Tag Archives: Quakerism

A shrinking and expanding world

At the moment it seems that my world is paradoxical: both shrinking and expanding, both suddenly moving freely where I was pushing and grinding to a halt where it previously moved easily. Here are some observations.

Shrinking. In lockdown, I have shrunk my world to the places I can walk to. I don’t drive, and although I would use public transport if my journey was essential, it hasn’t seemed necessary. I have been sleeping in the same bed for three months – highly unusual for me, because usually I travel or stay away from home for work perhaps once a month on average, and travel for pleasure as well. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why and I’m not in a hurry to change back again, but that doesn’t make it any less strange. 

I’m glad I can walk to leafy green places. It’s good Druid practice to focus on a small area and get to know it well, watching the seasons pass the same few trees and the flowers come and go in the same patch of grass, and spiritually, I’m enjoying that opportunity. But practically that shrinking has other effects. I’m much more aware than I was before of the extent to which I live in an area which is short of local shops. We do have some options, but using the closest places often comes with costs I think of as part of the ‘poverty tax’: being charged to get cash from a machine, paying extra over supermarket prices, not being able to get much fresh food. One of the key options is delivery – but getting an organic fruit and veg box every week has a very different class tone.

Out for a walk in the park with these local geese and their goslings.

Expanding. Everyone knows that online activity is dramatically increased overall. We can all see why – and we know that those who aren’t able to access the internet are very differently affected by the pandemic. For me, the general increase in online activity has resulted in some strange interactions; I’ve been getting friend requests and other contacts on social media sites I haven’t actively used for years. And on Facebook in particular, I’ve been getting a drastic increase in traffic, much of it from other parts of the world. 

Very little of it seems to be malicious or machine-produced; these are contacts from real people, often from countries where I have a small number of existing contacts, who are reaching out. It’s not necessarily a deep contact – you don’t actually need to message me to find out the weather in England, although I can tell you about that – but it is generally authentic. I enjoy talking to new people, especially when I can do it in controlled ways; I have had to review my limits on this, and now accept a maximum of 50 new friends a day, and only answer Facebook messages for half an hour in the morning. Otherwise this expansion could shut everything else out of my life!

Slowing down. I don’t know if this is true, actually, but it feels like I’m writing more slowly. Most of my projects are at stages where they need time – either to wait for someone else to do something (like copy edit the manuscript of my third Quaker Quicks book, or decide whether or not they want to publish my next novel), or because I need thinking and reading time for projects which are in development (like a fiction project which needs plot ideas, or an academic book project which needs background reading). I’m trying not to be impatient with others or myself, but I’m… not very good at that.

For a change of pace I took control of some of my own process and have been publishing poems on Instagram – a bit of expansion to balance the slow feeling!

Speeding up. Some things which have seemed like a good idea for a long time are suddenly mainstream. They might not stay there, of course, but for the time being this seems to me to be something worth noting and encouraging. I have a few examples in mind. The first one is the way in which the Black Lives Matter movement is succeeding in some ways and places. There is masses of work to do, and some of it is starting. I’m seeing more discussion, more sensible involvement and action from white people, and changing attitudes – people who wouldn’t seriously have considered, a year ago, changing a name or removing a statue, are now thinking about exactly that. We will go for the symbolic and the easy first, of course, and some people will try to act as if that’s enough, but even those steps acknowledge the importance of the topic and demonstrate a willingness to change which hasn’t always been there. 

In a very different sphere, people who a year ago would have insisted on meeting in person are now happily meeting online, and seeing the advantages of it. There are some things which need to be done while physically present, and I look forward to a time when it’s safe to meet that way again; but even then, I hope we’ll keep the advantages and meet online or have hybrid approaches when that will work. The increased opportunities for international cooperation, for access for people with some disabilities, and for reducing the carbon footprints of our travel, all seem important to me.

What about you? How is your world changing at the moment?

Quakers Do What! Why?

My second book in the Quaker Quicks series from Christian Alternative Books is coming out soon – I have some early copies to sign and sell, as pictured – so I wanted to say a bit about this book. What is it and why did I write it?

A box of copies of ‘Quakers Do What! Why?’

