Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Spiritual Accompaniment

Two people sat beside a lake in forested mountainous terrain. One points out something to the other.
I had a hard time, sitting down to write this post, with how I was going to refer to what I'm trying to talk about. It's a difficult idea. Three terms came up in conversations, in reading, or in thinking about things. What I'm talking about is certainly related to the priestly vocation, the calling that is considered in mainstream clergy to be a call to the priesthood – but we have no separate priesthood; we have rather a priesthood of all believers, and unlike some other groups with something approaching such a priesthood, we do very little to emphasise a priestly role for some over others in the liberal branch of the Religious Society of Friends. It's also related to the idea of the teaching ministry, a term in mainstream Christianity (and in some less mainstream churches) for the service given by suitably qualified members of the faith community in shepherding and guiding the spiritual development of their companions in their faith. A term perhaps more comfortable for liberal Quakers is spiritual accompaniment, which means much the same – in terms of goals – as teaching ministry, but with less implication of a didactic approach.
Whatever term you might prefer, the idea is this – that sometimes we need help from another person on our spiritual journeys, not just the help of the inward teacher, and perhaps that some people are suited or called to that work, perhaps only for a time.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Raising Barriers

A fence composed of circular poles of varied heights.
Why are you so fond of boundaries, of divisions? Of creating groups and definitions, of knowing who is within the same walls as you.
You raise them everywhere. She speaks differently, he dresses strangely, they have strange and unfamiliar beliefs. Countries and parties, faiths and communities. It seems you cannot meet new people without assessing how much they differ from you.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Understanding and Trusting Quaker Nominations

Engraving of Elizabeth Fry, seeming to look at the reader, overlaid with text reading "Friends - your Meeting needs YOU"
Nominations is one of the more mysterious, and in my experience often mistrusted, processes in the world of Quakers. A relatively small number of Friends go into a room, and comes out with a list of who should be fulfilling which role in their Meeting. They pounce on unsuspecting Friends, or possibly just send them an email, letting them know that the committee has discerned their name for some terrifying, or just unexpected, role, demanding to know whether the Friend is willing and able to take on that role.
Well, that's a bit of a caricature, but I'm sure most experienced Friends recognise that image of nominations. It's also likely that a fair proportion of experienced Friends have served on a nominations committee or other nominating group at some point, though not everyone ever does – quite rightly, as not everyone really has the requisite gifts, just like not everyone is suited to being a treasurer or clerk, or elder.
There are all sorts of variations in nominations practice, some of which are necessary, or at least logical and reasonable, adaptations to circumstance. Some are innovations that are in keeping with the essential principles of Quaker nominations, and some are, frankly, compromises of those principles in the name of expediency. In this post I will explore what I consider to be the essential principles of Quaker nominations, both spiritual and practical, and how they can be implemented in such a way that it maximises the trust that Friends not on the nominating committee can have in the process.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

On Marriage

Computer generated image of two simple gold wedding bands, one lying partially atop the other
Marriage is not a joining of souls,
For all souls are already connected.
Marriage is not a set of promises,
For lovers always make promises, and marriage is more.
Marriage is not a contract,
An agreement between parties for mutual gain.
Marriage is not a tool,
Not a way to fix or improve something ailing.
Marriage does not occur in truth out of choice.
It happens naturally, or not at all.
The outward forms are empty,
If pursued without the inward reality.
True marriage is the joining of lives in the care of the Spirit;
Where recognised, it is right to mark and celebrate,
It is a source of joy.
True marriage needs no validation of church or state to flourish,
But those married and those around them are strengthened
By recognition of that condition.
Even those whose minds know not the Presence of the Spirit,
Can recognise the wealth and love and beauty,
Of true marriage in the Spirit.
Written November 2017

Friday, 24 November 2017

What Is "That of God in Every One"?

