Tag Archives: Yearly Meeting

Thoughts after Britain Yearly Meeting

It’s taken me a while to get my thoughts together after Britain Yearly Meeting. That’s partly because there was a lot to think about – with dozens of events over three weeks, plus two weekends full of formal sessions, it was longer and in some ways more complex than even a week-long residential Yearly Meeting Gathering would be normally. It’s also because I’ve got a lot else on – other work, holidays with my wife, books to write, washing up to do, the usual. But I think I do have a couple of reflections it would be helpful to me to write down and perhaps helpful for others to read.

The first reflection is about who attended our Yearly Meeting this year. It’s not a big surprise, after the findings of the surveys which Woodbrooke and Britain Yearly Meeting ran last year, to find that the profile of people attending Quaker stuff changes when it moves online. At Yearly Meeting, I heard a number of people clearly articulating a pattern we identified in the survey: there are significant groups of people who cannot attend in person but who want to be involved. Some people have disabilities, caring responsibilities, travel cost barriers, and other circumstances which make attending online possible when attending in person is impossible. Some were new to Quakers and attending their first Yearly Meeting; others have been involved in a local meeting or other Quaker community for a long time and were attending Yearly Meeting for the first time having wanted to attend but previously been prevented. That’s a huge thing and something to celebrate about meeting online.

On the other hand, there were clearly people missing. Our main sessions didn’t reach the big numbers we sometimes see in person, and although a lot of people participated in some of our Yearly Meeting Gathering, my sense – this is difficult to measure, but comparing notes across several people who tried things like ‘looking for everyone from my area meeting in this session’ I think I have a rough idea – is that a much smaller group than usual attended every formal session of Yearly Meeting. (If you have stats or better information, I would love to be corrected or have more evidence on this, so please contact me.) That stands to reason in some ways, especially because when you have travelled and are all on the same university campus, there’s not the same competition. When you’re at home and have the option to join a session online, you also have the option to… whatever else you want to do. And you may be asked to refrain. Even very supportive family members who are not Quakers may only tolerate a certain number of hours spent on Zoom over the weekend! It might also change the balance of participation, though, and the online format means that some people for whom Yearly Meeting is normally a highlight didn’t enjoy it in the same way this year.

I don’t have a neat conclusion to this point – meeting everyone’s access needs is always complex – but having done this experiment, I hope that we’ll learn from it, even if the answers aren’t simple.

My other main reflection is about the three Yearly Meeting theme sessions and how we share it. We produced three important minutes, on becoming an anti-racist community, on welcoming trans, non-binary, and other gender non-conforming people, and on climate justice. I have learned that I will also be glad these things went as far as they did, and disappointed that they didn’t go further. (I remember coming home from Canterbury in 2011 wishing we could have gone further, especially wanting us to adopt a numerical target for carbon footprint reduction, and gradually understanding why we couldn’t do that at the time. Many thanks to the Friends who talked it through with me at the time, and have done the same after several Yearly Meetings since.) I want us to go further with all of these issues. But I also know that we have to take the whole community with us, and I see Quakers sharing articles which attack trans women, and hear white Quakers using infantilising language about adult Black men, and… and I don’t even know where to start on all the ways we haven’t yet integrated a justice perspective into our work on the climate crisis. And those are only the things I notice, and I’m a white cis Quaker whose home isn’t yet experiencing damage from climate change, so I have reason to think that I’m missing a shedload of stuff which privilege hides from me.

Given what I said about attendance, about who was there and who was not, I have found myself asking: how will we share this? Obviously our epistle is an important way to share it, and this year’s is particularly full of detail about the themes Yearly Meeting worked on. My local meeting had a discussion about the epistle, which helped to balance out the fact that it was so long that elders chose not to read the whole piece out loud in meeting for worship. (Alas, I didn’t make it to the session… one can only spend so long on Zoom, as previously discussed!) But in the longer term we will need to keep developing work in these areas. What can we do to make sure that these things are considered whenever they are relevant, and not just in discussions dedicated to them? Should we ask more often? Rewrite Advices & Queries so that language we hear regularly reflects these priorities? Find experts, from within and outside our community? Try and step back and pass the microphone so those more directly affected can be heard?

I still don’t have any neat answers. But in the spirit of that last suggestion, I will finish with links to some relevant videos and posts by others:

Clare Flourish, blog post on Britain Yearly Meeting on Zoom

Lisa Cumming, blog post on Everyday Solidarity and what British Quakers are doing to put love into action

Sophie Bevan, blog post about Black Lives Matter

Chloe Schwenke in a video about her journey as transgender Quaker

Vanessa Julye in a a video about Quakers and racism

I’m sure there are lots I’ve missed – please share in the comments if you feel led to do so.

The Voice of the Book?