At the core of this book is a series of questions. I’d been collecting questions for a while – all my life, probably, because I’ve been a Quaker all along and from the time I was at school I was trying to explain what I was on about and where I went on Sundays. In this book I try to answer the most common questions, and some of the most difficult. There are questions in here which I’m practised at answering: I didn’t have much problem writing an answer to “What’s this about Quakers who don’t believe in God?” because I’ve already answered it so many times. It’s not a simple answer, but it’s not especially difficult for me at this point. Actually, the hardest answer to write was for “Do Quakers have structures like parishes?” – the initial answer is ‘yes’, but when I tried to say slightly more, I had to try and cover all the possible options, and Quakers around the world have lots of different structures. 

At the impersonal level, I thought it would be useful to have a recent and brief book which addresses these issues – partly for Quakers who might find it useful as a reference work, but mainly for people who are new to Quakers or want to find out more. There’s a chapter on Quaker weddings and funerals, for example, since that’s a time when people often encounter Quakers for the first time. There are chapters on Quaker worship and things which are sometimes mentioned (but not usually properly explained) when Quakers get into the news, like the way we make decisions. 

More personally, I started writing this book from a sense of frustration. I like answering questions, and I’ll be happy to keep repeating these answers in conversation – but there isn’t always time to give a full answer. I can and do refer people to other sources – for some of the topics in this book, specific Quaker groups have already produced good leaflets or videos or other materials – but sometimes there’s not a single good source for follow-up reading, or the best descriptions are aimed at people who already know about how Quakers do things. So I wrote this book so I have given the full answer somewhere, and if I give a brief answer I know there’s a full version easily accessible as well.

You can preorder this book from Christian Alternative Books or any other bookshop of your choice. Or if you’d like a personally signed copy, email me at rhiannon.grant@woodbrooke.org.uk with your details and I can arrange to post you one (and ask if you’d like to buy Telling the Truth about God or Between Boat and Shore at the same time). There are only 25 in the first box, so get in touch now!

Search terms: quaker values as a unifying force

This phrase, ‘quaker values as a unifying force’, appeared in my search terms recently and I think it makes a couple of assumptions which are worth discussing.

Are Quaker values really a unifying force? Is that what brings Quakers together, or what helps us work with others? And what are ‘Quaker values’ anyway? Is this a useful way to think of what might also be called ‘testimony’ or ‘the testimonies’?

When people say ‘Quaker values’, I think they often mean the list of abstract words which, in the mid-twentieth century, began to be used to describe the actions we are led to take, the ways we make our faith concrete in the world. The list varies a bit, but it usually includes peace, equality, truth, simplicity, and sometimes community, integrity, sustainability, earthcare. These are often called the Quaker testimonies. This is both a strange way of using the word ‘testimony’ – think of giving testimony in court – and tends to make these things remote and sound acceptable to everyone. That has political uses, for sure. But it also hides the counter-cultural nature of many of them. Having an equality testimony could be mistaken for a belief or paying lip-service to equality, rather than actually behaving as if everyone is already equal – as we all are in God’s eyes, but very much aren’t in the social structures in which we live.

Instead of a list of abstract values, we can also see Quaker testimony as something more like the testimony we might be asked to give in court. Like in court, we’re called to give it – and the quality of it will be judged by our peers (the jury) and by the judge (God?). Like a witness statement, it will be individual – if I didn’t see the crime, I mustn’t say that I did; and if you and I both saw it, we might still have seen very different things. Multiple testimonies might point in the same direction (the butler did it!) but they can’t be reduced to that conclusion. Instead of a crime, though, we’re giving a witness statement about what we see as the truth of the world, revealed in our spiritual experiences and through meeting for worship. And as well as using words, we can give our testimony through actions – behaving as if the world we’ve glimpsed, the Divine Commonwealth or Kingdom of Heaven, is already here.

Will that be a unifying force? The list of values certainly can be unifying in some ways. Lots of people agree that peace, truth, and equality are a good ideas. What we tend not to agree about is how we should get there – the pacifist and the just war advocate both want peace, but they don’t agree about the route to it. Sometimes it isn’t obvious – I don’t use any titles because I want to achieve equality, but in some professional settings where sexism is a strong factor, not using my earned title, Dr, might prevent me from being treated equally with men who are my peers. Neither path is an easy or automatic route to equal respect for all people. Explaining our reasons, as well as acting and naming values, might be necessary in order to make common ground with those who agree with our aims but might be using different methods.

Another question we might want to ask is: do we want a unifying force? It sounds good, but it might not be that simple. I would need to think carefully before I declared myself in unity with, or even on the same side as, some of the people who are working for the same goals – but through means that I think are contrary to those goals. Consider, for example, the ‘this just war is this one which will bring peace!’ position. As a pacifist, who thinks that war is always wrong, does it help me to be ‘unified’ with people who hold that view? Or those who uphold ‘equality’ between some people by contributing to the exclusion of others – speaking out against that, rather than trying to be unified with it, might be part of my testimony.

