Tag Archives: Discernment

U is for … Unity

‘The unity we seek depends on the willingness of us all to seek the truth in each other’s utterances; on our being open to persuasion; and in the last resort on a willingness to recognise and accept the sense of the meeting as recorded in the minute, knowing that our dissenting views have been heard and considered. We do not vote in our meetings, because we believe that this would emphasise the divisions between differing views and inhibit the process of seeking to know the will of God. We must recognise, however, that a minority view may well continue to exist. When we unite with a minute offered by our clerk, we express, not a sudden agreement of everyone present with the prevailing view, but rather a confidence in our tried and tested way of seeking to recognise God’s will. We act as a community, whose members love and trust each other. We should be reluctant to prevent the acceptance of a minute which the general body of Friends present feels to be right.’

‘As a worshipping community, particularly in our local and area meetings, we have a continuing responsibility to nurture the soil in which unity may be found.’

‘In a meeting rightly held a new way may be discovered which none present had alone perceived and which transcends the differences of the opinions expressed. This is an experience of creative insight, leading to a sense of the meeting which a clerk is often led in a remarkable way to record. Those who have shared this experience will not doubt its reality and the certainty it brings of the immediate rightness of the way for the meeting to take.’

Britain YM, Quaker Faith & Practice, 3.06

Gosh, I seem to have forgotten ‘U’ – so this comes a little out of sequence. It just goes to show, we can all make mistakes, we can all forget stuff and we can all make amends.

So, Unity, with a capital U; I was thinking about what is unique (there’s another ‘u’) about Quakers this morning in Meeting. And it’s really quite difficult. In my last post on values this was hinted at. Are there any values, which we can claim to be uniquely ‘Quaker’?

And then it struck me that our belief that making decisions based on unity might very well be unique. Essentially, we look at issues not from the point of view of ‘I want to get my way’, or ‘you are wrong, unless you agree with me’; or indeed ‘I know it all and therefore I am right’. None of these sentiments, which are all too common elsewhere in society (including groups I belong to outside of Friends), have any place in a Quaker Meeting.

In Meeting for Worship, we don’t have one person ordained to tell us what to think; everyone’s contribution is valued for what it is; we accept that sometimes it’s not meant for us personally and we just let it be. What we don’t do is sit there are argue with it, either quietly in our own minds or in words expressed in the hearing of everyone else.

In Meeting for Business, we don’t start from the premise that there is a right and a wrong answer and that some of the people present (me, people I like) know the right answer and everyone else doesn’t.

We don’t come in to the Meeting for Business knowing exactly the outcome we want from any of the items on the agenda; what we do know is that we want an outcome that the Meeting as a whole can live with and that makes sense at this time.

I have had the experience of coming to a Meeting for Business thinking that I knew the right answer to a particular item and coming out of it with a completely different decision having been made that I could fully unite with.

It’s not easy to make this work; one thing that helps is to arrange the room such a way that no-one is seen as more important than anyone else. Yes, the Clerk will have a table; but that’s not a pulpit, it’s a surface to put papers on and to write minutes on.

clip_image002_2_1

It seems to me that this ability to approach often difficult decisions with an open mind and with a firm belief that an open mind (well informed in terms of relevant facts, mind you!) is a better starting point for reaching a good decision. A decision that can stand for now; a decision that can change in due course if necessary; a decision that is right for the Meeting as a whole.

And if I am right to think that this is fairly unique (not just among faith communities but in wider society too) then this is something we must cherish, practice and offer to the wider world.

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.

R is for … Radical Thinking

Now, I bet you’ve never heard Woodbrooke referred to as the Quaker base for radicalisation or the Quaker equivalent of a madrassa. And no, this isn’t focusing on the recent issues over the control of schools in the Midlands (of the UK).
Over an ordinary weekend in October 2014, 16 Friends gathered in Woodbrooke to talk serious radicalisation; the radicalisation of Friends in this country; in this world.
We heard of the early Quaker theology that underpins this: realised eschatology (you weren’t expecting such a theological word from me, were you; I wasn’t either – I didn’t even know how to spell it!). But its meaning is quite simple:
‘This is it; the here and now; there is nowhere else; if we want to realise the Kingdom of God – if you like that sort of language – or a better world in which everyone can flourish – and no, that doesn’t mean getting rich – then the world we have right here and right now is where we’ve got to do it.’
Well, that’s quite something, isn’t it? There’s no excuse left, none of the: well, we’ll do this when we get round to it. Or when we’ve paid off the mortgage, or the kids’ education, or we’ll do it when it’s more convenient. Whatever we think is necessary to bring about the better world we believe in, we’ve got to do it now.

