Tag Archives: Quakerism

Choosing how to help your community

In my recent post, ‘Choosing what to be good at‘, I wrote about how I made choices throughout my life, but especially as a teenager, about what skills I would work on and which things I would choose not to be good at. In discussion of this on Facebook, one of the themes which came up was: how does this interact with other people? How do my choices about what to do and what to be good at affect people in my community, whether that’s a small community like a household or family or a larger community, like social groups I might belong to? I want to spend a bit longer exploring this now because I think it raises all sorts of good questions about expectations, needs, agency, and the relationship between an individual and a community. I’m going to keep using personal examples because that’s what I have to go on, but of course my experience as a white middle-class British cis woman may not generalise.

Here’s a story from when I was about thirteen. At my school we had ‘food technology’ classes, mostly cooking but with a veneer of industrial process. I had mostly already done all the forms of cooking involved at home, I intensely disliked the way that ‘team work’ in the kitchens mostly meant boys threatening people with knives and girls doing the washing up, and I found some of the activities, such as ‘designing’ a pizza topping, laughable. One day the exercise was to bake bread rolls. My mother bakes bread at home, all the bread the family eats and almost all the bread I had ever eaten was homemade, and I had been joining in and making my own bread since… well, for longer than I could remember. I could make loaves and rolls and hedgehogs and basically any shape of bread. So I baked a batch of bread rolls in the classroom. They were fine. They looked just like the bread I ate every day. The teacher came over and she said, “I don’t think anyone would want to buy those, they’re a bit uneven.”

(I hope this teacher is now cringing every time she sees something ‘artisan’ for sale.)

Here I was at the crossroads between two sets of expectations. The expectations of my family about the right appearance for bread, about what qualities mattered in bread, and how to make bread rolls were at odds with the expectations my teacher wanted to create about quality control, regularity, the relationship of appearance to acceptability, and where I should focus my efforts. I hadn’t baked bread for sale, I had baked bread for eating. I was, unwittingly, choosing which community and set of values to follow.

Years later, I laid some of my frustration at what I saw as an unfair criticism to rest when I used my skills in bread making to make the bread which would be used in the communion service in Iona Abbey. That’s bread to be seen, but also bread to be eaten, and bread to bring us closer to God. (As a Quaker who had never taken physical communion before, I did put myself in a slightly tricky theological spot that way, but I really couldn’t think of the God I knew having me qualified to bake the bread but not eat it. And there was a non-alcoholic option. So I took communion there.) It’s also bread for the community of worshippers, and their expectations are not so much about the quality of the bread – although using ordinary home-baked bread instead of wafers does attract attention – but about the way it is used within the ritual to form spiritual connections.

If I hadn’t been so well supported in bread making at home, so relatively experienced and used to eating my own baking, I might have concluded from that lesson that I couldn’t bake bread. I’m sure some of my classmates did. I don’t know whether the teacher at some level intended us to conclude that home-baked was inferior to factory made bread; perhaps she did mean for us to appreciate how difficult it is to make and therefore learn not to waste it, or something of the sort. Instead I chose to reject her feedback and go on thinking that I was perfectly capable of baking bread. If I had drawn other conclusions, would I have been willing or able to serve a later community by getting on and baking the bread we needed on Iona? I would certainly have needed more and different support from the colleagues in the kitchens there.

What about a case where I am on the other side, lacking or refusing to get a community-useful skill? These are harder to identify and own up to because of course I think that my reasons for refusing some tasks are legitimate and discerned rather than excuses to get out of an unwanted task! However, I think I do have an example: hospitality. I am not naturally a very welcoming or indeed a social person; I find most people tiring and anxiety-inducing, and it usually takes a really friendly extrovert or a particularly close match of common interests, or a long time, to overcome that. At some times, I have made the effort to perform hospitality. As it happens, I also have an example of this from Iona. When I arrived to work in the kitchen there, I was told that part of the job was to eat meals with the guests, talk to them, and create a welcoming atmosphere. It was one of my least-favourite parts of the work, but because I had been told it was part of the job I did my level best. I did have good conversations and I hope I made people feel welcome. I also spent moderate amounts of time lying awake at night going over and over what I’d said or people’s reactions, frightened of doing it wrong, and thinking of ways to get time alone despite working in team, sleeping in a shared bedroom, etc. Near the end of my seven weeks there, someone else on the team said me, “I really appreciate how seriously you take the hospitality part of our work. So many people don’t bother but you’re really good at it.” Now, actually I think that people who are truly good at something make it look effortless, and it wouldn’t have occurred to anyone to say this to them; but it is evidence that I tried and mastered some of the skills involved.