Alternatively, perhaps the searcher was wondering whether the Quaker values are a unifying force within the Quaker community. I would say that they are to some extent. The list of values can be useful as a shorthand, a teaching device, or a test of knowledge – starting any analysis of anything by reference to ‘the testimonies’ can provide a shared structure from which to move forward. However, the existence of different lists in different communities, and the problem of explaining that the lists are recent convenient devices rather than a core or central truth of Quakerism, suggests that they are not as unifying as all that. The lists can also be a bit lacking or weak – why don’t they include Love and Justice, for example? Given that, would we want them to be the unifying force in Quakerism? Do we need anything extra to unify us as a community? This sometimes comes up in discussion where there’s an underlying anxiety about something else – that our theology is too diverse, that our practice of unprogrammed meeting for worship isn’t clear enough or lacks a shared understanding, or that our bonds of friendship and love aren’t strong enough to hold us together.

Articulating our testimony/testimonies can help us explain and teach our faith, and living a witness to the truths we know is part of that faith itself – but ‘Quaker values’ can’t stand in for other work we also need to do.

Hotel Transylvania – a Quaker review?

Hotel Transylvania, and the sequel Hotel Transylvania 2, are cartoons about Dracula, who runs a hotel and wants to protect his daughter from dangers, such as humans. We watched them on Netflix and I liked them enough to go on thinking about them, although as you’ll see in this post I have some questions. Inevitably – spoilers coming, although this is genuinely fairly obvious as plot twists go – Dracula’s daughter not only meets a human but falls in love with him.

They’re funny films. There is some cartoon violence – they are, after all, monsters – although this is frequently subverted. Having watched them both, I found myself wondering what a Quaker reading of them might be. And saying ‘bleh, bleh bleh’ repeatedly. (It’s… I can’t explain, you have to experience it yourself.)

One possibility is to look at the themes around equality. Like a lot of other stories which involve ‘normal’ humans mixing with ‘monsters’ (usually human-like in many ways but with extra abilities or strikingly different bodies), the Hotel Transylvania could easily be read as incorporating metaphors for difference within the human population. The core ‘vampire falls for human’ narrative can easily be given a queer reading (as is often done for narratives like the X-Men). The story in the second film where there’s conflict over whether the child is really a vampire or really human could readily be taken as a story about racial equality (compare with the struggle sometimes seen over whether biracial children are ‘really’ black or white – I embedded my answer in the choice of the term ‘biracial’, of course). The emphasis on bodily difference – does the baby have fangs? can humans disguise themselves as monsters? – could be considered from the perspective of critical disability studies, asking, for example, why it is the monsters who have both extra abilities (vampires can fly) and disabilities (extreme sun sensitivity).

None of those themes is a perfect fit. Some of the narrative elements are extremely mainstream – although Dracula’s daughter Mavis falls in love with a human, the story rests wholly on the concept of a ‘one true love’, with whom you, in the film’s term, “zing”. This commitment to lifelong monogamy, and the idea that both partners (and the rest of the world) just know and accept that is distinctly heteronormative. The issues around race are dealt with in quite a shallow way, with one character’s misidentification of a very hairy man as a werewolf played entirely for laughs and an assumption that it is personal prejudice, not systemic issues, which are the root of the problem (‘humans like us now’, the monsters realise; and the aged grandfather who hates humans comes round as soon as he realises his granddaughter is happy with one…). Although the possible representation of disability is more complex, characters are shown easily overcoming physical limitations (can’t go out in the sun? just wear a big hat!) and the moves towards equality which are made by showing ‘monsters’ sympathetically are balanced or overwhelmed by the extent to which disabilities are always the basis of jokes.

There could be a peace theme. Although there are violent moments and attacks, the overall narrative also shows the end of a years-long conflict. Frankenstein (actually his monster, as Frank will explain when he gets a chance) is afraid of fire and all the monsters begin from a fear of humans, after lifetimes of being attacked. By the end, monsters and humans live in harmony – the vampire children’s camp has adopted human norms (mockable ones, of course, like friendship and health & safety), and the human family can come and visit Hotel Transylvania whenever they like.

