Words and Wounds: Reflections from Britain Yearly Meeting

Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM) has discerned that now is the time to begin revising our book of discipline, the publication that captures our understanding of Quaker principles and practices. This gathering of Friends in London was extremely well planned, with loving servant-leadership demonstrated by the Clerks. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the deeply impressive work of the Revision Preparation Group (RPG), who brought their recommendations to BYM, and prepared the whole Yearly Meeting so well for this discernment. I personally found it a very emotional weekend, having a strong sense of my own place within the Quaker family. My involvement has given rise to a whole host of thoughts, and I’m going to try and piece them together in this post.

We need our theological gifts

I welcomed the decision to revise our book of discipline with a sense of awe – with both excitement and fear. We have an adventure set before us, and we’re going to need all of our gifts to undertake it, particularly the gifts of our theologians. We all do theology every time we try to make sense of, and communicate, our religious experience. However, there are Friends out there who are skilled in the use of theological tools, and there is important and exciting theological work to be done. I hope that the ‘theology think-tank’ that took place as part of the RPGs work is not the last.

At BYM, a repeated phrase was that our diversity is a richness and a strength. This gave rise to a theological question within me: Why is this so? As was pointed out in session, when we speak of our diversity as British Friends, we are really talking about diversity of belief. But even when we look at the diversity of belief amongst British Quakers, how diverse is our religious diversity? In my experience, there is an unspoken Quaker theological mainstream that certain beliefs and behaviours fall outside of. What do we say to a Friend who shares their experience of contacting the dead? How would we react to a Friend who spoke in tongues during worship? I’m sure we can all think of particular beliefs or religious behaviours that would not be easily welcomed at our local meeting. Perhaps our diversity of belief is the freedom to use whatever words we choose to describe a shared experience. But, as Craig Barnett pointed out, in using different words we can be describing quite different experiences, and our differences of belief may be irreconcilable. So the question of diversity of belief is a thorny one, and we need our theologians to help us handle it with care.

I was particularly moved by the presence of our international Quaker visitors. To travel all that way just for our little gathering! It struck me that, when we say ‘our diversity is our strength’, this must include all the ways that Quakerism is expressed throughout the world. It must even include those expressions of Quakerism that make us uncomfortable. For our diversity to truly be our strength we must pay a price, and that price is the need to have deep and difficult conversations with each other, face to face, about what we hold most dear. We must commit to a greater degree of religious literacy, attempting to understand what our Friends mean by the words they use, taking the time to learn one another’s language.

The Spirt of vulnerability

So the work before us is costly, and will require us, as Alex Wildwood shared, to be vulnerable. The word ‘vulnerable’ comes from the Latin vulnerare – ‘to wound’. To be vulnerable is to be wound-able. This work, if we do it right, will be painful.

British Quakers have a difficulty with wounds. I find that we have a very positive self image. We are well-versed in talking about the achievements of Quakers past. The walkway in to Friends House has them inscribed on the paving slabs. It is good that we can draw confidence and hope from the strengths of our tradition, but if we do not balance this by acknowledging our failings, both within our tradition and within ourselves, then we are being guided by a spirit of pride. We can be healed of this spirit through a recognition of our own wounded-ness. During BYM we heard of Quakers’ continuing engagement with issues of power and privilege and sustainability. If the whole Yearly Meeting is to embrace this work then we need to embrace our own complicity in the problems, our own capacity to wound, dare I say our own sinfulness.

The Christian tradition that I inhabit has a central place for wounds. It says that we can’t have Easter Sunday without Good Friday. The crucifixion shows that there is a place for failure, weakness, abandonment and betrayal in God’s story. Even in the New Life, there will never be a time when we can stop being vulnerable with one another. Jesus’ resurrected body still bears the marks of crucifixion. We bring our wounds with us. If in Jesus, God is wound-able, then the Spirit of God is also the Spirit of vulnerability

In describing his own wounded-ness, Paul learned that he could not rely on his own strength. He could only rely on God’s grace, for ‘power is made perfect in weakness’ [2 Cor. 12:9]. Revising our book of discipline will only be a success if we can countenance its failure, if we can acknowledge our own frailty. Quakers have got things wrong before. We aspire to live adventurously, and a story is only an adventure if there is the possibility of danger and defeat.


