Sunday, 31 January 2010

More thoughts on ministry, concern and our meeting

I have been wanting for some days to reply to/comment on Craig’s posting and now Simon’s posting. I want to do it as succinctly as I can. This posting is not a coherent quasi-essay, but some random responses, which have been knocking around in my head.
Like Simon declaring his role of current Elder, I need to do the same for any blog readers who aren’t aware of it: I am clerk at Sheffield Central at the moment.
Here are some of my thoughts… this discussion takes me straight back to the very valuable and thought-provoking article by Craig some months back about ‘Quaker space’ and ‘Quaker way’. I think the need to re-organise our meetings is partly about providing more Quaker space. More and more people are finding what a good experience it is, to be in that Quaker space for an hour (or more) a week. Arranging more meetings is in effect increasing the amount of Quaker space available. That’s good.
But Simon has also referred to the difficulty we can have in securing Friends (or attenders… for many positions, it doesn’t matter which) to fulfil roles within the meeting. That’s about taking on the ‘Quaker way’ – ie. Committing yourself to doing something over and above being there on a Sunday morning and enjoying the vibe. We really do need that as well.
As for the quality and quantity of ministry… I have to say, I don’t mind having several pieces of ministry, when they are all pretty short. I find them a great deal easier to digest. And I do believe that it is a spiritual discipline to listen to the spoken ministry and to discern whether it is something helpful for oneself, or not. And if not, to gently and uncritically let it go. I wish I could more easily comply with that word, ‘uncritically’. It is very human and natural to pass judgement on a piece of ministry that may not match up to some ideal standard: too trite, too rambling, too wordy, too obscure… etc.
Simon’s blog has partly been an extended exploration of the word ‘concern’ and its special Quaker meaning. 2 words which are really important for me are ‘commitment’ and ‘service’. Maybe they are more immediately meaningful than concern, to anyone without a Quaker background. I think this is partly what Craig has been getting at when he reminds us that coming to Meeting on Sunday is not just about getting our own needs met – there also has to be an element of being prompted and pushed outwards and onwards, to do something once we leave the meeting.

My over-riding feeling though is of excitement and delight that we should be having this discussion via the blog – which is amongst ourselves and with others out there, who are also taking an interest. And that the dilemma posed for our meeting at the moment results from having increasing numbers joining us to worship on a Sunday morning. What a great ‘problem’ to have!

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Threshing and Concern

I've finally got my act together to read up on the blog. As I'm on Elders at the minute, I should say that my response here is made in a purely personal capacity. I feel some sense of concern to enter the discussion actively, but what follows is largely my own judgement and I offer it as such.

Firstly, Craig's words in his previous post describe my own experience quite closely and prompt me to put my thoughts in order for a process of discernment which is likely to continue for some time. I think the issue is layered. On the surface we have a number of specific issues such as the size of the meeting, the 'busyness' of ministry, and so forth. Underlying this, clearly, is a shared sense of concern about the life and depth of (spoken and silent) ministry in meeting for worship, and underlying *this* in turn (I think) is an even deeper concern about the life of the meeting as a whole. And here it gets scary, because no-one on earth can order us about and get us out of any messes we get ourselves in. We commit ourselves to the understanding that nobody and nothing stands between us and God (or other favoured term). Individually and corporately, we entitle ourselves to spiritual freedom to the exact extent to which we willingly accept direct responsibility to the Spirit. In this sense, Quaker life is much *less* of a spiritual free-for-all than life lived under the rule of a dogmatic institution, because the Spirit is not a set or finite list of requirements. Scary thought. But that, folks, is what we sign up to. We claim freedom in order to go deeper into the Spirit than we would otherwise go.

