Tag Archives: Quakerism

Republishing Between Boat & Shore

At long last, my novel Between Boat & Shore will be available again as an ebook on Amazon. It’s open for pre-order now and will be published on July 18th 2022.

The new cover of Between Boat & Shore

It’s a gentle story about a woman, Aleuks, who arrives in a new village looking for shelter from a storm and somewhere to trade. She finds those, but also much more: Trebbi, not a traveller or a trader, is a beautiful and compelling woman who is trying to support her community through a difficult times of change. Aleuks and Heln, her young nonbinary relative, find themselves adapting to their new surroundings and getting involved in the life of the village – making friends, helping to uncover a murderer, and realising that they might be going to settle down. The main plot is the romance between Aleuks and Trebbi, but we also explore Neolithic Orkney through other events in the life of the village.

What we know about people of the Neolithic comes from archaeology. They left behind amazing structures, such as stone circles, megalithic tombs, and houses, and more subtle signs which can be found in digs – piles of seashells, charred seeds, post holes, butchered bones. This gave me both a structure to work from and a space to play in: what we don’t know for sure about Neolithic people is anything about their social structure, language, or religion. (I wrote about some of the issues around language in a blog post the first time this book was published: Stone Age Speech.) To fill in the gaps, I drew on my understanding of community and faith from modern-day situations, including Quaker and Neo-Pagan possibilities. 

At the moment, the ebook is only on Amazon. On the other hand, that means supporting Amazon, a huge company with ethical problems and a worrying dominance over the book market. On the other hand, that means having access to Amazon’s market, which is simply the biggest, especially for genre readers of ebooks. Many regular readers of romance books and other genres use Kindle Unlimited, which is great for authors because it means being found by lots of new readers who will take a chance on a book they might not buy under other circumstances. Being in Kindle Unlimited for a while, though, means being Amazon-only for that time. If you want to support me directly and not Amazon, you can get in touch (comment below, use the email on my About page, or any of the social media sites listed to the right) and I can sell you a physical copy of the first edition – I still have a box full! But if you buy from Amazon, including if you pre-order now, your purchase lifts the book up in the site’s rankings and helps to introduce it to other readers. 

Glorious Complexity: Theological Diversity Beyond a Spectrum

Recently, I ran some Woodbrooke sessions on the old but still interesting question: are Quakers Christian? I didn’t expect to reach a yes or no answer, but it was useful to explore the possibilities. One of the things which emerged in the discussion was the idea that it is an advantage, a richness or benefit, to live in the tension of such questions. Yes and No and Maybe all at once could – if we name it and own it – be a strong place, a place of possibility and growth rather than confusion and anxiety.

In this blog post, I want to explore some of the ways in which we might be inspired to do that by advances in other fields, and how we might apply a similar strategy to questions like “do Quakers believe in God?” 

Let me start by introducing two other areas of life which have sometimes been conceptualised as a single line sliding scale, from yes to no, from more to less. The first is sexuality, where we have the Kinsey scale – a line from 0 to 6, where 0 is exclusively heterosexual, 6 is exclusively homosexual, and bisexuals like me hover somewhere around 3. But sexuality isn’t that simple, and other tools like the Klein Sexual Orientation Grid take into account different aspects of sexuality: attraction, fantasies, behaviour, social and emotional preferences, and more. Beyond that, we might create a 3D model in which the two-dimensional grid extends to show the strength of sexual feeling – where someone is on the spectrum from asexual to allosexual – as well as the direction of their attraction and the complexities of gender. The grid and 3D model help us to understand that sexuality goes well beyond a gay/straight divide.

The second is neurotype. One form of neurodiversity, the autistic spectrum, is sometimes pictured as a line, from most to least autistic, or with more or less autistic traits showing. However, it can be more useful to imagine it as a circle, like a colour wheel, with different aspects of autism around the edge (things like sensory filtering, motor skills, or language). An autistic individual’s particular pattern can be plotted onto the circle so that it shows how they have more or less difficulty with the different areas: perhaps prone to sensory overload, or perhaps not; perhaps struggling with motor skills or language, or perhaps not. As Rebecca Burgess explains in this comic, that means that different people can experience autism very differently, and the wheel-shaped spectrum helps us to picture these variations.

