Monday, 27 April 2015

Experiences and words

Rhiannon in Brigid, Fox, and Buddha asks :
Are some words or phrases irreplaceable in our language, in that it is impossible to express the same sense – or convey the same picture of the world – without using that specific expression?
It depends where you start from. If you start in your head wanting an explanation for your experience, you will get hung up with words.
On the other hand, if you start with the experience, and hold fast to that, words are like the bars of a prison that hold us to only one interpretation of  our story. This is what happened to me when I first experienced that which is not me in a personal or relational way – not as an object to be studied  by my pure intellect from the distance of the isolated subject – but rather to be known intimately. But the evangelical Christians who came along close by said that my experience meant something very specific, and told me which words to use to describe it, and thus the prison door slammed in my face. But my ego delighted in the explanation and soon I was pretending that the bars were not keeping me in, but keeping 'them' out. 'Them' – the 'world'; the others not like us; the sinners; the damned. And so my world was divided into them and us, heaven and hell, good and evil.
And then years later another experience, as the other broke down the bars and showed me love, and so the world was intimate again, and then I entered the Quaker Meeting, and there were no bars and no words, only loving relationships. I no longer had to pretend to love the sinner and not the sin, but was able to love whole persons in a whole world.

The transcendent other, revealed in the immanence of personal relationships.

None of this is 'reasonable', for reason demands objectivity, and love refuses to play along. Wittgenstein was right – it is not 'unreasonable' either, but different from reasonable. Reason demands an explanation, but explanations tie us to certain words and phrases, and so we come to believe that some words are 'irreplaceable'.
Instead we must tell our stories, As CS Lewis said
'There is, then, a particular kind of [fiction] which has a value in itself - a value independent of its embodiment in any literary work....The story of Orpheus strikes and strikes very deep, of itself; the fact that Virgil and others have told it in good poetry is irrelevant ' (C.S. Lewis, 'An Experiment In Criticism' 1961, p41)
So we must tell our stories 'well' that is in everyday language, seeking an intimate relationship with the hearer, and changing the words as we go along. For our story is not formed of words but of relationships.
And whatever we do, we must never ever add an explanation, for there lies the prison bars which shut us out of love – those who have ears will hear.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Quaker Discernment

This talk was given by Laura Kerr as part of our series on 'Quaker Basics'.

Where do we come across the term DISCERNMENT? Possibly a first encounter is in one of the most popular items in Advices and Queries – number 7.

Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come? Do you approach new ideas with discernment?

In that context, it could actually mean more or less the same as it does in the wider world. ie. Discrimination, selectivity, picking out what is good, and laying to one side things that are less good. Actually when Quakers use it, it means a great deal more. It refers to a careful and considered way of coming to a judgement or decision, based on silent worship. 
It is the way of seeking divine guidance, or ‘God’s will’ with a particular focus on one issue or question. This is sometimes that someone may be doing in any MfW anyway. In modern Quaker meetings, it cannot be assumed that all present are comfortable with the phrase “God’s will”. I have even heard a Friends describe themself as an ‘atheist Quaker’. With that in mind, what are they seeking by discernment? Perhaps just the very best and wisest outcome for all, both those directly concerned and those beyond the meeting, in the world outside.

I remember some ministry of a year or two back. The Friend said something along these lines: ‘I have been pondering on what the difference is, and if there is a difference, between discernment and wisdom…’ I found it helpful ministry because it prompted me to consider the difference. Maybe discernment is just another word for wisdom? Certainly we hope that a Quaker decision, made with discernment, is effectively the same as a wise decision. Someone who has wisdom, is likely also to have discernment. But the two concepts can be picked apart quite easily because wisdom (being wise) is essentially a static quality, perhaps developed over a long life. It’s a noun. It does not have a verb. It’s quite the opposite with discernment. That’s a noun, but essentially it is about a process, and the verb ‘to discern’ is the part which is used most commonly. Discernment is actually the process, over time, which is worked through to reach a decision.

