Sunday, 30 December 2007

This is great

I have been reading this blog today - following some ministry this morning which mentioned it - and I am amazed at what a great resource there is here. I will come back rather more often than hitherto! We need a regular reminder about it in Sheffield Quaker newsletter, and occasionally in notices after meeting.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Just what is a prophetic voice?

I have been intrigued by this notion for months because I don't think I know what it means in this context especially as it seems to bear a close relationship with that tool 'hindsight'. The more I consider the concept the more elusive it seems though its use seems to be a way of enhancing the spiritual value of what is said or being said. Can anyone help me understand this as I feel that there is a danger that a set of assumptions about what is, and what is not prophetic, could be created against which statements/ministry etc. is/are weighed and we could end up blinkered and not open to leadings which do not fit into the appropriate box?
I can understand how we can have a Quakerly voice rooted in the past, and growing, experiences of Friends but can we claim to be prophetic? In part I know that my problem may be rooted in my university studies of history but it is also rooted in my 19/20 years in membership. I feel uneasy and the recent questionnaire has only served to increase this unease as it appears to be an initial design for potential blinkers. Years ago I encountered an yogic expression of how we should approach life: 'Everything is important but nothing matters. Nothing is important but everything matters'.
We don't know what is to come but we can develop so we be flexible enough to respond but are we in danger of losing sight of that and taking on board aspects of managerialism which have blighted so much of recent life?

Friday, 7 December 2007

The Emperor’s Nose

I’ve been puzzling over the 'Long Term Framework for the work and spiritual development of Friends' for a while. Then I came across this old story:

‘Nobody was permitted to see the Emperor, but a man wanted to know the length of the Emperor’s nose. So he went all over the country asking people how long they thought the Emperor’s nose was, and then took the average of their answers. ‘This must be accurate’, he said to himself, because I have asked so many people…’

My understanding of discernment is that it is a process of seeking the will of God in a particular situation. Can this be done with a questionnaire? This seems unlikely, for the same reason that the man in the story is not likely to find the correct answer to his question.

A questionnaire like this, even if it is called ‘a record of discernment’, inevitably becomes a record of people’s opinions about what BYM should be doing. This would be fine if we were a social club or political party, but if we are seeking to follow the guidance of the Inward Light, then our collected opinions are largely irrelevant. If you want to find out the length of the Emperor’s nose, it is of no use asking people who have never seen it. Similarly if we, as a Religious Society, want to discern God’s purposes for us then we need to look to those individuals and groups within BYM who have had something of God’s purposes revealed to them, and have been led to act on it - what we call ‘acting under concern’.

It is a distinctive and important feature of traditional Quaker spirituality that collective action arises from uniting around the leadings of individuals who have been charged by the Spirit with a particular task or message. There are many signs of such ‘prophetic movements’ within BYM at the moment; the Living Witness Project, Quaker Quest, the Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network and others. These are all signs of where the Spirit is calling us at this time. There may be further questions of discernment about how to order or prioritise these different concerns, but again this cannot be done by ‘averaging out’ all our opinions about it. If the leadings are genuinely from God, there will be a right ordering that will reflect the pattern of God’s purposes for the varied gifts and capacities of our membership, and this should be discerned in the Meeting for Worship.

I don’t want to criticise or undermine the efforts of Meeting for Sufferings to become a ‘crucible for sharing and testing concerns’. I am wary, though, of discussion about ‘finding our prophetic voice’, as if we have to go around looking for something to do. The Spirit of God is always speaking to us. Our task is to be attentive to recognise the presence and activity of the Spirit in ourselves, in our Society and throughout the world.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Politics and Community

At the Meeting for Worship for Business today we considered our response to the 'Long Term Framework for the work and spiritual development of Friends', which Meeting for Sufferings will present to Yearly Meeting next year.

I have read and filled in the Questionnaire posted at, and I am very concerned about what I perceive as a 'category error' ( in the questionnaire. We are considering TWO things - 'who we are' and 'what we do'. I fear that for many westerners the two are essentially the same - 'who we are' is defined or determined by 'what we do' - so the first question you ask a stranger is 'what do you do?' and the answer defines that person for us. This is a result of the error of Individualism, which of course very much defines western civilisation.

If Quakers are just gatherings of individuals then indeed what we do is primary, and what we need to do is engage politically with the world to challenge the bad in the world with the good we perceive in our hearts, as testified by Quakers through the ages. “Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness" - Alfred North Whitehead - is a very popular definition, but it encloses the individual within themselves, and eventually hollows out the individual with existential angst.

Whereas Jesus said "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:20), and "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it" (Matthew 16:25). The place where I really find myself, and fulfil my individuality is not in private contemplation, but in the life of the community. Private contemplation is withdrawal from the life of community to reflect in order to better live the life of community. Contemplation is not for itself, or for myself, but for others. We discover God (or however you name the transcendent other) in our relationships in community when we give up ourselves for others.

"Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." (Matthew 25:37-40).

'Who we are' is primary, and discovered in community, and 'what we do' is secondary, and needed for the material sustenance of the community. Religion is what we do to remind ourselves that community is primary and that community must be constantly refreshed, for we needs must spend much of our time and effort in supporting ourselves materially. One of the most refreshing things about being amongst Quakers, is that they never (or rarely) ask 'what do you do', but ask about you - it makes you feel truly welcomed and valued for yourself. Of course, when it comes to sustaining the community those of us like Overseers or Nominations have to scurry around finding out what people can do so we can get a specific job done. But I would much rather suffer this inconvenience from time to time than be defined by what I do.

My experience of evangelical Christianity over twenty years before becoming a Quaker is that Evangelicalism is the ultimate individualist religion in the West - we were constantly made aware of our individual sins and need for salvation. All friendships were for the sake of 'spreading the gospel', not for themselves. Time was spent in constant study to become more effective in the task. I remember being ill at ease at the idea of forming 'friendships' with the hidden agenda of 'bringing the person to Christ'. The sayings of Jesus quoted above were entirely mysterious and invariably referred into the future 'Kingdom of Heaven' to be enjoyed in the next life, whilst I suffered the alienation of the individual in this life - put down as my 'sinful nature'.

I now know that true friendship must be for its own sake, entered into with total equality and mutuality. Our testimony of equality is primarily about this need for true friendship in order to build us up in community, and the political ramifications of equality in society is merely secondary. Little did I know back then, absorbed in my existential quest for salvation, that Quakers were practicing the Kingdom of Heaven here and now, and all I needed to do was walk through the door.

If Meeting for Sufferings can (so it seems) make this basic category error in a simple questionnaire, what does it say about the future of our Society? It is a pity that we call ourselves a 'Society', when for me 'society' is merely people co-operating to bring about material well-being. This is why, for me, 'Religious Society' is extremely important, and if we drop the word 'Religious' from our name, no matter how problematic that word might be, we will no longer have a name that separates us out from society as the exercise of political means, to be a community that exists for its own sake.

If we fail to make the distinction between community, fellowship and friendship as primary and society and politics as secondary, then whatever we call ourselves, we will allow ourselves to become subsumed into the overwhelming individualism of our age, and we will become merely another political action group, with the added curiosity of strange behaviour on Sunday mornings. The Meeting for Worship is not primary either, for coming together in Meeting is actually a symbolic act or ritual that points to community, which is primary. If we are not living and sharing together in community, the Meeting for Worship will be hollowed out until it becomes a group of autonomous individuals coming together in a vain attempt to alleviate the angst of modern existence.

But what of politics? The liberal left, in a right reaction against the paternalism of previous times is the bastion of individuality. But this means that the liberal left does not know what community is, and therefore that the challenge of those of us of religion or spirituality to the liberal left is to show them community and tell them that political action is not for its own sake but for the sake of community - to ensure that persons everywhere have the space and opportunity to enter into fellowship. This is the reason why we must challenge the ever encroaching power of the state - not because the state must not have power, but because, unchallenged, it will always use power as an end in itself. The state is there to provide and enforce justice to enable people to live together in society as free individuals, for only then is community possible.

The state cannot build community, though it thinks it can, any many people want it to, because we are actually afraid to enter into truly open and free relationships because we would need to expose our true selves and risk the rejection (or worse) of the other. This makes us feel insecure, and we turn first to the state to protect us, not realising that the only protection the state can offer is the imprisonment of ever more intrusive laws and regulations - see how the caged bird sings - not of the freedom Mary Angelou knew was true, but the fear of having freedom and having to make choices and live with the consequences.

This is why the message of Jesus is about overcoming fear with love, and definitely not primarily about sin and salvation - Jesus simply forgave sins because he knew that we could never enter into truly loving and equal mutual relationships burdened with the guilt of the inevitable hurt we have caused others.