On the Book of Discipline Revision Committee, we have sometimes been talking about the voice of the book – what do we want it to sound like? What tone should the book take, and how is that created? Sometimes we talk about a singular voice, and at other times we recognise that many voices will be present in the final result – the committee and the yearly meeting, and the individual or corporate authors of sources we use for extracts (and not just written ones, but the creators of images and music and videos we use as well). In order to explore the question of voice in books of discipline, I went looking for some examples, and in this blog post I want to offer close readings of three passages, all from Quaker books – all passages from sections on Yearly Meetings – but which have markedly different voices. Close reading is as much of an art as writing, and you may not agree with my conclusions if you hear different resonances in the passages I discuss. I have chosen three passages from sources which are available online so you can go and read more for yourself and come to your own conclusions. Please share them!

The first passage is from the 1806 “Rules of Discipline of the Yearly Meeting of Friends, Held in Philadelphia”. Like most books of discipline of the period, it is divided into chapters which are then arranged alphabetically. The chapter on Yearly Meeting is short, with only a few extracts from previous minutes laying out different aspects of the process. The first paragraph reads:

It appears by the records, that our first yearly meeting was held at Burlington in New Jersey the thirty-first day of the Sixth Month, 1681, O.S. for the provinces of Pennsylvania, and New Jersey; that in 1685, it was agreed to be held alternately at Burlington and Philadelphia; that in 1755 the time of holding it was changed to the Ninth Month; that in 1760 it was concluded to be held at the same time at Philadelphia only; and that in 1798, the time of holding it was altered to the third Second-day in the Fourth Month, as it now is; the yearly meeting of ministers and elders to be on the seventh day of the week preceding; and both to begin at the tenth hour.

Some of the features which first stand out to a modern reader are the fashions of the time – for example, the use of semi-colons to make sections, almost a list, where modern writers would be more likely to use full stops and create more but shorter sentences, is an obvious aspect of the writing here but may have as much to do with the expectations of the time as a deliberate choice creating the voice of the book. However, the decision to use Quaker-style dates (“Sixth Month” rather than July, and so on – to avoid using pagan names) is a very deliberate one and would have been knowingly at odds with surrounding society. 

The voice of the book is also created by the decisions about content. What did the creators of this book think their readers wanted to know? About history, obviously. About dates and changing practices, about which it’s necessary to give some level of detail. About what’s done now – after this passage, the reader of 1806 knows to expect Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to begin at 10 o’clock on the the third Second-day in the Fourth Month (that is, the third Monday in April). Readers who do not know what Yearly Meeting is or what it does, however, would be very little better off after reading this passage than they were before – it’s a meeting which happens yearly, and has for a long time, but what do people do at this meeting and why? The book assumes readers already know this. The voice of this book is of an insider speaking to an insider – “our first yearly meeting”. It is pedantic, recording details most people would be unlikely to remember, and perhaps designed to remind rather than to teach. It does not rhapsodies or relate personal experience at all, but sets down facts without comment, even though that leaves many questions unanswered about the whys as well as the hows.

Here, by way of a contrast, is the beginning of the chapter on Yearly Meeting from Australia Yearly Meeting’s “Handbook of Quaker Practice and Procedure in Australia” (seventh edition, 2020)

In the previous chapter, consideration was given to the first meaning of Yearly Meeting, the organisation of the whole body of Quakers in Australia, denoted by AYM. Now this chapter is about the other meaning, the annual gathering of Australian Quakers, denoted by YM. One purpose of Yearly Meeting is the reaching of decisions on AYM policy and conduct. Other reasons for Yearly Meeting are the enriching of fellowship between Friends, mutual support in spiritual growth and the discussion of current issues. 

Yearly Meeting is usually held for seven to eight days in January, and is hosted by each Regional Meeting in rotation. A Summer School (6.3.4) is held in association with Yearly Meeting.

There’s no shortage of technical language here but it is handled differently, with a specific effort made to explain most of the terms used (‘regional meeting’ was also covered elsewhere). The voice of this book is more didactic, explaining the purpose of this chapter (“about the other meaning”) as well as the purposes of the Yearly Meeting itself. Unlike the voice of this blog post, which uses words like ‘didactic’ even though I had to use Google to check my spelling, the voice of this book seems to be trying to use plain language even when talking about more emotionally laden elements – “enriching of fellowship between Friends” is a flowery as it gets. However, that turn of phrase is noticeable for its use of a standard play on words; in a book which usually refers to the group as ‘Quakers’ (in this passage, for example, it’s a “gathering of Australian Quakers”), the switch back to the older ‘Friends’ implies the ordinary sense of ‘friends’ as well. “Fellowship between friends” is almost a tautology – if you don’t have fellowship with your friends, are they really your friends? – but the capital letter opens the dual meeting “fellowship between Quakers/fellowship between friends” and makes it worth saying. Note that the use of the phrase ‘Australian Quakers’ also means there are no pronouns here – the group are named rather than being designated as ‘us’ or ‘them’. The resulting impression is more removed than the discussion of ‘our yearly meeting’ in the previous example, but perhaps easier to follow for readers who do not consider themselves part of the group. (Including me: I am a Quaker, but not a member of Australia or Philadelphia Yearly Meetings.)

Finally, here’s the first paragraph from the chapter on Yearly Meeting in Britain Yearly Meeting’s 1994 Quaker faith & practice. This is the start of a lengthy section which brings in both history and commentary.

