Tag Archives: Quakerism

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?

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‘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.

Publications

Events

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.

IMG_20180414_075305

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

Learning about Afterwords

This was originally published in ‘Quaker Voices’ in 2016.

As soon as I started to tell people that I was going to do a research project about ‘afterwords’, supported by the Eva Koch scholarship at Woodbrooke, I began to hear strong opinions about afterwords. Quakers had almost all heard of ‘afterwords’, and they said, “Ah, we have that in our meeting,” or “I went to a meeting once where they did that.” Then they either told me how good it was, or leaned in conspiratorially and explained that they don’t like it at all. Afterwords, I rapidly learned, is not something which Quakers in Britain agree about.

This placed me in a difficult position. I wanted to hear from people with a range of perspectives on afterwords, and people obviously wanted to tell me. My personal experience of meetings which use afterwords is limited, though, and while I have family who have opinions just as strong as everyone else’s, I’m actually in a smaller third category of people who are genuinely ambivalent about it. In a way, this was the prompt for my project. In particular, I wanted to understand better how afterwords changes the experience of attending Meeting for Worship. Does it really improve the community in a meeting, or affect the quality of spoken ministry? In order to learn more about this, I decided to use an online survey to ask people to tell me about their experiences.

In reading the survey responses, I found many people describing things I could recognise and relate to. For example, I’m familiar with the worry about time and wanting to get away from the meeting house promptly, so I can see how an afterwords which feels like a “drag of undefined time” is unwelcome. Actually, in the course of the wider research, I learned that tea-and-biscuits time is also a relatively newfangled invention – social time seems to have appeared in the mid-20th century, while afterwords has become much more common since 2000. I often find social time awkward and emotionally difficult, so I found it easy to relate to those Friends who like afterwords because it provides a smoother transition from the depths of worship into notices and chatter which can feel shallow. Good notices arise from the life of the meeting, our spiritual perspectives moving into action, and don’t have to have this effect – but I have certainly had times when I felt that the busy-ness of the community ran beyond what was guided by the Spirit, or when someone made notices sound boring by delivering them in a bored tone of voice.

As I read and re-read the responses, a handful of central themes began to emerge. Some were practical, like the issue about time I mentioned already, and issues around where afterwords is held. A meeting which holds afterwords in a separate room, or allows people to leave before afterwords, can feel fragmented by this. Those who stay might feel an increased fellowship with one another, but this doesn’t have the same effect if it doesn’t include the whole meeting. Another theme, though, was community, and specifically the idea that afterwords is helpful in forming the meeting into a community in which people know one another in “the things which are eternal”. Afterwords can be part of ‘making ourselves known’, a space to share recent experience which might be neither spiritual enough for ministry nor significant enough for notices. This is the main role in which Zélie Gross suggests it in With a Tender Hand (p338).

Besides giving more space to speak, afterwords may change who speaks: it is often meant to make the meeting more inclusive by helping everyone to feel able to speak to the whole group, even if they don’t have a leading to give ministry or a need to offer a notice. Some people in the survey report that this works, saying for example that afterwords “provides a way of binding us together in our spiritual concerns”. Other people are clearly so busy worrying about the time afterwords takes, or the negative effect they feel it has on ministry, that they don’t experience this positive community-building effect.

For many meetings, afterwords is clearly polarising. Some people take up positions for and others against it, leading to a division which may or may not be visible. Even if afterwords itself is helpful to some in the meeting, this polarisation is obviously unhelpful for the meeting community as a whole. People who filled in the survey – who were mostly experienced Friends, and disproportionately likely to be in membership compared to Quakers as a whole – often didn’t know why their meeting had begun using afterwords, even though few meetings reported using it before 2000. When respondents did know why they started, it was frequently described as something which someone, perhaps an elder, had seen or heard about elsewhere and liked. Only two reports, out of over 180 responses to the detailed survey, said that a local Meeting for Worship for Business had been consulted. Where the meeting has been using it for some time, this might simply be because the process has been forgotten, but it nevertheless raises questions about what the appropriate mechanism is for making changes to a meeting’s practice.

