Friday, 14 November 2014


In this year's Swarthmore Lecture, Transformation', Ben Pink Dandelion says we are a DIT religion – Do It Together, not Do It Yourself – DIY. The allusion to DIY though makes it abundantly clear that if we are to Do It Ourselves, then we need skills. If you are going to be a DIY handyperson you need to acquire proficiency in a range of skills – not for you paying the tradesperson to do your home improvements while you put your feet up – or rather perhaps tend to neglect your family and community while you scurry about earning the money to pay the tradespeople. We Quakers do not employ priests or ministers, so likewise we need to become proficient in religious and spiritual skills. Not for us sitting passively in the pews whilst being lectured by the man at the front in a frock.

Also, if we are to 'Do It Together' than not for us either spiritual advisers, teachers, gurus and all the paraphernalia of the spiritual self-help bandwagon that perhaps some Quakers are leaping on along with so many others in our society. If we really do believe that the light is equally accessible to all, irrespective of status, then we should be seeking our spiritual help and guidance from one another.

But it is one thing to believe that the light is accessible to all, and quite another to use that light to acquire the skills to be able to help one another. Quakers are not about belief, even belief in the light within, or 'that of God' in everyone, for we are about practising our religion or spirituality. But acquiring skill is not easy, and is certainly not acquired just sitting in silence on a Sunday morning.

Acquiring skill requires application over an extended period of time. It is generally asserted that it takes 10,000 hours to bbecome proficient in any one skill, whether it be playing a musical instrument, carpentry, wind surfing, tennis or whatever. 10,000 hours is five years at 40 hours per week – the length of many traditional craft apprenticeships, though some are even longer, such as in medicine. Acquiring and utilizing a skill takes place over three stages, recognised in the traditional craft guild terms of 'Apprentice', 'Journeyman' and 'Master'. This not just a Western categorisation – in Japanese Martial Arts, it is called 'Shu-Ha-Ri' (守破離). Shuhari roughly translates to "first learn, then detach, and finally transcend."

The Apprentice works under a master in their workshop. There they learn technique, mainly by showing – the master will give verbal instruction where necessary, but knows that the best way to learn is by example. 'Not like that, but like this'. It is essential to make mistakes, to learn through failure. John Ruskin describes the transition from mere external rote learning of rules and procedures to beginning to acquire personal understanding:

“Understand this clearly: you can teach a man to draw a straight line, and to carve it; and to copy and carve any number of given lines or forms, with admirable speed and perfect precision; and you find his work perfect of its kind: but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being. But you have made a man of him for all that. He was only a machine before, an animated tool.” (The Stones of Venice, 1851)

This is where all of us were when we first came to a meeting for worship, or first attended the meeting for worship for church affairs. We were given the introductory leaflet and learnt the rules about silence and ministry and waiting and not debating and so on. How far have we moved on? How many of us are afraid to offer ministry for fear of getting it wrong? How many of us do not realise we have got it wrong because no one told us: 'Not like that but like this'? - because they too were afraid. This is the state of affairs in religious practice with a minister or priest. The priest tells us when we get it wrong on those few opportunities we are permitted to practice for ourselves rather than just learn the catechism. But because they have the priest to tell them, perhaps they are more spiritually skilled than many of us Quakers?

The Journeyman has left the master and is recognised as a skilled person in their own right. 'Journeyman' can mean both the right to claim their own wages for a days work (from the French journée – day') or the right to travel away from the master's workshop and set up on their own. But how do you know when the apprenticeship is over? Because the master tells you, and in many crafts you make an 'Apprentice Piece' to show your skill. These are often miniature works so that the journeyman can take them with themselves and show potential clients that they deserve a days pay for their work.

So in our spiritual journey, who tells us we are fit for the road? What do we have to show for it? All too often it seems to me we make the decision for ourselves, taken up in the individualistic spirit of the age. We think we can strike out on our own because of some little thing, and no one tells us otherwise. The apprentice is told by the master 'I have shown you all I know' – or possibly just – 'I have shown you all you can take in' for we are not all equally skilled. The client looks at your work-piece and declares 'Yes I will pay you'. The recognition comes from without and is given to us by grace.

And so the journeyman sets up shop and makes a living in the community. But the journeyman is not a master, and all self-respecting craftspeople know this. When and how do they become a master? Again the recognition comes from without, from the community the journeyman has settled in. When the parents or guardians of a young person approaches them and asks the journeyman to take them on as an apprentice. And the cycle of life turns and starts around again.

The discipline of practical apprenticeship and mastery of skills has much to teach us spiritually, especially us Quakers, for we 'Do It Together'.

Furthermore the discipline of application of  practical skill teaches us about our spiritual lives directly. The mastery of practical skills in the world directly translates into enabling our relationships with one-another. The need to work out how to turn a material object into something useful and beautiful – including getting the best sound out of your musical instrument – teaches us to stay with the problem and discover the solution from within the material, which in turn teaches us to engage in dialogue with others, and not to force ourselves on others. The need to find the best and easiest way to get the result we are looking for without laborious working and reworking teaches us to be tentative with the material and so to be tentative in our dealings with other people, to listen and consider ourselves perhaps mistaken. And above all, the need to deal objectively with the world, to confront the material objectivity of the other teaches us empathy with both the materials we work with and with other people. Hear Richard Sennet on this.

The master truly knows the meaning of '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 master transcends the self and becomes one with the work, and then in the work discovers themselves.

Monday, 3 November 2014


There are events and activities in our lives when the divine intrudes more strongly and fully into our experience; when our sense of relatedness to the whole of live, or God as some call it, is more acute.  It is the purpose of religious ritual and spiritual practice to make us more aware of the divine presences at these times. These are called sacraments – 'an outward sign of an inward grace', and in the fullest Christian tradition, seven are recognised. These events and activities are (with the common sacrament name in brackets): birth (baptism), coming of age (confirmation), marriage (matrimony), death (last rites or anointing of the sick), giving and receiving forgiveness (penance or confession), sharing food (communion) and ministry (holy orders).

Quakers are right to say that the whole of live is sacramental, and to recognise that separate religious rituals can detach us from the reality of our experience. This is especially problematical when society and culture change rapidly and the naturally conservative forces of religion make the rituals less and less relevant to the way we live now. Furthermore the patriarchal hierarchical church often usurps these rituals to force conformity on us.

Baptism is used to tie us to the church, with the sanction of hell for those who are not baptised in time, coupled with the subordination of the women who gives birth through rituals like 'churching'.

Confirmation replaces the full expression of adulthood and the exploration of identity with conformity to the catechism.

Marriage is denied those who seek long term committed relationships but are not heterosexual, and then linked to having children imposed almost as a necessity, whilst denying sexual expression to those outside marriage.

Death is used to make us conform through the fear of eternal damnation. As Thomas Paine put it: 'Of all the tyrannies that affect mankind (sic), tyranny in religion is the worst; every other tyranny is limited to the world we live in; but this attempts to stride beyond the grave and seeks to pursue us into eternity'(Age of Reason).

The personal interaction of giving and receiving forgiveness is replaced by confession before the priest with yet more fear of sin and damnation.

The everyday sharing of food is completely detached from reality with administration of barely edible wafer and the tiniest sip.

And finally ministry is only to be given by those sanctioned by the hierarchy to be priests over us.