I know that my Quaker community also needs those skills. All communities need some hospitality work doing, and Quakers can fail at this easily. I have felt unwelcome or been ineptly welcomed at many meetings over the years. Even at the local meeting where I attend now, I wish I felt more welcome, and I don’t stay for refreshments after meeting because I don’t want tea or coffee or biscuits of unknown ingredients (and hence probably not vegan). That’s my fault – I could sign up for the rota and change things. I do sometimes welcome people at the door, and I can do door-holding and hand-shaking, and if necessary answer questions about Quakers and meeting for worship, but I very rarely know people’s names and I have to leave the small talk to others. I like it best when the weather is unusually hot or wet because then there’s something easy to say! I could try harder, as I did on Iona. But the fact is that I don’t.

Why not? Partly because I do at lot of this sort of work in my paid work, so I don’t feel I have spare energy to do it on a voluntary basis as well. I find it a little bit easier at work, where my role gives people a reason to engage with me and I don’t count ‘discussing something on which I am knowledgeable’ as hospitality in this sense. I still find it stressful and worry a lot about all my minor failures, though. And, ironically, I sometimes teach about pastoral care, of which hospitality is an important competent. I say ‘teach’: I don’t try and tell people what to do, but instead ask them to reflect on their experiences and compare with others to get a better of idea of what works and what doesn’t.

I could give other reasons, about the situation and the timings and lots of practical stuff, but the deeper truth is that I don’t want to and at the moment improving hospitality in my meeting doesn’t feel like a good use of my energy. There are other people who can attend to it, and many of them are better at it than me; and some of them, whether they have the skills or are learning them, are led to offer that service. I think I’m also especially resistant to the idea that I should be good at some aspects of caring and hospitality which are stereotypical traits of women: when I’m not good at them, I’m not going to work harder to correct that than a man would be expected to.

Is it fair or wise to expect from a community something which I am not willing to give? Yes, it is. If I trust that the community is diverse enough, large enough, strong enough – Spirit-filled enough – to work as a community, I have to do exactly that. Sharing is a community function. If I had to do everything myself, I might as well be alone. Sometimes, especially in a small community, there needs to be compromise and I will need to step up to do things I’d rather not do, but am more or less capable of. (Some jobs are better done adequately than not at all: I’m no good at arithmetic, but I can make a computer do sums for me, so I’ll step up to run the accounts if nobody else is better qualified. Other jobs should be skipped or passed on if they can’t be done well: it might be better to donate to someone else running a foodbank than to start one and run it badly.) I think what I’m talking about here is a finer grain of discernment. We might need to distinguish not just between what makes the heart sing and everything else, but between ‘makes my heart sing splendid operas’, ‘makes my heart sing an acceptable pop song’, ‘more like my heart having an earworm but I can live with it’, and ‘not so much singing as a horrible grinding noise’. A few horrible grinding noises and some earworms are necessary parts of life, but it’s okay to ask whether someone else might get at least a pop song if not an opera out of the same task.

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Quakers and Dreams

A few months ago, I had a dream in which I had exactly 701 followers on Twitter. It was vivid and specific and nowhere near true, so I posted about it on Twitter, because… because performing the mildly amusing self is the life-blood of building a social media brand. And when I had more followers and it got close to being true, I asked my followers how I should celebrate.

Not just one but two of them asked for a blog post about Quakers and dreams, and I reached 701 followers:

701 followers

A screenshot of my Twitter profile taken at 5pm on Friday 2nd August 2019. It shows my name, a cover picture of a pile of copies of my book ‘Telling the Truth about God’, my profile picture which is the Stones of Stenness on Orkney, my Twitter handle and other data, and my following/follower counts: 579 Following, 701 Followers.

…so here it is.

I actually don’t remember my dreams very often and when I do I don’t usually find much of use in them. I have tried keeping a dream diary and all those things; I did slightly increase the number of dreams I remembered, but I still didn’t find anything in them except a jumble of images from my waking life. Like checking how many people follow me on Twitter, for example. I do have some patterns – when I am anxious about anything I will dream about being late for it; my subconscious mind either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about problems like nudity, injury, or suddenly being able to fly. It just doesn’t want to be late. This makes a certain amount of sense when I am worried about an exam – you can be late and that’s a very real problem. Or a job interview – you can be late, makes a bad impression. Or sending in a manuscript – except if you’re submitting speculatively and there isn’t a deadline, how can you possibly be late? And yet I have had that dream.

This probably affects my view of dream interpretation, which is that it might be a fun hobby for some people. As I see it, it’s a little bit more logical than astrology (because it is related to something with some direct connection to your life, even if only a system for turning things into slightly more jumbled versions of themselves) and not a risky as acupuncture (it won’t help you with anything but it doesn’t involve needles). If anything, dream interpretation is a little bit less useful to me than drawing oracle cards, which can help me establish a more nuanced connection between my feelings and my conscious mind, as I become aware of emotional reactions to randomly produced images. The things I learn about my unconscious mind from interpreting my dreams – what’s that, Lassie, you’re anxious about your job interview? – are generally so obvious that the term ‘interpretation’ seems too strong.

