Tag Archives: Quakerism

Liberal Quakers and Life after Death

At a conference last week, I got chatting with some colleagues about life after death, and various views on it. (Tasia Scrutton is organising a philosophy of religion conference on death and immortality, hence her interest.) “Quakers don’t have anything to say about that,” I said, and she replied, rightly, that an absence of interest can in itself be interesting.

It also isn’t strictly true that Quakers have never had anything to say. Previous generations of Quakers have often accepted a traditional Christian picture of the world, including life after death. Today, many Quakers outside the liberal tradition would still take that position. Even within Britain Yearly Meeting, the Quaker Fellowship for Afterlife Studies make it clear that they take a realist view of this topic. Most Quakers in Britain, though, do not seem to believe in an afterlife, and it doesn’t come up as a topic for discussion: instead, like Christian Aid, we believe in life before death.

Spending some more time with this idea, including during Meeting for Worship, I realised that I actually have a strong intuition against there being any form of life after death. Not only do I not think that any life which may or may not occur after death should affect my actions now (I don’t do things because I want to get into heaven or generate good karma for my next life, and nor do I accept eschatological verification), I actively think it’s unlikely, even impossible, that such a thing exists. Why is that? Quakers not talking about it, or a brief A-level module on all the options, seem unlikely to be enough to produce such a strong intuition.

Part of it comes from my picture of what people are: physical bodies which manifest consciousness through the interactions of cells, electricity, and chemicals. Part of it comes from my picture of what God/dess is like: loving not judging, engaged in the world’s processes not watching them from outside, expressed in manifold ways rather than pinned down to one creed or moment. And perhaps part of it comes from experience or the lack of it: although I have heard many accounts of the sense of someone ‘reappearing’ or ‘visiting’ after their death, when I have had this feeling I has always been clear that it was a psychological event or an act of my (vivid and well-exercised) imagination. I think people continue to influence us after their deaths, through our memories and through the repercussions of actions they took during their lives – but it’s also true that events influence us after they finish, so even a memory in the mind of God is not a ‘life after death’ but a life before death.

I think this position is consistent with other Quaker views I hold, but so could a lot of other views on life after death. Quakers: Do you agree with me? Do you have some other intuition, and if so can you trace where it comes from? Do you have no intuition, or only a rational answer, or one based on experience?


Paddling hard or going with the flow?

This morning I walked to Meeting for Worship through the park. My route takes me next to a stream for much of the way, and at one place I saw a duck. This is a pretty common occurrence, but I noticed this duck because it was in the stream, well out from the sides, but seemed to be still. At first I thought the stream must be shallower than it looked, and the duck standing on the bottom. Then I realised that the duck was puddling upstream at exactly the same speed as the water was flowing downstream, so that it was working hard to stay in one place.

a tarmac path winds through autumn woodland, with trees on both sides

I didn’t manage to photograph the duck, so this is just a picture of a path in the same general area.

I took that image into meeting, where I was contemplating, as I often do, Advices & Queries 28: “undertake or relinquish responsibilities without undue pride or guilt”. Sometimes it seems like however many things I stop doing, I’m still just as busy! Of course, that’s because new things start, or existing things expand, and I notice the ‘no’s more than the ‘yes’es especially when it’s a struggle or my decision needs a lot of explaining.

As I settle into my new flat – I’ve been in it for a year, but it still seems new! – and my new city – I’ve been here for two and a half years, but it still seems new! – and my new relationship – less than six months, that genuinely is new 🙂 – I’m finding myself needing more space and unscheduled time, or perhaps being more accepting of my need for space and unscheduled time. When you’re hunting for a job, everyone expects to be able to see your feet paddling as hard as possible, even if – like the duck in the park – you’re only going fast enough to stay still. Stopping, turning round and going with the flow, seems inconceivable.

“A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength,” says another passage in Advices & Queries (41). I find it’s much easier to ‘choose’ a ‘simple’ lifestyle if you already have certain things which are not simple at all, or easy to obtain. I can say no to paid work much more easily when I already have enough paid work to cover my bills, and I can say no to voluntary work much more easily when nobody is demanding to see my CV or asking me what I’m doing to develop my skills or build my professional networks. Is that really a choice, or an expression of the privileges which come with being middle class, white, educated and employed?

Remembrance and Resigning

(Welsh word of the post: tân, fire, as in ‘Tân yn Llyn‘.)

Poppy season is here again. As usual, I’m wearing a white poppy and have pinned one on my Guider’s uniform for the last time. It’s the last time because I’m resigning from my role as a Brownie leader – because Girlguiding have gone into a partnership with the British Army. (If you agree with me that this is a bad idea, sign the petition here or write to Amanda Medler, the Chief Guide, at Girlguiding, 17-19 Buckingham Palace Road, London, SW1W 0PT.)

On a blue fleece garment, a white poppy has been pinned over a cloth tab with three badges on it: a Guide Promise badge, a camps and holidays licence badge, and a 10-year long service award.

White poppy over my badge tab.

