriarchal, and finished the week accepting that maybe we should have marriage as a thing, so it was a big step towards where I am today!) The moment that my mother remembered in her ministry was a talk from one member of a gay couple whom we had met at a course a few years previously. While one of them was speaking, his partner was close by, silent but attentive and supportive. Those testimonies – both what was articulated and the relationships made visible in the process – helped to bring the community to the point of recognising that some same-sex Quaker couples were already married, and that we would need to make an accurate record of God’s work in this area. I’m glad we have come so far since then, and aware of the challenges we still face as two women getting married, and I wished my mother could be there in person, and I’m glad she could be with us on Zoom.

A pre-wedding picture while the sun was shining. A lot of people helped even if they could only attend the wedding on Zoom – by taking pictures or recording music beforehand, for example. Among the special things I had with me on the day were a lace collar, hand made by my mother (starting slightly before I was born!), and a shawl, hand made for the occasion by a friend.

A few minor things went wrong. One was the weather – we had planned to move outdoors as soon as possible (less chance of passing the virus) but of course it rained. I’m assured this is good luck! Two other problems were to do with Zoom, one in the physical room and one online. Both were actually the unforeseen results of sensible decisions. Online, our Zoom host locked the Zoom room just after the start of the meeting for worship. We didn’t want late-comers to miss the introduction and be confused (as with many weddings, for the majority of our guests this was their first experience of unprogrammed Quaker worship, and coming into a completely silent Zoom room can be strange!). However, this also meant that some people who logged in, but then had a connectivity problem, left the Zoom room and weren’t able to return. In the meeting house, we muted the microphone at the beginning of worship, giving us a chance to settle into the silence and any last rustles not to disturb people online. But we were sitting well away from the laptop and when I made my declaration, only the people physically present could hear me! Fortunately, I realised what had happened, asked my sibling to unmute us, got a nod from our registering officer, and tried again. I recount this here mainly because I was very glad in that moment that I’d heard a story from a couple who had forgotten to hold hands during their declarations (the Quaker wedding certificate says, ‘taking each other by the hand…’) and also had to repeat themselves!

More generally, getting married led me to reflect on the coming out process. As a bi woman, I always need to come out some more – I’m in a lesbian relationship but that doesn’t make me a lesbian (similarly, dating a man wouldn’t make me straight). Mentioning ‘my wife’ in casual conversation is an easy way to come out, but I have to remember it doesn’t give the whole picture. And however much I am out and proud, when I post publicly on social media about relationships, there are always some people who need to tell me their views. Is it really two women? they want to ask, or they can see what’s happening and need to let us know that it’s satanic. 

If I could send a note six months back into the past, to us in November when we were just starting to plan this, my top three tips would be:

  • Prepare for people’s reactions and their complicated feelings about weddings, and have some standard lines or plans (e.g. delete homophobic comments as soon as you see them; not on the guest list = not a guest, here is our copy-and-paste reply explaining that if you haven’t had an invitation by now you’re not invited).
  • Talk to your registering officers ASAP and if there’s anything complicated, get it sorted (and the official answer in writing) earlier. No, earlier than that. (As it is, thank goodness the change of wording to the Quaker wedding certificate, allowing Zoom guests to sign it, could be made by the simple expedient of covering one line with an extra piece of paper!)
  • Actually count how many flowers you need – a standard small wedding is apparently larger than ours was! Or don’t, and relax and enjoy living in a florists’ for a week.
Flowers everywhere. Pictured here: flowers in the bath. This is good because water doesn’t spill on the carpet but bad because you have to move them every time you want to shower!

Besides those, I would say that for me this was an experience of adding the emotional depth to something I understood in theory. I had actually taught a Woodbrooke course about the theology of Quaker marriage, and I have been to more Quaker weddings than any other kind of wedding, and the stories about my parents’ Quaker wedding were often told in my childhood… so at one level I had a very good idea what I was getting into. I wasn’t surprised by the feeling of the gathered meeting supporting us, or the lovely and varied ministry people gave, or the patience needed for the processes and paperwork. But it is one thing to know these things in theory, and another to live them. It is very powerful indeed feel with someone you love the anxiety of the openness, unplanned space with 100 people… and the gratitude when they are, in fact, open to the Spirit and the Goddess speaks among their words. 

And here we are, newly married and getting covered in confetti.

What does membership mean to you?

I’m on a subgroup of the Book of Discipline Revision Committee which is looking at how we understand and describe membership. I wrote the following as part of our initial reflections; I’ve written before about membership and I know lots of meetings and committees have considered it in various ways. How do you feel when you think about membership? What do you think the Revision Committee needs to know about the current situation?

When I think about membership I feel happy and annoyed and sad and the ache of a missed opportunity. I’m happy to be in membership: I’m happy to be part of crew, to be trusted to do Quaker work, and to make a public statement of my commitment to the community. Sometimes I feel annoyed that I didn’t get a birthright membership, and that my process of applying for membership felt like paperwork and not deeply spiritual in the way some other people describe. It sometimes bothers me that membership doesn’t actually mean the difference between crew and passengers: we trust lots and lots of attenders to serve in all sorts of roles, including handling our money and encouraging other people into membership. And although I’m pleased we are flexible about membership in some ways, no longer insisting on a written letter and finding less intimidating ways to have visits and other conversations, there are so many people out there who are Quakers, who are doing Quaker work in the world, who are in or known to our meetings, who participate in Quaker worship other than with a local meeting, who could be better supported by our communities but aren’t in membership because they can’t attend on Sunday mornings or don’t find the community as welcoming as it should be or aren’t sure they would be accepted or think they aren’t ‘good enough’… so many of them that I can’t help feeling we are not using membership as well as it could be used. 

Membership at the moment is very geographical. This doesn’t reflect my life or experience – of moving repeatedly for study and work, and struggling to move my membership in a timely way; and of worshipping online with international communities, some not tied to geographical structures. 

It can also have a very different focus depending who is looking at it. It would be possible to describe membership mainly from a nominations perspective in terms of people being available for roles or not. (Suppose we gave membership as a gift to anyone who accepted a significant nomination – the membership list in many meetings would undergo some major changes.) It would be possible to describe membership mainly from a resources perspective, looking both at who gives money and energy to the meeting and who receives support from the meeting. (Suppose we gifted membership to anyone who donated to us or to whom we wanted to give practical or financial support – the membership list in many meetings would be quite different.) It would also be possible to describe membership from a spiritual perspective, finding those who are most deeply rooted in the Quaker tradition, give most in ministry (not just spoken ministry) and are most important to the quality of worship. (Suppose we gifted membership to all those who deepen and enrich our worship – the membership list would look very different again.) In fact, some of these forms of membership have existed or do exist: nominations committees in local meetings tend to have a de facto ‘active’ list of names to consider, treasurers know who to send a schedule for donations, and the identification of people who have a gift for improving worship might be compared to the historical process of recording ministers. We just don’t call them ‘membership’.