In the protestant tradition, only communion and baptism are recognised, with the result that what should be celebrations of our lives together in community become privatised and individualised. We come to the front before the minister to receive communion instead of sitting round the table sharing a meal. In the  baptist tradition, baptism is decoupled entirely from birth and even coming of age to be turned into an almost cultish initiation rite into the externally imposed church. Forgiveness is reduced to the working out of contractual obligations between determined individualists.

However, we still need these sacraments. The divine always intrudes, but we do no necessarily pay attention. We easily succumb to the spirit of the age where these events and activities are seen through the lenses of Darwinian evolution and biological determinism. All seven occur everywhere, to varying degrees, throughout the animal world, and we too are animals. But we are also self aware – we are persons – we have been given the gift of being able to perceive the divine, of knowing that we are related to all of life and can participate knowingly in life to an infinitely greater degree than any other animal.

The Quaker philosopher John Macmurray wrote: 'when an animal is hungry it goes in search of food; but when a man (sic) is hungry he looks at his watch to see how long it will be before his next meal' (Persons in Relation, 1961, p44). When he will join with his family and friends to share food together, round the table, passing the bread and wine to each other, in communion.

As Quakers, we are required to see the whole world as sacramental, but this is not an idea in our heads. It is incumbent upon us to devise religious rituals and spiritual practices that heighten that sense of divine awareness - that recognition of inward grace - as we go through the major events of life, and often seemingly mundane day to day activities; rituals and practices that make sense in today's culture, that work in a post-modern industrialised and urbanised environment, that will be a witness not just to ourselves but to all around us as they see how much we love one another.

The judgement that awaits us is not that we have sinned, for our sins are forgiven, but that God spoke to us and we were not listening.

Saturday, 1 November 2014


This post is from the new Facebook group Quaker Renewal UK, and is published here with permission.

I have been reflecting on Craig Barnett’s blog Quaker Space or Quaker Way and in Meeting for Worship last night I realised how unifying this is compared to the disparate beliefs we hold. Our challenge for Quaker Renewal is to explain very clearly and very simply the key aspects of the Quaker Way and then to support people in following this path. We need to remember the clarity of the Quaker Way as a spiritual practice.

Advice and Queries 1: Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.
This advice is first for a reason. It is the core of the Quaker Way. Meditating on this message, we can notice that this is not about ideology it is a call to action.

The Quaker Way is to LISTEN to the promptings of love and truth in our hearts. The only thing that matters in Quakerism is whether we live a spirit-led life. We want everyone to pay attention to these promptings and for our Meetings to be places where this is encouraged and nurtured. We will show you how you can be more and more open to these leadings.

The Quaker Way is to TRUST these as the leadings of God as we become increasingly aware of our own darkness and limitations. We recognise that learning to trust the promptings of our hearts can be challenging. They may be urging us to make radical changes to our life and priorities and we need to be able to discern whether they are of love and truth. We don’t want people to be isolated in this experience and have established Quaker ways of helping people discern what is based in love and truth. We can help you test your own leadings within the security of a loving spiritual community.

The Quaker Way is to ACT in response to the possibilities for new life that are shown to us. Our spiritual experience results in action: we begin to change the way we see the world. Over the years, from this spiritual experience, Quakers have developed testimonies to peace, simplicity, equality and truth. We want to develop spiritual communities where everyone feels they have support from kindred spirits in responding to this life-changing experience. Within any Quaker meeting, there will be variety of types of action already happening and we can help you discern the path that you feel called to and support you as you make your way.

Notice the structure that is offered. Notice that we already speak very clearly about what the way involves and that we have elders and long-standing friends with plenty of experience to share. I suggest that new attenders will be pleased and reassured to hear us speak in this way compared to simply stating that Quaker believe different things. Of course, new attenders themselves will also bring their insights and spiritual experiences which will, in turn, deepen our practice. Let’s energise a Quaker Renewal by being more confident about what we can offer people seeking a different spiritual path. Starting from a common love of A&Q 1, let’s deliver a unified expression of the Quaker Way.

Emma Roberts

Friday, 22 August 2014

Swarthmore Lecture Video

This is the video of Ben Pink Dandelion's Swarthmore Lecture, delivered at Yearly Meeting Gathering recently. There is a brief discussion of some of the issues raised in the lecture over at Transition Quaker. The book of the lecture is called 'Open for Transformation: Being Quaker', and a couple of copies are available in the Sheffield Central Quaker Meeting library.
It would be great to know what Friends think of the lecture, please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Do It Yourself
We all know we are going to die. Well, technically. There’s a strong rumour going around that everyone dies. Most of us have no intention of actually doing so. (Most people don’t make a will. A will is something which you can’t do after you’re gone. It’s a sort of letter from the person who is now dead to those who are not yet dead, saying what he wants done with his body and other earthly stuff. Most people never write that letter, so most people don’t think it will ever happen to them.)
Many people believe that there is somewhere else you go to after you die on this Earth. (Many people do not.) They say, “You can’t take it with you.” Assuming just for a minute that there is somewhere or some dimension you go to when you die, is there anything that you can take with you? The ancient Egyptians seemed to think so, because they put a lot of good stuff (including food and beer) into the graves of the dead. We now realise that you can’t take your body and all the other earthly stuff you have accumulated. Money, house, garden, car, clothes? No. All those stamps or china souvenirs or Man Utd programmes you assiduously collected over the years? No.
Anything? Well, if you can take anything with you, it won’t be anything physical, which doubtless won’t make the cut. Possibly your memories, experience, wisdom. Possibly those. Many cultures (again, at least from the ancient Egyptians on) have believed that you take with you a sort of personal CV, a record of all the good deeds and bad deeds you did – as well as the good deeds you could have done but didn’t. Before you die, or even as soon as you are born, some cultures get you working for a Lifetime Achievement Award – salvation, sainthood, martyrdom. Other cultures say, “Live now. Now is all we get.”
I can not prove any of this stuff, but I suspect that Now is not all we get, but that we also get And Now for This Bit (even And Now for Something Completely Different). I have no idea what it will be like for me (who am still alive) or is being like for those who have already died. They know (or they don’t, if there isn’t) but I have yet to find out (or not, as the case may be).
On the other hand, I don’t agree with not living Now but saving up all the expectation of the good bits for the World to Come. If I was one of Them Up There (however you define them, up and there) would I be eager to greet someone who has been waiting all his life to get Up There with Us, and so hasn’t really lived Down There? I don’t think so. I might have to meet a lot of people who will be wandering around saying, “Blimy! I didn’t know all this. I mean, I’d heard people talking, but . . .” But I think I would rather greet someone to whom I could say, “You have lived x days or years on the Earth – tell us about it. What can you say?”
There was a time when, if you wanted something, you just plucked it off the tree or picked it up off the ground. Many of our nearest relatives in the animal kingdom still do that. Then we (and some of our relatives) learned a new trick: If you want some-thing, make it – you can make it yourself. We already stood and walked on only two of our four limbs, leaving the two handy ones to carry stuff. Then we got to the point where someone invented bags, so that we could carry a great deal more than just what we could hold in our two hands. That was extremely useful, because (since they could hardly walk for themselves) we had to carry our little ones.
But then we got to where the things we wanted to own became so complex that no one person could make all they needed for themselves. This is where the division of labour came in: “You’re good at knapping flints, so you knap the flints. I’m good at hunting – I’ll hunt. She’s good at cooking, so maybe she’ll cook for us.” This was rapidly followed by barter, coin of the realm, paper money, mortgage rates and the rest.
We now have an economy, in the developed countries, where most people don’t make anything, but do a lot of buying and selling of what some other people make. That may be OK when it comes to farmers growing food, builders building, or factories making clothes. It may also be OK to let other people write stories for you, furnish your house, write the messages in your greetings cards, make you laugh, and so on. But are you really going to rely on others for your memories, experience and wisdom?
Are you really intending, when you get Up There (if there is an Up There) and when They say (if there are They), “You have lived on the Earth – tell us about it,” to say, “Well. . . I did a lot of shopping”?

