Do Quakers have souls? (Threshings #1)

This is the first in a short series of theological ‘threshings’. In the Quaker tradition, threshing is a lively process of getting to the heart of an issue, separating the wheat from the chaff. When a theological problem bugs me, I want to thresh it out! I may not come up with an answer, but hopefully I’ll bring out some important points. If the word ‘theology’ puts you off, think of theology as a tool that should improve the way we talk about our religious and spiritual experience. It’s not about giving definitive answers, it’s about speaking with integrity in an informed and inspiring way.

Do Quakers have souls? You may think the answer is ‘obviously yes’, or you may think this question is akin to ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’. I hope to show that this question isn’t merely abstract speculation, but actually impacts on how we live our lives.

The problem with being two things (dualism)

I have become increasingly interested in what it means to ‘have a soul’. I think many people take it as read that the religious understanding of what it means to be a human is that we are a body inhabited with a soul or spirit – an invisible thing that is the real ‘self’. However, two things have gotten me thinking that this could be quite a problematic belief.

The first involves my experience as a gay person. Attending an evangelical church, I once asked for prayer concerning my sexuality. I had the opportunity to travel to a country where homosexuality was prohibited, requiring me to go back in the closet. I wasn’t sure I was able to do this. One of the people praying over me said words to the effect that my true identity in Christ wasn’t located in my sexuality. There was a sense that somehow the ‘real’ me could be separated from the ‘gay’ me. Afterwards, I thought ‘that was a really ‘straight man’ thing to pray!’ In my experience, I can’t make that separation. My original coming-out at 17 was accompanied by an intense spiritual coming-out. I was only able to embrace a relationship with God once I was honest about who I was. So for me, I can’t separate ‘gay’ me from ‘real’ me; and what would it mean to be gay without a body?

The second involves my on-going exploration of what it means to be white. I have increasingly come to realise that being a white body has impacted on my experience of the world. Like being gay, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be something other than a white body. However, in conversations with some white Quakers, one of the barriers to recognising the impact of whiteness on our experience is the belief that our true self is located in an invisible soul, that our most real self is purely spiritual: ‘I am not my body, therefore I am not effected by colour, and I don’t see colour. We are all truly colourless.’ For a white person, one of the effects of white privilege is never having to realise you’re white. Might a belief in the true self being an invisible, disembodied soul be tied up with this?

the_soul_revisiting_he_body_in_the_tomb-_28190229_-_timea
Original source: Budge, E. A. Wallace. “The Nile: Notes for Travellers in Egypt.” (Harrison and Sons, London: 1902). p. 161.

A Christian argument for being one thing (physicalism)

In my reading on the subject, I came across a book by Nancy Murphy[1] that provides an excellent overview of the topic from a Christian point of view.

Murphy presents four possible views of what it is to be a human (and I reckon you’d find Quakers in all four camps):

  1. physicalism – we have only one ‘part’, the body.
  2. dualism – we are made up of two parts: body-soul, or body-mind.
  3. trichotomism – we are made up of three parts: body, soul and spirit
  4. monism (or idealism) – that we are only truly mind or spirit.

Which view does the Bible take? Interestingly, Murphy says that ‘the Bible has no clear teaching’ concerning the composition of a human person.[2] This has allowed for a variety of opinions throughout Christian history. However, it’s now widely agreed that in the Hebrew Bible there is no body-soul dualism. The New Testament is not so clear, but certainly Paul’s distinction between spirit and flesh should not be interpreted as a distinction between body and soul: ‘Paul is concerned with two ways of living: one in conformity with the Spirit of God, and the other in conformity to the old aeon before Christ.’[3]

Murphy argues that ‘dualist anthropology all too easily leads to disparagement of the body and all that goes along with being embodied.’[4] When we separate soul from body the material world (including the body) becomes less important. Murphy also suggests that ‘the change from a dualist to a physicalist anthropology… calls for serious reconsideration of traditional understandings of Christian spirituality. From Augustine to the present we have had a conception of the self that distinguishes the inner life from the outer, and spirituality has been associated largely with the inner.’[5] I find this fascinating from a Quaker perspective. British liberal Quakers are very comfortable with speaking of the ‘inward’ and the ‘outward’. Our rejection of ‘outward forms’ could be seen as a rejection of the material world, saying that the spiritual is somehow more real than the physical. Yet we’re also a community who say we want climate and racial justice, things very much concerned with the physical and the embodied. With our idolising of theological diversity combined with our reluctance to actually discuss this diversity, such a confusion is not surprising!