It is what we are all doing in a meeting for worship for business. Traditionally we ask someone who has never attended a Quaker business meeting to ‘have a word with the clerk or elder first’. This is simply to make sure that the new person knows that the business meeting is not like most business meetings – it has its own special etiquette – and is essentially a meeting for worship and should be attended in the same spirit. (Some years ago, it would probably have been expressed as ‘ask the permission of the clerk’.)

Discernment consists of several separate activities…

  • Being silent. Sitting in the same worshipful silence as one would in a regular meeting for worship
  • Listening carefully and respectfully – to the clerks and to any spoken contribution.
  • Possibly speaking… as ministry… what is ‘on your heart’. Each contribution should stand alone, with silence after it. Properly it should not be a response or reaction or answer to a previous speaker. It is not a discussion.
  • Observing proper ‘discipline’. In other words knowing and observing the ‘proper’ ways of doing things. Proper in the sense that these are traditional, established, expected and accepted ways for the meeting to operate.
  • Upholding the clerks in their work of guiding the meeting, listening, and expressing the sense of the meeting.

The clerks are discerning, before, during and after a business meeting. I would suggest that the preparation of an agenda (what is on it, in which order and how to present it) is also something that is discerned by the clerks. Then during the meeting itself, the clerk or clerks are continually using discernment as to how the meeting is to proceed, which Friend to call upon and when it may be necessary to limit spoken contribution. 
It is rare in local or area meetings that there are more Friends wishing to speak on a topic than can realistically be heard. Remember that Yearly Meeting operates in the same style as any business meeting. The clerks call on Friends to speak from a meeting of 1000. There are always some Friends who stand, wishing to speak, but who are not called. The clerks have to discern when that part of the meeting should be drawn to a close and when the next stage, producing a minute, takes over. They are looking for unity… or sufficient unity that a minute can be tried.

The clerk or clerks use their discernment to draw together what they have heard, into a draft minute which is presented to the meeting. Depending on the nature of the business, a ‘draft minute’ may have been composed before the meeting even started. We saw that here last week at Area Meeting. The clerk again uses discernment in taking up, or not, the comments and suggestions put forward by members of the meeting. Strictly speaking, the minute is the product of the whole meeting. To be accepted it has to owned by the meeting. On the whole I feel that when I have been clerking, I have preferred to accept further suggestions if at all possible, rather than defend the wording as it had been offered initially.

I believe that if a Friend suggests an alteration, or change of wording or additional phrase or sentence, then it is normally right to accept them.

How do you learn ‘discernment’? Like everything else, by practice. By attending business meetings. By observing and sharing the experience. By being very patient. They can seem slow – even, in relation to the outside world, ‘boring’! But that is an essential part of the process. I admit that many a time I have sat in a business meeting, as the minutes tick by, and thought to myself: “Is this really what I want to do with my precious time?” But I have concluded that yes, it is, and I do attend local meeting and area meeting whenever I can, and I recommend all Friends and attenders to do so.

It must be said that discernment can take a very long time. Sometimes with difficult topics a business meeting is preceded by a threshing meeting… at which no decision is made but thoughts and feelings are freely expressed. The clerking of that meeting still entails careful discernment, even if a decision is not sought. Threshing meetings usually happen when there is a difficult or even controversial topic. Feelings may be high. We all must share responsibility for the right ordering of our business meetings but ultimately those at the table have to ‘manage’ the meeting, sensitive to those whose feelings may be especially engaged, and to bring it to an appropriate and timely close.

I remember clerking a threshing meeting a couple of years ago. It was not the prelude to another decision making meeting. It stood alone, as a chance for Friends to express views. In some ways it was like a large scale meeting for clearness. I believe that the Friend who asked for the meeting did feel that a painful and problematic issue had been properly shared, and aired. That Friend had been heard.

Discernment can be time consuming. It may be that the clerks discern that there is insufficient ‘unity’ within the meeting for the looked-for decision to be made. Their discernment then is that the matter will be brought back to another subsequent meeting. This is not uncommon. It means that Friends have a chance to think over the matter at greater length. And frequently it would be the case that there is a slightly different combination of Friends at the later meeting, which may itself mean that the sense of the meeting is different.