In saying this I'm aware that I speak as a highly undisciplined personality, and I've never personally had any problem whatsoever with the idea (and I stress the word "idea") that being a Quaker might involve conforming to some kind of external discipline exercised through the corporate life of the meeting. So if I'm coming across as some sort of disciplinarian that might well be my personal baggage, talking the language of over-compensation. But not entirely. I think the key term here is 'concern' in the Quaker sense. Briefly, Quaker life is life lived under concern (in the Quaker sense); Quaker ministry is utterance given under concern (i.t.Q.s.). Ultimately it's a matter of personal and collective discernment how far we are guided in our ministry by genuine concern, and, without passing comment on any other Friends' spoken ministry, I know for a fact that I have myself given spoken ministry without being under a sense of concern. Once ... the sky didn't fall on my head, and Quakerism in Britain (or even Sheffield) didn't collapse as a result, but nevertheless I know that I made a mistake there (not as painful a mistake as NOT giving ministry when I WAS under concern to do so, but a mistake nonetheless).

As a worshipping Quaker meeting we accept responsibility to know what our concerns are, and to commit ourselves to at least try to respond to them consistently. This is not a once-and-for-all learning experience: it's something I (for one) need to relearn and keep relearning. *If* we as a meeting are not remaining close to our sense of concern in the way we conduct our ongoing affairs, including our meetings for worship, *then,* to be honest, we're in trouble. I stand to correction from wiser Friends than me, but, for what it's worth, I personally think I (and seemingly we) may possibly have let that one slide a bit in recent months. Maybe spoken ministry is the obvious area where it shows, but it also shows in less obvious ways: the difficulty we sometimes encounter in finding Friends to fill posts and committees (too many posts or not enough active Friends?), the failure of scheduled and other donations to meet the meeting's running costs (leading to cross-subsidy from the Meeting House lettings, which plugs the gap but masks the problem), and so forth.

That's my diagnosis; what's my prescription? Well, if I'm right there, we don't need to panic about it - still less fall about in a round of nervous recriminations. We remain a conspicuously successful meeting and the issues we face are symptoms of our success. We're big, we're busy, we're relatively young on average, we have an incredibly lively children's and young people's meeting, and, in a nutshell, we're doing all right. We just need to have a cool, very unsparing, very loving and mutually supportive look at where we are, compared with where we ought now to be.

Firstly, I don't think that it has anything really to do with the surface issues - the size of the meeting, the 'busyness' of ministry, and so forth. These things matter, but they are symptoms, not causes. In the final analysis, we are not *really* going to frighten God (or other favoured term) away with our numbers any more than we are going to bore God (o.o.f.t.) away with our many words. I therefore think concentration on these things in isolation may be an attempt to avoid or sidestep the central point at issue, which is, how to keep the meeting (and its ministry) spiritually alive in conditions of such diversity.
Secondly, however, given that we seek unity (i.t.Q.s.), I think diversity itself is the opposite of a problem; it's uniformity we need to be scared of, and a split meeting for worship would encourage uniformity within each subsidiary meeting, work against unity, and therefore be (in my understanding) a bad thing (unless there was a reason to set up a new, entirely separate meeting, elsewhere in the city).

Thirdly, if it really is true that we need to rediscover our unity in the shared discipline of ministry (and I suspect this is true), this inevitably involves some exercise of authority within the meeting, by someone, at some point, in some capacity, and the acceptance of discipline from within the meeting by individual Friends. This thought frightens a lot of Quakers (me included). But it's unavoidable.

On the matter of discipline within a meeting, the buck ultimately always stops with the current nominated Elders, but I don't personally think it's always sufficient to assume that nominated Elders can easily fulfil this role alone. For one thing, many Friends in the meeting may not accept their authority to do so. In fact, I know that, as things currently stand, some don't. Nor do I think it's a matter of old hands within the meeting generally teaching the ropes to newcomers, because sheer duration of involvement brings its own spiritual risks and does not *automatically* confer the capacity for deeper insight. Sometimes fresh eyes see more clearly, although it's equally possible for a relatively inexperienced Friend to desire forms of change which inadvertently involve chucking the baby out with the bathwater.

