Thursday, 28 September 2017

Back from Woodbrooke

As previously mentioned, I was privileged to be invited to speak at Woodbrooke's course on The Impact of Diversity of Belief on Quaker Practice: Discernment, Decision Making, Worship. That course is now over, and I'm back home. You may have noticed that I posted a piece of written ministry on Thursday – The Contemporary Quaker Maze. This arose during reflection on an excellent session from Craig Barnett (no relation) on Tuesday morning, leading to a feeling that British Quakerism is in a period of profound transition; where that will take us is hard to know, but it definitely depends what we all do now.

The purpose of inviting me was that I deliver a session specifically on Quaker Business Method, in the context of diversity of belief, specifically non-theism; this session was delivered, over two 90 minute sessions, on Wednesday morning. With a course title and description like that, I had no idea what sort of people would be coming. Would they be open-minded about diversity of belief? Would they be worried about the increasing presence and visibility of non-theism? Would they feel that Christianity is being driven out of British Quakerism? Would they be worried that their own, less traditional beliefs, would be driven out by people who are worried about these things? It made things a bit more nerve-racking, and indeed I was more careful with presentation because of this. It is an issue that is a live source of worry for people with all sorts of positions.

There were also sessions from: Howard Saunders, about Buddhist meditation practices; Helen Rowlands, talking about the background and work of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group, particularly the “Theology Think Tank”; and Diana Lampen, tying things together on the final morning with sharing and listening exercises. In the afternoons, participants could choose between reflective activities, some analytic theology, or the opportunity to work in the art room, after which Friends came together to share the fruits of these activities. The course was ably coordinated, facilitated and shepherded by Woodbrooke staff tutors Rhiannon Grant and Timothy Ashworth, and I like to think they also gained a lot from the time, as well as giving so much to it. I certainly know that I did. I also had several conversations concerning to what extent prominent Quaker writers like David Boulton and Derek Guiton are adding to the debate, versus adding to anxieties.

My session apparently went very well, and Friends present thought it would be good to have something similar for their Meetings. This is gratifying, and also a little frightening, but I'm absolutely up for it – if there's a chance it can help more Friends as much as it apparently helped some who were present, I need to live adventurously. Anyone interested should contact Woodbrooke about the possibility, through Woodbrooke on the Road, mentioning me by name. I had a conversation with the person who coordinates all of this, so they know that there might be interest.

I'm not going to write a blow-by-blow account of the course, nor even go into great detail on my own session right now. You may, however, expect a lot of deliberate writing posts over the coming days and weeks, both of my reaction to each and every part of the course, and delivering some of the same material and ideas as the session I presented. It feels likely that there will be some more related written ministry as well, though I obviously can't predict that with confidence.

This is an issue that's going to keep going around among British Quakers until we find ways to resolve it. A point made by many over the course, including myself, is that we can't just paper over our differences, pretending that we are really saying the same things with different words. The different beliefs, experiences and conceptions around the Divine are not equivalent. But perhaps they are compatible, and the vast majority of British Quakers – who are not keen to fundamentally change Quaker tradition or exclude anyone based on how they experience and conceive of the divine – can feel that there is reconciliation without homogenisation. I certainly hope so.
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