There’s been a lot of discussion about white poppies this year (and bumper sales). There always is, but because of the nice round number – 100 years since 1918 – I seem to be hearing more than usual ‘thank you’ and ‘what a splendid sacrifice’ and less than usual ‘war is terrible’ and ‘never again’. On Twitter I said that my white poppy is indeed attention seeking, as accused by Johnny Mercer:

It isn’t because I don’t know what happened, despite periodic accusations against young people. It’s because I know what happened, and I stand with those who tried to prevent it and never want it to be repeated.

Against a background of increasing militarism, it seems especially important to wear a white poppy as one kind of public protest, and to leave Girlguiding in another kind of protest against the normalisation of military involvement with youth groups. Whatever ‘leadership opportunities’ the army might be offering, they don’t, in the words of a Quaker document also written in 1918, constitute “the opportunity of full development“.

Three books at three stages

(Llfyr, book. Long before any of these stages comes learning a language!)

When I was young, I was once asked – so my mother tells the story – by a teacher: what do you want to do when you grow up? I told her that I wanted to be a bookmaker. Cue much adult laughter, especially in our anti-gambling Quaker household.

Later, an English teacher who for whatever reason had us in a computer lab for a class once set us an exercise: for this whole hour’s lesson, just type. Start a story and simply write as many words as you can. At the end of the lesson, he said to the class: there, wasn’t that difficult? Aren’t you glad you’re not a writer who has to do that all day, every day?

No, I said. Sounds like a good way to live to me.

Now, I haven’t quite achieved that goal. (And I suspect the picture he painted of a writer’s life wasn’t 100% accurate anyway!) But I have arranged my life so that I can spend a considerable proportion of it working on books in one form or another, and at the moment I have book projects in three stages. To pick three different metaphors, I’ll call them the seed, larva, and hibernation stages.

Hibernation is a process some mammals use to get through the winter. I have a book which is a real book, but waiting to come out, and it’s sleeping like that: it takes nine months for information to propagate through the arcane reaches of the publishing and distribution industries, so although there are copies of “Telling the Truth about God” in existence, and you can pre-order it from your favourite more or less reputable bookseller,  it will be five more months before it is officially ‘published’.

A larva is an active but immature form, like a caterpillar. At the moment I have a novel manuscript which is at this stage. A few months ago I had an egg, which hatched and turned out not to be exactly what I thought it would be – but similar – and now the caterpillar is growing and growing, like Cecil. (You know that song, right?) Every day, it needs to be fed cabbage leaves – I’m aim to give it about a thousand words of cabbage a day, whenever I can – and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger. I think I know what it might grow up to be – but it’s hard to be sure. At one time I thought it was going to be about university lecturers and researchers who were also witches, but now it’s about neolithic traders and farmers who are also sort-of Quakers. On the other hand, it’s still a romance novel about two women who meet under slightly unlikely circumstances and have to work out whether it’s possible to build a life together.

I also have a book which is just a seed. I’ve got the seed – a very solid form of seed by my usual standards, in that I have a contract for this book – and now I’m preparing all the ground and the space and the things it will need to grow. It will be a book about liberal Quaker theology, so I’m doing lots of reading of Quaker theology, old and new, British and international, things which are mentioned by things I read, to get the material ready. I’ve made some space (in particular, Woodbrooke have agreed to give me study leave for twelve weeks next year, which will help a lot). I’m also planning to blog about the process as I think through the issues involved, so watch this space.

God, red in tooth and claw?

(Welsh word of the post: ‘red’, ‘coch’ – as in ‘draig goch’, ‘red dragon’, who seems appropriate.)

I’m reading Warren L. Treuer’s Reflections of a Quaker: A Blank Slate Theology. I’m only a few chapters in and there’s much of interest, but one passage caught my eye. In a chapter on ‘What is God like?’ Treuer offers lots of possible sources of information, and one of them is ‘nature’. In summary, he argues that nature teaches us that God is beautiful. Every season of the year, every living thing, offers wonderful loveliness to enjoy, and that tells us something about God. One thing I noticed was that his next source of information about God is science, which might also be said to tell us more about nature. Another thing, which I want to explore in this post, is that his picture of what nature is, and hence what it tells us, is a bit one-sided.

Now, I’m not here to argue that nature isn’t beautiful. I love flowers, trees, birds, bees, squirrels, seals, rainbows, beaches, endless seasonal transformations, sunsets, etc. I do think that this aspect of nature tells us something about God. Some of my favourite religious images are Goddess paintings which express just this approach to the Divine.

However, I think anyone who pays attention to nature knows that not all of it is, to the human eye, beautiful – or kind, or fair, or anything else ‘good’. Recently, I reported on Facebook an incident which began with a cat catching a mouse, and it gave rise to a lot of debate, including about the true nature of cats, what humans should accept or tolerate in domestic animals, and whether we should keep pets. Similarly, keeping an allotment raises all sorts of questions – should I kill slugs, move them, tolerate them, or think of it as sharing? How far do I go in watering plants or protecting them from snow? When is a bramble a weed and when is it a blackberry plant? (Does that relate to how much blood it’s drawn?)