Our yearly meeting grew out of a series of conferences of ministering Friends, some regional, some national. We may think of that at Swannington in 1654 or Balby in 1656 (the postscript to whose lengthy letter of counsel is so much better known than the letter itself) or Skipton the same year, or the general meeting for the whole nation held at Beckerings Park, the Bedfordshire home of John Crook, for three days in May 1658, and attended by several thousand Friends. This in some ways might be considered the first Yearly Meeting were it not for the fact that the 1660s, through persecution and pestilence, saw breaks in annual continuity. The meeting in May 1668 was followed by one at Christmastime, which lasted into 1669, since when the series has been unbroken. It is 1668, therefore, that we have traditionally chosen as the date of establishment of London Yearly Meeting. But many (though not all) of the meetings up to 1677 were select, that is, confined to ‘publick’ (or ministering) Friends: from 1678 they were representative rather than select in character. Minutes are preserved from 1672.

There is a good deal of detail here, but rather than simply reporting facts the voice of the book is working to persuade us. It gives several examples (assuming that these are known to us already – “we may think” – and of course readers already know about the letter from Balby… if you don’t, here’s a brief introduction) before arguing that in fact none of these was the first Yearly Meeting. Both the issues of continuity and representativeness are raised as characteristics of a Yearly Meeting which will count as such – while the reader drowns in dates much as in the 1806 Philadelphia example, and is assumed to be an insider, a lot more information is given (like details about locations and attendees), and it is possible to infer some things about the purpose of the meetings from the way in which some examples are judged to be ‘in’ the series and others not. The people are called ‘Friends’ throughout and the arguing voice, the reader, and previous generations of Friends are all included in the decision to be made: “we have traditionally chosen”. The method of presenting facts in support of multiple possible interpretations, especially done so quickly in a single passage, is reminiscent of an academic project such as an essay. The vocabulary is extensive, background knowledge is assumed (‘pestilence’ presumably refers to the outbreak of the Black Death in 1665, for example), and only some technical terms are explained (‘publick’ is glossed with the more familiar, although still technical, term ‘ministering’).

I’m not sure that I want the voice of our future book to copy any of these. I hope, though, that a careful reading of three examples shows something of the range of what is possible – even without adding a diagram or a video – and how the details of choices add up to create an overall impression. There are the issues of vocabulary – ‘we’ and ‘our’, ‘Quakers’ and ‘Friends’, ‘ministers and elders’. There is the question of sentence length and style – how many subclauses is the reader expected to be able to follow, for example? And these issues cannot be separated from the issues of content and audience. In order to decide what the voice of the book should be like, we as a Revision Committee will be thinking about questions like: who is reading this book and what do they want to find out? Are they knowledgeable Quakers who want to double-check a date? Australian Quakers or strange people on the internet who want to analyse language use by Australian Quakers? People who have been to yearly meeting before, or people who are considering whether it’s worth giving up a week’s holiday to go for the first time?

Reflections after our wedding

Ten days ago, my partner and I married each other in a blended Quaker meeting for worship. There’s so much I could say about this I’m not entirely sure where to start – in this post, I want to share some reflections about the process and our experience partly in case they can help others but also to remember them for myself.

Overall, it was a lovely day and we were very happy. Looking back, we’re pleased that we went ahead at the earliest reasonable date: worries about unstable health and employment situations, not to mention possible future changes to coronavirus restrictions, seem easier to face with the certainty that our partnership is solid, recognised in law, and supported by our communities. It wasn’t easy to hold a pandemic, especially to get the people physically present in the meeting room down to only six, including ourselves. However, that did make it obvious that we needed a Zoom connection with all the technology and global connectivity that goes with it, and we were delighted that people were able to join us from around the world. That included people who wouldn’t (because of other commitments or the time and cost involved) have been able to join us in person even without the barriers created by the pandemic. As we weren’t able to have a reception at all, we hope to hold a big party for our first anniversary!

One of the things we couldn’t do was get someone else to do our hair or anything. Flower crown made by me. My beautiful bride all her own!

We both cried a bit during the ceremony. I cried when my mother gave ministry about a couple who had spoken during Britain Yearly Meeting’s 2009 discernment process, at the end of which we agreed to try and treat same-sex marriages equally with opposite-sex marriages. (I know, and we knew at the time, that this language doesn’t reflect the full richness of human sex and gender… but it’s the language we chose at the time because it was the language of legal discussions on the topic.) That Yearly Meeting was a big one for lots of reasons, for the Yearly Meeting as a community and for me personally. (For example: I went in thinking that we should abolish marriage because it’s patriarchal, and finished the week accepting that maybe we should have marriage as a thing, so it was a big step towards where I am today!) The moment that my mother remembered in her ministry was a talk from one member of a gay couple whom we had met at a course a few years previously. While one of them was speaking, his partner was close by, silent but attentive and supportive. Those testimonies – both what was articulated and the relationships made visible in the process – helped to bring the community to the point of recognising that some same-sex Quaker couples were already married, and that we would need to make an accurate record of God’s work in this area. I’m glad we have come so far since then, and aware of the challenges we still face as two women getting married, and I wished my mother could be there in person, and I’m glad she could be with us on Zoom.

