Tag Archives: community

Z is for … Zeitgeist

So, it’s a cop-out; I’m using a foreign word for this because there aren’t that many to choose from. But it is a word in relatively common use in English.

What does it mean? A rough translation would be: the spirit of the age. Or, in more modern terminology: the current, established narrative that shapes the way we see the world.

And that is why I want to reflect on it.

How to Friends respond to the spirit of the age?

Early Friends

I’m not a Quaker historian, but my limited understanding of early Friends is that they were rebels; they rebelled against the spirit of their age because of it’s class system, inequality, power and dominance of church and aristocracy and so on.

London Quakers

The reason early Quakers established equality between men and women in the movement wasn’t just expediency although it was essential for them to ensure that everyone’s talent and contribution counted, it was also a deep belief in equality of all before God.

And it is possible to read Quaker history (though not always, I guess) as a history of rebellion against the spirit of the age.

Early Christianity

Early Friends also saw themselves as the direct descendants (in a way) of the early Church; the early Christian communities that were not yet part of a State Church; the communities where people pooled their resources and deliberately became equal in material means to support their belief in equality.

The crunch for the Church came when it was established as the official religion of the State. The whole of the following nearly 1700 years of history is littered with the detrimental consequences of this step; with the abuse of Christianity for power of the powerful and oppression of the powerless.

Early Friends (and many of the other groups of seekers of that era in England – and elsewhere at that and other times) reacted to the domination of a corrupt system that held ordinary people down.

What of today…

What is the spirit of our age? In the last few weeks there are a number of facets of this that have kept coming back to me:

First, there is that terrible word: aspiration; it has been hijacked by certain parts of the media. It has been hijacked by certain elements of our political discourse.

Just this morning, I was reading about one of the people running for the Conservative nomination for London Mayor, Soul Campbell. He says: ‘I look at the Conservatives and their ideology, and how they look at life is all about aspirational living and lifting yourself up.’ (The ‘I’, 24 June 2015, page 3)

Aspiration is seen in this narrative as purely individual; it’s about ‘lifting yourself up’; this may include your immediate family, you children, especially, but nothing and no-one else. In fact, the very possibility that others may be better at this and get further on career or property or housing ladder is the driver.

There is nothing about community in this; not about local community, not about the wider regional or national community; and certainly nothing about the global community.

It is the ideology that keeps migrants on boats or in detention centres in Italy and Greece and that permits our government to say: we won’t take them; nothing to do with us!

It is the ideology that wants to privatise everything, even publicly funded Housing Association housing because it feeds the aspiration of those lucky enough to have been allocated such housing – never mind those who haven’t and those who are still to come.

It is the ideology that is content to rob the poorest and most vulnerable in our society of the meagre basis of their living by cutting benefits.

Livingwage

It is the ideology that demands that everyone who wants to be seen as part of ‘the hard-working British families’ (another buzz word which is part of the spirit of the age) is available for work and working all of the time – so much so that GPs are supposed to work 7 days a week so that people who are sick don’t have to take time off work to go and see a doctor. What a crazy world!

And of course, what comes last in the priorities of this sort of thinking is the planet. Never mind that we have a major problem with carbon emissions – let’s make it easier to frack and harder to provide wind power. Why, because it makes money for the private sector. It allows them to follow their aspirations at the cost of the rest of us and the planet.

As I end this alphabet blog, I am left wondering how we can impact the spirit of the age? John Woolman believed firmly that slavery was wrong and that all that stemmed from slavery, all the wealth it created, all the products it made available were therefore not to be touched by those who wanted to abolish slavery.

British Friends, in their ‘minute 36’ of Yearly Meeting in 2015 (you can download and read the full minute here) have identified many of the things that are wrong with the spirit of our age, with the abuses of power, with oppression of the most vulnerable and with a whole raft of the wrong priorities set by our government. Let us find the strength to limit – if not to eliminate – the benefits we derive from these wrong priorities and let us find ways of making this known so that our stand can impact the spirit of tomorrow.