Being a community of argument

During BYM we were asked ‘How can we get beyond potentially divisive words’? I do not believe that we can ever get beyond divisive words, and to attempt to do so would be a mistake. I hope that in revising our book of discipline we can engage passionately with potentially divisive words in the hope of understanding one another better. A new book of discipline will not solve the difficulties of our diversity of belief, and it will not put an end to the need for difficult conversations.

The temptation to avoid disagreement is strong, and it can be easy for us to say that words don’t matter, that we’re a religion of ‘pure experience’ or that silence negates the need for words. This is to treat silence as an escape.

For two thousand years the Christian Church has been in disagreement over what it means to be a Christian. In many ways, this is what unites the Church. The Church is a community of argument, and what they argue about is how to best use a set of shared materials and practices. It’s like sharing a box of Lego bricks – the bricks being things like the Scriptures, doctrines and rituals – and arguing over how the bricks should fit together. I think it’s fair to say that the Quaker community is also a community of argument. The course of change within the Society has never been smooth, and I don’t think our new book of discipline will be trouble-free either. Inevitably, there will be some who leave the Society as a result of changes that are made, and this should grieve us all.

I hope that British Quakers can fully embrace being a community of argument. This will involve asking what we are in argument over. Perhaps our current disagreements are over what bricks should be in the Quaker box. We may wish to take the most difficult bricks out in order to minimise disagreement, but I don’t think inclusivity lies in ridding ourselves of difficult words or parts of our history. We may also want to just add more bricks to keep everyone happy, but then we need to ask how these bricks can fit into coherent patterns that we all have ownership of.

At BYM there were suggestions of keeping things relevant, and of removing archaic language. I quite like things that are archaic. Sometimes words, concepts and stories stick around for hundreds of years for good reasons. It is often the most contemporary things that quickly become dated (the Street Bible being a good example). This revision is a great opportunity to ask what underused resources from our past might serve us well today. Other communities are asking this question. The academic theological community has recently seen a resurgence of interest in patristics, the first 1000 years of Christianity that Quakers never talk about, using these old insights to address contemporary problems. Stories that are thousands of years old are being used to speak to contemporary issues amongst Quakers, such as Friend Peterson Toscano’s research on transgender people in the Bible. The early Quakers had tools that we could use in understanding our response to issues of privilege and power, as I have written about previously. Can we see the revision of the book of discipline, not as a shedding of an old skin, but as an opportunity to rummage through, add to, and reassemble our Lego collection?

The BYM epistle quotes Isaac Penington: ‘And the end of words is to bring men to the knowledge of things beyond what words can utter.’ The ‘end of words’ does not mean the literal demise of words. Words are not irrelevant. Penington is pointing out that words have a very important purpose. They are indispensable tools,  and I look forward to playing my part in helping my Quaker family use them well.

[Edit: I originally wrote ‘we are certainly not diverse in other ways, such as race or class,’ but have been reminded that to repeat the trope that ‘Quakers are all white and middle class’ ignores the diversity you can find in local Quaker meetings, so I deleted that sentence. When taken as a whole Yearly Meeting, I don’t believe we are as representative as we could be, and we should work to make our structures *inclusive* as well as diverse, ensuring that the white, middle class voice is not the dominant one.]

24 thoughts on “Words and Wounds: Reflections from Britain Yearly Meeting”

  1. Thank you for this, Mark! I really enjoyed YM too, was sorry to have to leave on Sunday afternoon, and very excited about the prospect of the revision and the opportunities it offers for growing, deepening, nurturing, renewing, and exploring together what the words we use really mean to ourselves and to others…

  2. Thank you Mark. I wasn’t able to attend YM, so appreciate catching a flavour from your post. As ever, your words are thoughtful and wise. I agree with you that there needs to be an engagement with potentially divisive words, & liked your thoughts on vulnerability.

  3. Thanks Mark for your thoughtful and positive response. Words are our way of interpreting our experince but in the deep place, we come to know God’s love for each and everyone of us. This is the wonder and joy.

  4. Thanks for this, Mark. I enjoyed our conversations over the weekend and it is good to read some of your thoughts collected in one place so I can think them through again.

    We spoke about archaisms last night in our Becoming Friends group at Westminster (the topic was ‘speaking of God’, for which YM and our chats over the weekend were excellent preparation!) I think you and I also have talked about them on Sunday. My feeling is that their value is found precisely in their unfamiliarity, which jolts us out of what we think we understand and forces us to think about the content of our traditions. I would rather try to integrate these more difficult ideas with the ones I happen to prefer than dismiss them altogether and construct Quakerism in my own image.

