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!

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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.

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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.]

Advice and Query 10: Worship in the desert

This is a series of short, c.500-word posts looking at the underlying theology of the Advices and Queries – forty-two pithy statements that collectively capture the British Quaker faith.

Come regularly to meeting for worship even when you are angry, depressed, tired or spiritually cold. In the silence ask for and accept the prayerful support of others joined with you in worship. Try to find a spiritual wholeness which encompasses suffering as well as thankfulness and joy. Prayer, springing from a deep place in the heart, may bring healing and unity as nothing else can. Let meeting for worship nourish your whole life.

Worship is not always about celebration and fulness. Grief and emptiness have a vital role to play in the authentic faith community. Thomas Kelly writes that spiritual wholeness involves an enlarging of the heart, intensifying the joys and sorrows in our lives. This A&Q invites you to come to worship when you feel you have nothing to offer, realising that your sadness, anger, tiredness, weakness and desolation are in fact important offerings that your fellow Friends need. No meeting is complete without them. ‘The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise’ [Psalm 51:17]. Our needs allow others to give. As well as asking in the silence, verbally ask trusted Friends for prayerful support. There is a real power in naming our needs. In the silence, trust that the Holy Spirit is praying in you. for ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words’ [Romans 8:26].

What if this time of spiritual coldness continues beyond one meeting? Do you still feel inspired to go to meeting, despite your inner emptiness? If so, then coming regularly to worship is a sign of faithfulness. To keep coming to meeting, even when you get nothing out of it, may be a time of important spiritual growth. It may be a wilderness time, a ‘dark night of the soul’, that you will only truly understand once you are on the other side. It is important to share this journey with a trusted Friend, perhaps a spiritual director. Don’t walk through the desert alone.

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But there is another possibility. Sometimes, if we find ourselves in long spell of spiritual dryness where going to meeting seems to make no difference, this might be a sign that something’s not right. Maybe it’s time to experiment, to try something else, or simply to take a break. The key question is: ‘are you going to meeting because you feel called to go in spite of the dryness, or are you going to meeting because that’s what good Quakers do?’ If it’s the latter, then maybe it’s time to try not going to meeting. What love requires of you may sometimes be to stay at home. If you’re going to try this, do it with the blessing of your meeting. Speak to the people responsible for pastoral care, and explain your feelings. It is better that they know the reasons for your decision, so they can support you in the best way. ‘Accept the prayerful support of others.’

Finally, this A&Q also addresses the worshipping community, and not just the individual within it. It reveals that true worship can take us in all our complexity. It can take our rage and our emptiness. Worship is not about playing a role. Worship should be somewhere where we can be our thoroughly disreputable true selves. This is a real challenge for the Quaker community. Can we hold each other in times of distress, where no easy answers are forthcoming?

Advice and Query 9: Offer your whole self

This is a series of short, c.500-word posts looking at the underlying theology of the Advices and Queries – forty-two pithy statements that collectively capture the British Quaker faith.

In worship we enter with reverence into communion with God and respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Come to meeting for worship with heart and mind prepared. Yield yourself and all your outward concerns to God’s guidance so that you may find ‘the evil weakening in you and the good raised up’.

Married to a protestant, and with a heart for ecumenism, it is not unusual for me to attend worship where ‘communion’ is synonymous with ‘bread and wine’. As long as I’m not formally representing British Quakers, I always take part. I believe in the unity of the church – that Christ breaks all the boundaries we try and set – and see the ritual sharing of bread and wine as symbolic of that unity. I share this because the peace and connectedness I experience after taking bread and wine communion is the same as when I’m in Quaker worship. The spiritual communion is the same. Quakers *do* celebrate communion with God. What does it meant to enter this shared communion with reverence? It means to enter with expectation. We go to worship with the anticipation that God might bind us together more strongly, and with a readiness to respond to the Holy Spirit. Reverence may sound serious and sombre, but as C. S Lewis said, joy is the serious business of Heaven.

So we come with anticipation and readiness. We come with heart and mind prepared. In the previous A&Q I wrote about the connection between worship and sacrifice. As well as coming with a sense of expectancy, we also bring our offering – not a blood sacrifice but a prepared heart and mind. Every day we have the opportunity to prepare our offering, to harvest a daily crop of gratitudes, to confess an inevitable number of shortcomings, and hold ourselves and others in the Light. Then when we come together in our Quaker fellowship, we can heap all this thankfulness, confession and prayer onto the alter, and see what the Holy Spirit makes of it. A wise Friend once said to me ‘If everyone comes to meeting empty, no one can go away full.’ We bring our spiritual bread and wine and feast together with God.