When we come together as a community and discern the need for political action, we possess a power way beyond that of mere political activity - call it the power of God or whatever, but you must call it something, because it exists and is palpable in anyone who has witnessed it. Ask those who attempted to oppose Ghandi and King and Mandela and the women of Greenham Common, amongst others. It is this that will give us the command in the political arena, what we might call the 'prophetic voice', and Meeting for Sufferings will do no wrong if all it does is to cultivate the prophetic voice of Quakers for the 21st Century.

But Meeting for Sufferings is not the community – it is merely our representatives centrally. As such Meeting for Sufferings can make political statements and engage in political activity in the name of Quakers nationally, and do this in good conscience, but that prophetic power will not be there, for the power comes from right discernment in community, and therefore must come from local or area meetings. If we all rise up together across the land, then we will be a power to be reckoned with, despite our small numbers, but that will not be the act of Meeting for Sufferings.

Thus the really important task of Meeting for Sufferings is to create the space and provide the means for the building up the Quaker community in our land, as manifested in our local meetings. This was it’s original role that gave it it’s name when we suffered persecution in the 17th Century. Meeting for Sufferings ensured we did not go under. Now the persecution is gone, and in the 21st Century what will drive us under is complacency in the face of apparent material security, and rampant individualism blinding us to the need for community.

This then is the true role of Meeting for Sufferings now – the enabling and building up of community and the cultivation of our prophetic voice. If we do these, political action will take care of itself.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Friends Faith and Fellowship

This new link is to an international site which is just about 2 months old. It is slowly growing in membership and topics but all guests are welcome. It is an attempt to use the new technology available to allow contact, shared worship and discussion especially amongst those who for reasons of geography and health etc. may not be able to Meet regularly with others. Please feel free to visit the link and explore. In many ways it is an experiment but I hope that it will grow into something of benefit to those who have contact with it. Thanks are due to Craig for creating this link for us.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Silence, Morton Feldman and Friends

I have been fighting these thoughts all day and longer than that but I now feel that I have to share. Over the last few years I have been collecting the works of Morton Feldman and though I cannot check as to whether he was a Quaker in life he, to me, is a Quaker in his music. Long silences are shaped by notes. Notes are shaped by silences. It is so much like Meeting that this morning as I was making bread I listened to my latest purchase 'the viola in my life' by him. It is, like much of his music, like being in Meeting. The notes are Ministry. The silence reflection. The depth of thought so intense. There is a deep humanity in the music enhanced by a deep spirituality but all was so simple and plain in many respects.As I made the bread my kitchen was filled by silence and ministry. Silence and eloquent lyrical lines of music. Collections of notes appearing and disappearing but creating anticipation. If compared to reading a book it was like wishing to turn the page but having to finish this page and all the words on it first.FFF was on my laptop. If felt connected to something greater. A synergy. A waiting. A gathering. I was alone but part of something greater. Something I knew but like the Tao 'That which can be said in words cannot be known, That which can be known cannot be said in words'. The next time I hear it it will be different but that is like all such experiences. To Morton silence was so important which makes me wonder if though he may not have been a Friend in name he might have been so by nature.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Civil liberties

In response to QPSW's Briefing on Civil Liberties, and discussion thereof at last Business Meeting, I am here putting forward some thoughts on civil liberties in the current political climate and Quakerism, in the hope of provoking further dialogue on this issue within Sheffield Meeting.
There are a number of reasons why I ought not to be writing this. I am a visitor to this Meeting (not to mention to this country): whatever actions you end up taking around this issue, I will probably be back in Canada by the time they are to be implemented. I am not particularly well-informed about British politics and law. I am even less clear on the inner workings of Sheffield Meeting and its relation to QPSW. Nor do I have proper standing to speak about the testimonies of Quakerism, as my own identity as a Quaker is uncertain.
Nevertheless, I see and hear about things happening around me, here in the UK, Canada and the US, and in their spheres of influence, which grieve and frighten me. "Anti-terrorism" laws have recently been invoked against domestic environmentalist groups protesting the expansion of Heathrow Airport. In Florida recently, a student asking Senator John Kerry a pointed question at a public forum was dragged away by police, handcuffed, and then tasered. An American member of Women in Pink was recently denied entry into Canada on the grounds of her peace activism. Less anecdotally, all three countries have in recent years, ostensibly as anti-terrorism measures, abrogated the Common Law principle of habeas corpus, allowing various officials to shut various classes of people up in prison without criminal charges or possibility of judicial review. The US has, fairly brazenly, institutionalised the use of torture, in Iraq, Guantanamo, and elsewhere; while Britain and Canada have to varying degrees been complicit. And all three countries have instituted programmes of massive domestic surveillance, enhanced by modern data-mining technologies.
My main reaction to this has been to vacillate been shock and cynicism. Part of me is stunned by the desecration of constitutional rights and Common Law freedoms which have traditionally distinguished the Anglo-American system from a police state (or so I was raised to believe). The other part of me shakes its head wearily: all states are fundamentally police states when push comes to shove, when the interests of the ruling class are threatened. I do believe the ruling class see a threat ahead -- not from an Islamic terrorist movement, but from domestic discontent: as the dollar collapses (and perhaps the whole world monetary system with it), as climate change and other environmental catastrophes unfold, as world energy supplies peak and food prices soar. And yet a third part of me continues my day-to-day life, business-as-usual, wondering if I'm being paranoid. There are no food riots going on in my neighbourhood. They aren't putting people like me in Guantanamo ... yet. Certainly, I don't see my concerns being mirrored in the mainstream media, not at levels which I would judge to be appropriate to the urgency of the issues. In any case, I feel acutely isolated.
This brings me to why I'm eager for dialogue on this issue within Sheffield Meeting. In most social situations, in my experience, political discussion tends to divide people into opposing groups. In this Meeting, however, I trust Friends to hear me, to meet that of God in me, as I endeavour to do the same. That is, the Meeting provides a space where we can listen to and support one another deeply, below (or beyond) the level of particular opinions and beliefs, recognising the Spirit that unites us all. There's probably an established Quaker term for what I'm talking about, but I will call it solidarity.
Now, it seems to me that this capacity for, and valuing of, solidarity, characteristic of Quakers (though by no means exclusive to them), is the precise thing that suppression of civil liberties is intended to kill. When civil liberties are suppressed, showing solidarity with those whom the state designates as enemies is punishable as treason. When civil liberties are suppressed, speaking the Truth that you find within yourself is forbidden, if it challenges the state agenda. A police state seeks to achieve a society driven by fear, otherwise complacent, in which no concerted social action may occur except that which the state itself directs. It relies on violence. The evil of this violence is clearest to me when it takes the form of torture (as it often does), where the object is to take a human being and remove from her/him all dignity, indeed all identity, reducing him/her to a state of abject, grovelling compliance with the torturer's whims. It is an attempt to destroy the victim's spirit, to stamp out the victim's capacity for solidarity, even with him/herself.
In the previous paragraph, I tried to make the case that there is indeed a distinctive Quaker testimony about civil liberty. Have I succeeded?
There are many questions of strategy as to how civil liberties might be defended. My judgement is that classic liberal methods, such as petitioning the government, are ineffective nowadays. In any case, the first step, perhaps the most essential step to challenging the slide towards a police state, is to practise solidarity: to listen to one another, to be open to the Truth that is in each of us, to allow ourselves to be comforted by that Truth, to be nurtured by it, and maybe, if need be, TO BE WOKEN THE HELL UP BY IT.
To this end, I propose a meeting in the near future to discuss these issues, and take it from there. I don't know what times tend to be most convenient for other Friends, or how these things get arranged here. If you're interested, please speak to me after Meeting or leave a note in my mail folder.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Quaker Nursery Rhyme

Quaker, Quaker, troublemaker,
How do you know you're right?
My words can't say,
My life just may,
I've stopped being so polite.

Burt Bacharach, eat your heart out.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Religious society - or friendly society?

This title is the sub-title of an excellent little book by Alastair Heron called “Our Quaker Identity”. The book traces the quest for an answer an issue about the true nature of Quakerism, in the face of declining membership - minuted by York Monthly Meeting in 1859. Alastair has written convincingly of how the concern has never gone away – rather it has been raised as an important issue over and over again. If you resonate with the question, I recommend a re-looking at “Our Quaker Identity”. It looks at the issues as perceived by Quakers for at least 150 years. Clearly the question is still very much alive in our Meeting. Two of the September blogs address the same issues or concerns.

Craig Barnett’s piece on “Quaker Space or Quaker Way” (23rd September) addresses this issue by looking at two different ways by which a Quaker Meeting can be viewed. He asks is it primarily a ‘Quaker place’, a safe place for Quakers and visitors to meet? Or on the other hand, does this image leave something out and is a Quaker Meeting primarily about a ‘Quaker Way’. He offers very strong arguments to support the latter, while recognising that many visitors quite rightly are attracted to and find great peace in enjoying the hospitality of the ‘Quaker Space’. I will come back to Craig’s offering again later. Simon Haywood (30th September) offers reflections on what is primarily the same issue.

