Tag Archives: taking risks

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

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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:

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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.

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)


A is for ‘Answering that of God in everyone’

This is listed first in the index of well-loved phrases in ‘Quaker Faith and Practice’; not only because it starts with ‘A’, but rightly so as it is one of the things Quakers – at least in my experience – most often say when asked about what Quakerism is about.
Indeed, in my time working for a Quaker organisation for 10 years, I had occasion to interview many dozens of young people for paid internships; the question: what about Quakerism is important to you was part of every single one of these interviews. And most of the candidates, whether practising Quakers or not, listed this as one of the most important aspects of Quakerism for them.
But what do we actually mean by this phrase?
First, of course, it is important to note that where there are 4 Quakers there will be 5 answers to this question (you can multiply this up to any number you choose); and many will answer the question with further questions: what to you mean by God? What to you mean by ‘answering’? What, in fact, do you mean by everyone?
And so it is incredibly easy to spend the few minutes you have in conversation with someone who is mildly interested in Quakers and Quakerism (or in being Quaker) in recitation of rhetorical questions and saying what Quakers aren’t, rather than actually getting somewhere in terms of answering any of them.
Now why is that so? My own perception is that because Quakers worship in a manner that is based on silence, it’s easy not to address these questions collectively and therefore it becomes more difficult to do so; because by saying what we actually think/believe in this context is risky; it’s putting your head above the parapet.
I have just written 6 paragraphs and nearly 300 words demonstrating this general failing. And of course, that is the only reason I have done so: to show what happens.
There is, thus, no further hiding from the question.
Let’s start by what I mean by God; there are some Quakers who have a concept of God, which in my perception is quite traditional and rests in the Bible; it is a personal God with whom (not the personal pronoun) one can engage in a sort of conversation (prayer?). There is the expectation of an answer. And there are some Quakers who would describe themselves as non-theist. Having looked at the website of non-theist Quakers I can’t find any good definition of the term.
I stand somewhere between these two poles, though given the fact that it’s quite difficult to ascertain where these two poles are, it’s quite difficult to be sure where ‘somewhere between them’ might be. I do believe there is something beyond humans in the universe/world that connects us (and other parts of the living world) in some way. I believe this is a force for good rather than evil. And I believe that each of us is able to connect to this in some way if we are prepared to pay attention to it.
So to me, ‘that of God in everyone’ is the capacity of everyone to connect to this something. I am quite sure that this cannot be boxed into an idea of a ‘being’ with superhuman (or more generally, very human) qualities and characteristics.
I also believe that paying attention to this and trying to see it manifested in other people is what is meant by ‘answering to’ in the quote above. It is about seeing the best in people; about encouraging the best in them, and about ensuring (insofar as is possible given the world we live in) that there is peace and justice. Only when there is peace and justice will it be possible for everyone to be attentive to this something rather than paying attention on how to get their own back or how to make more money than the next guy or how to simply survive.
This may not be an elegant definition of what I understand this phrase to mean; it may also not be an approximation of what George Fox (who is credited with coming up with the phrase) meant by it. But we are, of course, fortunate in also believing in continuing revelation; that means we don’t have to be bound by what either the Bible or George Fox says as the last word. But that’s for another post; I can’t decide whether that will come under ‘c’ or ‘r’.