Historical roots

This isn’t news. Remember John Woolman? Here’s a good quote from him that goes right to the heart of things:  ’May we look upon our treasures, the furniture of our houses, and our garments, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions.’ That’s in the introduction to 23.16 in Britain YM’s Quaker Faith & Practice.
And here’s one from Joseph Rowntree (from 1865 when he was 29 years old): ‘Charity as ordinarily practised, the charity of endowment, the charity of emotion, the charity which takes the place of justice, creates much of the misery which it relieves, but does not relieve all the misery it creates.’
Look at the root causes of evil, of misery, of inequality, of violence, and of hatred; that’s what both of them are saying.
But maybe the most surprising (and least well known) of the historical roots was the core focus of the weekend: the ‘Eight Foundations of a true social order’ which are set out in the body of 23.16 in Britain YM’s Quaker Faith & Practice.
That’s what we were looking at; the context in which they were drafted and agreed by what was then London YM; the process that led to them; and, maybe even more importantly, how we could make them meaningful for our times.
The ‘Eight Foundations’ were drafted during the course of the First World War when Friends within London YM were struggling to find ways of holding on to our testimonies just as much as we are struggling today.

What we did at Woodbrooke

The group – in the introduction round – clearly indicated that we are all affected by the fact that the world around us is just not a world in which we can find a true social order. It is a world where the rich get richer and poor get poorer; where the earth and its resources are being exploited and squandered for the enrichment of the few; where wars are fought and people are killed for reasons that do not hold up to scrutiny; where human rights abuses of some are tolerated and of others are countered with military response. I could go on.
In spite of all that – in spite of the fact that we could all have been thoroughly depressed by what is going on around us and in our name – the weekend provided space for being energized and refocusing on what we can do.
We believe – and I think that was a feeling shared by all – that it is time for Friends to make another statement; a statement of the foundations of a social order, which is for the common good.
The original Eight Foundations are couched in language many of us – me among them – aren’t all that comfortable with; but that doesn’t take away the fact that they were driving at some of the same things we are driving at: equality, peace, opportunity for the many to have meaningful lives. They are worth reading and studying again.
But there are also things left out. One of the aspects of a true social order remarkable absent from the original version is the issue of sustainability. Another is addressing equality in the far more radical way that we do now, compared with a hundred years ago.
We tried our hand at drafting some new foundations; we came up with something rough, in draft form, still with gaps but ready to be worked on and tested by Friends in the Yearly Meeting and beyond.
I hope that this process will be taken forward through discussions in local and Area Meetings; through further weekends at Woodbrooke; through Woodbrooke on the Road and through some web-based mechanisms. I hope that by the time the centenary of the minute of London YM that accepted the Eight Foundations comes around in but a few years’ time, Britain YM will be ready to embrace a restatement – a new statement – of the foundations of a true social order as we see it now.
I’m hesitant to share our initial texts with you because I know others are working on polishing them a bit; on getting them into a form where all of them speak in the same voice so they ‘hang together’. So you’ll have to wait until ‘S’ or ‘T’ for that.

N is for another look at Nominations

One of the things that we keep hearing about is the problem that Meetings (at all levels) face with nominations. There seem to be more and more jobs to do and fewer and fewer Friends to do them.

The reflections on membership and the meaning of membership which has been going on in Britain YM for a number of years (and more formally for the last three years as part of the agenda of Yearly Meeting in session) are in part, at least, a reaction to this difficulty.

The way Friends make appointments – through a nominations process that is well established and reflected in the pages of Quaker Faith & Practice – is quite unique. We set up nominations committees who discern whose name to bring forward. Friends (and in some cases Attenders) are approached to find out if they would be willing to serve in some job or other; it is made clear that even if they say ‘yes’ this doesn’t mean that they will be appointed (or even nominated). Saying ‘no’ however, does mean that a nomination won’t go forward.