I would like to throw in my own ‘penny worth’ and take up in the first instance some of Simon’s questions and insights. I will start by saying how grateful I was for the ministry Simon offered at Meeting for Worship, on the Sunday after he returned from the London Arms Fair. I am even more grateful for his further reflections. I wish to offer my thanks for such an honest, daring, personal and straight-talking blog ‘ministry’. Surely life is about going out and doing something - then coming back and reflecting on the insights gained and the lessons learnt. Simon’s insights of the lessons he learned from demonstrating with such a diverse but committed group of people are invaluable. By sharing his insights with us, each one is in a better position to review our own perceptions and discover the depth of our values. I find it so easy to say ‘I believe in the Quaker Peace Testimony’, but I have now again been challenged to asking myself:- How deep are my convictions? and What am I prepared to do about them?

I move on, as Simon did, to considering the nature of our Meeting, and the kind of ministry offered. In reflecting on this I went back to read anew the account in John’s Gospel (8: 31 and following), where Jesus is speaking about true discipleship. An issue has arisen between some Jews, of the Pharisee type, and Jesus, who of course was also a Jew. The perceptions on both sides were very different. It seems to me that Jesus wanted to bring the issue away from ‘theory’ and back to the ‘deeds’ that people do - the lives they live. He said that they were children of God, and so true disciples, when they seek to do God’s will. The Pharisees were adamant that they were ‘birthright’ Jews, descended from Abraham. These credentials did not impress Jesus. He went on to say that it is the works that people do, the fruits of a life lived, that reveal who are truly from God. Surely this is the hallmark of being a loving caring people - a true community - or a genuine Quaker Meeting? It is not about how comfortable we feel within the Meeting but how our lives are shaped and lived out, in the light of the ‘stirrings’ or ‘revelations’ that come to us in the silence and through ministry. I could call these same stirrings ‘insights’, if it was that I was afraid of using God or religious language. How interesting that Simon found the use of God language so refreshing in London. It seems to have a right to be included.

This incident from John’s Gospel is also the place where we find those often quoted words:- “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”. Surely Jesus was not speaking, of ‘truth’ in the abstract, something set out in dogmatic statements or a creed, but rather of the truth that is an inner knowing, derived from living and reflecting, upon what has been lived. This he said is the truth:- ‘that will set you free’. I see this as being the kernel or nub of the question about ‘our Quaker identity’ or about what makes us Quakers, and what it is that holds us together in unity?

I believe very strongly that it is not ‘uniformity of belief’ as understood in many churches but the inner freedom to explore our own personal faith and to express this unashamedly - while always being understanding, tolerant and accepting of others who may perceive ‘their truth’ in a very different way. I believe that if Quakers, as individuals or as groups are in ‘opposing camps’ as Simon suggest we might be, then it is likely that the ‘spirit of tolerance’ has been taken over by ‘our private ego positions’, and as a consequence the Spirit has been subtly brushed aside. From my way of perceiving things, in this situation we would not be doing God’s will.

In this, as in many other matters, I might of course be totally wrong, and if anyone reading this perceives things differently then I hope that that person can share with me what it is that they believe, and then I will be in a position where I can reflect on what has been shared and so I might very likely modify or change my position. I hope I will always be, open to change. For me, a problem with some Quakers may be that they seem to be afraid to express their position of ‘personal belief’, for fear of ‘upsetting the applecart’. Surely this is a much lesser value than speaking one’s truth.

Going back to what I ‘believe’ and ‘hope’ right now. Once more, let me make it very clear that I am not claiming that it is ‘the Truth’, only ‘my truth’. I believe and hope that Quakers will always be ‘a believing community’, a ‘Religious society’ – but not necessarily a community with ‘uniformity of belief’. I believe that it is this freedom to fearlessly express one’s inner truth, and to share it with one another, (and outside the Meeting too, as Simon found at the Arms Fair in London) which constitutes the real value of being a Quaker. I see our unity as being about ‘singing joyfully together of our own convictions’ not all of us ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’, (often without much real conviction). Wasn’t it this word ‘conviction’ that early Quakers used about what made them Quakers? They spoke about ‘being convicted’ or ‘convinced’ in faith?’

I would like to come back again to the placard Simon carried in London that read:- “PLEASE STOP AND TALK”. I think that this might even have an application to our Quaker Worship. Simon, and also Alastair in ‘Our Quaker Identity’ mentioned the danger of us ‘dying as a worshiping community’. Then just maybe we could learn from this placard. ‘Please stop’ – go into the silence; ‘And Talk’ – share with the Meeting what you have learned in silence. What it is you are convinced about. What your convictions are. Surely this is the beginning of - ‘getting to know one another in the things that are eternal’?

I heard on the radio last week that Aristotle, in the 4th Century BCE said:- ‘the un-reflected life is not worth living’. I sure do agree with him. On Monday evening, I was privileged to attend the Quaker Quest meeting. This too was for me a wonderful experience combining the same ‘being silent’ and also ‘listening to inspirational reflected experiences of the lives of three Friends’. Here I again offer thanks to the Friends, who on this occasion had the courage to share some insights of their life experience and of their own unique ‘image of God’. As I read Simon’s reflections on the blog; and as I sat and listened on Monday evening, I was so aware that on the outside those who share are all very ordinary people, but when we have the privilege to see a little deeper, we see ‘the movement of the Spirit’, and the extraordinary gift of each one’s uniqueness. Surely ‘courage’ is the element that enables this to happen, and fear is the thing that can so easily get in the way.
If Quakers were only a community of friends, if that was all that we aspired to, then I would be truly concerned, and my search would likely take me elsewhere. However I say, ‘Long live the true Spirit of Quakerism’. Let us put aside any divisions or disagreements about the content of our faith, but let us never cease to be a ‘Faith Community’ – ‘a Religious society’. If someone comes to Meeting and their starting place one of believing that they have no faith or if it is a case of believing ‘in UFO’s’, ‘in World Peace’, in ‘a God who punishes sinners’, or in ‘Gentle Jesus meek and mild’, or in ‘Jesus the Divine Son of God’, does it really matter? And does it really matter what words we use in order to express our beliefs. Political correctness kills. Let anyone of us who wishes to use any God words, do so if that helps us express ourselves – as long as we do not set out to cause offence. Let us share our deepest convictions about what we perceive as being Central to Life and about the things we feel drawn to, from our deepest Centre. Surely what is important, is that seekers can come and join the Meeting and then, when ready to do so, we can move on to deepen our perceptions, and to grow in faith and perhaps address especially the question Jesus put to his disciples (Mark 8: 27-30):- Who do you say that I am? We can if we wish take it a step further and ask – Who do you say you yourself are? Or again:- Who or what, do you say is at the centre of ‘All that is’? or What is your image of God? It is what we mean, not the words we use, that matters most. On the other hand if any amongst us has no personal answer to these questions, then maybe the time has come to give ourselves the gift of exploring the questions, and of finding out what it is we truly believe about some of the central questions of life!

I wish to come back to another important quote from Craig’s blogspot. He wrote “….. because British Quakers tend not to highlight their message, what newcomers respond to is primarily the culture of the local Meeting, which is predominantly the culture of liberal, White, middle-class Englishness, rather than any distinctive Quaker message”. I so agree with this and as a non-English person even though I share at least the liberal, and white bits, I still found this quite a barrier to be overcome, how much more so this must be for those whose cultures or backgrounds are quite different from those listed, and those whose English is not of the educated variety. The only approach I can offer to this issue is that each person seeks to carry a real consciousness of the problems that others may be encountering, and seek to facilitate these people, in the way we offer welcome to the visitor. Then maybe we can place the focus on where it truly belongs. Once more I say that Jesus did not come just ‘to comfort the afflicted’ but also ‘to afflict the comfortable’. We know whose company Jesus seemed to enjoy, and there must always be a real danger that we might, even after many years in attendance or as members just be sitting really comfortably in Quaker Space.
I hope the Quaker Meeting will always offer Quaker Space and be friendly society to the visitor, and I hope that in that space, and among those people, the attender, the seeker, the visitor, the inquirer, the lost, whoever! will always find a place of welcome, respite, asylum and peace. But I hope too that the real power of ‘Silence’ and ‘Ministry’ will continue to inform and transform our lives from the inside, so that our homes, our places of work, our country, and our world, will also be transformed by having ever more ‘Convinced People’ who will seek to know and do what Jesus and many others choose to call the doing of 'God’s Will'.

