Tag Archives: simplicity

Five Reasons Quakers Can Celebrate Christmas

In Quaker faith & practice, passage 27.42 says:

A… testimony held by early Friends was that against the keeping of ‘times and seasons’. We might understand this as part of the conviction that all of life is sacramental; that since all times are therefore holy, no time should be marked out as more holy; that what God has done for us should always be remembered and not only on the occasions named Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.

This is a testimony which seems to be dying of neglect. Many Friends, involved with family and the wider society, keep Christmas; in some meetings, Easter and its meaning is neglected, not only at the calendar time but throughout the year. What I would hope for is neither that we let the testimony die, nor that we keep it mechanically. I hope for a rediscovery of its truth, that we should remember and celebrate the work of God in us and for us whenever God by the Spirit calls us to this remembrance and this joy.

Janet Scott, 1994

With all due respect to my friend and sometime co-tutor Janet Scott, I want to put forward some reasons why we should not just let this testimony go, but actively get rid of it. I think we will do better at keeping what Janet describes as its truth – will do better at remembering and celebrating the work of God whenever the Spirit calls us to do so – if we set aside some times to do so consciously, not mechanically but regularly. puts on ‘devil’s advocate for God’ hat

1. We already do.

Meetings hold Christmas celebrations. They have special meals, sing carols, and let the kids do a play. They cancel study groups and committee meetings, and expect that people will spend time with their families. This year, December 25th falls on a Sunday, so this will be invisible – but when it doesn’t, meetings all over Britain hold special Christmas Meetings for Worship. Fewer meetings – but some – also hold extra Meetings for Worship on Good Friday (some serve hot cross buns as well). I once challenged this and was told that it was because people were free on the bank holiday, and indeed Yearly Meeting uses the May bank holidays for some two years of its three yearly cycle, but it’s very rare for local meetings to use other bank holidays, and not on anything like the same regular basis. There’s no special end of August Meeting for Worship, so there’s something about Christmas and Easter. If we are to be honest, we need to stop pretending that we don’t celebrate these festivals.

2. We’re Christians.

Okay, some of us aren’t. I’m not, actually – from time to time I think I might be starting to get on not-so-badly with this Jesus guy, and then I meet some Christian Christians, you know the type, the sort who think I’m doing it wrong if I agree with Jesus rather than singing slightly erotic songs about him, or who think I’ll go to hell for dating women, or who are sure that if I’d really read the New Testament I’d be going to their church. And when that happens, I decide that I’ll stay not-quite-a-Christian, thank you very much. As a Quaker, though, I am a member of a Christian church, and I shouldn’t be allowed to hide from that. Even stronger: I should be routinely offered the chance to engage with all that is helpful and enriching and spiritually fulfilling in Christianity in case I want to take the plunge and open up the maybe-I’m-Christian-even-if-I’m-not-one-of-those-Christians space. Celebrating Christmas is a chance for us to do that.

3. Christmas – and Easter – hold key theological messages.

“In some meetings,” Janet wrote in 1994, “Easter and its meaning is neglected.” Although I do know a few meetings where it is celebrated, the theological meanings of Easter – the Good News about the Resurrection, for example – aren’t the sort of thing we hear about very often in a typical Quaker meeting. Although Christmas is a bigger feature, how many Friends actually contemplate the implications of God being born in a human body, rather than enjoying a few good tunes and a mince pie? If we opened up and said, yes, we are going to celebrate these things, we could look more directly at how we celebrate them and whether we are getting the most spiritual benefit from the process. In time, this might extend beyond Christmas and Easter to Pentecost and other stories which are embedded in the Christian liturgical calendar.

4. Seasonal cycles support our commitment to sustainability.

When we regard nature as alien and winter weather as an obstacle, it’s much harder for us to buy into arguments about why we should save the planet. The seasons change all the time, but Christmas is a point at which it’s socially more acceptable to admire evergreen trees, reflect on the days starting to lengthen, and appreciate the beauty of snow. This can be a starting point for a process of connecting more deeply to the natural world – animals, plants, weather, and climate. The understanding we gain through that process can shore up our determination to make lifestyle changes and campaign for larger social changes in order to protect our environment.