Monday, 28 July 2014

God the Supporter
Let us say, Brazil is playing Argentina. A Brazilian player kicks a goal. He makes the sign of the cross, and he points to the sky, signifying, “I did this with God’s help.” OK. We can believe that he felt helped by God, or that he was helped by his belief in God.
Then an Argentinian player scores a goal. He too may cross himself and point to the heavens. Same God. No favouritism. God supports Argentina. God also supports Brazil.
In 2007, there was a debate over whether Prince Harry should serve in Iraq. The Army thought that it would be too risky to let him go. It was a very neat example of how you get very different answers according to the level on which you approach the question.
Mr Reg Keys, whose son Tom was killed in Basra in 2003, was quoted as saying, “It would appear that Harry’s life is more valuable than my son or the other nearly one hundred and fifty service personnel who’ve given their lives.” At one level, you could say, “Reg is absolutely right. That’s outrageous, and any parent would feel the same.”
At another level, Her Majesty’s Government or the Ministry of Defence would doubtless retort, “For goodness’ sake! Can you not see the Bigger Picture? Terrorists and insurgents would immediately target Prince Harry, putting in danger both his life and the lives of those around him, as well as gaining a huge propaganda victory if they were able to kill or capture him. That would be totally unacceptable to HMG.”
Yet perhaps it is Mr Keys who is aware of the really big picture. God would surely say, “Reg, Charles, I love both your boys.”

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Quaker Origins

Zillah Scott gave a presentation on Quaker Origins recently as part of our 'Quaker Basics' series. This is her written version of the talk:

My first real encounter with Quakerism came through its history. I was an undergraduate studying history, I'd been brought up as an atheist and had never (knowingly!) met a Quaker. I had some stereotypical ideas about what a Quaker was - quiet, rather well-behaved, a bit straight-laced. I knew they didn't wear bonnets and say 'thee' and 'thou' any more, but I knew that they were the people who had done those things. When I came to study the Civil War and Interregnum I was bowled over by the contrast between my image of the Quakers and their radical, proselytising, fervent origins. I have been fascinated by Quaker history ever since. Many Quakers today, and the Society of Friends as a body, have a strong relationship with their historical antecedents. Quaker Faith and Practice is full of writings from Quakers of the last four hundred years, and they are a source of inspiration, contemplation and affection.

English society in the seventeenth century, from which Quakerism emerged, was a mostly rural one - around ninety percent of people lived in the countryside. That rural society was slowly changing, for example, there were developments in the market economy and the spread of enclosures, in ways that were making the poor more vulnerable. They were less able to weather bad harvests or economic crises, leading to more poverty, unemployment and vagrancy. There was also a growing and visible gap between rich and poor; a few people were making a great deal of money out of these changes. Why are these changes important when we are thinking about the birth of a religious group? Most people in the seventeenth century saw religion as bound together with economic, social and political life in a way that we do not today. Many people, such as Gerrard Winstanley, whose primary focus during the years surrounding Civil War is seen as political or economic, joined the Quakers, attracted by their message of equality and bringing their own ideas and influences to the growing church.

English religious observance before the Civil War was dominated by the Church of England. The Established Church, which was the only legal expression of religious life, reflected the social norms of the time. Only a very few held power, women had almost no voice in the church and many areas - especially in the north - were ill-served by inadequate parishes. Yet the tithe system meant that funding the Church was compulsory, even by those who did not wish to be part of it or who felt abandoned by it.

There was opposition to the Established Church. Since Wycliffe translated the Bible into English so that all could read the Gospel for themselves and sent out his Lollard priests to minister to the poor, there had been periodically resurfacing opposition to the monolith of the Established Church, its wealth and privilege. During the seventeenth century many of those who dissented were Puritans, that is, they believed that the basis of the church should be the Bible. They opposed the English style of state church, as the king and parliament could influence what happened in worship. Puritans believed that worship should be only apostolic - things that were not mentioned in the New Testament should be rejected. However, most Puritans believed in a reformed national church; they felt that the state had a duty to ensure that all were ministered to. Many believed that the Church of England could be reformed from within. A good example of this form of dissent was found at Fenny Drayton, birthplace of George Fox, where a Puritan lord of the manor was able to appoint a Puritan minister and try to protect his parishioners from the legal system.

However, some Puritans believed that a true national church was not possible. They felt that a church should be built of individually convinced members in a gathering of believers. These Separatists felt that the national church must be abolished in order for true churches to exist. The most well known Separatist congregation is that which was based at Scrooby and eventually travelled to America in the Mayflower, known today as the Pilgrim Fathers. They would rather face prosecution or emigration than attend their parish church. The Seekers are a more elusive group of dissenters from the Established Church. Existing mainly as isolated individuals, small groups or loose networks which have left little evidence, they believed in the primacy of the spirit within and found it absent in most existing churches, Established or Separatist. These people were to find a natural home in Quaker Meetings. Many were influenced by radical religious ideas from northern Europe and brought those ideas to the nascent church. Although Seekers are the clearest antecedents to the Quaker movement, Separatism and Puritanism also provided many early adherents.

The Civil War, which broke out in England in 1642, cannot be seen as a class war - there were people from all strata of society in both the Royalist and the Parliamentary armies. However, in the Parliamentary armies a gathering of individuals with radical ideas led to a general atmosphere of radicalism - social, economic and religious. Many in the country felt shock and fear at these ideas and believed, in the words of a ballad from the time, that it was 'The World Turned Upside Down'.

Quakerism emerged during the last years of the Civil War and the early part of the Interregnum. I want to tell you about that through the lives of three early Quakers. The first is George Fox, considered by many to be the founder of Quakerism. He was born in 1624 in Fenny Drayton, that Puritan parish in Leicestershire. His father was a weaver. He was an educated man, reasonably wealthy and independent, and a churchwarden in the Puritan parish church. His mother came from a family which had seen martyrdoms for Protestantism during the previous century. Young George Fox was apprenticed to a shoe maker. However, in 1643, at the age of nineteen, he broke off his apprenticeship and began a period of physical and spiritual wandering and searching. Seeking answers to religious questions, he travelled to London, through towns where the Parliamentary army was garrisoned, and returned home, unsatisfied with what he had learnt. After a period of despair he heard a message from God that 'there is one, even Jesus Christ, that can speak to your condition.' For Fox this was the answer to his spiritual search - he needed no preachers, teachers or ministers, the Spirit within him was all that was necessary.

He began at once to preach in the counties surrounding his home, but with limited success. He did make some important convincements, and even experienced the first of many Quaker schisms, but there was no mass-conversion at this stage. He then travelled north and, in 1652 after a vision on Pendle Hill, he began to preach to, and convince, thousands. This period saw the birth of the Quaker church. Fox saw that whilst his vision of the spirit within was all that was needed for the individual spiritual journey, to be a church which would endure these individuals must be organised into a community, a family of believers. He began to put in place the organisational structures which we still see the echoes of in Quaker Meetings today. Convinced Quakers also began the work of spreading the message across the country, going out in pairs to preach across England and beyond. For Fox evangelism and the creation of settled Meetings were of prime importance, but they also contained the seed of a conflict at the heart of Quakerism, that between the needs of the group and the individual. In the life of James Naylor we encounter the problem of what happens when the message of God heard by one individual puts him in conflict with the needs of the group.

