Sunday, 31 December 2017

New Year(s)

Tomorrow, we mark a new year.
But then, today is a new year, too.
Every day, every hour, every minute is as much a new year as any other. It may be a cliché, but every day is the first day of the rest of your life.
When you are moved to make a change in your life, do not wait for a socially-sanctioned time for such changes. Likewise do not find things to change just to fall in line with traditions.
The Divine is a surer guide to such things, and their timing, than any calendar.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Outward vs Inward Silence

A crowded indoor shopping area
We can find the inward silence even at times of bustle and busyness.
Silence is a major feature of Quaker tradition; it features in the practice of all variations of Quaker practice, though most noticeably in unprogrammed Meetings. But what is this silence, as part of the Quaker way? Is it limited to the lack of noise, and a certain stillness, or does it go deeper than that? In this post, I shall try to explore this matter, and look at the difference between outward and inward silence.
I've previously published written ministry that touches on this, a short piece entitled Outward Silence, Inward Silence. It's very direct, with the general point that outward silence, while traditional and useful, is largely a tool to help us find inward silence. In this post, I will be exploring this idea in more detail, with practical examples and advice.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Safe Spaces

A microphone as you would find attached to a speaking lectern.
You hear a lot these days about “safe spaces”, be it from those who are advocating them or those who decry them as an assault on free speech. We hear about “no platforming”, and just recently the UK's Universities minister has warned that Universities could face a fine over such policies, as they should be seen to have a duty to uphold freedom of speech.
This is a really complicated issue, with intertwining concerns and subtle variations of meaning in terms like “safe space”, “no platform”, and “free speech”. It's also a concern for Quakers, as there have been, from various quarters at various times, suggestions that some Quaker spaces should be safe. So, let's take a look at some of the meanings given to these terms, which will also give an overview of the overall politics of the situation, and see what they mean for Quakers, both in our own spaces and in terms of our approach to wider society. Buckle in, it's a long ride.

Monday, 25 December 2017

Happy Christmas!

Scrabble letters spelling out "MERRY XMAS" on a bed of something that is supposed to look like snow, with out-of-focus lights in the background.
So, it is Christmas Day (in most of the world), and in case you've just browsed here for some light reading that fits the season, I've collected up links to my posts, both deliberate writing and written ministry, that relate to this festive season.

In A Quaker Christmas, I look at the Quaker testimony concerning times and seasons, how liberal Quakers do approach the holiday (in my experience), and a look at how we could retool the testimony to fit in with modern life and practice, and how the Religious Society of Friends is now constituted and situated.

In A Christmas Prayer, I share written ministry concerning this time of year. This one actually originally came to me during a Meeting for Worship, when I attended the mid-week afternoon MfW at my local Meeting.

In Modern Christmas and Equality, I look at some of the issues that came up in that ministry, and generally how the way Christmas is now done (at least in the English-speaking parts of the global economic north) interacts with ideas of equality.

In Everyone Can Draw Meaning From Christmas, I put the universalist, new-light-from-wherever-it-may-come, every-religion-has-something-to-teach treatment on Christmas itself, a look at what meaning the story of Christmas can have, spiritually, for those of any faith.

I also wish all of you a fond "Happy Christmas", or good wishes whatever celebration you may be partaking in at this time of year (it's a bit late to wish people a good Yule or Chanukah, but you get the idea). Thank you to all who've commented, here or elsewhere, and given that vital support to anyone writing - the knowledge that people are reading, and thinking & discussing. An especial thanks to those who've shown their appreciation, support and confidence by backing my Patreon. Expect to hear more from me before the New Year!

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Everyone Can Draw Meaning From Christmas

The Adoration of the Shepherds, Gerard van Honthorst
As explored in my pantheons and archetypes series (which I hope to return to in the new year, when I decide which archetype to look at next), I very much believe that all Quakers, whatever their theological tendencies, can benefit from consideration of the ideas and stories from different faiths and traditions. When I say this, I don't just mean that Christian and non-theist Friends should look at ancient pagan traditions – I also mean that non-Christians should look at Christian traditions and stories. This time of year is a great opportunity to give an example of this, how the stories of Christmas can be spiritually meaningful to anyone, regardless of the extent to which they believe in them.
It's really quite a story, when you think about it. We're going to get into a bit of history for this, and I'm no expert on this stuff, so I've probably gotten some stuff subtly (or horribly) wrong, but the general sense should be accurate enough. The context is of a faith community and society that is living under a fair degree of repression, albeit sporadic, by a foreign power – and that has a history of oppression and forced migration present in both their written and oral histories. That foreign power, Rome, is habitually tolerant of the religious preferences of their subject and client populations, within certain limitations. One of the absolute limits was human sacrifice, which is not relevant here, but one of the practical limits was that the religion had to be somehow compatible with the Roman state religion. Monotheistic cultures could be okay, as they might acknowledge the validity of other deities while cleaving strongly to their own. The Jewish faith, however, resisted the idolatry they saw in even acknowledging other faiths, and while the Roman habit would be to let them have their faith, they found that exclusivity uncomfortable.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Liberal Quakerism as a "Self Religion"?