V is for … Values

Recently, at a board meeting of a small Quaker organisation the one board member who isn’t a Quaker asked us: ‘So what are Quaker values’? Not an unreasonable question as we had been going on about the unique selling point of the service we provide being ‘the Quaker values’.

The immediate answer he got from one of our number was: read Advices and Queries. I didn’t really think that was a sufficient answer but couldn’t come up with anything quick and straightforward either.

I googled the Quaker Social Action publication ‘The Q-BIT at the Heart of a Quaker led organisation

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 13.49.59

I sent him a copy by e-mail and I referred him to page 24 (of the pdf) where in a nice and accessible box you can find the following:

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 13.54.28

Of course, the issue with any such list – just as much with a list of our Testimonies which are often used in such discussions – is this: (a) do we live up to these values? And (b) are they unique to Quakers?

Why do these two questions matter? They both matter because they are about authenticity and about identity.

Of course, we don’t always live up to all of these. We’re not perfect and we don’t claim to be perfect. It’s more important to own them and to keep trying. And of course, in theory we do. But in practice, certainly in Britain in Europe more broadly, we don’t have enough diversity within our group to be able to hear all voices and views, for example.

But the question of uniqueness is probably the more controversial. The issue here is that we claim values that others would also claim and maybe they interpret them differently but is it right for us to claim them as ‘Quaker’ values.

It puts me in mind of the discussions in the political sphere of ‘British’ values, many of which are far more universal than that.

So where does that leave us?

The one thing we do seem to have in common and seem to have uniquely in common is our worship based on silence; our willingness to shut down the noise which we are otherwise constantly confronted with; the willingness to accept that silence – as much in a group as on our own – can be uncomfortable because it tends to bring out all sorts of thoughts that we normally try not to allow any space for. It is a silence that makes space for the crucial question: what is really important? What is it that really matters? What do I want to spend my time, energy and money on?

One of the really important issues is that of equality – or to put it into political terms – the growing inequality, which our society is blighted with. I know that Friends are doing work on this; I know there will be some concentrated effort around this over the next few months. But the question for each of us individually and for our Meetings is this: given that most of us are among the better off – though not among the 1% – what can we actually do practically that will make us ‘patterns and examples’; i.e. the people who are the change we want to see.

One key issue is housing inequality. Can we find a way of demonstrating what that would look like without making ourselves homeless and without creating a massive managerial and administrative burden for someone?

Just a thought and a question! If you have ideas of how to bring that about, please let me/us know.

H is for – what do we do about Hate Speech

Over the last two days I have picked up a lot of very destructive hate speech in the comments to articles in the Daily Telegraph. And example would be this article and the comments which relate to it.

Let me explain:

I have been reading the DT online for the last 12 months or so for the sole purpose to inform myself about how the other side sees things. The DT itself is quite conservative and Eurosceptic and its readers are, on the whole, even worse. But they do represent a substantial part of the population.

In the wake of the ‘trojan horse’ story about schools in B’ham, there has been quite a bit of vitriol in the DT (and no doubt in other papers, too). And don’t get me wrong, I’m as opposed to the things that have supposedly been going on in these academies.

I have checked with a Friend in B’ham who worked in the education sector for a long time and she is broadly confirming that there is some substance behind the allegations.

But the reaction of both the press and the public commenting in the press is really quite worrying. If you read some of the comments associated with the article (above – see link), you’ll see that people are talking about civil war, about targeted assassinations, about riots to deal with minorities, about the military intervening and so on.

Now, I don’t think any of this is really likely; but I do think that having this kind of stuff out there on the internet is very dangerous and very damaging so long as there is nothing coherent that puts another voice into the mix.

A few days ago, I actually commented on another article in the DT about the story that there was discrimination and non-adherence to the national curriculum going on in 3 schools in B’ham. It appears to be part of the same ‘plot’ as the trojan horse story. And because I said something to the effect that it is important to deal with such breaches of standards and governance in academies through judicial means rather than whipping up hate against whole communities, I got an avalanche of relatively negative comments back ranging from telling me I was part of the problem by saying these things to some comments that were considerably worse.