At the moment membership seems to often mean a problem and a debate. Many of those who have it cherish it. I would be sad if we abolished it and I felt I had lost something. But I also know that sometimes we have to knock down an old building in order to clear the ground and create something better, and membership seems to me to be crumbling in some places. It has been renovated repeatedly, but there’s still a steep staircase and some other bumps which exclude people, bits of ancient plaster fall off the ceiling sometimes, and even when you’re inside the space it isn’t always ready for modern life – like that charming hotel room with the exposed wooden beams where there’s only one plug socket.

You can find out more about the revision process, including how to contact the committee directly, on Britain Yearly Meeting’s website.

29.04 – anti-vivisection?

This blog post is part of my series on passages in Quaker faith & practice which were written specifically for it, in 1994.

The status of the passages in the final chapter of Quaker faith & practice is a little different to the rest of the book: this chapter, called ‘Leadings’, is an attempt to predict which issues Quakers in Britain might deal with in the future. Since we are now in or beyond that future – I think that, twenty-seven years on, we’re probably past most of what the 1994 Revision Committee could have called ‘the foreseeable future’ – we can ask whether or not the community did move in the directions predicted.

As far as I know, the Yearly Meeting as a whole did not in any formal way take up the challenge presented in 29.04, which asks us to oppose vivisection, the testing of medical and cosmetic products on live animals. This is partly because wider society moved fairly quickly on one part of the issue: other methods were created and testing cosmetics on animals was banned in the UK in 1998. Animal testing in medical research is heavily regulated but also still an important part of the process for some fields. I haven’t heard debate about this among Quakers recently. I get the impression that there’s a general acceptance of a minimisation of harm: a small amount of carefully regulated testing on animals which enables us to relieve suffering in humans is a balance a lot of people can live with. Even if we have worries about it and hope other processes for medical testing will be found in future, it’s a compromise which reflects the reality of a complex situation at the moment. Or perhaps it’s just something people don’t talk about at the moment.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a good deal of concern about animal welfare among Quakers. Quaker Concern for Animals is still going strong and with increasing awareness of the role of animal agriculture in the climate crisis, arguments for reducing or removing animal products from our diets are more visible in wider society than ever before. With convenient vegan foods becoming much more widely available, and debates about the role of sheep in damaging the ecosystem and the role of cows in creating greenhouse gases reaching the mainstream media, Quakers are also engaged in these discussions. 

Of course, the situation is not simple. We need to pay attention to the circumstances in which human beings produce food, including ensuring there is fair pay for work done. The non-human animals involved are not just those which might be killed and eaten, but all those which live alongside crops: the mice in the wheat field and the bees pollinating the fruit as well as the cows who produce milk and the male chicks thrown out because they won’t lay eggs. And some animal involvement in a wider farming practice supports the fertility of the soil, and issues about what can be farmed (or picked or caught) locally and what is a sustainable use of wild resources and what is culturally appropriate all factor in as well. Mention veganism or plant-based diets in a general Quaker Facebook group and you are likely to hear from people concerned about all these aspects and more – and trying, as we saw with the example of animal testing in medical development, to hold all these perspectives in balance at once. Working out what is best for people and plants and ecosystems and the earth and every living thing is not simple and the rules of thumb we develop to make decisions on a day-to-day basis, like, ‘I’ll try and eat only plants whenever I can’ or ‘I’ll try and eat things produced as close to home as possible’ are compromises which let us get on with life but cannot be pushed as universal solutions.

In 2021, animal ethics are important to many Quakers but in the Society as a whole they tend to be positioned within a wider discussion about sustainability rather than an end in themselves. If I had to guess, I would predict that over the next thirty years, some other aspects of animal ethics might come to the fore – perhaps through debates about rewilding in Britain and the role of native animals (say, wolves, beavers, and wild boar, rather than the animals our Neolithic ancestors brought from the Middle East), and perhaps through ongoing research about animal intelligence and the complexities of ecosystems (involving all animals including humans but also plants, like the recent work on tree communication). In this process, Quakers might become more sensitised to our interdependence with the whole of existence, less focussed on single issue campaigns and more aware of the endless web of connections.

Am I right that Britain Yearly Meeting didn’t take a formal stance on vivisection? Are there Local or Area, Preparative or Monthly Meetings who have made minutes on these issues?

Am I right that vivisection is now not so commonly discussed, with animal ethics debates focussed on other issues? If I am right, is that change happening because of the move I describe in towards a focus on sustainability or for other reasons?

Where do you think this discussion will go in the next thirty years? Are there factors you think are relevant to this which aren’t being considered at the moment?

A book of discipline blogging challenge

In a Facebook discussion about Christmas, Janet Scott noted that her often-quoted piece in Quaker faith & practice (Qf&p) which describes Quaker approaches to ‘times and seasons’ in 1994 was written especially for that book, suggesting that there was a lack of other writing available on the topic. This prompted me to wonder about two related questions: besides times and seasons, which other topics needed new material writing in 1994? and what might there be to say about those topics in 2021?

I answered the first question with a fairly simple research method – I searched the online version of Qf&p for ‘1994’, and then checked the paper version (since the online version doesn’t include it) to see which passages were written specifically for the book and which were published elsewhere, coincidentally in 1994. This enabled me to make a list of 35 passages written either by individuals and submitted to Yearly Meeting in 1994 or drafted by the 1994 Revision Committee. (I left out passages drafted by previous revision committees and edited in 1994; one has to draw a line somewhere.) From those passages, I made a quick list of topics which includes conflict in meetings, intervisitation, prayer healing, marriage, and many more (the full list is at the end of this post).

The second question I propose to answer during the year by running through that list of topics and writing a blog post about each of them. I don’t expect that my posts will be the final word on many of the topics – indeed, on a number of them I am not well qualified to comment – but I hope to be able to point to other Quaker writing and to raise relevant questions, with the intention of starting conversations. The comments on my blog posts are open, or if you have a lot to say you could set up your own blog. (Free and easy! Here are some tips.) Of course, there will also be all sorts of issues which didn’t exist in 1994 or weren’t included. I might tackle some of those, if they occur to me or someone points them out – and again, please feel free to contribute your own perspectives.

In this post, I want to start the project off with brief remarks on two topics which I’m clear that other people need to discuss as well. There are some topics for which, even without direct experience, someone who is interested in the community’s response can make some small but potential useful contribution through a reflection on the wider issue: for example, I’m not a parent and I’ve never had an abortion, but I might be able to say something about how Quakers generally in my experience talk about parenting and abortions. However, here are two topics on which this approach doesn’t seem so relevant: the role of the Welsh language in British Quakerism, and the tradition of making affirmations rather than taking oaths in Scotland. (That’s passages 10.14 and 20.54 if you’re interested.)