A pre-wedding picture while the sun was shining. A lot of people helped even if they could only attend the wedding on Zoom – by taking pictures or recording music beforehand, for example. Among the special things I had with me on the day were a lace collar, hand made by my mother (starting slightly before I was born!), and a shawl, hand made for the occasion by a friend.

A few minor things went wrong. One was the weather – we had planned to move outdoors as soon as possible (less chance of passing the virus) but of course it rained. I’m assured this is good luck! Two other problems were to do with Zoom, one in the physical room and one online. Both were actually the unforeseen results of sensible decisions. Online, our Zoom host locked the Zoom room just after the start of the meeting for worship. We didn’t want late-comers to miss the introduction and be confused (as with many weddings, for the majority of our guests this was their first experience of unprogrammed Quaker worship, and coming into a completely silent Zoom room can be strange!). However, this also meant that some people who logged in, but then had a connectivity problem, left the Zoom room and weren’t able to return. In the meeting house, we muted the microphone at the beginning of worship, giving us a chance to settle into the silence and any last rustles not to disturb people online. But we were sitting well away from the laptop and when I made my declaration, only the people physically present could hear me! Fortunately, I realised what had happened, asked my sibling to unmute us, got a nod from our registering officer, and tried again. I recount this here mainly because I was very glad in that moment that I’d heard a story from a couple who had forgotten to hold hands during their declarations (the Quaker wedding certificate says, ‘taking each other by the hand…’) and also had to repeat themselves!

More generally, getting married led me to reflect on the coming out process. As a bi woman, I always need to come out some more – I’m in a lesbian relationship but that doesn’t make me a lesbian (similarly, dating a man wouldn’t make me straight). Mentioning ‘my wife’ in casual conversation is an easy way to come out, but I have to remember it doesn’t give the whole picture. And however much I am out and proud, when I post publicly on social media about relationships, there are always some people who need to tell me their views. Is it really two women? they want to ask, or they can see what’s happening and need to let us know that it’s satanic. 

If I could send a note six months back into the past, to us in November when we were just starting to plan this, my top three tips would be:

  • Prepare for people’s reactions and their complicated feelings about weddings, and have some standard lines or plans (e.g. delete homophobic comments as soon as you see them; not on the guest list = not a guest, here is our copy-and-paste reply explaining that if you haven’t had an invitation by now you’re not invited).
  • Talk to your registering officers ASAP and if there’s anything complicated, get it sorted (and the official answer in writing) earlier. No, earlier than that. (As it is, thank goodness the change of wording to the Quaker wedding certificate, allowing Zoom guests to sign it, could be made by the simple expedient of covering one line with an extra piece of paper!)
  • Actually count how many flowers you need – a standard small wedding is apparently larger than ours was! Or don’t, and relax and enjoy living in a florists’ for a week.
Flowers everywhere. Pictured here: flowers in the bath. This is good because water doesn’t spill on the carpet but bad because you have to move them every time you want to shower!

Besides those, I would say that for me this was an experience of adding the emotional depth to something I understood in theory. I had actually taught a Woodbrooke course about the theology of Quaker marriage, and I have been to more Quaker weddings than any other kind of wedding, and the stories about my parents’ Quaker wedding were often told in my childhood… so at one level I had a very good idea what I was getting into. I wasn’t surprised by the feeling of the gathered meeting supporting us, or the lovely and varied ministry people gave, or the patience needed for the processes and paperwork. But it is one thing to know these things in theory, and another to live them. It is very powerful indeed feel with someone you love the anxiety of the openness, unplanned space with 100 people… and the gratitude when they are, in fact, open to the Spirit and the Goddess speaks among their words. 

And here we are, newly married and getting covered in confetti.

Do Quakers have Christian privilege?

Last week, Britain Yearly Meeting considered the theme of privilege – you can watch videos from the event, and read the minutes or the epistle. It became apparent that the newer pattern of use for the word privilege – as in white privilege, male privilege, cisgender privilege, straight privilege, middle and upper class privilege, able-bodied privilege, neurotypical privilege, etc. – has caught on in some ways, but it’s easy for people to default back to an older pattern which may also be less emotionally and socially disruptive – as in it’s a privilege to serve, it’s a privilege to be here, it’s an honour and a privilege. When I was thinking about how to unpack this and explore it in a more nuanced way, I found myself thinking about a question we didn’t consider explicitly: do Quakers have Christian privilege, at all or to some extent?

I think the answer to this question is ‘yes and no’, but also that it’s useful to explore why. I’ll start with Christian privilege – what is it, anyway? It’s the ways in which people who are Christian benefit from the structures of societies such as the UK in which Christianity is the majority religion and/or the assumed or historical norm. Sam Killermann put together this list of 30+ examples, including “You can worship freely, without fear of violence or threats” and “Music and television programs pertaining to your religion’s holidays are readily accessible”. There are some of these which Quakers clearly have; for a long time now, Quaker worship has been acceptable and free from violence or threats. This is very much a privilege which I think Quakers would want to share with everyone – and yet Jews, Muslims, and others in the UK today do feel this fear and experience both threats and violence against their communities.