It isn’t this simple, though. The monster attitude towards humans improves during the two films, but the proclamations that it ‘doesn’t matter’ whether baby is a monster or a human never quite ring true – everyone knows that it will affect his future. The human attitude towards monsters, at the same time, tends towards the touristy. Having got over fear, the humans we see in the wider world usually go for either hero-worship or requesting selfies. It’s nice in the short term but it doesn’t reflect genuine comfort. To return to my reading of the story as a racial analogy, it’s rather like the white woman who told me how ‘wonderfully colourful’ Birmingham is. Delighting in the exotic certainly feels to the oppressor like a step forward from fear or disgust, but it’s a long way short of true equality and can be extremely stressful for the oppressed group, who are often pressured to perform correctly in that exotic role.

Is anything about this film simple? Well, perhaps. Many of the jokes are plain farce or wordplay. The plots are mostly straightforward with easy-to-predict twists. If you don’t spend too much time thinking about it – sorry, after reading this post it may be too late for that – these are fun, kid-friendly films with enough going on to amuse adults, too. And staying at home and watching Netflix is a pretty simple thing to do, and very important at the moment. Of course, paying for Netflix and the kit to watch it on may not – especially in ordinary times – be a key feature of the stereotypical simple life, but in some ways it seems to be worth it!

Theologising on Twitter: an experiment in non-linear teaching

At the weekend, I’m going to have my first attempt at teaching via Twitter. This is a version of the Massive Open Online Course which has been around as a concept for a while – but in taking it to a social media platform, rather than using something designed for teaching, I’m experimenting with something which is new to me. It will be a pay-as-led course (that is, offered free, but with a request for donations). I don’t know how it will go (come and look at #QuakerGodTalk if you want to find out for yourself), but in this blog post I want to write about why I want to try it.

I think I have two main reasons. One is about ease of interaction, and the other is about the non-linear nature of Twitter discussions.

Ease of interaction is the more straightforward of the two reasons. In many online teaching platforms, there’s a clear distinction between the ‘delivery’ and the ‘response’, between a block of content which is delivered live (in a webinar) or arranged in advance and the participant’s responses. In some cases, as on Moodle, the content and the way of responding are several clicks apart – you watch or read, then go to another space, the discussion forum, before you can comment. Teaching on Twitter minimises this distance – the content is delivered in the same tweet format as responses are given, and to reply, retweet, or like is only a single click. I’m hoping this means people will talk to me. It’s like the difference between teaching in a lecture hall or a flat-floored room – both are good, but they have different dynamics.

Twitter’s facilitation of non-linear discussion is less obvious. Some things about Twitter are just as linear as any book – a timeline and a thread are both, precisely, linear. And yet – because Twitter is asynchronous, you can go back and look at (and interact with) something from the past. Because you can link one thread to another, you can loop back to a previous discussion. I don’t think you can make it completely circular, but it is possible to create a spiral, or a path with a series of branches, which individuals can explore at different speeds and in different ways.

To write a book about my topic (the book is Telling the Truth about God), I had to pick an order in which to present the ideas. It can be done in a linear way. But when I teach in the classroom I don’t force people to be linear about it – we loop back to earlier topics, bring things in as they seem relevant rather than in a particular order, form connections between ideas and approaches, and generally build a network of concepts. The book is like a guided bus tour of a big city – it picks out some important landmarks and presents them in one possible order. A Twitter conversation is more like being free to explore and stopping to chat to people at different points – the same landmarks will probably appear, but you can skip past things which don’t interest you and choose to spend longer with those which do.

I hope that this will enable a rich conversation to develop and draw in people from many different backgrounds, with a uniting interest in the evergreen challenges of talking about God. If you come and try it, please let me know whether it works!

Details on the Woodbrooke website.

Fear and facts in decision-making

In talking about making difficult decisions (when Rachel Muers and I ran a Woodbrooke course on this recently), one of the things we talked about repeatedly was that difficult decisions are sometimes only partly difficult decisions – they are very often decisions which involve difficult relationships. And when a decision which needs to be made makes a relationship difficult, we identified fear as a frequent component in the problem.

I want to start by saying that I don’t think it’s bad to feel fear. When I was a school fear was something one could be bullied for – being a scaredy-cat, being timid, being shy – and the pressure not to show fear came strongly from adults as well as a children. (In fact, it’s embedded in that classic and often ineffective coping-with-bullying advice, “ignore them and they’ll go away”. Not showing fear or any other emotion is integral to that strategy.) I think this is probably a mistake. Fear, like other emotions, gives us information – not necessarily about the situation itself, because our assessment may be mistaken, but about our assessment of it. “Feel the fear and do it anyway”, as in the book title, may be a more helpful approach. Perhaps, more precisely, “Feel your fear and use it as part of a wider consideration of whether or not the thing is worth your while doing it”. I don’t think that’ll catch on as a self-help book title, though!