Sunday, 30 September 2007

"PLEASE STOP AND TALK:" some words and ideas about words and ideas

Some weeks ago I got involved in a pilgrimage/fact-finding mission for the Anglican Bishop of Sheffield, looking into the arms industry and specifically the biennial DSEI arms fair in London.

I learned a lot. I learned that in the eyes of the law, holding up a handwritten placard reading PLEASE STOP AND TALK is illegal because it might give offence, whereas parking six full-size battleships in full view of homes, shops and public spaces isn't. I learned that getting stopped and searched by the police is surprisingly unpleasant, and I don't behave much like Gandhi when it happens, but that the police really do seem to be very scared on such occasions - they visibly winced and went pale whenever I put my hand in my pocket to take out my cigarette lighter. How they must have felt about the six gigantic battleships parked on their beat, I can't begin to imagine. Given that they were policing the annual beano for the manufacturers and retailers of the guns used in the dozens of street shootings that occupy their professional attention for the rest of the year, it must have felt a bit like being co-opted as bouncers for the annual conference of the Amalgamated Union of Drug Barons, People Traffickers and Allied Trades in Human Misery and Exploitation. A policeman's lot is not a happy one.

But to step off my soap-box for a moment, mainly what I learned was from the example of the people I was with, all of whom were card-carrying Christians and none of whom had any embarrassment or inhibitions at all about prayer, God language and all the other kinds of words and thinking that Quakers often seem to have such anxieties about. It was a real, salutary relief to be rid of this anxiety, and to be able to call a prayer a prayer. I know I'm the kind of Quaker who doesn't have a definite problem with God language as such anyway, so I was always unlikely to feel too uncomfortable around those who use it openly, but it was an amazing experience to be in among this kind of language and thinking, because it lent a palpable spirit and energy to the whole enterprise. When you're dealing with the Spirit you're dealing with things that are beyond definition in words, and under those circumstances, what begins to matter is not what words say - nothing they say can ever capture the reality - but what they do. What they do is release a power and strength and focus and integrity which shapes and informs the work done in the world. That's how George Fox preached: because that's how our minds work. They latch onto words and ideas - hopefully they then use them as a springboard up into the direct experience of spiritual truth, but without words and ideas you have no springboard and less chance of getting to the reality. Returning to my Quaker meeting with all its fears and anxieties about what we can and can't say, and how we can and can't describe what we experience, I couldn't help wondering if our anxieties inhibit us and stop us from using the words which could give us strength. Not that words or ideas or creeds are ever to be mistaken for truth, but they can be a way of making that truth manifest - not through what they say, but through what they do, to our inner selves, when we speak and hear them. So we are missing an opportunity if we do not speak out, however provisional the terms in which we must necessarily do it. I got back from London and gave my whole inner life a much-needed spring clean, and now I'm plugged back into my Quakerness in a living way that I'd lost. And it was the words that started that process off: words which Quakers themselves often use with anxiety, if at all. The words were only a start, but they were a necessary start.

Memory plays tricks, but to my memory there used to be less of this anxiety in the air. When I started coming to Meeting a few years ago, there was a lot of ministry which was very specific to particular ideas and words and trains of thought, Christian and otherwise. A bewildering variety of it, with no attempt made to achieve a shallow or formal consensus or agreement or orthodoxy between the various voices in the conversation. The simple act of open sharing seemed to create a deeper and more living unity than formal consensus ever could. It was a mysterious process, but it seemed to me that it was the very incoherence or absence of any collective reasoning on matters of the Spirit that left room for the real Spirit to work directly. There was never going to be a formal doctrinal orthodoxy to hide behind. I mean to say: the first ministry I heard was a Beatles song, which really rang the changes for me after three decades of the Nicene Creed! Around that time there was also open prayer to God, even to Jesus, there was sometimes singing and there was something like preaching, there was something about Islam with which I definitely did NOT agree simply as a statement, and there was even open-ended speculation about the possibility of alien abductions by UFOs! I mention all this specifically to make the point that it was all grist to the mill, because what I remember most vividly from this fragmentary fruit-salad of ideas was not its simple weirdness (which was stark enough from my point of view, having spent my Sunday mornings up to date chanting the clauses of a rote-learned creed in unison with my fellow-worshippers - if I wasn't sleeping off the Saturday night, that is) but the raw, fallible, human passion with which people spoke, the honesty and the acceptance and love with which they were received, and the living authenticity of the dialogue. The result for me was a very strong but paradoxical sense of calling: I felt that I was a Christian Quaker and I was being nudged towards throwing my lot in with a worshipping community with lots of non-Christian Quakers and non-believer-in-God Quakers, not in spite of what I understood as the spirit of Christ, but precisely because of it. And I wasn't getting involved to change anyone's mind either, not even my own: rather, I was there to learn from sharing my life with those of a different belief. So I love the fact that I'm a Christian Quaker surrounded by non-Christian Quakers. It keeps it real. It reminds me that I worship a God who doesn't seem to care whether God exists or not. With so many open non-Christians around, I'm unlikely to yield to any natural tendency to start yacking on like a bargain-basement Vicar of Dibley tribute act. I can't rely on parroting a few well-received phrases when there's no consensus on what the right phrases are. To follow it to its logical conclusion, if I'm anything to go by - I think if the Quaker movement was clearly a more Christian one in terms of a simple head-count, it might well be less Christian in the sense of less instinctively attuned to, and challenged by, the spiritual reality of which Christianity is one attempted description. I'm aware that there's the potential for actual conflict between (in quotes) "opposing camps" who might suspect themselves of being in competition for the soul and future of the Society of Friends, and I think it's partly fear of being seen or mis-heard as indulging this kind of adversarial thinking that makes people feel too inhibited to speak up at all. But I think all these fears and suppressed hostilities miss the point, because they see our differences and variety and division in a human and rational way, rather than a spiritual way. It's not as if we're ever likely to take a vote on which Quaker "-ism" wins the reins of power and gets to write the Quaker Creed for the Twenty-First Century. There's a reason why we don't vote or draft creeds: it's not because we simply happen to have other ways to work with our differences and express our common ground: it's because we have been entrusted with a deeper and more spiritual understanding of what unity is, and what difference is, and what these things mean. In spiritual terms I think it is a terrific gift of the Spirit and a terrific opportunity that we have such a formal variety of belief and apparent incoherence. It leaves us with nothing to fall back on for our unity, beyond the naked truth which our lives were made to speak. And it's in that truth, and in that truth alone, that we can find the unity we're longing for. We've dispensed with everything else as a means to unity, because we rightly perceive it as too shallow.

But this road to unity is not an easy or rational one. I think we waste that opportunity for real unity if we shy away from throwing our own words and ideas unapologetically into the mix. The danger does not lie in saying what we, as individuals, believe; we'll die as a worshipping community if we don't. The danger lies in taking our own ideas as gospel truth. Words and ideas are only a half-way house on the road to truth, but they are a stage our minds have to pass through. Bypassing them altogether won't work any more than fixating on them excessively. But once we've accepted that our own ideas are not gospel truth, then in my view we are under a kind of duty to say what our ideas actually are, simply for whatever that's worth, and to accept and respect our own beliefs just as we would accept and respect the beliefs of other Friends. If we don't do this, and if nobody dares say anything for fear of giving offence to an imaginary Quaker who's paranoid that the God squad or the no-God squad or some other squad are going to take the whole show over, then we end up with this rather shallow and dishonest silence which itself becomes just another deadening orthodoxy, and we're back in a place which is not unlike the absurd position forced on my uniformed friends in London, who daren't let anyone hold up a placard saying PLEASE STOP AND TALK in case it gives offence to a multi-million dollar arms dealer trying to sell a fully-armed battleship to a ruthless dictator.

In my dreams, I'd like to belong to a Quaker meeting where I could go along to Meeting for Worship and be excited and moved and challenged, but not offended, to hear prayer, and God language, and non-God language, and Beatles songs, and alien abductions, and everything else besides: not as adversarial positions in an argument or debate, but as shared testimonies to a shared truth that can never be understood or defined but which can, and should, be described and evoked and expressed and wondered at and stumbled over, as honestly and openly as possible. We should not give ourselves permission to speak without honesty and love, but we should give ourselves permission to get some things wrong in the attempt to speak in truth and love. It's hard for me to think of any ministry which could give offence, to me at least, if offered in this spirit, even if it's something I don't agree with. I wouldn't be listening to the words for their dictionary definitions as sentences, but for the spirit in which they are spoken, the way any deep ministry has of being the individual's gift of their own innermost self to the Meeting. I love that exposed quality that real ministry has: it scares me, because I'm English and we don't do that stuff, do we? But at the end of the day I'm not English, I'm a Quaker, and real ministry is the lifeblood of Quaker worship, so I say, bring it on!

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Quaker Space or Quaker Way?