With those two alternatives in mind, we can go back to the question about Quaker belief in God. Sometimes this is pictured on a single line – we’d put those who confidently say Yes at one end, and those who confidently say No at the other end, and everyone else would spread out in the middle depending on how much doubt they have. The problem is that belief in God isn’t a simple on/off question. What kind of God do you believe in or reject? I think in Quaker circles there’s often an unspoken assumption that the God we’re talking about is related to the traditional Christian God – and not necessarily the immanent, guiding God Within of the Quaker tradition but often the external, order-giving, loving but distant God of many children’s versions of Bible stories. So we already have some diversity. Add some Pagan Quakers who believe in multiple Gods and Goddesses, and some Buddhist Quakers who neither belief nor reject God but simply refuse to speculate, and a lot of other approaches as well, and we need to go beyond the single line to explain this situation.

We could, for example, follow Klein and turn the line into a grid or even a 3D cube. This would give us a chance to explore the contextual and behavioural aspects of belief. It might prompt us to ask questions like: Do you believe in God? Do you want to believe in God? Have you believed in God in the past? Do you pray? Do you pray in some circumstances? Do you meditate? Do you engage in other religious practices? Do you spend time with people who believe in God, or practice prayer, or attend meeting for worship, even if you don’t do those things yourself? Is your doubt, belief, or disbelief stronger at some times than others?

We could take the colour wheel approach. Around the outside we might put aspects of a religious life – practices, experiences, beliefs, and so on. This would give us scope to explore how those things relate – or don’t. One person might have strong spiritual experiences, but understand them as illusions and have no belief in a supernatural divinity. Another might have a strong belief in an external deity, expressed through lots of engagement in religious practice, but not have many internal spiritual experiences. Yet another may change their mind regularly, or go through times of faith and times of doubt, or find that a particular practice or life experience changes their perspective. To map all of that, we might need to combine these approaches.

However we go about thinking about it, it’s clear that Yes and No aren’t going to be nuanced enough for a question like “do Quakers believe in God?” or even in many cases for an individual Quaker answering, “do you believe in God?” We need both, and a wide range of multi-dimensional Maybes. That will be a challenge at times. I think it can also be beautiful.

Readers of this blog may also be interested in my new article in Friends Journal, Not Quite Ministry, which explores the practice of ‘afterwords’ and how it might relate to spoken ministry in unprogrammed Quaker meetings.

Telling the Truth about God sells 1000 copies

The publisher emailed to let me know that Telling the Truth about God, my book about Quakers and religious language, has sold more than a thousand copies. It’s good to see it reaching more and more readers.

The front cover of my book, Telling the Truth about God, on a dark background. It has the words '1000 copies sold' above and fireworks and balloons around.
Image description: the front cover of my book, Telling the Truth about God, on a dark background. It has the words ‘1000 copies sold’ above and fireworks and balloons around.

In other book news, Stephen Cox recently posted Ten easy ways to help an author – his new book, Our Child of Two Worlds, will be out this March. The tips apply to just about any book you’d like to support.

I think ‘meeting for worship’ is a good enough name.

In the responses to my recent Friends Journal article, one theme was about the phrase ‘meeting for worship’. Commenters on Paul Parker’s public Facebook post raised a number of concerns about the word ‘worship’ in the Quaker context. 

(Other responses focussed on other parts of my article: you might also be interested in this blog post from Clare Flourish about nontheist words for God, and this Tweet from Betsy Cazden about the use of ‘we’ in Quaker minutes.) 

I have heard concerns about the word ‘worship’ before. I haven’t written about it before because it doesn’t bother me at all… but it clearly is bothering some people, so perhaps it’s worth taking some time to explore questions about why it might or might not be an issue.

The main concern raised in the Facebook conversation is, in Matt Moore’s words, that “the general use of the word worship invokes an image of bowing down before and subservience to”. This is not, Matt and several other commenters agree, what we think is happening in meeting for worship, and so it’s not an appropriate name. Turning to other sources, we can see that this concern has been around for a while – our 1994 book of discipline, Quaker faith & practice, addresses this in various ways, including in this much-quoted passage in which ‘worship’ is understood as ‘worth-ship’:

To me, worship is recognising and communing with the divine, whether it is within myself, in others, or in the world. The pre-condition of worship is my belief in worth-ship, my own and that of other people.

