Is Quakerism like Marmite?

1. Is Quakerism like Marmite?

I believe that Quakerism is for everyone. Apparently this is a controversial thing to say amongst British Quakers, so I’d like to have a go at explaining what I mean by this, and why I believe it’s important.

I suspect that what most people mean when they say that ‘Quakerism isn’t for everyone’ is that not everyone likes sitting in silence. But I don’t believe that Quakerism is about sitting in silence. When I hear ‘Quakerism isn’t for everybody’ I hear the following:

  • ‘non-violent living – well you can take it or leave it..’
  • ‘living a life of obedience to the promptings of love and truth? I’d say it’s pretty optional…’
  • ‘growing into my most authentic self within a loving, supportive community just isn’t to everyone’s taste…’
  • ‘working towards a world overflowing with peace and justice? That’s not everyone’s cup of tea…’

To put it another way, I think that to say ‘Quakerism isn’t for everybody’ is to treat Quakerism like Marmite. It’s to say that Quakerism not only has a particular flavour, but it is completely defined by that flavour. I don’t think Quakerism is about the surface level of taste, but the deeper level of nutrition. The important thing about Marmite in terms of our health as human beings is that it contains B12, a really important vitamin. Within this food analogy, to say that Quakerism isn’t for everyone is like saying ‘not everyone needs a healthy diet’.

Earlier generations of Quakers distinguished between the ‘shadow’ and the ‘substance’. The shadow was an outward symbol, the substance was the inner spiritual reality. They saw the bread and wine of communion as shadows of the more real substance: inward communion with God. I believe that by treating Quakerism like Marmite, we are concerning ourselves more with the surface detail of how we do things, rather than the deeper invisible dimension of what Quakerism is about.

When we focus on the substance, the deeper, nutritional value of Quakerism, we can say that ‘Quakerism is for everyone’ as well as saying ‘not everyone has to be a Quaker’. B12 is for everyone, but if you can get it without eating Marmite then that’s great too!

2. Marmite missiology

All of this impacts on Quaker missiology – or what British Quakers call ‘outreach’. Why would we want to spread the Quaker message if Quakerism isn’t for everyone? (Here the Marmite analogy falls into difficulty – why wouldn’t you want to spread Marmite everywhere, oh I remember, because it’s disgusting!)

If Quakerism isn’t for everyone, then how do we know who it’s for? What are the characteristics of those people suited to Quakerism? As I’ve written about before, what if these ‘Quaker characteristics’ have arisen, not from our spiritual experience, but from a culture dominated and shaped by the values of the white, middle class, intellectual and retired?

So we could just say that, although Quakerism isn’t for everyone, who Quakerism is for remains a mystery. Then we have the problem of knowing whether we’re doing too much or too little outreach. If our numbers are declining, perhaps that’s just because there are no longer that many people that Quakerism appeals to. If Quakerism isn’t for everyone, and we don’t know who it’s for, then saying ‘we don’t need to do outreach, they’ll find us when they’re ready’ makes a lot more sense. Why waste time and effort telling people about something that is probably not for them?

As long as we’re committed to Marmite Quakerism, doing outreach remains confused and directionless, and the cultural homogeny of British Quakerism will remain unchallenged.

3. Marmite teleology

So what is the direction of Quakerism? Where is it going? Nutrition isn’t an end in itself; we need it in order to grow towards maturity. Theologians suggest that liberal Quakers are now more concerned with processes (ways of doing things – such as discernment) than with a sense of a final destination. I don’t have a problem with Quaker processes, I think they’re one of the great Quaker gifts to the world, but Quaker processes don’t count for anything if we cannot conceive of the possibility that the Spirit might ask us to change or do things differently. A feature of Marmite Quakerism is that its identity, its brand, is highly vulnerable. Change the flavour too much and you no longer have Marmite, just brown goo. To tamper with what happens on a Sunday morning is a huge threat to Marmite Quaker identify, and so Marmite Quakerism is more concerned with acting out the steps of a process, than with where the process will lead us.

All of this relates to Quaker teleology. Teleology comes from the Greek word telos, which means end-point or goal. Teleology asks ‘where are we going? What’s the destination?’