In most of British Quakerism, as in much of British society, the role of the Welsh language is largely to be ignored. This is probably to our detriment, as Welsh is an important part of the history and culture of these islands, but it generally just doesn’t come up. There are notable exceptions and the formation of Meeting of Friends in Wales has enabled Welsh-speaking Quakers to become more visible. As far as I know, there is one meeting where Welsh is the normal language of spoken ministry, and in other Quaker meetings in Wales I have heard Welsh spoken sometimes (and probably at least as often language learners comparing notes, in English). Once in a while it’s used in other contexts – I’ve heard Advices and Queries read in Welsh in other places occasionally. The publication of Tua’r Tarddiad/Towards the Source hopefully provides a starting point for a wider appreciation of the language among Quakers. But we need to hear from Welsh speakers: what would you like to say about the role of your language among Quakers in 2021?

On a similar theme, I would guess that the passage about oath-taking in Scotland might have been written specially for the 1994 book because the differences between the legal situations hadn’t been dealt with in the appropriate way or at the appropriate level of detail before. This kind of issue, not related to oaths but to other aspects of the law, has occasionally surfaced since: for example, I remember a question about the differences between the law in England and Wales and the law in Scotland being raised in a Yearly Meeting in relation to prison chaplains and other visitors. It also comes up in relation to the trustees of Quaker bodies and a few other matters, as charities in Scotland are regulated by OSCR while charities in England and Wales come under the Charity Commission. Friends in Scotland may be able to tell us: what issues are not fully taken into account at the moment, and what differences do we need to be more alert to?

(Some readers might now be wondering about Northern Ireland, because if this was a news run-down of the current coronavirus rules we would now need an update on the situation in Northern Ireland. But there’s nothing to say on that in this context, because Quaker meetings in Northern Ireland are part of Ireland Yearly Meeting, which has its own book of discipline. That said, I’d be delighted if Irish Friends, and people from other Yearly Meetings as well, want to give their own perspectives on these topics.) 

Over the course of 2021, I plan to blog about many of the topics which needed updates in 1994, and I invite others to do the same – I include the list below for anyone interested.

Chapter 10: 14, 16, 21, 23, 30, 31

Topics: 

  • place of the Welsh language in the RSoF
  • Leaveners; communities with purpose
  • conflict in meetings
  • divorce within a community
  • dual membership (two passages)

Chapter 13: 26, 31, 32

  • travel in the ministry
  • intervisitation (two passages)

Chapter 20: 40, 53, 74

  • drug use (moderation/avoidance)
  • oaths in Scotland
  • legal proceedings in divorce

Chapter 21: 05, 31, 37, 38, 71

  • impromptu and healing mfw with Leaveners
  • music
  • places to find beauty
  • prayer healing

Chapter 22: 02, 11, 14, 21, 33, 44, 54, 56, 57, 58, 59, 73, 88, 92

  • friendship
  • sexuality
  • making a home
  • marriage
  • celebration of commitment
  • problems in relationships
  • abortion
  • adoption
  • parenting
  • ending relationships
  • death – terminally ill, by suicide
  • bereavement

25.04

  • interdependence

26:36

  • religious language

27.04, 42

  • universalist/Christocentric
  • sacraments/times and seasons

29.04, 05

  • anti-vivisection
  • genetic engineering

Book review: When a Pagan Prays, Nimue Brown

When a Pagan Prays, Nimue Brown, Moon Books, 2014

When I picked up this book, I was interested in learning about Druidry with a eye to expanding my own practice  – how do other Druids, or at least one other Druid, relate to prayer? What might I use in creating a Druid prayer practice? Reading it, however, I found something with a much wider interest. Brown does speak from her own Druid perspective – indeed, one of the best aspects of the book is the way in which she shares her personal as well as research journey with the subject – but she also deals with a wide variety of possible approaches to deity. Of particular interest to me, and I suspect to other Quakers as well, is the combination she creates of space for atheist and rationalist perspectives while also addressing the possibility of religious experience including the irrational and inexplicable. For example, on page 43 she writes, “Sacredness is a condition of being that could belong to almost anything, and does not require deity.” As she explores different approaches to and forms of prayer, she always holds open the possibility that there will be no reply and that prayer may not work in the ways we hope for or want – while also demonstrating that this need not be a final block, that there are always other ways to look at things or alternative techniques to try. She not only suggests that she may be mistaken, but shows the reader in detail ways in which she changed her mind as she gained more knowledge and experience. This is a great gift, especially for those who may be experimenting in a similar way with this or another spiritual question.

Brown is also refreshingly upfront about the risks of prayer – what happens if your prayer is answered? This includes unintended consequences but also, less commonly addressed in religious literature, the social and personal aspects. If you say ‘hello’ to God (or Gods, or Goddess, or spirits – Brown’s Druidry is not committed on this) and something says ‘hello’ back, what are you going to make of it? Brown acknowledges that “few things would be more terrifying” (p37) but also addresses the many ways in which those responses might appear. Hearing a voice which says ‘hello’ is not the most common experience, although not entirely unknown. The Pagan communities which Brown is discussing don’t have the Quaker idea of listening together to have a shared experience of being spoken to or led to a specific action, and perhaps the book is slightly poorer, philosophically, for leaving out that possibility. On the other hand, Brown does come to three conclusions which are closely aligned with the Quaker perspective. One is about the importance of listening itself and the difficulty of that process: “the hardest thing to do in prayer is to sit in true silence and listen.” (p140) Another is about the ways in which, rather than changing the world, prayer and related practices can change us. She is direct about the need for the person prayer to be open to transformation: “If you aren’t willing to change then don’t pray. If you aren’t willing to be confused, frightened, overwhelmed or intimidated sometimes, don’t pray.” (p109)

The other way in which Brown reaches a Quaker-like conclusion is her focus on experiment and personal experience. Of her research method for the book, she says that as well as reading a lot and having conversations with other Druids on these topics: “If I wanted to understand, I was going to have to experiment, and pray, every day.” (p181) And when she talks about the ways in which the process has changed her, it is clear that she has had an experience of being helped and changed by prayer. For me, the most telling line in that discussion was on page 114, when she talks about the way her relationship to her work has changed: “I feel that I’m doing the work I need to be doing, bit by bit, and that certainty changes a lot of things for me.”

Of course, the similarities to my own perspective are only one aspect of the book’s usefulness. Although there are a few places where Brown comes close to describing something like Quaker worship – like this comment about improvisation in ritual: “In truly inspired improvisation, it can be hard to decide whether the prayer even comes from the person who voices it” (p136) – for the most part, her focus is on other forms. She explores Pagan ritual, intercessory prayer, and linguistic issues such as the tone in which we address our deities as well as philosophical and theological issues about to whom prayer is directed (and how we pray when we don’t have solid answers to this question) and the social and ethical aspects of prayer. And in the later sections, I also found some answers to my original questions – how do other Druids pray? Brown offers an extended discussion of two Druid prayer texts which are in common use in Britain, the Druid’s Vow or Druid’s Oath and the Druid’s Prayer or Gorsedd Prayer. As in much modern Druidry, her emphasis is on the reader developing skills to create their own relationship with, understanding of, and perhaps version of, these classic texts, rather than apologetics or finding ways to defend the existing tradition. 

