Tag Archives: research

Reading: January

During January, I read 20 books. You can find the details of all of them on my Goodreads account, but I thought it might be interesting to share some general observations about them. Later in the year, as I get further into my research project, I might write more detailed reviews of my reading as a way to share my research, but for January something broader seems in order.

Four books were related to my research work on liberal Quaker theology. Walk Humbly, Serve Boldly and Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order actually have a lot in common – one newer and one older, one more convergent and one firmly in the conservative tradition, but both explorations of Quaker practice and its underlying theology. The Promise of Paradox is more generally Christian, while also having clear Quaker roots, and God the Trickster? is at once both a typical liberal Quaker anthology (the anthology format is characteristic of the need to incorporate a range of views), but at the same time unapologetically only represents one strand of Quaker experience.

I read nine novels and one graphic novel. Some of these had been sitting on my shelf or my reading list for a while – I bought Black Panther #1 and read it almost straight away, but it had been on my ‘to obtain’ list for two years. Others were suggested to me – I owned a copy of Decline and Fall anyway, and re-read it after maybe fifteen years to discuss it with a book club. (Interesting that I’d kept it, actually, since I rarely re-read things and tend to pass novels on after a year or two.) One, All the Conspirators, was a good read but had been sent to me by mistake when I tried to order another book by Isherwood!

I also read six non-fiction books not directly related to my research. Ireland: a Short History is probably heavier than most people require as holiday preparation, but was very readable for a textbook and certainly succeeded in filling me in on the background. Living a Feminist Life had been on my reading list for a while and had lots of helpful insights, while Queer City, which I’d also been thinking of reading for some time, turned out not to be worth it at all. I made up for that disappointment with a different and excellent biography, Scanty Particulars: the Life of Dr James Barry.

There are other ways to divide up books, of course. There’s author identity, for example: of those 20 books, 9 were by women, 10 by men, and one an anthology. As far as I know, none of the authors were trans (although gender complexity is a major feature of the biography of James Barry). I think that all but three of the authors were white. Similarly, to the best of my knowledge all but three of the authors were straight.

Or there’s format: I read five of the books on my Kindle, and the rest on paper (14 paperbacks and one hardback). Two, a graphic novel and a history through old photographs, were heavily illustrated, while the rest were mainly text.

Or method of obtaining them: one through a book club/circulating library, four from Woodbrooke’s library, three from the Library of Birmingham, one from the University of Birmingham library, three picked up in second-hand shops, one ordered second-hand online, and one sent by accident when I ordered something else. Apart from the five Kindle books, only the graphic novel was purchased new, for which I should probably apologise to my author friends. 🙂

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“Our Child of the Stars” – Quaker Narnia?

Our Child of the Stars, by Stephen Cox, is a sci-fi story about a couple who find themselves looking after a strange child – when a spaceship crashes in their town. (Disclaimer: I know Stephen personally and was sent a free e-book for review.)

Having read it, I’ve been thinking about it on and off anyway, and yesterday I heard a presentation by Centre for Research Studies researcher Jonathan Doering which brought me back to it. Jonathan’s research into connections between Quakerism and creative writing raises a whole set of questions about what makes a piece of writing Quaker or Quakerly or not. Is it the self-identification of the author? Does the opinion of the Quaker community matter? Does the content of the writing matter? (Did you know that T Edmund Harvey, Quaker politician, had a brother who wrote horror stories?)

The opinion I’m going to put forward in this post (comments are open for everyone who disagrees) is that ‘Quaker literature’ is most interesting when it has Quaker content – but that Quaker content is not necessarily things which name Quakers, but content which is inspired by Quaker approaches to life. My example for this is Our Child of the Stars. In Our Child of the Stars, although there are some minor explicit mentions of Quakerism, and the author is a Quaker, these aren’t the things which, in my opinion, make it interesting reading from a Quaker viewpoint. Instead, the key factor which makes this a Quakerly book is the way in which two people love and adopt Cory, a child whose strange origin and appearance make many others reject him – and do so before his charming personality has a chance to work on them.

In my title to this blog post, I compared the book to C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, by which I probably just mean The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The comparison is not one of style or content (although both a well-written in their own ways, and have some kindred adventure elements) – instead, it’s theological. If Aslan is ‘Jesus for Narnia’, a fantasy embodiment of Lewis’s theology of access to salvation, Cory is the ET-style embodiment of the Quaker principle ‘that of God in everyone’. In loving him and seeing him as special and worth protecting, Molly and Gene Myers provide a model of the ambition to see everyone in this way.

In doing so, they are often able to convince others to join them in this viewpoint. If only it were that easy in real life!

 

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Afterwords: a labyrinth of ideas

I’m now at the stage in my research where I’ve read the survey data, everything else about afterwords I can find, and begun to look at related things – other patterns of change in the way Meeting for Worship is held, for example, and writing about worship and vocal ministry generally. It’s difficult to summarise where I’m at because I feel like I’m walking around in a maze: I decide to turn left, only to walk for ten minutes and find myself back at a point I passed half an hour ago. That being so, I thought I’d offer you, not a coherent account of anything, but sketches of some of the places where I’ve tied some string. If you recognise any of these spots, do let me know.