5. It’s fun.

Which is sometimes enough reason all on its own.

This isn’t an argument for extra buying, extra plastic, or doing anything you don’t want to do. It is an argument for enjoying the process of giving a few well-chosen presents and spending time with people you love. It is an argument for sharing and discussing traditional stories, stories which can have a truth beyond the facts. It is an argument for thinking about how your Christmas celebrations can be simple, truthful, sustainable, peaceful. It is an argument for not apologising: if you’re going to put up decorations, sing carols, and eat with family, don’t feel you have to add “even though it’s not Quakerly”.We can use it as part of our Quaker path.

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Simplicity and its antonyms

I recently read (via Facebook) a very interesting blog post about Quaker testimonies. It’s good; I suggest you go and read it. The main question it addresses is ‘why do Quakers have testimonies?’ which is an excellent thing to ask and deserves attention.

However, one stray comment in it attracted my attention for other reasons – in talking about the modern list of the testimonies, Derek points out that we are hardly alone in wanting peace, truth, simplicity, etc. Indeed, he says we are unlikely to meet people “who would say they believe in violence, dishonesty, discrimination, and complexity”. Well, I think there a few around for the first three – quite a lot of people can accept dishonesty when it’s to their benefit, for example. The last one, though, seems like a misplaced word. I’m a Quaker. I try and live out a testimony to simplicity as best I can. But I don’t think it’s opposed to complexity.

Perhaps it helps to begin by thinking about another Quaker word, now a bit out of fashion but a traditional and useful one: plain. Think of plain dress, plain speech, use of plain names, and so forth. The opposite of plain is decorated. Dress which is un-plain is fancy, in lots of colours, lots of patterns, etc. A plain name is just a name, with no title or other additions. Plain speech can perfectly well use complex sentences, with sub-clauses and other features, but it aims to say what needs to be said without untruth, flattery, or embellishment.

Complexity, on the other hand, is a feature of the world – and denying it doesn’t help. At the beginning of that post, Derek talks about his nephew asking about how plants grow. Photosynthesis is a very complex process, which is vital to life on earth, and yet I don’t take plants – which are just going about their ordinary business of living – to be un-plain. (Putting flowers on the Meeting House table we can debate.) Plainness might be opposed to unnecessary additions of extra complications. My understanding of plainness in dress leads me to own a small number of basic and hard wearing shoes, for example, rather than a pair for every day of the year. Complexity isn’t a problem, though – as the computer programmers say, it’s a feature, not a bug – and wishing for ‘simplicity’ won’t take it away.

As I pray over the very complex situation in Syria at the moment, a situation which seems to be  short on plain speaking, perhaps I won’t try to simplify things, but to understand their complexities and express them plainly.

Search terms: Quaker Dress

From time to time, someone searches for this blog and my site stats function records which term brought them here. Some are dull (the name of this blog, as intended, reaches this blog via google), and some very specific (“Britain Yearly Meeting 2013” found this blog among other things), but some are real questions, and when I haven’t yet answered them it’s interested to address them. Hence this mini-series of posts about topics related to, but not yet covered, by my previous posts.

The first one, which has reached this blog several times, is “Quaker dress”. At one time, Quakers were known for their plain dress, and this may be what the original searcher(s) had in mind. If you are interested in that, I recommend Quaker Jane as an excellent resource. However, sometimes it comes up in conversation that British Quakers today, having mostly left behind plain dress and certainly the strict dress codes which sometimes went with it, nevertheless still have some distinctive ways of dressing. We joke about the socks-with-sandals and the anything-accessorised-by-Guardian, and everyone tends to blend in better with the general population that we did in the days of plain dress, but there are patterns.