That said, I do consider dreams relevant evidence for how I’m feeling and what experiences my mind is still processing, and I know some people find much more of value in their dreams. I can’t put any more stock in someone’s sleeping dream than their spiritual experiences while awake, but I do belong to a tradition which holds that our spiritual experiences, shared in ministry in meeting for worship or in other ways, can become part of a collective process of discernment or greater understanding. Presumably some dreams, likewise, can become part of the wider picture if they are shared.

Someone once said to me, “Quakers don’t pay enough attention to dreams.”

I’m fairly sure he meant sleeping dreams rather than ideals or visions of the way forward, because Quakers pay plenty of attention to those – to imagining and manifesting the Kingdom of God or possibly the Divine Commonwealth, for example. There wasn’t really time to get into the detail and it wasn’t the sort of conversation where I could ask for more information. (Sweeping and strange statements made by strangers in Quaker discussions sometimes haunt me for years, by the way – this is one good example, and the time someone announced, “Stored food is wasted food”, as if we would all both understand and agree. I’m not at all sure I understand and the meanings I can think of I’m not sure I agree about!) So do Quakers pay enough attention to dreams?

Given what I have said above about my own neglect of the topic, I think this speaker would think that I don’t. From my own perspective, I think I pay them exactly the right amount of attention – I notice obvious facts and information, but don’t get hung up on omens, complex symbolism, or whether I ought to dream about flying or whatnot. I think it’s important not to try and turn everyday stuff, like dreaming about doing things I do regularly, into some different. I don’t think there’s any special significance to dreaming about checking how many Twitter followers I have, except perhaps it tells you that I want to know that, and I think it would be a mistake to regard 701 as anything other than a random number my brain picked.

Perhaps some Quakers, for whom spiritual messages might be manifesting through dreams, should pay them more attention. I’m not sure how one would know which to attend to, though. Do spiritual dreams have a certain quality? Does it become clear later that they were spiritual messages, perhaps when you are led to share them in meeting for worship? (Does anyone do that? I can’t remember hearing spoken ministry in which someone described a dream, but it doesn’t seem especially unlikely. A piece of ministry is just as likely to relate to a dream as the sorts of waking experiences like strolls in the park, programmes on Radio 4, and chats with taxi drivers which we hear about regularly.) Here I’m closer to agreeing with the Friend who wants us to pay more attention: not so much that we should pay attention if dreams don’t seem relevant, but if they do, dreams – like other experiences which sometimes feel too taboo to discuss even among Quakers, like sensing the presence of someone who has died – ought to be acceptable topics of conversation.

Do Quakers have Christian privilege?

Last week, Britain Yearly Meeting considered the theme of privilege – you can watch videos from the event, and read the minutes or the epistle. It became apparent that the newer pattern of use for the word privilege – as in white privilege, male privilege, cisgender privilege, straight privilege, middle and upper class privilege, able-bodied privilege, neurotypical privilege, etc. – has caught on in some ways, but it’s easy for people to default back to an older pattern which may also be less emotionally and socially disruptive – as in it’s a privilege to serve, it’s a privilege to be here, it’s an honour and a privilege. When I was thinking about how to unpack this and explore it in a more nuanced way, I found myself thinking about a question we didn’t consider explicitly: do Quakers have Christian privilege, at all or to some extent?

I think the answer to this question is ‘yes and no’, but also that it’s useful to explore why. I’ll start with Christian privilege – what is it, anyway? It’s the ways in which people who are Christian benefit from the structures of societies such as the UK in which Christianity is the majority religion and/or the assumed or historical norm. Sam Killermann put together this list of 30+ examples, including “You can worship freely, without fear of violence or threats” and “Music and television programs pertaining to your religion’s holidays are readily accessible”. There are some of these which Quakers clearly have; for a long time now, Quaker worship has been acceptable and free from violence or threats. This is very much a privilege which I think Quakers would want to share with everyone – and yet Jews, Muslims, and others in the UK today do feel this fear and experience both threats and violence against their communities.

On the other hand, the Quaker relationship to Christian holidays is complicated, and specifically Quaker music, films, and so on are not part of mainstream broadcasting. Such things do exist can be found online or at specialist Quaker shops or libraries, but many people – with no internet access, not knowing what to search for, distant from London or Birmingham, and/or short of money – would find it difficult to access them. Some Quakers may include some or all Christian content as reflecting their personal faith, but others find traditional Christian language for God and liturgical practices alien or upsetting. Compared to other privileges Quakers do have, this lack seems relatively minor, but I know that it’s felt by the wave of rejoicing which crosses my social media feeds when a mainstream news source, TV programme, or radio station does mention Quakers. (A recent example: Fleabag.)