Afterwords isn’t the only thing about Meeting for Worship which has changed over the past century. Two examples of other changes which have interested me are the shift from just a pair of Elders shaking hands to everyone shaking hands, and the introduction of social time after meeting. Both of these changes must have come in slowly – there are reports of Friends who held out against them, and there remains some variety in the practices – but both could be related to one of the key purposes given for afterwords, namely community building. Shaking hands with each other gives a point of formal greeting between the end of worship – the Elders shaking hands – and the notices. For some meetings, afterword appears in this slot and is reported to help people get to know one another. Adding refreshments and thereby encouraging people to stay for social time, the classic tea and coffee, also gives people more time in the meeting house to get to know one another and encourages informal conversation. Again, for some meetings, afterwords can extend this process, giving an extra space for more or less formal sharing before or alongside the social time.

The way we talk about afterwords can reveal our ideas about other things, especially our views of Meeting for Worship. For example, lots of people told me in the survey that they thought that spoken contributions sometimes got misplaced one way or the other: either that things which weren’t really ‘true ministry’ got said during Meeting for Worship, where they didn’t belong, or that things which were ‘true ministry’ got said during afterwords, when they would have been better said in worship. At the very simple level, this reveals that the people answering my survey have a picture of the differences between ‘true ministry’ and ‘nearly ministry’ and ‘not ministry’ which goes beyond whether something is said in worship, afterwords, or elsewhere. At a more complex level, as people begin to describe these differences, they are revealing their ideas about true ministry and where it comes from – in others words, their theology.

Afterwords is part of a wider picture of the end of Meeting for Worship, and what people want is a smooth transition into the next thing. What that smooth transition actually looks like is another matter, but descriptions of problematic processes – the introduction of an unwanted afterword, or a lack of afterword before a disliked notices – tend to stress suddenness or a bump or jolt in ‘coming up from the depths’ of worship. On the other hand, when people like a process, they describe it in terms of an easy, smooth, unjolted transition – whether that’s from worship into social time without being bumped into a too-heady wordy space by afterwords, or from worship into afterwords with space to reflect on the experience of Meeting without being forced to make social chit-chat too soon. This doesn’t solve the problem of whether you should have afterwords, but it points towards some of the right questions to ask about why people like it or don’t.

Afterwords – survey open

Do you go to a Quaker Meeting? If you do, whether or not your meeting uses ‘afterwords’ or anything similar, I’d like to hear from you in my research survey. This is to provide material for the project described in my previous post about ‘afterwords’.

There are actually two surveys. The first one just asks a few questions about all the Quaker Meetings you’ve ever attended, and should be very quick to complete. The second one asks for more details about a specific Quaker Meeting and might take a bit longer – perhaps ten or fifteen minutes, depending how much you write. If you want to, you can fill it in more than once to describe different meetings you’ve attended.

‘Afterwords’ – my Eva Koch Scholarship project

This summer, I will be spending some time at Woodbrooke as one of the four Eva Koch scholars. My topic is ‘afterwords’. In this post, I’d like to say what my current thoughts are about this practice and how it’s used – during the project, I hope to keep blogging from time to time to document how my ideas change.

I take ‘afterwords’ to include a range of things Quakers might do between the end of Meeting for Worship (after the handshakes) and before the notices and/or refreshments (if there are any). I don’t know yet whether ‘news of Friends’ counts as afterwords, or a specialist kind of notices, so I’m inclined to include it for now and see if that makes sense when I have more information. There might be other doubtful cases like this – if you can think of one, please let me know.

‘Afterwords’ goes by a variety of names – I have also heard ‘bridging time’ and ‘not quite ministry’, and a brief survey of online mentions suggests that Meetings in the USA are more likely to call it ‘afterthoughts’. Some of these names point towards the things it might be expected to do: ‘not quite ministry’ suggests that some things which have arisen in the silence need to be spoken and shared, but don’t carry the full weight of vocal ministry. (Whatever we understand that weight to be – I think issues about vocal ministry itself will appear repeatedly in this work.) Similarly, ‘bridging time’ suggests that ‘afterwords’ provides a threshold space in which we are neither fully in meeting for worship, nor fully outside it. From this point of view, it might be interesting to compare ‘afterwords’ to ‘worship sharing’ and ‘creative listening’, also practices which are related to worship but with slightly different rules. I’d also like to compare ‘afterwords’ to threshing meetings, which can also be understood as providing a threshold space. (For more about that, see the report on threshing which Rachel Muers and I wrote last year.)

The term ‘afterwords’ is also sometimes used for a planned discussion or study session after Meeting, after notices and maybe in a different room. I’m interested in this use of the word, but I don’t think this practice is what I’m trying to find out about. Discussion sessions have their own rules and don’t usually occupy this boundary location between worship and not worship.

Not very much has been written about afterwords, at least not that I have found so far. Some meetings describe it briefly when they describe their worship – Tottenham, Abingdon, and Oxford are typical examples of this – and it’s mentioned in a couple of places in With a Tender Hand, the recent eldership and oversight resource book. On the other hand, it’s not mentioned at all in Quaker faith & practice, which suggests that it was not in use, or at least not widespread, in 1994.

As I start talking to people about this project, it becomes clear that some people are very much in favour, some against, and many more interested but not really sure. It’s often thought that introducing ‘afterwords’ might affect – probably improve – the quality of the vocal ministry, either by giving people who speak often, perhaps too often, another space in which to share, or by encouraging people who are less likely to speak to start (by giving a less pressured space in which to do so). I’m hoping my research will be able to show whether or not these things really do happen in the experience of meetings who try afterwords. I’m not expecting to form a straightforward opinion that afterwords are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, since I think it’ll probably vary by context and circumstances – but you never know, I might be swayed to one side or the other!

In my plan, the main part of my research will be a survey asking for report of people’s experiences with afterword. If you’re interested in that, do get in touch or watch this space, as I’ll be announcing it here when the survey opens.