This in itself is an interesting idea. If I say yes, then other people – rightly – may question whether that yes is appropriate at that time for the Meeting (and maybe for me); if I say no, no such questions arise. Of course, it is virtually impossible to override someone’s ‘no’ because if they don’t want to do something, then they can’t really be forced to do it.

We don’t do ‘volunteering’ in general; it’s not the done thing to go to Nominations Committee to say: I’d like to do x job. Although, and in particular if there are jobs that are hard to fill, it can be ok to say to Nominations Committee that one would be willing to be approached.

And then, of course, Nominations Committee nominates the people to the Meeting in question – local, area, or Yearly Meeting or whatever committee is in charge of the appointment.

But the very strange thing that keeps happening more and more is this: the appointing body is both very reluctant and often not really in a position to consider the nominations and if necessary say no to one or more of them.

There is a reason – it’s hard to find people to do all the jobs, so we’re only too pleased to appoint the people who have indicated willingness. But what if there is someone (or several people) in the Meeting who have a real concern about a nomination.

Not only do they need to be on the ball – nominations are read out and then the appointment is made in short order – but they also have to be willing to stand up (without having had a real chance to weigh up whether this is necessary or appropriate because nominations aren’t usually known – appointments made by Britain YM in session have been treated differently in recent years with nominations published in documents in advance).

When I was at Pendle Hill last year I attended a course on Clerking. At that course I learned that in Philadelphia YM (and other US YMs) nominations are given two readings: first, Nominations Committee presents the nominations to one session of the body concerned; then, at the following meeting, the nominations are considered and approved or otherwise.

This seems a very good idea; it opens up the possibility for Friends to reflect on the nominations and to think hard about whether or not to support them.

The awareness that there needs to be more opportunity for the appointing body to have proper discernment (rather than to leave all the discernment to Nominations Committee) is well established. Quaker Faith & Practice, section 3.24 paragraph g says (in part):

The nominations committee is not the appointing body and must bring the suggested names to the body for which it acts. Members of this body have the responsibility for approving the names or not and must be given the opportunity to express any doubts they might have.

This needs time. And having a ‘first and second reading of nominations’ approach might provide the time.

Maybe it would be worth thinking about this.

 

M is for Meeting for Worship

The other Sunday I was sitting in Meeting; there were some spoken contributions and after about the third, it felt like a discussion group. I was considering standing and saying this and reminding Friends that this was a Meeting for Worship.

And then I stopped myself, because that term has always been a bit of a problem to me.

The question arises: who or what do we worship? Or what is it exactly we are doing there for an hour or so, mostly in silence?

The problem with words

I was brought up in German Yearly Meeting and in German the word for Meeting for Worship is ‘Andacht’. This is also true for some other European languages (see Sue Glover Frykmann’s post on the subject).

So is there a real difference between these two terms? Well, yes, there is.

Andacht can be translated into English in many different ways; in a German etymological analysis, it suggests that it can be a ‘religious deepening or immersion’ or a prayer service. It has the word ‘Denken’ (thinking) at its root and implies ‘paying attention’, commitment, and dedication.

Worship, in contrast, require an object. In the online etymology dictionary, you find that as early as 1300, the word suggests: “reverence paid to a supernatural or divine being”, as indicated in Wikipedia: honour shown to an object.[1]

And therein lies the problem for me. If I don’t have a concept of a personal God (which I don’t) then who or what is the object that I pay reverence to in Meeting for Worship?

In a setting where I think of this as ‘Andacht’ that question doesn’t arise.

Is thinking allowed?

The other issue is the question of ‘thinking’. The word Andacht as mentioned above, implies that it does have something to do with thinking; a contemplative kind of thinking, granted, but somehow the brain is allowed to be involved.

In Meeting for Worship, this doesn’t necessarily come into the definition. Indeed, I have said myself, on occasion, and have heard it said, that I worry every time someone starts spoken ministry with the words: ‘I’ve been thinking…’

So I began asking myself why thinking isn’t somehow part of the picture. Some of us will say with utter conviction (me among them) that ‘God has no hands but ours’ but what about brains? Surely, our brains – complex and amazing as they are – are part of our make-up and part of the gifts we bring to this life. And so, why should we leave them at the door of the Meeting House?

Answers?