Some things are not. Some people who meet me, and then find out that I’m a Quaker, assume that all Quakers wear hats – there are religious groups who do cover their heads, so this isn’t a totally silly guess, but Quakers today do not wear hats. Identifying me by my head-wear works as well at Yearly Meeting as anywhere else. Nor do Quakers wear all grey or all black any more. Indeed, one Friend who, in most of his life, wears nothing but black once opined to me that he felt he should wear a little grey at Quaker gatherings in case they couldn’t cope with the Goth effect! There are, in fact, a number of Quaker Goths, and some of them can be spotted at large Friendly gatherings if you know the signs. (Hint: wearing all or mostly black is a big clue.)

Quakers today do tend, I think, to dress more modestly, covering up more of themselves, than the mainstream culture demands – especially for young women. This isn’t unknown in other counter-cultural spaces, but is enough to stand out on the train. There’s a general refraining from fashion – not from style, plenty of Quakers have strong personal styles – but from following fads and trends, especially where they cost unnecessary money. A general lack of brand names follows from this (although there may be a general tendency towards Marks and Spencer’s).

Just now and again, someone comes to Meeting for Worship dressed in a way which stands out – their heels are higher, their suit smarter – and even more rarely, someone comments on this. I’m pretty sure that, contrary to the claims made by some Wiccans, clothes do not impede the flow of Divine energies, and so there’s no need to police such things. In the cases where there is a real feeling of leading in the community, I think most people who are drawn to Quakers will find that in due course they have worn whatever-it-is for as long as they could.

S is for… Simplicity

Quakers are in favour of simplicity. We keep our worship spaces simply decorated – plain walls, functional rather than fussy furniture, maybe some flowers in the middle but nothing more. (Other than the notice board full of posters and pictures – which is simple in the sense that it’s just a notice board, rather than being other than busy to the eye.) And we strive for simplicity in our lives.

What does that mean, though? Once upon a time, it meant plain dress, the wearing of Quaker grey or sometimes black. When I was a school my brother and I used to say that it meant wearing unbranded clothes – no Adidas, no Nike. As an adult, I think of it as having two parts: functionality over form, and ethical and sustainable sourcing. I think the function of clothes is to keep me warm and comfortable, and so I wear warm, comfortable clothes, even though my needs for comfort are somewhat different to those of the rest of the world. I need enough clothes, especially if I am to continue to approximate the demands of dressing as a woman in a socially recognisable way and the variations of social context. (I could wear my black menswear lace-up shoes everywhere, they’re that comfortable. I don’t. I do wear a hat everywhere – but I want to wear a clean neat one on formal occasions and a dirty one for mucking about in the woods.) But I want those clothes not to contribute to climate change or human suffering, so I try and buy fairtrade or at least not sweatshop clothes when I need new, and when I don’t need new, I try to buy second hand. That’s a kind of simplicity, but you wouldn’t know it was there by looking at me.

There’s also simplicity of living. Sometimes when people talk about this, you get the impression that downsizing is the only option – oh well, they say, now the children have moved out I’ve sold my house and I’m getting rid of all my possessions so I can move into a tiny flat. This is well and good, and if you’ve got a big house with only one or two people in it, please do sell it and move into something more appropriate sized. However, I already live in a one bedroom flat and it doesn’t really make my life simpler – only because it’s in a good location. I didn’t have to declutter my life to move in here; in fact, I bought a TV and a(nother) bookcase. What would actually make my life simpler would be the prospect of a steady job when I’ve finished my studies.

Overall, I’m a bit conflicted about simplicity. I’ve just bought a fancy new phone – that’s not part of the simple life. On the other hand, people who advocate for a simple life rhapsodise about how you get to spend more time with people you love, and I depend entirely on internet and phone to make that happen. (The people who are rhapsodising usually turn out to have a well-paid, probably full-time, job, a partner or spouse, and children. My life isn’t that shape.) Similarly, I own boxes and boxes of what most people would consider clutter, nothing, rubbish. On the other hand, my handicrafts – which rely on boxes and boxes of stuff to make things from – are praised when I finish them, and often considered throwbacks to a simpler way of life. Conclusion: simplicity isn’t simple.