Engraving of George Fox
We often quote George Fox, but do we do so
without regard for what he meant?
One of the most well-known, and to many well-loved, traditional Quaker phrases is “that of God in every one”. Perhaps because of the advance of liberal sensibilities, perhaps because the phrase is used in isolation so often, rather than in its usually-cited context, the meaning of the phrase seems to have become rather woolly, disconnected from how it was originally meant, and – to my mind – less than useful.
Nowadays, people often seem to take it, or use it, to suggest that there is something good about each person, that there is something worthwhile or even laudable about each of us in this strange species we call “human”. That's an idea, as far as it goes, and it's often something worth pointing to, but people struggle with it when relating it to historical (or modern) figures in whom it is difficult to see any redeeming quality – be it serial killers, genocidal dictators, or ethically and morally bankrupt figures in business and politics. It's still valuable even then, as the reminder that there are essential principles to our treatment of people, now enshrined in law in many jurisdictions, that cannot be compromised however awful we think the people in question might be. However, it misses what I consider to be both the essence of what Fox likely meant in that famous quote, and the most useful interpretation we can put on it today.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Improving Business: Small Group Discernment

A small group of people works around a table, one taking notes
Quaker decision-making, in the sense of collective discernment, is one of the most consistent elements of Quaker practice among the worldwide family of Friends. Waiting on the Spirit for guidance and taking decisions based on the leadings that that Spirit brings out of silence is an amazing expression of faith, of trust in the process and in whatever-it-is that you believe gives us those leadings.
However, there are variations in the practice, related to different communities and traditions, or to do with the circumstances of the discernment. One major factor for this is the size of the group. If you're dealing with a group from around a dozen to several dozen, it's all much of a muchness – the basic principles and common expectations work in most such cases, like leaving silence between contributions, the structure of business items, and the clear expectation that each Friend minister at most once. However, with much larger groups, or with smaller groups, things can't easily work in exactly the same way. In those cases, you need to vary practices and expectations slightly, while maintaining the principles that underlie them.
In this post, I will be sharing some of my thoughts, largely based on experience, on small group discernment. This is especially useful for committees, when they are taking decisions by discernment rather than discussion (I tend to think a lot of committee work can be more effectively conducted by discussion, though by no means all of it – but that is a subject for a future post). However, it's also relevant to smaller Meetings, who may simply not get more than half a dozen or so people at a business meeting – and for whom the burden of expectations of the usual conventions of Quaker Business Method may become a barrier to effective working.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

The Trouble With Membership

One person uses both hands to clasp the right hand of another person.
There are few matters in British Quakerism that seem to excite as much disagreement as the question of membership. Theological diversity is certainly one, but in my experience membership is certainly up there among the most contentious, though probably still somewhat behind the concern over non-theism.
Membership was not an idea that seemed to matter much – or necessarily be thought of at all – in the early years of the Religious Society of Friends. Accounts vary somewhat as to why it became important, whether it was in order to know who should get material support from a Meeting when they were in hardship, or in order to demonstrate bureaucratic structures to satisfy the secular government (if the government could be said to be secular at that time), or various other explanations. Whatever the reason, it became necessary to identify who was a member, and procedures for bringing people into membership – or indeed removing them from membership. For a long time, in Britain, those born to parents in membership were considered to be in membership themselves, from birth - “birthright membership”; the possibility of only one parent being a member wasn't often a concern, given the fact that marrying someone not in membership was cause to be removed from membership, and society in general being such that children born to unmarried parents were, at least visibly, unusual. I suspect that where a widow came into membership during her pregnancy, the child would be considered a birthright member; I don't know what happened with new members who brought small children with them – it would make an interesting bit of research, but not one I have time for at present.

Friday, 17 November 2017

New Layout on Mobile

Just a quick note to say that I've updated the mobile theme of this blog, which should hopefully improve the experience of mobile users. Please let me know - such as in the comments of this post - if you have any feedback.

You can still access the old site by clicking, near the bottom of the page, on "view web version".