A school friend (from my Quaker School days) who converted to Mormonism after being brought up in an eighth generation Quaker family said to me when I asked him why he had converted: It’s simple: the Quakers have all the questions, the Mormons have all the answers.

Ever since, I have felt that it is important sometimes to come up with some answers, even if that has to be with the proviso that these are my answers and not answers which would be necessarily embraced by all Quakers (as all Quakers embracing any specific answer is almost inconceivable).

So here is my attempt at an answer to the question: what is it that I do in Meeting for Worship (and I tend to prefer to call it ‘Quaker Meeting’).

Because I don’t have a concept of a personal God, there is no question that I feel that in Quaker Meeting I would be showing reverence to an object. But because of the concept of ‘that of God in everyone’ I do have an idea that there is something out there and in us that connects us. You might imagine it maybe like the air we breathe; I’m inclined to add sunshine, but that would make the concept a little rose-tinted, because sunshine is nice. So let’s leave it with the air.

And so this image came to me: when we dry our laundry outside, in the wind and, yes, the sunshine, it does it good. It makes it fresher. It refreshes it in a way that a tumble drier or even a rack in the back bedroom can’t do.

So maybe, engaging in the process of Quaker Meeting is like being refreshed by the wind and the weather and the air we all breath; being aware of the fact that this is something that we have in common; that this is something that we can’t buy more of, or be deprived of by those with more power and more money.

It is an experience of essential, existential equality.

But it’s also about allowing the damp, the cobwebs, the staleness, the old, well-worn stuff to be blown about a bit and rearranged.

Does thinking come into it?

Well, actually, no. Because if we think we are driving the process; and if we want to experience the being blown about a bit, then we need to stop trying to drive the process. But what can happen – at least to me – is that at some point the process triggers something that leads to thought. And that’s ok.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] From Bosworth and Toller, Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, “weorþscipe

C is for Living Consciously

I’ve just come back from a weekend course at Woodbrooke entitled towards a Quaker manifesto.

This isn’t a report of that weekend. Suffice it to say that we looked at aspects of Quakerism under the headings: spiritual core, community, and witness/engagement with the world.

With regard to witness and engagement, we asked ourselves what underpins our engagement with the world. Why do we say the things we say; why do we do the things we do; why do we advocate for the changes we advocate for?

Our fundamental belief in that of God in everyone meant that our belief in the essential inalienable equality of all was a non-negotiable part of our testimony. (By the way, there wasn’t any agreement on what we mean by God, but there was agreement that we each had our own perception of what it might mean to ourselves and we all had some form or words for it, so we decided that we could leave it at that for now.)

We also found in our conversation that this permeates much of our daily lives – it’s not just about petitions, demonstrations, meetings with MPs and so on – it’s also about what we buy when we do the weekly shopping; on what basis we decide where to source our energy for our homes; how we live the commitments which the Yearly Meeting or the Area Meeting or the Local Meeting makes.

We considered that much of this is about living consciously; reading the labels of the goods we buy and asking questions about the price the people who make them/grow them/pack them pay for us being able to have affordable out of season vegetables and cheap gadgets; deciding not to put off the decision to change energy supplier to one that is committed to renewable energy sources; not putting off the installation of solar panels because it is not cost-effective. The Canterbury Commitment didn’t say we would be a low carbon community if it were convenient or cost-effective.

We felt that we needed to be willing to act counter-culturally: to stand out; to do things others see as unpopular or even just plain weird.

We also thought that none of us could do this alone; we need the engagement of our Meetings (our community, after all) to support our actions; to help us decide on what the appropriate actions are. I don’t mean you need to take an Elder along to do your daily shopping; but it does mean that maybe we should have a discussion in Meeting to look at the dilemmas we face each time we go to the shops and the solutions to these we each find; and the ways in which we walk the walk rather than talking the talk.

Consciously being accountable to the community we have freely chosen doesn’t seem such an outlandish idea, but we need to actually do it. We need to open up our personal decision-making (bit by bit, this won’t be easy at first) to this kind of community support that will help us make riskier, more courageous decisions and to live with the fact that we won’t be doing that right every day and on every issue.

We may not carry swords, but we do carry baggage that we need to acknowledge and lay down when we can.

So here goes: the day after I got back from Woodbrooke was my shopping day. What dilemmas did I face and how did I respond to them?

