Thursday, 31 December 2009

Ghazal 1

Minor organisms are not aware
Of us, they live at an abstract remove.

A lesser consciousness animates them,
They are dependent on instinct to move.

Looking down on smaller creatures they seem
So fast, almost erratically, to move.

Yet gazing up at grander beasts,I feel
Them ponderous, emphatically they move.

Now if I look higher still when do I
Lose sight of those too fantastic to move?

Tim says: it's a first step to imagine
Unseen giants too ecstatic to move.

I was reading Rumi over the late autumn. I enjoyed the way that the author's self referencing voice appeared in certain poems - the form is the Ghazal. It works in various ways - I chose to use ten syllable lines in couplets. Each couplet ending with the same word and the preceeding words being half rhymes/alliteration/or sound sort of similar! The self referencing voice comes in the last couplet.

In Friendship,
Happy New Year,

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Well done

Well done Stanley and Rosie. I try to solve this problem by always having the same brand and colour of socks but here's a real problem how do you stop things creeping into duvet covers when you wash them? Even if washed alone there is always something in the duvet cover!
I know that God moves in mystrious(sic) ways but nothing like the manner of duvet covers and other washing.

I must confess that I have not read 'The Book of Discipline' about this matter but I am sure that other Friends have encountered it but daren't speak to the matter through fear, not of the state but the state of their washing.
I am perfectly willing to accept the maxim 'Never trust a man who, alone in a room with a tea cosy, does not try it on!' but are the strange machinations of washing machines not touching such a profound nature but go even deeper?After all when the light the machine we know that things are happening but do they always come out together in an ungathered Q way?
In Friendship

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Lies, damned lies and

Tony Blair. What a waste of energy and so leather by so many. So 25+years in Afghanistan to come are probably based on similar veracity.
What damage to democracy Blair has done.
In disgust

Monday, 7 December 2009

Upcoming Book club dates in December and January

I've just realised that I haven't posted the "results" of our last book club meeting and what and when we're meeting next. Big oops and apologies for the delay.

December Meeting:
When: Saturday, December 12 at 4pm
Where: The Blue Moon Cafe (2 doors down from the central Quaker Meeting House beside the Cathedral)
Book: Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow by Faiza Guene

For more about the book, click here. Quick summary: this was written by a 19 year old last year and tells about growing up poor in the Parisian ghettos as a Muslim girl with "no future" and depression. How do you find a way out?

We usually take about 1 one and a half to two hours to talk about the book, to each other and choose future books. It is very casual and you don't even have to have read the book as the process is to talk about themes. However, for December and January we chose especially "easy" quick-reads as these are usually busy months for everyone. Both books fro Dec and Jan are young adult novels that can probably be read in under 2 hours. So if you order it today from Amazon/buy it at your local bookstore, you could still come along having read the book!

January Meeting:
When: Saturday, January 9 at 4pm
Where: The Blue Moon Cafe (2 doors down from the central Quaker Meeting House beside the Cathedral)
Book: My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

Some of you may have noticed that there was a Jewish issue recently (November 27) of The Friend and that My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok is reviewed in there. That's because this is widely regarded as one of the best books on "Jewishness". It actually is part of a trilogy but can be read as a stand-a-lone. Thanks to Beryl for her recommendation on this. I first read this book at 13 and it had such an impact on made me want to convert to Judaism (or at least celebrate Passover) for a significant portion of my teenage years. Enough said?

Perhaps not. This is about the tension between interpreting "God's Will" in Jewish orthodoxy and doing what you feel is right (in this case a boy's need to express his artistic talent). Click here for more info about the book.

I should point out again that you are welcome to come along even if you haven't read the books. Obviously you wouldn't contribute as much about the book, but we are doing a creative listening process and talking about spititual and activist/international themes as well that come up for us as part of the reading process.

At the December meeting we will be trying to choose a number of books so that we can let people know which books and when much more in advance. However, there is no expectation that people will come every month. Hope to see you there.


No Father Christmas for children in detention

The police were called on the patron saint of children and the imprisoned today, as he tried to deliver Christmas gifts to children at a detention centre.

The inspiration for the modern day Father Christmas, St Nicholas of Myra, was turned away at the gate of the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire when he tried to deliver presents to the children locked up inside for administrative purposes.

Jolly Old St Nick brought with him £300 worth of gifts donated by several London churches for the estimated 35 children currently detained.

Dressed in a red robe, long white beard, and a bishop’s mitre and crook, and accompanied by the Rev Professor Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon Theologian at Westminster Abbey, they hoped to spread some St Nicholastide cheer among the children of migrants detained there.

The atmosphere became rather less jolly when the Home Office authorities who run Yarl’s Wood refused permission for St Nicholas to enter the Centre to distribute the gifts to the children.

Despite the authorities having agreed to accept the gifts, St Nicholas was met at the gates by a group of unidentified security guards who barred his entry and ordered him to leave the area.

They later called the police as St Nicholas blessed the gifts. The gifts were loaded into an unmarked van by staff who refused to provide a name, number or receipt for the gifts. St Nicholas asked one "guard" his name and the man said "write down 'Father Christmas'".

St Nick said, "If this is how visitors are treated, I just shudder to imagine what else transpires inside Yarl's Wood." While police questioned the St Nicholas team, taxis and delivery lorries made their way in and out of the place with many smiling and stopping to greet the Saint and his companions.

You can read the full story here

Britain locks up over 1000 children every year in immigration removal centres, with severe impacts on their mental and physical health. The Childrens Society are asking people to send a Christmas card to Phil Woolas (immigration minister) asking him to stop the detention of children - full details here.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The Wineglass

A wineglass starts broad at the base, then slims right down to a narrow pinch for quite a way, then swells out again. I have thought of the wineglass as a model of someone’s personal CV, in this way.

From the day you are born, your parents may start to appraise you according to some norm they hold, such as developmental ‘milestones’ or what your siblings or cousins or neighbours’ children were thought to be like at that age. A child should be potty-trained by six months or walking by two years, or composing sonatas by four, or whatever it is. Fortunately, you have no idea whatsoever of what they’re thinking – it goes straight over your head. So as an infant you are still subjectively free (although you don’t know that either).

When you start school, it becomes explicit: tests, SATs, the curriculum. Your performance is measured and compared to that of other children in your age group. There are statistics. You may even have your IQ measured. You can ‘pass’ or ‘fail’. This is a closed system of thinking. It stays like that for many years, the narrowing of options and outlook, the stem of the wineglass. For some, this may last life long as a world view, and they may always want to know, ‘How am I doing?’ For others, there may be a blossoming of freedom in their 20s or 30s, when they realise that they themselves can decide what they are going to do with their lives – the widening out of the wineglass. I think that if you are out into the wider part of the wineglass, you can be curriculum-free, and you don’t have to compare yourself so much to other people.

I don’t believe that life is a closed system. If life is a jigsaw puzzle, not only are we not sure that we have got all the pieces; not only can we not always find the corners or many of the edges; not only has someone hidden the box lid, so we can’t see the picture, I also suspect that some of the pieces are two-sided, front and back; some are three-dimensional. And I suspect that some are quite squidgy or morphic, and change their shape over night.

Since the jigsaw puzzle is so incredibly complex, we owe it to our fellow human beings to be compassionate with everyone’s fumbling attempts to make sense of any of it, don’t we?

Friday, 27 November 2009

How many have...

spoken Truth to Meeting recently?

Running (to standstill)?