On the other hand, the Quaker relationship to Christian holidays is complicated, and specifically Quaker music, films, and so on are not part of mainstream broadcasting. Such things do exist can be found online or at specialist Quaker shops or libraries, but many people – with no internet access, not knowing what to search for, distant from London or Birmingham, and/or short of money – would find it difficult to access them. Some Quakers may include some or all Christian content as reflecting their personal faith, but others find traditional Christian language for God and liturgical practices alien or upsetting. Compared to other privileges Quakers do have, this lack seems relatively minor, but I know that it’s felt by the wave of rejoicing which crosses my social media feeds when a mainstream news source, TV programme, or radio station does mention Quakers. (A recent example: Fleabag.)

I won’t go through all 30 examples, but here are some more:

  • “A bumper sticker supporting your religion won’t likely lead to your car being vandalized.” As a Quaker, I’m sure I have that privilege (I don’t have a car, but I wear a badge which declares that I’m a Quaker and have had nothing but polite, puzzled, and/or positive responses).
  • “Politicians responsible for your governance are probably members of your faith.” Taken as percentages, probably yes: there are more Quaker MPs and MEPs than would be expected if politicians were statistically representative of the population, and fewer than expected of other non-Christian faiths.
  • “You can reasonably assume that anyone you encounter will have a decent understanding of your beliefs.” Not really. Some people have misconceptions, some only know a few basics, and many know nothing about Quakers.
  • “You are never asked to speak on behalf of all the members of your faith.” Debatable… but I use phrases like ‘I can’t speak for all Quakers, but…’ and ‘Quakers don’t all agree, but speaking personally…’ often enough that I think this expectation is sometimes an issue.
  • “Without special effort, your children will have a multitude of friends who share your faith.” It seems to me that Quaker parents often make special efforts, travelling considerable distances or planning family holidays around annual events, to make sure their children can meet other Quaker children.
  • “You can travel to any part of the country and know your religion will be accepted, safe, and you will have access to religious spaces to practice your faith.” I think Quakers do have this privilege (it helps that meeting for worship can be held anywhere). There are a few places in Britain where the nearest Quaker meeting is too far away to attend regularly, but none where I’d expect to feel unsafe as a Quaker.
  • “You can be polite, gentle, or peaceful, and not be considered an “exception” to those practicing your faith.” In bucket loads! A rude or angry Quaker is more likely to be breaking the stereotype (and so that pressure, in turn, means that some find it difficult to express themselves).

It seems like Quakers have more Christian privilege than some, and less than others. These are just some preliminary thoughts and I welcome extensions, additions, and alternative perspectives in the comments. Perhaps it’s a profitable case for Quakers to discuss among ourselves because we are likely to have much of it in common with one another, we can’t learn about the Quaker situation by listening to other people, and the situation of having and not having simultaneously encourages a more nuanced understanding of what is actually going on with privilege in general. In the process we might uncover ways in which we can both be better allies to our interfaith friends, and pose better challenges to dominant structures which may be restricting everyone’s freedom of religion and expression.

Cyn (before); wedi (after)

There are some times which seem to split a life, or a project, or a community, into Before and After. For me, Sunday afternoon was one of those. Maybe in ten year’s time it will look like just another step in a much longer path – but just now, it feels like the brow of a hill, with a lot of climbing before it and a long way home (but downhill!) afterwards.

On Sunday afternoon, Britain Yearly Meeting united with the recommendation from the Revision Preparation Group that it is now time to revise our Book of Discipline. (The minutes will soon be online on the Yearly Meeting documents page of BYM’s website; the current book of discipline, Quaker faith & practice, is online; you can look at my previous posts about it on the Reading Qf&p tag). It feels like that split my life into “before we agreed to revise” and “after we agreed to revise”.

Not very much has happened in the ‘after’, yet, but so much could! It would be easy to get carried away with all the things a revision group could do. They could try and explain the theological principles behind our method of discernment. They could commission a professional writer to create clear, dyslexic friendly and easy to read descriptions of our processes. They could look for images, videos, audio, music, photographs, artwork, sculptures, 3D printing instructions which would express our spiritual lives in entirely new ways. They could suggest we publish a book, or several books, or a website, or an app, or a loose-leaf folder, or an audiobook, or all or none of those. They could think about version management software and how to keep everyone up-to-date. They could choose new sections to quote from historical materials, bringing neglected periods into the light and refreshing our understanding of familiar characters. They could… but they have to be nominated and appointed first!

Over the weekend, I was very glad to realise that while everyone at Yearly Meeting seemed to be following along the same road the Revision Preparation Group had travelled – seeing the same sights, admiring the same views, stopping at the same service stations, noticing the same potholes – they were also looking ahead to the same questions we had asked. Even where the Revision Preparation Group hadn’t put our unanswered questions into our report, people at Yearly Meeting were considering the same issues. Sometimes Quakers talk about ‘uniting’ with a decision, and it really did feel like the whole community were uniting with the recommendations.