Murphy concludes by suggesting that ‘one could be a body-soul dualist while avoiding an excessively inward-looking spirituality. In fact, some of the greatest writers on inwardness did so… So the strongest point I can make here is to claim… that physicalism – along with an eschatological hope for resurrection of the body – leads more naturally to a concern for the physical world and its transformation than does dualism.’[6] Murphy believes that physicalism – the view we are one thing, a spirited body – is much less problematic than dualism. She also offers something that is probably alien to most British Quakers – the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body. This is the belief that at the end of time, all will be raised from the dead to face judgement. This teaching says that when we die, our disembodied souls don’t go to heaven to live on a cloud. Rather, we await God’s justice and a new life as a resurrected body. I don’t think British Quakers will be quick to revisit and take up this doctrine, which makes me wonder what a contemporary and well thought out Quaker understanding of the human person would look like.

illustrations_to_robert_blair27s_the_grave_2c_object_9_the_soul_hovering_over_the_body
from William Blake’s illustrations to Robert Blair’s The Grave , object 9 The Soul Hovering over the Body

Some thoughts from Thomas Aquinas

On the subject of the soul, I’ve been quite taken with the thinking of Thomas Aquinas,[7] the medieval theologian. He has two things to say that British Quakers might find attractive.

First, he said that the soul is not something we have, it’s something we are. If you have something, you can give it away and still be you. If you are something, then you can’t be separated from it. Well, he said that the soul could be separated from the body after death, but it wouldn’t be up to much. How would it see without eyes? How would it think without a brain? For Aquinas, the soul without a body is a rather useless thing.

Secondly, he said that everything that lives is a soul. Everything that is animate has a soul (‘soul’ in Latin is anima). He said that there are three aspects to the human soul. There’s the vegetative aspect (that respires, takes in nutrients, grows etc.) that we share with tomatoes, oaks, lichen and dahlias. There’s the animal aspect that we share with badgers, bees and whales, and there’s the rational aspect that belongs to humans. This view of the soul brings us into relationship with all living things – it’s not just the preserve of humans!

Keep on threshing…

So I agree with Murphy that body-soul dualism is problematic. It limits our ability to understand the way being a body shapes our experience of the world, and can create a disdain for the physical that is at odds with a pursuit of material wellbeing for all things. I think that physicalism – the understanding that we are one, indivisible thing – helps to address this problem. I’m also increasingly into the resurrection of the body, but I know I’m out on a limb with that one as far as British Quakers are concerned! There are lots of questions still to think about – how is physicalism compatible with Quaker spirituality and the inward/outward distinction we often make? What about the experience of those who live with chronic pain whose relationship with the body is a tremendously difficult one? What about the experience of the elderly who sense a growing disconnect from the body? Constructing a modern Quaker anthropology is too big a job for this blog post, and I look forward to reading a future book about it! Hopefully this post has raised some interesting questions. I’m very interested to know what you think about it – what do you think you’re made up of? How do your beliefs about the body/soul/spirit effect how you live? so please comment below!

[1] Nancey C. Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?, Current Issues in Theology (Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[2] Murphy, 4.

[3] Murphy, 22.

[4] Murphy, 27.

[5] Murphy, 30.

[6] Murphy, 35.

[7] Denys Turner, ‘The Human Person’, in The Cambridge Companion to The               Summa Theologiae, ed. Philip McCosker and Denys Turner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 168–80.

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Living Adventurously in a Dangerous World

I’ve written a piece for the Woodbrooke Learning Blog on how religion at its best teaches us to live adventurously in a dangerous world. You can find it here. The Woodbrooke blog unfortunately has no comments facility, so feel free to comment on it here. Enjoy!

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.

caravaggio_-_the_incredulity_of_saint_thomas
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.]

Thank you to my readers

Dear readers and followers of Jolly Quaker,

2017 has, in one way or another, been a challenging year for me, but blogging continues to be one of my chief joys.

I write this blog for myself. It helps me organise and articulate my thoughts. The act of writing a post and putting it out there is always cathartic. In many ways it’s a spiritual practice.

That said, I really appreciate others taking the time to read and comment on what I write. It’s incredibly affirming, and when people politely disagree with me I enjoy the challenge to articulate my thoughts better, or to reevaluate my own opinions.

I’m hoping that 2018 will yield a bumper crop of Jolly Quaker posts as I continue the Advices and Queries series, which are proving very popular, and are so enjoyable to write.

So thank you for following the blog, re-tweeting my tweets and for reading, liking and commenting on my posts.

As the days in the Northern Hemisphere begin to grow lighter, I wish you a happy Christmas (if marking Christmas is your thing) and a Light-led 2018.