I don’t really mind getting that sort of stuff – it doesn’t really affect me personally. But I do think there is a need for a different voice to be broadcast effectively, that addresses such problems in context and highlights responses that are reasonable, lawful, non-violent and – dare I say it – rational.

I am at a loss on this one; I don’t know how as Friends we can stand up against such hate speech in a way that is visible on the Internet, on social media, in the on-line papers and that is heard by the communities that are being vilified.

I await your comments and ideas.

B is for Business, Business Meeting and Busy-ness

It’s not just that we’ve just had our Local Meeting Business Meeting on Sunday and we’ll be having Area Meeting later today.

It’s not just that I have recently been appointed to be Local Meeting Treasurer and that this now involves work.

It is also and mainly about how we do business, what we think it is and why it seems increasingly difficult to find people to do the things that need to be done. This may be a bit of a rant but maybe sometimes a bit of a rant allows glimmers of truth to emerge. You tell me.

Paragraph 28 of Britain Yearly Meeting’s ‘Advices and Queries’ states:

Every stage of our lives offers fresh opportunities. Responding to divine guidance, try to discern the right time to undertake or relinquish responsibilities without undue pride or guilt. Attend to what love requires of you, which may not be great busyness.

I have to admit that this particular paragraph (and in particular the last sentence and the use that is sometimes made of it) has been annoying to me for many years. I understand that this was probably written with older Friends in mind who had faithfully done various jobs in their Local, Area and Yearly Meetings and who desperately wanted a break and couldn’t find a way to say so; often, because they couldn’t imagine anyone else willing to do the job. And I think it is absolutely right that Friends (and Attenders giving service to their Meetings) shouldn’t feel that giving service is a life-sentence.

But in the society (small ‘s’; i.e. the wider world around us) we live in, we are confronted by a general attitude, which regards being extremely busy, or being seen to be extremely busy as the way to be. This is particularly so in the world of work. But almost everywhere, having a full diary, being able to say ‘I can’t do such and such for the next x months because I’m far too busy’ is seen as proving that we are contributing to society fully. So we are almost programmed to feel overburdened.

But are we? And are we doing the most important things effectively? And why is it so often that what we do for Meeting looks like the straw that breaks the camel’s back?

You may accuse me of being unrealistic as a result of recent retirement. And yes, I am beginning to realise that I take longer over things now because I have the time.

But in the end, the real question is: how important is our participation in the Quaker community we belong to, to us? And, how important are the things that appear to be necessary to be done?

So back to business and business meeting; do we always think really hard about what it is we are doing there? Sometimes I hear Friends talking about ‘transacting business’; to me it’s just: making necessary decisions. We do that all the time in our personal and professional lives; we have structured and unstructured approaches to that; we take on responsibilities for some things and leave responsibilities for other things to others; and we sometimes take turns with these things.

If everyone was willing ‘to do their bit’ for a term or two, then nobody would need to feel overburdened.

So let us accept that if we want a Quaker community, there are things that need to be done (the Meeting House has to be cleaned, the coffee and tea has to be made, the bank accounts have to be managed, the children’s activities have to be planned, door-keeping has to be done and arranged, meetings for learning or whatever you call them have to be planned, arranged and run, and so on and so forth); they are pretty much all things that we all can do. So let us do them gladly and together and with a shared sense of purpose. The only way we can avoid doing them is by not having the Quaker community where we can come for Meeting for Worship on a Sunday (and probably do many other things).

There is really nothing in the running of a Quaker Meeting that can’t be done by almost anyone who belongs to the Meeting; the ‘I don’t do numbers’ response to a suggestion that someone might take on being Treasurer for a while; the ‘I don’t know anything about buildings’ response to an invitation to join Premises Committee won’t do. We all live in buildings for which we take responsibilities; we all manage money. So what is the issue? That is not to say that we don’t need proper induction and some initial support and encouragement when we take on these jobs for the first time.

In a recent discussion about Clerking, we were talking about the difference between discerning the Sense of the Meeting and reaching consensus; my take on this is: consensus is the lowest common denominator; the Sense of the Meeting is the best we can achieve together. That’s only possible if we all do our bit, both at the business meeting and during the rest of the time, of being a real and active part of our Quaker communities