I won’t go through all 30 examples, but here are some more:

  • “A bumper sticker supporting your religion won’t likely lead to your car being vandalized.” As a Quaker, I’m sure I have that privilege (I don’t have a car, but I wear a badge which declares that I’m a Quaker and have had nothing but polite, puzzled, and/or positive responses).
  • “Politicians responsible for your governance are probably members of your faith.” Taken as percentages, probably yes: there are more Quaker MPs and MEPs than would be expected if politicians were statistically representative of the population, and fewer than expected of other non-Christian faiths.
  • “You can reasonably assume that anyone you encounter will have a decent understanding of your beliefs.” Not really. Some people have misconceptions, some only know a few basics, and many know nothing about Quakers.
  • “You are never asked to speak on behalf of all the members of your faith.” Debatable… but I use phrases like ‘I can’t speak for all Quakers, but…’ and ‘Quakers don’t all agree, but speaking personally…’ often enough that I think this expectation is sometimes an issue.
  • “Without special effort, your children will have a multitude of friends who share your faith.” It seems to me that Quaker parents often make special efforts, travelling considerable distances or planning family holidays around annual events, to make sure their children can meet other Quaker children.
  • “You can travel to any part of the country and know your religion will be accepted, safe, and you will have access to religious spaces to practice your faith.” I think Quakers do have this privilege (it helps that meeting for worship can be held anywhere). There are a few places in Britain where the nearest Quaker meeting is too far away to attend regularly, but none where I’d expect to feel unsafe as a Quaker.
  • “You can be polite, gentle, or peaceful, and not be considered an “exception” to those practicing your faith.” In bucket loads! A rude or angry Quaker is more likely to be breaking the stereotype (and so that pressure, in turn, means that some find it difficult to express themselves).

It seems like Quakers have more Christian privilege than some, and less than others. These are just some preliminary thoughts and I welcome extensions, additions, and alternative perspectives in the comments. Perhaps it’s a profitable case for Quakers to discuss among ourselves because we are likely to have much of it in common with one another, we can’t learn about the Quaker situation by listening to other people, and the situation of having and not having simultaneously encourages a more nuanced understanding of what is actually going on with privilege in general. In the process we might uncover ways in which we can both be better allies to our interfaith friends, and pose better challenges to dominant structures which may be restricting everyone’s freedom of religion and expression.

Qui-Gon Jinn, most Quakerly Jedi?

I’ve been saying for years that I think Qui-Gon Jinn, as well as being the most important character in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and probably the most likeable character in the prequel trilogy, is the most Quakerly Jedi in the Star Wars universe. I’ve just read Claudia Gray’s new novel, Master & Apprentice, and I think it proves me right.

Before I go any further, let me clarify the limitations of my claim. I’m not arguing that the Jedi are Quakers, or that Qui-Gon Jinn is a Quaker. Jediism, both as a fictional faith and a real one, has both significant commonalities and differences with Quakerism: Jedi and Quakers both like being calm and aware of their connectedness with the world; fictional Jedi often use violence while Quakers usually reject it; real Jedi usually adopt that faith as adults, like most Quakers today; Quakers have at least a historical connection to Christianity and often a role for Jesus in their spirituality, while Jedi don’t (counter-arguments involving members of the Skywalker family on a postcard, please); and there are more nuanced cases – in some other post perhaps I’ll compare the minister/elder system used by the Valiant Sixty with the master/apprentice structure.

The Jedi are not Quakers. Some of the Jedi are deeply unQuakerly – and not just the ones who become Sith, but also those who accept the status quo, use violence before other methods, and support their political leaders in immoral courses of action.

That said, there are general similarities between some aspects of the Jedi way and some parts of the modern Quaker way, and in Claudia Gray’s novel Qui-Gon Jinn becomes a spokesperson for them. I’ve picked out three short passages which will illustrate what I mean. There are minor spoilers in what follows, so if that’ll bother you, go and read it first. (It is worth reading: it’s an excellent example of what Star Wars extended universe writing does well with a great mix of mission-focused plot and character exploration).

In the first passage which caught my attention, Qui-Gon Jinn is talking to Rael Averross, a fellow Jedi (and fellow student of Dooku’s, cue ominous music). Rael has gone a bit off the rails before and during a long stay on the distant planet Pijal, and seems to be going further. Here (p124), he and Qui-Gon discuss the Jedi code.

It had been a long time since Rael Averross felt the need to justify himself to anyone on Pijal, but as he walked Qui-Goon to the door, he found himself saying, “You know, there’ve always been a few Jedi – let’s be honest, more than a few – who see celibacy as an ideal, not a rule.”

“I’m coming to believe that we must all interpret the Code for ourselves,” Qui-Gon said, “or it ceases to be a living pact and becomes nothing but a prison cell.” Which sounded nice and all, but was a long way from letting Averross off the hook.