Archbishop's_Chapel,_Ravenna

However, we don’t come expecting to get something in return. Our offering is not a payment or a bribe. In expecting God to do something, in anticipating the Spirit’s promptings, we cannot then feel cheated if seemingly nothing happens. God doesn’t owe us anything. We prepare our heart and mind not in order to receive an enjoyable worship experience each week, but in order to be more open to whatever God has prepared for us, which may be joy, tears, judgement, consolation or apparently nothing. We prepare heart and mind during the week because one hour on a Sunday is not enough. If God is God, then worship is where we discover who we really are.

Yield! Relax and lay your burden down, for His yoke is easy and His burden is light. Yield! Put up your sword. Stop fighting. The war between God and creation is over. Remove yourself from the centre. Christ is the Prince of Peace – not only outwardly between people and nations, but inwardly. The Holy Spirit brings peace to the inner war of our divided selves and weakens the power of evil. The only power evil has is from our power for good. The best word for evil is perversion, for evil is our good gifts used wrongly. The perverted good within us must be weakened through being healed and restored, through being put to the refining fire and set straight. As I write this I hear the echoes of anti-gay Christian rhetoric, speaking of same-sex desire as a river that’s burst its banks. It’s unfortunate that ‘perversion’ has these connotations, because its the best word for evil I’ve yet come across. Evil as perversion must not be thought of only meaning sexual morality, as all our good gifts can be used wrongly. And all our misdirected efforts can be realigned if we yield our whole selves to the guidance of God and the illuminating power of the Light.

Advice and Query 8: Join the thanksgiving of the cosmos

This is a series of short, c.500-word posts looking at the underlying theology of the Advices and Queries – forty-two pithy statements that collectively capture the British Quaker faith.

Worship is our response to an awareness of God. We can worship alone, but when we join with others in expectant waiting we may discover a deeper sense of God’s presence. We seek a gathered stillness in our meetings for worship so that all may feel the power of God’s love drawing us together and leading us.

A&Q 1 to 7 have presented us with a series of foundational theological principles, chiefly concerned with the nature of God and how we may know God’s will. With A&Q 8 we begin the second group of Advices and Queries, which deal specifically with worship.

Worship is a response, rather than something we initiate. We don’t make anything happen, something has already happened. God *is*, and we can only respond with worship.

Worship is about thanksgiving, and giving thanks through sacrifice. Sacrifice isn’t a payment. Abraham discovered this when Yaweh refused the sacrifice of his son Isaac – this God is not like the other Canaanite gods who demand the blood of children. Ultimately, not even the blood of animals is required: ‘The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.’ [Psa. 51:17] The prophets speak of the uselessness of blood sacrifice if it is not accompanied by justice: ‘For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.’ [Hosea 6:6]

Faithfulness, humility, love and justice – this is how God wants us to give thanks, this is what makes our worship acceptable. These ideas come together in Paul’s words to the church in Rome (which for me capture the essence of Quaker worship):

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. [Romans 12:1-2]

Worship is something we do better together. We seek a gathered stillness not as an end in itself. We come together not for a quiet space or time out. The purpose of our gathered stillness is worship, and the purpose of our worship is to be drawn together – the religare of religion – and lead by the power of God’s love. Worship begins and ends in God’s love.

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Created by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

How is it possible to worship alone? Perhaps because we are never really alone. Worship is an ancient song we join in with. It’s a thunderous river we jump into. We add our pinch of incense to the aromatic clouds already billowing up before the throne of God. I have occasionally had the experience in worship that there are more people in the room than physical bodies. I believe that when we worship we join with the worship of all who give thanks at that moment. Not only that, but from the perspective of eternity we join all who have worshipped and all who will worship, the ‘great a cloud of witnesses’ [Heb. 12:1] that is known as the communion of the saints.

In my thanksgiving, I see myself in perspective. I remove myself from the centre of things (what a burden it is to be at the centre!) and take my place in the choir of worshippers. Not only must we remove our individual selves from the centre of the universe, we must see the human race in perspective. If the God whose love we respond to is the Creator of all things, then it is not just humanity who is God’s creature. The birds, the trees, the stones, the seas, the stars and the angels – everything that is visible and invisible, conceivable and inconceivable – all created things give thanks to their Creator who loves them powerfully. We catch a glimpse of this in the Book of Revelation:

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,

“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might
forever and ever!” [Rev. 5:11-14]

Worship is our response to an awareness of God. To become aware of God is to give thanks for all that is Good, living renewed lives in response. To become aware of God is to become aware of our fellow creatures in all their vibrant mystery. To become aware of God is to find our rightful place in the cosmos, allowing ourselves to be led further and further into Love.