A translucent, pale green crystal with a flat bottom rests on a wooden surface. The colour is deeper at the base and gets lighter as you get closer to the pointed tip.
Shall we align our chakras with healing
crystals? The Quaker Way isn't just another
New Age mishmash.
One thing I have seen said, from time to time about liberal Quakerism is that it has become a “self religion”. Usually, this is said by way of criticism, often (but not always) by fairly traditionalist Friends. In this post, I'll be taking a look at what this term means, and the extent to which liberal Quakerism – as I've experienced it – fits that definition, and some thoughts on the extent to which it should.
The term itself is not used entirely consistently. It is widely used in a derogatory way towards “new age” spirituality, even identified with such things, and is also used by the less vociferous critics of Scientology to describe that faith. However, the underlying and original meaning appears to be religions or spiritual paths that aim for the development of the self, with specific reference to new age and other paths that developed in the 70s and 80s. A characteristic that is often derided in these faiths in extreme individualism, the ability to cherry-pick from a range of traditions in your attempt to perfect yourself – though reports rather suggest this is rather less true of Scientology, which is generally considered a self religion. Thus, I tend to feel that the main defining quality of a self religion is the goal of self-perfection – whether the faith says this leads to apotheosis, results after death, or a better life here and now. However, the implications of pick-and-choose are probably very important in the allegation that liberal Quakerism has become a self religion, so that must also be borne in mind.
So, here's the first question: does Quakerism aim for the perfection of the self? If so, how, and to what end?

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Modern Christmas and Equality

A white kitten sits next to a string of Christmas lights, on a red cushion. The kitten is looking at the lights.
The kitten is not impressed by Christmas excess.
As I noted in my recent post on Quakers and Christmas, albeit in passing, the way we “do Christmas” in this country (and in some others) raises profound concerns regarding equality – particularly regarding economic inequality. This is something that I would expect to be of deep concern to Quakers, considering our long-standing testimony to equality and general concern for the well-being of our fellow people; it is also something that I think should be of concern for others that support such ideals of equality and social justice, from whatever source that conviction arises. It also leads to significant environmental impacts, but for now I'm concerned with the human impact of consumer culture – the environmental side of things can wait for another post.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

A Christmas Prayer

A lavishly decorated Christmas tree, in full colour in the top left fading to black and white in the bottom right.
My mind is drawn, today, to those who face particular difficulties at this time of year.
I think of those who are impoverished, struggling to meet the cultural expectations of how one is supposed to “do Christmas”.
I think of those who are bereaved, and going through Christmas without a loved one.
I think of those of fragile mental health, or who are physically limited, coping with the social expectations that go with this season.
I hold all these people in the Light, and hope that they may know comfort from the Spirit, however they understand it.
Written December 2017

Monday, 18 December 2017

Improving Business: Looking Beyond Quaker Methods

A pair of street signs. The upper one is green, points left, and reads "Choice". The lower one is red, points right, and also reads "Choice".
When making tough decisions, Meetings should consider a wide
range of tools to support their efforts.
Quakers have a wonderful and rich history and some brilliant methods for decision making; as my earlier posts in this series have started to reveal, these go beyond the “classic” Quaker Business Method, with variations and supporting strategies to be used around the discernment itself. However, sometimes we don't need to reach for Quaker things to handle decision-making in the best way. In this post, I will be exploring some secular strategies for both decision-making and support of decision-making, and situations in which they can be helpful as adjuncts to specifically Quaker practices.
I am aware, from previous conversations with various Friends over recent years, that some react with something approaching horror or scandal at suggestions such as these. On the other hand, there are also Friends who agree with the idea, having actually used such approaches successfully, and others who haven't tried them but as optimistically curious about the possibilities, as ways of breaking through situations which Quaker processes tend to be fairly bad at handling. I am sure all three groups will be among those reading this blog, and please feel free to continue the conversation in the comments section below, or elsewhere on the internet.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Trusting the Discernment of Others