    ‘Sin’ and ‘evil’ were mentioned last night as two examples of words which you don’t hear very much in Quakerism, and yet they are central to the Christian tradition, including to some of its worst, power-soaked corruptions. It doesn’t seem to me that George Fox and the early Friends dismissed these words, or edited them out of their theology. Instead, it seems to me that they tried to remain aware of the real phenomena which they represented, and to seek other ways to orient themselves and their beliefs in relation to this awareness of wrong.

    Someone in our group said to me that they didn’t want to follow a God that they feared, and it struck me that I shared that feeling. For me, pangs of conscience provoked by evil and sin and inadequacy in myself and the world are a frequent and inconvenient experience. I often turn away from them, and feel shame when I do so; to be broken open every time I experience them would overpower me. I’m sure most people experience these pangs, and it seems to me that they are often either turned inward into shame, or explode outward into anger and the corrupting search for power over others.

    But if I deaden my awareness to these difficult ideas completely, and dismiss them as archaisms, then I both dismiss the wholeness of the past Christians and Quakers who gave them to us, and give up the potential to be broken open by them. I think the fear and power of sin and evil can be harnessed if they are tempered by love and forgiveness, but not if they are denied.

    For me, such ‘archaisms’ should prompt reflection, because they reflect attempts by humans to come to terms with the human condition, by which I mean the basic structural flaws in the universe which frame how we experience our existence – mortality, the decline of our health with age, the awareness of random and unearned suffering, and so on. Our sense of the human condition evolves, because (for example) social and technological change have altered the ways in which life is precarious, and for whom. But it doesn’t go away, and to dispose of these ‘archaic’ concepts is to deprive ourselves of the wisdom our ancestors have left us to deal with it.

    Terms like these will come up during the revision process. I hope we will not seek to banish them and deny them, but to renew them and harness them.

    1. Thanks Ben for taking the time to read my blog. I really appreciate your thoughts on this. I think the point you make about unfamiliarity is really important. The ‘otherness’ of Scripture is real challenge to the way we live now. I saw this on Twitter today: “One of the greatest enemies of truth is clarity” — T. F. Torrance.
      For myself, the way through inward shame or outward anger is a complete divesting of faith in my own goodness. I feel I know understand what Jesus meant when he said ‘no one is good except God’. God is goodness, and any good we enjoy is participation in God. If I try and maintain that I am good apart from God, then any revelation of my own moral failings will cause me tremendous frustration. Once I dropped the need to be or appear a good person (although I still struggle with appearances), and instead be a fallen, faithful person (both simultaneously a sinner and saint) a huge weight was lifted.
      I think Quakers are generally so ill-versed in the language of evil and sin that we don’t realise how to use those concepts properly. My investigations into evil always lead me back to the goodness of creation, and thinking about sin always leads me to grace. If we really take the time to educate ourselves, there’s a wealth of theological material that could be so helpful to us. Often liberal Quakers seem to think that our honouring of individual experience means we have to make everything up from scratch – modernist individualism in action!

  5. Thanks for this Mark which came to me in Spain via twitter!
    I have passed details of your post to David Boulton who is doing a ‘stand-up’ (only joking) with Rhiannon Grant on the BBC: BBC are going ahead with The Big Questions TV programme this coming Sunday (10am on BBC 1), asking whether religion needs God, with particular reference to the theist/nontheist dialogue among Quakers, and the decision to revise the Red Book made at YM last weekend.
    I wasn’t able to attend BYM this year but hope I will be able to see this programme just before my little meeting for worship (2 of us) at 10.30 or 11 (BST) in Spain.

    1. Thanks for reading Trevor. One of the points made at BYM by the Revision Preparation Group was the need to speak about ‘religious difference/diversity of belief’ rather than the polarity of theist/nontheist, so I hope that our internal differences can be framed in those terms on The Big Questions.

      1. Thanks Mark. I hope so too. As you know, Rhiannon is on the RPG and David was on the think tank which led to ‘God, words and Us’ so I’m sure they will frame the discussion in that way.
        What we don’t know is how the TV presenters will handle it – will they be sympathetic and kindly or will they seek to be provocative in ways which might be unhelpful. (Your remarks about ‘vulnerability’ might be relevant here). We’ll just have to wait and see but I think both David (with his TV background and Rhiannon are equipped to handle the presenters well!