I found an example of a meeting which took 2 years to discern the right way forward. The issue was whether or not to install air conditioning in their meeting house, clearly a vexed and divisive issue. Eventually, a way was found for the Friends involved to unite behind a decision…which was not exactly that preferred by some of them. This is an important point to stress. The fact that a decision is made and a minute written, does not mean that each and every person there was in full agreement, only that those who did not agree, did feel able to unite with the other decision. (Number 15 in As and Qs explains this well.)

I have had discussions with Friends about decisions made at a previous meeting. ‘But I didn’t think that the decision was right’. Sadly this will happen sometimes. We are only human. We work hard at this process. As far as I am aware, there is no legitimate avenue to overturn a Quaker decision, and I don’t think there should be. 
Another Quaker context when discernment is absolutely at the heart of how we do things is nominations. Being on Nominations Committee is a very important and significant role. The meetings of that committee are essentially all about discernment. Carefully, lovingly, worshipfully weighing up the match, or not, of particular Friends (or attenders) and the particular Quaker role under consideration. And of course, it doesn’t always work perfectly. Even after the careful discernment process, a name may be brought to meeting and that Friend appointed, who subsequently does not find that the work suits them at all. Again, we are only human. But it is the way we do things.

Advices and Queries are very helpful on the subject of business meetings; I conclude with these wise words, which cover virtually everything I have said:

Are your meetings for church affairs help in a spirit of worship and in dependence on the guidance of God? Remember that we do not seek a majority decision or even consensus. As we wait patiently for divine guidance our experience is that the right way will open and we shall be led into unity.

Do you take part as often as you can in meetings for church affairs? Are you familiar enough with our church government to contribute to its disciplined process? Do you consider difficult questions with an informed mind as well as a generous and loving spirit? Are you prepared to let your insights and personal wishes take their place alongside those of others or be set aside, as the meeting seeks the right way forward? If you cannot attend, uphold the meeting prayerfully.

Friday, 27 February 2015


“But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat?
And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink?
Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow not.
So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.” (Luke 17, 7-10 KJV)
In January Friend's House made a press release on the resolution of the problem of Zero Hours contracts in the Friends House Hospitality company which states
“BYM is a Living Wage Employer, and is recognised for the strict 1:4 ratio between lowest and highest paid staff.  Our lowest wage band starts at 19% above the London Living Wage.  All staff receive generous benefits, including 8% employer pension contribution, subsidised meals, permanent health insurance, childcare vouchers, a cycle-to-work scheme and access to a free confidential employee assistance programme.”
These must be amongst the best terms for employees anywhere, and the zero hours contracts have gone, yet there was still a serious problem and Friend's House is still being picketed.
There is a world of difference between being nice to people and treating them equally, and at the end of the day Friends House Hospitality are merely 'unprofitable servants' doing their duty by by law and good practice.
In a slave economy you can give your slaves good food and accommodation, decent and safe working conditions, health care and so on, but they are still slaves: they are still not equal to you. We are told that all the directors of Friends House Hospitality are Quakers, yet if the company is ran as a conventional managerial hierarchy, some people are more equal than others, and calling them Quakers, who are no doubt nice people, changes nothing.
In 'The Friend' of 19 Feb 2015 Ian Beeson in 'Arguing for equality'  reflects on the problems at Friends House and says:
"If we don’t make such an effort [to establish additional regular practices], we face the danger of stagnation, or of accepting forms of practice and conduct, and of models of organisation, economy and society, from our surrounding culture, adding only a Quaker flavour or topping instead of proposing a radical alternative."
The thing is radical alternatives do exist, and are being practised around the world, and were first developed by Quakers “Kees” Boeke and his wife, Beatrice “Betty” Cadbury, as 'Sociocracy' or 'Dynamic Governance', so why aren't we using them?
Perhaps the problems in Friends House Hospitlaity are in part due to a radical observation made by Ricardo Semler, a Brazilian business owner who adopted Sociocracy in his large company way back on the 1980s:
No one can expect the spirit of involvement and partnership to flourish without an abundance of information available even to the most humble employee. I know all the arguments against a policy of full disclosure. … But the advantages of openness and truthfulness far outweigh the disadvantages. And a company that doesn’t share information when times are good loses the right to request solidarity and concessions when they aren’t.
It seems that 'solidarity' is certainly lacking at Friends House if disaffected former employees are picketing the entrance.
The Quaker philosopher John Macmurray had a radical vision of equality and freedom in community, and Quaker Home Service way back in 1979 at Friends House published a pamphlet containing a short piece by him written in 1929, 'Ye Are My Friends' in which he writes that Christianity is not about duty and service, but about friendship. Perhaps it is time to get this phamphlet out of the library, knock the dust off it and read it carefully.
 The title is taken from the words of Jesus as recorded by John 15:15, where he talks about servants and lords, but it equally applies to employees and directors:
“Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.”
We know how to have ministry without a priest, to all be equal before God, and we could know how to have management without managers, everyone working together in equal partnership to do good work in the world.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Wot? No managers?