And now after. The RPG will meet one more time, to put our papers in order and be ready to hand them on. You can read the epistle and minutes from Yearly Meeting, and see videos of some of the introductions, on the BYM website. Meeting for Sufferings will look at terms of reference for a revision group, and probably ask Central Nominations Committee to find names. You can help them by offering your own name or suggesting others using the ‘Interest in the book of discipline revision’ form. Once there’s a revision group, they’ll be looking for all sorts of ideas about what to include, and you can help them with that using the ‘Qf&p: submit ideas for the next revision’ form. And in the meantime, why not read Quaker faith & practice? It needs work but there’s still some pretty good stuff in there.

Blogging about Yearly Meeting… elsewhere

I’ve been a bit busy to write here – mainly because I’ve been writing! Watch this space for more information about my forthcoming books (yes, plural; I’ve sent two manuscripts into production in the last month). In the meantime, I’ve written two blog posts about preparing for Britain Yearly Meeting.

One was for BYM’s own blog, on Spiritual Preparation for Yearly Meeting. This is the shorter one, about 600 words, with a focus on the preparation materials.

The other was for Woodbrooke’s learning blog, on What’s the question? Reading Quaker faith & practice, Yearly Meeting 2018, and books of discipline. This is longer, about 1000 words, and focuses more on explaining what our book of discipline is and why it might be time to revise it.

I hope you find them interesting, whether or not you’ll be at Yearly Meeting this year.

A place for nerds in the Society of Friends?

One of the questions asked in this year’s Spiritual Preparation for Yearly Meeting is:

  • Do you consider yourself to be ‘spiritual’, or an activist? Do you find the distinction helpful in considering your own journey and experiences?

My answer to this is: neither, and therefore, no.

When I picture an activist, I think of people who do things for which I don’t have the time, energy, or social skills. I do little bits of activism – the kind of things which get mocked in internet articles – like signing petitions, discussing politics with friends, and donating a bit of money now and again. I very rarely go to demonstrations, I almost never hand out leaflets, I’ve never been arrested, and the ways in which I’ve changed my life to bring it into accordance with my principles are mainly invisible. I’m often practical, but I’m by no means an activist.

When I picture someone who is spiritual, I think of people whose spiritual life works in a way which mine doesn’t. I’ve been going to meeting for worship my whole life and I’ve never really been able to ‘centre down’. I don’t have a prayer life to speak of, I’m immune to whatever people get out of sacred music, I like to look at religious art but rarely get beyond looking, and when I read scripture I come away with more questions than answers. I do sometimes have experiences which I can only describe as ‘spiritual’, and I value being in an organised religion because some of our structures help me feel spiritually connected, but whatever ‘being spiritual’ involves, I feel outside the category.

So, what I am? I’m a nerd, a swot, a geek, an over-educated over-thinker. This is, as that link suggests, common among Quakers – but it also, often, unwelcome. In a time when rationality has been staked out as the realm of atheism, there seems to be a trend among the religious towards rejecting thought and rigour. I’ve considered it carefully, and concluded that this could be a terrible mistake. However, because I’ve ‘considered’ and ‘concluded’, I suspect my ideas are liable to be thrown out without being heard, on methodological grounds.

When I call myself a geek or a nerd, people sometimes tell me off for putting myself down. This tells me that these words still have a power which can be reclaimed. After years of bullying and social exclusion for being ‘weird’ and ‘clever’, for being articulate enough to give right answers in class and bothering to do so, for enjoying learning and working hard at it, I’m not going to start pretending not to think. I admit it: I think about things at home, I think at work, I even think in Meeting for Worship.

I’m not suggesting that you should do this too (unless you want to). For me, though, prayer and philosophy are closely connected. To think something through, to consider it from all angles, to ask questions like “what do I really know about this?” or “what assumptions underlie the way I am approaching this?” is a way of holding an issue in the Light. Sometimes this leads to activity: “if I hold this view, and this view, then I ought to…” Sometimes this lead to spiritual perspectives: if God loves me as I am, then She’ll love me even if I ask the hard questions.

I am neither spiritual, nor an activist, but approach the world through questioning, thought, and wondering. My Quaker journey is strongly shaped by that even – especially? – when it seems unpopular.

Stewardship of our material resources (Qf&p chapter 14)

There’s a lot in chapter 14 which might be worth dwelling on, but reading through it I’ve found two themes I have strong reactions to – and I’m pretty sure I won’t be alone in that. One is the question about money, and how much we should give to support the work of Quaker organisations. The other is about property, and especially about owning meeting houses. I’d like to explore them both a little in this post.