All times are extra(n)ordinary(sic) if they we not there would be no progress backwards or forwards. To pretend that there is something special about this time is to take away from issues Friends coped with in the past unless what is being said is that Friends are running to standstill. If we are doing so we are so behind the times we must give up now.
We all have the skill base which can be developed in order that we keep pace and/or move ahead - just look at Sheffield Quaker blog or Quaker Faith and Fellowship plus the many other any one who has taught knows that to keep up with computers and developing technologies they have to be autodidacts (in the main). If a Friend, with normal abilities, were to claim they could not change a plug, do a working drawing, phone a specialist I would be scared. The Ammish are far ahead of us in such matters if that is the case.
Life is a learning process but is too much tied to a building called a school or university and we have to demolish such a view. As we are all ministers we are all pupils and teachers and need to maintain that awareness but to say that these times are extra(n)ordinary(sic) is to put yourself and others down. History is made by all people who live throuh such times not simply special people - unless that is the case you wish it to be.
To take Pope slightly out of context (and meaning)
Know then thyself presume not God to scan
The proper study of mankind is man.

We need to de-school this society in order that it can learn and develop. Know your weaknesses and strengths and learn how to live with both. Learn your insignificance and live with that. In fact simply learn to learn - simply if needs be but do not affect naif ineptitude that is the cop out of the pseudo-intellectual. If you can gather degrees you can mend a fuse - if you can't where did your so-called education let you down?
(And if you think I have a chip on my shoulder I may have but I also have one on my other shoulder to balance it out! It comes from my experience of life which I have to work hard at times to overcome but I am not alone in that am I?)

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Essay completed before deadline shock

I have posted my entry for The Friends Quarterly essay competition on 'The Future of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain' on a new blog at:

Many thanks to everyone who has posted comments on the work in progress, I have found them very helpful.

Especially worth reading is Alan Paxton's insightful comment here.

Monday, 23 November 2009

City of Sanctuary - The Film

Hope you enjoy this 9 minute film, which tells the story of the City of Sanctuary movement so far. Many Quaker Meetings around the country are involved in their local City of Sanctuary groups, and we are keen to encourage new initiatives in towns and cities all over the UK. So if you have enjoyed the film, please share it with your friends and contacts by sending them a link to:

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Quakers in Transition part 3

At the risk of trying your patience, here is the third and final part of my attempt at The Friend competition essay on 'The Future of British Quakerism' (the first part is here and the second here). I've found your comments on previous sections very helpful so please do let me have your criticisms and suggestions (and Peter do pull me up on any 'purple prose'...)

The last half century of rapid economic growth and globalisation was made possible by cheap and abundant fossil fuel energy, which is now entering a period of permanent and irreversible decline. Our economy and society is fundamentally dependent upon cheap energy - especially oil, which enables the long-distance transportation and supply chains that are the basis of our globalised economy.

As rates of oil production start to decline, the energy available to power our society will become increasingly scarce and expensive. Renewable sources of energy will become increasingly important, but they cannot provide enough energy to substitute for declining oil. This is largely because of the sheer volume of energy currently derived from oil, and the much higher costs of energy production from renewable sources. These additional energy costs are even higher for other options such as nuclear power, tar sands, and 'clean coal', along with additional disadvantages of (respectively) nuclear waste, huge carbon emissions, and the absence of working technology.

Declining energy supplies and rising prices put an effective ceiling on global economic activity. Our current economic system depends on the possibility of continuous 'growth'. That is, a constantly increasing rate of consumption of finite resources. As peak oil, climate change, and other physical and ecological constraints progressively constrict global economic activity, we are entering a new era of 'energy descent' that will have widespread consequences for our whole society.

The social effects of long-term decline in energy availability and increasing energy costs will be widespread and very visible. They include the localisation of production and supply for most goods, as long-distance transport networks become prohibitively expensive. As manufactured goods produced in China and foodstuffs from the southern hemisphere become unaffordable, local manufacturers and growers will have a competitive advantage, encouraging UK industry and agriculture.

Expensive transportation will also favour smaller, local businesses over large supermarkets and other retailers which rely on long-distance supply chains.
Commuting long distances to work and school, and frequent travel for holidays and social reasons will also become too expensive for most households. Many people will be forced to move home in order to be closer to their place of work, or to change their children's school so that it can be reached by public transport. Social and family life for most people may come to be focussed far more in their local neighbourhood, as regular long-distance travel becomes a luxury available only to a few.

British society during the phase of energy-descent could look similar in many ways to the Britain of the late 1940s, as widespread scarcity requires most people to 'make do and mend', and to grow their own food wherever possible. Rationing of essential goods may be re-introduced to prevent excessive shortages, as well as 'Tradeable Energy Quotas' to manage reduction of both carbon emissions and energy demand.

The State is also likely to come to play an increasing role in the economy and society, in order to try to manage this series of rapid transitions, as it did in the 1940s.

There may well be some significant gains in human well-being from the decline of our current economic system, especially the rediscovery of non-material goals for human life, and the rebuilding of local communities. There will inevitably also be very significant losses, especially for those with chronic and expensive medical conditions, migrants and ethnic minorities, and those without essential practical skills whose livelihoods are most dependent on the current organisation of society, welfare system and public services.

British Quakers will be among those groups that are especially vulnerable to the social consequences of energy-constrained economic contraction. As Quakers of working age are disproportionately employed in public sector occupations such as teaching, social work and higher education, that are most vulnerable to cuts in public spending resulting from declining revenues.
Relatively few British Quakers are currently employed in areas that are likely to see an increase in numbers and status; such as agriculture, engineering, skilled trades and policing, as the economy is re-geared towards core priorities of food and energy security, economic localisation and domestic security.

There are already signs of a re-ordering of political priorities away from higher education and social welfare, as the main parties have converged on a programme of deep public spending cuts, due to the crippling cost of the recent bank bailouts. As resources available to all governments become ever-more constrained by a shrinking economy, these cuts will affect growing numbers of public service employees.

Prolonged economic recession will also threaten those dependent on retirement pensions, as the value of invested assets will be affected by falling share prices and the potential collapse of vulnerable financial institutions.

Over coming decades most British Quakers will be forced to come to terms with a long-term decline in our standard of living, social prestige and life choices, which will profoundly alter the context of our daily life and religious faith and practice. As with all religious faith and practice, Quakerism is also a reflection of our daily experience of life and work. It is dependent on the economic and social conditions that create patterns of work, leisure, family and community life and political participation.

The profound changes in economic and social life that will be imposed by energy depletion and climate change will create new needs and priorities for Quakers, highlighting different aspects of our history and spiritual tradition.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Quakerism that is likely to have a new relevance during a prolonged period of economic decline and diminishing material security, is the benefit of belonging to a community of mutual aid. This was an extremely important aspect of Quaker Meetings (as of other churches and secular societies) in the period before the welfare state. As many Quakers begin to experience employment insecurity and falling incomes, due to declining public expenditure on social welfare and education, our Meetings will increasingly be needed for mutual support. Sharing of practical help, material necessities and social networks for employment opportunities, will become widespread priorities.

There are great benefits to belonging to a community of mutual aid in a period of severe economic insecurity. Belonging to a Quaker Meeting will provide an important 'safety net' for many people experiencing a rapid dislocation in their work and personal lives. Practical examples of this might include skills-sharing, mutual savings and loan schemes, benefit funds for people in severe financial difficulty, social enterprises to provide employment etc.

In this context membership status will also become more important, as it determines access to scarce community resources, and brings more costly communal responsibilities. This is how formal 'membership' of the Quaker community originated in the 17th Century, in the lists of those entitled to communal support.

Other resources of the Quaker tradition will also become increasingly important over this period. A shared vision of the 'good life', which is not based on material prosperity is likely to be a powerful resource in an energy-constrained society. For many in our society, falling incomes, more limited opportunities for travel and energy-intensive consumption will be experienced as a disaster, which consumer culture has provided no resources for making sense of.

Our Quaker testimony to simplicity will take on a new significance in this context. Over the last half century for many British Quakers the testimony to 'simplicity' in lifestyle and possessions has been increasingly difficult to practice in a hectic consumer society. In our new conditions of life, it may help us to see not just the material hardships, but also the possibilities to live slower lifestyles, more connected with our local communities, and more focused on real social and spiritual values than on material consumption.

