JollyQuaker.com began in 2013 as a space to process and share my thoughts on Quaker theology. The name is inspired by ‘A Testament of Devotion’ by the Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly, one of the first books on Quaker spirituality I read. Kelly writes ‘I’d rather be jolly Saint Francis singing his canticle to the sun, than a dour sobersides Quaker.’ I don’t want to have to make a choice, so I’m a jolly Quaker.
A Quaker-shaped Christian
I grew up in a non-religious family, but intense experiences of spiritual joy in my late teens set me on a path of religious discovery. Joy was my doorway to the religious life. C. S. Lewis, another writer who has shaped my theology, said that ‘joy is the serious business of heaven.’ In the Quakers I found a community I could step through the doorway with, and became a member of the Religious Society of Friends when I was 20.
The Quaker/St. Francis combination also speaks to my seeing Quakerism as part of the larger Christian tradition. I think of myself as a ‘Quaker-shaped Christian’ and a member of the universal Church. The Jesus story is how I make sense of my life and the world, and Quakerism is the lens through which I interpret the Jesus story. My theology has an ecumenical focus. I want to communicate a life-giving form of Christianity to my fellow Quakers, and offer the best of Quaker thought and spirituality to the wider Christian church.
If joy was my doorway to God, then the key that unlocked the door was my coming out as gay. When I was able to accept my sexuality, and love my whole self, I was able to love God. My queer experience of the self, the world and God is another foundation of my theology. I find the Spirit of Freedom (2 Cor. 3:17) in queer spaces, on the dancefloor of the gay nightclub, and in the love of my LGBT+ community. My faith is also queer in that I fully embrace the crossing of boundaries and muddying of waters. I’m too queer for the Christians, and too Christian for the Quakers, so I experiment with creating a joyful blend all of my own, exploring other streams of faith such as Franciscan and nature-based spiritualities. Appropriately, ‘jolly’ was a code word for gay in the early 20th century, so I’m a jolly Quaker in more ways than one.
As well as joy, my queer experience and the Jesus story, another foundation of my theology is community. I love being with others, whether that’s singing, dancing, eating or worshipping. ‘How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!’ (Psalm 133:1). When we are together in mutual joy, we taste the Blessed Community to which God calls us. My spiritual journey has been one of intense yearning for this kind of community, a deeper togetherness than the shallow “pseudo-community” I see all around me. This led me to explore various forms of ‘intentional’ community, where people commit to sharing with one another, whether that’s through eating together, praying together or living and working together. For many years I was part of a young Quaker Bible study group, and I’m now part of a very queer “Peacemeal” ecumenical house group. My husband and I spent a year travelling, having a “purposeful adventure”, which included living and working at the Quaker Intentional Village, Canaan (NY, USA) and the Othona Community, Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex. In these sorts of communities, we learned the hardest and most important lessons about ourselves and God.
These experiences of God springing from queer joy and community led me to ask many questions about the Divine, Jesus, and what it means to live a Spirit-led life. These questions formed a path, and in walking that path I discovered my ministry as a theologian. I think theology is something most people do. Anyone who tries to make sense of life, the universe and everything, who wonders about the Divine Mystery, is doing theology. But not everyone has the time to think about these questions in great detail, and this is something I feel led to do.
My interest in theology was kindled by a course in Applied Christian Studies called “Workshop” pioneered by Noel Moules. Then, after a number of years as a music teacher, I was led to change careers. From 2015-2022 I worked as a Programmes Coordinator at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham, England, teaching and facilitating learning for Quakers around the world. I completed a MA in Systematic and Philosophical Theology at the University of Nottingham, and was awarded a distinction. My dissertation was titled ‘Towards a Quaker Theology of Hope: postmodern Quaker eschatology through the lens of narrative.’ This work led to the publication of my first article in an academic journal (Quaker Studies, 2020), and laid the groundwork for my first book, ‘Quaker Shaped Christianity: How the Jesus story and the Quaker Way fit together’ (Christian Alternative, 2022). In 2022, I began a full-time PhD at the University of Nottingham and Centre for Research in Quaker Studies, funded by the Midlands4Cities Doctoral Training Partnership, researching the liberal Quaker theology of the human being and how this helps or hinders the Quaker hope for a future of racial justice.
As a theologian, my interests include hope, eschatology (theology of ‘final things’), the book of Revelation and apocalypticism, queer spirituality, intentional community, the roots and early years of Liberal Quakerism (1890-1930), postliberal theology, the theology of Jürgen Moltmann, theological anthropology (theology of the human person) and whiteness. Above all, I’m interested in offering useful theology, theology that gives possible answers or at least helps us ask better questions. Theology is ‘words about God’, and I think the words and ideas we use to make sense of our religious experience matter. Making sure these words and ideas do their job properly is time well spent. Some theology can be obscure, highly technical and irrelevant. There’s a lot of theology that is damaging and dangerous. But the answer to bad theology isn’t no theology, it’s better theology. So I hope to offer words and ideas about God that are readable, useful and make sense, as part of the larger theological community.
Before I was a theologian I was a musician, and it was my enjoyment of music that first consciously opened me to a deeper spiritual reality, to God. After a childhood of piano and viola lessons, I studied music at the University of Birmingham, specialising in composition and contemporary European classical music. I trained as a secondary music teacher, but quickly found myself working in primary schools in East London specialising as a singing leader. I rediscovered a love of academia, studying part-time for an MA in Music Education at the Institute of Education (IoE), and gaining a distinction for my research into primary school children’s musical identities. As a conductor I’ve worked with a variety of ensembles, particular highlights being Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D Minor and Handel’s opera ‘Imeneo’. My compositions include ‘The Quaking Pulse’ for full orchestra, ‘As the Gowans Grow’ for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble, and the 90-minute cantata ‘The Nayler Passion’ premiered at the Birmingham Conservatoire in 2013 by the Quaker arts organisation ‘the Leaveners’. Although I’m not as involved in music as I used to be, music remains an important source of joy in my life, whether that’s singing, dancing or watching the Eurovision Song Contest.