I would recommend When a Pagan Prays to anyone wanting to think about the complexities of prayer, not just Pagans but those in any tradition considering their prayer life and wanting to develop it independently.

Quaker Marriage: couple, God, and community

One of the steps in applying for a Quaker wedding, for people who are not in membership, is to have two Quakers who are in membership check that the applicant understands the Quaker approach to marriage and the way Quakers do things. Because I’m in membership, I don’t have to complete this step – but my partner did, and talking it through with her in advance prompted me to think through some of the questions involved. In this blog post, I share a few personal reflections on them.

Who marries who? This gets framed in different ways at different times. For example, we can say that in Quaker practice, the couple marry each other rather than being married by a priest or other official. This explains what actually happens in a Quaker wedding, when each member of the couple stands, when they are ready, and recites or reads the words of the marriage declaration. We also say that in Quaker understanding, God marries the couple rather than it being a human act (it is “the Lord’s work, and we are but witnesses“). In order to bring those two approaches together, we need the Quaker understanding that God is present in human beings and can inform and guide human actions. In spoken ministry (even prepared ministry, like the exact words of the marriage declaration which have to be agreed with your partner and the registering officer in advance), human beings aim to say – and in this case also to do, since the declaration is a speech act – what God leads us to say and do. 

When does the marriage actually happen? It is solemnised at the wedding, and registered with the civil authorities at that point. However, God doesn’t always work on human timetables. A couple may have been married in a spiritual sense for some time before they get around to the human witnessing part, which involves a fair amount of paperwork and expense (and the legal possibility: some of the clearest examples of this are lesbian and gay couples who have been married in some sense since long before their relationships were legally recognised). On the other hand, it also makes sense to say that the couple get married, and while this doesn’t mark the beginning of the relationship, it may signal a change, not only in legal status but in the strength and commitment of the relationship. Perhaps it is more accurate to think of getting married as a process happening over a period of time rather than a single moment.

Why a Quaker wedding? It’s important to me to have a Quaker wedding for two reasons, one probably more important than the other. The less important reason is because I can. Because I am marrying a woman, and there are places in the world (including the place she was born) and religious communities everywhere in which our relationship would not be recognised as a marriage, just because we are both women. Quakers in Britain do recognise our relationship as possible and real and just as good and valuable as all other relationships, and it’s important to me to lean into that and appreciate the opportunity that gives me to be married in the context of my religious community.

The more important reason is about that community. Having a Quaker wedding isn’t just about the wedding – it’s about the longer term involvement in the community, the way that we can, hopefully, be supported by the Quaker community. I have some insight into this because my parents had a Quaker wedding and I grew up with that understanding, that the meeting was always there. (The meeting wasn’t always able to provide what I wanted from it, spiritually and practically, but those are issues for another post!) It’s important to me to be married in the care of a Quaker meeting because it’s an opportunity – on both sides: an opportunity for me to celebrate something special in my life alongside my religious community, and an opportunity for that community to come together to support us. 

I reserve the right to update my views on these issues – I’ve never been married before and my understanding will probably change over the next few years as we go through the process of having a Quaker wedding and continue our lives together as a married couple! Fortunately, blogging allows me to set a marker in time and write some more later. At the moment, I’m mostly just very happy to have discerned that marriage is right for us, to feel safe and confident celebrating our relationship in public, and to be marrying the woman I love.

Christmas: cancelled, inevitable, every day, and/or stolen?

I gave this as a conference paper at the Multiple Religious Belonging conference, run jointly by the Centre for Research in Quaker Studies and the Hyphen Project and held online September-October 2020. I don’t always publish conference papers as such – they get recycled in various ways, as book chapters or sections of other projects – but this one is so specific to time and place, as well as hopefully having wider implications, that it seems appropriate to share it as a blog post. If you’re interested in Multiple Religious Belonging, a group from that conference are going to continue to meet every couple of months for the next year, and we’d welcome other people working on related topics to join us – contact me at rhiannon.grant@woodbrooke.org.uk or Grace Milton directly for details.

Today, I’d like to use discussions about Christmas as an example of a complex religious situation, and look at the issues which arise from Christian, Quaker, Neo-Pagan, and wider social perspectives. It might not be immediately obvious that this complex religious situation involves multiple religious belonging. It does for me – I belong to all four of the communities, or perhaps layers of community, which I’ll be discussing in this paper, but I should start by outlining how I’m treating these four groups.

In this paper, I talk about Quakers – probably the best defined of the four groups, with some internal mechanisms for recording who belongs to a Quaker community or attends Quaker worship, and clearly described in a body of historical and sociological literature. I also talk about Christians, by which I mean people who, more or less loosely, belong to Christian churches – people with an active involvement in Christian practice, including those who might be ‘lapsed’ or otherwise regard it as a matter of culture rather than belief. I talk about Neo-Pagans, a broad term which – like ‘Christian’ – covers a lot of different groups, including Wiccans, Druids, eclectic Pagans, resconstructionists of various kinds, and so on. And I talk about the ‘wider society’ in which we live, the vaguest of the four groups but a significant one in this case – British society can be seen as Christian or secular, depending how you look at it, but I am thinking of people who are participating in British society who, Christian or not, have an involvement in Christmas practices because of their ubiquity. Almost everyone who buys food in British shops is going to see Christmas trees and mince pies, for example. A few people can be members of all four groups. A few more may be members of three – identifying as both Christian and Quaker, or Quaker and Pagan, or Christian and Pagan – and a lot will be both actively Christian or Quaker or Neo-Pagan and a member of wider British society.

I have been prompted in my consideration of Christmas as a complex religious situation initially by three discussions. The first is some recent social media discussions about whether Christmas is ‘cancelled’ or not – as things stand with coronavirus in the UK at the moment, it seems that the usual parties, visits to family homes, and other events traditional around Christmas are likely to be impossible or look very different, while church services are able to carry on in at least some form. For people for whom the social events are the main part of Christmas, it feels like it will be cancelled. For those who want to highlight the role of traditional Christian worship in Christmas, it’s important to say that it’s not cancelled.