This perspective will not come easily to any of us whose life experience has been shaped by the consumer society. But the writings and example of earlier Friends such as John Woolman will acquire a new contemporary relevance in an energy-constrained society, providing a rich resource for collective reflection on those goods of life that are not dependent on material living standards.

In this new society, in which material scarcity is becoming a widespread, bitterly resented and disorientating experience, the testimony to simplicity will take on a profoundly new significance. The Quaker testimony will take the form of an acceptance of scarcity, an equanimity that does not deny the real hardships involved, but also honours the spiritual goods made possible by material simplicity of life. The testimony to simplicity will not consist of a different material standard of living to others, but an alternative perspective, which embraces material simplicity as an opportunity to pursue the true goals of the 'good life' – community, spiritual practice, useful work, and action for justice and peace.

Other Quaker traditions and practices will also offer powerful resources for negotiating the transition to a low-energy society. Any period of rapid social change involves drastic and unforeseen changes in ways of life, and a re-evaluation of expectations and values. For many people, this is likely to be deeply traumatic, as our culture has provided few resources for this kind of fundamental reflection. The Quaker tradition of discernment can offer some powerful and well-tested practices which support new ways of seeing and personal and communal transformation.

Communal discernment in the Meeting for Worship for Business, Meeting for Clearness and Threshing Meetings provide the Quaker community with powerful tools for negotiating change and conflict, which may become increasingly important to Quakers and others experiencing disorientating personal and social change.

Times of social upheaval tend to cause many people to seek new 'certainties', which appear to offer a source of assurance and stability. For this reason we may expect a growth in dogmatic religious and political groups. But many whose world views and personal expectations have been overturned by 'energy descent' will be stimulated to ask new questions, and seeking support in their process of reflection and questioning rather than a pre-packaged set of 'answers'. For them, Quaker Meetings will have some rich resources to offer.

The 'Transition Quakerism' that emerges in response to the needs of a society in energy descent will also need to place a much greater emphasis on the formation of our children and young people. One of the consequences of rapid and largely unforeseen social change is that young people will be coming to adulthood in a society for which their formal education has left them largely unequipped. The current education system reflects the perceived economic needs and social priorities of a high-technology, service-orientated economy. Few of the skills and aptitudes that will be essential to an energy-constrained society such as food production, small-scale manufacture, or maintenance and repair skills, currently receive much emphasis in the school curriculum.

As Quaker communities struggle to support young people through social changes, we may also be challenged to think more deeply about the other skills, practices and traditions that will help them and the wider society through the process of energy descent. In recent decades all aspects of the education of young people have increasingly been delegated to the school system. As we re-examine the usefulness of State-designed curricula for our young people, we may also recognise that fundamental intellectual, social and spiritual needs have often been neglected by the education system. Quaker families and communities may begin to take a greater responsibility for meeting some of these needs, by sharing and teaching conflict resolution skills, centering practices, group facilitation and decision-making, nonviolent direct action, ecological understanding and our Quaker religious tradition.

The challenges of a society in energy-descent may also highlight a new contemporary significance for many of the Quaker testimonies. Some of the potential social consequences of falling living standards include the scapegoating of migrants and minorities, fuelled by anger and resentment over competition for increasingly scarce resources. As climate change puts increasing pressure on food and water resources in climate-sensitive areas of poor countries there is also a likelihood of large-scale forced migration and civil and regional military conflict, leading to growing numbers of refugees seeking sanctuary in relatively ‘stable’ countries in the developed world such as the UK.
As the government attempts to respond to these challenges by taking a greater role in the management of the economy and society there is also greater potential for abuse of State power, corruption and militarism.

All of these challenges will highlight the urgent significance of Quaker testimonies to peace, equality and integrity. We will need to renew our commitment to becoming communities of mutual support in responding faithfully to the leadings of God, in peacebuilding, reconciliation, and speaking Truth to power, as this becomes more urgent and costly than ever. Quakerism may once again be led to become a subversive force within British society – offering refuge to persecuted minorities and publicly challenging scapegoating, violence and propaganda.

As our society gradually learns to adapt to the new era of energy descent it will create new patterns of economic, social and political life that reflect the reality of diminishing energy availability. In the long term, any society must be able to function within its ecological and resource constraints if it is to survive. Our current 'industrial growth' civilisation has failed to do this, has encountered its ecological limits and is beginning the 'long descent' towards a much lower energy and resource-intensive society.

No one can know what the new society that emerges at the end of this process will look like. It may well develop by exploiting another non-renewable energy resource (starting from the much-reduced options left to it by our society), until it passes a depletion threshold and enters a further decline. In the long term, if a sustainable civilisation is ever to emerge it will need to develop a culture that recognises objective limits to levels of production, consumption and waste. In rejecting the goal of endless economic growth, a sustainable society will need to find other goals for human life, not dependent on material 'progress'. Quakerism has much to contribute to this new civilisation, as do other religious traditions that embody understandings of authentic spiritual goods of human life.

As our society enters its long energy descent, Quaker Meetings may come to provide both a refuge for people struggling to adapt to changing social realities, and also a midwife for a gradually emerging culture. British Quakerism could offer long-tested practices of communal support and discernment, and insights into spiritual values for human life that do not rely on material growth. Quakers, in partnership with communities of other faiths and traditions, may help to weave part of the fabric of a new, sustainable civilisation.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Let them eat dhall...

... for many years now I have eaten dhall at least 1 day a week; with naan and without, and mostly without rice. At one time it became an almost compulsory meal - 1 st Day dhall. Now, now as I write, I'm eating chick peas with veggies.
Part of it is because I like it but the significant part of it is because the majority of the world has to do this without choice. Am I creating a hairshirt for myself or just pretending? An affectation? I don't know but in a sense I am sharing with many; on the days I don't eat I'm sharing with many more.
Perhaps I am like Oscar Wilde, being artificial in just making a gesture but does sometimes the gesture make sense?
And the rest of the time I keep my caviaar on ice...

Friday, 30 October 2009

A (smelly) question?

As a beginner veggie/vegan of 30 years the comments of the last few days about being veggie as being the way forward for the planet raises some interesting questions when taken in consideration of the carbon argument. It is simply this most fertilisers come about now, or so I am given to believe, by chemical means - e.g. oil is involved.
If the chemistry were taken out of it flatulent animals (pointed out by some as a major source of methane etc.) would be needed to fertilise the earth along with plant rotations of peas etc, and plants which tie chemicals and can be used as green fertilisers.
Given that places like Edinboro' and other cities were rich sources of night soil and fed the growing populations of the new developments in the 19th etc. centuries - as in China and other places - how would many regard this as an acceptable answer to future problems? Yorkshire Bounty was very popular, I am told, but was stopped because of issues relating to this.
I am asking because if we have a basic argument, put by Singer and others, that approx. 5 K of corn produces 1 K of meat, we cannot produce cattle purely for fertiliser because the equation is out of balance. How do we meet the long-term needs of the earth? C****P can you answer please given your background?