Advice and Query 7: Expect the unexpected

This is a series of short, c.500-word posts looking at the underlying theology of the Advices and Queries – forty-two pithy statements that collectively capture the British Quaker faith.

Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life. Spiritual learning continues throughout life, and often in unexpected ways. There is inspiration to be found all around us, in the natural world, in the sciences and arts, in our work and friendships, in our sorrows as well as in our joys. Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come? Do you approach new ideas with discernment?

The birds are busy at this time of year, exploring the hedgerows for whatever berries remain. There have been rumours of increasingly rare hawfinches nearby. How might I catch a glimpse of them? The bird watcher can acquire tools and knowledge, and can become better with practice. Someone who follows the right Twitter feeds, and has a good pair of binoculars, is in a better position to spot a hawfinch than I am. But however prepared, equipped and disciplined we are, the birds remain entirely free. The bird watcher doesn’t control the birds.

So it is with the spirit of God at work in the world. We are called to be aware of it. This does not mean we can control it, posses it, or predict how it acts, but we can equip ourselves with practices and knowledge that will heighten our awareness. We may seek God, but we never truly find God, as if God is hiding, waiting to be found. When we apparently find God, it is because God has chosen to reveal God’s-self. God finds us.

God is so free, even freer than the birds, that when we put boundaries on the spirit of God, God breaks through them. When it was thought that God could only be encountered in special holy places, God surprised Moses by meeting him in the shrubbery on a ordinary hillside (Ex. 3). When God was thought to dwell in the inner sanctum of the Temple in Jerusalem, the thick curtain veiling the inner sanctum was torn apart (Mk. 15:38) and God was revealed executed outside the city walls. God is not only to be found in special places. God can be found in ordinary activities and daily experiences. God may meet us in the washing up, or waiting for a bus, as well as in the meeting house.

The God of the Christian story is unpredictable. “See, I am making all things new!” (Rev. 21:15, c.f Isa. 43:18). This is a God who will always act in ways we don’t expect, for God’s ways are not our ways (Isa. 55:8). Therefore spiritual learning must continue throughout life. As soon as we think we have God pinned down, we must start all over again. God works not only within the Temple, but beyond it. The curtain is torn in two, the banks of the river are burst! Every aspect of our lives is a potential burning bush. All human endeavour can be illuminated with God’s Light. There is not one moment where God may not meet us, surprise us and make all things news.

The words most often quoted from this passage is the advice to be ‘open to new light’. What does this phrase mean? I have heard the expression that Quakerism is ‘rooted in Christianity, open to new light.’ This gives the impression that Quakerism is on an inevitable trajectory away from it’s Christian roots, that Christianity is part of Quakerism’s past and not its future. It also suggests that by ‘new light’ we mean ‘other religious traditions’. I believe that the advice to be open to new light is not solely an invitation to seek beyond Christianity. Neither is it an instruction to endlessly seek without ever finding. Rather, at the heart of being open to new light is asking ‘In what unexpected way is God going to act next?’ To be open to new light is to expect the unexpected. God can meet us ‘in the natural world, in the sciences and arts, in our work and friendships, in our sorrows as well as in our joys.’ What other sources might God choose to act through?

But when the unexpected happens, how can you tell what is of God and what is not? When new ideas arise, what commends them? Novelty alone is not enough. A new idea does not automatically mean new light. A new idea could be a deception, a distraction, a notion and an idol. Does this new idea arise from the workings of the spirit of God? This A&Q ends with words of fundamental importance. Our capacity to apprehend the will of God directly and accurately is impaired. We need to approach new ideas with discernment, which requires humbly bringing them before the community of faith.

Discernment requires us paying attention to what has gone before. Although God is free to act in new ways, we have stories of how God has acted in the past, we have clues to God’s character. The writers of the New Testament understood the Christ-event, a totally unexpected occurrence, by looking to the Hebrew Scriptures and showing how it retrospectively made sense. Likewise, the first Quakers believed that the leadings of the Holy Spirit would never contradict Scripture. Our stories, tradition and history are important tools for discerning whether a new idea is indeed new light.

To be open to new light is not an individualistic, theological free-for-all. It is a recognition both of the freedom of God to act in unexpected ways, and our own inability to know the will of God directly. Being open to new light is a weighty yet delightful corporate responsibility. Where is the spirit at work? What will it do next? How do we meet it together?

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.