Tag Archives: zoom

The complex futures of blended meetings for worship

Is your Quaker community struggling with decisions about online worship, in-person worship, and how and when and whether to combine them? If not, great. But if your community is finding this difficult, it might help to know that you’re not alone. In this blog post, I want to share some things I’m hearing from Quakers in meetings around Britain, and pose some questions which I think need further exploration. Please share your own experiences in the comments – there are clearly a wide variety of situations and it’s beneficial for all of us to hear from as many as possible.

So far, I’ve heard…

…that some meetings are having a lot of success with blended worship (with a group in a room together, perhaps in a meeting house or rented space, connected via microphone, speakers, camera and screen to a group online, usually on Zoom). When it works well, it gives everyone the option to attend in-person or online as they choose, it brings the whole meeting together, and everyone can see and hear each other. Even when there are minor problems, it shows a willingness to work to include everyone, and we can keep improving. It needs enough people to act as hosts and elders and provide technical support, and when it works, it can be flexible and gathered and moving. I put this first because although it’s not everyone’s experience, it’s important to know that it is good for some communities.

…that some meetings are experiencing conflict over the options. This is often a hard thing for Quaker communities to admit, because we would love to be wonderful peaceful loving harmonious pacifist groups, but we also need to be truthful about it. In a way, it would be surprising if we didn’t have some conflict over major and complex transition periods. The last nineteen months have been hard on everyone, but the effects have been very different, and some people have experienced bereavement, illness, loss of income, isolation, and other effects of the pandemic much more directly and extensively than others. As the pandemic continues but social expectations shift again, everyone is constantly renegotiating everything from meeting locations to mask wearing rules, and this affects our Quaker meetings as much as any other community. So it’s not really a surprise, even if it can be difficult to accept, that there might be painful disagreements and arguments over questions like the use of technology in worship and the range of worship options we offer at the moment.

…that some Quakers need, or really benefit from, being able to attend meeting for worship online. That might be worship in general, or it might be a specific Quaker community. It might be because of distance, health, personal preference, risk, or other things. It might be to do with the pandemic, or something which existed anyway. It might be related to the individual’s risk factors for coronavirus or to the infection risk they carry to others. This message has been around for a long time (and some Friends with long distances to travel or other situations preventing them attending in-person worship were meeting online before the pandemic), but the forced move online prompted by lockdown meant that it has been understood much more widely. I hope that we won’t lose it in the next round of changes.

…that some Quakers don’t experience online worship as fully gathered. The awareness of physical separation, the distractions of being at home, the intrusion of computer screens and other kit, difficulty settling down, loss of body language and other nonverbal connections, emotional and spiritual reactions to the situation, and probably all sorts of other things make it difficult or impossible for some Quakers to worship online, or enjoy the same quality of worship online. This is also not a universal experience – there are plenty of people who report that online worship is just fine or better for them – but it’s widespread and important. Some of the issues apply to computer screens, microphones, and other kit in the physical meeting room as well as to meeting entirely on Zoom.

…that it’s easy to unthinkingly talk about one experience as ‘real’ or ‘better’ and put down the other side. All sorts of comments can reflect assumptions that either online or in-person worship is the actual meeting and the other kind is an add-on. These might be based on markers that Quakers do traditionally take as important. For example, consistency in attending worship is often valued, so people who worship every week online might think of themselves as the real community when people who only attend in-person seemed to vanish during lockdown. (Even when we know intellectually that it’s an illusion, we can feel or speak that way.) Alternatively, some people put a high value on physical presence with people or in a specific place, and might think of returning to in-person worship as restarting real worship after making do without or with a feeble approximation. If both of those views are present in one community, at least some people are likely to feel put down and dismissed!

…that Quaker communities are already working on, and sometimes struggling with, decisions about how to move forward. Learning about the spiritual and practical needs present in a worshipping community, finding ways to meet them, balancing different and sometimes conflicting needs… none of this is new, but it has taken new forms, and lots of communities are facing decisions about online, blended, and in-person worship at the moment.

