Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Why I Write a Quaker Blog

A laptop keyboard with one hand typing
It's an interesting time to be a Quaker in Britain – and many other Yearly Meetings are having their own interesting times, albeit over different issues. Here in the UK people seem to worry about theological diversity, about falling numbers, about how we attract and nurture newcomers, about whether we are really giving all the spiritual nourishment we can. Among some pastoral Meetings across the Atlantic, there are also divisions on theology, and on how gender and sexual minorities are treated – welcomed, affirmed, or scorned. Of course, the latter point has a connection with the former, but which is at the forefront varies somewhat.
Here in Britain Yearly Meeting, we are faced with a call to revise our Book of Discipline, which some fear will bring painful differences to a head. We have a declining, ageing membership – where anecdotal reports suggest that many of our newly convinced Friends join us, as members or attenders, in middle age or later. We have quiet, but increasingly vocal concerns being expressed about the quality of our discipline in Quaker processes.
In this context, then, I will answer the question – why do I blog?

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Looking Forward to Revision of the Book of Discipline

As previously mentioned, Britain Yearly Meeting is in the process of deciding whether to start a process of revision of our book of discipline, Quaker faith & practice. The Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group (BoDRPG), tasked with laying ground work for the next revision – whenever it might occur – and preparing Quakers in Britain for taking any decision regarding revision, reported to Meeting for Sufferings in December 2017, recommending that they (Sufferings) recommend to Yearly Meeting in May that the process of revision begin. It's not a done deal, by any stretch of the imagination, but there's a decent chance the process will progress.
I'll be quite honest – I'm looking forward to it.

Monday, 29 January 2018

"Theism vs Non-Theism"?

Within liberal Quakerism, and particularly concerning theological diversity, an area of particular tension has been what some have described as “theism/non-theism”, or even (as in the rather provocative title of this piece) “theism vs non-theism”.
For those of you not involved in British Quakerism (or, if you are, have been living under some sort of rock), I should say that, a couple of years ago, Quakers in Britain started a process of considering revising our book of discipline, Quaker faith & practice. This involved appointing a group to prepare us for making a decision about revision, and to lay some groundwork and preparation for any such revision – knowing that there will have to be a revision at some point in the future. The “Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group” (BoDRPG) recently reported on their work with a recommendation to Meeting for Sufferings that Sufferings, in turn, recommend to Yearly Meeting that a revision process begin. Their recommendations had a lot of specifics about how this might be done, the order to do things in, and reflections on perceived risks (the meeting papers in question are available online, if you'd like to look at them yourself).
One of these perceived risks was related to theological diversity – particularly the question of non-theism. In order to help address this, they set up a “theology think tank”, with suitable Friends asked to be involved in discussions around theological diversity in Britain Yearly Meeting. They produced a reasonable volume of material published in the recent volume God, Words and Us (which is one of the various books I am currently working my way through – but I'm finding it very good so far), and also gave their own concluding notes that are included in the BoDRPG report to Sufferings.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Why Quakers Say "Hope So"

A 19th century painting of Pandora opening her box.
When Pandora opened the box,
Elpis - hope - remained within.
One of the things that people often learn about Quakers, when they learn a few disjointed and poorly explained bits and bobs, is that we “don't vote”. Aside from clearing up the confusion in terms of public elections, this is something that takes some explaining. I remember when I was grilling the first Quaker I met, who didn't seem given to in-depth explanations at the time, she explained that people said “hope so” if they agreed with what was proposed. I asked what they said if they didn't agree, and she clearly couldn't see a way to answer without a deeper explanation. All these years later, now I understand what a difficult position that was, for a Friend who doesn't want to launch into a long and detailed exposition of how Quakers make collective decisions.
Still, “hope so” is an important part of the Quaker liturgy (in Britain, at least), and part of the way our use of language makes it hard for newcomers to understand what's going on. I've written before that we should question such jargon, but saying “hope so” in response to the clerk offering a minute isn't just jargon. It isn't a Quaker code. It is a very meaningful use of language – though that may not be obvious to those new to our way of doing things.
In this post, I will be exploring the Quaker Business Method with specific reference to how a decision is concluded, and a minute agreed. What does it mean when the clerks offer a minute? Why is our traditional response “hope so”, rather than “yes”, when asked if the minute is acceptable? It's not a simple matter, even assuming a basic familiarity with Quaker practices and processes.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Competition and Cooperation