James Naylor was the son of an independent farmer. He fought in the Parliamentary army and was a preacher there. Following a visionary encounter with God whilst ploughing, he left his family and became an itinerant preacher. In 1652 he met George Fox, and recongnised in Fox's message similarities to his own ideas. He became a Quaker, a friend of Fox and a pivotal figure in the early church. He was a charismatic and appealing speaker, and in 1655 went to London to spread the message of Quakerism there. He met with considerable success. At that point, if you had asked a Londoner 'who is the leader of the Quakers?', they would probably have answered 'James Naylor'. However, there began to be serious disputes within the London Meetings, with Naylor's supporters disrupting Meetings. It is from this point that there began to be hostility from George Fox towards James Naylor. Naylor travelled to the west country to visit Fox, who has imprisoned there, but was himself arrested at Exeter. He was then released and was moved to enact a sign. Many early Quakers enacted signs from God. George Fox himself had walked barefoot through the mud into Litchfield crying out to condemn the people there for failing to support the Parliamentary army. Other Quakers gave signs of the Second Coming - going naked, putting burning coals on their heads. Naylor was inspired to re-enact the entry of Christ into Jerusalem. He rode on a donkey into Bristol, accompanied by his supporters. He was arrested at once, tried for blasphemy, convicted, tortured and put into solitary confinement. George Fox and the other Quaker leaders distanced themselves from him. The Parliament was hostile to Quakers and a conviction for blasphemy put the entire early church in serious jeopardy. In 1659 the more sympathetic Rump Parliament set all Quaker prisoners, including Naylor, free. He was reconciled with Fox, but never fully recovered from his ordeals and died a year later.

James Naylor died in 1660, in the same year Charles II was restored to the throne and the hopes of many Quakers that there would be a world-wide movement of Quakerism, beginning with a general conversion of Britain, were dashed. Although Charles II was personally sympathetic to the Quakers, his parliament was not, and series of harsh laws were passed against them. In spite of this, alone of all the radical groupings of the previous twenty years, the Quakers survived. What was it about Quakerism that enabled it to survive the difficult years after the Restoration? First, was the very great depth of spiritual need which was met by the radical religious message of Quakerism. Secondly, the strength of church organisation enabled it to survive. Central to this organisation was Margaret Fell. She was born in 1614, daughter of a wealthy landowner. She was married at seventeen to Thomas Fell, a judge and politician. In 1652 she and her household, apart from Thomas, were convinced by George Fox, and from that moment she put her considerable personal, financial and social resources to the use of the Quaker movement. Although Thomas Fell never became a Quaker, he helped those Quakers who he encountered in the legal system. Margaret Fell was a formidable organiser. For example, from 1653 she established a fund to assist imprisoned Quakers and their families; her home was the center of a postal network keeping Quaker missinaries in touch with the leaders; and she ensured that missionaries who passed through her home went on their way well clothed and shod. However, it was not only as a organiser that Fell served Quakerism. In 1660, whilst she was in prison, she published Women's Speaking Justified in which she argued that women should have an equal role in the church. Her considerable stature within the Quaker movement greatly aided those who were arguing for an active place for women within Quakerism.

With the Toleration Act of 1689 the legal position of the Quakers was considerably eased, and the burden of persecution was for the most part lifted. However, the things which had enabled the movement to survive had transformed it. By the last decades of the seventeenth century the fervour, passion and fire which had characterised the early decades had been replaced by Quietism. For more than half a century the Quakers became a separated sect. The deliberately hedged themselves off; their dress, language, manners and behaviour marking them as a people not of the world. There was a dominance of discipline, the subsummation of the individual to the group. Marriage out of the Society was forbidden and transgression of moral codes could lead to expulsion. The close community, discipline, group loyalty and communication which had enabled the Quaker church to survive persecution meant that it spent decades in relative isolation. From the middle of the eighteenth century Quakerism began to emerge from this separation. The bridges to the world were built by Quaker scientists and engineers, whose professional interests took them into close contact with non-Quaker organisations and individuals; by those campaigning on issues such as the abolition of slavery, who began to work among broad-based campaigning groups; and eventually by the return of an interest in evangelism amongst British Friends.

A few book recommendations.

John Punshon Portrait in Grey. A short history of the Quakers (2006). John Punshon's history is a excellent starting point for those interested in the history of Quakerism. Fascinating, well researched and affectionate.

Pink Dandelion An Introduction to Quakerism (2007). Woodbrook Programme Leader Pink Dandelion's take on Quaker history is a more academically, theoretically focused one than Punshon's. His examination of present day Quakerism in its varying, world-wide manifestations forms the second half of the book.

Christopher Hill The World Turned Upside Down (1991). First published in the 1970s, Christopher Hill's seminal study of radical ideas during the English Revolution is still compelling today. A fascinating view from a non-Quaker historian of the world from which Quakerism emerged.

Christine Trevett Women and Quakerism in the 17th Century (1991). Christine Trevett tells the story of early Quaker women - the appeal of Quakerism, the impact they had upon it, the challenges they faced, their lives and the unique opportunities they had as Quakers.

Rex Ambler Truth of the Heart. An anthology of George Fox (2007). This book came out of Rex Ambler's undertaking to study all the available writings of George Fox. He found strong themes emerging, which are perhaps hard to appreciate from Fox's readily available works. This book presents an annotated selection of Fox's writings, organised by theme, in both Fox's original words and Ambler's sensitive 'translation' into modern English.

Gerald Hewitson Journey into life. Inheriting the story of early Friends (2013). Gerald Hewitson delivered the 2013 Swarthmore Lecture at Britain Yearly Meeting, and this is the pamphlet version. An account of the transformative effect of the writing of early Quakers on Hewitson's life and faith.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

'Quaker Basics' - Worship

What was the Quaker Basics session on worship really about?

A few weeks ago, by request we posted a ‘handout’ from the session. It was called ‘Quaker Practices about Ministry’. But the handout was merely an add–on to the main part of the session. So what was the session about?

We talked about four aspects of worship: the nature of Quaker worship, silence and stillness, ministry, and silence and ministry in our daily lives. Mostly we referred to sections from QF&P, and George Gorman’s ‘The Amazing Fact of Quaker Worship’.