You are responsible for your decisions, even where they are
confirming the decision of others.
Trusting the discernment of other Friends does not mean accepting it without question. Where a matter comes before you that has already been considered by another group, in Quaker discernment, due regard must be given to the fact that they have attempted to follow the guidance of the Divine – but you must also give the Divine the opportunity to guide you. Where a committee recommendation, or a nomination, comes before you, do not assume that the discernment of the committee is the last word. Give enough space and time for ministry to arise and be tested before accepting such matters, as it may be that the Spirit did move those who met on the matter already to make their proposal or their nomination – but the Spirit will not move you to accept it. Sometimes the fact of the proposal or nomination reaching your Meeting is what the promptings of the Divine have led to, and that is sufficient.
Written December 2017

Saturday, 16 December 2017

A Quaker Christmas

A close-up of a metallic red bauble with swirling white patterns, hanging on a Christmas tree. Other decorations and lights are out of focus in the background.
As I described in my previous post regarding Halloween, Quakers have a traditional testimony concerning times and seasons, that different days and different times of the year not have liturgical significance. However, as I also set out in that post, we can see value and benefit of festivals without ascribing them inherent religious significance.
In this post, I shall be applying the same approach to Christmas, and all of the things that go with it, both liturgically and culturally – advent, epiphany, even the secular new year celebration.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Your Ideas Wanted for New Post Series

A light bulb rests on a chalkboard, with chalk lines radiating from it to empty bubbles drawn in chalk.
As those who have signed up to my Patreon will be aware, I've been working for a little while on a longer piece, that will be published as a series of posts, looking at different approaches to the Divine and to Quaker business method. This builds on the ideas I presented at Woodbrooke earlier this year, looking at discernment in the context of a religious society that enjoys a wide diversity of beliefs.
In that presentation, I talked about the idea of conceptions of the Divine, along similar lines to those in my post on the subject of such conceptions (which rather drew on the work I did for the Woodbrooke presentation), talked about how they relate to different conceptions of what is going on in a Quaker business meeting, and laid out the traditional (theistic) view of business. I then followed this up with my own non-theist conception, and I was very gratified to see that people could largely accept that, while they could not be considered equivalent, not “the same thing in different terms”, they were compatible.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Science and Faith: A Quaker Perspective

Image is divided on the diagonal. In the upper left is a view of the interior of a heavily-ornamented cathedral, while in the lower right is an image of a microscope examining a slide with a piece of leaf.
A popular trope these days depicts faith and religion as opposed to science. The logic behind this is simple – science is based on testability, reproducibility, and acting based on evidence. Religion by it's nature is considered to require actions based on faith, rather than evidence, and many religious claims are inherently untestable, or at least such tests as may be argued to be possible have factors that make such testing not reproducible; in terms of philosophy or science, the claims are unfalsifiable.
Anti-religion advocates also often point to religious persecution of scientists, as in the case of Galileo Galilei, or of religious authorities resisting the adoption or teaching of science, as in the case of evolution (for some time) or the attempts to have schools teach intelligent design as science. However, it is also true that many great scientists have been religious, such as the (Quaker) astronomer Arthur Stanley Eddington, and the polymath Blaise Pascal. There are also cases of cultures and times where religion, even relatively authoritarian religion, has been a dominant feature of life, yet sciences have flourished – most notably the Islamic Golden Age.
The debate about whether religion in general is compatible with science will carry on in many places, especially online forums and blogs, for a long time yet. In this post, I will be addressing specifically the underlying assertion that faith stands opposed to reason and evidence, and applying specifically my own non-theist Quaker approach to faith to look at the implications.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Purpose, Practice and Structure

A rather tatty copy of the second edition of the 1994 "Quaker faith & practice"
Quaker faith & practice, essentially the handbook of Britain Yearly
Meeting, devotes considerable space to the structures of different
tiers of the YM, AMs and LMs, the expectations of various roles,
and so forth.
In a recent blog on the website of Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM), Alistair Fuller suggests that we might benefit from re-examining our structures and practices, to make sure that they serve us and our faith, rather than vice versa. As a response to that post, and being British myself, this post is very much written from a BYM perspective. The way different roles are broken down between different positions and committees, and the terms used for them, will vary between different YMs, and will be even more different in programmed traditions. As such, there's no attempt at all to put an international perspective on the specifics – I'd love to hear about how this works differently in different places in the comments section.
As Alistair writes,
“Many of us are deeply familiar with these structures and indeed can find great comfort and reassurance in them. But might there also be something about the shape and structure of our Quaker communities – locally and nationally – that makes them difficult to access for many people?
Is there sometimes something about our ways of working that seems to stifle the Spirit, rather than creating the space for it to flourish and speak?”

