Saturday, 20 June 2020

#BlackLivesMatter: A White British Quaker's Perspective

An engraving print depicting Black slaves being taken by white slave traders, including a family being split up.
'Slave Trade' by John Raphael Smith, after George Morland's
‘Execrable human traffick, or the affectionate slaves’
Recent events have brought back to wider public consciousness that rallying cry, “Black Lives Matter”. It comes from the United States of America, but its resonance is felt around the world. As we see from the incidents that prompt outcry, it is most easily associated with excess deaths of black people – but it’s about a lot more than that.
Now, most Quakers in Britain are white. Not all of us, by any stretch, but definitely most. We’re also mostly relatively educated, with a much higher incidence of post-graduate qualifications than the general population, and there’s a definite tendency towards being culturally middle class. This has a lot of results, some of which I’ve written about before, but one of them is a real difficulty in engaging with the deep issues that underlie the statement that Black lives matter. I’ve seen Quakers in public on social media respond to that simple statement with one of the most problematic responses that we see everywhere – that “all lives matter”.
Why is that statement a problem? After all, don’t we – with our pacifist tradition and believe in a sort of universal divinity – really fundamentally believe that all lives matter? Yes, of course we do. It would be silly to suggest otherwise. In fact, especially among Quakers, it’s so obvious that it doesn’t even need saying. So why do we need to say that Black lives matter?

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

The Choice of Judas?

A section of a painting of the Last Support, showing Judas reaching for food. The painting is considered to be in Byzantine style, though dating from circa 1100 CE.
Judas reaches for the food, School of Monte Cassino, c.1100
In keeping with my previous writings concerning ‘Times and Seasons’, and with conditions being so different from the usual at the moment, I have been reflecting on the Easter story.
I don’t have a great deal of skin in this game, not being a Christian or believing in the divinity of Jesus – or at least any more divinity than anyone else. Still, it is the tradition I grew up in. The irreligiosity of my family didn’t diminish the exposure to the story that one gets from wider society. It is a story that few who grew up in the UK, at least around the time I was doing so, could avoid knowing about.
Of course, without more study than even most Christians put into it, you get a very simplistic idea of the story. As with the Christmas story, the story we generally get through liturgy, or being taught in school, or seeing dramatic interpretations, is a sort of hodgepodge of the different gospel accounts. The journey into Jerusalem, assorted miracles, the Last Supper, the betrayal at Gethsemane. Yet all of these elements are different in different gospels, as I noted in previous writing concerning the Last Supper. Now, I am going to focus on the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, a story whose meaning I’m not sure is appreciated as best it might be – and a story that has been used down the centuries to justify injustice.

Monday, 23 March 2020

Meeting Without Meeting

A woman sits cross-legged on the floor under a window, with a laptop on her lap and a cup of coffee in one hand, while the other operates the laptop.
Well, life is different right now, isn’t it?
For context, just in case people stumble into this once life is back to normal (whatever that ends up looking like), this is written and published during significant social distancing restrictions in Britain due to the Covid-19 pandemic. For the benefit of the international audience reading this immediately, as well as a future audience, we’re currently (22nd March 2020) being asked not to gather in any sort of group, not to socialise, to work from home if possible, not to go out except as necessary or if we can ensure a minimum 2m distance from anyone else (they want us to still get exercise seems to be the main reason for that). Workplaces are shutting down or going to remote working. Bars, restaurants, theatres, cinemas, cafes have all been asked to close, except for selling take-away food. The government is offering grants to employers to help cover salaries of people who might otherwise be laid off. Panic buying continues to empty supermarket shelves of toilet rolls, soap, some tinned goods, and bread (among other things).
Now, in the context of all of those other things, this next feature is fairly unimportant – but it’s the reason for this blog post, so it’s going to have some prominence.

Saturday, 21 March 2020

Worship and Copresence

Meeting together is pleasant, to be sure. We value our Friends as friends, and we value our relationships. We value the pleasure of catching up over a cuppa, of seeing the children of the Meeting tearing around the building. Of seeing the familiar faces, and occasionally welcoming new ones.
The heart of Meeting for Worship, though, is worship. We may have different ideas about what that means, but most would agree on coming together in silence, waiting on the Spirit (or whatever we might call it), and hearing the ministry that we hope will come from its inspiration. It is not merely being together in a space and being quiet. It is a silence not of the absence of noise, but of quieting the self to be open to Light. We do it together because we have generally found it more effective than doing it alone. It is an active passivity, and a shared endeavour that usually involves no visible effort.