The second is a longer-term discussion about the Quaker relationship to Christmas. For those who aren’t familiar with the Quaker tradition, in the early part of the movement – in the seventeenth century, beginning in the north of England and spreading fairly rapidly throughout the country and then internationally – Quakers rejected many things about the Christian church as they knew it at the time. They rejected set liturgy in favour of an open, silent waiting to be moved to preach. They rejected outward, physical rituals of baptism and communion, preferring to focus on inward experiences of the Holy Spirit. And they rejected the Christian liturgical year, saying that Christmas day, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday were days like any other. They had a passionate faith in Jesus, but what mattered to them was Jesus present within people, here and now – every day is Christmas day, and every day is Easter day, in this understanding.

However, by 1994 Janet Scott could write that this idea was “dying of neglect”: she observed that many Quakers in Britain, who are “involved with family and the wider society, keep Christmas” and a lot ignore the message of Easter even as they keep some of the customs involved. (27.42) This is very much the case today, with British Quaker meetings commonly holding extra worship services on Christmas day, Christmas socials, and related activities. This gives rise to a continual tension in Quaker groups: many Quakers are aware that we officially don’t celebrate these things – and some of them will say so whenever Quaker-founded company Cadbury’s run an advertising campaign based on Easter chocolate, which is to say, every year – while at the same time, actually celebrating themselves in ways which are broadly in line with the behaviour of wider British society.

The third is another longer-term discussion, sometimes conducted in a scholarly way but more often the preserve of the light-hearted newspaper article or social media post, about the relationship between Christmas customs as we have them now in Britain and both ancient and modern Pagan customs. In December, I often see social media posts about, for example, the relationship between the astronomical event of the winter solstice, the Roman Pagan celebration of Mithras, and the date of Christmas. You may have seen these yourself and I don’t intend to debate the factual accuracy of any of these claims here. For one thing, there are too many – as well as the date of Christmas, the potential Pagan origins of the Christmas tree, of Santa Claus, and numerous other traditions are frequently discussed. What I’m interested in today is not whether these claims are historically true but the relationship created by the framing of the question – the way in which merely asking “is a Christmas tree really a Pagan tradition?” firstly sets up a relationship between two religions, understood as ‘Christianity’ and ‘Paganism’, and secondly suggests that a practice – cutting evergreen plant material to use as a decoration – ‘really’ belongs to only one.

The problem in the first part of the claim, as you probably spotted, is that Christianity and Paganism are not at all unified traditions. Christians of different branches of the church celebrate Christmas differently, not even all on the same date, and Paganism is a complex collection of surviving, revived, and newly invented religious traditions not all of which even mark the solstice. Obviously, the claim that tree-cutting ‘belongs’ to one or other of these complex communities is massively over-simplified.

But a puzzle remains – why does ordinary language about religion allow this sort of claim which is quickly shown to be inaccurate? are there better ways of discussing the moral questions which can be raised by this sort of claim? By the way, I actually don’t think the moral issues are very pressing in the case of Christians and Pagans in Britain today, which is one of the reasons I’ve chosen this example for abstract discussion, over others where the harm is larger, the power relationships much more unequal, and colonial and other damaging histories much more recent. In order to think about how we might talk about these issues better, let me take a brief diversion into questions of analogy. I’ll then return to work back through my three situations with some new terminology in hand.

When people try to understand something complex, we often turn to analogy – think about how we talk about electricity moving through a wire as if it were like water flowing through a pipe, for example. It isn’t exactly how electricity works, but it’s close enough for many everyday conversations. In the same way, we’ve already thought during this conference about some of the ways we talk about religion. ‘Belonging’, ‘spiritual fluidity’, social identities. Sometimes people collapse religion with another category, like race or ethnicity – in Britain, we’ve seen this very clearly in popular understandings of Islam over the last decade or so. Religious communities are compared to other groups, which helps make sense of the ways in which they could ‘own’ something: the Christmas tree debate can sound a bit like two football clubs trading a player – as if the trees used to play for Pagans but signed up with Christians a while ago. 

I think a more productive approach might be to compare religious practices to the philosopher Wittgenstein’s idea of language-games. A language-game isn’t a whole natural language, like English or Welsh; in fact, the examples Wittgenstein gives tend to be very restricted. ‘Telling a joke’ is a language-game, for example, or giving directions using landmarks, or a system in which builders ask for and receive bricks and slabs. If we zoomed in on religious practices to the same level, we might well pick out ‘using evergreen plants for decoration’ or ‘gift giving’ and so on. I’ll call the results of this kind of analysis ‘religion-games’ – not to imply that they are fun or trivial, but to suggest they have many of the same features as language-games. They are rule-guided – we can do the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ depending on whether we follow relevant rules established by our communities. And they are contextual – that is to say, the meaning of the plants or the gifts can vary depending on the religious and social setting, in the same way that telling a joke is a language-game which can perform multiple social functions depending on the context in which it’s done.

What would this approach say about each of my three situations? When we think about religion-games, it doesn’t seem so surprising if more than one religious tradition has the same or similar practices. We have the language-game of joke-telling in lots of different natural languages, and we can have a religion-game like decorating with evergreen plants in lots of different religions. We also have multiple communities which are making and agreeing – and often renegotiating – their rules for participating in religion-games. Actually, I think the rules for Christmas tree decoration aren’t now governed by any of the church groups, and they certainly aren’t governed by Pagans, even if they have a strong claim to tree-themed acts of worship; rather, they are embedded in and negotiated by a historically and culturally Christian society which sees itself mainly as secular. A narrow view of what religion is, often associated with Christianity, in which religion-games involving belief are emphasised at the expense of those which are more obviously about practice, enables this misunderstanding. So about the Christians and the Pagans, I can say: religion-games are sometimes shared between or move between religious traditions. Depending on other factors, such as the power relations between the two traditions, this may or may not be ethically problematic.

What about the Quakers who are trying to both play some religion-games associated with Christmas while also refraining from playing the religion-game of celebrating Christmas? I have two suggestions here. One is that we can build on the previous point – not only are some religion-games shared between traditions, but some individuals can play religion-games from more than one tradition. A thoughtful choosing of which Christmas traditions to engage in may be in line with the Quaker aim, of having your outward behaviour reflect your inward experience rather than letting society determine your actions, without reaching the totally anti-Christmas conclusion of the early Quakers. 

My second suggestion is that some ways of ‘not doing Christmas’ may be a move within the ‘celebrating Christmas’ religion-game. Let me give you a more specific example which makes this clearer. You might be aware of the tradition of ‘Christmas jumper day’. On Christmas jumper day in a workplace or other community, everyone wears their ugly or funny or otherwise Christmas-themed jumper. When my workplace held one, I considered my options and decided that one possible Quaker choice in the circumstances was to wear a plain grey jumper. At one level, I was participating – I specifically chose grey, because Quaker grey as a form of plain dress has a long history. Although I wear my grey jumper to work throughout the year, I also wear blue and black and other colours – I didn’t pick one at random on Christmas jumper day. I knew the rules and looked for a way to subvert them. The move of ‘not taking a move’ is known in other games, too – skipping a turn, not playing any cards, switching your Scrabble tiles rather than placing a word. A studied refusal to participate in something, whether it’s wearing grey on Christmas jumper day or not sending any Christmas cards or having a strict limit on the cost of presents, requires just as much awareness of the rules of the game as ordinary participation.

