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.