Tag Archives: Quakerism

Things I might say on TV

If you’ve found this blog by searching the internet for ‘Rhiannon Grant’ and ‘Quakers’ because you’ve just seen me on BBC1’s The Big Questions, welcome. (If I didn’t actually make it onto TV, this post might disappear soon!) Here are some things I might say if I get the chance, in a post written in advance and scheduled to publish while the programme is going out.

Can you be Christian without God?

Yes, you can participate in a Christian community without believing in God. Actually, not all Quakers are Christians – even those of us who believe in God might not call ourselves Christians – and not all Quakers believe in God. What’s important to us is that we all join in with our communities, joining in with our silent worship, our work to help other people, and trying to tell the truth about our experiences.

Why are Quakers getting rid of God?

We’re not. If there is something out there which fits a traditional picture of God – all knowing, all powerful, all loving – it’s way beyond us to get rid of God! And even if there isn’t, we value God language as part of our history and as a poetic, beautiful, moving way of expressing things which are hard to say any other way.

So what are you doing?

We’re revising Quaker faith & practice, which is a book (now also published as a website) that we write to tell us how to be the best Quakers we can be. We make little changes to it every year and rewrite the whole thing once a generation or so – we started the last revision in 1985, so it’s about time. We’re revising the book to bring it up to date and include things which have changed (at the moment it doesn’t mention the internet, for example). I think it’s likely that we’ll include both very traditional ways of talking about God – Jesus, love, the Holy Spirit – and new and creative expressions, maybe drawing on science and other religions.

And do Quakers believe in God?

Some of us do, and some of us would explain our spiritual experiences in other ways.

Do you believe in God?

Yes, in my experience there’s something I can be in touch with, through silent worship and the natural world and relationships with people, which is more than just myself and which is a good thing – loving, hopeful, beautiful.

That doesn’t sound like the God of the Bible.

Depends which bit of the Bible you read! No, it’s a long way from many other people’s pictures of God. My God isn’t a man, my God isn’t supernatural, my God isn’t laying down lots of rules – except “love one another”.

What do Quakers think about the Bible?

Quakers think the Bible is a useful and interesting record of people’s religious experiences. We know it was written and edited by human beings, and not every story in it is historically true. That doesn’t stop it containing lots of emotional and spiritual truths, some of which are very beautiful.

Is Quaker faith & practice the Quaker Bible?

Not really – the Bible is the Quaker Bible! Quaker faith & practice is a collection of rules, guidelines, suggestions, and other Quakers’ experiences, which helps us to work out what to do. It tells you how to have a Quaker wedding and why Quakers don’t swear oaths. It tells you what it’s like to refuse to serve in the army, and how previous Quakers have responded to difficult decisions, like whether or not to have an abortion. It also offers questions and advice which are often read during our worship. Some parts of it, like the bits about marriages and data protection, need updating often. Other parts, like what we say about sustainability and the environment, last longer but we have new things to say as our understanding develops.

What do Quakers believe?

In one of our old phrases, we believe that everyone has that of God within them. That means everyone should be treated fairly, and everyone can have spiritual experiences for themselves. Because of that belief, we fight for peace and justice, and we worship in a way that gives everyone the same chance to join in.

You’ve mentioned Quaker worship a couple of times – what’s it like?

Quaker worship is based in silence. It’s about getting yourself into stillness – Quakers often say ‘centred down’ – and being open. We sit around in a circle or a square, with everyone equal, and wait to see what happens. Sometimes people pray for other people, or the world. Sometimes someone there will be given a message, either an insight into something in their own life or something which they want to share with the whole group. We call that spoken ministry. You can try Quaker worship on your own but in my experience it works best with other people.

What are Quakers best known for?

I guess we’re best known for being pacifists and more recently for our commitment to equal marriage. Both of those are very closely linked to seeing that of God in everyone and, because of that, wanting to treat everyone equally.

Didn’t the early Quakers believe in God?

I’m sure they did. They also believed that people should work from their own experiences, and put a huge value on telling the truth, so I think they’d understand that today, those of us who have different experiences need to use different language to express that. My experience fits with something I call God, so I use that word; other Quakers have different experiences and use different words, but all of us are working from the same principles.