With all that in mind, questions I’m interested in exploring further include:

  • Do you recognise yourself and/or your community in the things I’ve said here? What else is happening?
  • How do we make sure we are finding out about the needs of everyone in our communities? What about people who are on the margins or who want to join but can’t or who aren’t made welcome? How does internet technology affect our ability to discover these things?
  • What do our discernment processes need to do to enable our communities to make good decisions about these issues?
  • Whatever format our worship takes, how do we ensure its quality and depth? What helps to make a meeting gathered? How do we detect that, how do we talk about it, and how do we support one another to participate in worship as fully as possible?

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.

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.

The Internet is Real

The internet is real. Things which happen online really happen.

Depending on your experience of the internet, this might seem anywhere from completely obvious to blatantly untrue. In this post, I want to explore why after some consideration I’ve decided that it is true, and why it matters.

Recently I hear someone describing a meeting from a while ago in which some of the people were physically gathered and some were present via an internet connection. In her description, she contrasted those who were ‘really’ there with those who were there ‘virtually’. I understand why and this is a common way of thinking about such situations – but I also think it opens up the path for a really problematic mistake.

There’s also a lot of discussion around at the moment about how a remote meeting, for example via video conferencing software, is different to one taking place in person. I agree that it’s useful to get at that difference and notice what does and doesn’t happen – but that difference only makes it a different thing, not an unreal thing.

A meeting held online is still a meeting. A person you talk to online is still a person. A relationship which happens through an internet connection is still a relationship and it involves a connection between two people.

Why is it a problem to say that the ‘virtual’ is different from the ‘real’? When I was young, I was taught that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. I spent a long time trying to pretend that was true – but it isn’t. Words and the lack of words, the way you are treated and the way people behave, has a very real effect. This is not to diminish the problems of physical violence: sticks, stones, fists, and bombs are all damaging and at the same time that lockdown is putting some of us in much more contact with the internet, it is also leaving some people in more physical danger from abusive relationships and other problems. It is to place a value on mental and emotional health which isn’t always present in the society in which I live. If it were true that words could never hurt, they could also never help or otherwise affect us. If it were true that the social world to which words belong had no effect on us, it might also be the case that stuff which happens online wasn’t real.

Words can hurt – and encourage and support. Someone in a video conference (as those who have been trolled or Zoom bombed know) can hurt – or help. At the moment, I’m talking to a lot of people, mainly in the Quaker community, who were previously aware of the internet as an option, perhaps for a limited range of activities or in a rather abstract way. They are now suddenly using the internet for almost everything, and finding steep learning curves with new software and being surprised by just how many things are already happening online. A lot of us are very grateful to have this option – and aware of those who don’t. Some are also puzzled or inclined to keep regarding it as unreal or second-rate. Saying that the internet is real doesn’t mean you have to like it, either: I don’t like mangoes, but they’re real.

There are things for which a purely online meeting is obviously not adequate: getting a massage or going to the dentist, for example. But a meeting held by video conferencing is still a meeting – it can make you feel better or worse, decide your action points and your attitude – even as you might struggle with the dissonance of the presence of faces and voices in the absence of bodies. And the chat you have on Facebook is real, and the connection you feel when someone posts is real, and the affection – and the annoyance and the ambivalence – we build up as we meet the same people again over time are all real. It’s virtual too, of course, but that’s the medium, not the message: a hologram of a dinosaur is a real hologram of a dinosaur.

Implying that things which happen online aren’t real, while perhaps useful for expressing frustration at what the internet can’t do or enabling you to dismiss things about it you dislike, doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the situation. For those who have made real connections through the internet – often an important source of social contact for disabled people, for those who are isolated, for most of us who are in lockdown or social distancing, and for those who anyway chose to connect online through social media, email, dating sites, and so on – hearing that online friendships aren’t real, online dating is disordered, or connections through the internet will never measure up to the standards set by those who can choose to focus on in-person connections, can be deeply hurtful. Please don’t even start down that road. Online stuff is real stuff.