Monday, 13 November 2017

My Convincement Experience

A magnolia-painted meeting room with one small window, and several rows of traditional wooden benches.
The meeting room at Pardshaw, site of some of my early
Quaker experiences. Photo by Andrew Rendle.
There's something that I think can be a really revealing, insight-provoking part of each of our personal experiences to share, and that we don't really share that much – how each of us that considers ourselves a Quaker came to do so. I don't mean simply how we came into contact with Friends, or when and why we started going to Meeting for Worship, or otherwise became involved in Quaker organisations. I don't mean how we got to know some Quakers at a peace camp, or on a political campaign, or at a demonstration, or at Pride.
I'm talking about the experience that made each Quaker realise that this was their spiritual path – the experience of what we have called, from our earliest years, convincement. My spellchecker doesn't like that word, probably because it's not really used much outside of Quaker discourse, and perhaps not that much even among Quakers. Online dictionaries give a perfectly good definition, though – in this sense, it refers to the action or state of being convinced. If you're new to Quaker discussion, it's worth pointing out that this might be similar to what other faiths refer to as conversion. We speak of Friends becoming convinced, rather than being converted, a difference that has a number of reasons feeding into it, and really beyond the scope of this post; perhaps I will return to it in another. If it makes it easier for you to think about, feel free to read “convince” as “convert”, but do be aware that you are missing some shading of meaning when you do so.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Belief, Experience, Conception, Communication, Understanding

In an excellent blog post, Craig Barnett (no relation) recently wrote about the limitations of thinking of faith in terms of belief; rather than a conventional, simplistic view of belief leading to action, a better description – especially for Quakers – is of a cycle, practice leading to experience leading to community leading back to practice. Personally, I think that cycle should be bi-directional, but generally I think this is a good model, as far as it goes.
People, however, have a habit of thinking about things, not to mention talking about things (even if sometimes they don't do it in that order). It is when we talk about our experiences that our language, our choice of words and what we mean by them, our choice of phrases and references, brings something else to the fore, which we tend to refer to as “belief” – how we refer to God/the Divine/the numinous/the Spirit/whatever, the characteristics implicit in the terms we use, create the picture of what the speaker believes in.
For many liberal Quakers, however, theology – questions of the nature of the Divine – is a nebulous thing. I have heard many take a partially agnostic view, that whatever the Divine is in incomprehensible to us, fundamentally unknowable, which is a position with which I agree. The words we use don't reflect the kind of certainty that “belief” implies, when used in a religious context; rather, they are our groping after meaning that reflects our experience and attempts at understanding, indefinitely provisional. They are the shadows on the wall of the cave. So, if they don't reflect belief, what do they reflect?

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Pantheons and Archetypes: Wisdom

Photo of an owl
In an earlier post, I wrote about the role of pantheons in various faiths, and how liberal Quakers might find them useful in their own spiritual approach and practice. This post is the first of what I hope will be a series – if there is enough interest in them – of looking at specific cases of this principle, specific archetypes and the deities that evoke them in various pantheons. This will include ways that Friends might find meaningful to incorporate these ideas in their own practice, if they feel so inclined.
In this first such post, I will consider the archetype of the wisdom deity. Wisdom is, in this case, distinct from knowledge, and somewhat distinct from intellect – in that some examples we will consider see the ideas of wisdom and intellect as more interconnected, and some less. Wisdom is not related to the acquisition of knowledge, but may be related to the ability to put together information to come to an appropriate conclusion, and is generally related to the ability to determine the right course to take beyond a simple optimisation of the outcome – looking past immediate objectives to peripheral or longer-term results.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

We Are Not Above Prejudice & Discrimination

9 hands of various skin tones, clasped one atop the other, viewed from above, with some forearm visible for each.
Over the years of my time at Young Friends General Meeting (YFGM), I had the benefit of learning, by explanations and by example, from a lot of smart and experienced Quakers. One of those, in the first several years, was Maud Grainger, now Faith in Action tutor at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre. I am still in touch with Maud, at least in the way that most people seem to be in touch with half of the people they've ever met nowadays (yay for Facebook), and so I saw her excellent blog post, on the face of it about a particular t-shirt – but really about the reasons why someone, especially a “professional Quaker”, should wear it. Do take the time to read the post, it's excellent, and not long.
It is a point that I've touched upon in the past, such as my written ministry on disability, or my recent post on how Quakers should respond to the #MeToo phenomenon and the widespread sexual misconduct behind it. I gladly stand behind Maud when she says,

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Quakers as a Community of Practice