This is a version of the old problem of evil. What kind of God creates slugs, mosquitoes, parasites, earthquakes, etc.? What kind of believers – or deniers of reality – do we have to be to affirm that everything in nature is somehow good?

Lots of people have worked on this problem (and none of them have solved it; draw your own conclusions!). Two approaches which I think are especially interesting from a Quaker perspective are a ‘God’s eyes see differently’ move, and a ‘going with the flow’ move.

To say that God’s eyes see the situation differently – that if we could see the situation from God’s perspective, we would agree that everything in nature is good – can easily sound pat and patronising, especially if it is said by someone relatively privileged to someone who is suffering very deeply. As a suggestion about individual faith, though, people do sometimes find it useful. It has the advantage of letting God be God, not seeking to make the Divine too human or close the gap between us too quickly. It can encourage patience and holding a situation without trying to solve it. We might compare this to the Quaker practice of sitting in silent waiting. Sometimes people add to this ‘God’s eyes’ approach, trying to explain what God’s view is actually like (the ‘vale of soul-making’ idea comes out like this sometimes), but this can weaken it when holding the mystery is actually a strength.

To suggest that these complexities in nature, that it contains good and bad and indifferent, are ‘going with the flow’ is not to try and change our perspective, rather than seeing the gap between our view and God’s. Where that image implies a God who is very different from us – perhaps separate, certainly seeing nature from a different angle or in a different timescale – the image of God, and nature, and us all as a single river brings us closer together. After all, human beings (however much we like to distinguish ourselves) are animals, are part of nature, evolved alongside everything else. I’m different from, say, a crow – but a crow is different from everything else, too, so even the unique habits of humanity don’t set us that far apart. And what could be more natural than God? We could add here the idea that God and nature are one, or that nature exists not from God or because of God but in God. If that’s so (for example, if we took an idea like that of process theology, that God is fully involved in temporal processes such as all that messy natural stuff around living and dying) we could see this situation as just part of the flow of the river. There are rocks – we try and avoid them – we get knocked or we don’t – so it goes. So it Gods, because everything which happens is part of the process of God doing God’s thing.

The latter is particularly interesting from a Quaker perspective because it reflects our experience of Meeting for Worship for Business. As we make decisions, trying to follow God’s will, sometimes we find that’s changed (what was completely unclear a month ago is obvious or much easier now – did we change, or God, or both?). Sometimes we find two groups using the same method about the same question disagree. Is that them, or God? In the ‘flow of the river’, perhaps it can be both. A swirl or eddy is still part of the same river.

The cat, the cat’s desire to eat the mouse, the mouse, the mouse’s desire to escape, our judgements about what is a pet and what is vermin, my decision not to eat mice (even though I caught one)… all within one vast, complex, changing God?

‘Afterwords’ – two years on

(Welsh word of the post: ymchwilio, to research or investigate)

In the summer of 2016, I was at Woodbrooke as an Eva Koch scholar to research afterwords. This year’s scholars are coming to the end of their projects – or at least their time at Woodbrooke! – and I’ve just been corresponding with one of last year’s scholars. It seems like a good time to let you know what’s happened with my project since 2016: especially how I’ve shared my results and some new insights which have developed.



As well as presenting short sessions about afterwords and answering emails and telephone calls, I’ve run two formal events on this theme.

  • One was a course at Swarthmoor Hall, called ‘Worship, Ministry, and Afterwords’. A weekend course with a small group is a chance to dig into a topic in some depth, and we talked about the uses of silence, the many structures of ‘afterwords’, different understandings of spoken ministry, and many other things.
  • One was a Woodbrooke on the Road, requested by a local meeting to help them review their own use of afterwords. The Sunday afternoon session generated lots of interest and discussion – and could still be booked by other meetings who want to explore this topic.

New insights

In looking for ways to present my ideas to new audiences, one of the things I did was to try and turn my key points into diagrams. This doesn’t come very naturally to me, but when I make the effort it’s often very helpful to me as well as whoever I’m explaining to!

In this case, I made two sets of diagrams. One is a linear diagram which shows meeting for worship (the straight line), notices (a zig-zag line), afterwords (a wiggling line), and refreshments (a dotted line), all heading down the page as time passes. Here’s a version I drew for a course group.

Five lines - blue, green, orange, red, and black - go horizontally down the page, straight at first and starting to wiggle at different points.

Worship and afterwords – start at the top, and more time passes as you go down the page.

Each of the five coloured lines represents a different pattern for worship and afterwords. The blue one is what I grew up thinking of as ‘normal’: meeting for worship lasts an hour, it ends (with handshakes), there are notices, then refreshments. The green one shows afterwords as ‘bridging time’ – between meeting for worship and notices there is an in-between time, when we can adjust to the rules changing. The lines make it very clear why this model is not favoured by people who are ready for their coffee after an hour of worship!

The third line, the orange one, shows afterword happening towards the end of, but during, meeting for worship – as happens in meetings where it is more like ‘respectful listening’. Here, the rules of worship are adjusted into those of afterword but without formally ending meeting for worship – and, typically, sooner than meeting for worship would usually finish. The fourth line, in red, then shows other ways to order these elements. For example, some meetings have third items after the handshake and before refreshments: afterwords, joys and concerns, and notices. Depending on how they are each understood, these can be ordered differently and the guidelines for speaking in them may be more or less strict.