Money and giving

I remember a Yearly Meeting a few years ago when how, why and what we give to the yearly meeting was a key issue. (Footnote about a technical use of capital letters: Yearly Meeting is the event; the yearly meeting is the community.) I think people had done their best to stress that money is not the only thing we give, but I was in a deeply insecure place both emotionally and financially – and physically tired, and spiritually open in a way that big Quaker worship for business meetings can create – and I sat through session after session in floods of tears. I am a failure, I have nothing to give, I should be doing so much more and I can’t.

Only a year or two later, I was much better off, and when I got a letter from the treasurers at my local meeting asking me to consider donating, I was delighted to simply log into my online banking system and send them some money. At that time, I was also serving on Meeting for Sufferings, and was aware of firstly, exactly how much per member the Religious Society of Friends requires to function, and secondly, much work we actually get done for that relatively modest sum. Being able to give, generously within the limits of my income, felt good.

Having money and being able to donate it should never – I hope this can be taken as read, but sometimes it’s as well to check – be a prerequisite for belonging to the Quaker community. However, that requires those who do have money to give at a higher rate than strictly necessary in order to support those who can’t. Like service on a committee, it’s not required, but it is one of the ways in which we can feel bonded to the community. I became even more aware of that when I moved meeting and didn’t get a ‘please consider donating’ letter. I felt minimized and patronised that meeting for many reasons, but that compound it.

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Picture of my nearest, and very special, meeting house

Owning property

Reading chapter 14 this month has coincided neatly for me with some opportunities at work to talk about meeting houses and Quaker property. I want to pick out some positions I’ve heard people put forward, and explore how I both relate to them all, and worry about them all. (Insert here: joke about typical philosophers.)

We shouldn’t own meeting houses, they tie us down. A meeting house – especially one which is old, or difficult to rent, or expensive to run – can feel like a burden to meeting. There certainly are cases where the meeting is better off without a property. That said, I haven’t noticed meetings who rent space in which to worship being, for example, powerhouses of outreach work or raising vast sums of money for something else, which people who outline this position sometimes imply will happen.

Our meeting house is special because it’s old, beautiful, or associated with a famous historical Quaker. All of that can be true, but it’s not clear to me that this automatically means we should either hold onto it or keep worshipping in it. For some meetings, a useful building and a happy community coincide with one of these things, and I don’t see anything wrong with enjoying that – but I’d be worried if we were holding onto buildings we didn’t like or couldn’t use well for these sorts of reasons. It needs to be held in creative tension with the previous approach.

Our meeting house becomes special because we worship it, perhaps have done so for a long time. This is the one I struggle with most. I think I do know what people mean here: I have had the experience of entering a meeting house (or a stone circle, or a cathedral, etc.) and feeling the sensation of worshipfulness, specialness, magic. Even when there’s nobody there. Even when it’s fallen out of use. The metaphysics of the claim bothers me, though. Is this a psychological thing? (Does it happen to people who don’t know what this building is for? Is it something I imagine, especially when I project it onto a stone circle?) Is it like the energy-signature theory of ghosts, assuming that a kind of prayerfulness is absorbed into the stonework? (Brickwork? Grass? Plastic?) I worry about whether people think this means it’s better to worship in one place than another – in theory, I think all places should be equally sacred, although of course it’s easier to enter a worshipful frame of mind in some circumstances.

Meeting houses are very valuable, and they need to be looked after well. But because we also need to change them and let them go sometimes, I don’t want to be too attached to the specialness of any particular place. It’s the community, and the way that we are able to meet God together by simply listening, which is really the special thing.

I want to end by noting that chapter 14 also contains one of the passages I refer to most often from the whole book, 14:34. It’s not because I need to know about gravestones, but because this paragraph so economically exemplifies how we move from principle to practice.

Reading Qf&p: chapters 5 and 6

Chapters 5 and 6 look at aspects of the internal organisation of Quakers in Britain – chapter 6 deals with the meetings of our main body, Yearly Meeting, and chapter 5 covers ‘Other Quaker groupings’, of which most are regional (and one is for an age-band, Young Friends General Meeting). Reading these chapters is mostly a very different experience from looking at a chapter like 21 or 3 in which most of the passages are by individuals. There are some extracts from personal writing, but the bulk of these chapters has been written by committee or group – sometimes as minutes, sometimes specifically for this purpose.

These are not, then, chapters which most of us read for inspiration, or just dip into. If I open the book at random and it lands here, I confess I’m likely to try again or flip through for a more likely-looking section! They are, however, very important chapters, and reading them carefully turned out to make me think about a range of issues. (Many thanks to the Being Friends Together resource which offers interesting and enjoyable comprehension activities and greatly increased my engagement with this material!)

One issue which comes out of this – especially out of chapter 5 and the differences between Meeting of Friends in Wales/General Meeting for Scotland on the one hand, and other regional groups on the other – is about the relationship between our internal structures and the structures of our civil society. At the moment, Britain Yearly Meeting includes most of what is governed as the UK, except Northern Ireland (which belongs to Ireland Yearly Meeting). Because Scotland and Wales have devolved governments, the regional meetings in those areas have specific relationships with government. If the people of Yorkshire voted to have a devolved government of their own, would Quakers in Yorkshire – which already exists but is in a different position in our structures to the equivalent meetings in Scotland and Wales – need to take on this role in relation to the new parliament? A different but related question about our boundaries would arise if the people of Scotland chose, as they nearly did but actually didn’t, to leave the UK. Presumably we would have things to learn from Ireland Yearly Meeting, who have direct experience of operating across national borders.