One of the assumptions made about me by other Quakers is that, because I talk about my religious life with confidence, I must have no room for mystery. Just because I believe that Jesus rose from the dead doesn’t mean I know how it happened. Just because I believe in God doesn’t mean I can describe God as I can describe what I had for lunch. It’s not a choice between ‘knowing everything’ and ‘knowing nothing’. There are lots of levels of ‘not knowing’.

So it is with teleology. The teleology of a murder mystery story is to find out ‘whodunit?’ The narrative of the story is driven by this quest to discover the murderer. We don’t know how Hercule Poirot will work it out, but we know that he will because he’s solved every other case before. My hope is in God, even though I don’t know what might happen to me in the next year, day or minute. I have confidence that Divine Love will accomplish all its purposes, even though I don’t know how it will come about. I base this hope on my own experience, the experience of my Quaker ancestors and the experiences recorded in Scripture. Hope is knowing the ending without knowing the rest of the book. ‘Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’ [Heb 11:1].

So teleology is about hope, knowing the destination without knowing the nature of the journey. If we are to journey to the New Jerusalem together, then we should expect travel to broaden our minds, we should expect to be changed. But a Marmite Quakerism that’s concerned with preserving its own distinctive flavour cannot change without becoming something completely different. It therefore also finds it difficult to account for previous developments in the Quaker tradition. So without history or future, without a teleology, and with a focus solely on preserving current shadows, this is a Quakerism that doesn’t corporately know why others should want it, or what sort of hope to offer a hope-starved world.

I doubt that there is a meeting in Britain where Marmite Quakerism is embraced fully, but I come across the signs of it too often for comfort. It’s a sentiment that needs challenging at every turn. When I hear ‘Quakerism isn’t for everyone’ it’s the sound of British Quakerism digging its own grave.


Finding a good way to talk about evil

A shorter version of this article first appeared in ‘The Friend‘ on 20 April 2017.

In general I find British Quakers reluctant to talk about evil. Can we use the words ‘evil’ and ‘sin’ in a way that is helpful and life affirming? The writers of Twelve Quakers and Evil (2006) show a strong desire to understand evil and see the good in the perpetrator, but I also detect an unwillingness to condemn evil, and a reluctance to see God as one who judges and rejects evil. One contributor writes that ‘answering that of God in everyone means first of all finding it in, say, Fred West or Adolf Hitler’. I find this difficult to accept. Surely when faced with evil on such a scale as the Holocaust, our first action should be to name it and work to prevent or mitigate it. To say our priority is to understand the humanity of the tyrant is a slap in the face to those they are crushing underfoot. We need to be able to name the evil we witness and experience in the world (whether that’s the evil of the suicide bomber or the evil of selling bombs to Saudi Arabia). If we consider ourselves to be a community concerned with truth and peace, then we have to be equipped to call out lies and injustice.

We also need to be able to articulate the darkness within our own community.  Churches that are comfortable with talking about sin appear to be better at addressing their own racism. Churches less fluent in the language of sin and evil may find it harder to take the planks out of their own eyes. Micah Bales, a fellow Quaker blogger from the States, recently asked ‘If humans are basically good, how did we end up with Trump?’ This is an important question for Quakers who believe in the goodness of humanity, and the inevitability of moral progress. Micah sees the election of Donald Trump as a vindication of our inherent wickedness and depravity:

But just because Trump and his supporters are wicked does not mean that you and I are righteous. The will to power is strong, and we’re all seeking our own ways to be on top. Even under the guise of being meek, caring, pious, and Christ-like – we’re wolves in sheep’s clothing. All of us.

I understand that this is strong language, perhaps too strong for British liberal Friends to take. How can we affirm our experience of human goodness as well as the reality of evil and our responsibility for it? How can we hold these things in tension?

The problem of theodicy

The ‘problem of evil’, simply put, is how to square the belief in a good, powerful God with the existence of evil. Since the 18th century, attempts to solve the ‘problem of evil’ have been known as ‘theodicies’, a term coined by the German philosopher Leibniz in 1710. Since then, evil has been explained variously as necessary for free will, or the existence of good – how can we choose good if we can’t also choose evil? – or as a way of making us better people, but any attempt at an explanation is problematic. If evil is explicable, if it has a reason to exist, if evil is a necessary part of our world, then God as creator must be implicated in evil’s existence. How can we worship a God who requires the possibility of Auschwitz?