Finally, the black line shows afterwords moved to after the notices. This gives it a different feel – and, as the diagram suggests, usually gives people a way to opt out, to stay having refreshments and chatting rather than going into afterwords. (Options can be introduced in the other patterns in some cases: meetings with a separate room for refreshments can let people slip out even when afterwords is held directly after meeting for worship.)

Another set of diagrams tried to think through the ways in which ordinary speech, spoken ministry, and contributions to afterwords are related to one another. Here are all three drawn up on a flipchart – below this picture, I’ve re-drawn them digitally to make them easier to see, and I’ll talk about them one at a time.


Diagrams on a flipchart.

The first diagram is set of three columns, each filled with two colours.

afterwords ego insp columns

Comparing spoken ministry, ordinary speech, and afterwords

The three columns each represent a different kind of speech – spoken ministry, ordinary speech, and contributions to afterwords. The idea of this diagram is to try and get at the ways that different sources are understood to inform different kinds of speech. In traditional Quaker language, spoken ministry comes ‘through us, not from us’, because it is seen as a message from God. I didn’t want to make assumptions here about the internal or external reality of the Divine, but I did want to get at the idea that ministry is not just us saying whatever we like. I chose the terms ‘ego’ and ‘inspiration’ to try and make that distinction – ‘ego’ is from me, maybe not just from my ego in the Freudian sense, but what I choose to say and from my perspective. ‘Inspiration’ is from beyond or other than me, wherever you understand that to be located.

The rending of each column into quarters is a rough estimate – just enough to make a comparison, since I wouldn’t want to claim that these things are measurable! The ‘ministry’ column is three-quarters inspiration and one-quarter ego: this tries to represent my own experience of giving spoken ministry, that I have a role to play it in and my knowledge and experiences feed it, but it is not mostly my own. The ‘ordinary speech’ column is three-quarters ego and one-quarter inspiration: sometimes in the most mundane conversations someone says something which is so insightful or revealing that it seems to contain that of God, but this isn’t the majority of the time. The last column, for afterwords, is half ego and half inspiration. That tries to reflect the shifting balance respondents in my survey reported, that contributions to afterwords can contain more of the speaker’s personal stuff than is acceptable in ministry, but also that afterwords are more likely to be channels for the Light than things said in ordinary conversation.

The second diagram is a Venn diagram which again tries to show how afterwords might relate to other forms of speech. To be honest, I think this is the least successful of the three.

afterwords speech comm venn

Venn diagram of communication, speech, ministry, and afterwords

There are four ovals in this diagram. The black one represents ‘all communication’ and is largest. The red one represents ‘all speech’ – the majority of it is inside the black oval, although I left a little outside to represent speech which fails to communicate (perhaps by accident, like when I try to say something in a language I’m learning and my pronunciation or grammar is so atrocious nothing gets across, or on purpose, as when I say something out loud to an empty room in the hope that I will then not say something regrettable on Twitter).

The next largest oval is a green one for ‘spoken ministry’. I have put this entirely inside both ‘speech’ and ‘communication’. Spoken ministry is speech by definition, although of course things other than speech can certainly be ministry. I think it is also communication every time, even though it might sometimes fail ordinary tests of communication – if I am inspired to stand in meeting for worship and say something in such garbled Welsh that it’s incomprehensible, something about that is still God’s message even if it isn’t what I think I’m trying to say!

I’ve then drawn a small blue circle for afterwords, half in the ‘spoken ministry’ oval and half outside. Actually, I think some contributions to afterwords could fail to communicate in some of the ways speech can – although perhaps the act of trying to speak during afterwords succeeds in communicating something, even if it isn’t the message as intended.

The final diagram shows a testing net, with ministry, ordinary speech, and afterwords as stones or balls of various sizes.

afterwords testing net

A ‘testing net’ image for speech, afterwords, and ministry.

In this version of the diagram, I’ve made the three sizes of circle three different shades of blue to suggest why we need a testing net – they have lots of similarities, and can be difficult to tell apart. The testing net is made up from whatever tests you use when deciding whether or not to speak during meeting for worship: typically, questions like “is this message just for me, or for the whole meeting?” and “am I so strongly led to speak that I can’t NOT speak?” form part of this process. Ordinary speech, represented here by the dark blue circle, is too large to go through the grid – it gets stopped by the testing net. Spoken ministry, here some small, light blue circles, can go through easily. Some circles are just about the same size as the holes, and they might or might not get through… so they form the is-it-or-isn’t-it category of ‘afterwords’.

When I’ve tried these diagrams out in workshops, so far this last one seems to be the most successful in creating useful discussion. It can be a diagram, but could easily be made into a 3D, tactile model – I could imagine using ordinary household items (colander, sugar, peas?) to start a discussion about this with an all-age group.

Afterwords and Ministry: a developing puzzle in our practice

This article appeared in Friends Quarterly in February 2017.