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Cyn (before); wedi (after)

There are some times which seem to split a life, or a project, or a community, into Before and After. For me, Sunday afternoon was one of those. Maybe in ten year’s time it will look like just another step in a much longer path – but just now, it feels like the brow of a hill, with a lot of climbing before it and a long way home (but downhill!) afterwards.

On Sunday afternoon, Britain Yearly Meeting united with the recommendation from the Revision Preparation Group that it is now time to revise our Book of Discipline. (The minutes will soon be online on the Yearly Meeting documents page of BYM’s website; the current book of discipline, Quaker faith & practice, is online; you can look at my previous posts about it on the Reading Qf&p tag). It feels like that split my life into “before we agreed to revise” and “after we agreed to revise”.

Not very much has happened in the ‘after’, yet, but so much could! It would be easy to get carried away with all the things a revision group could do. They could try and explain the theological principles behind our method of discernment. They could commission a professional writer to create clear, dyslexic friendly and easy to read descriptions of our processes. They could look for images, videos, audio, music, photographs, artwork, sculptures, 3D printing instructions which would express our spiritual lives in entirely new ways. They could suggest we publish a book, or several books, or a website, or an app, or a loose-leaf folder, or an audiobook, or all or none of those. They could think about version management software and how to keep everyone up-to-date. They could choose new sections to quote from historical materials, bringing neglected periods into the light and refreshing our understanding of familiar characters. They could… but they have to be nominated and appointed first!

Over the weekend, I was very glad to realise that while everyone at Yearly Meeting seemed to be following along the same road the Revision Preparation Group had travelled – seeing the same sights, admiring the same views, stopping at the same service stations, noticing the same potholes – they were also looking ahead to the same questions we had asked. Even where the Revision Preparation Group hadn’t put our unanswered questions into our report, people at Yearly Meeting were considering the same issues. Sometimes Quakers talk about ‘uniting’ with a decision, and it really did feel like the whole community were uniting with the recommendations.

And now after. The RPG will meet one more time, to put our papers in order and be ready to hand them on. You can read the epistle and minutes from Yearly Meeting, and see videos of some of the introductions, on the BYM website. Meeting for Sufferings will look at terms of reference for a revision group, and probably ask Central Nominations Committee to find names. You can help them by offering your own name or suggesting others using the ‘Interest in the book of discipline revision’ form. Once there’s a revision group, they’ll be looking for all sorts of ideas about what to include, and you can help them with that using the ‘Qf&p: submit ideas for the next revision’ form. And in the meantime, why not read Quaker faith & practice? It needs work but there’s still some pretty good stuff in there.

Cartref: home

(Sometimes ‘adre’ is the Welsh word for ‘home’ but when I looked it up I learned that you go adre, you live gartref, and you own a cartref – so cartref is the one I mean here.)

With the snow on the ground, I’ve been spending more time than usual at home. I’m pleased to report that it is starting to feel more like home, too. I’m getting used to the paint colours – rather than noticing them every time and revelling in their non-magonlia-ness! – I’ve put some pictures up, and although there’s still more to do, everything is okay as it is for day-to-day use.

What is it that makes a home? Something I’ve often puzzled over, in the world of ‘trying to understand other people’, is the report – not universal, but made by a lot of people who become Quakers as adults – that finding Quakers felt like “coming home”. What is it that makes it feel that way? To me, Quakerism is home, of course. Some of it’s like my new flat, where the things I have inherited or found over the years mix with things I’ve chosen just for here. But some of it’s more like my parents’ home, where most things are deeply familiar, changes can be disorienting, and it’s not mine to change, however much the design of the sofa annoys me!

People who have just arrived, and feel they have come home to Quakerism, probably don’t feel like that. The familiarity which creates affection exasperation of that particular kind – the kind I feel for my parents’ sofa, and that passage by Beatrice Saxon Snell – takes time to build up. It requires repeated encounters, looking at it from different angles, sitting with it and discovering all the ways in which it’s uncomfortable.

(To be fair, it’s a terrible sofa but it does make an excellent metaphor.)