What I therefore conclude is that (a) discernment comes through dialogue, and if there is a special role for more seasoned Friends within the meeting, it involves asking hard questions but not giving easy answers; (b) each one of us must accept that, in order to progress spiritually, we have to be changed by our involvement in the meeting, because progress involves change by definition, and such change can be as painful as it is necessary, and may involve the admission that "I'm wrong" and "you're right" (and possibly even that "I'm right" and "you're wrong"); and (c) whatever the outcome of our discernment, it must be grounded in a shared awareness of what the term 'concern' has meant to previous generations of Quakers. It must be (in conventional words - inadequate though all words are) 'what God wants, whether we want it or not.' And in that sense, then, yes, there is absolutely some learning which every Quaker needs to learn. Newcomers need to be learning a sense of concern, and old hands need to be always relearning it - partly, indeed, by sharing it and spreading it around. And what I think it boils down to is this: we all need to grasp what concern is. For me, it's all in that one word. If we (re)learn what concern is, and apply that learning, then (although only a fool makes predictions) I predict that the size of the meeting will cease to trouble or impede us, and the quality of ministry will sort itself naturally out (and maybe the other less obvious symptoms will too - eventually). But, without a living (maybe renewed) sense of concern, nothing we do to change these surface things will necessarily make any real difference.

In terms of a way forward, better for me than a split meeting or similar would be something like a special business meeting running on from meeting for worship, addressing the single issue of concern, as it exists in principle, and as it applies in practice to the life of the meeting as a whole. But that's just a suggestion. I also felt that the threshing meeting was held in right ordering - apple-pie ordering, in fact, if I can use that phrase - and this gives me great hope that we are on the right tracks, or at least facing in the right direction.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Threshing our Meeting

I was encouraged by the 'Threshing Meeting' held last Sunday, to discuss possible changes to our Meetings for Worship as a result of the dramatic growth in numbers of attenders at Sheffield Central recently. A couple of people mentioned to me how much they enjoyed the process, especially the respect shown to each other by participants, and the contrast with the kind of decision-making that they often experience in work or other non-Quaker contexts. I came away feeling proud to be a member of a community which practices decision-making in such a healthy and inclusive way. Our Meetings for Worship for Business are one of the main reasons for the survival and continuing relevance of Quakers over the last 350 years, and something we can be justly proud of.

One theme that was raised by several speakers was the desire for a smaller and 'quieter' Meeting for Worship, without so much spoken ministry as we usually have in the main Sunday Meeting. This left me wondering if there is an underlying issue, which isn't being explicitly addressed in this discussion, namely the quality of our worship, and the spoken ministry that arises from it.

My own experience is that I rarely feel nourished by our Meeting for Worship on a Sunday morning. This is not just about having 'too much' ministry, but more importantly the kind of spoken ministry that tends to predominate, which often seems to me quite 'heady', rather than arising from and speaking to the spiritual depths of those present.

In a Quaker Meeting the elders have a particular responsibility for the health of Meeting for Worship, but I must admit that when I was serving as an elder it seemed almost impossible to actually do anything about it, largely due to the absence of a shared understanding of what ministry is. Of course people in a Quaker meeting have very different needs, experiences and perceptions, but without any agreement about the nature of Meeting for Worship, there seems to be a tendency for it to become largely a space for airing personal thoughts and reflections. These are usually unobjectionable, and may well be helpful to some of those present in certain ways, but unless they arise from a deep spiritual centre they will not reach to 'the life' in others, and help them to experience that spiritual reality for themselves.

We are encouraged by our Quaker tradition to 'receive the vocal ministry of others in a tender and creative spirit. Reach for the meaning deep within it, recognising that even if it is not God's word for you, it may be so for others.' (Advices & Queries 12)

There is great wisdom in this, and I have been humbled by the gentleness and patience practised so consistently by many Friends in this spirit. But it does not mean that everything said in Meeting is necessarily 'God's word' for someone.

My experience is that there are 'layers' of depth in vocal ministry, and that the more frequent expression of 'surface' thoughts and opinions can crowd out the space needed for deeper words to arise from a gathered stillness.

Of course it may be that my own perceptions are at fault here, and I simply have quite different needs from most other Friends, so I would be glad to know what your experience of our Meeting is, in the comments below.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Buying secondhand books online

I've noticed that Amazon is all out of the book Sepharad by Antonio Molina for February 6th. This is a gorgeous book. This is a bit of miserable winter which means books are a very cosy solution. I use Amazon links because they are usually in stock and offer a baseline. But then, I thought, this is a Quaker thing. Maybe we should talk about alternatives here so I offer you the Amazon baseline and then you can trot off and find yourself a fabulous fairtrade-type deal. So I shall.

