Leaving Quaker Meeting and Discovering Queer Faith

A few days before Christmas 2022 I realised it was time to leave my local Quaker meeting.

At the time it felt like an abrupt decision. I was only one year into my role as an elder of the meeting, and I was helping plan a meeting weekend away, and news of my leaving took some Friends by surprise. Now that my goodbyes have been said and loose ends tied up, the crisis point I reached in December was clearly part of a longer process, a process gestating for years but which took on greater momentum last summer.

I should say at the outset this was not the result of a conflict or personal falling out. There was no breakdown of relationship or harsh words. There are people in the meeting I have old friendships with, and people I feel a strong spiritual connection to. Leaving wasn’t without sadness. This post is about my own spiritual journey and isn’t a judgment on the faithfulness of others.

My decision to leave was fed by interconnected roots. I’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to be a Christian in Britain Yearly Meeting at a local level. This difficulty comes from feeling unintelligible, like I’m speaking another language. The more I express myself in Christian terms, the less I’m understood. (I wrote about this last year in response to some Quakers asking to drop the word ‘worship’.) The ‘grammar’ of my Christianity increasingly conflicts with the ‘grammar’ of the post-Christian pluralism that predominates amongst Quakers in Britain.

I also made a characteristic mistake in committing myself to a faith community out of a sense of duty rather than love. I’ve done this before. Part of my personality is to see problems in a community and throw myself into fixing them. I take on responsibilities thinking they’ll help me know the community better and so deepen my commitment, but I eventually realise I’m serving a community I may have some affection for but don’t care about in a deep way. A relationship without love isn’t a sustainable one for using my gifts.

Considering this feeling of theological isolation and committing myself out of a self-imposed sense of duty, it’s unsurprising that my local meeting has rarely been a source of spiritual nourishment for me. My religious journey is shaped by a search for deep expressions of faith community, and I’ve worked hard to find spiritual support outside the surface level ‘pseudo-community’ that characterises many churches and Quaker meetings. I have a spiritual director, go on retreats, occasional go to services at cathedrals. As a member of staff at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre for 7 years, I was spiritually fed through working with Quaker groups, with people coming together expecting the Spirit to do something among them.

In the summer of 2022, I knew my time at Woodbrooke would shortly come to an end when I began the isolated life of a fulltime PhD student in the autumn. It was perhaps this knowledge that sparked one of the most spiritually electric periods of my life. I’ve long had a patchwork approach to my faith out of necessity. When you’re too Christian for Quakers and too gay for the Anglicans you just have to muddle something together that works. Now that I was moving on from one of the most spiritually fulfilling jobs of my life, my patchwork faith was yearning to expand and fill the gap. I felt like a seeker again, but this wasn’t a return to the start of my spiritual journey. Instead, it felt like turning the corner of a labyrinth. I found myself facing the same direction as when I consciously embarked on my journey 20 years ago, but with a sense of experience, confidence and all the gifts those decades have blessed me with.

An intense longing for God welled up in me, a desire that waxed and waned in intensity, oscillating between pleasure and pain, serenity and frustration, and sometimes manifesting as a physical ache in my chest. When I was first a seeker in my early 20s, I wasn’t sure what I believed. All I needed was a space to explore my spirituality where my sexuality wasn’t an issue, and Quakers offered this in spades. Now, further along the labyrinth, I’ve several tried and tested treasures that can’t be abandoned. These are Christ my corner stone and guiding star, and the Quaker tradition that has formed me.

Sometimes Quakers speak of seeking as if it needs a blank slate, an abandoning of any certainties. To describe myself as committed to Christ and Quakerism yet still being a seeker might sound contradictory, but in my experience finding and seeking go hand in hand. My familiar faith in Christ remains, but I’m continually discovering the depths of who Christ is. I’m learning experimentally (in the old Quaker sense of ‘through experience’) that seeking, yearning, thirsting is an inherent part of my Christian faith. ‘As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God’ (Psalm 42:1-2). The 4th century bishop Gregory of Nyssa wrote that finding God only fires an ever greater desire for God, for in God there is no limit: ‘This truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in the desire to see [God].’[1] Julian of Norwich writes that in God there is ‘a quality of thirst and longing’: ‘For this is Christ’s spiritual thirst, his longing in love, which persists and always will until we see him on the day of judgment… Therefore this is his thirst and his longing in love for us, to gather us all here into him, to our endless joy.’[2] To thirst for God is to participate in God’s thirst for us, just as Quaker worship has been described as a response ‘to the God who first seeks us’ (Qf&p 2.01).