For some time now I've been trying to work out why my own approach to Quakers seems to be rather different to that of most people in our Meeting.

I think for many people the Quaker Meeting is primarily a 'safe space' - a place to be themselves, where they will be accepted for who they are, without expectations or demands. Members of a Quaker Meeting can bring to this space whatever spiritual traditions, images and experiences are helpful for them. There is no one version of 'Truth', so people are free to borrow from many different traditions and to change and grow in their thinking and believing without being criticised or excluded. There is a liberating acceptance of differences in lifestyle and sexuality, and no oppressive or patronising 'leaders' imposing their own rulings on acceptable belief and behaviour.

All of these aspects of the Quaker Meeting are important to me too, and they can be especially precious to people who have been hurt or excluded by traditional churches, or who have felt oppressed by rigid social expectations.

But for me there is something missing from this image. The Quaker Space is accepting because it is largely content-free - you can bring anything you like to it, but it has little to offer in itself. I didn't come to Quakers primarily because of what it isn't. I was attracted by the very definite character of the Quaker 'Way', as I encountered it in the lives and writings of early Friends such as George Fox, William Penn, Margaret Fell and John Woolman. Quakers of earlier generations were very clear about the content of their message - and could be very forthright in expressing it:
"For the people called Quakers, the foundation of all religious belief is this: God, through Christ, has placed a guide in each person to show them their duty and provided each with the ability to follow that guide. In every nation, race, and religion, there are those who follow this guide - these are the people of God - and those who live in disobedience to it and are not God's people regardless of what they say. This is the Friends' ancient, first, and unchanging principle. This is the testimony they have made and will continue to make to the whole world."
William Penn, 'Primitive Christianity Revived' (1696) in '21st Century Penn', trans. Paul Buckley
This 'Quaker Gospel' is not just another exclusive religious dogma. It makes the revolutionary claim that there are people of every religion who follow the inward guidance of God's Spirit, and others who do not. Becoming one of 'God's people' does not depend on having the 'correct' beliefs or belonging to the 'one true Church'. All that matters is listening to the guidance of God in the heart and being obedient to it. This is the essence of the original Quaker 'Way'.

A 'Way' is very different to a 'Space'. A Way is a path - it goes in a particular direction. Anyone may join it at any point in their journey, but it doesn't just go wherever you like. The Quaker Way makes some definite claims - that we can all experience the presence and guidance of God in our daily lives, and that this guidance will lead us to witness to the character of God in lives of integrity, simplicity, and peace-making.

A Way can also be challenging - it leads us out of our comfort zone into new territory. The Quaker Way claims that God has definite purposes for each of us, that they are often in conflict with our own superficial desires and anxieties, and that we may be called to live and act in ways that bring conflict, difficulty, struggle and even persecution.

The Quaker Way is perhaps less attractive to many than the Quaker Space because by making definite claims it seems to exclude those who can't or don't wish to accept them - people who find it impossible to believe in the kind of personal God who can have 'purposes' for us, or those whose primary way of understanding their spirituality is drawn from other religions or philosophies.

But paradoxically it may be that by losing sight of the content of the Quaker Way we actually become less inclusive in some important ways - particularly in our social and ethnic makeup. On a weekend for Elders & Overseers earlier this year, one Friend from our Meeting suggested that it is those faith groups that focus most clearly on their message that are able to attract people from diverse social and ethnic backgrounds. In contrast, because British Quakers tend not to highlight their message, what newcomers respond to is primarily the culture of the local Meeting, which is predominantly the culture of liberal, White, middle-class Englishness, rather than any distinctive Quaker message.

The danger of this is that it is self-perpetuating, as it is only the people who feel 'at home' with this narrow social group who stay long enough to discover what the Quaker Way is actually about. And in fact the Quaker Way does not appeal only to White, middle-class people. The majority of Quakers worldwide are African and South American, with very different cultural expressions of the Quaker way relevant to their social context and experience.

The Quaker Way of attentiveness to the guidance of the 'Inward Teacher' in the midst of daily life, and the communal discernment of God's purposes for our lives, has an appeal and a relevance far beyond the subculture of White, middle-class liberalism. Perhaps if we made our message and our practice more explicit we could benefit from the far wider experiences of those with other histories and cultures.

Is there a way that we can keep the benefits of the inclusive Quaker Space while becoming more explicit about the content of the Quaker Way?

Perhaps those of us who share a commitment to the Quaker Way could be more ready to explain, and above all to demonstrate, how attentiveness to the inward leading of God's Spirit leads us to reshape our lives and re-examine our priorities. At the same time we can accept that this understanding of the Quaker Way is now a minority view within British Quakers - just one strand among the great diversity of belief and practice in our Meetings. We can be willing to welcome all people, whatever their beliefs, to share with us in the accepting Quaker Space of the meeting for worship. We may no longer have a united Quaker 'testimony to the whole world', but we can offer a space for anyone to come and discover for themselves the Inward Guide that can lead them into a greater faithfulness to God's purposes. And we can perhaps make sure that those who join with us in worship still have the opportunity to hear the message of the Quaker Way.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Quaker TV

Watford Meeting has produced a series of short video introductions to Quakers for Quaker Awareness Week, the first one is here (click on the arrow to play):

You can see more, including introductions to the Testimonies, Quakers and the Bible, and 'Quakers - woolly-minded liberals?' by clicking here.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Quaker Quest

The Sheffield Quaker Quest programme is starting again on 24th September. This is a series of informal evening meetings for people who would like to find out more about Quaker belief and practice. It is suitable for anyone from complete newcomers to people who have been attending Meeting for a while but who still have questions about what Quakers are about.

Each evening focuses on a particular theme (the first is 'Quakers & Worship', followed by 'God & Christianity', 'Peace & Equality', 'Living Adventurously', and 'Simplicity, Truth & Integrity'). Three speakers each give a brief talk on the evening's subject, followed by discussions in small groups, and a half hour's Meeting for Worship. There is opportunity for questions and informal conversation about anything that speaks to you.

The currents series will run on Monday evenings from 24th September to 22nd October. Sessions start at 7pm, with refreshments from 6.30pm. We will finish by 9.30pm.

There is no need to book a place, and it is possible to come along to any of the sessions - you don't need to be there every week.

There are some more details on the Sheffield Quaker Quest homepage.

If you know anyone who is interested in Quakers and might like to come along, please tell them about it...

Looking for a meeting

One of my reasons for wanting to contribute to the sheffieldquakerblogspot is because while I have really appreciated attending the Sheffield meetings over the past few years I have not been ready to contribute anything beyond my presence for the time being. I knew I would miss meeting however and this post is about an attempt to hold a family meeting.

When I’d first arrived in the area where we are based in France, on leaving the motorway, I had noticed an impressive monastic building just off the main road. I had decided to go there some time to see whether there might be somewhere I could go that was quiet and secluded. My aim was to be able to go with the children, as I have to the Sheffield meeting. I was drawn to the monastic building because I imagined it may have cloisters where I could draw and do calm activities with the children in a location where they would feel a respect for silence. A reflective space.

I went there this Saturday, parked and left the children at the car with their mother. I walked up to the monastery and saw a sign for a reception. I went up, tried the door which was locked, and knocked. No one answered and I was turning to leave when an older, very pale skinned woman came and opened the door. I greeted her and said in French:

« J’ai une question assez particulier à vous poser… » which meant « I’ve a rather unusual question to ask you ».

The woman replied, « I’m sorry but I really don’t speak any French unless you speak really slowly ». The sister, it emerged came from Kansas, and was part of an international exchange between Dominican foundations and was here for some five months. I explained that I attended a Quaker meeting in Sheffield and that I would like somewhere quiet and reflective to go with my children occasionally and wondered if there might be a place in the monastery.

She thought that this sounded like a fine idea and suggested I speak to one of the sisters who was in the Basilica at the moment but would be out later. I said that with the children and it being near lunchtime I couldn’t wait that day but I would come back another time. As I explained this, the sister looked over my shoulder and asked if those were my children playing over there. I looked and saw that they had come out of the car. They look lovely she said. I thanked her and walked back to the car.

As I walked down the alley of plane trees that shaded the drive up to the monastery I saw that the children were playing in and with the fallen leaves that were gathered on the grass lawns to one side. They were running around and collecting piles of leaves to make pretend fires. This is perfect I thought as I walked up. This is the right place to do this. More than that, what I wanted to happen was happening right now with my having done nothing. I joined the children in their play and we covered each other in leaves and discovered each other hidden by leaves.

Lunch time was approaching and we needed to eat so after half an hour we set off home.

Today I took both girls back there; in fact we had to return because Lottie thought she had lost one of her favourite toys there. I parked once again and followed the girls to the bench where they thought the toy had been left. It wasn’t there. I suggested that I would ask at the reception to see if it had been handed in. As we walked forward we saw that there were other children playing outside the Basilica. I suggested the girls played there with them and went inside.