The author spent the summer of 2016 as an Eva Koch scholar at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre. This article reflects her work during that time.

Afterwords are a collection of practices which can include a period of worship sharing between the end of Meeting and notices, time to share ‘nearly ministry’ before the end of Meeting for Worship, and arrangements in which people are invited either to stay in the Meeting room or to gather in a different room to share thoughts and feelings after worship. Broadly defined, it might include practices such as ‘joys and sorrows’ which allow people to give personal news or reflections, but in this article I am going to focus on formats which encourage the sharing of ‘not quite ministry’, because these present a particular puzzle to our understanding of worship and ministry.

The concept of afterwords is a practice which is not mentioned in our current Book of Discipline, Quaker Faith & Practice. It seems to have arisen during the last twenty to thirty years, so that now something like afterwords is being used in roughly half the meetings in Britain Yearly Meeting. It is spread by contact – people see it somewhere else, like it, and give it a try in their own Meeting – and because there are several forms with no discernible older or common root, it seems likely that similar ideas arose in different places at roughly the same time.

I researched afterwords by running an online survey, which was advertised through Quaker email lists and Facebook groups. Most people who responded were from Britain Yearly Meeting, although I also got some answers about meetings around the world. In this article, I want to explore one of the dominant themes from these responses: the relationship between afterwords and spoken ministry. There were other important themes in the responses, including the use of afterwords for community building and issues about whether afterwords provides a smooth transition from Meeting for Worship into other activities, but the idea that afterwords improves ministry has implications which are particularly complex and, because of the importance of spoken ministry to our whole practice of worship, vital to our understanding of the role of afterwords.


From and through, in and out

One way to explore the relationships between ministry and afterwords is to consider them in relation to four directions of movement for contributions, which can be understood as two pairs: from/through and in/out. Spoken contributions which are given as ministry are often said to come through us, while things appropriate for afterwords may come wholly from us; adding afterwords to a Meeting’s practice might move some contributions into ministry and others out of it. I now want to explore these four directions in more detail.

True ministry, things which are correctly offered as spoken contributions during Meeting for Worship , are usually considered to come through us, not from us.[1] Water may taste of the pipes and in the same way ministry is affected by our personality and experiences, but the origin of it lies beyond us: it is from the Spirit and not the self. In traditional Quaker understanding, there is that of God in everyone, so this Source may be reached through our own hearts, minds and lives – and through the hearts, minds and lives of others around us. We distinguish, though, between things which arise from God within us and things which are from our own thoughts and emotions. That the voice of our Inward Teacher can be heard through silent, waiting worship with others is a central tenet of the Quaker way, and the ability to share what we hear on some occasions is an important aspect of this practice.

Both ‘through us’ and ‘from us’ suggest a destination outside ourselves, and indeed both ministry and afterwords are meant to be heard by others. In Meeting, we can sometimes hear the voice of God speaking only to us, and these messages are not for sharing, while a test of true ministry is that it speaks to the condition of others. Like many Friends, I have had the experience of hearing in ministry just what I needed to hear, or something which illuminates a situation in my life – even if others present knew nothing about this. True ministry, then, comes through us and can reach others.

Contributions suitable for afterwords, in contrast, come from us. They are described as ‘not quite ministry’, but the element which holds them back from being true ministry is their closeness to the self or ego of the speaker. They may be enriched by the living water which we taste in Meeting for Worship , but the origin of the contribution is within ourselves. They may be understood as our thoughts – perhaps prompted by the Spirit, by other ministry, or by events in our lives or on the world stage. Because God may speak through us at any time, these offerings may be understood by others as ministry if something happens to speak deeply to them. On the other hand, contributions for afterwords do not have to be tested by this measure. It will often be enough to have said something which the speaker, as an individual, needed to say or have heard.

Meetings which introduce afterwords often want to move contributions either into or out of worship. If the Meeting has very little spoken ministry during worship, they may feel that some people who could give ministry – who are in touch with that of God within themselves or the Meeting and hence are able to act as a channel in this way – are not speaking. Perhaps they are not sure enough of the call to speak, or are held back by shyness or a sense of their own unworthiness. By giving them a chance to speak to the whole group close to but slightly outside the context of worship itself –  i.e. by introducing afterwords – Meetings hope to build the confidence of these Friends and encourage them to heed any call to ministry which they might feel. If a Friend is being called to minister but refusing to do so, afterwords become the whale which takes the prophet to the right place: a way of moving them in the right direction. If other Friends hear something which could have been ministry during afterwords, they are in the position of a Ninevite eavesdropping on Jonah’s wailings during his sea passage, getting an advance preview of the real message.

A side effect of this is that Friends who are not sure of their call, or who choose not to thoroughly test their leading to speak, might choose to contribute during afterwords rather than wrestling with the need to give ministry. Especially in formats of afterwords where not everyone in the Meeting hears them, this is like giving the message to a sailor from Nineveh rather than going there yourself. Even if everyone does hear it, the message does not carry the same weight if given in afterwords rather than during Meeting for Worship, specifically because the barrier to speaking has been lowered and the expectation of testing the leading has been removed. This is comparable with the way we trust a report from a close friend but would be doubtful about the same story from a stranger: by testing the call before speaking, a minister helps us to trust that the message is truly from the Spirit and not the speaker’s self.[2] To save something which could be given as ministry and give it during afterword might be like publishing an important scientific finding in a tabloid newspaper instead of a peer-reviewed journal. Some people who need the message might be able to hear you, but equally they may have difficulty taking it as seriously as the message deserves.