Another key theme was a complex set of relationships between afterwords and ministry. Often, people introduce afterwords to encourage good spoken ministry in meeting for worship. The survey responses included some first-hand accounts from people for whom this had worked: they spoke in afterwords first and, as they gained confidence and became clearer in their faith, they began to give ministry in worship as well. One person said that afterwords “provided a way of ‘testing’ whether the contribution that I could make was really ministry”. For meetings where there is little vocal ministry, or where several people who might contribute are held back by shyness, this obviously has the potential to be a positive effect.

However, there is also the danger that introducing afterwords encourages people to save something they might have offered in ministry and say it during afterwords, taking good ministry out of meeting. This was also commonly reported in the survey – some meetings even find that having introduced afterwords, their worship becomes completely silent, with no spoken ministry at all. Although a few people, especially those who have recent experience of inappropriate ministry, feel that this is an improvement, it is usually reported as a loss or a misunderstanding about the nature of Quaker worship. One respondent said that afterwords “makes silence into an end in itself” rather than helping us to use silence as a way to be in communion, while another said directly that “When something is bubbling you are let off the hook of testing whether it is ministry as you think you’ll just drop it into Afterwords.” For those who are relatively new to the Quaker way and trying to learn how to give ministry, attending a meeting where there is no spoken ministry, only afterwords, must be like trying to learn how to knit from someone who can only crochet. You might get the general idea of making fabric from loops of yarn, but the actual technique will be elusive.

The positive side of the movement of contributions out of ministry and into afterwords is that it can help to prevent or manage inappropriate ministry. There’s still a need to let the Friend whose ministry is inappropriate know that afterwords would be a better place for it, but a large number of survey respondents told me that this was one of the key roles of afterwords in their meeting: it helps them cope with “a member who always needs to contribute verbally”, it “managed those who ministered on a hairtrigger”, or that it was brought in because “we had a couple of friends who would regularly minister on the same political subject”. These are relatively sympathetic portrayals of the Friend who speaks too often, and other survey responses described meetings where afterwords had been discontinued because it was “’hijacked’ by one or two members of the meeting who very often rode their hobbyhorses”, or the problems which arise when “people who have a tendency to talk a lot and repeat themselves make a sort of field day of it”. I certainly recognise the picture, having known Friends like this (and being prone to be one myself).

The overall impression I got from the survey was that it may be better to have these Friends speak during afterwords than during meeting, but at the same time it might be better if they could be taught not to speak in problematic ways at all. “Waffle”, “rambling” and “judgemental even arrogant” contributions all came in for negative comment, and afterwords is as likely to be stopped because of these contributions as started to contain them. A similar problem was reported in cases where afterwords became a discussion, with people responding directly to one another – although in some meetings where afterwords was held alongside the social time, often in a different room, discussion could be welcome or even encouraged.

The problem of Friends who contribute inappropriately, even with the lower bar set on afterwords, relates to the need which some respondents felt for afterwords to be properly controlled. “Elders,” said one person, “keep careful watch to ensure that afterwords don’t become indisciplined.” It was also felt in the emphasis people placed on introducing afterwords correctly – a lot of respondents gave me, with at least an impression of exactness, the words used to introduce afterwords in their meeting. A typical example has an elder introduce the time by saying, after the handshake, “we now continue in the spirit of worship with afterwords, which is a time when we can share any insights which occurred to us either in Meeting or in the week before. When we have finished afterwords we will have notices, then coffee”. Others use phrases such as ‘not quite ministry’ or ‘nearly ministry’, referring back to the issue of the relationship between ministry and afterwords. Alongside many respondents who feel that discipline is important for a good afterwords, there are also a few who feel that it has gone too far the other way, and call their local meeting’s afterwords “rather too programmed” or say that they “find the rigid structure rather restrictive”. Since the relative informality of afterwords – that people can contribute without the strict testing they would give to ministry – is a central feature of it for many purposes, this is something which elders and others using afterwords need to watch for carefully.