There were about one hundred people inside all listening to a Dominican Brother lecture on the history of the site and the Dominican Order in the area. I stood to the back and looked around the Basilica. It was so simple. Pretty much gutted during the revolution it had been partially restored in the mid 19th century but there was nothing ornate. The lecturer’s voice was distant and I took a pad and drew a sketch of the scene. Peace. A meeting place.

The girls came in and found me. They went very quiet and whispered. Would you like to draw I asked? Yes they did and they both drew pictures of the interior of the Basilica.

Ten minutes later the lecture ended and we left. We had found our meeting that morning. We didn’t find the toy. It was a Barbie. No one had handed it in.

God and Unicorns

I’ve been waiting to post this for some time but not had net coverage for a while. I was sitting at the table after lunch a week or so ago having an enjoyable conversation with my daughter Ella who is five – what we were talking about I am afraid I don’t recall. Suddenly Ella asked me really excitedly:

“Do you believe in God?”

“No” I replied pretty much immediately but not without a set of rationalisations flashing through my mind: did I want to discuss what she meant by God and explain why I couldn’t believe or perhaps couldn’t use the word? Saying no was my attempt, on the spur of the moment, to be straightforward and not beat about the bush with a five year old who I didn’t want to process the ins and outs of my relationship with the word God.

Ella was unfazed by my answer and without pause asked me:

“Do you believe in Unicorns?” In split seconds I imagined her belief in Unicorns and was uncomfortable contradicting it and found her question more difficult to answer.

“It depends what you mean by believe” I said.

“Do you believe in Unicorns?” she repeated simply.

“Well” I said awkwardly “if you mean do I believe there might be Unicorns actually living over there [pointing to the hillside] in that forest…”

“Do you believe in Unicorns?” Ella insisted.

“I’ve never seen one…” I attempted.

“But do you believe in Unicorns?”

“No” I finally replied with trepidation and discomfort.

“I do” Ella stated with complete confidence, “I believe in Unicorns; they live in fairyland!” She smiled, jumped down from her chair and went to play outside.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Quakers and Sharing Difference

At the moment I'm on holiday with my family staying with friends in a small town in southwest France called Montignac. I am away from Sheffield for a full year and one of the things I realised I would miss were the Quaker meetings. When I found that there was a blog I asked if I could contribute not knowing quite what I would want to say. So this is my first entry and it's not about missing the meeting but about an example and a contradiction of difference.

I've been thinking about the festival I saw in Montignac. It is an international folklore festival that has been running for 25 years now that brings folklore groups from all over the world to this small rural town for a week. The shows they put on are 'more' than just folklore: I mean that they are full performances of, for example, classical Korean Dance or elaborate ritual performances from Burkina Faso.

What struck me particularly during the parade at the close of the festival was how this is a model of a certain sort of non-integration experience. It is the experience of specific difference, of people's folklore traditions being an example of their difference. Of people enhancing and demonstrating their differences to evoke something they share.

One of the French groups that came was from a different department in France and there was no visible difference to them for the outsider: black hats, black shawls and accordions, yet there was clearly for them a desire to re-find their specific tradition, to define their difference.

There is a desire to enhance co-operation and understanding by focussing on what is different through its re-discovery or at times its invention. The rediscovery of tradition, the enhancement of difference and its confident manifestation in one place leads to a sort of dissolution of difference at the same time.

Sunday, 12 August 2007



It is truly said that we Quakers are all on our own journeys. We do not expect necessarily to arrive at our destination, wherever our destination might be. Shall we know it, if and when we arrive? But we are all travelling.

But there are different sorts of travel. Some travel in order to get from A to B, because they have a meeting in B. They sit in the train, bus or plane, not looking out of the window, only switching on again when they pull into B. They probably do not engage any fellow passenger in conversation. Maybe they work away on the laptop or mobile, maybe they read a book. Either way, if you asked them what they had passed after leaving A and before arriving at B, they might be able to tell you, “We stopped at Derby and Leicester,” but probably couldn’t tell you whether there were any animals in the fields.

Others travel to far-off places and take photographs, so that when they get home, they can show them to their admiring (or, preferably, envious) friends. “This is us in front of the Taj Mahal. We found this wonderful little restaurant in New Delhi,” means, “We’ve been to India, you know.” Photographs crystallise the experience and prove to other people where they have visited, or remind the travellers themselves, in case they might otherwise forget.

On the other hand, Lin Yutang, a Chinese philosopher wrote in 1936:

“The true motive of travel should be to travel to become lost and unknown . . . Everyone is quite respectable in his home town . . . He is tied by a set of conventions, rules, habits and duties . . . A man stands a poorer chance of discovering himself as a human being if he brings along with him letters of introduction, and of finding out exactly how God made him as a human being . . . A true traveller is always a vagabond, with the joys, temptations and sense of adventure of the vagabond . . . A good traveller is one who does not know where he is going to, and a perfect traveller does not know where he came from.”

The other day, I heard a reference to people who are worried about the Left Bank in Paris, because the little, old book-shops which Hemingway and Sartre knew are being bought up and made over into souvenir shops. Souvenir is the French for memory. I thought, “How absurd, to think that anyone could sell me my memories. As absurd as to think that anyone could tell me what I feel, or (in my case) what to believe.”

Even more absurd in my opinion is that people actually manufacture so-called memorabilia by the thousands – as if anything that is so blatantly mass-produced could remind you of anything really special. People even manufacture so-called collectables. “Buy the complete set!” This is to be resisted. “Hey, don’t try to tell me what to collect!”

It seems some forms of Christianity specialise in souvenirs, memorabilia and collectables. “A present from Lourdes.” We Quakers don’t go in for icons or relics. We do look for reminders of the presence of God. But we know we’ll never collect the complete set.

Paul Hunt

Friday, 13 July 2007

'Members of one another'

This is part of the Minute from our Meeting on 1st July, at which we considered participation in our Meeting community. Please add your further thoughts and comments by clicking on 'Comments' (below):

We have spent most of this Meeting for Worship for business considering the question “What are the opportunities for contributing to the life of the Meeting, and how we can all be more fully part of our community?”

In a large Meeting it can be difficult for everyone to feel included in our community. We would like to address issues of communication and feel that this could be improved. In particular those new to the Meeting can find it difficult to discover more about Quaker practices and different roles within the Meeting. We would hope to collate this information into one place and make this more readily available to newcomers. We also wish to be clearer about the envelope system, our main means of distributing information, opening this to all including our children and young people.

It can be difficult to come forward and tell each other about our lives, but we urge Friends not to be too shy. We all have times when we need the support of our spiritual community. We can all be overseers, helping in the pastoral care of our Meeting; and we would like to look further into a Circles of Support scheme.

The word job can be an off-putting one and we hope that Friends will offer service rather than feeling that tasks are too onerous. However there needs to be a balance between responsibility for oneself and responsibility for the life of the Meeting. We need to feel free not to do a job or offer service and respect this for other people in the Meeting who may have many other unknown pressures in their lives. We wish to recognize the grace of God within each one of us and give thanks for the gifts and talents of everyone in our Meeting and community.

Monday, 2 July 2007

What's the opposite of a Quaker Meeting?

Last Sunday after Meeting I went with Moya and Jonathan to worship with the Liberian community, which meets at Highfield Methodist Church every Sunday afternoon. Wow! Not so much like going to church as going partying - with a fantastic Gospel choir (pictured) and everybody on their feet, toddlers and teenagers included.

The Liberians were the first group to come to the UK under the UN Gateway Protection Programme, which re-settles small groups of people from refugee camps in poor countries. Sheffield was the first city in the UK to accept refugees through this programme. They have survived a horrific civil war, in which amputation was used as a method of mass terror, with dignity and graciousness. We were enthusiastically welcomed to their worship, at which we were the only white faces (a good chance to experience how it might feel to be a Black person at our Meeting...)

Oh, and they took a collection. For the people of Sheffield who have suffered from the flooding.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Sheffield becomes First City of Sanctuary

At the Refugee Week launch today, the Mayor of Sheffield announced that the City Council has pledged its support for City of Sanctuary. Sheffield has now become the first UK city to make a public commitment to welcoming asylum-seekers and refugees - the first 'City of Sanctuary'.

In his speech, the Mayor said, 'I'm pleased to announce today that the City Council declares its support for City of Sanctuary, this means that the City Council is now publicly committed to working with others to promote a welcoming city for asylum-seekers and refugees.'