In my experience, Friends are keen to emphasise cooperation over competition. Whether it be with our children and young people, or in our approach to the world at large, it is obviously true to the Quaker way of thinking that working together is better than working in opposition.
And yet, competition and cooperation are not inherently opposing concepts. Competition has its positives, and a preference for cooperation to the extent that we lose those advantages will do us, and wider society, less good than we might hope. Competition does not preclude cooperation, and need not even be in tension with it; seeing them as alternatives is both reductionist and counterproductive.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Why I, a Non-Theist, Like "Lord of the Dance"

A dance club with stage and light show, and people dancing visible in silhouette against the lights.
As regular readers of this blog will be aware, I do not consider myself a Christian. Nor, in fact, do I believe in any theistic God, but that is (for once) beside the point of this post. Mostly.
In this post, I will be looking at hymns. Hymns are important to a lot of Christians, and even for some liberal Quakers, though they do not feature as a regular part of our worship. Devotional music is important to many people of all sorts of different faiths, bringing some beauty and profundity to the act that the words alone somehow fails to convey. I think a lot of Christian hymns are musically uninspired, personally, and the lyrics in many seem awkward, even taking Christian belief as a given. Some, however, I can see that beauty in, even if I can't sing them wholeheartedly myself due to the words not having that significance for me.
There are some hymns, however, that speak to me beyond the surface of their words, and in this post, I'll be looking at one of them. Despite it's absolutely Christ-based words, it speaks to me with more than just its music; my failure to identify with the literal meaning of its words doesn't stop it from somehow resonating. I'm going to try and explore why.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

What I Can Say About Sex and Gender

A group of people in silhouette against a white background, with the silhouette itself being filled with a rainbow heart pattern.
I've been disappointed in some discussion I've seen in British Quaker circles recently. I shan't go in to what prompted the discussion, because that's not relevant right now. What I can say is that it's about trans issues, and feminism.
I'm disappointed because I see attitudes expressed that, while not outwardly hostile to trans people, they are denying their experience. They hold up an attitude that the rights of one marginalised group are inherently in tension with the rights of another, at least at this time, and do not seek to find ways to resolve that tension to the benefit of all. That hesitate to be critical of those that advocate the idea that trans women, however well they pass, should use men's toilets. I might not reasonably hope that all Friends would support the reform of legal gender recognition, making it easier to access, but I would hope that they would not participate in scaremongering that it would somehow lead to insincere, casual changes of legal gender for frivolous or malicious purposes. That it would allow such things to be done with impunity.
I'm a cisgender, heterosexual, white man. I hope to be a good ally, just as I hope to find allies, especially among Friends, in support of my experiences and efforts as a disabled person. I know that being a good ally doesn't mean being entirely uncritical of the positions of those in another marginalised group – but also not to deny their lived experience. Their wisdom in such matters is not flawless, but will be deeper than my own. My own views are not without merit or relevance, but it is secondary to theirs.
And yet, I am heartened that we can share our opinions, even those I am disappointed by, in what is largely a loving way – certainly by comparison to discussions in many other communities. That those who know their views are not conventional for British Friends can, at least in this context, share them without feeling hemmed in by our social dogma. Even if I might hope that they change their minds, I know that it is by allowing dialogue – as well as the illumination of the Divine – that such a change will occur. It will not occur by verbal warfare or the discourse equivalent of a bludgeon.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

"WHAT Do You Worship?": Worship as an Intransitive Verb

One fairly common response I've come across, when someone has heard an explanation of the silent Quaker Meeting for Worship, has been to ask “but what are you worshipping?” Well, some people phrase it as who, rather than what, but I tend to see it as essentially the same question.
Now, for some Friends, the answer is easy. They believe in a deity that they feel warrants veneration, and so they can say that is what they worship. And yet, they cannot say that and speak for all unprogrammed Quakers. While some may adore and venerate in the silence, not all do – and even for those that do, that is not all they do in the silence.
In this post, then, I shall look at this question, and how the Quaker usage of the word “worship” perhaps challenges received wisdom in terms of English grammar.

Monday, 15 January 2018

The Luminous Numinous

A cat and landscape silhouetted against a bright setting sun.
We use lots of terms to talk about the Divine, and some are more or less comfortable with different words and phrases. Some will never use a certain term except when quoting, and others have a favoured term that they use in preference to any other.
In my experience, though, the one that is most widely acceptable is Light. It might sometimes be dressed up as the “Light of Christ”, or otherwise specified as the “Inner Light”, but Light is a popular term in many forms and permutations.
There is no accident to that metaphor. Light describes it very well. What does light do?