We thought about silence and stillness in terms of prayer, drawing on George Gorman p.37 (centring down) and p.39 (the ‘gathered meeting’). I’m so sorry I can’t quote these because I went and lent my copy to someone! In 1937 Rufus Jones wrote of ‘the intensified hush’:

QF&P 2.16
[The early Friends] made the discovery that silence is one of the best preparations for communion [with God] and for the reception of inspiration and guidance. Silence itself, of course, has no magic. It may be just sheer emptiness, absence of words or noise or music. It may be an occasion for slumber, or it may be a dead form. But it may be an intensified pause, a vitalised hush, a creative quiet, an actual moment of mutual and reciprocal correspondence with God.
Rufus Jones, 1937
In the ‘ministry’ aspect we thought about ministry from three angles: in Meeting for Worship, practical ministry (to minister = to serve), and outreach. Mainly but not completely we focused on ministry in Meeting for Worship, both vocal and non-vocal.
QF&P 10.05
We recognise a variety of ministries. In our worship these include those who speak under the guidance of the Spirit, and those who receive and uphold the work of the Spirit in silence and prayer. We also recognise as ministry service on our many committees, hospitality and childcare, the care of finance and premises, and many other tasks. We value those whose ministry is not in an appointed task but is in teaching, counselling, listening, prayer, enabling the service of others, or other service in the meeting or the world.
The purpose of all our ministry is to lead us and other people into closer communion with God and to enable us to carry out those tasks which the Spirit lays upon us.
London Yearly Meeting, 1986
QF&P 2.66
Ministry is what is on one’s soul, and it can be in direct contradiction to what is on one’s mind. It’s what the Inner Light gently pushes you toward or suddenly dumps in your lap. It is rooted in the eternity, divinity, and selflessness of the Inner Light; not in the worldly, egoistic functions of the conscious mind.
Marrianne McMullen, 1987
We acknowledged the challenges of worship in our daily lives.
QF&P 2.18, 2.20 and 2.21
Be still and cool in thy own mind …….
George Fox, 1658
Do you make a place in your daily life for reading, meditation, and waiting upon God in prayer, that you may know more of the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit? Do you remember the need to pray for others, holding them in the presence of God?
Queries, 1964
I read that I was supposed to make ‘a place for inward retirement and waiting upon God’ in my daily life, as the Queries in those days expressed it… At last I began to realise, first that I needed some kind of inner peace, or inward retirement, or whatever name it might be called by; and then that these apparently stuffy old Friends were really talking sense. If I studied what they were trying to tell me, I might possibly find that the ‘place of inward retirement’ was not a place I had to go to, it was there all the time. I could know the ‘place of inward retirement’ wherever I was, or whatever I was doing, and find the spiritual refreshment for which, knowingly or unknowingly, I was longing, and hear the voice of God in my heart. Thus I began to realise that prayer was not a formality, or an obligation, it was a place which was there all the time and always available.
Elfrida Vipont Foulds, 1983
In small groups, we used the creative listening process to consider these four questions:
  1. What are you seeking in a Meeting for Worship?

  1. How do you ‘centre down’ or enter the silence? What gets in the way?

  1. How do you respond to ‘Quaker routines’ about ministry?

  1. Does your life feel different or changed from being associated with Friends? If so, how?
These questions have stayed with me since the session, making me re-visit my initial thoughts. What would your thoughts be?
Rosie Roberts

Friday, 16 May 2014

A while back, Maurice gave a personal view of what it means to be a Quaker. I agree it would be good if different Friends would have a go at expressing their own views on this. I’ve taken up his challenge.

I felt even more that I should follow this leading when I turned the page from Maurice’s article in Sheffield Quaker News (essentially the same as his blog) and read, in another article, an encouragement to try the website for Cape Cod Quakers ( as a good general account of Quaker ways. I myself visited one of those meeting houses, a quaint little building, many years ago, soon after I started attending meeting in Sheffield.  This chimed in, with strange co-incidence, with a book I was reading at the same time. I will give that a recommendation in passing too.  It’s quite a long novel, by Geoffrey Eugenides, called the Marriage Plot. Amongst other things, it is about a young man’s spiritual journey. The final part - quite out of the blue! – starts with the words ‘There were a lot of things to admire about the Quakers’. He finds some peace and a welcome haven in the Quaker Meeting of Prettybrook, New Jersey. (see the Friend 10.08.2012)

I love ‘happy co-incidences’ or synchronicity. I believe that life does make meaningful shapes around us. Such is the experience of a powerful MfW, when the spoken ministry of others chimes perfectly into what you yourself need, whether you knew it or not.

Community is for me a very important part of being a Quaker. It’s about being with others, with a sense of shared purpose and commitment. We don’t all see things exactly the same but there is a bedrock of shared values. We want to come together regularly to worship and, growing out of the worship, to create a happy and active community. Quaker work, eg on committees, is primarily a further way of building the community.

I love the Quaker tolerance for uncertainty – or recognition that life is complicated and ever-changing.  I love the Quaker instinct for a great metaphor to try to give some sense to the ineffable: ‘Please be patient those of you who have found a rock to stand on, with those of us who haven’t and with those who are not even looking for one. We live on the wave’s edge, where sea, sand and sky are all mixed up together: we are tossed head over the heels in the surf, catching only occasional glimpses of any fixed horizon. Some of us stay there from choice because it is exciting and it feels like the right place to be.’ (QFP 20.06)

I am one of those who can only really make any sense of the notion of God, when it’s put into the human context – how we love and care for each other, how we live our lives in community. Being part of Sheffield Central Quaker Meeting is, for me, ‘exciting’ and ‘like the right place to be’.                                           

Monday, 12 May 2014

My Prayer Story.

Recently, I invited a friend to share more of their inner experience publicly without knowing if they were able to do so. It's something of a revelation to discover I feel able to do so here. I'd like to thank Sheffield Friends and readers of this blog for creating a climate of respect, fellowship and trust without which, I suspect these words would not have been prompted*.

All of eighteen years ago, a bright, summer sun found me one afternoon in the fair city of Portsmouth sat within a chapel at a table, attempting to learn verses from the Bible in preparation for two years of missionary service on behalf of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I often let myself in to the chapel on my way home from work to read and pray in the silence or to enjoy the use of a piano. Although alone, I kept being interrupted by unwanted thoughts popping into my head, making it difficult to achieve the task in hand. The verse I was trying to memorise was from the Book of James, chapter 1, verse 5, which reads "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God who giveth to all men liberally...". It occurred to me that I lacked wisdom in that very moment - "How could I learn these verses with these interrupting thoughts?". Reflecting on the verse, I realised I could ask God to explain to me how I could learn the verses. This sparked an inward debate - did I really believe that God could or would answer in such a direct fashion? Well, yes, I did - the Mormon faith is founded on many personal visitations in answer to such a prayer and the ability of every individual to get answers straight from God is very much the cornerstone of the religion. In fact, this very verse is purported to be the same verse which prompted Joseph Smith to ask God which church he should join. Being alone and with no pressing engagements, I decided to try the experiment for myself. I would ask in faith and see what happened. The verse continues "But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord." This describes something of the quality of the asking - one has to believe that one shall receive in order to receive.

I retired to another less-used room within the chapel so as not to be disturbed should anyone else come into the building and geared myself up for the task in hand. After some deep breathing and firming of my resolve, I knelt down and began to pray. Upon doing so, I was filled and surrounded by a feeling of love and light and had a picture of someone - a man, stood behind me. My analytical brain kicked in and explained that this was clearly a representation of my higher self and not actually God, but as I thought so, the quality of the experience faded, so I decided simply to believe, as a child, that I was talking to God and allowed myself to go with the experience. The feeling returned and increased in intensity as I asked my question - I can't remember whether I asked out loud or vocally inside my head, but I was used to praying vocally, so it may well have been out loud - "How can I can learn these verses of scripture?" An answer came immediately - into what? My mind? No, more than that. A voice which sounded like my own, but filled with infinitely more love and wisdom filled my being, saying - well, I won't tell you what was said. Suffice it to say that an answer came in plain English, describing my situation using a very everyday metaphor that I could readily comprehend. I asked for further clarification and was asked in return what I thought the answer could be. I was indeed having a conversation with the Almighty " one speaks to a friend." (Exodus 33:11)

For some time I was quite unable to leave, being filled with the spirit and the singularity of the experience, but eventually, I returned to a state of some normality and rose to my feet, enlightened, confirmed and astonished.