Maybe it’s more like the new home owner’s glee which is, for me, fading gradually but still present: yes, this is mine, my space, I can be here and do as I please. Of course, I live alone in my flat, where a Quaker meeting is more like a hall of residence – you can be independent in many ways, but you also have to share the bathroom and the dining room. When I moved into my room in hall, I did enjoy having my own private space and putting up posters and not having to tell anyone I was going out. I didn’t enjoy it so much when someone decided to play cricket along the corridor at 4am! We also have those people among Friends: people whose choices, or ways of expressing themselves, or mannerisms will always rub us up the wrong way. That doesn’t stop it being a home, but perhaps it makes the image a little less cosy.

Perhaps what it’s most like it coming back to whatever space at the end of a long day. Coming to Quakers could, I can see, be like that moment when I shut the door, and sigh, and think: time to relax. I usually start by taking my shoes off. Sometimes I take all my clothes off – one of the virtues of a comfortable home is that it is a space where I don’t have to pretend to be someone else, or conform to other expectations. Quakerism, made up as it is of people, doesn’t always achieve that. Meeting for Worship, where we aim to put God in charge, comes close.

Brwydro: battle, fight, combat, struggle

I remember sitting in the common room with a fellow Quaker Pagan theology PhD student. (I say ‘a’, perhaps ‘the other’!) Anyway, we were discussing theology, as you do when you’re a theology PhD student, and we were discussing whether Pagan and Quaker theologies can be compatible, as you do when you’re a Quaker Pagan theology student. Specially, my friend raised the question of whether it would be acceptable for a Quaker Pagan to worship Odin, given that Quakers are pacifists and Odin is, among other things, God of War.

“I quite like Odin,” I reflected. “Wisdom, words, fetching the runes, that kind of thing.”

“Indeed,” my friend agreed. “He scores a fair number of Jesus Points, too, what with the hanging on the tree bit.” (‘Jesus Points’ are awarded to a character based on how much they resemble Jesus. Other high scorers include Superman and Gandalf.) “But how do you deal with him being God of War, too?”

“I suppose I’ve always thought of it as a metaphorical war,” I said. “Like jihad – the inner struggle.”

I was reminded of this conversation when I read the dictionary entry for the Welsh word brwydro – the first three English words offered (battle, fight, combat) all admit of metaphorical meanings but can easily refer to physical violence, while the fourth (struggle) is much more likely to mean non-physical, or at least non-violent, endeavours.

I’m not entirely convinced by my own argument, by the way. There’s not a lot in Norse myth to suggest that anything expect actual real violence is intended by the discussions of war. But perhaps the acts of cross-cultural borrowing involved in creating this reading of Odin as a pacifist God of Jihad are illuminating for the modern world – or at least my interfaith-aware way of doing theology.

#oceanofdarkness: early Friends today?

At the end of a recent blog post about Quaker structures and our future, Alistair Fuller asks an interesting question: ” if [early Friends] were forming a new and radical religious society today, what might it look like?”

I’ve no idea what it would really look like. But here are three ideas.

They would use Twitter. Early Friends were all about communicating, whether through preaching in the street or printing pamphlets. They went where people were, and gave their message. Today, that’s Twitter – not just Twitter, but the circumstances symbolised by the speedy, political, argumentative, and interactive style of that platform. This is about being recognisable, as Alistair says in his post, but also welcoming. Margaret Fell used to write to the king on a regular basis, so I think today she’d be tweeting Donald Trump several times a week. Early Friends could be upfront about their beliefs to the point of being philosophically (rather than physically) combative. Where better to take that stance today than Twitter?

They would create structures for people and for what God was really calling them to do, not try and fit people into structures. Someone else said something like this once. Early Friends were in the business of rejecting and remaking tradition, not upholding it, and they didn’t have any three hundred year old grade 1 listed meeting houses to worry about. I don’t think that renewing our Religious Society means throwing all of that out, but it does mean asking at every turn: are we doing this because we want to or because we’ve always done it? Have we chosen the time and location of our meetings to suit people – those we know and those we don’t yet know – or are we just chugging along like a train on lines built to suit a previous generation? Do we search for, nominate, and appoint a sixteen-person Committee on Thermostat Management* to the glory of God, or is it a guru’s cat?