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Quakers in Transition Part 2

This is the second part of my attempt at The Friends Quarterly essay on ‘The Future of British Quakerism’ (see part 1 here). I offer it as a work in progress for your criticism and suggestions.
I feel I ought to make a slight disclaimer that this is the ‘diagnosis’ section of the essay, in which I have tried to highlight some issues that seem to me to be a matter for concern, and it does come across as rather negative in tone. There are also, of course, many wonderful, profound and life-enhancing things about Quakers, which I haven’t mentioned here, but intend to discuss in detail in the final section of the essay, if you are willing to stick with me that far…

Over the last half century British society has experienced a period of exceptional affluence and rapid social change, which have profoundly shaped the practice and values of British Quakers.
One of the most significant changes has been the growth in size and influence of a 'new middle class' of educated workers such as teachers, academics, social workers, health professionals, creative and media producers, IT technicians and managers. These socially and geographically mobile professionals have driven the increasing social liberalism of British society. They have also come to dominate Britain Yearly Meeting, which now has an overwhelmingly new middle class social composition, particularly from the ‘caring’, educational and public service industries.
Many of these new middle class professionals come to Quaker Meetings looking for an inclusive, non-dogmatic and non-hierarchical 'space' in which to explore their individual identity and to 'recharge their batteries'. For them, Meeting for Worship can be a refuge from hectic, information-saturated lifestyles and overcrowded schedules.

This experience of Quaker Meeting as a 'Quaker Space' for personal reflection has largely eclipsed the more traditional understanding of a 'Quaker Way', which involves personal discipline, religious commitment and communal accountability. Many people in Quaker Meetings do not know that there is a distinctive Quaker tradition of spiritual teaching and practice. Instead, the vacuum of teaching is often filled by other spiritual traditions, as well as the background assumptions of the dominant culture. Contemporary culture is narrowly materialist, except when it is superstitious (hence the popularity of horoscopes etc). Following this dominant cultural pattern, British Quakerism is increasingly tending towards secular and materialist interpretations of human experience, often in combination with a variety of magical practices from Reiki to homoeopathy.

Many of the progressive values that British Quakers pride ourselves on also reflect the shared world-view of the new middle class subculture, rather than any distinctive Quaker experience. Feminism, anti-racism, gay and lesbian equality and an opposition to traditional social hierarchies are all widely-shared values of the liberal new middle class subculture. These important political and ethical advances have largely been achieved by secular movements, but have subsequently been adopted as the basis of British Quaker culture. By contrast, traditional Quaker testimonies to truthful speech, personal integrity, and avoidance of unnecessary consumption and possessions (‘plainness’), which are not widely shared middle-class values, have become much more marginal to contemporary Quaker culture.

This process of assimilation to the surrounding culture is not a new phenomenon, and is not restricted to Quakers, although it has arguably gone further among British Friends than most other religious groups. Through these influences contemporary British Quakerism has become in part a post-religious movement; for many people the primary motives for participation are understood in psychological or social terms rather than religious ones.

The debate about ‘non-theism’ is a symptom of this growing conformity of British Quakerism to the dominant culture. As entirely materialist explanations of human life have come to monopolise our culture, so traditional Quaker language and practices have become less credible to many Quakers and attenders. This has made central concepts such as ‘God’, ‘worship’ and ‘testimony’ problematical for many, and they are increasingly being re-interpreted in purely secular terms. Core Quaker practices such as the ‘Meeting for Worship’ and ‘Meeting for Worship for Church Affairs’ (or more commonly ‘Business Meeting’) are also called into question by a materialist world-view.

The Quaker understanding of ‘vocal ministry’ in Meeting as a response to a specific leading of God is unintelligible in purely secular terms. For this reason spoken ministry in some Meetings inevitably tends toward the familiar categories of secular public discourse – political speech, moral lesson, group therapy or Radio 4 review. Similarly the practice of the ‘Quaker Business Method’ rests on a shared commitment to collective discernment of the will of God for the community. In a secular context this can only be practiced as a form of ‘consensus decision-making’ aimed solely at an outcome that is broadly acceptable to everyone who turns up.

The overall tendency of this process of secularisation is to threaten gradually to evacuate British Quakerism of any distinctive content. The accepting, tolerant and inclusive ‘Quaker Space’, orphaned from the challenging tradition of the ‘Quaker Way’, risks losing a living connection with the Spirit that has the power to nourish and to transform.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

The Angry Planet

Some more thoughts which came from another online discussion. See my previous "Age of Simplicity" posts below on this blog for the previous instalments in this train of thought ... this is really rambling and I will come back and rewrite it at some point. But here goes.

We were discussing the recent action by Climate Camp activists seeking to shut down the dirty coal power station at Ratcliffe on Soar, Nottinghamshire. This led to a discussion of the wider causes of global warming and how to understand them and make use of this understanding.

The conclusion I came to was that there are at least two basic approaches or schools of thought on global warming - (1) it's a single issue - possibly even a technical problem which needs a technical fix; or (2) it's a symptom or extreme result of other basically ethical problems in human society (consumerism, inequality, overpopulation, etc etc - you take your pick). Many people got for type (2) views which they simply read off from their existing political viewpoints (left, right or whatever) more or less directly. I certainly tend towards type (2) views (the ones which say there are reasons why we got to this point), because you can't exclude ethics from the solution.

If it was possible, you could, for example, probably contain global warming quite effectively simply by killing the richest six billion people in the world, thus keeping the environment basically stable with enough capacity to accommodate the other two billion quite comfortably. But that wouldn't be OK, even if it was practical. Even if the climate is a single, stand-alone, technical issue, the range of acceptable technical fixes does not include inventing ways of killing six billion people.

So I find myself believing that global warming is a symptom of moral flaws in human society - or at least a matter of human moral responsibility in conditions of imperfection. But even going this far, I have to face one obvious absurdity in my thinking. It feels funny to sound like you're arguing that the global climate system is somehow melting down deliberately like some kind of rebellious teenager in order to prove that rampant consumerism is a bad thing (or whatever). Ultimately the climate isn't, in fact, trying to make any kind of a point by going into meltdown. It's just blindly happening. Weather has no conscience and doesn't care if we practice consumerism or not. We just happen to have come up against the hard limits of our natural resources: that doesn't prove we did anything wrong. When the coal and oil measures were laid down in the Carboniferous, or when the atmosphere condensed, these things weren't measured out according to the predicted good behaviours of a small tailless primate which would not evolve for hundreds of millions of years. The fact that we are now running out of oil and atmosphere cannot have moral implications. It just means we were unlucky enough to evolve with big brains on a small planet.

But this isn't enough either, because our response to global warming has to be ethical. We can't accept inhuman perspectives or solutions to a human problem, and this means we do, in fact, have to consider global warming as an ethical problem. Or, put another way, we have to accept that the weather has implications not only for our survival but also for our conscience.

If we do this, then the really weird thing is that inevitably, sooner or later, we end up acting as if we think the planet is telling us off. We have to behave as if the planet is angry - and we have to do this even though we know that this is a completely irrational way to think.

On previous occasions in human history, we have, in fact, often assumed that there was a direct link between the weather and our ethical behaviour: we assumed weather and other natural phenomena (in such examples as Noah's Flood, or the destruction of the cities of the plain, and so forth) had a divine origin, often, in its destructive aspects, expressing divine anger at human immorality. It was easy to dismiss this idea entirely as superstition as long as we had the luxury of being able to regard the human and natural worlds as distinct and separate. We no longer have that luxury. Ecological catastrophe forces us, by a different route and on different grounds, to reactivate this link in our understanding. Once again, as in Old Testament days, the weather speaks to our consciences.

This might be another way in which liberal British Quakers can unite in common witness. Those of us who are out-and-proud believers in the Christian or other formulations of the supernatural can find a new and direct application of the wisdom contained in various scriptures - and also on other myths, of worldwide distribution, expressing the sense that there is a sacred consciousness and selfhood in the natural world outside us. Others among us can stress the paradox or irony involved in acting as if the planet was angry when we know all along that really it isn't capable of anger, maintain a similar sense of irony and detachment from any belief in literal or concrete meaning in the old stories, and see them instead as handy poetic shorthand for the essentially material or natural problems we are now facing. In either case the outcome will be the same: we can move forward in a common understanding rooted in Quaker heritage. In this we can therefore find a unity of witness which maintains and transcends formal disagreement - which is the kind of unity which we value most highly.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Book clubbing it

Thanks to all of you who came up with suggestions for the book club after last Meeting. Looking forward to hopefully seeing some of you on Nov 7th at 4. Some of you said you couldn't make it, or would attend based on the novels/areas of the world we were reading...but you gave suggestions. Thank you. Will probably need more in a couple months in particular.