Privation theory

I’d like to offer a perspective on evil that I think would be helpful for Friends. It is known as ‘evil as privatio boni’, or as privation theory. It affirms both the goodness of creation and our experience of evil, without needing to explain evil as a necessary phenomenon.

Privation theory was developed in a Christian context by Augustine of Hippo, a fifth century African bishop and highly influential theologian. In his youth he became a member of the Manichees, a gnostic sect who believed that the spiritual world was made by a good god, and the material world by an evil god. Augustine later rejected their teachings, arguing that, from a Christian point of view, there was only one good God who had created everything. Therefore everything, both material and spiritual, was good. So how did Augustine account for evil? Augustine developed an idea previously expressed by classical philosophers that evil does not exist as a thing in itself. Evil is a corruption or lessening of good. It is an uncreated thing. Evil could be thought of as a hole in a sock. The hole is nothing in itself; it exists purely in relation to the sock. Take away the sock and the hole cease to exist.

As evil doesn’t exist, it cannot be pursued for its own sake. When someone does something evil, at the heart of their action is the desire for something good. When the good that we desire is not the highest good (that is, when we turn away from God, from ‘that of God’ within us) we commit evil. In 1961, Hannah Arendt reported on the trial of the Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann. In Eichmann she saw, not a monster, but a very ordinary, unthinking man who ‘never realized what he was doing.’ Eichmann pursued the goods of efficiency and hard work, and in doing so enabled one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century. Arendt coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil’, capturing this sense that evil is committed not by especially evil people, but by those who are ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’.

Evil and Freedom

Privation theory also requires us to rethink our understanding of freedom. If freedom means freedom of choice, then only willing one thing (the highest good) sounds like imprisonment. But what if being free meant freely being our most true self? According to this understanding, our freedom increases the more we are what we were created to be. When learning to play the piano, I had the choice to practice or not. I often chose not to! But having that freedom of choice did not make me more free to be a pianist. The more I practiced, the more fluent I became, the more free a piano player I was. Similarly, a virtuous person is not virtuous because they continuously choose not to do evil. To be freely virtuous is not to choose at all, but to be so practiced in virtue that good deeds flow naturally. The most freely virtuous person is the person who cannot help but be virtuous. From a privation theory perspective, freedom of choice was the ‘original sin’. When Adam and Eve chose to trust the serpent, it wasn’t that they made a wrong choice, it was that they thought there was a choice to make in the first place. The act of choosing was a turning away from a reliance on God, the highest good, to a reliance on their own will.

Privation theory for Quakers

So to put privation theory into Quaker-speak:

  • We are good in that we share in the goodness of God with all created things.
  • When we turn from the Light, from ‘that of God’ within ourselves, our vision is darkened and our will weakened.
  • When we follow our corrupted desires, although they be for good things, we allow evil to flourish. We become less freely our true selves.
  • Only when we give over our own willing and desiring and ‘sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart’ will we find the evil weakening in us and the good raised up.
  • When faced with evil, we do not have to rationalise it as part of a Divine plan. Although good may come out evil, evil is not required to bring about good.

To view evil in this way is both sobering and hopeful. All of us are capable of the most terrible evils, and we may be extending evil’s reach in all manner of unseen and innocuous ways. Responsibility for the Holocaust does not lie solely at the door of one dictator. Yet we can be confident that evil has no legitimate foothold in creation. God does not will it, require it or excuse it. We are free to hate and reject it. Does this mean that we should destroy evil doers? No, for every person is part of creation and therefore good. Evil is not a thing in itself, and so cannot be destroyed. It is a hole in a garment that needs stitching, a corruption that can only be healed, and we are all in need of restoration.

Spiritual practice for uncertain times

2016 has given me much to be thankful for: the birth of my nephew, a year of continuing job satisfaction and being part of a vibrant faith community are at the top of my list. 2016 has also been a disturbing and troubling year. The continuing escalation of the refugee crisis, climate disruption and global terrorism; the rise of figures like Farage and Trump and their fear-mongering rhetoric; continuing cuts to public services and divisions revealed by the EU referendum… Of course all times are uncertain, but for someone like me, who has only known comfort and security, who once believed that humanity was progressing towards ever higher moral standards, 2016 is a wake-up call.