First question: how do I get to the shops? Well, for the weekly grocery shop it tends to be the car; it’s not far, but too far to carry all the stuff I get for more or less a week’s worth of groceries for a household of two (+cat). There isn’t convenient public transport (2 buses) and even that would involve two walks (at either end) – too long for me to carry everything I would need to carry. So that’s my answer to that dilemma.

I could order the stuff on-line; but then I can’t choose my own fruit and veg and other fresh stuff; and therefore I have no control over the quality. I could go to more local shops and more often and so only buy what I can carry. But even though I am retired, it seems a lot of time to spend on such a mundane task; and the smaller branches of the supermarkets that are more local don’t always carry everything I want (need?).

So, which supermarket do I go to? Well, the short answer is: the nearest one with a car park (see above for reasons for using the car). And that’s Tesco. Oh dear, they don’t have such a good reputation for employment practices and potentially not for the way they treat their suppliers either. I haven’t looked into all of this, but I’m mildly worried. I do use Waitrose (they are supposed to be better on these issues but it’s further away so a longer drive and more carbon emissions).

The local greengrocer would be an option for most of the fruit and veg; but they don’t have a decent organic offering and you can forget fair trade; but what about the local organic supermarket? What, I hear you ask, you’re lucky enough to have one of them and you don’t use it? Well, I do, but only for things I can’t get anywhere else. They are eye-wateringly expensive.

So what do I buy? Well, on Monday, it was quite a small shopping expedition. Here’s what was on the list:

The first thing I get to is the soft fruit: yes, fresh raspberries and blueberries; we eat them in the morning on our cereal – which is low sugar (I am diabetic) – and so the fruit gives it a bit of flavour and of course is very good for you. It’s a complete indulgence especially at this time of year. The raspberries come from Spain. That’s Europe – so I allow myself that. The blueberries are from further afield, so I only get one packet. Is that an acceptable compromise or a sword I see hanging off my belt?

Then bananas – well, they will always come from overseas; but I always get the organic fair trade ones so that’s ok. I don’t think I could easily live without bananas – though of course I did not grow up eating them all the time. In the 50s in Germany they just weren’t that widely available.

The veg isn’t a dilemma today: greens, potatoes, carrots – all from UK sources. I opt for the organic varieties if they are available. I breathe a sigh of relief.

Then I see oranges and clementines and think: oh what a good idea for a snack; I have a couple of days this week when I have to take sandwiches. I pick up a bag and find: they come from Israel. No idea whether they might have come from the illegal Israeli Settlements in the occupied Palestinian Territories so I put them down again and get some from Spain; they’re not labelled easy-peel but hey, what’s a knife for?

Then I see they have ready prepared pomegranate seeds; their label tells me they were packed in the UK but not where they were grown. So I leave them behind.

We’ve decided to have a beef joint one day and shepherds pie on another; so a piece of beef is on the list. No, we haven’t gone either veggie or vegan yet. Having a gluten-free diet low in sugar is hard enough without cutting out other things. So I make sure it’s free range or the equivalent. I can live with that compromise.

And then we want fish – Tesco say that all their fish is sustainable; and today is Monday and there’s not much choice. So I end up buying cod because we like it and because it’s easy to cook. Is that another fudge?

Some Covent Garden Soups and some fresh pasta for my (non-gluten-free) partner are the ‘deli’ purchases. I have given up by now looking for the places of origin as there are so many ingredients and they don’t list the origin of all of them – one of the many drawbacks of processed food. We don’t buy a lot if this but as I’m out two evenings this week – both on Quaker business – I’m trying to make things easy.

Milk – of course, organic and semi-skimmed; Greek yoghurt, and free-range, organic eggs round off the purchases on the list.

Today wasn’t such a bad day for the dilemmas; but the next shopping expedition will hold a whole new range of questions.

You can, of course, tell me that I’m being silly and that this kind of detailed exploration of the shopping basket is not bringing about any change and is therefore useless. But it’s the basis of daily life. And if we carry on doing things that are unsustainable or on the basis of people being exploited – and I haven’t looked into the terms on which UK and other suppliers are forced to do business with Tesco – then we are contributing to the things that are wrong.

To quote John Woolman: May we look upon our treasures, the furniture of our houses, and our garments, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions. (QFP 23.16)