Thought for the first meeting, it might make sense if we each started off for a couple minutes about how we reacted to the book (personal or about the style or story or whatever) - without anyone responding - so that we each have a chance to comment. Then, after we've all gone around, we continue by picking up whatever strands interest us. I've been in book groups before where that seemed to work well. Do people like this idea? They've also ended by voting books "hit" or "miss" or a scale of 1-10. Not my style, but something satisfying in the end about rating and classifying things I suppose and gives other people who couldn't attend an idea of what went on. We could do that if people feel inspired. Anything that's worked for you or that you'd like to try?

3 books to choose from for early December Book Club
So, 3 suggestions to consider at the next meeting for the December group have sort of a similarity: young female experience...all highly recommended books. I've not read any of them but they all look fantastic.

The book Persepolis is one I've heard many friends talk about. Something different: a graphic novel. No, not a comic book. One of the new, edgy genres of memoir emerging in the past 10 years lead by Art Spiegalman's re-telling of World War 2 Maus. So what is the book about?

Set in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, it follows the young Satrapi, the six-year-old daughter of two committed and well-to-do Marxists. As she grows up, she witness first-hand the effects that the revolution and the war with Iraq have on her home, family and school.

The main strength of Persepolis is its ability to make the political personal. Told through the eyes of a child (as reflected in Satrapi's simplistic yet expressive black-and-white artwork), the story shows how young Marjane learns about her family history and how it is entwined with the history of Iran, and watches her liberal parents cope with a fundamentalist regime that gets increasingly rigid as it gains more power. Outspoken and intelligent, Marjane chafes at Iran's increasingly conservative interpretation of Islamic law, especially as she grows into a bright and independent teenager. Throughout she remains a hugely likeable young woman.

Persepolis gives the reader a snapshot of daily life in a country struggling with an internal cultural revolution and a bloody war, but within an intensely personal context. It's a very human history, beautifully and sympathetically told.

Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow

Originally written when author Guene was 19, this book is about a Muslim girl growing up in multicultural Paris. Here is what a casual reader says: Guene's short novel is a great read; in Doria she has created an engaging character full of humour and imaginative asides spun from her exposure to television. There are plenty of subtle side-stories chronicling the perils of living in the poorest suburbs of Paris - stolen cars, drugs, children failing at school, social workers etc - but this is ultimately an uplifting tale of hope, of rising above one's origins and circumstances, through the beautifully rendered naivity of a 15 year old. Guene's tale also gives an insight into a largely foreign France, into a world peopled by immigrants from North Africa and showcases the culture clash in expectations between the two worlds brilliantly.

Nervous Conditions

Dangarembga's book is described by a reader in this way (and sort of sums up what I - at least - thought the point of the book group might be): "The novel gives the reader a chance to get under the skin of a Zimbabwean woman at the cusp of maturity, on the brink of making her way in the world - against the odds. Given that I'd never been to southern Africa or studied the socio-political history of the period (the 1960s and '70s), it came as a surprise to be so transported into another mindset and way of life.

Tambudzai's relationships with her family, especially her more Westernised cousin, were fascinating.

It's a very intriguing novel, which I'd recommend to anyone. As well as being a compelling read, it really gives you the chance to learn about - and experience vicariously - another time and place."

So, those are the suggestions. If you like any of them and would like to "vote" but won't be there Nov 7th, please put it in the comments.


Sunday, 11 October 2009 club

I'm going to introduce the idea of a book club at this morning's 10:30 meeting to see if people are interested. The book is Endo's Silence.

I've been part of a number of book clubs and have found reading classics okay, but I already know about those books "I should have read". The books that I've really gotten the most from and have expanded my worldview are books from other cultures that had a spiritual dimension that I had never heard of before. I find that I learn and am able to best take action when I've understood other people's situations through stories. So, this is where I would like to start. If you are interested, please join me at The Blue Moon (just down the road from the Quaker Meeting House next to the Cathedral, it offers fairtrade, organic, vegetarian and vegan food and drink) for the first meeting to decide how and where we might continue on Saturday, November 7th at 4pm.

On that day we could discuss how exactly the group might continue, but also talk about a book! The book I thought might be appropriate to start off is Shusaku Endo's Silence. Endo is a Catholic writer who has been called the "Japanese Graham Greene". For a brief background about Endo go here. His writing is simple and focuses on the question about what happens to us and our faith when our lives become difficult and circumstances seem to test us beyond our limits?

However, we are very lucky that the Sheffield literary festival, Off the Shelf, is having a talk on Endo this Tuesday (October 13) at the Cathedral at 8pm. I'm not sure if I can make it but if you are interested, you can buy tickets at City Hall or the Main Library. I think you can also just show up on the night.

I will leave a copy of Silence in the library. You can buy a copy from Amazon or order it from your favourite bookseller. The author may come up as Martin Scorsese (the filmmaker) as he writes the foreword.

So, I think this gives you enough to know if you are interested and about the kinds of books I'd like to explore over the next year. I invite people to join me in reading every month or so. I've chosen this book to begin with, but thought (and this is something that has worked well in other groups I've been part of but if someone has a better suggestion we can do that instead) in the future, we could rotate around the group. If it is your turn, you come with 3 books, introduce them and then let the group decide which one they would like to read. They would, of course, have to be easily accessible and maybe available for under £10-15 or at the library.

I hope to see you on Saturday, November 7th at 4pm in The Blue Moon. If you want to contact me about this, I will leave my mobile number and email address on the noticeboard in the Meeting House.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Midwives at the birth of a new way of living