Point one is another difference: Quakers have had different codes of sexual ethics over time, but have never embraced celibacy as a path for the majority, let alone something enforced! Point two, though, is a similarity about the relationship expressed here between the rule, the Jedi Code, and the way it is lived out. Rael suggests a difference between an ideal (presumably a good idea but not a realistic one) and a rule. Qui-Gon suggests that what matters is not so much the rule itself or the way the Jedi act, but the relationship between people and Code.

What’s Quaker about that? Well, it could be compared both to a traditional Quaker approach to the Bible, and to the relationship Quakers have with their own tradition. The first of these could be illustrated with an old but still much quoted passage from first-generation Quaker Margaret Fell, who became a Quaker when she realised that she and her existing church had not made the Bible into a ‘living pact’: “we are all thieves, we have taken the Scriptures in words and know nothing of them in ourselves” (link to longer quote with context). As a movement, Quakers have acknowledged the need for each generation to make the tradition its own. This is sometimes explicit, as in these words from Young Friends in 1926: “each generation of young Friends by its experiments must discover for itself the truths on which the Society is built if it is to use those truths and to continue and enlarge the work of the Society”. Sometimes it’s built into the practice, as in the ongoing process of revising the very book from which those quotations are taken. Like the Jedi Code which Qui-Gon follows, it contains rules – but it is meant to represent a “living pact” not a “prison cell”.

The next passage is from much later on in the story (p217). Qui-Gon has had a vision of the future, and has decided that although he will act on it, he won’t share it with his superiors, the Jedi Council.

Qui-Gon had not yet shared his vision with the Council, nor did he intend to. They would spend all their time bickering about the viability of the hyperspace corridor. They were too bound to Coruscant. Too bound to the chancellor. Too far from the living Force.

They were no longer the sort of Jedi who could trust in a pure vision.

It shocked him that he was that Jedi. That he could still find it in him to believe so profoundly, so unshakably, in pure mysticism. Qui-Gon had so often felt out of step with the Order as a whole, but never to this degree.

He had also never felt this close to the Force.

There are more differences here, of course. Although I know some Quakers who study and interpret dreams or Tarot cards, having visions of the future isn’t part of Quaker tradition generally. However, I think Quakers could easily come down on either side of the hyperspace corridor debate (it has political elements familiar from closer to home: questions about economic justice, access to transport, political representation, slavery, and the power of large corporations are all involved). And there is a deeply Quakerly element in Qui-Gon’s rejection of authority in favour of trusting his own connection to the Divine. For him that Divine is the Force, and it might be known as God or Spirit in traditional Quaker understandings – but Quakers use many, many words to talk about God and some of them are remarkably similar. I’ve heard terms like Energy, Universe, and even the Force used in workshops! However they understand it, Quakers seek to contact the Divine directly, not needing any particular person or practice to mediate their knowledge of the Divine. They can use a group process but also listen for leadings from the Divine – much as Qui-Gon does in this passage.

My final passage also comes from a discussion between Rael and Qui-Gon. (Another similarity with Quakers? Jedi in this book seem to discuss their beliefs mainly with each other, and mainly when they disagree, never explaining to non-Jedi characters!) Rael starts by putting a case that if the light and dark, good and evil, sides of the Force should be in balance, their actions are irrelevant (p259):

“…the darkness would be just as strong as the light. So it doesn’t matter what we do, because in the end, hey, it’s a tie! It doesn’t matter which side we choose.”

… “It matters,” Qui-Gon said quietly. “It matters which side we choose. Even if there will never be more light than darkness. Even if there can be no more joy in the galaxy than there is pain. For every action we undertake, for every word we speak, for every life we touch – it matters. I don’t turn toward the light because it means someday I’ll ‘win’ some sort of cosmic game. I turn toward it because it is the light.

One point here is that the language of ‘light’ and ‘dark’ is very popular with Quakers, even though it can be racist – and I think the Star Wars use, where light and dark map directly to good and evil, is also problematic in that way.

If we replaced ‘light’ with ‘good’, here, though, there would still be another similarity to Quakers: something which might be called idealism or working from principles rather than pragmatism. In a piece of research which involved interviewing Quakers about social justice work, I found they often mentioned the way in which a long-term, ideals-focused approach won respect from other campaigners. These campaigns are not run in order to win (although, as described in that link, there have been successes along the way). Rather, campaigns against war and for equality are based on a Quaker faith in the importance of doing what is good and what God asks.

Would Qui-Gon Jinn be accepted for membership if he applied to a British Quaker area meeting today? I’m not sure – at the very least, there would have to be a serious conversation about lightsabers and maybe a chat about gambling. But based on the evidence I’ve gathered in this post, I think that theologically he might fit right in.

Firm or forgiving: what is your ideal Quaker community like?

Let me start with a shout out to everyone already objecting to the construction of a false binary in my title. The word you’re looking for is ‘clickbait’.