As you can imagine, I was very excited about the experience and wanted to rush off and share it with someone - who first?! Before doing so, I remembered the counsel of our church leaders "We'd have more spiritual experiences if we talked about them less." And that experiences like this "...are generally for our own edification, instruction, or correction." So I kept it under my hat for a long time and have told less than a handful of people in my lifetime. This is certainly the first time I have committed the experience to text and only do so here having been constrained and prompted* over several weeks and months to share that experience here.

Having done so, I realise how strange it is that knowing such experience is possible and freely available that I have not availed myself of it more in my life since that time. It is true that I used to pray a great deal, especially as a missionary and that answers to prayers sometimes came not as directly as this one but through situations or feelings - indeed, the incident of meeting my best friend, companion and wife, Stephanie coincided with a prayer and could certainly be seen as an answer to that prayer, but that is another story.

I can only explain the absence of prayer in my life by likening it to a period of my life when my earthly Father and I were estranged. I didn't want to talk to him because I knew what he would say and I didn't want to hear it. My take away from this is that I can and once more, want to pray.

Thank you for reading, friends.

Paul Newman.

*Promptings are how I describe gentle inward nudges, felt more than thought or heard but there are occasions (often in ministry) when it's like receiving dictation - words which come through me, perhaps from a deeper part of me I do not yet recognise as self, perhaps from God. 

Friday, 9 May 2014

Quaker Practices for Meeting for Worship

For our 'Quaker Basics' session on Quaker Worship session this week, Rosie Roberts produced a handout, drawn from various sources, outlining some of the practices that support Meeting for Worship. She offers them here for comment and discussion by the wider community.


NB These ‘practices’ are collected together as a means to an end: that of our gathered Meetings for Worship, and all the ministries (verbal and non-verbal in Meetings for Worship, practical, and outreach) that flow from them.

  • Try to come with your heart and mind prepared for Meeting for Worship;
  • Try to arrive on time – or better still, early. The Meeting for Worship begins when the first person sits down;
  • Where to sit? Anywhere;
  • Can we read in Meeting? If you wish to read to yourself, try to do so sparingly – reading tends to shut you off from sharing the experience of the Meeting, and those near you may find it distracting;
  • Stillness and silence are as much a part of our worship as our speaking. Ministry in Meeting is both vocal and non-vocal;
  • Shaking hands at the end of Meeting signifies the companionship of a gathered Meeting.

  • Listen
  • Listen to all ministry in a spirit of acceptance. Whatever is said, even if it does not seem to speak directly to you, may speak to others in the room.
  • In an hour-long Meeting, allow the Meeting to feel ‘gathered’ before ministering. How long …… ?
  • If you feel prompted to speak, ask yourself whether the message is for the gathered Meeting – or maybe just for you? Even if for others, is this Meeting for Worship the right time for it? There are many alternatives: Meeting for Reflection, a discussion group or spiritual friendship group, an article, a blog, or simply a conversation. Are you in danger of entering a debate? Wait until you are sure that your message – and the time – are right.
    • Let your message grow within you, and then try to speak in humility, from your own experience and from the heart;
    • Speak clearly and loudly enough for all to hear;
    • Aim for simplicity and clarity;
    • It is usual to stand up – but feel free to remain seated if you have difficulty standing;
  • When ministering, respect the ministry of others:
    • Leave time for yourself and others to absorb what has been said;
    • Speak your own truth, without challenging what has been said before – the Meeting is not for debating issues or taking sides;
    • It is very rarely helpful to speak more than once during Meeting.

  • It is helpful for Meeting to close with a period of silence, so avoid ministering near the end. Remember that we have three groups of children joining us during the last ten minutes, who need to be able to come straight in.
Rosie would welcome your comments and responses to these suggestions. Is there anything you would change, or add to this description of Quaker practices? What is your experience of Meeting for Worship at Sheffield Central?

The next Quaker Basics session will be on Quaker Discernment, on Tuesday 20th May 7-9pm at Sheffield Central Quaker Meeting House. All are welcome.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

'Quaker Basics' coming soon

What is supposed to be happening in Meeting for Worship? How do Quakers make decisions? Who runs things in a Quaker Meeting? What are the Testimonies?

'Quaker Basics' - a new series of evening sessions to find out all those things no-one ever explained about the Quaker Way... 

Fortnightly on Tuesday evenings – 7pm to 9pm at the Quaker Meeting House

May 6th    Quaker Worship
May 20th  Quaker Discernment 
June 3rd    Quaker Origins
June 17th  Quaker Testimonies
July 1st     Quaker Community

Each session includes a short talk, sharing and discussion in small groups, and a short period of worship. Ideal for newcomers to Quakers to learn more about the Quaker Way, or for more experienced Friends to share and explore with others. All welcome.

For further details contact Kate Napier, Paul Hunt or Craig Barnett

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Effing the Ineffable

All right, this is naughty of me. Ineffable means cannot be expressed, from the Latin, in- meaning not, and effor meaning to utter. The word effable – can be expressed – does exist, but is archaic. Eff doesn’t exist – at least, not in polite company. Scientists studying primates – lemurs, monkeys, apes and humans – believe they have discovered a positive relationship between the size of the groups in which a species typically lives and the size of its brain. That is, if an animal lives in small groups, it doesn’t need a very big brain, but if it lives in bands, troops or clans, it needs a larger brain, so as to keep up with who everyone is. (This operates species by species, not individual by individual. Just because you personally have a lot of friends doesn’t mean that you personally have a large brain, just that you get out a lot.)
It seems the maximum number of humans who can know each other reasonably well, interact and cooperate with each other is about a hundred and fifty. There are some companies which, if the work force expands and reaches about two hundred, will divide into two companies of about a hundred each. I know that some people reckon their ‘friends,’ such as their Facebook contacts, in hundreds or even a thousand. They don’t have larger than average brains either, just a large hard drive. They probably need to get out more; fresh air now and again would do them good.
Suffice to say that we humans (or most of us) probably have a rather effective face-recognition app somewhere in our neural networks, which allows us to know and recognise about a hundred or a hundred and fifty acquaintances. Some people can’t do this. The very well-known and well-respected neurologist, Professor Oliver Sacks, can’t recognise faces, but can identify who someone is only when they speak to him. Professor Sacks clearly has voice-recognition software, rather than face-recognition.
I heard of a man whose face was seriously injured and scarred – I forget just how. Maybe it was a road traffic accident involving glass fragments. His face was badly damaged, but was successfully put together again by highly skilled plastic surgeons. The only problem was, he said, it was a good enough face, symmetrical and well-made, but it wasn’t his face any more. He found it very difficult and depressing to wake up each morning and have to wash and shave a face which he couldn’t recognise as his own.
Here’s the thing: you know the difference between an orchestra tuning up deedle deedle dee and an orchestra actually playing music, because the music means some-thing to you, but it is extremely difficult to put into words just what the music means. In fact, this is why orchestras exist: if the meaning of music could be conveyed in words, it would be a lot easier and cheaper to write a letter or send an e-mail than to train, fund and rehearse a whole orchestra. Professional music critics find it hard to describe music in words, and when they do, many people won’t agree with them anyway.
Likewise, it is often easy enough to recognise a face (although telling identical twins apart can be challenging) but very difficult to describe someone’s face to a third party so that the third party can identify the person. This is the problem that notoriously confronts detectives who question eye witnesses when seeking to identify someone they have seen. Classically, the police end up looking for a tall, short, bearded, clean-shaven, blond, dark-haired white man of mixed race. That’s the joke, but the police will tell you that there is truth in it.
So what distinguishes one very average, middle-of-the-range face from another? We can see it when we see it, but it seems impossible to say it. One technique is to say, “He looked a bit like [name a famous actor], but a bit [thinner].” It would be good if there was a standard bank of famous faces to use as a reference. I imagine that an experienced police artist or Identikit operator is skilled in evoking the key features of a face from eye witnesses.
What is the meaning of this, the spiritual equivalent? As a Quaker, what am I on about? It’s a case of struggling to express in words what we do not have words to say, like the meaning of music or the likeness of God. Now do you see? How to eff the ineffable. We can but try.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