Thinking about the decisions which might need to be made in a Quaker community specifically, we considered a situation in which a meeting might want to make a policy about what food is acceptable at shared meals. Sometimes this is obvious – a local ban on ingredients to which someone in the community has a life-threatening allergy. Sometimes this can be a matter of compromise – aim to bring things which meet most people’s dietary needs, even if not everyone can eat everything. Fear around those questions might focus on fear of being or making someone ill unnecessarily, fear of upsetting and excluding, or fear of making a mistake.

This issue can also touch on questions which go beyond the practical to matters of principle and livelihood. For example, some in the community might be committed to making food choices based on sustainability. This comes to affect the community when they eat together. They might have different understandings of what eating sustainably actually means or what should be the top priority – vegan? local? organic? There might be fear around the topic of climate change, both for those who have made such commitments and those who haven’t or have focused their work on the issue somewhere else. There might be an existential threat, the fear that a change attacks the very core of your way of living: this can happen anyway with food, and even more so if people in the community are involved in food production. (In the story we used for teaching, we made this especially dramatic by imagining that a member of the meeting was a dairy farmer – it might not always be that obvious, but lots of us are invested, financially or emotionally, in the current systems of food production.) For some, changing eating patterns have health implications, and those interactions can be intensely complicated. Food is also cultural; changing ways of eating can mean letting go of traditional dishes and childhood meals, and while this might be welcome, easy, or at least possible for some people at some times, it’s inappropriate, difficult, or impossible for others.

So far, so dismal! Fear is real and important and needs to be addressed. What can we do? In conflict and emotion avoidant cultures, there is a strong tendency to ignore it – to try and put off the decision, or talk around the topic in terms sufficiently vague or abstract that nobody has to discuss their real feelings, or to be dismissive. In particular, I sometimes see people who have made a specific dramatic lifestyle change dismissing those who haven’t or can’t as lazy or ignorant. I don’t think this is helpful; it might be better to acknowledge both that there may be other factors which aren’t being discussed (like emotions and personal circumstances) and that we can just disagree. Faced with the same set of facts, people may have come to different conclusions.

If that’s what is happening, repeating the same facts won’t change any minds, and making people feel guilty or annoyed won’t help either. In a community setting, it might be possible to check that everyone is working from the same set of facts – sharing and testing the sources you are working from – and to get into the deeper levels of the issue, too. This takes time and effort (in our discussions of process, we also talked about cases where it might not be possible to do this work and it’s better to say so rather than do it badly). How do we share the facts we think are important? It’s tempting to circulate lots of information in a written form, but this doesn’t always reach people or explain why some people identify one fact as important or striking and others don’t find it relevant or as significant. Within a Quaker community, can we find ways to share facts and their practical and emotional impact? There are lots of possibilities, and this is one of the purposes of a threshing meeting.

I wrote this post a couple of days ago and have hesitated over whether to publish it now. There is a lot of fear around at the moment about the coronavirus. People are sharing facts and their reactions to facts – and governments around the world are trying to take decisions which are difficult in just these ways, affecting relationships, involving some necessary but difficult changes in order to avoid other tragic effects, with all the options likely to harm people and their livelihoods in complex ways, and all under a lot of time pressure. Not everyone can be involved in the decision making, so we have to trust those who are – which is harder when they have been elected in a competitive system and are consequently the disliked ‘other lot’ to a whole section of the community. I’ll be thinking of all those affected, by the virus directly and by the measures against it, and those doing the research and taking the decisions.

Asexuality, aromanticism, and Quakers

This week it is Aromantic Spectrum Awareness week. It’s also a week when I found “quaker asexual” in the search terms – the phrases people put into an internet search before they ended up on my blog. Although asexuality and aromanticism are not the same thing, I think they’re related or at least easily confused enough that it makes sense to discuss them together. I’m not asexual or aromantic but I’ve chosen to write about this because I think it’s helpful for the whole community to be more aware of those of us who are aromantic and asexual, and how we might exclude people accidentally by making assumptions about what is ‘normal’.