There are two obvious responses to this sobering list of events. One is to escape into despair. The other is to escape into denial. Though apparently polar opposites, both seek a kind of numbness. If everything is terrible and nothing can be fixed, then why bother? If everything is fine (or will work out alright in the end), then what fixing is there to do? Both responses result in ‘business as usual’.

How can we walk the tightrope between them, neither giving into despair (which is nothing less than functional atheism) nor escaping into denial (which is nothing more than cheap religion)?

I find a useful starting place in the words of those who also knew they were living in uncertain times. This post is basically about finding hope, and although we think of hope as being about the future, our grounds for hope are rooted in the past. Reading the words of people like C S Lewis and Thomas Kelly, who wrote in the shadow of World War II, shows me how my spiritual ancestors remained hopeful in the face of troubles far greater than mine. In 1939, in a lecture entitled ‘Holy Obedience’, Kelly said that:

An awful solemnity is upon the earth, for the last vestige of earthly security is gone. It has always been gone, and religion has always said so, but we haven’t believed it. And some of us Quakers are not yet undeceived, and childishly expect our little cushions for our little bodies, in a world inflamed with untold ulcers. Be not fooled by the pleasantness of the Main Line life, and the niceness of Germantown existence, and the quiet coolness of your well-furnished homes. For the plagues of Egypt are upon the world, entering hovel and palace, and there is no escape for you or for me…

…In my deepest heart I know that some of us have to face our comfortable, self-oriented lives all over again. The times are too tragic, God’s sorrow is too great, man’s night is too dark, the Cross is too glorious for us to live as we have lived, in anything short of holy obedience. It may or it may not mean change in geography, in profession, in wealth, in earthly security. It does mean this: Some of us will have to enter upon a vow of renunciation and of dedication to the “Eternal Internal” which is as complete and as irrevocable as was the vow of the monk of the Middle Ages.[1]

At the end of the year, I am asking myself: How do I respond to the challenges of 2016 as a person of faith? How can I equip myself to live a hopeful response to ‘a world inflamed with untold ulcers’?

Syrian and Iraqi refugees arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos

What do I mean by spiritual practice?

I think another way of interpreting Thomas Kelly’s call to ‘holy obedience’ is as a call to spiritual practice. But what does that mean?

In a previous post I wrote how everything is spiritual:

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the word translated as spirit is ר֫וּחַ (ruarc), meaning spirit, wind or breath… In the New Testament, the Koine Greek word for the same concept is πνεῦμα (pneuma)…

Just being alive makes you a spiritual being! You can’t have a distinct ‘spiritual life’, your whole life is spiritual, whether you like it or not. Everything we do impacts on our spirituality, for good or ill. Just as we all have ethnicity or mental health, we are all spiritual.

I’d like to add an important detail. The word ‘spiritual’ does not refer solely to something good. Although we may associate it with scented candles and ‘inner peace’, the ‘spiritual’ encompasses much more. Scripture speaks of all manner of spiritual forces at work in the world, some incredibly malevolent and harmful:

Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. [Eph 6:11-12]

In his book ‘The Powers That Be’[2], theologian Walter Wink has done good work in making the language of the angelic and demonic palatable to modern ears. He writes of every group of people having a corporate spirituality, an ‘angel’ [Rev 2:1], that as well as being good can also be fallen. The spiritual is not confined to the interior life of an individual. If everything is spiritual, then we can speak of the spirituality of private prayer, a sexual relationship, a yoga class, a political rally or an armed insurgence.

A vigil after the Orlando Pulse shooting in June 2016

Apocalyptic spirituality

So within this wide definition of the spiritual, how do we engage in spiritual practice that navigates between despair and denial? How do we make sure that we aren’t using spiritual practice to blind us to our own oppression, or our own complicity with ‘the cosmic powers of this present darkness’? What are we to make of the use of mindfulness by the armed forces, or by schools?