Anyway, I would suggest, if you feel like staying at home and reading, Sepharad might be a book to buy for these long winter nights (whether or not you intend to come to the book group). Ordering online might be especailly attractive at the moment. But, you don't have to buy new or from Amazon if you order online.

You can buy books secondhand online very easily. One of the most widely known and probably easiest to order with is AbeBooks. Click here to go to their website. You can also buy secondhand with Amazon and Alibris etc. I have a list at the end of this post. You can choose to buy from the UK (and you will be supporting many secondhand shops in this way by ordering in this way).

I've done a search for you already on Sepharad and have found a wide range of secondhand copies available from 64p. Click here (although the search may no longer be valid when you click).

However, some things to be aware of when buying from a site like AbeBooks etc. secondhand:
-the American sellers are often the cheapest but their books usually take 2-3 weeks to arrive. Order the books for March or otherwise now and this will be fine but not if you want to join us on February 6th.
-you can order your search results by UK sellers, price, bookseller rating (how reliable buyers have found the seller to be, not everyone is equally reliable)
-AbeBooks or Amazon are acting as online middlemen for merchants all over the world, pay some attention to the ratings other people have given the bookseller you choose to buy from (with Amazon, make sure they have at least 85% satisfaction, over 90% is better and with AbeBooks go for 5 stars when possible but I would be very wary of buying from someone with less than 4 stars).

So, where can you buy books online and secondhand? Here's a list:

Does anyone else have any suggestions? Where do you buy your books? Which are your favourite stores here in Sheffield? Do you have favourite sellers? Names and people that are particularly helpful? Let's make a list to - in effect - reward people for their good service and local knowledge. I personally love bookstores, but am not a huge fan of Waterstone's. So, if I'm going to do a big chain, I prefer Amazon.

I know that we already have established links with "Rhyme and Reason" as they come regularly after Meetings with wonderful displays to tempt us, don't they? They are on the Hunter's Bar roundabout near Endcliffe Park.

Every dealing I have had with them has been brilliant (I've seen them at University events and dropped by their store too): they are knowledgeable and funny and interesting. Everything you'd hope for in a bookstore and everytime I've been in there I've come away with books I never otherwise would have bought but have been so glad I did...but they are much too far away from my house for me to buy regularly and for the amount I need >:-). Okay, I've convinced myself to buy more from them.

I like the "Rare and Racy" secondhand bookstore on Division Street too. An amusing and eclectic books (with a suprisingly fabulous graphic book selection). Their music area is great too. I don't go there enough. If they like some of the books you already have, you might even be able trade. This is dark and dusty - the polar opposite to "Rhyme and Reason" - but there is always great music blaring round corners and it feels like an adventure. Perfect for losing an hour on a lazy afternoon or chortling over bizarre finds with a friend.

Personally, always do a quick squizz through the Oxfam bookstore on West Street every once in awhile. It's good for travel books and holiday reads in my opinion. Some decent science fiction sometimes too.

Any other comments on these or anyone else you would recommend? There is a bookstore that I've only been to once (because Hunter's Bar area is not so close to my house on Saturday mornings), but it was on Ecceshall Road near the Somerfield/Endcliffe Park going towards Greystones. They had some randomly interesting photos/art and a surprisingly good literary selection. Anyone know the name of it?

Anyway, happy local and online book buying!

Monday, 11 January 2010

Bookclub Books and Dates Feb-July 2010

To update you on the bookclub and let you know about the books we have chosen for the next 6 months (yes we are getting organised)!

People seem to be picking and choosing which months they attend based on which books they feel like reading. We are getting about 7 each time (although not the same 7 people). It feels cosy to meet on a late Saturday afternoon at The Blue Moon. We all get our cups of tea or whatever and greet each other and then sit down, make our introductions and then begin to discuss the book. It usually goes on until 5:30.