And finally, what about the claims that Christmas is cancelled? Some of the practices we associate with Christmas in Britain are certainly going to be heavily limited this year – pubs shut at 10pm and groups limited to six people, and so on. Worship services can continue with some modifications, but for many in what a recent Prime Minister called “a Christian country”, church services are not the most important of the religion-games. Gift-giving, tree-decorating, jumper-wearing, school nativity plays, and similar practices are the religion-games which form the heart of the British Christmas tradition today – and they are not simply associated with one religious tradition: derived from Christianity, influenced by or with the potential to become neo-Pagan, often crossing over into secular and consumerist spaces. An analysis of these practices as religion-games opens new vocabulary to discuss that complexity, but might also help us adjust them to the realities of pandemic life. By focusing on core elements and changing things which are circumstantial, the rules of games can be adjusted to suit different situations – think about wheelchair basketball, co-operative Scrabble, the Great British Bake Off filmed in a self-isolating bubble – and the same is true for our religion-games. 

Remembering Ancestors

The modern Pagan festival of Samhain, celebrated at the same time as Halloween, is often figured as a time of connection with and remembering those who have died – our ancestors, broadly understood. (This is a blog post about my personal modern practice, and I am not going to discuss whether this version is ancient or historically accurate or any of those things – a lot of the language in use now, like ‘veil between worlds’, may be Victorian rather than any older. On the other hand, the Victorians were four generations or more ago now, and eventually everything becomes ancient! This is also not a blogpost about the metaphysics of life after death, but about the experience of the living.)

In the Buddhist practice of Touching the Earth as taught by Thich Nhat Hanh, there are considered to be three categories of ancestors – blood ancestors, those we probably think of first in the context of the English word ‘ancestor’, who are related to our physical form; spiritual ancestors, especially our teachers and those who have guided us in all sorts of ways; and land ancestors, the land itself and the people who have lived on it and worked with it before us. In those ideas, I think there’s something which resonates strongly with Pagan ideas about ancestors – not limited to our physical and legal families, but including people who inspired us, those who went before us in our work and the places we live.

(For those who still have my previous blog post in mind, would the Plum Village community/Community of Interbeing be comfortable with being included in this kind of interfaith thinking? I think so: the text of the Touching the Earth practice mentions Christ as well as Buddha, Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Living Buddha, Living Christ is supportive of multiple religious belonging, and my experience of attending their retreats and sangha meetings in the UK is that I as a Quaker Pagan have been welcome – I took the Five Mindfulness Trainings in 2012, and although my level of involvement has varied over time, maintain some connection with the community.) 

So here are some of the paradoxes of multiple religious belonging in practice: as a Quaker I don’t celebrate specific times and seasons or use specific physical rituals, but aim to remember the key messages all year; as a Pagan I notice the physical changes in the world around me – at this time of year, in England, that means the shortening day length and the leaves changing colour and falling – and tie those to potentially ancient and often universal stories and ideas, like that there are some times when Otherworldly beings are more likely to visit; and as a Buddhist I might use the Five Earth Touchings at any time, to remember all my ancestors and connect with both those I love and those who make me suffer. What to do? I don’t have a neat theory, so I just try and do what I feel led to do at any particular time.

This year, I am remembering my ancestors, and I’ll probably light some candles. I am remembering my grandmother and my grandfather, and my great-grandparents (some of whom lived until I was old enough to remember them, so I have a tangible connection). I’ve thinking of my friends and loved ones whose blood ancestors are not their family, or whose blood ancestors have caused them pain in lots of ways. So I’m including with my ancestors the people who have stepped in when I needed help – the people who have mentored me, who welcomed me to their homes and encouraged me in my writing and my work and my life in all sorts of ways.

It may be a sign of the strength of the intergenerational communities that I’ve been part of that a significant number of those people influenced me strongly in the last years of their lives. Because of these connections, and the way I have needed to move to study and work, it has been my experience that often, when a very dear friend from a previous part of my life died, I haven’t any more been a member of the same Quaker community, haven’t had the overlapping circles of friends any more, and hence have sometimes felt I was mourning alone. So I’m remembering people who were kind and brave, who modelled ways to hold close to God’s guidance even in the most difficult times, who remembered to ask whether I was still writing, who were supportive and caring – sometimes just present, offering lifts to hospital or a meal and a chat – when my own life was very difficult.

Among my spiritual ancestors, I am remembering those who died in war and those who became conscientious objectors (and occasionally died anyway). Of course, Remembrance Day is coming soon, very closely linked to these themes but sometimes used to exalt military service and action at the expense of other responses to conflict; and people keep comparing the pandemic to a war, when (apart from lots of people dying when governments make bad decisions) I’m not sure that it’s comparable at all. 

I’m remembering going to the National Memorial Arboretum, where many of these people are honoured. It’s a very Druid place, with the dead remembered by living trees – although in some ways secular and in other ways, as British ‘secular’ cultural practices often are, deeply marked by Christian thinking and history. I am remembering the Shot at Dawn memorial there, which names 307 British soldiers who were executed in the complex circumstances of the First World War

I am thinking about what land ancestors might mean here. I live in Bournville, mainly built on green-field sites by a family who wanted to both care for and profit from their workers. I am remembering those who suffered for the chocolate trade and those who benefitted from it – of course, George Cadbury isn’t just a land ancestor to me, but a spiritual ancestor and maybe more something more direct, since he founded the organisation, Woodbrooke, which now employs me. Is there a sub-category needed for employment ancestors? If I made one, I might remember alongside the Cadbury family figures like Joseph Chamberlain and all the others who help with the founding of large and complex organisations like universities. 

As you can probably see from this meandering consideration, one of the things which attracts me to marking Samhain in this way is that it both steers my thoughts, helping me set aside time to remember the many interconnections between lives and the many people who have shaped my life even though history might not remember their names; and that it leaves things open, for me to focus on the issues which matter to me at the moment and able to draw my own conclusions. Who is on your mind at the moment? If you are marking Samhain – or Halloween, or one of the many related festivals – who are you remembering?

Ethics and other people’s words: Quakers, ‘Living our Beliefs’, and appropriation

When is quoting from someone else a good thing – acknowledging your sources, learning from different people – and when is it problematic – risking stealing ideas or co-opting content without enough attention to its original context? In this post I want to consider a specific case which seems to me to raise a number of complex ethical questions about what is sometimes called cultural appropriation.