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Business Method & Theological Diversity - Mystical Nontheism

This is the fourth and, at least for now, final post in the series Quaker Business Method and Theological Diversity. If you haven't already, you will get the most out of this post if you read the opening post in the series. That post will also include links to all other posts in the series as they are posted. Reading the second and third posts as well would be an advantage, but it's the opening post that's important, as it sets the context.
An image of silhouette of a person in the lotus position, but with images of stars and nebulae filling the silhouette.
I am not a strict materialist. While my experiences of the Divine lead to me conclude that it does not have those characteristics I describe as theistic – personality, however far removed from our own, identity, being willing and able to act directly in the world as we know it – there's certainly something, though I regard it as entirely impersonal. A force of nature, albeit a force for good, rather than a godly figure.
The best description I have ever come up with for this conception of the Divine came as written ministry, and I have never been able to put it better through deliberate action. As such, while it is available as its own post on this blog, I reproduce it here:

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Improving Business: Small Changes for Big Impacts

Shallow stone steps covered in moss and fallen leaves.
Small steps can take you a long way.
A lot of people think the way we do Quaker decision-making, our application of the Quaker Business Method, could be significantly improved. Or, at least, the way one or more Meetings they are involved in do it could be improved.
But we don't need to tear things up and start again, or introduce significant, novel variations in order to improve the way we do business. There are small changes we can make that, when applied in the right circumstances, can make a huge difference. This post will explore some of these, with explanations as to the purpose and advantage you can expect to see. It's likely that some Meetings will already be doing some of these – Quaker Business Method is not the well-defined, definitive set of practices we tend to think – but there are certainly many that don't.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Business Method & Theological Diversity - The Conceptionless Conception

This is the third post in the series Quaker Business Method and Theological Diversity. If you haven't already, you will get the most out of this post if you read the opening post in the series. That post will also include links to all other posts in the series as they are posted. Reading the second post as well would be an advantage, but it's the opening post that's important, as it sets the context.
A sun setting over a body of water, with lots of lens flare.
For some Friends, questions about the nature or identity of the Divine are unimportant. At best, they are somewhat interesting diversions, something to jaw over, maybe stimulating some interesting thought; at worst, they are a source of needless division and disagreement – or even, possibly, a deliberate effort to sow discord among Friends.
This does not mean any disregard for the Divine, of course. It would be hard to be any sort of faithful Quaker without a keen regard for the leadings of the Spirit. However, these Friends often consider such questions unresolvable, sometimes even seeing contention over them as simply projections of the egos of those involved.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Business Method & Theological Diversity - Strict Materialism

This is the second post in the series Quaker Business Method and Theological Diversity. If you haven't already, you will get the most out of this post if you read the opening post in the series. That post will also include links to all other posts in the series as they are posted.
5 balls suspended in a Newton's Cradle, with the right-most ball lifted and about to fall to strike the next ball.
Having started with the traditional view, it seems appropriate to turn to a conception that seems to be absolutely diametrically opposed to that traditional view, and one that seems to be very much in people's minds when they are worried about the impact of non-theism in our Meetings. It is a position that, in line with my understanding of philosophical terminology (which might be a little off, not being a philosopher), I term “strict materialism”.
Materialism describes schools of thought that hold that matter is the fundamental stuff of reality, and everything else – including mental processes and cognition – are purely results of interactions among material things. I use the term strict materialism to refer to those materialists who most strongly and sceptically reject anything that even smells like a non-material effect, in the absence of strong evidence and a clear explanation. They accept rationally explained, reproducible effects like radio transmissions and the internet, but reject ideas like mind-to-mind contact or other parapsychic phenomena, or such things as spirits and gods.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Inappropriate Silence

A woman with her mouth covered in an "X" of tape, holding her finger to her lips.
Silence is important to Quakers. Yet there are times when it isn't appropriate. We are at peril of taking the peace and silence of our Meetings for Worship and extending that silence into places and situations in which it does not belong.
We have no problem speaking out, as Meetings and organisations, and as individuals, when we see things wrong in the world. Friends have opposed apartheid in South Africa, many support BDS in relation to Israel. Friends organisations have lobbied governments in many countries on many issues, from same sex marriage to tax and social security (welfare) policy. Friends are out every week protesting arms sales, fracking, and military escapades of all sorts. We have no problem confronting what we see as wrong out in the world.
Why, then, are we so slow to confront problems among ourselves?