Before that, though, I want to clarify how these terms are being used. ‘Asexual’ might bring to mind asexual reproduction, like single-celled organisms which just divide – a proper use in biology, but not the meaning of the word in this context! Here, we are talking about human experience, and asexuality refers to the experience of not feeling sexual attraction. There are different ways someone might be asexual – they might simply never feel sexual attraction or arousal. They might feel a small amount, sometimes or in particular circumstances, but not as much or in the ways expected by their surrounding culture. They may or may not experience other feelings often associated with sex, such as romantic feelings. The AVENwiki, produced by the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, gives more information from the point of view of people who are asexual.

512px-Aromantic_Pride_Flag.svg

The Aromantic Pride flag, created by Cameron Whimsey and in the public domain.

Someone aromantic doesn’t experience romantic feelings. They may or may not experience sexual attraction – someone can be aromantic and asexual, or aromantic and sexual. They may have strong platonic connections with people – aromantic people aren’t automatically loners or introverts. Identifying what is and what is not a romantic feeling can be complicated and being aromantic, like being asexual, is not always clear-cut. Someone might experience very few romantic feelings, or only in very specific circumstances, and still identify as aromantic.

Terminology in this field continues to develop as people find ways to connect with others who have similar experiences – experiences which haven’t previously been validated or accepted by wider culture. These experiences are often regarded as damaged or pathological, with people assuming that an asexual must have a physical problem with sex or an aromantic just hasn’t met the right person yet. Neither of these things is necessarily true and leaping to such conclusions can be very dismissive of someone’s experience and feelings.

So, is there anything which Quakers can say about these experiences? Firstly, I think it’s important to say that the Quaker emphasis on personal experience and truth-telling means we start from a position of accepting people’s accounts of themselves. Secondly, Quakers value diversity in community and see no reason to encourage everyone to be the same – the existence of sexual and asexual, aromantic and more romantic, people of all sexual orientations and none within our community is well documented, and if we are able to create an atmosphere of trust so that everyone can be open about their experiences we will be the stronger for it.

We might be able to go further. As the Religious Society of Friends, we should be especially good at valuing friendship! Actually, I don’t know that we are any better than our surrounding culture at celebrating platonic friendship – we certainly like to make more of a fuss of weddings and traditional romantic and sexual relationships – but perhaps this is something we can work on. Being honest and accurate about people’s relationships and the importance of connection in people’s lives means not just avoiding errors (not describing a lesbian couple as ‘friends’, but also not downgrading a non-sexual friendship to ‘just friends’) but naming and celebrating them. This takes courage. Perhaps it can begin with an increased appreciation of nonsexual and nonromantic relationships in all our lives – having a romantic and/or sexual partner is not the end of a relationship game, tick, married, you’re done. I think sometimes we do okay at recognising this, in our pastoral care for one another, but it isn’t described or discussed openly as often as might be beneficial.

What would it look like if we did better at this? Being more aware of the range of human possibility, as brought to light by these and other emerging descriptions of identities and experiences, would be helpful. We could make sure that people in our local Quaker communities know that the Quaker Gender and Sexual Diversity Community includes asexual people. Treating experiences like getting married as just that, experiences, rather than inevitable life stages, would be good too, and being positive about sex but not treating it as essential. Alongside that, some assumptions we ought to be dropping anyway would have to go – no more hinting about having children, no more assuming that single people are lonely, and asking rather than guessing when we aren’t sure about the nature of a relationship. But do note the case recently reported on Twitter of two visitors at meeting who were asked “are you two friends?” and heard “are you two Friends?” Careful phrasing may be required!

Difficult Quaker Decisions

I’m gearing up to teach a course on Making Difficult Decisions (with Rachel Muers at the beginning of March) and naturally that’s got me thinking about difficult decisions I’ve been involved in making. In Quaker meeting for worship for business as practised in Britain Yearly Meeting, if you are in the meeting, you’re participating in the decision, and although we know that not everyone will always agree, there’s no provision for standing aside from the decision. If you think a wrong answer is being reached, it’s your responsibility to either speak up about it, or try and see why the decision is being reached and accept it – maybe both. I once presented the report and recommendations of a review group to a large Quaker meeting, who promptly rejected everything the review group had recommended. I felt that they were placing too much emphasis on a few powerful voices, and not hearing what I was sharing from people who had spoken to the review group in confidence. But I also had to accept that the group were not ready to hear this, not ready for change for lots of reasons – some of them strong reasons – and once I had explained my perspective, my work was done. After that, it was my job to accept the situation and let it go. (I’m not saying I found that easy to do! But I had to try.)