There is still plenty of work to be done in encouraging other local organisations to become involved, and in working with the City Council and others on finding ways to translate this commitment into practice. But it is a major landmark in the movement to create a culture of hospitality for asylum-seekers and refugees, and I would like to thank everyone from the Meeting for their support over the last couple of years. We hope soon to begin discussions with groups in other cities to try to create Cities of Sanctuary around the UK.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

Reflections of an Attender

Introduction, ‘Reflections of an Attender’

In the letter from Balby Elders and Overseers, published on the Blog on 16th May, I posted a ‘Comment’ with regard to its content on 4th June saying that I would write a reply before the weekend. Since then I have considered my response, and I have offered for publication in Sheffield Quaker News, where I first read the letter. As I post my reply - ‘Reflections of an Attender’ on the Quaker blog I would like to offer some claqrification. I have been an Attender at Sheffield Central Meeting for 18 years. Why, you may wonder, did I not apply for membership over all this time? The answer is partly to be found in what follows and a further explanation can be found in my ‘Saga of Faith’ or Search for Meaning (blog Feb. 2007).

Reflections of an Attender

The recent letter from Balby Overseers and Elders raises a very important issue. ‘How can we enable everyone in our meetings to feel more fully included’? The young George Fox searched among priests and puritans for four years before he realized that these people offered nothing to meet his spiritual needs. He had further inspirations regarding the centrality of Christ Jesus in speaking to his condition. From his inspirations the Society of Friends came into being. Perhaps a key question is, ‘Do our Quaker meetings offer today’s seekers the help that George Fox was looking for in his day?’ I would be confident of a more positive response if Friends were all a bit more alert to ‘Advice number 5’ which has an application to spoken ministry, as well as to all interactions between visitors, attenders and members.

Seekers do come to our meetings and they too are advised to take time to learn about other people’s experiences of the Light. The presumption is that Friends share freely from their inner experiences. Can this sharing be a little devalued, especially in meeting for worship? In the recognised tension between spoken ministry and silence does the balance swing too much towards silence? The two should not be mutually exclusive, and together they make up Quaker worship. I hear Friends remark, ‘It was a lovely meeting - silent’. A group of hermits could meet to pray and to meditate in silence, but would George Fox advocate more than this in Quaker worship? I think that the Quietism that characterized meetings of 18th century served a real purpose, after the turmoil of former days. However when meetings in our time are calling for integration and outreach, can we offer silence - plus? Margaret Fell spoke of the danger of Quakerism moving from being ‘an adventure in discovery’ to becoming ‘a family of faithfulness’. I dare to ask that our meetings offer more of ‘an adventure in discovery’? Settled Friends do meet else-where and have opportunities to share and to learn, but where, if not at meetings for worship do the rest of us learn about other people’s experiences of the Light’?

Where do we discover the importance of the Bible, the writings of Friends and all writings which reveal the ways of God? Where do seekers learn about ‘the Way’ proclaimed by Jesus? Most early Quakers were steeped in knowledge of the Bible and of the church. Is this true of most Quakers today? I believe the message of the Gospels and the church must be taken hold of at a deep level, and with guidance, a seeker is enabled to see what fits one’s own inner promptings and then he/she can take the final steps towards discovering a new relationship to God. Most Friends believe that the teachings of the Bible and the church are not the only sources of inspiration, however we dare not ignore them, for against what other background of knowledge, do Friends interpret the inner promptings that lead to a new consciousness of God.

We have a wealth of Quaker literature, and so much other spiritual writing. As you learn from others, can you in turn give freely from what you have gained? Could Friends share something more of the things that they have found valuable and insightful in their personal prayer? In our meetings for worship should our relationship with God be reflected in the building up of the community? While respecting the experiences and opinions of others, do not be afraid to say what you have found and what you value? Is our faith so private that we keep it to ourselves, even though our ‘word’ might be the one that truly speaks to someone else’s condition? Surely we cannot be complacent if only a relatively small number respond in ministry to the inner ‘small voice’? I am not suggesting a multiplying of ministry for its own sake, nor ministry that comes from clever thinking or the ego, but could it be just fear that stops many of us from contributing in spoken ministry during our ‘adventure of discovery’?

I don’t believe that Friends have got it ‘all together’ all the time. That’s fine; it’s just the way it is, however do we realize that by sharing something of our inner questions and turmoil we may be offering a precious gift to someone who is seeking to make sense of their own confused life? It is helpful to appreciate that doubt and questioning can also lead to spiritual growth? Could fear of sounding shallow become our block to this process? It is not strength that speaks to a soul. Our very weakness can be the bridge that will enable ‘the seeker’ to cross over to a new spiritual insight. Jesus was not only the ‘comforter of the afflicted’, but also the ‘afflicter of the comfortable’. I dare to ask if our meetings might benefit from a bit more ‘quaking’ and a bit less ‘comfortable silence’? Jesus sent his disciples out to teach and to heal. Quakerism should not only teach but also help to heal the souls of each one of us in our giving and our receiving. Could those who feel intimidated or shy find on occasions extra courage and make an added contribution to the meeting through sincere ministry? Active response to ministry and to the inner voice can lead each worshiper to a greater awareness of the Light that is in us all.

Like George Fox, many in our age too are searching for a place that can offer help! I believe that sincere welcome, silence and honest ministry are three of the things central to what a seeker needs. Otherwise the visitor or an attender may well turn around and continue their search elsewhere. I was so close to doing this many times. I did stay and eventually, by God’s grace, I responded to ministry offered and to the inner Light, and at age 64, I was once again given the gift to turn my life around. After years of confusion and depression, I discovered a deeper, richer, personal, first-hand faith. This faith is one I had never dared to dream achievable. Now that I know it is, I wish it to be shared by all true seekers. Deo Gratias.

When I first read the letter from Balby Elders and Overseers, the 3 sentences that had the most impact on me, and that stirred a need to respond were:-

1) “How can we enable everyone in out Meetings to feel more fully included?”
2) “How do we ‘help one another up with a tender hand’ during crises – spiritual, social, psychological?”
3) “Yet how sad if they were searching for something we really have to offer – but never gave them the opportunity to discover”.

What I wrote is simply one person’s beliefs, from reflecting on life and the gift of Quaker worship. I look forward to the response that others might bring to all the questions raised in the Balby letter.

I recognise the danger of there being too much ministry at our meetings and the further danger of some ‘ministry’ proceeding from the ego rather than from the inner promptings of the Spirit. However I also believe that ‘an undue fear of ministering’ is not from a person’s true centre either. The Spirit of God is not one of timidity. Any undue fear is most likely coming from the same ego place. So one way or another, the danger of our ‘egos’ getting in the way of the Spirit is very real and always present. It is a danger that we should always be aware of, but I don’t think we can ever be 100% certain that we ourselves or others are coming from the true Self or that there is ego interference.

I am happy to trust the Spirit of God that is at the heart of our Meetings, and the spark of God in each one of us, leading us all forward in the most appropriate way. Without wishing to compromise anything of the best of the Quaker Tradition, I dare to ask, with the Balby letter, that we give ‘Integration’ a real priority in this age. I believe that this integration is needed in our Society of Friends. It is also needed as a sign to our often broken and divided ‘wider communities’.

I believe that the honest ministering that I’m asking for would
assist the healing process in each one of us. The most crucial ‘integration’ we need is the integration of our own psychological lives, to become ‘whole’ or ‘holy’. I am not addressing these words to the faint hearted and I know I’m suggesting an approach to worship that will not be to everyone’s taste. It may in fact be inappropriate for many to step beyond a comfort zone that they are secure in, but does this prevent one from expressing an ideal? I sincerely hope not. What The Christ centre seems to ask for is more and more consciousness, and an honest sharing from this consciousness - Jesus told us, in the parable of the lamp, ‘Would you bring in a lamp to put it under a tub or under the bed? Surely you will but it on a lamp-stand? For there is nothing hidden but it must be disclosed, nothing kept secret except to be brought to light. If anyone has ears to hear, let him listen to this’ (Mark 4: 21-23). I know that this challenges every ego position to an incredible degree – it would even make a counsellor cringe! And am I asking for honest sharing in public, at a meeting for worship? For some this may be out of the question and sometimes we need to remember that the price of discipleship is high, but the rewards incredible!!

I’m reminded too of Jesus words “I have come that they may have life and have it more abundantly”. (John 10: 10). I believe that with God’s grace we can minister to each other and help bring the gift of healing to each other, especially ‘spiritual, social and psychological’ healing, by chipping away at our own ‘negative’ egos. Only then in this more central place within, that Carl Jung calls ‘The Self’ or the ‘God Centre within’, can we move to experience a more abundant life.

I seek to share my thoughts in humility without pretending I’m an expert in psychology, which I am not, and certainly not intending any offence to the Society of Friends or to any individual Friend. My wish is rather to stimulate further thoughts, conversation and discussion. And perhaps what I share may resonate with some. If anyone feels that ‘there is a germ of truth’ in what I share, then why not try to live and worship more adventurously. Then maybe our Meetings for Worship could just possibly reflect a greater openness. And then only time would tell whether visitors and attenders begin to feel more integrated and so be more likely to stay around to enjoy what we truly do have to offer, through the Spirit of God in our midst.