This thirst found expression in a desire to be in nature. The linden tree-lined path of my local park was already my monastic cloister, having been my daily escape during the national lockdowns of 2020. Now sitting under the oak trees took on an intense spiritual resonance. I began to see the trees as fellow ‘persons’ in the community of creation, as having a spirituality of their own. I learned to identify the different species. Being in the park, paying attention to tree bark and the sunlight through the leaf canopy, became a physical prayer. This has inspired me to explore Druid spirituality, particularly the ‘Wheel of the Year’ which celebrates the natural markers of the seasons, and their understanding of an enchanted cosmos.

This thirst also prompted me to create a dedicated space for prayer in my home. On the top of a dark wooden shelving unit I arranged candles, stones, a wooden prayer cross and a selection of icons and postcards. The results were astonishing. An altar collecting together meaningful objects and symbols has revolutionised my prayer life. I’ve long struggled to keep any regular or disciplined pattern of prayer, but having a beautiful corner of my home for the express purpose of spending time with God has inspired me to pray each morning and evening. There’s a tradition within Quakerism of seeing such ‘props’ as at worst an obstacle and at best unnecessary, but I’ve discovered the glow of an icon in candlelight opens me to the Spirit in a very special way.

This thirst has opened me to the power of set prayers. I still value and practice silent contemplation but I’ve also grown to appreciate the power of words, particularly those which are poetically crafted. I’ve created my own ‘daily office’ of morning and evening prayer, combining favourite prayers like the words of ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’ with prayers from Annie Heppenstall’s ‘Uncommon Prayer.’ I’m experimenting with speaking of God in feminine and gender-neutral ways and conceiving of God in non-human terms: sheltering in the darkness of God my Cave, resting in the shade of Christ the Oak, Holy Wisdom as an Otter playing in the waters of God’s love.

I thirst for community. For a long time I’ve yearned for Christian community that provides accountability as well as love and encouragement, but always struggled to find it. This kind of accountability seems alien to contemporary Quaker sensibilities, so I’ve explored the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis, an Anglican lay order. With the help of my spiritual director I’m experimenting with a Rule of Life along Franciscan lines. I’m a person that thrives within structure and routine, a creature of habit in a monastic sense. There’s an earthy practicality to Franciscan spirituality that resonates with me, even if I find Francis of Assisi himself inspiring and frustrating in equal measure.

With all this talk of altars, the daily office, Druidry and Saint Francis, am I still Quaker? I think the answer is ‘yes, but…’ After 20 years of Quakerism how could I not be one? I’m Quaker shaped, perhaps irreversibly. Maybe I’m the kind of Quaker that doesn’t make much sense anymore in the post-Christian pluralism of Quakers in Britain. But I’m following the leadings of the Spirit, which seems like a quintessentially Quaker thing to do.

In leaving my meeting I’m finally able to name the character of my ministry. In talking about my faith as ‘patchwork’, I wonder if I’ve been treating it as a way of ‘making do’, a ‘second best’ until a faith community that really works for me comes along. But what if my patchwork blanket isn’t temporary, but a creative and queer thing of beauty in itself? Something is queer if it smudges and transgresses boundaries. Queerness takes stone walls and reveals them to be lines drawn in the sand. Queerness asks: Who drew these lines and who do they serve? Queerness delights in the blurring of edges and shows how joy and creative energy can be found in the in-between places. So a queer approach to faith is to embrace loose ends and trespass across supposedly unpassable borders, and say this is a legitimate spiritual path. It’s not clear where this path will take me, hopefully to a place where the God revealed in Jesus is worshipped and I can be my whole queer self. In the meantime – which may be my lifetime – my testimony is to a God who can’t be contained by any denomination, to Christ the Vine who outgrows any trellis we might construct, to Christ the Mustard Seed who subverts the neatness of our gardens, to the queer three-person’d God whom my heart passionately thirsts for.