Discussions have ranged from cultural tourism/imperialism, how do/should we separate authors from their semi-autobiographical characters, why does Jewish culture hold such an attraction for so many of us, how do we create ritual in our lives, can literally crucifying your mother in art be a tender image/apology or is it always inherently blasphemous?

Some attend regardless of whether they have read the book or not. This is also fine as our discussions are rarely of a specifically literary nature and touch on broader and more personal themes that the stories bring up. Everyone is invited to come along, to participate in whatever way they feel appropriate and make suggestions for books they would like to read with us. We hope you can join us one day. You are most welcome.

February 6
Sepharad by Antonio Munoz Molina and Margaret Sayers Peden (translator): Considered by some one of the best books in Spanish ever written: a lyrical and “tender and terrible” book. It is a book that weaves fiction and non-fiction together in a most beautiful way. I have just started reading this book and it has me nodding my head and going, "Ah hmm, yes, this is the kind of book you hope for with book groups. A thing of beauty but something I most probably would have never otherwise come across." It is another book about the Jewish diaspora but one that approaches Jewish identity in a very different way than My Name is Asher Lev.

March 6
A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler. Chronicler of “the foibles and frailties of the ordinary human heart” looks here at guardian angels and black sheep. She is sort of like a female Iain Banks in some ways I suppose. I love the tiny details of her writing: she sees and writes in the most wonderful fashion about the almost imperceptible moments that change relationships forever. She is a bit of a "kitchen sink" writer like Alice Munro and Carol Shields. Her subject matter are families and relationships and how people deal with growing up and becoming less than they thought they might be and then what happens when they also become sometimes more as well.

April 17
The Famished Road by Ben Okri. The 1991 Booker Prize winner and magic realist book about spirit child Azaro from Nigeria is not an easy read. It is very abstract and deals with difficult themes, but many promise it is worth reading for the last line alone (supposedly the best ever written, but don’t skip ahead as it supposedly needs to be understood in context). It also proposes that in a difficult world, "It is more difficult to love than to die". An interesting concept.

May 15
The Settler’s Cookbook by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. "Woven around the people, places and dishes that have shaped Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's life, it follows an emotional and culinary journey from childhood in pre-independence Uganda to London in the 21st century. Her own migration is intimately bound up with the fate of other East African Asians." It is a book told through recipes that also includes recipes. Methinks we might need to make some of these recipes for our next meeting....

June 19 Place and time to be decided
Midsummer's Eve Read:
Suggestion that we meet with food and drink and bring our favourite poems/books to read to each other on the longest night of the year. To discuss and share what these words have meant to us then and now and perhaps choose some books for the next 6 months.

July 3
Gilead by by Marilynne Robinson
And now for a very Quaker-ly novel..."Notionally, 'Gilead' is a letter from a father to a son, a testament to the hopes and fears that the father, now in the twilight of his life, will never be able to share with his son. It is an account of the troublesome relationship between the narrator's father, a pacifist, and his grandfather, a militant abolitionist who fought (apparently with vigour and with valour) in the American Civil War; it is a deep reflection on the meaning and purpose of faith (the narrator, in common with both his father and grandfather, is the Pastor in the eponymous town of the title); and it is a commentary on the fears evoked within him by the sudden reappearance of the long lost son of a friend, a ne'r-do-well whom he instinctively, yet irrationally fears."

"There is a lot of Christian theology, and yet because of the main focus of the narrative, this is interesting and pertinent, and should not put off those who have no interest in religion - odd to have so much theology at the centre of a novel, but it's a very human take on theology, and the open-mindedness of the narrator gives a richness and thought-provoking depth to ideas about belief in God and practical issues of being human. I found it a very subtle book, and one that slowly enthralled me. There is very little dialogue, because of the nature of the narrative, but it never becomes monotonous. It is like a meditation on the nature of father and son relationships, yet written by a woman - I found it quite extraordinary, and definitely to be recommended to anyone looking for a slower, more thoughtful read."