I went to the one day Zero Growth Economy conference at Friends House in London on Saturday 26th September, organised by Quaker Peace and Social Witness. The contrast between the first three speakers, who all took a political stance, and the last, Quaker Alastair McIntosh, who talked on “The Spiritual Imperative in Economics” was palpable.
Miriam Kennett of the Green Economics Institute gave us “Tackling Poverty and Climate Change: Questioning Growth”, Richard Douthwaite of Feasta, Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability, “The stark choice is not growth or no growth: it’s share or die”, and Duncan Green, Head of Research at Oxfam, “Should Growth be Rationed?”.
Alastair McIntosh summed up how I felt after all this, and I think this applied to most who were there, when he said it felt like a ‘train crash in the mind’. The problems are so great, the consequences so unnerving, one becomes completely numbed, not knowing which way to turn.
This is why the problems of peak oil and climate change; how we change the way we live to be sustainable for everyone and everything on the planet, is a spiritual problem, not a political problem.
To start with a political analysis, and devise political solutions, which take people as they are, and can only respond to people’s needs and demands as they present themselves, to my mind will produce disastrous outcomes.
We will descend into chaos as governments fail to adapt and become impotent in the face of catastrophe, allowing the short term vested interests of the powerful to win out. Libertarians and survivalists will finally have their way, though whether they run out of ammo or food and water first will by then be a moot point.
As the disaster unfolds, we will, trapped in our addiction to growth and consumption and unable to find a way forward ourselves, abdicate responsibility to government in the hope that they will see us through. But the changes needed are so enormous, and so alien to people’s normal expectations, that Stalin’s enforced collectivisation and Pol Pot’s “Year Zero” will seem like children's picnics.
If we are going to have free and democratic political change, we must first completely change our values, completely change what we think the ‘Good Life’ means, and this is a spiritual problem. Whilst ever reducing our energy consumption is seen as a duty we have to reluctantly perform, we will never succeed – instead we must want to share, and see consuming too much energy as greedy and selfish – as hurting those whom we love, and therefore hurting ourselves.
We might be able to change in time, to put in place political processes to turn around our economies before it is too late. A new and joyous world beckons, but we may already be too late: we may already have hit the iceberg, and whilst we continue to enjoy our lavish lifestyles on the upper decks, the holds are already filling with water. Our main task may end up merely making sure that there are enough lifeboats to go round, and that everyone, and everything, has a place on them, but at least we will be sharing what little we have left, and comforting one another, instead of fighting tooth and nail for the dwindling scraps of our old lifestyle, whilst most, and possible eventually all, of us drown. For this time there will be no rescue – there is no one out there to hear our SOS, there is no where else to go.
The conference ended with a call for us to be midwives at the birth of a new way of living. There is no other way, but can we do it? Simon Heywood recently highlighted the need for us to move into the Quaker 'Age of Simplicity'. In the nineteenth century, our testimony to equality was emphasised as we rooted out slavery, and in the twentieth, we challenged industrialised warfare with our testimony to peace. But for these last two hundred years we have been in the main challenging other people, whereas we now have to start by challenging ourselves. I may not own a car, and may have given up flying, but we still like to travel, and, more significantly, we like to live very comfortably by burning lots of energy in our home.
We have to go back to the eighteenth century to see a similar challenge – when we Quakers kept slaves and took part in the slave trade, and the likes of John Woolman had to strive all of his life to open the eyes of his fellow Quakers to how their lives of comfort and self interest were on the backs, not of lesser creatures, but of their fellow human beings. We are in that place again, this time disdaining the whole planet.
So, to step back from that paralysing train crash of the mind, that feeling of being totally overwhelmed by the enormity of the impending catastrophe that we have made for ourselves, is to find some small things that may or may not work, but will bring us together and break the spell of the ego and the blind consumerism that feeds it. We can then build the spiritual practice of simplicity, step by small step, not in our minds and in words, but in practice, together in community.
This is the great virtue of the Transition Towns movement – it gives us a way to the future that builds community through common purpose, small achievable tasks, that added up over time might just work.
Then we will look up from our toil – there will be no fossil fuel driven machines to make light of the work – we will look up from our toil and glance at each other and see in each other the commonality of purpose that binds, and see that greater commonality over all of us, and all living and un-living things, that transcendent yet immanent other that some call “God”, and the unspoken exchange in that glance will be:
“Yes we can have a new way of living”.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Does this remind you of anyone?

The following is an extract from The Independent of 30 September 2009 about the current journey of the remains of St Therese of Lisieux:

" "St Thérèse was a simple person, she didn't do anything spectacular," ... "She lived in a convent in Normandy and died when she was 24. But she showed that through simple, everyday things you could do God's will."
"When she died she had done so little that the nuns had nothing to put in her obituary," said another pilgrim,... "But then it was discovered she had written her memoirs." The book was published as The Story of a Soul. It became an international bestseller. "She became a saint for ordinary people."
...Sister Thérèse, the 75-year-old Reverend Mother of the convent that hosted Monday's gathering. ... she has spent the last 47 years inside the monastery. ... "She didn't have visions or anything like that," the old nun said, explaining why her namesake is such a draw. "But she made people look at God in a different way. People in her time saw God as a distant figure to be feared, but she saw God as a friend." So much so that she used tu to address God in her writing – although her nuns changed this to the more formal vous in early editions for fear of shocking a general readership."

I encountered this after Meeting but as you can imagine it set me thinking about Fox and the shock of the Quakers to 17th Century society manners which happened to be something we had been talking about in the library after Lunchtime Meeting. Strange thing co-incidence isn't it?Also a learning experience when I talked about it to the friend I was with just after I read it and tried explaining Friends in their 17th Century context.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

A Testimony to Carbon Reduction?

These are just a few thoughts in response to Simon Heywood's recent posts about Quaker responses to climate change.

I recently heard about the 10:10 campaign, which is collecting pledges to cut individuals' and organisations' carbon emissions by 10% in 2010.

It is intended to convince policymakers of widespread public support for an immediate strategy of carbon reduction. The UK is the first country in the world to have passed a 'Climate Change Law' which requires an 80% cut in national greenhouse emissions by 2050, but we need to start now, as delays in implementing carbon reduction targets mean more greenhouse gases ultimately ending up in the atmosphere and greater impacts from higher global temperatures.

At first sight, I didn't consider the 10:10 campaign that relevant to me. We have been trying to reduce our household's energy use for some time, and assumed that we've already done about as much as we can. On reflection, though, it seems to me that all of us are going to have to continue adjusting to an ever-reducing energy usage for the conceivable future. My family's current lifestyle is not sustainable and will probably not be possible in ten years. Carbon reduction is something that will require a constant adjustment for the foreseeable future.

For British Quakers as a whole, the 10:10 campaign could offer a stimulus to a new corporate commitment to steadily reducing our collective carbon emissions. This would obviously need to be threshed and discerned throughout our local and area meetings, as with the decision on same-sex marriages. But we do not have 25 years to mull it over. Carbon reduction is a matter of critical urgency, as the actions all of us are taking now will determine the climate of our planet for millenia to come.

Simon Heywood has written on this blog about his vision of a new Quaker 'Age of Simplicity'. What if British Quakers were able to seize this challenge and make a collective commitment to year-on-year reductions of 10% of carbon emissions – not just in Meeting Houses and 'Quaker' activities, but in all aspects of our lives? Then our Testimony to Simplicity would have the authority of personal and collective action. Not just a general statement of intention to live more sustainably, but a concrete and measurable target, that we would be responsible for supporting each other to reach? By making it a collective as well as personal commitment, we would be motivated to create a collective framework for mutual support to help each other to be faithful.

Some people may fear a concrete target such as this leading to legalism or compulsion, but there is no need for any kind of pressure or imposed authority. Just as in the early years of the Quaker movement, it was a voluntary commitment to use 'plain speech', refuse 'hat honour' and oath-taking. But freely adopting these costly testimonies was an outward sign of personal commitment to be faithful to what was discerned as God's purposes. So freely choosing to adopt the corporate Quaker commitment to carbon reduction targets would be a concrete manifestation of faithfulness to God's purposes for our time, when we are being challenged to 'choose life' in an era of global eco-cide and mass extinction that threatens the lives of billions.

There would be no place for blame or criticism of anyone's failure to meet their own freely-chosen targets. Might we write a new 'Advice & Query' to help us with this testimony?

“We all need the loving support and encouragement of our Quaker community to help us in the transition to a sustainable and life-enhancing society. Are you faithful to our commitment to reducing greenhouse emissions each year, both in our personal and collective activities?”

Friday, 25 September 2009

Escaping the tyranny of the ego

“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 comments on my last post on 'Spiritual Journey – where to?', where I was concerned about how certain metaphors can inadvertently encourage individualism and/or egotism, at the expense of fellowship, sharing and humility, have prompted me to look further.

Bill Samuel talked of being part of a community, on a shared journey. This indeed can prevent the 'journey' metaphor being tainted by egoism, and it put me in mind of the Quaker discipline of Concern: We take our individual concern to the Meeting for discernment and clearness, and the Meeting takes the concern to itself. This has greater benefits than just taming the ego, for even if the work on the concern is carried out by the individual who originally brought it, which in my experience is usually the case, there is no 'burn out' under pressure to succeed, and no feeling of guilt in the face of failure, for the concern belongs to the Meeting, and the Meeting provides support and comfort - “if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 18:19)

Bill talks about the central metaphor of 'in Christ'. Paul says “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Galatians 2:20). I was taught this and other similar bible verses, but I know now that this was not my experience. The Quaker discipline against notions - “You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say?” - has taught me that I mouthed the words whilst nursing my ego. And worse, I was plagued with doubt as I rehearsed the confession: would my sins consign me to hell? Was I really one of the Elect?