Despite these concerns, we still have the phrase ‘meeting for worship’. Why keep it? I think one reason is the wider association of ‘worship’ with religious stuff: OS maps mark (with a small equal-armed cross, suggesting the Christian origins of this symbol) ‘places of worship’ and the phrases ‘public worship’ and ‘collective worship’ have featured in British legislation over the years. (The latter, in the requirement that ‘collective worship’ be provided in schools, is in my limited experience more of a formality than a fact; I went to look up the official situation and discovered that the main guidance document dates from 1994. )

As well as making a clear association of our public meetings with religious stuff, the phrase ‘meeting for worship’ may be appropriate, with exactly the connotations of ‘bowing down before’, in some understandings of the Divine. Here’s another passage from Quaker faith & practice, by John Punshon:

The city of Birmingham, England, where I live, is one of the most racially and religiously mixed communities in Europe. It has a stimulating, challenging and exciting atmosphere. On one occasion, at a big interfaith gathering, I was being very Quakerly and very enlightened. The discussion was about prayer, and I confessed that it was my habit to pray anywhere and that I could do so sitting comfortably in a chair. A devout Muslim woman in the conference was shocked at what she saw as my easygoing familiarity with God, my lack of respect, my denial of my own human dignity. When you think of God, she said, there is only one possible response. It is to go down on your knees.

I recognised the truth in what she said and have acted on it ever since, though I regret I have not yet been brave enough to kneel in the meeting house. That will come. From this unnamed woman I learned something of Islam – submission to God – in a way that no Christian had ever taught me. But the words are immaterial. It was not the Mosque or the Qur’an addressing me, but the living God I know in Christ speaking through her.

We might want to ask questions about some things in this passage (for example, why couldn’t he find out or remember her name?) but he makes the point about the rightness of submission to God very vividly. In this context of this passage, the word ‘worship’ might seem entirely appropriate. If it doesn’t, it may be our cultural assumptions about the meanings of submission, service, and subservience which need examining, and how those interact with our theology.

That said, I don’t think it’s Punshon’s point which leads to my comfort with the phrase ‘meeting for worship’. Some Christian expressions of the ideas of humility and obedience make my skin crawl (and lead to a number of verses in Christmas carols which I will not sing, for example). There is important theological work to be done there, but it isn’t having done it which makes me fine with the word ‘worship’. That’s more to do with my understanding of how language works and how we learn words.

Here’s a paragraph from one of my PhD supervisors, Mikel Burley, about some other words entirely, in which he explains how the use of words can change and why we need to look at the context. 

The present study makes use of both ‘reincarnation’ and ‘rebirth’. I take the view that, rather than words carrying their meanings around with them like a halo or an aura that remains unchanged in every context (to paraphrase Wittgenstein 2009a: $117), it is the uses to which the words are put that imbue them with life: ‘Practice gives the words their sense’ (Wittgenstein 1998: 97e). Pace Aurobindo, I hold it to be misleading to speak of ‘the idea in the word’ (emphasis added) or to imply that the etymology of a word somehow determines its meaning for all time. There is no reason why talk of reincarnation must commit the speaker to belief in a psychic entity’ getting out of one ‘case of flesh’ and into another. And even when imagery of souls inhabiting fleshly bodies does occur, it would be ill-advised to assume that such imagery is tied necessarily to any particular metaphysical theory. There are many meanings that the imagery might convey, and these cannot be known in advance, prior to an investigation of the contextual surroundings.

(Rebirth and the Stream of Life, page 8)

If we apply this approach to the word ‘worship’, what do we find? The first main point has to be that ‘worship’ can be applied in a range of different situations – dictionary entries give examples including formal acts of worship such as church services, worship of a loved one or family member (“Her parents worship her”), and the use of ‘Worship’ in titles of respect for mayors and magistrates (“Thank you, Your Worship”). Putting it into a sentence makes it clear that even a small amount of contextual change can change the meaning, and if we dug deeper into specific cases – asking, for example, under what circumstances are people inclined to say that parents worship a child? what behaviours on the part of the parents and/or the child lead to that conclusion? – we would probably find many more shades of nuance as the context changed. ‘Bowing down before’ the worshipped person is not universal. There is a power relationship in many cases, as in the titles, but it’s not always straightforward – adults are more socially powerful than children, and the parents who worship their child complicate without reversing that situation.