Sometimes, however, Meetings introduce afterwords in the hope of getting exactly this outward movement – to get rid of inappropriate ministry, while being able to reassure the Friend who gives it that they are heard. Inappropriate ministry can include any number of things which are felt to have come from the self and not the Spirit: typically Friends might include ‘daffodil ministry’ (reflections on the loveliness of the natural world), ‘Radio 4’ or ‘Guardian’ ministry (comments on material from news reports and other media), and ‘a funny thing happened to me on the way to meeting’ (stories of recent personal experiences which lack depth or spiritual insight). All of these themes can properly be included in ministry at times, but used repeatedly or merely in order to have something to say, they become dry. At other times, a particular issue becomes the ‘hobby-horse’ of an individual, and Friends find that ministry about it no longer speaks to them.

These four directions of movement give clues about the theology of the Quaker groups who talk in these terms. There are varied but harmonious understandings of the true source of ministry –  language of ‘beyond’ and ‘outside’ the worshippers is common, and even where the ‘supernatural’ is rejected, something deep is accepted. Michael Wright, clerk of the Nontheist Friends Network, writes that while he is

simply mystified and incredulous at the possibility of some divine Spirit using me as a channel of communication” he is nevertheless “quite sure that when I engage with still silence, I engage with some source I find indefinable, wonderful, deep, from which I can draw strength, tranquility, and perception that I find nowhere else.[3]

He rejects the metaphor of God for this experience, but continues to speak about a ‘source’ which is not the same as himself (although it might be located entirely in the human realm) and which has many of the properties – such as ineffability, depth, and supportiveness – which Quakers ascribe to God.

The idea that afterwords can encourage the movement of ‘true ministry’ into worship and ‘not quite ministry’ out of worship, both supports the idea that there is a real and intelligible difference between the two, arising from their distinct sources, and also highlights the fact that it is often difficult to tell. When reaching out for that deep Source, and finding some wisdom there, it is also possible to become confused and find oneself speaking from the self instead. Comments made to me during my research on afterwords often included mentions of discipline and control, usually along one of the following four lines:

  • afterwords improve the discipline of worship, by encouraging people to distinguish more clearly between true ministry and that which is not true ministry;
  • afterwords make the discipline of ministry too strict, encouraging people to expect the Spirit to come as a hurricane where it may only arrive as a soft exhalation;
  • afterwords should be kept disciplined, so only that which comes close to ministry is shared and not items which are merely factual; or
  • the notion of afterwords is too rigid and formalised, so that it lacks any feeling of relaxation and spaciousness after the discipline of worship.

The actual disciplines of worship and afterwords can be vary considerably between different Meetings, but the overall need to maintain a distinction which is, in practice, a very difficult one to make emerges as a clear theme. Where Friends are struggling with the distinction between true ministry and that which is not ministry, an open discussion of this issue, either as a group or with individuals, may be more helpful than the introduction of afterwords. Unless the concept of afterwords is understood clearly by those present, it is highly likely to have an unintended effect.


Hearing to speech

Another way to understand the struggle is to think about our process of listening worship as a way of ‘hearing God to speech’. This image draws on Nelle Morton’s classic description of members of a feminist group hearing one another to speech.[4] The core idea is that by listening very carefully to what has not yet been said and what needs to be said, a group of people can support one another into articulating their experiences in ways which would not otherwise be possible.[5] Quaker Meetings are sometimes compared with therapy or encounter groups which might be expected to work in this way; but Quakers who make this comparison usually do so disparagingly, saying things like “it was a ‘popcorn meeting’ with Friends rising frequently to use the silence as a kind of group therapy instead of worship”.[6] Here, the worship is contrasted with therapy – although they are similar in form, it is a mistake to confuse them. This survey respondent continued to explain that in order to restore appropriate contributions during the worship itself, the Meeting introduced afterwords, noting that adding this space takes the pressure off the worship: “afterwords can provide a sort of steam vent for non-messages”.

These contributions, which are not true ministry in the sense that they are not understood to come mainly from the divine source which lies beyond individuals, are nevertheless often valued by those who are able to hear them during afterwords. Survey respondents commented on the community-building value of afterwords, saying that the practice increased the inclusiveness of the group by allowing people who did not speak during worship to say something to the whole Meeting, or saying that afterwords “help members understand each other better”.[7] This is to be expected when afterwords genuinely creates a space in which people who would otherwise do not speak are able to share something of their personal experience and perspective. (I will return later to cases in which people who speak anyway use afterwords as a time to speak again.)