That decision was difficult because of the conflicting interests involved and the complexity of the situation. Others might seem relatively simple for a Quaker group to make but hard to carry out or hard to embrace because of their effects on other people. I was at Meeting for Sufferings when the decision was made to boycott goods from Israeli settlements, and I have often wondered since whether that was the right decision (I still don’t know). At the time it felt clear and we heard from people with direct experience of the situation that it would be helpful. On the other hand, it was probably easier for us to say than for people to put into practice (not least because a boycott of certain settlements too easily turns into a general boycott of Israel, which some Quakers took up personally but was not what we were aiming for collectively). It also had serious consequences for our relationship with the Jewish community, for obvious reasons. The difficulty here lies, I think, in understanding and assessing – from a faith perspective and not necessarily a logical or worldly one – what the consequences might be and whether it’s right for us to take those risks. Sometimes we are called to disagree with others, but discerning when and how to do that can be complex.

Sometimes we make a decision more difficult, especially if we are struggling to work out what the question actually is. One of the times when Quaker meetings for worship for business surprise their clerks – or everyone – is when a question which appears to be straightforward or practical turns out to have hidden depths. A classic example of this is when the meeting owns a building and it’s time for it to be refurbished. All buildings need work from time to time, and some decisions can feel obvious, but deciding on the nature and extent of changes to a major resource which belongs to a whole community often brings up all sorts of associated stuff – memories and emotions, different ideas about the purpose of the building, and sometimes conflicting needs or desires. This doesn’t have to take us by surprise, of course, but it still can, even when the pattern is familiar. What seems obviously needed to me can be obviously a waste of time or money to someone else!

There are also cases when a decision which seemed obvious to some people hits a bump in the road and needs to go through a much more extensive consideration – and ends up feeling obvious to many more people. In an ideal case, the Quaker way of making decisions tries to take the whole community along, with everyone understanding the decision and okay with it even if they wish it could have been otherwise. Something like this happened with Britain Yearly Meeting’s decision to revise our book of discipline. Meeting for Sufferings had consulted Area Meetings, and discerned that the revision needed doing. But when the recommendation to revise was taken to Yearly Meeting, people expressed doubts and hesitations, and there wasn’t time to explore them properly. Instead, a Revision Preparation Group – already planned by Meeting for Sufferings but expected to serve for perhaps a year, while the Revision Committee got ready, rather than several years – conducted an extensive process, and four years later the question was brought back to Yearly Meeting and given extensive session time. By then, some people wondered why we needed to spend so long on it! The need for the revision was agreed by the whole community, anxieties were named and addressed, and the process is now underway.

In the Quaker tradition, we actually have lots of ways of approaching these questions. We might use a threshing or listening process, take our time, form a committee to look into something, ask an expert or outside facilitator to help us, and so on. But I think it’s also important to acknowledge that some decisions just are difficult. There may be no single right answer, because of the complexity of the situation or an inability to meet everyone’s needs. We try to get into God’s perspective, but we always miss some things. We try to listen for the guiding Light, but other stuff – our egos, our wants, our haste, our fears – can distract or mislead us. We hope to get better with practice.

how to write a paper on liberal quakerism religion

The title of this blog post, “how to write a paper on liberal quakerism religion” appeared in my search terms recently. It was too good a prompt to resist. I periodically get emails from people who have decided to write an essay/paper/dissertation/similar about Quakers and want to know how to get going. Obviously this varies depending on your level of study and exact topic, but here are some starting points with links to more resources.

Be clear about which Quakers you’re going to study – when and where are they?

Are you interested in the formation of the movement in the seventeenth century? Do you want to look at how Quakers spread from Britain to America and Africa? Do you want to look at Quakers local to where you are or internationally? Sometimes you’ll be able to generalise about all Quakers, but usually it will be better to focus on some – or perhaps pick two or three groups to compare, if there’s room for that in your project. If you’re not sure or you don’t know what your options are, you might want to start with an overview textbook and narrow it down later.

Think about whether you are looking for material from inside the Quaker community, or about it.

This isn’t always a clear distinction – some authors, like me, write both for the community we belong to and about the community for other people to read, as well as for both general and academic audiences – but the intended audience of a piece of writing will affect how you approach it. For example, if the Quakers write a history of their movement and it sounds like they only ever did good things, is that because Quakers are always good or because Quakers wrote the history? If you can, compare multiple sources.

Work out why you want to write about Quakers.