The use of ‘worship’ in ‘meeting for worship’ is one such specific context. In English we don’t tend to stick words together by removing the spaces, but we have any number of phrases in which several words work together as a single unit. ‘Noun phrase’, for example. Some become almost completely divorced from their original components – consider the term ‘House of Commons’ for example. We can use the words ‘house’ and ‘common’ in all sorts of other contexts (‘to house people’, ‘meeting house’, ‘a walk on the common’, ‘common people’), and we can say things of the House of Commons which would not make sense to say of other houses – that it sits, for example. And we might have all sorts of problems with the House of Commons, but when I hear people complaining, it’s about the members of the house and their behaviour, not about the word ‘commons’. 

Where does that leave ‘meeting for worship’? It’s not as absolutely set as a phrase as ‘House of Commons’, so you may think that example misleading. Some words will always have a negative feel for individuals, even when they learn new phrases and contexts for them. However, I think this is something we can recognise and work with.

When I join a new community, start a new hobby, or begin a new project, I expect to learn some new vocabulary for it. Often this is words which I already knew, but which have a technical purpose. When I started learning to drive, my instructor explained that although the pedal is technically called the accelerator, and the stuff it delivers is called petrol in British English, we would call that pedal the gas pedal for short. (This was a good choice because it’s shorter and she had to say it a lot.) When I meet a new group of people, I encounter new names – sometimes entirely new names, but often names I already know applied to a different person. I can easily think of multiple people called Ben, Peter, or Emma – and a few others called Rhiannon. Both of these situations have the potential for confusion, but usually we manage to sort it out. Like my driving instructor, we can give an explicit clarification. With names, we might choose to add a surname or nickname when it’s needed. 

Both of those examples are relatively minor. What about bigger changes? It can be hard to learn a new term which goes against your expectations or where you have had negative experiences. That might be because you have a core meaning for the word which isn’t held by other users – as when I have to double-check pants/trousers with American English speakers because I expect ‘pants’ to mean underwear and then it sometimes doesn’t. It can also be about bad memories. For example, there’s a perfectly nice person who posts interesting content on Twitter who I don’t follow because they have exactly the same name as someone who bullied me, and if I see one of their posts I think about how much the bullying hurt rather than what the post actually said. Still, these bigger issues are ordinary parts of communication and we have lots of ways to handle them – to ask, to say to ourselves ‘no, this is Nice Person’, to keep listening to others and ourselves until we can make sense of the situation.

What do these examples mean for the words we choose to use when we describe Quakerism to ourselves and others? I think it means that we should start from the expectation that people can and will learn the words and phrases we use, and how we use them, if we take the time to explain and make space for questions. We will also need to sort out some of the ways in which the negative associations an individual might have are different to population-wide connotations. The person on Twitter doesn’t have to change their name because I was bullied by someone with the same name – that’s my individual association. Quakers in Britain did change the name of Monthly Meetings (to Area Meetings) because they no longer met every month – that was a clearly accepted general meaning which was no longer accurate.

Does the word ‘worship’ cause widespread confusion or hurt? People who are new to the Quaker community often have questions about what is involved in meeting for worship – just as people new to other religious communities will have questions about what is involved in communion, meditation, davening, salat, and other practices. Unless we could get a single phrase which summarised all the rich experiences of meeting for worship – of listening and waiting and silence and speech and stillness and fidgeting and resting and dozing and shaking and standing and rooms and software and memories and prayer and emotions and Spirit and everything – changing the name wouldn’t help with that. The phrase ‘meeting for worship’ is a name for our practice, not a guide to what happens during our practice. (My name is Rhiannon Grant, and knowing that won’t tell you what’s on my CV; I have an IKEA bookcase called Billy, but I also need the instructions to assemble it.) The word ‘worship’ has negative associations for some individuals, who might prefer to avoid it, or need to remind themselves that this is the Nice One, or swap it for a different term. That isn’t the same as having a population-wide problem. The associations of ‘worship’ – with religion, with a deliberate act of a spiritual nature, among other things – have advantages as well as disadvantages.

In short, I think ‘meeting for worship’ is an adequate name for the practice of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain. If we changed it, not only would all we all have to remember the change, but we would spend just as much time explaining what we meant by the new name. We would have set ourselves further apart from Quakers internationally and our friends in other religious communities. If we want to be clear about how our practice is different, it would be better to be specific and explain further.

Meeting for worship: questions welcome.

Meeting for worship: space to listen.

Meeting for worship: meet reality however you understand it.

