Tag Archives: Yearly Meeting

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”.