*I think this is a joke, but please tell me if you’re serving on it!

We might not enjoy having them at Meeting. Someone taking the approach of early Friends today could easily look disruptive in a Quaker meeting as much as in the rest of the world. They wouldn’t respect the unwritten rules about the length or style of spoken ministry (or about acceptable foods for shared lunch). They might embrace new technologies and ideas in uncomfortable ways: broadcasting the discussion group via Facebook Live, using Google during worship to find the right passage in Qf&p, Instagraming the flowers on the table – or throwing them to the floor as idolatrous. (Or maybe the smashed vase would make a dramatic snap.)

They also wouldn’t have much patience with meetings who don’t put a sign outside or Friends who won’t tell their friends about Quakerism – or maybe I’m projecting here! If early Friends were forming a new and radical religious society today, would they get eldered?

‘God, words and us’: being on the Theology Think Tank

With the publication of ‘God, words and us: Quakers in conversation about religious difference‘, the work of the Theology Think Tank (for committee detail nerds: a process run by the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group on behalf of Meeting for Sufferings) is in one sense finished, and in another way starting a new phase. The group was convened to address the issue formerly known as ‘theism/nontheism’ – one of our conclusions is that we should call it something else, like ‘religious difference’ – and to see whether Britain Yearly Meeting as a whole can address it productively. The main answer to that question, as embodied by the book, is ‘yes – through honest and caring conversation’. Seeing the book as a starting place as well as a finished product, this seems like a good time to share some of my thoughts about this conversation.

It does matterSometimes when I start talking to Quakers about theology – especially if I use the word ‘theology’ or make it clear that I regard the intellectual processes as important – people try and move away from the whole idea. I can understand this in some ways, especially as a reaction to a dualistic view in which embracing the intellect means rejecting the emotional, but I also think it’s easy to go too far the other way. My thoughts are as much a part of me as my feelings, and to reject the processes by which we try to understand our experiences and create knowledge is to miss out on a huge amount. The includes whatever we can know – and the ways in which we decide that we can’t know – about God.

It never ends. There are always new things to be learned. In the field of theology, that might mean there are new spiritual experiences to be had, new ways to understand and describe our encounters with the Divine, and new insights to be gained from reflection on old texts and experiences which in turn shape our fresh reality. It can be tempting to allow the patterns we can see in cycles of discussion within a community to turn into ‘eras’ with beginnings and endings (everything from the Reformation, to the liberal turn in Quakerism, to the rise of New Atheism), but a movement always has a forerunner – and someone, somewhere, hasn’t yet had whatever debate you thought was settled. It is impossible to divide these discussions from their history and context, and the fuller a picture you have of that, the more likely it is that you will see connections across apart boundaries of time, space, denomination, and religion.

It can be fun. Discussing our spiritual experience and ideas isn’t always fun. It can be vulnerable – especially if some people are sharing more deeply and personally than others. It can be frightening – especially if it seems that in return for their honesty, some people might be rejected from a community which they hold dear. It can be boring – if one question or one person is allowed to dominate, or if the relevance of a discussion isn’t clear, or if it goes round in circles. But I hold, as a matter of faith as well as experience, that talking about the Mystery can be enjoyable. I find it enjoyable in at least three ways: it’s a way to get to know people better, it’s a workout for the parts of the brain which deal with empathy and logic, and there’s always the possibility of novelty, of a new idea arising.

You should try it. I felt incredibly blessed to be able to participate in the Theology Think Tank process. I hope this book will help everyone who wants to join in with these conversations to participate. I particularly hope that it will be a tool to help those who are carrying anxiety about belonging (“would they still like me if they knew what I really believe?”) or about community (“can we really be friends if we disagree about something so important?”) to engage with discussions about theology in a supported and productive way. The book is aimed mainly at Quakers, but I have already had one chat with someone who is interested in looking at it with their non-Quaker church community. You can hold a discussion group or invite in a facilitator or post something on social media – anything, really, as long as it creates a space for honest and caring conversation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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