As I take the results of this research out into the community of Friends, the biggest thing I am taking away from it is the ongoing need for us to learn about our practices and understand why we do things the way we do them. Afterwords might be a practice pool for those who are uncertain about swimming in the open sea of worship – happy to float, perhaps, but not sure if they will be getting somewhere if they offer ministry. It won’t replace swimming lessons, though, because the conditions are very different. What can we offer by way of clearer opportunities for people to explicitly explore the guidelines on our practice, understanding why some contributions are not true ministry rather than guessing from their observations? Books can be helpful, but a book on swimming cannot replace the feeling of the water upholding you and the tides of the Spirit pulling you. A well-held teaching space, in which people who have the skills involved both demonstrate and discuss their techniques and experience, is more likely to be useful.

Understanding Upholding

A while ago, a course participant asked about ‘upholding’ – in the dictionary, it means to confirm, support, or maintain, but among Quakers is often used in a spiritual sense. Sometimes upholding in this sense is very informal, private, invisible; sometimes it’s made visible by focus, as someone holds themself out of discussion or activities in order to give their full attention to upholding the group; sometimes almost everyone present is involved, as when those participating in a meeting for worship for business uphold their clerk.

At the time when the question was asked, I wrote this journal entry as an attempt at an answer.

What does it mean to uphold people? To pray for them – but what is that? To hold them in the Light – perhaps by visualising, or feeling warmth, or connectedness. To love them. To be patient and trust their their connection with the Spirit will work, so I need do nothing, just be there. To have faith in them. To have faith in God. To have faith in them and God together so that they will find their own way to the Source from which I drink.

What is theology?

(In Welsh, it’s diwinyddiaeth.)

Theologising is one of the processes through which I try and bring my whole self to God.

Theology is an everyday activity. It has an academic branch, of highly trained specialists: but the existence of professional footballers is not taken to prevent me and you having a kickabout in the park, and the existence of academic theology does not prevent us doing our own theology whenever we like. You can also choose not to. (I choose not to play football.)

Sometimes it feels like theologising creates more barriers than it removes. I don’t find thinking about things creates a barrier between myself and Goddess – if anything, the opposite; by thinking about things prayerfully, I can bring them into the Light and work in partnership with the Spirit to act on what’s mine and hand over what’s God’s. I recognise that for others, thinking itself is a problem and they wish to reduce it as far as possible. And I do see the temptation to leave our spirituality unarticulated so as not to have to face the multiplicity of our experiences and our potential theological disagreements. If we could just leave our experience to be experience, not trying to work out what it implies for our beliefs or our lives, wouldn’t that be better?

Maybe it would give us quieter lives! I don’t think it would give us better spiritual lives, though. To me, one of the aims of religious practice is to bring my whole self together to the experience. Unlike other parts of life, where it’s often appropriate to compartmentalise a little or a lot, between me and God nothing needs to be hidden or ignored. That includes uncomfortable things – mistakes I’ve made, fears I hold – and my body and emotions and mind.

Theology is what I do when I bring my intellectual attention to God. It might mean trying to understand God directly – an exercise which, like listening to a singing bowl’s note fade into silence, doesn’t have a definite end but can usefully be begun, and begun, and begun. It might mean looking for something to say, or the right way to say nothing, in the face of pain, suffering, disaster, or death. It might mean asking searching questions about how I, or you, or we as a community understand the world, ourselves, and the Spirit.

Above all, doing theology is not an end or a finalisation of anything. It is an open space, in which I begin with the Mystery I know, work through difficult terrain in company with others who have walked this way, and end with the certainty of questioning.

A view of a small sandy beach, with flowering grass in the foreground, sand and some seaweed at the shore line, a calm sea, a headland and some distant islands just visible on the horizon, and a complex pattern of clouds above.

Beach near Scapa, Orkney.

What’s the role of emotions in nominations?

(Welsh word of the post: teimladau, feelings.)