However, it is also part of the distinction which Quakers continue to draw between true ministry and nearly ministry. True ministry may use personal experience and knowledge, and might incidentally help members of a Meeting to get to know one another better, but that is not its purpose, and if something was offered during Meeting for Worship for that reason alone it would not be true ministry. Instead, spoken ministry in Meeting for Worship is intended to be speech on behalf of the Spirit, inspired and guided by the God who is understood to be present in each individual but especially present to the settled and gathered meeting. This God, I should note, need not be personal nor impersonal, nor possessed of an outward reality, in order to be heard into speech by communal efforts. Rather, it is the experience of communion, including communication, which is fundamental to the Quaker way.

During the process of hearing God into speech, Friends necessarily also think of things which are relevant to themselves specifically. Some of these are categorised as true messages from the divine but intended only for one recipient, and therefore not to be given as spoken ministry. These can, nonetheless, be very powerful, even life-changing, messages. Others arise much more obviously from the self or ego, and are equally unsuited to both ministry and afterwords – the majority of Friends have at some point contemplated their shopping list or plans for the afternoon during the worship (I certainly have), but these are not items suitable for afterwords. Instead, afterwords usually seems to consist of items which are neither fully one thing or the other. They may be partially Spirit-led messages which are too strongly coloured by the Friend’s personal opinions, or insights arising from the Friend’s personal experience and illuminated by the Inward Light. Either way, to be suitable as afterwords they typically have both a strong element of the self and some small element of the Spirit. This can even be true of items further from being true ministry, such as news of Friends and notices; if they arise from the spiritual life of the Meeting, such a commitment to a particular project or love for an absent friend, inspiration often comes through them.

Hearing God to speech is not easy. It requires patience and discipline, focus and a setting aside of the worries of every day. This is perhaps why Quaker literature provides many examples of people who made mistakes – who spoke from their own minds and not as they were led by the Spirit, a mistake traditionally known as ‘outrunning your Guide’; or conversely who did not speak when they were led to do so, not heeding their Guide.[8] Afterwords can provide a welcome respite from this struggle, a space in which the bar to participation is lowered and Friends are able to speak without needing an unmistakeable prompt. However, this works both ways: Friends, able to speak in afterwords without fully testing whether they are led to offer this contribution as ministry, may say things which are not helpful at all. This can include direct criticism of things said during Meeting for Worship, usually a significant taboo, or simply speaking too much or too often.[9]

My online survey respondents often mentioned the latter, including people who “rant about their hobby horses”, the “one Friend who was hijacking the discussion”, and those “who have a tendency to talk a lot and repeat themselves”.[10] Friends who were more sympathetic also described this situation in terms to being able to provide a space for speech. One wrote:

We have a member who always needs to contribute verbally and I found it unhelpful and rather disruptive in mfw but he now uses afterword which works much better for the mfw and for him as we are able to respond in afterword to his needs in a way which is not appropriate in mfw.[11]

I did not get first-hand reports of being ‘the Friend who always speaks’, perhaps because these Friends do not see themselves as such and/or because they are less likely to be the kind of experienced and connected Friends who were reached by my survey distribution methods. Speech, in the form of spoken ministry, is an important part of the worship process, but it must be used sparingly and, preferably, be unpredictable: to speak too often, or to repeat material, or to return to the same topic repeatedly, leads others in the Meeting to suspect that this comes not from the Spirit but from the speaker. Sometimes a long-term focus can be accommodated if it is understood as a ‘concern’, a call to work on a large or complex issue, but it is also in danger of being rejected as a ‘hobby-horse’, especially if others in the Meeting do not share the call to work on the topic at hand.


Learning to give ministry

Finally, I want to consider whether afterwords can work as a teaching space, within which some of the conventions around ministry described above can be learned. In describing the relationship between afterwords and ministry, some survey respondents talk about afterwords as a space in which people who would not otherwise give ministry can gain the skills and confidence necessary to do so. If the skills involved are practical ones – speaking to a group the size of the whole meeting or feeling able to stand and speak publicly at all – this may well work. However, there are also reports of Meetings where it does not work, and I want to suggest that this is because there are skills involved in giving ministry which are specifically not taught by afterwords. In fact, if a Meeting had little or no spoken ministry to begin with, adding afterwords may worsen rather than improve the situation.

To show this, I want to begin by looking at spoken ministry, drawing on a study of spoken ministry conducted by Alan Davis in the 1980s.[12] He concludes that giving ministry is a learned activity – there are a set of social conventions about acceptable ministry which can be learned so that ministry retains a certain style, tends to work around a particular theme during a meeting, and excludes inappropriate content. Davis is able to describe some of these elements; for example, he describes some “more highly valued performance styles” for ministry, including those which are “more laconic, distanced, even gnomic, that at the same time fit directly into the discourse, into the developed meditation”. However, even with the aid of the complete examples he cites, it would be difficult to turn this description into a living practice.[13] Ministry seems to be mainly learned by observation, although there may also be explicit teaching about it. Afterwords, we might therefore think, is also a learned activity. Indeed, since we have lowered the expectation of the presence of the Spirit in afterwords, it is even easier to see it as a learned activity.