Meeting for worship: together, we attend to what is worthwhile.

Meeting for worship: warning, may contain God.

The complex futures of blended meetings for worship

Is your Quaker community struggling with decisions about online worship, in-person worship, and how and when and whether to combine them? If not, great. But if your community is finding this difficult, it might help to know that you’re not alone. In this blog post, I want to share some things I’m hearing from Quakers in meetings around Britain, and pose some questions which I think need further exploration. Please share your own experiences in the comments – there are clearly a wide variety of situations and it’s beneficial for all of us to hear from as many as possible.

So far, I’ve heard…

…that some meetings are having a lot of success with blended worship (with a group in a room together, perhaps in a meeting house or rented space, connected via microphone, speakers, camera and screen to a group online, usually on Zoom). When it works well, it gives everyone the option to attend in-person or online as they choose, it brings the whole meeting together, and everyone can see and hear each other. Even when there are minor problems, it shows a willingness to work to include everyone, and we can keep improving. It needs enough people to act as hosts and elders and provide technical support, and when it works, it can be flexible and gathered and moving. I put this first because although it’s not everyone’s experience, it’s important to know that it is good for some communities.

…that some meetings are experiencing conflict over the options. This is often a hard thing for Quaker communities to admit, because we would love to be wonderful peaceful loving harmonious pacifist groups, but we also need to be truthful about it. In a way, it would be surprising if we didn’t have some conflict over major and complex transition periods. The last nineteen months have been hard on everyone, but the effects have been very different, and some people have experienced bereavement, illness, loss of income, isolation, and other effects of the pandemic much more directly and extensively than others. As the pandemic continues but social expectations shift again, everyone is constantly renegotiating everything from meeting locations to mask wearing rules, and this affects our Quaker meetings as much as any other community. So it’s not really a surprise, even if it can be difficult to accept, that there might be painful disagreements and arguments over questions like the use of technology in worship and the range of worship options we offer at the moment.

…that some Quakers need, or really benefit from, being able to attend meeting for worship online. That might be worship in general, or it might be a specific Quaker community. It might be because of distance, health, personal preference, risk, or other things. It might be to do with the pandemic, or something which existed anyway. It might be related to the individual’s risk factors for coronavirus or to the infection risk they carry to others. This message has been around for a long time (and some Friends with long distances to travel or other situations preventing them attending in-person worship were meeting online before the pandemic), but the forced move online prompted by lockdown meant that it has been understood much more widely. I hope that we won’t lose it in the next round of changes.

…that some Quakers don’t experience online worship as fully gathered. The awareness of physical separation, the distractions of being at home, the intrusion of computer screens and other kit, difficulty settling down, loss of body language and other nonverbal connections, emotional and spiritual reactions to the situation, and probably all sorts of other things make it difficult or impossible for some Quakers to worship online, or enjoy the same quality of worship online. This is also not a universal experience – there are plenty of people who report that online worship is just fine or better for them – but it’s widespread and important. Some of the issues apply to computer screens, microphones, and other kit in the physical meeting room as well as to meeting entirely on Zoom.

…that it’s easy to unthinkingly talk about one experience as ‘real’ or ‘better’ and put down the other side. All sorts of comments can reflect assumptions that either online or in-person worship is the actual meeting and the other kind is an add-on. These might be based on markers that Quakers do traditionally take as important. For example, consistency in attending worship is often valued, so people who worship every week online might think of themselves as the real community when people who only attend in-person seemed to vanish during lockdown. (Even when we know intellectually that it’s an illusion, we can feel or speak that way.) Alternatively, some people put a high value on physical presence with people or in a specific place, and might think of returning to in-person worship as restarting real worship after making do without or with a feeble approximation. If both of those views are present in one community, at least some people are likely to feel put down and dismissed!

…that Quaker communities are already working on, and sometimes struggling with, decisions about how to move forward. Learning about the spiritual and practical needs present in a worshipping community, finding ways to meet them, balancing different and sometimes conflicting needs… none of this is new, but it has taken new forms, and lots of communities are facing decisions about online, blended, and in-person worship at the moment.

With all that in mind, questions I’m interested in exploring further include:

  • Do you recognise yourself and/or your community in the things I’ve said here? What else is happening?
  • How do we make sure we are finding out about the needs of everyone in our communities? What about people who are on the margins or who want to join but can’t or who aren’t made welcome? How does internet technology affect our ability to discover these things?
  • What do our discernment processes need to do to enable our communities to make good decisions about these issues?
  • Whatever format our worship takes, how do we ensure its quality and depth? What helps to make a meeting gathered? How do we detect that, how do we talk about it, and how do we support one another to participate in worship as fully as possible?