O come, O come, thou Dayspring bright!
Pour on our souls thy healing light;
Dispel the long night’s lingering gloom,
And pierce the shadows of the tomb.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

‘I’m religious, not spiritual’: Postliberalism for Quakers

In this post I’m going to get rather theological. Hopefully in a clear and understandable way. I recently wrote an essay for my theology MA, exploring the modern Western theological movement known as postliberalism. I’d like to have a go at explaining it in a less technical way, whilst also reflecting on what it might have to say to liberal Quakers This 40 year old movement is mainly associated with the academic theologians George Lindbeck, Hans Frei and Stanley Hauerwas, and has proved so influential that it permeates the thinking of popular theologians such as Nadia Bolz-Weber, Brian McLaren and Shane Claiborne. It turns out I’ve been breathing the air of postliberalism for quite some time – New Monasticism could be thought of as a postliberal off-shoot.

Already this might sound quite heavy, but I’m going to try and explain it as plainly as I can.

What is liberalism?

Before getting to postliberalism (meaning after liberalism), it’s worth spending time on what we mean by liberalism. I suspect most of us use it when talking about politics or social attitudes. Modern British Quakers are sometimes described as liberal Quakers.

In theological terms, liberalism is a Western Protestant movement beginning in the 19th Century, having its roots in the thinking of German theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher, sometimes called the ‘Father of modern liberal theology.’

Liberal theology is concerned with taking the discoveries of science and philosophy – what might be called ‘extra-theological sources‘ – and reforming and re-shaping Christian theology in the light of these discoveries.

Liberal theology is also concerned with universals, particularly universal religious experience. This is the idea that religious experience is common to all people, across all cultures. It sees this as:

  • the source of religious truth – (we know something is religiously true if it conforms to our inward religious experience),
  • the heart of religious practice – (the ceremony and rituals are merely ‘window dressing’) – and
  • the basis of ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue – (all religions are essentially the same, as they all have this universal religious experience at their core).

william_blake_all_religions_a_are_one_victoria_and_albert_museum

What is postliberalism?

One of postliberalism’s important features is its criticism of the liberal idea of universal religious experience. Postliberalism raises the following objections:

  • Quite simply, it is impossible to prove that there is a universal religious experience that all people share across all religious traditions.
  • As a basis of religious truth, it appears to make truth relative. If things are only true because they chime with our inner experience, what happens when two people have different inner experiences? If one thing is ‘true’ for one person, and differently ‘true’ for another, is it meaningful to speak of truth at all? And how do we know we can trust our inner experiences anyway?
  • Postliberalism also suggests that universal religious experience is not at the heart of religious practice, because discoveries in anthropology and sociology suggest that it is religious practice that shapes religious experience. The words we say, the images we use, the stories we tell, the ceremonies we perform and the songs we sing – these shape the religious experience that we have. Different religious traditions produce different religious experiences.
  • Therefore, we can’t make universal religious experience the basis of ecumenical dialogue. Not only do all religions look different in their manner of worship (and therefore the religious experience that occurs) but religions differ in their understanding of ‘salvation’. Their goals, their destinations, are different. Postliberalism says our basis for inter-religious dialogue should not be ‘how are you like me?’, rather there should be a true recognition of difference. Postliberalism questions the idea of the ‘anonymous Christian’ (Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner’s reasoning for how good non-Christians might be saved), saying ‘how do we know that Christians aren’t ‘anonymous Buddhists’? Postliberalism asks ‘how can we make peace with each other, without erasing our differences?’

Because of this rejection of universal experience, postliberalism focuses on religious specificity – the things that make a particular religious tradition what it is. Therefore, for Christianity, there’s an increased focus on the Bible. Rather than seeing scripture through the lens of ‘extra-theological sources’ such as philosophy and science, there is a focus on seeing the world through the lens of scripture. There is also a focus on how religious language shapes our experience, and how religion itself is like a language. To join a particular religious tradition is to learn its particular language, and be shaped and transformed by it.

Postliberal Quakerism?

So what challenge does postliberalism present to liberal Quakers? I would say my description of theological liberalism ticks many Quaker boxes. This isn’t surprising, as the roots of liberal Quakerism are in Rufus Jones (1863-1948), who himself was indebted to both Schleiermacher and William James (1842-1910) and his The Varieties of Religious Experience).