Recently I’ve been discussing our Quaker nominations processes in several different contexts – looking at what works and what doesn’t for finding the right names, thinking about what I personally might or might not accept in the future, and reflecting on past experiences. I caught myself thinking something like this: “If X happened, I would feel Y, but I would also feel ashamed about that, because feeling Y isn’t really allowed under those circumstances.”

What a thing to think! Are there really genuinely-felt emotions which are ‘not allowed’ in Quaker discipline? That doesn’t seem to have the emphasis on honesty which is a common feature of our processes. At first I wondered whether I was wrong – maybe it is allowed and I’ve got the wrong end of the stick, for example – but I found I was just coming up with more and more cases where people either suppressed their feelings about the nominations process, or expressed them, but only in private and along with an acknowledgement that somehow they thought they shouldn’t feel those feelings.

Here are some feelings I think we sometimes ‘don’t allow’ even when we are feeling them.

  • Active desire to serve in a particular role. People are allowed to express willingness, especially when asked directly, and to indicate interest through code-questions like, “what does that role actually involve?”, but to want to serve in a role is usually not acceptable. (The expression of interest form for the Book of Discipline revision committee is an exception – although note the carefully mild phrasing.) If overdone, it can be met with suspicion and even specific attempts to prevent the person from serving in that way. (So if you really want it, it may be that the last thing you should do is say so – especially if the role you want could be seen as a position of power.)
  • The flip side of desire: disappointment about not being asked. If a nominations committee approaches someone, they say they are willing, and then the committee doesn’t take that nomination forward, the rejected nominee is usually allowed to be a bit sad about that – and if there was confusion or miscommunication and they had thought the nomination was confirmed, appointing bodies sometimes try and include them anyway. If you’re not asked, though, you are supposed to pretend never to have considered the role – although if you were a very obvious name, you would be allowed to express a small amount of relief at having ‘escaped’.
  • Enjoying the role you’re in – too much. This is about quantity, not the specific emotion. It seems to be okay to like some things about your role, so long as you are also able to join in the ritual moaning about how hard it is and you wish there were more people to help. (I suspect this is part of the group bonding process in many meetings – if everyone was having fun in their roles, the whole thing might collapse. I’m only partially joking!) When someone really gets into a role and loves it, though, there can be worries about them being ‘overenthusiastic’ and ‘controlling’ – both genuine problems in some cases, but used at other times to squash people’s joy. In a system where everyone is renominated regularly, say every three years, this becomes part of the first point: if you actually like your role, you might want to stay in it and express a positive desire to be renominated. Dodgy!
  • Despair. I worry that the ritual moaning not only hides some joy, but also disguises cases where someone is really struggling. Can we always tell the difference between “well, there are a lot of meetings involved (but I enjoy going and find it nourishing)” and “oh, there are so many meetings involved (and I can’t really cope but feel obliged to keep going)”? Even when it’s clearly the latter, it can be tempting to ignore this if there’s nobody else to take on the work.

I do think Quaker discipline calls on everyone who participates in it to manage their own emotions in various ways. To participate in an item of business about which I feel strongly, I often need to either work through that emotion beforehand – a form of threshing – or decide not to speak because my feeling is personal and not for the meeting. Sometimes it really benefits a meeting for worship for business to hear from someone who feels passionately, though. It can balance a group who would otherwise be over-cautious, or show the urgency of action to a group who might otherwise not get involved, or restore a spiritual dimension to a group who might otherwise make a decision which was purely rational and had nothing to do with God’s will.

How could emotions be better handled in our nominations process? Can we better balance the need to share out roles and distribute power with letting people participate in ways which are attractive to them? Can we find ways to talk about the joy of service which also help people to embrace the right time to lay work down? For example, I wonder whether identification with a role (“I’m a clerk at the moment”) makes it harder to pick up and let go, compared with a verb form (“I’m clerking at the moment”). We might need new verbs for talking about some roles (among others, “eldering” has taken on other connotations and “nominating” is a more specific act), but if you compare possible expressions of enjoyment it I think there are benefits: “I like being a clerk” has different implications to “I like clerking”.

How do you really feel about nominations? Anonymous comments accepted!