Which of your books should I buy?

With the publication of my third Quaker Quicks book, Hearing the Light, I now have six published books and a few people have asked questions about what distinguishes them. It seems like a good time to share some observations about all my published books so far – especially who might want to read each of them.

The two academic books, British Quakers and Religious Language and Theology from Listening, were both published by Brill. These are mainly for people who want all the references and the details. Practically, the price restricts readership to those with deep pockets and those with access to university libraries. The first one was based on the Quaker part of my PhD thesis and looks at how British Quakers use the list format as an inclusive way of naming God. The second one details my research on the core of liberal Quaker theology, based on a wide range of books of discipline and an analysis of some key popular and academic publications.

My first novel, Between Boat and Shore, was published by Manifold. It’s a lesbian love story set in Neolithic Orkney. Unfortunately, Manifold have now closed and the ebook is now unavailable, but you can still buy paperbacks from a few places, including the Quaker Centre bookshop and direct from me.

And that brings me to my Quaker Quicks books. 

The first one, Telling the Truth about God, is about how British Quakers speak about the divine, some of the challenges involved, and how we use lists and other inclusive structures to both name and contain the diversity of theological views in the community. It’s based on my PhD research and my experience running workshops on the topic. It has two introductions, one for Quakers and one for everyone else, and might be of interest to anyone who has struggled with discussing the ineffable. For Christmas or other present-giving occasions, buy it for: Quakers who have questions about words, non-Quakers who have questions about Quaker nontheism, people who sit in worship services wondering what we could say instead of ‘Lord and Father’, anyone who reads ahead on the carol sheet and changes the words.

The second one, Quakers Do What! Why?, tries to give short and accessible answers to a wide range of commonly asked questions about liberal Quakers. It’s based on a lifetime’s experience of being asked questions about Quakers, from the ordinary to the strange, and trying to answer them quickly and clearly. It’s aimed at people who don’t yet know much about Quakers but want to know more, but it might also be useful for people who know some things already. If you’ve found this blog post by searching the internet for ‘Quakers’, and haven’t yet read much else, you could start with this book. If you’re thinking of buying for someone else, this book might be good for: that friend who doesn’t come to Quaker meeting but always asks questions about it, someone who’s come to meeting a few times and looks puzzled during the notices, people who seem like they would get ‘Quaker’ if they took an internet quiz about what religion to be.

The third and most recent one, Hearing the Light, is an attempt to describe the core of liberal Quaker theology. It argues that liberal Quakers do have a theology – one which is embodied in our practice of unprogrammed worship – and that enough of it is shared that it can be said to have a core. (Spoiler: the core is the process of watching for the Spirit moving.) It talks about how Quakers make decisions and why. It talks about how we know things, how we record and share what we know (especially through books of discipline/faith and practice), and how readers can experiment for themselves with Quaker ways of doing things. The main audience for this book is Quakers who want to explore our tradition further, but it will also be of interest to people who ask questions about why Quakers feel they can trust what they discern in meeting for worship for business. You might want to buy this book if: you have questions about the Quaker tradition and how worship and decision-making relate, you want to explore our worship process further, or you want to know more about liberal Quakers beyond your Yearly Meeting. It might make a good gift for someone getting further into the Quaker way, or someone with questions about Quaker discernment.

Of course, you can recommend all of them to your library! All three Quaker Quicks books would probably be a good fit for a local meeting library, and many other libraries will consider buying them if you ask. Similarly, asking for them at your local bookshop helps to raise the profile of the whole series and supports your local bookshop, so that’s good all round. You can also find them all on the usual online bookshops, including Amazon and Hive.

If you have other questions about these books or any of my other writing projects, please drop a comment below or come over to my Goodreads profile where you can ask questions for everyone to see.

Thoughts after Britain Yearly Meeting

It’s taken me a while to get my thoughts together after Britain Yearly Meeting. That’s partly because there was a lot to think about – with dozens of events over three weeks, plus two weekends full of formal sessions, it was longer and in some ways more complex than even a week-long residential Yearly Meeting Gathering would be normally. It’s also because I’ve got a lot else on – other work, holidays with my wife, books to write, washing up to do, the usual. But I think I do have a couple of reflections it would be helpful to me to write down and perhaps helpful for others to read.