If you would like to suggest any novels for us to read in the are especially invited to comment on this post or to give suggestions to Nadine at Meeting (if you do not know what she looks like, look at her picture on this on the lefthand side of this blog as a "Follower" of this blog). Or, you are specifically invited to come to the June 19 Midsummer's Read. On that night we will simply read aloud to each other (this is a suggestion that came out of discussions with Linda Hoy about this bookgroup and an idea of reading poetry/Rumi that Craid Barnett made in a reply to one of the earliest posts on this blog). There we could also discuss how we want this to continue and what books we (possibly including you in this "we" as well) would like for the future.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Come and get 'threshed' this Sunday

I thought it might be a good idea to post this (below) from elders, in advance of Sunday's 'Threshing Meeting' - hope you can make it. As ever you can also leave your comments below, but anyone who really wants to be part of the final discernment process needs to be at the Meeting for Worship for Business on 7th February.

Numbers of people attending the 10:30am Sunday Meeting has been steadily increasing over the last year, and on several occasions this Autumn numbers of people in the main meeting room have exceeded the capacity it was designed for.

This has led to some discussions amongst Friends. It raises questions- including how the meeting ensures the spiritual needs of all are catered for, as well as practical considerations about health and safety.

Friends are joyously varied group, with differing preference and needs, and discerning the right way to respond to this exciting time of growth needs us all to both contribute and to listen well to each other.

Elders have been giving this much attention, and have been led to the view that if there are changes, that these are considered by the whole Meeting.

We don't feel it is right to bring forward recommendations, but do feel it may still be helpful to lay out some suggestions to start this important process of discernment.
Consideration of these will need to included both practical issues - room sizes, eldering and clerking arrangements, children and young people’s activities, as well as what the changes might mean for the Meeting’s spiritual and community life.

The suggestions are further down.

Special meetings to consider these issues.

1. A ‘Threshing Meeting’ on 10th January 2010. This will be held as part of the Meeting for Worship on that day (starting at around 11.00). It will be an opportunity for open dialogue – sharing views, concerns, and further suggestions but without the Meeting attempting to reach any conclusions.
2. Our Meeting for Worship for Business on 7th February 2010. This will not be an additional business meeting, but this issue will be the main item for consideration.

Some suggestions

1. Should we consider holding a breakfast Meeting for Worship every week. This is currently at 8.15 followed by Meeting for Worship between 9.00 and 10.00 but could be a different time and held with or without ‘breakfast’. Should this include arrangements for additional children and young people Meetings at the same time?
2. Should we consider re-timetabling our larger 10.30 Meeting for Worship to allow for TWO hour long Meetings –perhaps 9.15 to 10.15 and 10.45 to 11.45. Should both include arrangements for children and young people Meetings at the same time?
3. Should we consider re-timetabling our larger 10.30 Meeting for Worship to allow for two Meetings, but for one of these to be for 45 minutes long?
4. Should we consider holding an additional but ‘smaller’ (i.e. limited by room size) Meeting for Worship that finished at the same time as the larger Meeting. This could be either 45 minutes or an hour long.
5. Should we consider re-starting a Sunday evening Meeting for Worship. Should this included arrangements for the children and young people Meetings at the same time.
6. Should we consider whether we could start another Meeting in Sheffield – perhaps in the North of the city.
7. Should we encourage more friends to consider joining Meeting for Worship at Nether Edge Meeting – either regularly or perhaps alternate Sundays.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Sheffield Quakers website

You can link direct to it from here, and vice versa. I hope all of our regular bloggers have also taken a look at it. It's new - launched in December 2009 - and fairly lovely. It can grow and grow and become even lovelier - I do hope that any Sheffield Friends who would be interested in helping us look after this website, and maintain it well, will make themselves known ... the usual channels!

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Ghazal 2

When finally I think I choose somewhere to sit and pray,
out of the late blue of the evening sky appears the moon.

I find myself sitting in an old wooden chair framed by
a doorway - through which I see the garden - where rears
the moon.

There is nothing but surprise – and with a laugh – that I
the sight of myself seen seeing such a grand seeming

This is beautiful and this beauty also my error;
A quiet nod to perspective rather than screaming “Moon!”

Tim says: he’d be wiser is he’d seen you rising tonight,
not the face of a just rousing foolish and beaming moon.