Monday, 4 December 2017

Silence, Darkness, Space, Love

Monochrome image of a lit candle against a uniform dark background.
In silence still, a voice awakes.
In darkness deep, a flower thrives.
In empty space, a presence waits.
In faithful love, the spirit strives.
Written December 2017

What Happened to Quaker Missionary Zeal?

Against a dark background, a hand reaches out away from the viewer, holding a glowing ball. The hand is barely illuminated, aside from the light from the ball.
How do we, how should we, share our gift of Light?
In the early years of the Society of Friends, there was a strong focus on evangelism, of proselytising with a missionary zeal. While this is still found in parts of the pastoral and evangelical branches of the world family of Friends, over here in the liberal branch it has died away, pretty much completely. What happened, and should we be concerned? I shall attempt to answer this, for myself at least, with something of a whistle-stop tour of some relevant Quaker history. This will, by necessity, be somewhat light on detail, and will generally avoid making caveats around the different interpretations and versions of events that different factions hold to. This should not be taken as my version of events, or my preferred interpretation, just what I have managed as a fairly quick summary, covering the key points without attempting to make sure every little detail is included. Please do not use this as a source in your own learning about Quaker history – but the names and summaries may work as a jumping off point for your own reading.
Like many liberal Quakers, the lack of proselytisation is associated in my mind with some of the characteristics of liberal Quakerism that I most value: uncertainty about traditional religious “big questions”, universalism, theological liberalism. The idea that there is no “one true way”, that we can all find the spiritual path that is suited to us, and that this might be found in any number of different faiths. Of course, these are also factors that would seem pretty strange to many Friends in the earliest days of the Society; they were absolutely and definitely Christian, even if that Christianity was fairly orthodox. Universalist sentiments arose not too long after, from Friends such as William Penn and Mary Fisher, but they weren't about integrating different theological backgrounds into the community of Friends; rather, they were about respecting and valuing other faiths, rather than dismissing them – but they remained entirely separate and other, if not entirely “other”.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Silence Waits

A dark body of water marked by slight ripples.
Silence waits,
For us to wait in it.
A deep pool we cannot reach,
Without diving in.
The treasures are found in active passivity,
Coming to us as they will, not by ours.
Written December 2017

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Comprehending the Incomprehensible

A rear view of a woman in a hat looking thoughtfully out to sea.
There is a Power that is an unending source of love and light, a Light that lives in each of us and lifts us up, and joins us together. Some know it as the Light of Christ, the Holy Spirit, and that is well. Some know it as a nebulous, numinous force pervading our lives and our beings, and that is also well. Some know it as a precious and divine part of our own being, that we must work to know well, to be aware of and guided by – and that too is well.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Religious Privilege and British Quakers

Image of an aged stone cross with a background of out-of-focus foliage.
Being typically middle-class and educated, and with a strong interest in equality, Quakers (at least in the global economic north) are probably more likely than the average person to be aware of the concept of privilege and oppression. This is, however, a fairly academic concept, with reasonably precise and specialised meaning, and my own conversations with other Friends, both online and in person, have illustrated that understanding of it is far from universal. In this post, I will be discussing the idea of religious privilege, both in wider society and its impact within the Religious Society of Friends – particularly in Britain Yearly Meeting.


Before we get into religious privilege, it's probably a good idea to make sure we're on the same page about “privilege” in general. When used in this context, the discussion of social advantage, it takes a particular sociological meaning. While the everyday sense of the word means some particular advantage, such as the franking privilege in relation to some legislatures, and there is a legal meaning related to the ability to compel evidence, or even whether evidence is admissible at all, this sociological meaning is both broader and more subtly specific.
I am aware that some people don't like the term, or even the concept. However, in order to discuss the actual underlying idea in this post, it's necessary to use language that makes the point efficiently and without repetition of explanations. So I ask those of you who struggle with this language to push through it to try and understand the underlying point, rather than reject it based on the premise of the language and theory itself.
If you enjoy this blog, or otherwise find it worthwhile, please consider contributing to my Patreon. More information about this, and the chance to comment, can be found in the post announcing the launch of my Patreon.