When someone finds Quakers, they are usually told early on that Quakers are pacifist. Obviously there are different ideas about what this means – but it’s easy to assume, and I can see why someone would think – that this must include being peaceful within the Quaker community as well as promoting it outside. That can make it extra hard when it turns out that actually, there is a fight of some kind going on in a Quaker meeting. These Quakers aren’t so peaceable after all! As it used to say on Susan Robson’s Living with Conflict website (now available via the Internet Archive):

“Quakers in my sample found that the commitment to public peace in their organization held them back when they came to arguing and disputing. They thought their tradition told them they should live in a peaceable kingdom, like the animals in the Edward Hicks painting appearing on the front page, and therefore not have any hostile feelings. So when they discovered angry feelings they saw this as a failure, and were ashamed.”

Susan has written more about anger elsewhere, such as in this blog post, “F is for ‘so fucking angry’“. My theme today is more about our picture of that peaceable kingdom. How is peace achieved in it? In conversation with some Friends recently, we identified two different approaches. One is characterised by firmness, and is interested in structures, discipline, right ordering, and boundaries. (If it were dealing with animals, it would focus on training them.) The other is characterised by forgiveness, and is interested in relationships, inclusion, flexibility, and acceptance. (If it were dealing with animals, it would focus on finding ways to let them all behave naturally.) In humans we can recognise both sides: the ability to learn and to choose our own disciplines to keep, and the need to be loved as we are and extend the same love to others.

Of course a community cannot live by bread alone, and any group dealing with any conflict will need to balance these – what’s a habit we can change, and what’s a boundary we need to enforce? what’s something we come to accept, and what’s really objectionable? Imagine for example how rude or domineering behaviour can be tolerated and tolerated, especially if it develops slowly, until well past the point where someone who has just arrived in the situation immediately sees it as bullying. But what should the response be? Care for everyone involved, bullied and bully, is obviously indicated, but so are some boundaries, because harm is being caused and it needs to be stopped.

What are we led to do in this type of situation? “What loves requires” is a good attitude to an answer, but it sets intentions rather than consequences. In doing so, it can tend to shield a bully, who “didn’t mean to hurt you”. “What the book of discipline says” might also seem like a good answer, but depending what you need help with, it might seem short on answers or to reinforce the problem of peaceableness identified at the start of this post. Being able to do conflict resolution work in another community may not involve the same skill set as holding your own pain when something goes wrong at home!

Instead, perhaps we sometimes fall back on an unconscious picture of what a Quaker community or even an ideal Quaker individual should be like. For some of us, that ideal picture is of a Quaker community which is safe because it is structured, ordered, follows rules and enforces them, and has a discipline which we accept when we join it. For some of us, that ideal picture is of a Quaker community which is safe because it is open, accepting, takes all those who come and does not reject, and teaches freedom and inclusion. Everyone wants to be safe. It’s legitimate to disagree about how to make our community safer. But when disagreeing itself isn’t safe – for anyone, because it both breaks the rule about peaceableness and involves rejecting some views – it’s very hard to have a real conversation about the best way forward.

It’s possible that the ‘unconscious pictures’ described in this post are different manifestations of the strict father/nurturant parent images identified in politics by George Lakoff – although I’m not suggesting they map to political positions! Do you recognise them in yourself or your community?

Reading the Psalms in Meeting for Worship

In conversation with a f/Friend yesterday, I happened to recall a curious episode in my life as a Quaker which I don’t think I’ve written about before. Enough time has now passed for me to think of this as a finished pattern – what I’m about to describe took place roughly between three and four years ago. I haven’t entirely stopped reading Biblical passages in Meeting for Worship occasionally (I was led to read a section of the Sermon on the Mount a few weeks ago, with a few comments about why), but it feels like a more normal part of a mixed pattern of different kinds of spoken ministry, including many meetings when I don’t speak, times when I speak entirely from personal experience, and reading from Quaker faith & practice

For a while, though, I felt strongly and repeatedly (I’d guess this happened perhaps four times over the course of several months) led to read whole psalms in Meeting for Worship. I read them plain, without commentary or even giving the Biblical reference. I read them as well as I could within the skills I have – for example, I have a loud voice, and I tend to speak clearly and expressively, even dramatically. I didn’t always read the whole Psalm, but I usually did. I sometimes changed a pronoun, so that I alternated between masculine and feminine words for God, but I don’t remember changing any other words (although of course I could have mis-spoken or something). Some of the Psalms I was led to read were challenging, especially ones which use violent language not usually heard in Quaker meetings.

I would say I tested the leadings fairly thoroughly. I tend to be more confident about being led to read from Qf&p or the Bible than about being led to speak in my own words – texts have the advantages of being tested already, by time and other people, and it’s harder to go wrong. (Not impossible; I remember being relatively new to a meeting, reading from Qf&p in worship, and being told afterwards that it ‘would have sounded different to people who’d been in the meeting for a long time’; I never did really work out why.) I think I was more hesitant the second time it happened – I remember someone commenting on one of these occasions that she knew I was struggling with whether to speak or not because I kept picking up the Bible, looking at it, putting it down again on the seat next to me with the page open, waiting a while, and picking it up again. By the third time the calling was clearer and I was quicker to obey. And maybe that was the point, or some other message got through, because it didn’t happen much more.