In contemporary British Quakerism I encounter a strong belief in universal religious experience which transcends religious tradition, and the idea that Quaker worship represents a stripping away of ‘window dressing’ to get to this core experience. Sometimes I come across the idea that Quakerism itself heralds a ‘universal’ religion – what I’d call Quaker exceptionalism. The idea that ‘George Fox only spoke in Christian terms because of the culture he was born into’ is a product of this thinking (as if Fox can be understood apart from his Christianity, or Jesus from his Judaism for that matter!), as is the idea that there are people out there who are Quakers without knowing it.

A postliberal approach provides a check on Quaker exceptionalism, and draws our attention to the specificity of the Quaker tradition. Quaker worship is not a blank canvas or empty container, but a form of worship that shapes the experience we have within it. Becoming a Quaker involves learning to ‘speak Quaker’, which in turn involves learning the tradition and its stories. From a postliberal perspective, attempts to make Quakerism more ‘universal’ – such as weeding out specific Quaker language or placing copies of the ‘World Religions Bible’ on meeting house tables – are misguided. A robust and vital Quakerism is one that has a healthy relationship with its own tradition, and does not seek to cast it off.

Some words from the wise Nadia Bolz-Weber to finish:

I think it’s interesting people dismiss the being “spiritual but not religious” thing. My business card for the church says, “We’re religious but not spiritual.” That yearning that people have is for something that’s more than 20 minutes old. I think people want to be connected to something that’s more than a whim… Since the age of progress, new is better, right? Now we go, “Wait a minute — that’s not always true.” When new is always better, we’re not tethered to anything. I think I see a longing in people to be tethered to something, and I like to say that you have to be really deeply rooted in tradition in order to innovate with integrity.


Note: The term postliberalism was coined in George Lindbeck’s book The Nature of Doctrine (1984).

Arms fairs, Ortolans and the Apocalypse

Last week I was present at the ‘No Faith in War’ day, part of the ‘Stop the Arms Fair‘ week of action. Here are my reflections on what I witnessed.
The ortolan is a small bird, considered in some countries to be a delicacy. It is kept in darkness, or perhaps blinded, causing it to gorge itself on grain. It is then drowned in brandy and roasted. When the ortolan is eaten, a veil is placed over the diner’s face and plate. The act of eating is hidden, either to preserve the dignity of the eater as they spit out the creature’s tiny bones, or, as some say, to hide such a cruel and shameful meal from the sight of God.
When we know our actions are wrong, we want to keep them hidden.

DSEI (Defence & Security Equipment International) is taking place in London’s Docklands this week. Despite being one of the world’s largest arms fairs, it aims to keep out of the public eye. According to Campaign Against the Arms Trade: ‘DSEI takes place in secret, behind heavily protected security fences and police lines – designed to allow arms dealers to trade their wares unhindered by transparency or public protest – and is subsidised by the UK taxpayer.’
Within the Biblical narrative there is a recurring theme – what is done in secret will come to light. In my Quaker tradition, we affirm that the Light of God shows us our darkness, bringing us to new life. Jesus said that
Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops. [Luke 12:2-3]
In the Book of Revelation, God brings everything into the open by leaving nowhere to hide. The sky is torn away and the mountains are levelled:
Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” [Rev 6:12-17]

This is an apocalyptic moment, a moment of revelation. The word apocalypse means to remove the veil, showing things as they really are. The apocalypse is not about destruction, but about justice. To tear away the napkin that hides the gourmand crunching down on an ortolan is an apocalyptic act.
The ‘Shut Down DSEI’ week of action is also an apocalyptic event. It’s an attempt to reveal to the world the horror of what is occurring within the Excel Centre. Through creative campaigning – such as street theatre, art exhibitions, dancing and Daleks – and direct action – such as blocking the entrances to the exhibition centre – activists tear away the veil of secrecy and respectability and expose DSEI for what it is.

I took part in a Quaker meeting for worship at one of the entrances. In the middle of the silent circle, a Quaker was arrested by the police for obstructing the road. A priest placed a row of Bibles on the tarmac, which the police later removed. With the eyes of the worshippers on them, as well as many cameras, the police treated the trespassing Friend with great respect. Even the Bibles were picked up carefully and respectfully. For me, this was a moment of revelation – where I stood, a book was being picked up with such reverence it might have been a living thing, while across the street, preparations were being made to sell technologies destined to blow fragile bodies apart.
I am so grateful to all those who’ve worked on this campaign, and those who’ve put themselves in the way. DSEI is set to return in 2019, and I plan to be there to witness its unveiling.

Be a God-Bearer: A Quaker Mariology

Greenbelt, is a festival of arts, justice and faith that takes place at Boughton House near Kettering in the Midlands of England. It’s become almost an annual pilgrimage for me, and this year, helped by the glorious weather, it has refreshed and inspired me in unexpected ways.