A circle of hands and feet of many people, laid on grass
When I was studying educational research, there was a particular model, generally applied to informal education, that I became particularly taken with. From the first, I though that it may be applicable to liberal Quakers. Communities of Practice are a theoretical model developed by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, hereafter referred to as Lave & Wenger. It is a model of what is called situated learning, wherein learning is not considered the transfer of knowledge and skills from those who already possess them to those who do not, but rather the development of knowledge and skills within a social situation.
A community of practice is, unsurprisingly given the name, defined by commonality of practice. Where a community of practice has many units, such as local branches, one characteristic that determines that it is truly a single community of practice is that someone who normally participates in a single branch could participate in any branch without special notice or preparation, and that practice would be sufficiently similar between the two that the visitor can fully participate. It is this compatibility and centrality of practice that differentiates a community of practice from a community of interest, which the community is bound primarily by a common interest of some sort. In addition, most knowledge is tacit, gained from some sort of experience, rather than delivered in a didactic manner or reified in documentation.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Judging Acts of Love

The “physical act of love”, howsoever it manifests and between whoever engages in it, should be judged on only 4 things:
  • Does it flow from open honesty and common interest?
  • Is it freely chosen by those involved, and mutually consented to, with all capable of true consent?
  • Does it improve the well-being of all involved, providing a positive experience – or at least an honest attempt at one?
  • Does it promote love?

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Openings Is Now On Patreon

Patreon logo
You may have noticed, in recent weeks, a survey on the sidebar of this blog, asking if you might support a Patreon for this blog, along with my recent post about money. Well, I appreciate those who submitted an answer to that very simple question, and I've decided to move ahead with the idea. I do so in a spirit of living adventurously, not knowing what it might bring – but certain that it won't work if I don't do it, so I may as well do it.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Standing Up for Quaker Groundedness

In an earlier post, I argued that Quaker practice is essentially mystical. I stand by that point. However, it is also clear that this is not all there is to Quakerism. While my meaning of mysticism in that post is quite clear, there are connotations of mysticism that are unavoidable for many, and that jar with Quaker teaching. In this post, I will outline what those connotations are, why they jar in the minds of many Quakers, and why it is important that they continue to do so.
As I previously discussed, mysticism has the connotation of some of the more ill-defined spirituality approaches of the modern age, including New Age practices, conjuring images of billowing robes and the power of crystals. Even aside from that, people might think of the stylites, Christian ascetics who lived on pillars, believing that the mortification of their bodies would lead to the sanctification of their souls. It may even lead to poorly understood images of South Asian fakirs, beds of nails, that sort of thing. Overall, a lack of concern for the material or every day things of life. Even the understanding of mysticism that I argue fits Quakers, that of seeking through religious or spiritual efforts to attain spiritual understanding not accessible to the purely rational mind, has no obvious connection to the life that we live, to practical concerns. And yet it is the Quaker experience that our spiritual life drives decisions and actions in our practical life, and many if not most would say that the spiritual life is hollow if not accompanied by the practical life.

Friday, 3 November 2017

On Scripture

Do you really think that any text can encapsulate all that could be said of the Divine? Do you think that any text mediated by human thought and human hands is the unsullied word of God? You have reason and intelligence to address the world, and the divine spark itself to guide you. You reject these gifts when you abdicate your judgement to a text, however old and wise and beautiful it might be.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Poppies, Patriotism and Power

And so it is November. The annual pomp and ceremony of Remembrance bears down upon us, and the Royal British Legion's annual Poppy Appeal takes centre stage. Public figures – especially those who don't look properly “British” or who have ever expressed political views deemed not sufficiently patriotic – face the poppy test, as self-appointed arbiters of appropriate remembrance-related behaviour take aim over social media, letters pages, forums, and even broadcast media.
I don't know if I was just shielded from this as a child, or whether it has changed. When I was growing up, in the 80s and 90s, in the south-east of England, poppies were ubiquitous, certainly. There was a clear expectation that they be worn. What there wasn't, that I could see, was the vitriolic attacks on those who weren't wearing one, even without knowing the reason. There wasn't the association of the poppy, whatever the stated significance from the RBL, with support for current troops, and generic patriotism. It didn't have the connection, apparently despite the intentions of the RBL, with positive attitudes towards war now. To the best of my recollection, the meaning they seemed to signify was simply the honourable remembrance of the fallen, or at least the military fallen, in all wars, while being agnostic as to whether the wars were good or not.
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