Christopher Parker rightly points to the fact that not everything called 'community' is 'for my sake'. Many communitarians see 'community' as a means of imposing social control. Many communities are exclusivist. Others turn their backs on the world. However, our Quaker discipline against creeds ensures that our Meetings are entirely inclusive – those who turn away from us exclude themselves, for whatever reasons. The Quaker business discipline ensures that everyone in the community participates fully, “lest there be debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults” (2 Corinthians 12:20). Our discipline against hired ministers ensures that no one can usurp control – know matter how dutifully we follow a leader we are merely “unprofitable servants” (Luke 17:10). Jesus himself refused to lead his disciples - “Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.” (John 15:15). A community 'for my sake' is founded on the absolute mutuality of loving friendship, which is only possible where there is total equality and freedom.

Is 'living adventurously' only for 'rugged individualists'? It is my experience, after the dull conformity of the church liturgy prescribed by the prayer book, that when you let go of the ego and become part of a community of true individuals, rather than just like-minded people, where there is no certainty of creed or worldly authority, then adventure beckons, new discoveries await, and we know life in all its abundance.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Looking to the future

Just read this excellent piece, forwarded to me by Gordon.

For reasons stated in my earlier posts on this blog, I feel I personally need to take some action on simplicity(/global warming) and I think it's worth suggesting that Quakers collectively need to crank up the volume of their witness on this. I'd be really interested to hear from Friends who feel more or less the same, and either (a) get more involved in what's already happening and/or (b) add something fresh to the mix. I don't want to reinvent any wheels but I do think that I/we need to be in there doing something and making a (specifically Quaker) noise. What do Friends think?

Spiritual Journey - where to?

Yesterday (Sunday 20th September) we did the first session of set 2 of the "Creating Community" workpack on this year's Yearly Meeting Gathering theme. This is called "Spiritual Journeying" (Session 8).

I felt quite a bit of unease when thinking through this, and realised that I have now more or less abandoned the metaphor of 'Journey' for talking about my spirituality and experiences. This is because I find that the metaphor is not only no longer useful, but detrimental. It encourages linear thinking and the idea of some sort of progress to some goal - the end of the journey. This in turns leads to an over emphasis on self at the expense of community and belonging - so given the context of 'Creating Community' I was doubly uneasy.

However, I was not about to stand apart from the group using the materials, since being in community is more important than personal foibles, so I went through the exercise. My first remembered spiritual experience remains central - I have not journeyed from it but rather allowed that experience to continue to speak to me. At the time, surrounded by evangelical Christians, and my understanding of Christianity shaped by such thinking, I thought of what happened as a 'conversion' from which I would grow into maturity on some sort of journey. I now see this interpretation as inadequate - what I experienced was community or fellowship, and I have experienced it many times since. But I am no longer a disassociated self looking at life objectively, but I am in community and in fellowship – I love and I am loved.

Rather than being on a journey, it feels to me that a better metaphor is being rooted in community, and feeling those roots get deeper and stronger. The metaphor could not be more different – trees only move in fairy stories. In a culture utterly obsessed with the self and individualism, to the extent that we become completely disconnected from not only the world and those around us, but even from our own bodies, it is too dangerous to use metaphors that surreptitiously encourage such thinking.

As for my own life in time, necessarily linear, the need is to get out of time, to experience the “timeless moment. Is England and nowhere. Never and always.” (TS Eliot Little Gidding)

There, where there is no 'there', is and not is “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE”.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Some issues never go away

I don't know if anyone else knew about this:

Friday, 4 September 2009

The Trouble with 'The Trouble With God'

Some while ago a Friend lent me a copy of David Boulton's book 'The Trouble With God.' I read it and reacted with anger. I wasn't angry that someone should put forward an argument like the argument in the book. I read this sort of thing all the time with an even temper. It's more that an argument such as this should be presented from within the Quaker movement as a Quaker viewpoint, when it seems to be to be a parody and undermining of everything that drew me to Quakers and keeps me among them.

Now people who are that personally angry about something are generally in above-average danger of making errors of judgement about it, so when I ended up writing a fairly long piece stating the grounds of my objection to 'The Trouble with God,' I assumed it might be flawed for this reason, so I filed it and forgot about it, thinking it possible I might be mistaken. Looking at this piece again after a while, I find it's not as bad as I feared, so I've decided to take the calculated risk of putting it out, warts and all. I'd appreciate Friends' comments. I'd like to stress that I've no beef with any individual Friend, least of all David Boulton (I've never met him and know very little about him). If I'm going after anything, it's the book. But the book, in my judgment, is an absolute turkey.


'The Trouble with "The Trouble with God"'

There is an inner integrity in us all which rejects all programmes of As If. ... This inner integrity demands the real.

Thomas Kelly, Reality of the Spiritual World, 1944

There's no cosy way of saying this. David Boulton, the "humanist and Quaker" author of The Trouble with God: Building the Republic of Heaven, has written an anti-Quaker book. The Trouble with God is not a work of Quaker universalism; it's not Quaker humanism; it's not Quaker atheism or Quaker non-theism or Quaker agnosticism. It's not Quaker anything. It's anti-Quaker. It's against any and all sorts of Quaker testimony or subdivisional -ism.

At first glance, this assertion itself seems unQuakerly in its intolerance. But it isn't, for two reasons. Firstly, it isn't intolerant. David's entitled to put his view forward, and maybe he's right. It's just that if he's right, Quakers of every stripe are all equally wrong. Secondly, and more fundamentally, it's Quakerly to propose clarity. An anti-Quaker understanding of truth is, by definition, not in unity with a Quaker understanding of it. For the moment, then, I'm postponing any full assessment of the truth of David's thinking, simply as such. All I'm now seeking is clarity about what he says, and how this stands in relation to the essentials of Quaker faith and practice, no matter who's right or wrong.

Quakers don't, and shouldn't, think in terms of creeds. David doesn't suggest a specific creed, but his thought is deeply credal, in the sense that it acknowledges no reality beyond what the conscious, rational human mind can grasp, and what human words can achieve. It comes from the same spiritual place that creeds come from. This is not the point of origin for any genuinely Quaker witness.

David terms his thinking radical religious humanism. Unlike conventionally religious credal thinking, it's based on the secular theory that the human consciousness is quite unable to experience absolute truth or reality in any significant sense. All we can experience is, in a sense, our own talking or thinking. So goes the theory. Applying this theory to God or the Spirit, David concludes that we can't, and don't ever, have any direct experience of it. He infers that human words such as God and Spirit can't refer to anything real; they're fictions, and this is the basis on which hardcore atheists demand that we stop using the terms altogether. But David takes a different line. He believes that, if we accept that God is simply an idea, we are free to have what he calls a "make-believe" relationship with an idea as if it were a reality, and that this is worth doing because such make-believe is life-enriching and ethically fortifying, even if it's ultimately only a form of imaginative play.

In my judgment all this is demonstrably untrue, from the basic theory onwards, but that's not currently my point. My point is, firstly, that spiritual life in David's understanding depends entirely on human thought and language, in a way which would make it a credal process. Creeds about a make-believe God are still creeds. So here, tentatively and under correction, I shall compare religious humanism with the current state of my own discernment of what Quakers are.

Quakers have always maintained that there is a truth beyond language which we can experience. Their point has usually been that we don't experience it very often, or very easily, or very fully. We can't understand it, or talk directly about it, because our conscious capacities for thought and language won't allow us to. When we do really begin to experience this reality, we experience it ecstatically, both in the general sense that it is a heady experience, and in the literal sense that it makes us 'stand outside' our normal selves. It strikes us with such overwhelming power and presence that we are compelled to call it a spiritual reality. It can change us utterly. It can disrupt our conscious mind and will, and our habits of behaviour and communication, often traumatically. For some, like me, it can only be understood as actual godhead, or God, a presence rooted in a reality which is more real than the one we move through every day. For other Friends, the same spiritual truth is the reality we always experience, viewed through cleansed and enlarged human perceptions, more or less as William Blake taught. Without papering over the cracks between these formal understandings, they aren't really germane to the point currently at issue, because all such views share a basic sense that the truth we call spiritual, whatever else it may be, is, at any rate, real. It is not solely the creation of human thought and language. Quaker understandings are less about cultivating linguistic fiction than they are about clearing it out of the way in order to get at the reality beyond.