How does this bear on the question of whether introducing afterwords will improve the ministry in Meeting for Worship? First, it is clear that afterwords and ministry are different enough that learning to speak in afterwords – even to give ‘not quite ministry’ – will not, on its own, be enough to teach people to give good spoken ministry during Meeting for Worship. The introduction of afterwords together with some specific guidance to an individual might help in some cases; the Friend who speaks every week, told that her or his contribution would be better placed in afterwords, might go along with this and thereby improve the ministry by removing a source of inappropriate ministry. However, even in this case we would want to be sure that the Friend understood why the ministry was inappropriate, in particular so that they are not blocked from sharing true ministry which might be given to them in future. It may also be necessary to consider the impact on other members of the Meeting who might move their contributions out of ministry and into afterwords from a misplaced fear of speaking inappropriately.

We can return to Davis’s thoughts to shed some more light on this. In comparing spoken ministry to other forms of speech – such as conversations, giving announcements, and the ‘incipient talk’ characteristic of people working side by side and speaking occasionally – he provides us with some examples to consider in thinking about how people learn to give ministry. Many people learn by watching and mimicking others, and when the rules change there is often an adjustment period. For example, if you change from working in one office to another office, with different people and a different layout of desks, the rules for incipient talk will change, perhaps dramatically. Getting used to the new pattern and working out which comments require answers and which can be left without a response often takes some time – any particular example might not be very important, but the overall effect is a significant part of your working relationships. The pattern you end up with will take account of your needs for quiet and social contact, the needs of your colleagues, and the demands of the work. In the same way, to give good and appropriate ministry is a learned skill, and a meeting often evolves a pattern which takes account of the demands of the Spirit and the needs of the people.

If you had tried to learn to have a conversation in a new language by reading a phrase book, however, when you had the chance to listen to a native speaker, you might be able to fake it for a short while. But you would soon realise that you lacked the breadth of vocabulary, and the feel for what is naturally grammatical, required to discuss a range of topics, or anything in depth. In the same way, learning to give ministry without hearing enough examples of good ministry is likely to be difficult. A traditional Quaker answer might ask us to trust it all to the Spirit, and it is certainly possible that someone in a might be given this gift without hearing other people give ministry. On the other hand, it is also for us to support the development of such gifts. If someone is close to giving ministry, but worries about their reception or needs to practice the physical actions of speaking to the whole group, an opportunity to speak in a space such as afterwords might be helpful in that development. If there are other problems, such as lack of clarity about what would constitute true ministry and how to test whether something should be said during worship, the practice of afterwords alone is unlikely to help.

The only way afterwords might support this development is where it is used as a space to reflect on the experience of worship and any ministry which was given. This needs to be done compassionately, to support those who gave ministry and not to embarrass them, but does not need to refrain from the subject of ministry entirely. It might help to think of this within the language teaching analogy: by commenting on the grammar of a particular sentence, we can show someone the underlying structure and the rules on which it is constructed. This need not pass judgement on different possibilities: for example, I say that “I’ve got a new book” and a friend of mine that he has “gotten a new book”. We are both generally understood, but someone learning to speak English might be confused by the alternatives, which are deemed ‘correct’ in different contexts. Similarly, sometimes it is appropriate for a Friend to, for example, speak near the end of the Meeting for Worship (it needs rounding off; they have had a long struggle with it; they are new and not familiar with the guidance), but it may be helpful for someone to explain why it was appropriate in this situation when it is not considered appropriate every week.

There are, as I mentioned in my opening, other good reasons to introduce afterwords, which may have nothing to do with the quality of ministry. However, introducing afterwords does not have any straightforward or automatic effect on ministry, and if it does have an effect, the use of afterwords is as likely to be to the detriment of spoken ministry as a whole as to improve it.

[1] Quaker faith & practice (Britain Yearly Meeting, 1994) 2.60

[2] Although not every message is for us as individuals, and we use our own process of testing as we listen to spoken ministry.

[3] Michael Wright, ‘Where does Vocal Ministry come from?’, in Ambler, Davison, Scott and Wright, Through Us, Not From Us: vocal ministry and Quaker Worship (The Kindlers, 2015) p. 35

[4] Nelle Morton, The Journey is Home (Beacon Press Books, 1985).

[5] I have explored this idea before. My conference paper about it, ‘Speaking from Silence: a Quaker feminist understanding of relevation’ can be read at https://orwhateveryoucallit.wordpress.com/speaking-from-silence/

[6] Anonymous contributor describing an unprogrammed Quaker meeting in the USA, as part of an online survey on afterwords conducted June-July 2016.

[7] Anonymous contributor describing an unprogrammed Quaker meeting in the UK.

[8] For classic examples of these, see Quaker faith & practice 2.56 and 2.57.

[9] For criticism of ministry, see for example Simon Western writing in the Friend, 2nd January 2014.

[10] Three anonymous contributors describing unprogrammed Quaker meetings in the UK.

[11] Anonymous contributor describing an unprogrammed Quaker meeting in the UK.

[12] Alan Davis, ‘Talking in Silence’, p105-137 in Nikolas Coupland, ed., Styles of Discourse (Croom Helm, 1988).

[13] Ibid., p132