[Featured image photo by Cecilie Johnsen on Unsplash]

[1] Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson, The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 116.

[2] Julian of Norwich, Showings, trans. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 230–31.

23 thoughts on “Leaving Quaker Meeting and Discovering Queer Faith”

  1. The great religions are ships;
    poets the lifeboats.
    Every sane person I know
    has jumped overboard.

    Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muḥammad Ḥāfeẓ-e Shīrāzī (pen name Hafiz)
    Born in Shiraz, Iran in 1325

      1. I would love to establish communication with you-I see you are fully subscribed in studies but if a sort of Anam Cara would support your spirit please feel free to email me.
        In Faith & love,

  2. Blessings on this spiritual sojourn, Mark. Continue to trust that God will lead you to where you need to be. Everything you need will be available to you in God’s right time.
    Mary Linda

  3. Dear Mark Thank you for your brave, honest, challenging reflection. I well understand all that you say. I read your Quaker-shaped Christianity with great interest, have recommended it to others and shall read it again. Yours is an important voice; keep blogging, keep publishing. Every best wish for the next leg of the journey. Go with God.


  4. Wishing you the very best, Mark, with your journey and future
    adventures. So very much hope our paths will continue to cross. So will you keep blogging? JollyQuaker? Much love, Axxx

    1. Thanks Augene. I’ve not sad goodbye to Quakerism so I’m sure we’ll see each other before too long. And I’ll definitely keep blogging! xx

  5. Mark, I’m glad to see that our mutual friend Jeanne-Marie Mudd has already responded.
    I count myself a Conservative (“Wilburite”) Friend, as I may have told you, and I worship regularly both with American Conservative Friends, though I haven’t yet transferred my membership to a Conservative YM, and also with Friends of Jesus Christ in Great Britain (https://plainquakers.org/). You may already have explored affiliation with Friends of Jesus Christ in Great Britain, and if so, please know that I respect your judgment about them, whatever it may be. But if you haven’t, please consider them.
    Please know also that I’ve been self-identifying as “Queer” for some time, though my own lifestyle has been straight and monogamous for decades, and I am now, by the Lord’s grace, celibate. I believe that our Lord, Jesus Christ, both calls all humans to obedience in all areas of their lives, including sexuality and including the inner fantasy-life, and enables and empowers that obedience, which in effect abolishes any distinction between Queer and non-Queer. (Such is my reading of Acts 17:30: “God… now commands everyone everywhere to repent:” God does not command the impossible! Let each believer discern what repentance God calls them to, and submit to Christ’s easy yoke of learning obedience.)
    The bottom line of this message is: please consider me thy Quaker Friend forever.

  6. When I was 18 and leaving the Roman Catholic faith my mother, an everyday mass Catholic and more) asked if I would go see a local Monsignor who ran a local college. He was also the advisor to the Bishop for Vatican 2, so I knew he was at least somewhat liberal. I explained to him that I believed in doing all the good things that the Church believed in doing, and found the Church to be an impediment. His response was “Hank, God doesn’t care. You and I will be doing the same things, one in the Church and one not. That’s what matters.” He helped change the course of my life by showing me the right perspective in going forward. It’s about doing as led, not about the 4 walls one is in while doing.

  7. Mark, I hadn’t read this yet when I saw you just now. This is such a touching and loving statement of your faith. You have been on this path for a while, and I look forward to seeing where it takes you. As I said to you just now, be good to yourself. We need you.

  8. Good luck. My brother will, and I do, have much sympathy with your discerning. We’ve been there! Nowadays it’s a question (for me) of valuing Quaker tradition and values, certainly, yet paying little attention to the institutional SoF. It’s troubles seem so petty to me. So many Quakers seem out of touch; their atheism, non-theism so pointless. What’s important for me these days is what I had discovered way back in the late 60 and early 70s–the Kingdom of God (the Sermons on the Mount and Plain, and their Beatitudes), mysticism both east and west, and silence and contemplative prayer. My trying to find the right community has largely failed. So I’ve decided not to try, to let go, and trust that it’ll turn up some day. I’ll keep you in my thoughts and prayers.

  9. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself here, Mark. I hope you find the community/ies you need and the ways of worship that fit your leadings. I also hope very much to keep in touch with you!

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