Our business method, with its disregard of personal preference, its striving after unity, and its abhorrence of the vote, is the practical expression of this essential Quaker recognition of the reality of the real. It is, apparently, the one feature of Quaker practice which is more or less globally invariant. I believe (subject to correction) that all Quaker meetings, whatever their faith tradition, whether programmed or unprogrammed, maintain the observance of the business method. The method's historical origins lie in a literal belief in the direct inspiration of God, discerned specifically in distinction from individual or collective human opinion or rational calculation. In Britain, the method is not always now practised in this conscious understanding. Its workings may or may not be seen (as I see them) as potentially transcendent in the supernatural sense, but they are always, in fact or aspiration, ecstatic in the literal sense, inasmuch as, through the method, we continue to seek, and act on, an understanding of truth, as distinct from preference. In practice, Quakers may fail to follow the method into its fullness. But, to date, we have not redefined the basic aspiration. Nor should we.

This aspiration is not compatible with religious humanism. Its whole point is to seek after the reality we have no choice about. The practical difference therefore arises over the issue of choice, and its relation to truth. In the final analysis, as David argues through his favoured symbol of the 'republic of heaven,' the religious humanist goal will always be to realise and express human choice. This is what compels David's humanism to reconfigure the sacred as a form of make-believe. The risk is that, if we once admit that the sacred is real, in a way our own thoughts and words aren't, then something beyond us suddenly seems to threaten to impede, or at least authoritatively guide, our choices. The thing about Quakers is that this guidance - including, if necessary, a disregard for our own preferences - is exactly what we look for. We define ourselves as Quakers by our intention to live in the truth - that is, face up to reality. We don't look for freedom. We seek to take responsibility.

Modern British Quakers are purposefully and extraordinarily vague in their verbal descriptions of Spirit to which they feel responsible. It is possible to be seduced by this into the assumption that we are, or should be, equally vague in our experienced understanding of it. This is not my view. Quaker words and ideas about the Spirit are vague. But Quaker experience and understanding of the Spirit is precise and specific. And to me at least, we appear far from vague about what the Spirit is not. It is not us. Whatever it is that we do or don't worship in meetings for worship, it is clear that we are not worshipping our own selves. The Spirit is not us, though it may be discerned within us. It's something greater than us, something in some sense apart from what we currently or habitually are. And, above all, as the mere existence of the truth testimony ought to remind us, it is not construed as a game of make-believe. Right or wrong, the Quaker method of life is the opposite of religious humanism. Quakers teach that, because reality is accessible, we had best stop playing around with creeds. Religious humanism teaches that, because reality is inaccessible, we may as well play around with creeds to our hearts' content. This view, if acted on, would turn Quaker unity into its opposite: an anthology of make-believe creeds whose only unifying feature would be that none of them would really be Quaker, arguably because they'd all be lies, but chiefly because they'd all be creeds. Saying this sets no constraints on our paradoxical unity-in-diversity. It re-affirms the essential ground of its being. Religious humanism and the Quaker way are like chalk and cheese. There are infinite varieties of cheese. But chalk isn't one of them.

The ingrained Quaker refusal to impose outward uniformity of creed or doctrine has fostered the vast, liberal, and spiritually healthy unity-in-diversity of which British Quakers are rightly protective. This unity now consists (partly) in incorporating, within our common witness, expressions of belief and understanding which are logically and rationally opposite to one another. As a result, the aggregate of liberal British Quaker witness now centres on a vast, formally inexpressible paradox, which radiates an apparently boundless plurality of belief and expression of thought and life. At its shallowest, this plurality bogs us down and renders us impotent. At its highest and deepest, it arises from a harmonious unity of witness to authentically revitalised human lives. Radical religious humanism (besides appearing far too comfy to be really radical - but that's another discussion) is not a new tactic or style of play in this great liberal Quaker game of contact with reality. It is an attempt to stop the game by dispensing with the reality. If only for clarity's sake, we should stop calling it Quaker.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Quaker Quest

Nether Edge Quakers are offering five Wednesday evening sessions of Quaker Quest in September and October.

@ Shirley House (next to St. Andrew's church), 31 Psalter Lane, Sheffield, S11

23 September Quakers and Worship
30 September Quakers, God and Christianity
7 October Quakers and Faith in Action
14 October Quakers, Peace and Justice
21 October Quakers and Living Simply

Each session will start at 7.30pm. Doors open from 7.15pm.

Light refreshments will be provided.

Sessions are free, and you are welcome to attend any individual session/s or all five.

If you require further information prior to the sessions please ring 0114 275 7390.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Quakers in Transition

The Friends Quarterly has recently launched an essay competition on 'The Future of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain'. This is a subject I have been thinking about a lot, especially in relation to the Transition movement, and I would like to ask for your help in working out some of these ideas by reading and responding to my 'work in progress'; part 1 of which is below. Any comments, suggestions or questions much appreciated.

We are living in extraordinary times. A combination of climate change, energy crisis and resource shortages are undermining the industrial civilization that has dominated the globe for the last two centuries.

The questions and struggles of British Quakers over the coming decades will not be those of the past. The most pressing and controversial issues will no longer be about our relationship to our Christian and theist roots, or the challenges of pluralism and secularism. These were the debates of the age of globalization, that effectively ended with the financial collapse of 2007/8.

The debates of the age of the ‘long descent’ will be quite different. How do we prepare for a future of diminishing energy resources and a contracting economy? What aspects of our religious tradition need to be revived or transformed to meet the needs of the future? What ways of life, habits of thought, practical skills and spiritual practices can sustain us and our children through the profound changes that we are facing?

This is not a perspective that comes easily to British Friends, and it may turn out to be exaggeratedly pessimistic. It is certainly unrealistic, however, to expect the next few decades to continue on the same trajectory of accelerating economic growth and energy consumption that we have lived through since the 1950s.

The usually unacknowledged basis of much of the prosperity of the late 20th Century was cheap and abundant fossil fuel energy, chiefly oil. Just as Britain’s Industrial Revolution was powered by coal, it was the cheap and ever-increasing supply of oil that fuelled the last century’s massive expansions in industrial capacity and technology, first in the USA, and then throughout much of the world.

However, the physical limits to oil production are well-established. Once the cheapest and easiest to reach oil deposits are extracted, production first plateaus and then goes into an irreversible decline, as each remaining barrel of oil requires more energy and expense to extract. This pattern has already repeated itself over most of the world’s 800 major oilfields (including the North Sea). It is also a pattern that applies to the world as a whole, in which oil discoveries peaked in the 1960s, and oil production will inexorably follow it. The International Energy Agency, official energy policy advisor to the main Western governments, has recently predicted a peak in world oil production by 2020, with a global ‘oil crunch’ sufficient to prevent economic recovery from the current recession within the next five years (The Independent, 3rd August 2009).

These hard facts of resource depletion and energy scarcity have far-reaching consequences for a civilization that has been built on the necessity of ever-increasing consumption. A prolonged period of economic contraction with spiralling energy, food and fuel costs; at the same time as climate change is blighting much of the world’s food producing capacity, will have deep political, social, cultural and spiritual effects as well as economic ones.

How will these global shifts affect our society, our economy and our own lives and neighbourhoods? How will they re-order our priorities and concerns as a religious community? And what resources and relationships will we have to draw on to guide and support us?