In 2016, a group of young British Quakers, supported by Graham Ralph, produced a volume called Living our Beliefs: An exploration of the faith and practice of Quakers. Overall, I think it’s a great project. Much of it is clear and well-written. It uses a wide range of engaging short extracts to present multiple perspectives alongside brief explanations in plainer language than often used in documents aimed at adults. It supplements and expands on Britain Yearly Meeting’s book of discipline, Quaker faith & practice. It’s well-produced with good quality paper, printing and design. It’s potentially really useful for the Quaker community, and the way it was created and the fact that it exists are signs that we are taking the contributions of young Quakers seriously. All good.

I have also heard it praised because, unlike Quaker faith & practice, it includes extracts which are not by Quakers. I’m very much in favour of learning from other people. But I think reprinting their words in a book which aims to explain Quakerism potentially goes beyond learning from other people – there’s a sense in which it involves making their words part of our own tradition, and as I said at the start of the post, this raises complex ethical questions. If we are going to include material from outside the Quaker tradition, we need to think carefully about what that is and whether we have the right to use it. (I mean here the moral right – the legal issues, about copyright etc., are separate.)

I think there will be cases where something written by someone who was not Quaker is genuinely part of our tradition. For example, although Quaker faith & practice‘s general policy is only to include quotes by Quakers, there are a few exceptions. One major one is Biblical quotations. The authors of the Bible were not Quakers, and couldn’t have been – although early Quakers sometimes argued that they were returning to the position of the early Church, as much as creating something new, Quakerism just didn’t exist as such until the seventeenth century. But it came into being with (English translations of) the Bible at its core, and the Bible remains a significant part of Quaker tradition. Quoting from the letters of Paul, for example, seems more like acknowledging our roots and showing the sources of our ideas than like taking something from another tradition. I’m not sure, though, that most of the cases in Living our Beliefs are like this. 

To consider this in more detail, I went through the whole book and looked at the authorship of the quoted passages. I identified 34 passages in Living our Beliefs which are, as far as I can tell, written by non-Quaker authors.

Three notes about my process for this: 1) I made a complete list of these passages in the course of preparing this post, but don’t discuss every single one of them here – if you want the details, comment or email me and I can share the list. 2) Some modern authors could have a Quaker affiliation which isn’t reflected in their public internet presence. 3) It’s possible that not all those individuals quoted anonymously as “participant in” a Quaker event identify as Quakers, but under the suggestion I made about thinking about Quaker belonging in terms of participating in religion-games, participating in a Quaker event seems like a reasonable level of participation in the Quaker community and I therefore count those as Quaker sources. 

Of the 34 passages which appear to be have been written by people who are not Quakers, I identified some broad groups. 

There are quotes from the Christian or broader European tradition, which although not Quaker in origin do not involve a power imbalance between quoted and quoter. For example, there’s a quote from the Gospel of Matthew (p21), which is in the same position as Biblical quotes in Quaker faith & practice, discussed above. John Donne (p72), William Shakespeare (p28), and William Wordsworth (p75) are all staples of the ‘dead white men’ canon – and that might be a reason not to use them (boring, done before, reinforcing power structures which value those voices above others), but might also make them seem like reasonable sources to include (they, their communities and their reputations aren’t going to suffer from their words being used by Quakers). Closer to the edge but still in this category might be Elvis Presley (p28), although we might want to note the issues around musical appropriation, and Aristotle (p74), who although not Christian is still widely read as a foundational author in the philosophical canon, influential in many European and Islamic cultures. I also think that public documents, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (p55), are in this kind of situation – it’s more like the Quaker community are endorsing than stealing a statement intended to be widely (indeed, universally) applicable.

There are also quotes from named individuals who were not Quakers and may or may not have been sympathetic towards Quakers. For example, on page 13 there’s a quote from Moses Shongo, who is described as “a Seneca elder, 1800s”. I haven’t been able to find the original source for this quote – Google searches for it only turn up recent Quaker contexts – but I did find out a little more about Moses Shongo. He was opposed to white colonial settlement, but fought in the British army during the revolution. Given his complex relationship with the British, would he want to appear in a book produced by British Quakers? On what grounds do we take his words and print them in a work of our own? We undoubtedly have things to learn from his perspective, but does a quotation given without his life story and context enable us to do that in the most rewarding way?

There are two quotes from Gandhi, or allegedly from Gandhi (p22, 28). This is a complex one – Gandhi knew about Quakers, was friends with Quakers, and visited Woodbrooke. On the one hand, this makes it easy for Quakers to feel a friendship with him, and there was some form of relationship. On the other hand, Gandhi didn’t become a Quaker despite being well aware of the option, and he was definitely against British colonial action. In reprinting his words, where is the line between learning from him and bringing him into a community which he did not join?

One of these passages also raises another issue about the accuracy of citations, because “Be the change you want to see in the world”, didn’t originate with Gandhi in this form. This is a complex case but we should perhaps be crediting Arleen Lorrance instead.

There are a number of quotations which are attributed to groups rather than individuals. For example, on page 23 there’s something cited as a “Sufi teaching”, but I have been unable to find out where it’s really from. It’s cited in several places online as a Sufi saying, and something similar appears in a song by Matthew West – but it’s cited in Christian and Jewish contexts, not Sufi ones, so it may be that it is attributed to but not actually from the Sufi community. That being so, I have doubts about whether in this case we are succeeding in learning from the Sufi community (with which, it has been suggested, Quakers have much in common). 

Also in this category, there’s a “Kikuyu Proverb” on page 55, a quote from “Ubuntu philosophy” on page 72, and a “Cherokee legend” on page 34. Quoting something so general, rather than a named person, seems dehumanising when almost everything else is attributed to an individual. Is there a writer from that culture whose specific expression of this idea could be cited? For example, Nelson Mandela is cited by name (p56) as is Kenyan activist Wangaria Maathai (p56), so could Desmond Tutu, whose ‘ubuntu theology’ did much to popularise ubuntu ideas outside South Africa, be quoted directly on this idea? 

That said, cited individuals directly is not a complete cure for the problems of appropriation and misuse. The pattern of quotation of black leaders by white people who take words out of context, choose extracts which appear to support the status quo, or behave as if quoting a black leader is enough to end racism, has been written about by others in relation to Martin Luther King Jr (who is cited on pages 35 and 41). British Quakers are not an entirely white community, but at the moment we are a majority white community, and because we are proudly pacifist we may be especially prone to taking out of context quotes which support nonviolence and ignoring the parts of someone’s larger body of work which reflect on the difficulties of the struggle and the injustices faced by oppressed communities. King could be one example – Gandhi and Mandela, mentioned above, are also open to mistreatment in this way. 

I could go on. It’s not clear to me, for example, whether the quotations from Buddha (p27) and Confucius (p48) follow one of the patterns above, or form a distinct pattern of the use of other religious writings – which might include the “Sufi teaching”, if it is in fact Sufi in origin, and perhaps also a quote from Joseph Bracket (p48), who was a Shaker rather than a Quaker. However, I feel like I’ve raised more than enough complex questions for one blog post! 