  6. As an American Friend (for many years, not right now)I remember reflecting that each denomination has a shadow side. I think among Quakers anger is the shadow hidden behind the peace testimony. I knew many very angry Friends who espoused peace in general but struggled with rage individually. I think that the discomfort with disagreement is a result of trying to squash the shadow side and “just get along.” True peace and true consensus have to include a range of emotions before it is achieved, I think.

  7. Mark, Thanks to Martin Kelley, The Quaker Ranter, here in the States, I’ve enjoyed reading what BYM has been considering and your thoughtful reflections. My wife and I, members of the other BYM, Baltimore Yearly Meeting, were pleased to participate in your 2017 YM. We American Quakers have deep roots in liberal, conservative and evangelical traditions. Those of us of the liberal, un-programmed tradition will follow your book of discipline revision committee’s discernment with great interest, with especial balance to our ancestors’ wisdom and limited worldviews. Faith, Patience, Persistence in the Light.

  8. I had to smile when I read this: “What do we say to a Friend who shares their experience of contacting the dead?”…….because this Friend has done exactly that, so I can tell you what the reaction was in my own LM.

    For those with the necessary sensitivity encountering the dead in spirit form is a fairly routine experience. For me its not every day, but it happens. And when it does happen, I will spend time talking to the spirit, and encouraging them to move to the Light, where they can be helped, healed…..i.e. move on with their “life”. That I regard as a simple loving action for people who stuck in a difficult and usually bewildering situation. The task has a formal name – that of “psychopomp”. Its also good for the living, since the dead in ghost form can do a deal of harm – not because they are “evil spirits” (as some like to think), but because they are “lost souls” in desperate need of love and care – and they will, in their lostness, attach themselves to places or people to get comfort and help if they can. And while spirits in buildings (i.e. “ghosts”) are well known and generally harmless, the other case of spirits being attached to people’s psyche can produce a wide variety of effects – from draining of the person’s energy to having a malign and destructive influence on the person.

    What my own LM said following some ministry where I shared some of my experiences of this work, was initially a respectful silence (what else would you expect!?) – but followed of course by much curiosity and many questions at the end of that meeting. So many in fact, that I ended up inviting anyone who wanted to know more, back to my house for dinner at a later date. That duly took place, and I would say there were a wide range of reactions. Some Friends were disturbed by the whole idea, this being entirely outside their own experience. Others were intrigued – and I think just noted it for future reference. One person, who practices acupuncture, just said “Oh, yes, I get clients with this problem, and I also set the person and attached spirit free from each other.”

    I think Friends need to be aware that their spiritual experience, while deep and genuine, is also pretty limited in some ways. We know the physical world is vast, complex and we are still only aware of a small part of that complexity. The spiritual world is similarly vast and complex – and just because Friends haven’t experienced something, it doesn’t mean it ain’t happening!

    1. Thanks for reading the blog Richard, and for sharing your experiences. These are important conversations for Friends to engage in, as they throw up lots of questions that we don’t normally spend time on, such as: do we have a shared cosmology that allows for these experiences?; what do we think happens after death?; do we believe in non-human spiritual forces both good and malign?; what does it mean to be in a religious community that disagrees about these matters?

  9. I’ve only just caught up with your blog about BYM so please forgive the late contribution.

    I agree with everything you say. There’s a smugness about some Quaker statements which gets up my nose. I particularly bridle at two inscribed paving slabs in the walkway to Friends House, one of which boasts about the Quakers pioneering the steam railway and the other of which boasts about disinvesting in fossil fuels! We need to be more open to our mistakes and, as you say, the tensions, difficulty and outright pain which necessarily accompany the life of a community or individual, and, let’s face it, will be part of the process of revising QF&P, wonderful though that will be. In this context, no doubt you’re familiar with Rowan Williams’ book “The Wound of Knowledge.”

    On the question of the spiritual life going beyond words I particularly like Caroline Stephen’s passage at 2.39 of QF&P. She, herself no slouch in the wordsmith department, wrote “In the united stillness of a truly ‘gathered’ meeting there is a power known only by experience, and mysterious even when most familiar.”

    1. Thanks Mark, and thanks for flagging up the Rowan Williams. I’ve seen it on the library bookshelf but not delved in. I’ll add it to my reading list!

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