What it means to be a Quaker today

This current question intrigues me.   I would love if a variety of perspectives could be put forward from within our community so that we could all gain a greater clarity as to what it means for us to be Quakers today.  I am mindful of George Fox’s words (Quaker Faith & Practice: 19.07): “Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say”?  So I dare to offer my perspective trusting that others may feel led to do likewise!
            -o0o-             -o0o-            -o0o-            -o0o-            -o0o-            -o0o-            -o0o-  

From a personal point of view, being a Quaker means that I seek at all times to take heed of the promptings of love and truth in my heart – trusting them as the leadings of God - always recognising that they will show me my darkness, but bring me new life. (Advice & Queries: 1)
John Macmurray, (Swarthmore Lecture, 1965) has helped me to understand that there is no such thing as a ‘person in isolation’ but only ‘persons in relationship’. So, as part of a Quaker community I feel invited to meet regularly for worship with F/friends bringing with me this same trust.  Then in the silence of worship, I seek to open myself to the spirit of God communicating directly to my heart but also indirectly through the ministry of others. My faith (trust) as a Quaker includes my willingness to share with others, as seems appropriate, what comes to my heart & mind in worship and my willingness to listen with an open heart & mind to what F/friends are moved to share in their ministry.
 Hopefully following on from worship we all go forward with a sense of  having being enriched. Then, actively in the world, as a community,  we endeavour ‘to let our lives speak’ and in various ways contribute  towards the building of God’s kingdom.  To me this is best understood  as a universal community of friendship in which under God all persons  are equal and free.                                                                         

Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Experience of God.

The Thought For The Week in The Friend of 6th February is titled 'The Idea Of God'. Here is the Quaker philosopher, John Macmurray, on the subject of 'Belief In God', from “Creative Society, A Study of The Relation of Christianity to Communism”, 1935, pp 16-29:

“Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the Kingdom.”

“[T]here is a sharp distinction between believing in God and believing in the idea of God. .. One cannot believe in God and at the same time believe that any idea men(sic) have framed … can be adequate to express the nature of that in which we believe. .. If I can insist that my idea of God must be maintained, how can I have the humility to recognize the existence of a Being in the light of whose infinite understanding all my knowledge must be the ignorant fantasy of a child?

“Belief in God is not an intellectual matter. .. [T]he bare statement that God exists has no meaning by itself. We cannot point to God, as we could to any finite object, and say 'that exists.' We can only assert the existence of something corresponding to our conception.

“Intellectual atheism … is equally meaningless until we know what is the conception of God which is denied. Atheism may have a relative truth. It may be a way of rejecting a conception of God which is false. .. An honest and courageous atheist is surely more pleasing to God than a dishonest and cowardly theist.

“Belief in God is properly an attitude to life which expresses itself in our ways of behaving. .. Perhaps the fundamental component of a belief in God is the expression in action of an attitude of faith or trust. .. It involves the recognition that the control and the determination of all that happens in the world lies in a power that is irresistible and yet friendly .. it is the capacity to live as it this were so. .. The opposite attitude, which is the core of real atheism, expresses itself in that individualism which makes a man feel alone and isolated in a world against which he must defend himself. .. This is to disbelieve in God. For belief in God, whatever else it might involve, at least includes the capacity to live as part of the whole of things in a world which is unified.

“Marx said [paraphrased] 'Let us turn from ideas to reality, let us look not at people's theories but at their actions. It is by seeing how societies and their institutions work in practice and not by accepting their own ideal accounts of what they are after that we shall understand their real faith.'

“Now that core of belief in God which is present in a large measure in Communism, and which is difficult to discover in organised Christianity as we know it now, is the only possible basis for a belief in God which is not a mere idea. .. There [is] nothing paradoxical [here] – It would be no more than a commentary upon the saying of Jesus to the religious leaders of his day, 'Verily I say unto you that the publicans and the harlots go into the Kingdom of God before you.'”

Friends: let go of your ideas and your disputes about the idea of God, "these different and strongly held opinions" as the author of 'The Idea of God' puts it, and look instead to the light within:

“But as I had forsaken the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those esteemed the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. .. Thus when God doth work, who shall let [hinder] it? and this I knew experimentally [through experience]”. George Fox, Journal, 1647, quoted in Quaker Faith and Practice, 19.02.
Don’t Look Now

It is possible to communicate with God or the Spirit. By this, I mean not just that we can pray or worship, but I would say on rather rare occasions, we can hear or sense God or the Spirit communicating back to us. This – let’s call it a revelation or a burst of spiritual awareness – is of course wonderful and mystical. It can change lives. It is rare, special and immensely precious.
So how can we get more of it to happen? Ah! They say you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. I don’t imagine that we can bring the Spirit to us but not make it communicate. No, it’s the other way round. I suspect that we are the horse: we can take ourselves towards God, but in my experience, we can’t very often make ourselves communicate with him, or hear him communicating with us.
Winnie-the-Pooh says, “Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you.” Pooh is not famous as a theologian, and he is talking about Poetry and Hums, rather than awareness of God, but apart from that, he’s spot-on.
OK, so how do we put ourselves in the right place so that God can find us? It may be more a case of, How do we put ourselves in the right place so that we can allow ourselves to let God find us? As you know, someone who tries too hard to achieve something, especially if that something is a horse-to-water phenomenon, can make it less likely to happen, rather than more likely. If I am desperate to get you to love me, so desperate that I fawn and cling and plead and agonise (or if I hit on you too obviously, or even stalk you) I may put you right off. Not more love, but less than ever.
Pooh and Piglet are walking in the forest, when they spot Tigger seriously stuck up a pine tree and mistake him for a Jagular. “. . . The Jagular called out to them. ‘Help! Help!’ it called. ‘That’s what Jagulars always do,’ said Pooh, much interested. ‘They call, “Help! Help!” and then when you look up, they drop on you.’ ‘I’m looking down,’ cried Piglet loudly, so as the Jagular shouldn’t do the wrong thing by accident.”
Sometimes, we need to not strive, if what we desire can’t be achieved by striving. They say, “God knows where you are. He will come and find you, when you least expect it.” “OK,” I say, “Lord, I’m not expecting you, right? See, I’m actually looking in the opposite direction. Now come and find me . . . Lord?” Piglet carefully looks down, so as to avoid the disaster of being dropped on by a Jagular. I don’t look too hard for God, so as to avoid the disaster of his not contacting me. Neither seems to work.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