There is an overriding assumption in modern organisations that a management hierarchy is essential. This assumption is taken up in many Quaker organisations, both those ran by Quakers and Quaker organisations themselves, such as at Friends House and many large meeting houses that employ staff to run a lettings business.
Yet no one seems to be asking the question, how is that we do without hierarchy in our meetings for worship for business, yet seem to require it in our other business activities?

We Quakers should be disquieted by a commonly accepted theory of the origins of modern management. Before the industrial revolution, most work was carried out in homes or small forges and mills, with size limited by restricted and localised access to power and transport. At the same time the state was administered by courtiers working directly for the monarch.
The development of steam power and railways led to the rise of large factories employing hundreds and then thousands of workers. At the same time the state grew ever more sophisticated. Factory owners looking for efficiency and thus profits, and government officials burdened by ever more administration, looked around for methods of organising such enterprises, and only one presented itself: the army. Generals commanded armies of thousands with the organisation successfully evolving over centuries, and literally tested to destruction on the battlefield.

Factory and government hierarchies mimicked those of the armed forces, even down to sharing the same language. And the rise of competition led to military metaphors being used to describe processes and tactics. Yet Quakers, despite our testimony against war, happily followed along in their business activities.

At first hierarchical management was about execution – getting things done as efficiently as possible, but with the rise of ever more sophisticated technology, management turned to be about implementing expertise, which required specialist knowledge that could only be obtained from outside the community or organisation. And still Quakers followed along, despite our testimony to the truth within.

Today, many forward thinking entrepreneurs realise that hierarchies are inherently rigid and incapable of responding effectively to change, especially in the fast moving field of information technology. This problem is well known in the field of war, through the commonly known saying “Generals are always preparing to fight the last war that they won”, and in this period of marking the anniversary of the First World War, we should be painfully aware of the terrible consequences of this failure. Yet still Quakers persist in using hierarchical command and control methods to run their business activities despite such bad press, whilst, ironically, some forwarding thinking entrepreneurs have discovered from Quakers ways of organising without hierarchy.

In the middle of the last century Quakers Kees Boeke and Betty Cadbury developed 'sociocracy' in the Netherlands as a means of making effective decisions in an organisation based on “deep democracy”:
“...sociocracy is a collaborative governance method emphasizing self-organizing groups, distributed authority, and inclusive consent decision-making. Its values are equality, transparency, and effective action.”
Towards the end of the century the method was developed for use in business, in particular in the Netherlands and Brazil. In this century the method has been further developed as 'Holocracy' in the United States by IT entrepreneur Brian Robertson, in particular to enable business to be much more responsive to change:
“Management Without Managers: Holacracy places the seat of organizational power in an explicit process, one which organizes around an explicit purpose. This allows emergent behaviour of the whole system, without being controlled by either a single heroic leader or even the collective group.” 
In the 1640s, when many people experienced ”the world turn'd upside down”, George Fox saw that among “those esteemed the most experienced people...... there was none ... that could speak to my condition" he realised that not only did we not need priests telling us what to do, but that they were the source of the problem. There were no 'mangers' or 'experts' back then – the priests and preachers filled those roles:
“... the Lord opened unto me that being bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not enough to fit and qualify men to be ministers of Christ; and I wondered at it, because it was the common belief of people.”
And so it was that people looked at Quaker meetings and exclaimed:
“Wot! No Priests?”