Monday, 10 February 2020

The Cathedral and the Bazaar (and Quakers)

As some of you will be aware, I’ve put a fair bit of time in my life into software development – I’ve earned a living doing it, I’ve studied it formally, I’ve done it as a hobby. Some of this has been connected, to a variable extent, to the ‘free and open source software’ community, as much a social movement as a software development model, in which the source code of software is available, anyone can modify it, and there’s no restrictions in how you use it. This approach has given us Linux, which I imagine almost all of you have heard of, as well as office productivity packages like LibreOffice and OpenOffice, and specialist software like the database systems MySQL and PostgreSQL or the statistical software package R.
One of the great figures of the philosophy of free and open source software, Eric S. Raymond, wrote a famous essay about different approaches to open source development. Originally presented at a conference for Linux developers in 1997, and later published in a collection bearing the same title in 1999 (the book is still evolving, and available free on his website). That essay, and book, is called The Cathedral and the Bazaar. It talks about two models, the cathedral model and the bazaar model, that broadly describe the way most open source projects had been developed up to that point. So, what does this have to do with religion, what does it have to do with Quakers? Some of you might have a guess already, but read on – through some more about software development – and all will become clear.

Saturday, 8 February 2020

Reflection on ‘Maxim 5’ (Each of Us Dies)

Each of us dies with our work incomplete.
Maxim 5
Some people have told me that they find this very short ministry depressing. I guess I can see that. On the other hand, it’s a bit like “things are always in the last place you look”, or “a letter always reaches its destination”. Not as much of an absolute tautology as those, in that one doesn’t generally look anywhere else for something once they’ve found it (and no-one says it can’t also be in the first place you look), and wherever a letter arrives is, by definition, its destination (even if it isn’t the intended destination).
No, this one is, to me, extremely simple in essence and very complex in implication. The essence is simply this: there is always more we might have done. Every life that ends is a loss of someone who could contribute, albeit some of that loss may have occurred earlier than the point of death in the case of senescence or degenerative and/or progressive illnesses. Whatever you do, whatever amazing work you have done, you could always have done more.

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Reflection on ‘Aphorism 4’ (Every Prejudice)

Every prejudice that exists in your society is a part of you. To deny it is to refuse to fight it.
Aphorism 4
To me this ministry is a direct and clear challenge. Many of us, and Quakers not least, like to think that we are so enlightened and have moved beyond prejudice and bigotry. We like to tell ourselves comforting lies, and this is a key example.
It’s understandable. We can be so scathing of those who are blatant racists, so negative about employers with sexist policies or pay rates, so condemnatory of those who attack others for their faith, that it is a simple matter of psychological self-defence that we struggle to see the speck in our eye when we decry the beam in another’s. Yet while it may not be the degree of hypocrisy described in the Sermon on the Mount, still, it is hypocrisy.
I’d imagine that a lot of you got a little defensive at that, as well. At being accused not only of being prejudiced but hypocritical as well. Here’s the thing:

Thursday, 23 January 2020

Generations

Three landline telephones rest on a stone surface. On the left is a black rotary dial phone, in the middle a lime green push-button touchtone phone, and on the right a digital cordless phone rests in its cradle.
So your generation changed the world?
You protested war, camped at Greenham.
You fought in wars for freedom, or wars of imperialism.
You dodged the draft, you called for peace.
So your generation changed the world?
With the summer of love, you called for change.
The sexual revolution, women’s liberation.
You saw what could be, and worked to make it real.

Saturday, 4 January 2020

Reflection on ‘Maxim 4’ (Fox is no authority)

Fox is no greater authority than you or I, nor was his access to the true authority any greater than ours.
Maxim 4
I was not surprised that this one was controversial for some Friends. I suppose I wish I were surprised, but really I was more relieved that it seemed very few found it challenging.
George Fox is often spoken of as the founder of the Religious Society of Friends. He was certainly a charismatic leader (and for those into Christian theology, that applies in both the everyday and technical sense), and the proto-Quakers of the North West of England did coalesce around him. Yet it is in the very nature of what he taught – and he wasn’t the only one teaching it, mind you – that we not ascribe authority to other people. The message being shared by various spiritual teachers of the time, including Fox, was that we all had access to the ultimate source of teaching and authority. Not only did we not need intercessory priests, as asserted by Luther and Calvin, but every single one of us could sit down and find the still small voice within, and know some measure of God’s guidance and God’s will (at the time, there would have been no question as to whether or not it should be identified as such).