The Book of Life

Hello again. I haven't blogged for a while, but I'm back. The Book of Life Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is shaped like a pizza, and it works not according to the laws of physics, but the laws of magic. The only character who appears in all of the Discworld novels is Death, a seven-foot skeleton in a black robe holding a scythe, as is traditional. His house is like a Tardis, bigger on the inside than on the outside. In Death’s library are literally mile upon mile of shelves, which house the Book of Life of every individual, alive or dead. The Book of each dead person is complete, but the Book of every living person writes itself continuously, the words quietly scritching themselves onto the page. If you stand in Death’s library, the sound of the Books writing themselves is like the sound of a waterfall. I’m wondering what the Book finds to write, what happens in most people’s lives that is worth writing down? The key to this puzzle is probably that the Book writes itself. You don’t write your own Book, and no one else decides that your life is so interesting that it should be chronicled. It writes itself, of its own accord. Many people, if they wrote a diary every day, most days it would be, “Got up; had breakfast; went to work; came home; went to bed.” So what does the Book write about you? A lot more than that. Arthur Koestler said that most of us spend most of our time on the trivial level of life, the ‘What’s for tea?’ or ‘What’s on the telly?’ level, although we are capable of visiting the deeper level, which he calls the tragic level, for short periods. The Book finds a lot to write about your life that is on a deeper level than you know yourself. Again, not for the first time, I get the feeling that we live mainly on the outer surface of what we are, on the skin of the apple, so to speak. I think that it would not be right to worship the skin of the apple, no matter how attractive it looks; nor the flesh of the apple, nor even the core, although it is the core of ourselves. I’m guessing that there is something in the core, the seeds perhaps, that enables us to contact the One whom we can worship. On a good day, that is.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Staying in the light

Our society considers scientific rationalism to be the highest ideal. To be able to be detached from the vagaries of the world and observe it carefully and work out ideas and beliefs from what we see. We call this the light of reason.

But this is not the light within. We are mistaken if we, on reaching the light within, immediately start to analyse what we see, to be observers of the light such that we end up looking for what the light is telling us, rather than what the light is showing us.

We must stay with the light and engage with the light. The first thing that will happen is that we will feel the presence of the light: this feeling may be troubling or uplifting to our heart; our bellies may tighten in anger or sag in despair; we may feel passionate or impotent: we must stay engaged with the what the light is showing us, with all of our body, immersed in the light and waiting to see the action required of us. We must learn not to become detached and start observing as though from a distance. This is a discipline: it take time and effort, especially as we have been trained by our society that the best way to find out what we must do is to be detached and rational in our minds.

Ideas and beliefs, values and principles, do not change the world. People do. And people need to be motivated to act. If we let our values and principle inform our motives, we will be burdened with guilt and inadequacy and as likely as not to miss-apply our motives and destroy where we thought we were creating. Ideas and beliefs arise from previous action in the world – we need to discover the action required of us today, and have the appropriate motives to carry it through.

The light within will show us the motives we need to effect change in the world. Creativity comes from the light, not from ourselves. So when the light shows us the world as it is, no matter how disturbing, we need to stay with the emotional response the light gives us, and remember how this feels, for it is this response that will truly motivate us, not by force of will, but by engagement in action.

And having engaged in action, we can then reflect on what we have been shown, and share with others how it went for us, and see how are ideas and beliefs are changed; how are values and principle have been informed. But because we have been motivated to action from within, this sharing will not take the form of debate and argument, but instead we will tell stories, and we will hear the stories of others, and so we will testify to the world.

Yet our Quaker testimony will be upheld - though it may be expressed differently – for the light within shows us the one and eternal truth that some call God and others the divine, and others the Christ, and others Nirvana, whilst others will not name it at all, for fear of thinking about it as an object to be observed rather than the basis of our whole being.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Living without `thinking'

In response to Gordon (7th Jan) I would say that living is a complex rich personal experience that becomes a rich social experience when we share our lives and live in each others presence. Human language and thought evolved to facilitate this not in order to travel independantly through the ether conjuring truth from its own structure and by sticking to anything else it could find and then dragging it around. Talk, writing and thought are out of hand. Lets bring them back to sharing experiences between friends and otherwise living our interdependance.

Surprisingly the difference between novice and experienced nursery children is that the novice children see no difference between social conventions such as `not putting the crayons away' and taking what another child is playing with. Experienced children are acutely aware of the difference between social convention and morality ( not taking from someone else, not physically man handling them etc). Studies show that they do not learn the difference from the behaviour, emotional responses and talk of the responsible adults. The adults behave, even subtly, in the same way for both (this is also true of the home environment). They learn from the way their peers react. Their peers could not care less about the crayons, except when they are frightened of being told off by the adults, but show distress, aggression etc when something is taken or they are manhandled. Moral principles come directly from our relationship with one another mediated by nothing else!! By the way the adults in nusery settings believe that they teach the children moral principles and so to do their parents. Why do they believe this? Because they have told them. The light does not come from, through or by words. As children get older talk about moral principles does involve parents and teachers but your friends still drive the whole business. You are as good as the company you keep.

There are a whole lot of things we can draw from this finding. All of them about the dangers of denaturing human experience. Perhaps even we have been reduced to only being able to talk about living.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Truth Vindicated

We Quakers supposedly believe that when we wait in silence and open ourselves, the truth will be discerned. We call this the 'light within' or the 'inner light' or the 'seed' or the 'light of Christ' or the 'divine' and many other names, for that which is revealed is not words or creeds, but a presence, a pure knowing that transcends language and that we can rest secure in.

But faith falters - this so-called 'light' - it's, well, just so obscure and insubstantial - surely there must be more, something concrete we can put our finger on or thrust our hand in – 'something else'.

It was always thus: Augustine needed Plato; Aquinas needed Aristotle; Anglicans need Cranmer, Presbyterians need the Westminster Confession, Evangelicals need Scripture, Charismatics need Tongues.

But Quakers too have sought 'something else' right from the start, and especially the authority of the Bible. George Fox was still warm in his grave when,  around 1691, George Keith wanted Quakers to submit to Christian Orthodoxy. At the turn of the 19th century with the rise of evangelicalism which insisted on the literal inerrancy of the bible, many Quakers began to put the authority of the bible ahead of the 'light within'.  A pamphlet, 'Truth Vindicated' was published at this time, by Henry Martin of  Liverpool, and re-published in the United States in 1836 with a remarkable introduction which makes clear, albeit using the Christian saturated language of the time, 'the light of Christ to be sufficient for Salvation' and that there is no need for 'something else', and:
'when any external thing, no matter how excellent in itself, is set up above the teaching of the spirit of Christ in the soul, it leads to contention and division'
Today we wisely do not consider the bible to be literal and innerant, but instead we tend to treat the whole thing as fairy stories to be dismissed, rather than looking to the 'light within' to show us  which scripture in our day is 'profitable for doctrine, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works'.

But we still crave 'something else' and in the spirit of our age, that is scientific rationalism and noble ideals. We look to reason to discern the truth to us, and to ideals to inform us how to act in the world. Instead of  letting our lives testify to the 'light within', we have turned our testimony on its head and say that our values and principles tell us how to live our lives. 

And yet again there is 'contention and division', as the pages of 'The Friend' constantly testify.

But the 'light within' is there to show us the limits of our reason and the inadequacy of our ideals. Instead of a Principle of  Equality, the 'light within' should be telling us how to treat equally the very next person we meet, and instead of turning to Pacifism, we should be turning to the 'light within' to reveal to us how to resolve the actual conflicts in our lives on this very day.

The Truth is vindicated by the 'light within' -  'blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed' (John 20.29b, AKJV)