Thursday, 5 February 2015


“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18.20).
'In my name' means 'in the manner which I have shown you', i.e. we need to come together and submit to one another in love, as free and equal persons. It is there that the creativity that is the dynamic of persons in relations is found, and our full potential is realised – i.e. 'that of god in us' is answered and released –  'there am I in the midst of them'. The implication of this is that 'god' is in the relationships, and not a distant patriarchal man in the clouds barking commands, nor the distant mystical 'ground of our being' or 'ultimate reality'.  The ground of our being is actually fully realised personal relationships, and ultimate reality is living a common life.

But if we come together protecting our own individuality, fearful of being truly free, or come together under some external corporate command rather than as equals, then we are lost.

For me 'individual' and 'corporate' are badly loaded words to express this dynamic.
'Individual' implies some attempt to retain our own ego, to seek our own truth, to believe that we can somehow become whole without relationships with other persons, and worse, possibly trying to conjure up some mystical other being to relate to, which being a figment of our imagination, will allow us to retain our ego. The test of our individual leadings is in action in the world, especially in relationships with other persons. The leading points to truth and light to the extent that our relationships improve, and points to darkness to the extent that our relationships deteriorate. This is the locus of individual discernment, not weighing ideas in our heads, but experimentally through action in a world that contains other persons.
'Corporate' implies some form of external control that we submit to. To 'submit to one another in love' is to enter freely into a relationship which treats the other as fully equal, in faith and trust that this will be reciprocated and no constraint will be imposed on us. So we do not submit to dogmas and creeds and teachings of others, not even what is in Quaker Faith and Practice. But neither do we ignore those who have gone before. We are both rooted in the past and growing towards the future, and to ignore the past and the way it has shaped our language and traditions is to cut ourselves adrift and become anything to anyone. Isaac Penington was profoundly right then to insist that each of us is 'not to take things for truths because others see them to be truths, but to wait till the spirit makes them manifest.' (The works of the long-mournful and sorely-distressed Isaac Penington, 1761) for this is the nature of free and equal relationships with those from the past.

In 'What Can We Say?', on Transition Quaker, Craig Barnett, whom I thank for the Penington quote, asks:
“Is corporate Quaker testimony important in your life? How do you see the balance between individual leadings and collective discernment in your meeting, and in the wider Quaker community?”
In 'What Can We Say Today?', in The Friends Quarterly, v41-3, August 2014, Simon Best and Stuart Masters ask:
'Are we a support group for individuals each engaged on their own personal and private spiritual journey or are we a faith community with a corporate life?'
The answer to the question of individual versus corporate is 'both and neither'. The paradox arises, as is usually the case, because the question is incorrectly framed: it is not about 'individual' and 'corporate' but about relationships. To be gathered together as free and equal persons is to be both fully 'individual' and fully 'corporate', but also to let go of self-identity and to let go of the corporate identity, and find our identity in community with one another. It is other people that call us 'Quakers', we call each other 'friends'. A community of free and equal friends sharing a common life discover that authority resides in their relationships with one another, i.e. know 'experimentally' that 'there am I in the midst of them'.

(NB For Christians, and those brought up in western culture who can still retrieve what is good in the message of Jesus past the patriarchal hierarchical homophobic church, the 'I' is 'Christ', but the 'I' can be any understanding of a personal, relational other that we discover in community.)

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Quaker Basics coming soon

A series of monthly workshops, which is ideal for people who are new to Quakers, or for anyone who has ever wanted to know what the Quaker Way is all about...

All sessions on Sundays 12-1pm at the Quaker Meeting House:
15th Feb - Quaker Worship, introduced by Helen Griffin
15th March - Quaker Discernment, introduced by Laura Kerr
19th April - Quaker Origins, introduced by Zillah Scott
17th May - Quaker Testimony, introduced by Kiri Smith
21st June - Quaker Community, introduced by Robert Almond

For more information, please contact Craig Barnett, Helen Griffin or Jenni Crisp.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Making our voices powerful

Time to Act on Climate Change:
Living Witness Group. Sunday February 22nd, 2015. 12 to 1pm
2015 is a crucial year to put action on the climate firmly on the political agenda. Our General Election is in May. The International Climate talks are in Paris in December.