It got mixed reactions. Often people asked me afterwards which Psalm it was, which I was able to tell them at the time although I can’t remember now. Some of them wished I’d announced that before reading – which I sort of did, too, because it would have felt much safer and more comfortable. It also wasn’t what I was being asked to do. Some noticed the style in which I read (one person described it as ‘fire and brimstone preaching’ style, which might have been an exaggeration for comic effect). Some in the meeting were, I think, discomforted by the language of enemies and war which is native to some Psalms; as I read, I was typically discovering meanings which related more the the metaphorical Lamb’s War than an outward war – but of course texts have many meanings, and I was not guided to share those interpretations in ministry (although I did discuss some of them in conversations after meeting). One effect of giving this ministry for me – not, I’m sure the main one, but worth noting – was that tea-and-coffee times which were sometimes filled with awkward questions about my job search and un/employment situation were changed into much more fulfilling conversations which included theology.

Writing this, I am imagining some Friends worrying about whether it is right of me to frame so much of this in the Quaker passive (‘I was led to…’ – I did it, someone else is to blame, and readers are expected to infer the elided deity). Should I take more responsibility for my actions? For example, if someone had been deeply upset by the words I read, should I own that as the consequences of my choice, rather than claiming that it was God’s choice and I was only an agent? I’m willing to take some responsibility because I did choose to follow my Guide: I don’t have the experience that I have to speak, only that I should and am led to do so. I trust God to give me words which are needed and which those present can cope with, even if it’s difficult. And perhaps that’s why I don’t want to accept the full responsibility. If I’m not picking up something from my co-creators of the meeting for worship, from Goddess and everyone else present, how can I have faith that such apparently random utterances are helpful?


 

Writing this, I’m also aware that I’ve been thinking more about how I shape the narratives of my spiritual life recently because I’m preparing to run a course on it. There are still places to come and talk about Spiritual Blogging with me and Gil Skidmore, 7th-9th May, if you’re interested.

Reading theology as a spiritual adventure

People sometimes talk about theological research as if it is, of necessity, dry, boring, narrowly intellectual, and completely devoid of feelings. In my experience, it isn’t like that at all – okay, it can be boring, like any other work, but actually that’s a feeling! – so in this blog post, written while I’m in the middle of a period of study leave and doing theological research very intensively, I thought I’d try and give some examples of the ways in which my whole self gets involved in the work. When I was a undergraduate studying philosophy, I used to say that it was a dull week if I hadn’t changed my mind about some core aspect of existence, and this process is a bit like that – a spiritual adventure.

Challenge to the imagination – reading about the dark night

One of the books I read recently was Sandra Cronk’s Dark Night Journey. This provided me with a challenge to my imagination, because the kind of experience she describes, the sense of the absence of God, isn’t really one I’ve had – certainly not to the extent that is being discussed here. I’ve had very difficult times but often had the opposite experience: when everything is against me and I’ve had a run of bad luck and my usual comforts don’t cheer up, a sense of the Presence (sometimes a very strong sense, sometimes so strong that the language of vision and visitation seems appropriate) can appear in Meeting for Worship, or silent prayer at home – or more likely, in a park or garden. (Here I feel like I might hear a voice, the cynic remarking that obviously my religion is just a crutch, a form of psychological illusion to deal with things I can’t cope with properly. Okay, cynic, so what? At least it seems to work.)

Reading about other people’s experiences of ‘dark nights’ challenges me to reflect on my own experience, identify the differences, be grateful for the ways in which my experience seems easier, and find things which do connect. It also feels like this might be a way to pick up tools for the journey – just because something hasn’t happened to me yet, doesn’t mean that it won’t, and the approaches she recommends might be applicable to other forms of spiritual dryness, too, like the drought of doubt and the boredom which comes from habit. Cronk talks about the apophatic tradition as one tool, a way of thinking not about the positive things we might think we know about God but the mystery and lack of knowledge we have, perhaps expressed in negatives. She says (p55), “The apophatic traditions does not try to rescue a person from the darkness, but rather looks for a way to live in the darkness with trust.”

If I were to try and summarise this part of the spiritual adventure in a verbal prayer, it might go something like this: “Goddess, I don’t always feel it or remember it but I’m grateful for your Presence, for your small still voice within me and in the world around me. In your connectedness, our interbeing, you help me to extend my empathy as far as it will go – and recognise it and not doubt people when they have experiences I can’t empathise with.”

a book cover - the top part has a picture of a stylised landscape in four colours, blue sky, white clouds, pink sun, and red and black mountains; underneath the title reads "Dark Night Journey: Inward Re-patterning Toward a Life Centered in God" and the author's name at the bottom is Sandra Cronk.