Is it because you are a Quaker, or because you know someone who is a Quaker? Is it because you think the Quakers are interesting, or a good example of a point you want to make, or because Quakers are different or similar to another group you know about? All of these are good reasons to want to do some research and write about a community, but your reasons for writing about Quakers might affect what you need to do. If you already know a lot about Quakers, you might need to find evidence and sources for things which seem obvious to you – or challenge your assumptions and try to find out where you can improve your knowledge. If you’ve picked Quakers because of something you’ve been told about the community, you might need to start by thinking about that source. Is it reliable? Could someone (like this journalist) have been exaggerating or have misunderstood the situation?

There’s been lots of work in the academic field of Quaker studies recently, and some of it is free online.

Some of it isn’t – consult your library about the Brill Research Perspectives in Quaker Studies series – but the journal, Quaker Studies, is now entirely open access and you can search it online (the archive and more recent editions). There are multiple handbooks which will give you introductions to important topics. Some older books can be accessed for free via Project Gutenberg, or if you want to look at originals check if your library has access to Early English Books Online. For what Quakers say about themselves, you might want to look at the websites of their organisations (here’s Quakers in Britain, for example), watch some videos from QuakerSpeak, or check out the Quaker.org directory for more links. In some places, you might be able to consult a specialist library (for example, if you can get to London or Birmingham in the UK, Pennsylvania or Indiana in the USA, or Kaimosi in Kenya). If you’ve heard of a book and want to know which libraries keep it, you can try WorldCat.

…plus all the normal advice about good research and writing.

Check the bibliography of everything you read. What sources were used and might they be useful to you? Can you and should you double-check what you’re read?

Consider your assumptions. You might turn out to be right, but it’s best to know why you’re right!

Answer the question your school/college/university actually asked you, the one you’re being marked/graded on. (Unless you’re not being assessed, in which case, have at it and try to answer whatever question you want to know the answer to!)

Think about what matters and what doesn’t. Does your reader need lots of details, or just enough of the evidence to move on, and a citation so they can follow up for themselves?

Show how your argument progresses. What is your starting point? Where will your reader start? What are the connections between the things you want to say?

Remember to leave it for a little while and proofread to find your typos. Good luck!

Clarifying

At the end of Telling the Truth about God, I suggest that Quakers – and maybe other people who struggle with these issues around religious experience and how we express it, but are committed to remaining a community – should “try, cry, and clarify”. The idea is that you have to say something, but it will fall short in some ways and you or others may be hurt by that, but then you try and work out what went wrong so that you can try again. In this post, I want to explore some more practical things which might be meant by ‘clarify’. If you’ve got to that stage, what can you actually do?

Listen to find out where the questions are.

Is there a misunderstanding? Is someone else in the conversation using the same words or metaphors, but in a very different way? (‘Lamb of God’ might be a gentle, rural image; it might suggest a vicious killing; or call for mint sauce!) Are you making a reference that not everyone gets?

Try telling your stories about the words you use.

By telling your personal story about a word – where you learned it and how you use it, what historical and cultural touchstones it brings to mind for you – it is sometimes possible to help others see the word in your way. Even if they can’t use it themselves (especially if it reminds them of very different cultural and historical connotations), knowing why the word is significant to you can help a lot.

Try a different word from the same framework.

If you’ve tried expressing your theology – here understood very broadly, your understand of God and the world – in one way, but it didn’t seem to work, you could try using different terminology. Within the Christian theological framework, for example, I hear Quakers switching between Christ and Spirit (perhaps to the confusion or annoyance of careful Trinitarians!).

Try a different framework.

Not everyone will feel comfortable doing this, but some people who have experience with more than one faith tradition feel able to switch between ways of thinking: to redescribe God Within as the Inner Buddha Nature, for example. This sort of move is encouraged by some of the lists of apparent synonyms which I discuss in Telling the Truth about God, and it fits with some versions of the Quaker universal approach to truth.

Try inventing a new word (or repurposing an old one).

This might not be an approach for every day, but sometimes it’s possible to coin a new phrase, pull a new word out of thin air, or take a noun and verb it, or something similar. If the words you have all seem to lead to confusion, clarity is sometimes achievable by making up something fresh. The trick is usually to use it: use it often and consistently so that others can learn the pattern you have in mind for it.

Listen some more.

Even when you’ve improved the clarity and all involved in the conversation have a greater understanding of each other, there’s bound to be something else to work on. Taking time in silence can help – but silence can’t be the last word. In my experience, we will eventually be led to try again.