One of the highlights of the festival was a talk by Teresa Forcades i Vila, a Benedictine nun from Catalonia, Spain. She spoke without notes, for about 45 minutes, quoting Hannah Arendt, Thomas Aquinas, Simone Weil, and a host of other philosophers and theologians, addressing the political climate in Europe today. I can’t sum up the content of her talk in one blog post, but I would like to focus on one particular point she made, that central to the work of the 21st century church will be the figure of Mary, the Mother of God.

Quakers, Catholics, Mary and Me

For a British Quaker, this might sound just too Catholic. In the 17th Century, the Puritans despised Catholics and Quakers alike, often accusing Quakers of being Jesuits in disguise, but that didn’t mean the first Quakers had any sense of solidarity with their Catholic sisters and brothers. A strong anti-Catholic streak runs through early Quaker writings, and it’s not unusual to come across a subtle anti-Catholic sentiment amongst contemporary British Quakers. As an atheist, then Quaker teenager, I was virulently anti-Catholic, associating it with excess and superstition.

My encounters with Catholics since then (both living and dead) have altered that view dramatically. Roman Catholicism, like any institution, has its problems, blind spots and systemic evil, but in reading the writings of Dorothy Day, and meeting the nuns working with refugees and asylum seekers in Birmingham, I’ve witnessed hearts that beat for justice far stronger than my own.

I think I’m also more open to Mary as a result. I find her a fascinating and enigmatic figure. She is a young women who has angelic visions and submits completely to God. She makes fiery prophetic pronouncements. She gives birth in squalor, and becomes a refugee fleeing state violence. She struggles to understand her son’s prophetic witness, but is there at the foot of the cross as he dies. She lives to see his resurrection, and the birth of the church. In the book of Revelation she is portrayed as ‘a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars’.

Mary the God-Bearer

Mariology is the study of Mary, as Christology is the study of Christ. Like any branch of theology, Mariology has its own terminology and complicated metaphysical debates. One such debate resulted in Mary being given the title Theotokos – meaning ‘God-bearer’. The term is used in the Eastern Church, and in Eastern iconography Mary is often represented as the unburnt bush encountered by Moses. Like the bush, Mary contained God but was not consumed.

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At Greenbelt, Sr Teresa explained how the relationship between God and Mary is the relationship that God wishes to have with us all. God cannot impose Her will on us from the outside. God will never enact martial law, and rule us in an authoritarian manner. That would make God a tyrant. God can only enter our individual and communal lives through our own freely given cooperation. God could only become enfleshed in Jesus because Mary freely said ‘Yes’.

Sr Teresa commented that, in Catholicism, the metaphor of being ‘channels of grace’ is often used. This reminded me of a oft-quoted passage from Quaker Faith and Practice about us being ‘God’s plumbers‘. But Sr Teresa feels these metaphors of being some sort of vessel or conduit do not fully communicate what it means to live an incarnational life. Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly wrote that ‘We cannot look upon the face of God and live, live as our old selves’. A channel is not transformed by what passes through it.

Sr Teresa suggests that, rather than just being passive plumbing, our calling is more visceral, bloody, painful and joyful. In Mary we see what we too are invited to become: God-bearers. We are called to a spiritual conception, pregnancy, labour and birth, to enflesh God in the world and be irrevocably changed by the experience.

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A Quaker Mariology

The early Quakers knew all about being filled with God without being consumed. They took Paul at his word that ‘It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’ This sense of Christ coming to birth in them has been called ‘celestial inhabitation.’  For early Quaker leader James Nayler, Jesus was enfleshed in him to the extent that he couldn’t tell where he ended and Christ began.

These were controversial claims that brought great persecution, and later generations of Quakers toned down such language, but in the Quaker tradition we have the bold claim that Christ is present amongst us, and that God works Her purposes thorough our weak and mortal bodies. This theology has been famously expressed in ‘The presence in the midst’, a painting of a Quaker meeting with a spiritual Jesus leading the worship.

I propose that we add another image to our visual theology, the image of Mary as Theotokos. Mary offers a model of Quaker discipleship – faithful, prayerful and open to the leadings of God. She captures the best of the Quaker tradition: She demonstrates the non-coercive workings of the Divine; in a patriarchal world she is a strong, prophetic women, a champion of the poor and downtrodden whilst herself a refugee. Like James Nayler, she knows that a life with God is not a life without grief, that bearing God leads to pain as well as glory. Also, as a man I have the opportunity to be challenged by female religious imagery.

I believe the God that is Love invites us to be God-bearers, to enflesh the Word in the world. Can we say with Mary: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’?

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