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