Having considered these examples, what can we say about the book as a whole, and what implications does this have for future projects? I don’t want to hold any individuals blame-worthy here – a project like this is a vast undertaking, and the kind of detailed cross-checking and referencing-hunting which I have chosen to engage in for a few cases where I already suspected there might be problems is a huge amount of work. (This blog post has taken me perhaps eight or ten hours, and these are among my professional skills – and you might think it unfair to subject a work mainly by young people and produced by and for a faith community to the same standards of checking which are required for a PhD thesis.) However, the various specific problems raised by the examples discussed above are worth understanding and taking forward into future projects. They include issues of attribution, of generalisation over some populations and not others (there are such things as European proverbs, but they don’t appear, or perhaps don’t get cited in that way, in this collection), and the problems of different power relationships and often power imbalances between colonisers and colonised or differently racialised communities

As in Britain Yearly Meeting at the moment we are currently revising our book of discipline, and I think we need to give careful attention to these questions, especially as we consider big issues like whether to include quotations only from Quakers, or from a wider range of authors. How do we provide appropriate context to help people understand what is being quoted and why, and the different relationships between the sources and the context in which their words appear? How do we express respect and admiration, and acknowledge the people we have learned from, without ignoring the complexities of the situations involved or crossing the often contested boundary between accepting gifts and taking without consent? 

Is “a bit of quiet” Quaker worship?

My friend and colleague Maud Grainger asked me this the other day: when people in Quaker settings, like a workshop or a discussion session, say things like ‘let’s just have a moment of stillness’ or ‘we’ll start with a bit of quiet’, are they really introducing a period of Quaker worship? And from that question she drew out a deeper one: is Quaker worship really about being still or quiet, or is something else going on?

Thinking about these questions, I was reminded of a time a few years ago when I was facilitating just that sort of workshop, and we’d just started – we were in silence to begin  the workshop – when someone who was running late knocked on the door. I went to let her in and said as quietly as I could (probably not very – I’m better at being loud and clear!), “Come in, we’re just having some worship.” She came in, we had our worship and our workshop, and at the end of the session, she sought me out to say: “I really liked the way you introduced that. You made worship sound completely ordinary, like having a cup of tea.”

I didn’t do that on purpose, but she was picking up something which is true in my life – worship is part of my ordinary day. In my worship life, I do use silence as a tool. But silence is only one of the tools available for worship, and it isn’t automatically related. I usually live alone, and I like to be in silence most of the time – I’m writing in silence now, in the quiet of an early Saturday morning before other people are mostly awake; I spend time in silence to read, to think, to go to sleep… you get the idea. Of course I try, as Thomas Kelly wrote, to keep up a practice of “inner, secret turning to God” throughout that silence – but silence doesn’t really have much to do with that. Kelly goes on to talk about keeping it up while you “walk and talk and work and laugh with your friends”: he’s writing about a habit which exists in the mind and can be maintained through many situations, rather than an outward practice. I can be as distant from the inner Light in a silence which allows me to get distracted and wrapped up in worldly concerns as I can be close to the Light when I’m holding close to my leadings and inner sense in order to navigate a crowded place or complex situation.

The phrase ‘outward practice’ raises a more difficult possibility. Do we sometimes risk making the unprogrammed, open, listening space of Quaker worship into an outward ritual – just the kind of ritual early Quakers were rejecting when they threw out the practices of previous generations of Christians and created unprogrammed worship instead – by focusing too much on the fact of silence or sitting still? I think we sometimes do. Actually, I think it can be useful to admit this and to be aware of the liturgies of Quakerism, the ways in which we do have a ritual structure and for some of us that’s really helpful in our worship lives. People who study and create more complex rituals talk about the structure of them – the way a good beginning can help us move from everyday concerns into focusing on the purpose of the ritual, and so on. In Quaker worship, we often have to find a natural structure for ourselves, or we may fall back on using things which are not essential to the process as markers. Moving to online worship has sometimes made this more obvious: for example, I realised that the walk to meeting had been a more important part of my process than I thought, because when it was taken away – because the meeting for worship was right here in my house, on Zoom – the period of time I needed at the beginning of worship to settle and centre myself was longer.

Moving online also came with new freedoms, though. Although there was no longer any need to walk to meeting, I could pick up my colouring book for the first five minutes without disturbing anyone else – since they couldn’t see the book or hear me moving. Walking and colouring aren’t at all the same, and yet for me they can serve the same purpose: engaging my body in something simple and relaxing. Like silence, they’re tools which can help me move into a worshipful perspective.

In that worshipful space, of course, there might not be silence or stillness. “Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts,” George Fox instructed, but life isn’t always like that. Sometimes apparent calm is the swan paddling furiously underneath the water, and sometimes our worship is successful but not at all still – Jane Fenn heard God’s voice and found not only that “my soul and all within me trembled at the hearing of it” but even that “my outward tabernacle shook insomuch that many present observed the deep exercise I was under.” Others find that physical stillness and inward closeness to the Divine don’t go together for all sorts of reasons – as the Quaker Disability Equality Group have recently written (link goes to a PDF document; a Word version can also be downloaded from their resources page).

So what is happening when we open a Quaker session with a request for ‘a bit of quiet’ or ‘a moment of stillness’? The aim, I think, is good: to offer people a short period of time to set aside concerns from outside the session and focus; to give people a space in which to tune in to their inner Light; and to use the tools of unprogrammed Quaker worship, including silence, to do that. However, when we name the tool – quiet, silence, stillness – rather than the goal or the process – settling, worshipping, listening – I worry about two risks. One is conflating them: assuming that for everyone, those are the tools which work. The other is diminishing them: leaving out some of the richness and the complexity of unprogrammed worship, in which anything can happen and we might be stirred up as well as calmed, in favour of a weaker version, a self-fulfilling prophecy in which we know in advance that there will only be silence.

When I ask a group of Quakers in the unprogrammed tradition for a short period of worship, rather than a moment of quiet, I know that there will probably be silence. I’ve participated in hundreds of two minute silences and ten minute silences in which we were open, but nobody had a message to share. However, I’ve also been in just a few where there was a message: either something which came directly to me and for me alone, speaking to my condition even if I was anxious or fretful or clock-watching or whatever, or something which was shared with the group, such as a request to uphold a person or situation or a reading which set the tone for what came next. Whatever words we use to introduce our practice, I want to keep that possibility. Into our lives, through our listening and waiting, can come surprisingly possibilities and divine guidance. Stillness and quiet can help us be responsive to that – but so can anything else which helps us listen and be open, whether that’s walking, colouring, singing, dancing, the outdoors, friends and family, TV shows…

Quakers say that of God is in everyone and everywhere. Our task is to notice that and act on it, in whatever way works for us.


For answers to more questions about Quakers, see my new book, Quakers Do What! Why?