My words come from my own experience of having suffered from depression and the sense of exclusion that I felt over time. This experience was followed in my life by a sense of well-being which brought much prayerful reflection on what aided the movement from one state of mind to the other. I recently came across at Sheffield’s Millennium Centre a lovely quote from John Ruskin, “What we think, or what we know, or what we believe is, in the end of little consequence. The only thing of consequence is what we do”.

I give thanks to God for the Friends who listened to my questions, and hung in there with me during times of great confusion. I give thanks for the inspiration of George Fox who came through his own darkness to light and gave us the Society of Friends. I give thanks for our silent worship; but also for ministry that others shared with us out of that silence, especially for ministry offered by those who were daring enough to share weakness as well as strength, and finally I give thanks for all who demonstrated a real spirit of welcome to me over the years at Sheffield Central Meeting.

Friday, 1 June 2007

The Meaning of Music and Life

A friend asked me, some years ago, “Do you believe that life has meaning?” I said, “Yes, I do.”

“All right, then,” she said. “What does it mean?”

Wow! A tricky one. When in doubt, answer a question with another question. I said, “Do you like listening to music?” She did: Beethoven, especially the piano sonatas. “Do you like that music that goes all over the place?” I did a bit of an imitation of Schoenberg, as best I could, which sounds like a random series of sounds, notes and knockings.

She said, “No. I can’t stand it. It does my head in.”

“You can tell Beethoven from that stuff, or a random assortment of sound effects, because Beethoven’s music means something to you, right?” She agreed.

“All right, then,” I said. “What does it mean?”

Well, she got pretty cross with me. In fact, she kicked my shin, which I thought was entirely reasonable.

The thing is, if you’ve got music, music means something to you. (My cousin was tone deaf. Music didn’t mean anything to him. He just couldn’t get it, although he acknowledged that it meant something to other people; he didn’t dismiss it.) But you can’t say what music means. If Beethoven could have said it in words, he wouldn’t have had to engage a whole orchestra. He could have written a letter to a friend. “Dear Hans, Today I have understood that the real essence of life is the Brotherhood of Man,” or something.

You don’t say what music means; you play it. With life, you don’t say it or play it; you live it.

Question: Is it possible scientifically to prove the existence of music? Some scientists tell us that music is nothing but a pattern of vibrations in the air, a bye-product of mechanical events occurring in various collections of wood, metal, reeds, gut, etc. Some say that the existence of music is an outdated myth from ancient times, and that those who believe in it are credulous and naïve. Others listen to the music.

On May 27, our good Friend Maurice gave ministry. Paraphrased: Roman Catholics respect the authority of the Church, and believe in God because the Church tells them about God. Protestants respect the authority of the Bible, and believe in God because the Bible tells them about God. We Quakers respect the authenticity of the inner promptings of our hearts, and we believe in God because the inner promptings of our hearts tell us about God.

Now, extending this model to the vexed question of the existence of music: Some people believe in music because the Royal College of Music tells us about music. There wouldn’t be a Royal College of something unless that something existed, would there? Some people believe in music because they have seen it written in a book. They may not know what it means, but it’s there. But we Quakers listen to the music.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Letter from Balby Elders and Overseers

Elders and Overseers from Sheffield Central, Nether Edge and Bamford met together to discuss the theme of ‘Inclusion’ at Morley Retreat Centre, on the weekend of 30 March. (The picture, left, is the chapel at Morley).

We worshipped together, and shared views and feelings, around the question of ‘How can we enable everyone in our Meetings to feel more fully included?’ We started from our own experiences, and moved on to identify those moments in people’s lives when feeling part of our community might be problematic. We considered how people move from being newcomers towards a sense of feeling included among us. Some may find it difficult to sustain coming to Meeting in the long term when their life outside Quakers becomes more demanding, or their needs change. Even if they appear to feel at home among us, the connection may not be strong enough to withstand changes, doubts and uncertainties. Longstanding members of our community will have very different needs, and different things to offer, as they move through the stages of their lives.

Sometimes we come to Meeting for Worship every week, wanting to be fully involved, and willing to take on different roles. Sometimes we need more space, so that although we continue to see ourselves as part of the Quaker community, we may not want such active involvement. How do we manage those transitions sensitively, without becoming hurt, feeling left out and passed over – or overwhelmed? How do we make a welcoming space for children, and how do we ‘help one another up with a tender hand’ during crises – spiritual, social, psychological?

When newcomers arrive, how can we assess their needs sensitively? We acknowledged that our Meetings are overwhelmingly composed of white and apparently middle-class people. Our silence-based worship can mean that it takes a long time to find out what is at the heart of our Quaker spirituality, and to find out about one another. We heard from the Epistle of Black, White, Asian and mixed heritage Friends, (1991):

‘Racism within the Society of Friends is perhaps more damaging because it is unconscious and springs from stereotyped assumptions:

‘And no harm is meant by it. Harm may be done but it is never meant.’

Differences other than race, such as class, sexuality and personal religious history, can lead to stereotyping and unintentionally excluding people. Our unquestioned assumptions can then make it harder for them to find and keep their spiritual home among us.

We were reminded that our spiritual process is at the heart of who we are: and yet it can be hard for us to talk freely about this. Do we take every opportunity to talk about our spiritual experiences with one another? To share the joys and demands of the spiritual life? To offer practical help with becoming and staying focused during Worship, and maintaining a regular spiritual practice, to those for whom this may feel new and strange?

As a community in which we all share the tasks that would otherwise fall to a minister, there can be a danger of us becoming preoccupied with organisational matters. This may happen when we talk to one another about business, especially in the precious half-hour after Meeting for Worship. Our intention is important here: if we approach our time together with the desire to include one another at every possible opportunity, we may find that a change develops in what we think our business is, and in how we go about it.

We make an effort to welcome people who are new to our Meetings with warmth, but we need to consider also how we can help them to become integrated. How can we be sensitive to the changing needs of those who have been among us for a while, whom we think we know, and yet whose lives may be undergoing transformation? Sometimes our own feelings of inadequacy prevent us from acting, from saying difficult things to one another. It is risky to hear another’s doubts and questions, to feel their vulnerability – and our own. Do we avoid speaking for fear of intruding into another person’s space?

What happens to those people who come for a while and seem to be part of our Meetings, yet then disappear? They may have found out all that they needed, and are content to leave. Yet how sad if they were searching for something we actually have to offer – but never gave them the opportunity to discover.

Small groups working on ‘Gifts and Discoveries’ and ‘Hearts and Minds’ had enabled some Friends to get to know others better, and to become more deeply part of the Meeting community. Being in several small groups over a period of time is one way gradually to build up the number of people that you know in the ‘things that are eternal’.

Some practical suggestions:

  • Get to know each other better across the whole of Balby Monthly Meeting. Ours is an unusual situation, with one large Meeting and several smaller ones. We want to encourage everyone to visit other Meetings, to experience their Worship, and to get to know Friends outside your regular Meeting. We also want to encourage new people who have been drawn to Sheffield Meeting House to visit other Meetings, and we plan to suggest all this in SQN.
  • With new people. Identify an Elder and an Overseer by name during notices, and ensure that one of them is available in the Meeting room to talk one-to-one. A Meeting for Reflection can provide a safe environment for general discussion: make its purpose clear to everyone, and name the Friend responsible for its smooth running. This is also an opportunity to familiarise the whole Meeting with the Elders and Overseers, and to say something about their roles.
  • When conducting business, especially immediately before and after Meeting for Worship: remember that this is an opportunity to include everyone in our ministry. If we approach jobs as opportunities for people to get to know one another, rather than as chores on a rota that’s hard to fill – we may find that people say ‘yes’ more often, and that the loving quality of our Meetings increases.
  • Encourage newcomers to have an envelope – or to join an email list, or whatever system the Meeting uses for communication – as soon as possible.
  • Young people and children. We ask everyone to consider how we can encourage all the children and young people to feel more strongly a part of our community, and particularly to find ways to enable the older young people to ‘grow into’ Meeting for Worship. Friends at Central suggested inviting them to join the main Meeting for Worship for a longer period sometimes – perhaps fifteen to thirty minutes. We need to find ways of gathering them in to the Worship, and resisting the temptation to change the atmosphere, so that the Meeting is deepened rather than feeling that it has ended prematurely.
  • Follow up on Quaker Quest with a variety of activities, aiming to appeal to Attenders with different needs and interests. Think about how each of our Meetings can use Quaker Week for outreach.

Jane Fitzgerald, Clerk to Balby MM Elders and Overseers