The Living Witness Group invites you to a workshop on Sunday February 22nd 12pm to share ideas and resources on ways we can speak truth to power and share our commitment to be a low carbon community with the wider world and those in power. There will be opportunities to take away pro forma letters to send to our parliamentary candidates and hear about the Time to Act for the Climate National March, rally and creative action in London on March 7th.

I have recently joined the Living Witness Group. I have been aware and active around the climate crisis for a long time and engaged with Sheffield Climate Alliance
I felt enormous relief when I read the Quakers Canterbury commitment, minute 36, made at Yearly meeting 2011. Selected paragraphs below.

Looking deeply, my sense of relief is from “joining the dots,” the spiritual and political linking up, meeting that need for deep connection. I do feel gratitude to be part of a spiritual community that is asking us all to respond to the challenge of climate change, to take on the enormity of the scale of change required, to realise the links with our current economic inequitable system and to draw on our Quaker tradition and testimonies, including speaking truth to power and engagement through love and joy!

I feel extremely proud that UK Quakers were the first faith group to disinvest from fossil fuels.

Two years ago at our Sheffield Meeting I felt particularly heartened, inspired and grateful to the Living Witness Group for holding evening sessions to share our responses to Pam Lunn’s Swarthmore lecture, “Costing not less than Everything”, which led up to the Canterbury commitment. Here are just two of her chapter headings and quotes framing ways we can respond:

1.”There are no passengers in spaceship earth. We are all crew” Marshall McLuhan

As crew, she suggests ways we can all take responsibility for action:
  • Notice that climate change is a problem
  • Interpret this as a situation in which something needs doing
  • Assume personal responsibility for doing something
  • Choose what to do

2. The Time is Now: ”You do not have to change: survival is not mandatory” W.Edwards Denning

So, my choice, in what I can offer the Living Witness Group at this pivotal time, is to be a connector and try and join the dots between Sheffield Climate Action and our Quaker community. I am delighted that Janet Paske, also a member of SCA and our Meeting is joining me in this.

On the 22nd February we will be sharing some of the ways the National Campaign against Climate Change and Sheffield Climate Alliance are calling on our political leaders to show leadership: to move from delay to action with practical policies which can lead to a more sustainable and equal society.

Such policies include:
10% emissions cuts year on year, creating at least one million climate jobs.
From fracking and fossil fuels to renewable energy for all our needs.
From cold homes and energy waste to insulation for all.
From exploitation to climate justice: UK support for a just international climate deal.

We are currently drafting pro forma letters Friends can make their own to send to their MPs and parliamentary candidates. We will also encourage friends to think about joining The Time to Act for the Climate March in London on March 7th. We will of course welcome all other creative responses to rise to the challenge of our time.
Canterbury commitment. Sections from Minute 36
Sustainability is an urgent matter for our Quaker witness. It is rooted in Quaker testimony and must be integral to all we do corporately and individually.”
(A framework for action 2009-2014)
A concern for the Earth and the well-being of all who dwell in it is not new, and we have not now received new information which calls us to act. Rather we are renewing our commitment to a sense of the unity of creation which has always been part of Friends’ testimonies. Our actions have as yet been insufficient.
The environmental crisis is enmeshed with global economic injustice and we must face our responsibility as one of the nations which has unfairly benefited at others’ expense, to redress inequalities which, in William Penn’s words, are ‘wretched and blasphemous.’ (Quaker faith & practice 25.13)
We encourage local and area meetings to practise speaking truth to power at local level by establishing relationships with all sections of local communities, including politicians, businesses and schools, to encourage positive attitudes to sustainability.

This process needs to be joyful and spirit-led, with room for corporate discernment at local, area and national level. We believe this corporate action will enable us to speak truth to power more confidently. Growing in the spirit is a consequence of taking action, and action flows from our spiritual growth; here is the connectedness we seek. Only a demanding common task builds community.”

This is a longer version of an article by Heather Hunt that will be printed in Sheffield Quaker News in January.