Another issue is about the things we choose to include in the book. When explaining the book to non-Quakers, I sometimes say that Yearly Meeting decides what’s in the book, and the book tells you how to run the Yearly Meeting. This captures the sense of the mutual interdependence of the body (both the Yearly Meeting as a whole community of people and Yearly Meeting as the decision-making event). In chapter 6, it’s very close to being exactly true – there are places in chapter 6 which tell you which business to bring to which session of the meeting, for example – but it’s also not really true. If you started from scratch with only the book, I think the Yearly Meeting you would run would be quite different, in some subtle and some important ways, from what I expect from my attendance. You wouldn’t know about shuffle breaks. You might choose a very different pattern for the appointment of clerks. That in itself is probably inevitable, as no text can capture the constantly evolving expectations without describing every event in detail, but it does raise the question: which things do we need to lay down, and what can we leave open?

The other section which caught my eye was the paragraph within 6.01, a potted history of Yearly Meeting, which is about the Women’s Yearly Meeting. Women had been joining the main/men’s Yearly Meeting since the 1880s, and the separate women’s meetings were laid down in 1907. Gender balances and/or imbalances in the Society were on my mind anyway  when I discussed this with my local meeting last week, and I remembered having mixed feelings about a Young Quaker Women’s weekend I went on during my teens – many positive, some confused, only some of which would later be resolved by learning the word bisexual. If my local meeting held separate men’s and women’s business meetings this coming Sunday, the women’s meeting would be much larger than the men’s (typically our attendance at worship on Sunday is about a quarter to a third men). Some of our committees might not be represented at both meetings. Most but I think not absolutely all of our attenders would know which meeting they were expected to attend, and some might boycott both in solidarity. Our current clerking team would be able to provide one clerk for each meeting. I wonder which agenda items each meeting would discern required their attention, and whether they would reach the same conclusions.

Chapters 5 and 6 talk about how things are, and a little about how they have been. Reading them carefully has made me ask why things are as they are, and think about how they could be different under different circumstances. Overall, I’m actually very happy with how things are, but perhaps there are improvements and there will always be changing circumstances which make this kind of exercise a useful one.

K is for Kin-dom

The word ‘kin-dom’ was offered to Britain Yearly Meeting this year in a piece of ministry about our main theme, living out our faith in the world. It is recorded in the minute, our discerned or distilled essence of what we have been given in our waiting worship, in this paragraph:

What are the changes which are needed to the systemic injustice and inequality that we see in society? We need to go deeper to find the roots of our social ills, and how we might uproot the powers that maintain them. We should rethink what needs to grow in this world and what does not. Can we transform the way the world is going and recognise that everyone and everything on the planet matters and can be thought of as a divine commonwealth, or kin-dom? Quakerism is all about putting our faith in a power which transforms us.

(The full minutes can be downloaded from the Quakers in Britain website. This quotation is from minute 36, ‘Living out our faith in the world – are we ready to meet the challenge?’)

This term intrigued me at the time and it seems worth thinking about the resonances which it has. One reference is obviously to the term ‘kingdom’ – in the minute, ‘kin-dom’ is offered as a rephrasing of ‘divine commonwealth’, a term which has itself been around for a while as an alternative to ‘kingdom of God’ or ‘kingdom of Heaven’. Although the words ‘kin’ and ‘king’ both come from the same Anglo-Saxon root, they have in today’s English quite different connotations.

‘King’ is a familiar word, even while we have a queen on the throne, and has a long history of religious use. Whether this use reinforces patriarchal values (by setting up human kings as divine), or subverts them (by replacing the human king’s authority with God’s authority), depends on the historical moment and your perspective on it: in either case, it is difficult to use a ‘God as king’ image today without being distracted by this issue. This seems to have been the motivation for the coining of the term ‘kin-dom’ among Christian feminists. (This blog post summarises the history.)

‘Kin’, although not unknown, is a more obscure word today. I think it’s mainly used in some Christmas carols and the phrases ‘kith and kin’ (‘kith’ is an even more obscure word meaning ‘friends’ or ‘fellow countrymen’), and ‘next of kin’ (where the vagueness of the term seems like an advantage). ‘Kin’ does still mean ‘family’, though, and this gives the term ‘kin-dom’ a specific flavour.

In the Divine Commonwealth, we might all simply be fellow citizens. Hopefully, in working for the common good, we would be neighbours and even friends. In a kin-dom, though, the implication is that everyone is family. It’s possible to have family members who don’t matter to you, and perhaps even sometimes healthy to ignore them. In general use, though, family is taken to be very important, and this is an additional weight which ‘kin-dom’ – however hard it is to read aloud – adds to the minute, especially to the idea that “everyone and everything on the planet matters”.