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

‘Birthright’ Quakers

Several meeples, wooden playing pieces in stylised human form, on a wooden tabletop. Most are green, some are yellow. One of each colour is in the foregroud, while those in the background are out of focus. The yellow foreground meeple is slightly further forward and more in focus than the green foreground meeple.
For quite some time, Quakers have found it worthwhile – or at least traditional – to have an idea of who is formally part of our Religious Society. Quite naturally, we refer to people who have such formal status members; in Britain, we refer to those who have some degree of relationship with a Meeting but are not in membership as attenders. Membership has formally existed for some time, and while there are naturally voices who wish to see it abolished – and even more who wish to see it reformed – it has persisted. In Britain Yearly Meeting, we (supposedly) require that people in certain roles be members, though the only role that this seems to be universally applied to is that of trustee, a restriction that has sound legal basis. Quaker faith & practice recommends that clerks of meetings, elders, overseers, treasurers, registering officers and members of nominations committees should be in membership (Qf&p 3.24).
Nowadays, people principally come into membership in Britain Yearly Meeting by applying for it, and going through some sort of process. This usually involves a visit from seasoned members who talk about the application with the applicant, and produce a report, which is generally a sort of spiritual biography, though it can take many forms, and largely serves to help the Area Meeting as a whole to better know the new member. There are also provisions for a child to be brought into membership on the application of a parent or guardian, and I consider both the adult and child processes below.

Sunday, 29 December 2019

Back from Unplanned Hiatus

A black and white closeup of the wheels of a steam locomotive.
As my regular readers will have noticed, I’ve been a little bit lax in posting of late. So, as I’m finally back on track and ready to get on with somewhat regular posting again, I thought I’d let you know something of why.
My posting schedule had become a bit more infrequent when I started some new work around last November. Unfortunately, the nature of the work means I can’t talk about what it is publicly (and if you know, as some of you will, please don’t you talk about it publicly either). Work that pays solid money is always going to have to take priority, at least until such time as this blog somehow earns me something solid towards my living costs (and slim chance of that, though if you think it deserves it please do consider contributing to my Patreon – the more I’m making there, the more reliable my posting will be). So while that work is variable, I’m going to take all the days I can of it in order to be financially not-in-a-crisis. Having this work is good news, it means my wife and I are a little more secure (though not as secure as we would be if it were a reliable, set amount of work), and that’s great. It does mean other things were under a little more pressure and some things got squeezed out.

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Reflection on ‘Aphorism 3’ (Do not ask for lessons)

Do not ask for lessons; all I can give are opportunities.”
Aphorism 3
This is an interesting one, to be sure. To understand what it might be taken to mean, we must consider the possible meanings of different parts of it. For instance, what is meant by ‘lesson’, and what by ‘opportunities’? More profoundly, in whose voice should it be taken as being? At the same time, it is a very simple statement that seems to have a fairly straightforward meaning, at least from the point of view of certain approaches to education. So straightforward that it might be considered a pat answer itself, in fact (though that adjective, pat, has some divergence in meaning that means it might be appropriate whether the explanation is trivial and misguiding or simple and correct).
Let us first consider that straightforward answer. A popular view of education, of the process of learning, is that the only true agent in the process is the learner. Constructivist theories of education hold that knowledge cannot be transmitted, only constructed by the individual. In that context, even modified in such variants as social constructivism (where knowledge construction takes place in the context of interaction between individuals), a more traditional ‘lesson’, in which knowledge is transmitted from teacher to student, is impossible – or at least ineffective. The educator instead provides opportunities for the construction of knowledge, facilitates the process. It might be said, then, that this aphorism is simply a truism in the context of constructivist educational theory. However, in receiving it as ministry it behoves us to look beyond that simple explanation. That is where we must consider the possible meanings, beyond that of constructivism, and the voice of the statement.

Saturday, 28 September 2019

Reflection on ‘Maxim 3’ (No system of formal ethics)

No system of formal ethics can properly account for the range of human experience.”
Maxim 3
Portraits of Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham.
This is an interesting one to approach, because one has to understand the phrase “system of formal ethics”. I assume, as the ministry came through me, that it should be understood through the lens of my own understanding at the time. After all, I do not get the sense that ministry is literally words being put in our mouths (or at our hands); it is, rather, a sense of knowledge or the shape of an idea that makes use of our own faculties to be recorded. It is in this way that ministry also comes in the form of verse or visual artwork. This does not mean that the person through whom the ministry is delivered understands it fully, of course – rather that they have better context than others, perhaps, for discerning the meaning of specific terms. It’s important to know that sometimes that context gives little overall insight, but when it comes to what a phrase means, there are certainly times that it is helpful.
(There are also times when ministry comes in a way that adamantly insists on certain words being used without conscious understanding of why on the part of the person through which it comes. That is not the usual situation, in my experience, but it is not uncommon.)
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