The first reflection is about who attended our Yearly Meeting this year. It’s not a big surprise, after the findings of the surveys which Woodbrooke and Britain Yearly Meeting ran last year, to find that the profile of people attending Quaker stuff changes when it moves online. At Yearly Meeting, I heard a number of people clearly articulating a pattern we identified in the survey: there are significant groups of people who cannot attend in person but who want to be involved. Some people have disabilities, caring responsibilities, travel cost barriers, and other circumstances which make attending online possible when attending in person is impossible. Some were new to Quakers and attending their first Yearly Meeting; others have been involved in a local meeting or other Quaker community for a long time and were attending Yearly Meeting for the first time having wanted to attend but previously been prevented. That’s a huge thing and something to celebrate about meeting online.

On the other hand, there were clearly people missing. Our main sessions didn’t reach the big numbers we sometimes see in person, and although a lot of people participated in some of our Yearly Meeting Gathering, my sense – this is difficult to measure, but comparing notes across several people who tried things like ‘looking for everyone from my area meeting in this session’ I think I have a rough idea – is that a much smaller group than usual attended every formal session of Yearly Meeting. (If you have stats or better information, I would love to be corrected or have more evidence on this, so please contact me.) That stands to reason in some ways, especially because when you have travelled and are all on the same university campus, there’s not the same competition. When you’re at home and have the option to join a session online, you also have the option to… whatever else you want to do. And you may be asked to refrain. Even very supportive family members who are not Quakers may only tolerate a certain number of hours spent on Zoom over the weekend! It might also change the balance of participation, though, and the online format means that some people for whom Yearly Meeting is normally a highlight didn’t enjoy it in the same way this year.

I don’t have a neat conclusion to this point – meeting everyone’s access needs is always complex – but having done this experiment, I hope that we’ll learn from it, even if the answers aren’t simple.

My other main reflection is about the three Yearly Meeting theme sessions and how we share it. We produced three important minutes, on becoming an anti-racist community, on welcoming trans, non-binary, and other gender non-conforming people, and on climate justice. I have learned that I will also be glad these things went as far as they did, and disappointed that they didn’t go further. (I remember coming home from Canterbury in 2011 wishing we could have gone further, especially wanting us to adopt a numerical target for carbon footprint reduction, and gradually understanding why we couldn’t do that at the time. Many thanks to the Friends who talked it through with me at the time, and have done the same after several Yearly Meetings since.) I want us to go further with all of these issues. But I also know that we have to take the whole community with us, and I see Quakers sharing articles which attack trans women, and hear white Quakers using infantilising language about adult Black men, and… and I don’t even know where to start on all the ways we haven’t yet integrated a justice perspective into our work on the climate crisis. And those are only the things I notice, and I’m a white cis Quaker whose home isn’t yet experiencing damage from climate change, so I have reason to think that I’m missing a shedload of stuff which privilege hides from me.

Given what I said about attendance, about who was there and who was not, I have found myself asking: how will we share this? Obviously our epistle is an important way to share it, and this year’s is particularly full of detail about the themes Yearly Meeting worked on. My local meeting had a discussion about the epistle, which helped to balance out the fact that it was so long that elders chose not to read the whole piece out loud in meeting for worship. (Alas, I didn’t make it to the session… one can only spend so long on Zoom, as previously discussed!) But in the longer term we will need to keep developing work in these areas. What can we do to make sure that these things are considered whenever they are relevant, and not just in discussions dedicated to them? Should we ask more often? Rewrite Advices & Queries so that language we hear regularly reflects these priorities? Find experts, from within and outside our community? Try and step back and pass the microphone so those more directly affected can be heard?

I still don’t have any neat answers. But in the spirit of that last suggestion, I will finish with links to some relevant videos and posts by others:

Clare Flourish, blog post on Britain Yearly Meeting on Zoom

Lisa Cumming, blog post on Everyday Solidarity and what British Quakers are doing to put love into action

Sophie Bevan, blog post about Black Lives Matter

Chloe Schwenke in a video about her journey as transgender Quaker

Vanessa Julye in a a video about Quakers and racism

I’m sure there are lots I’ve missed – please share in the comments if you feel led to do so.

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?