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Quaker Business Method and Theological Diversity

A photograph of Swarthmoor Hall on a sunny day.
Swarthmoor Hall was a major centre in the early years of
Quakers as an organised movement.
In its origin, the idea behind the Quaker Business Method was very simple, if audacious – that by waiting in silence, with minds turned to both the problem at hand and to God, we could come to know God's will, that we might act based on it. Audacious or not, and whatever uncertainty anyone might express as to whether we truly acted based on divine guidance, we know from experience that it works. It may not work perfectly, and goodness knows not quickly, but done faithfully, it works – and has significant advantages over voting or consensus decision-making.
But we aren't in the early days of the Religious Society of Friends now. Across the liberal wing of the world family of Friends, and in parts of the conservative and pastoral sections as well, conventional Christianity, or any belief in a theistic God, is not a given. Some of those Friends who hold to a conventional, theistic view of God feel uncomfortable undertaking this solemn, religious exercise alongside those who openly do not believe in such a God. This is a situation that will need to be resolved, one way or another, in Britain Yearly Meeting – and I imagine there are similar situations in other liberal Yearly Meetings.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

What We Do In Silence

Mountains and forest seen across a lake.
From the outside, what happens in a Quaker Meeting for Worship is fairly simple, if unrevealing. We sit in silence, and at some point, someone may be moved to stand and speak. But there's a lot more to it than that.
As we sit in our “expectant waiting”, we are not generally entirely passive – not least because absolute passivity is not something that comes easily to people. For centuries, faith communities have developed strategies to help people learn various forms of passivity, leading their way towards it through prayers, mantras and meditation. Not only that, but not all Friends find the best way to make that contact with the Divine is through passivity at all.
In this post, I will be exploring what it is we do in the silence of worship – different ways we bring ourselves to the right state of mind, what that state of mind might be (different for different Friends), and what we do once we have reached it. That is a chronological order, and it might seem appropriate to explore things that way, but I find it most helpful to consider the state of mind first, before looking at how we reach it.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Dread of Nominations

A cat with patterned grey fur and bright green eyes peeks its head out from under a rug.
"Has the person from nominations gone yet?"
Being approached by nominations should be a joy. Your Friends have discerned that you are the right person to carry out the work of your Meeting. Your gifts and potential have been recognised, even those you might not have suspected. It would thus be a validation, as well as a serious divine summons.
And yet, we often treat it with dread, a half-joking veneer covering a more profound discomfort. We worry we will become overburdened, and though we may try to hide it, we doubt the hand of the Divine behind the nomination when it reaches us.
Our nominations committees are asked to do so much with so little. How can we help but be concerned that the pressure will lead to a slackening of discipline, desperation leading the Friends responsible to simply trying to fine someone?
It is a situation that feeds on itself; the more we worry about nominations, the greater the forces that give cause for worry. How can we break the cycle?
Written January 2018

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Spiritual "Zones of Proximal Development"

A diagram of a lab beaker on a white background, filled with coloured circles of various sizes and colours.
We have all of the ingredients we need for our
individual and collective development - we just
have to recognise them and work out how to
put them together.
Following some recent online discussions, I feel like it's worth spending another post exploring some learning theory, how it relates to Quaker practice – and what we can take from it to improve that practice. Previously, I wrote about communities of practice, and now I'll be looking at the idea of zones of proximal development.
ZPDs, as they are more concisely known, as a way of talking about what it is readily possible for a given learner to learn. There is what they already know, what they can already do, and there are those things that would be a struggle to attempt, and in between is the ZPD, the things that they can reasonably learn, or the things that they could do with help and guidance. This is a much simpler idea than communities of practice – in these last couple of sentences, the fundamentals of it are covered. Of course, there's more to it than that, but that's the basics all done. Given, in many spiritual situations, liberal Quakers' aversion to “teaching”, it might seem hard to apply this, but I think it has a particular application to spiritual development that doesn't require any sense of the didactic. It is this interpretation and application that I intend to explore in this post.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Dogmatic Non-Dogmatism and Rituals of Non-Ritualism

A pile of books and a vase of daffodils on a black table.
Why the flowers?
Quakers, at least of the liberal variety, are generally considered to have no dogma; Quakers of all stripes reject creeds, even if they have been known to organisationally endorse documents that look a lot like them. Unprogrammed Quakers eschew ritual.
But do we really? Are there not ways in which our non-dogmatism becomes dogmatic, and our non-rituals become ritualistic? In this post I will be exploring these questions, what I have learned from Friends in many places, what I have experienced myself – and what I think we should take from that.
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