 

Challenge to the sense of connection – reading which makes me feel excluded

Another book I read was Becoming fully human: Writings on Quakers and Christian thought by Michael Langford. I knew this book would be challenging when I chose to read it, but it wasn’t difficult in the way I thought it would be. I have my own doubts about the Christian tradition (most of them are basically just a dislike of having a man tell me what to do), but I’m accustomed to reading Christian books and comfortable with that language. This book also includes pieces which are more universalist and more open to nontheist ideas than I might have guessed – Langford quotes Cupitt approving in several places alongside his deep engagement with Biblical and early Quaker material. What it did do was really annoy me, press a button, about something almost completely irrelevant to the book’s main themes.

Over educated. That’s the phrase. Langford’s hardly the only Quaker to use this term in describing British Quakers today. Perhaps it’s especially noticeable because he links it to what he calls a ‘literal-mindedness’ among Quakers as well as the rest of modern society which leads to a difficulty in understanding the rich layers of psychological and metaphorical meaning which can be present in religious language and especially Biblical texts. On the one hand, it’s probably ironic that this annoys me, because to be educated – even ‘over’ educated – in theology and related disciplines is more likely to cure than cause the problem he’s worried about. On the other hand, I spent almost all my time at school being bullied and socially excluded, probably for many reasons but often allegedly for being too clever and doing too well in class, so I have a major sore spot around claims that education or being intellectual is a bad thing and should be opposed – and a bit of a sore spot about anything which sounds like I might be excluded from a community which is important to me.

This is, as I said, a minor issue in the book. The comments could have been deleted without significantly affecting the author’s points. But because of my personal history and consequent emotional reactions – perhaps over-reactions, since they’re out of all proportion to the content – to them, there’s a spiritual challenge in both honouring my feelings and setting them aside. My prayer for this spiritual adventure is something like: “Dear God, I know this isn’t badly meant – I know this isn’t a personal attack – help me tend my own wounds, which are reopened but not really caused by this text – and take the author’s words as a whole and on their own merits.”

a book cover, with a picture of a field of ripe wheat and trees in the distance. At the top, on the blue sky, black text reads: "Becoming fully human Writings on Quakers and Christian thought Michael Langford Friends of the Light"

 

Tradition and memory – reading something almost-but-not-quite familiar

Both the books above brought out ways in which my personal experiences and memories were interconnected with the work I am doing now. My last example is a bit different in that it concerns not just my memories but the collective memory (I might say the tradition) of Quakers as a community. The book is The Book of Discipline of Ohio Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Conservative) from 1992. (This an old one, but you can find their 2018 edition on their website.) There’s something tactile about this particular printing and binding, with its soft plain grey cover. Inside, there are also lots of phrases and ideas which I recognise from my own book of discipline – not just a book I’ve studied, although I have, but a book which shapes my religious life, cites the sources for much of my spiritual language, is discussed and disagreed with and depended upon and departed from in the religious community where I both pray and work. A book we’ve agreed to revise, which probably means it’s even more on my mind.

Here’s a line from Ohio’s book which I read several times and had to write down.

“Use vigilant care, dear Friends, not to overlook those prompting of love and truth which you may feel in your hearts…”

This is striking because it’s so close, and the sense has hardly changed, but the words of ‘my’ version are so familiar:

“Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts…”

Later in my research, I might track down earlier versions of both and see if I can see how and where these traditions have differed and yet kept something which is clearly the same. Or I might not – my main project is theological and not historical. For now what matters is my reaction, which is a bit like revisiting a place I once knew well but haven’t been to for years. It’s recognisable but changed. I can see that it’s the same, perhaps there’s a sense of comfort, but also some dislocation because it’s not the place I really know. Sometimes other sections made me want to take them away because they might enrich my own tradition – improvements on the place I knew! I wrote down this one, for example: “The right conduct of our business meetings, even in matters of routine, is important to our spiritual life; for, in so far as Friends are concerned in promoting the Kingdom of God, we should rightly feel that its business is a service for Him.”

For this part of my spiritual adventure, I pray: “Inner Light, I can see you shining in lots of places, even where there are also things which challenge me or don’t reflect my experience of Light. Help us all to be as clear as we can be and let our measure of the Light come into the world unobstructed.”

a plain grey book cover with black text which reads "The book of discipline of Ohio Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Conservative), 1992 Barnesville Ohio".

These kinds of spiritual adventures are hardly restricted to theological research, of course. First-person videos games might lead to explorations of empathy like my first book prompted and passing remarks on Twitter often create reactions like the ones I had to the second book. Where do you take your spiritual adventures? Do you have a spiritual equivalent of a theme park?

With special thanks to the library at Woodbrooke for all these books and more!