I believe we need spiritual practices that are apocalyptic. I use apocalyptic not as its commonly misconstrued – as the cataclysmic destruction of the world, four horsemen and all – but in its original meaning of ‘revealing’. It means to draw back the curtain, to unveil. An apocalyptic spirituality is about dispelling illusions and deception. We need spiritual practices that reveal the truth – about God, about ourselves, about the world we live in. Truth telling is often an uncomfortable experience, so only engaging in practices that make us feel warm and fuzzy is an act of denial and self-deception.

We need to see things clearly in order to be Kingdom-seeking, which according to Jesus should be our first concern [Matt 6:33]. The Kingdom of God should be the goal of all our spiritual practice. This means we must abandon all other ultimate ends: our individual ‘salvation’, gaining secret spiritual/esoteric knowledge etc. I really like feeling happy and feeling good in myself, but my own happiness can never be the ultimate goal. Happiness can only be an aim of spiritual practice in as much as it helps us in our Kingdom-seeking.

Of course, all of this must be undergirded by love, for without love we are nothing [1 Cor. 13:1-3].

Are we living in apocalyptic times? Sort of…

Good, fallen and redeemable

Borrowing from Wink again, I believe we need personal and corporate spiritual practices that do the following three things:

  • Affirm the goodness of creation

As a ‘this-worldly’ tradition, Quakers are very good at this. We strongly affirm ‘that of God in everyone’, and acknowledge not just the goodness of the natural world and of ourselves, but of our enemies and the ‘other’. This comes through strongly in our peace work and work with sex-offenders. The Quaker practice of non-violence is often posited on the inherent goodness of all.

Quakers are right to do these things. However, to focus only on the goodness is to indulge in cheap, false hope. Saying ‘everything will be alright’ without taking sin and evil seriously is an empty statement. It is an escape into denial.

  • Affirm the fallen-ness of creation

As a community with a very positive view of the human condition, Quakers are less good at this. With our vocabulary of Light, we can talk about darkness, but I don’t hear ‘evil’ and ‘sin’ spoken of often. Neither are we comfortable talking about boundaries, about what is and is not good or evil.

We need to acknowledge that everything is broken, not intrinsically evil but perverted, fallen. Sin is to ‘fall short’, and we’re all caught up in it.

To focus solely on the world’s fallen-ness is to escape into despair. We can only say that creation is fallen because it is also good. The goodness and the fallen-ness must be held in tension in order for us to walk the tightrope between despair and denial.

  • Affirm the redemption of creation

Because creation is both good and fallen, it is also redeemable. When we hold all of these together, we can say with Julian of Norwich ‘all will be well’. Terrible things may happen, sacrifices will have to be made, there will be suffering and loss and hard work, but ‘all manner of things will be well’. This is real, costly hope.

What can we learn from those who, through their hard work and risk taking, reveal the Light that the darkness cannot extinguish? Where do we see people working for reconciliation between divided peoples? Where do we see people risking arrest to testify against the use of weapons of mass destruction? Where do we see God making all things new?

St Michael’s Church in the recently dismantled refugee camp (the ‘Jungle)’ in Calais

The time that is called Christmas…

If everything is spiritual, then Christmas is a spiritual practice. Is our Christmas apocalyptic, or an act of self-deception? Are we making the connection between the refugee family at the heart of the Christmas story, and the refugees and displaced people of today? Are we seeking the Kingdom in our celebrations? Are we able to hear and live out the whole Christmas story – the good, the fallen and the reconciled? In a world full of jealous, murderous Herods, God is tearing back the sky – heaven and earth colliding in an intimate embrace of shalom. Let’s train ourselves to see it.

[1] Thomas Raymond Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, Reprint edition (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1941).

[2] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, New edition edition (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 2000).

Quakers and the theological dinner party

2016 has seen my blogging rate slow considerably. Apologies dear reader! When I started the blog I worked a 3-day week (those were the days!) and now I have a full time job. Since October, the blogging time I had left over after domestic duties has now been taken up with a rather intense three year project – I’ve started a part-time, distance masters degree in Systematic and Philosophical Theology. My life is now well and truly full.

Quakers and theology

This feels like quite an admission to make as a Quaker. In my experience, theology is not the most welcome of words amongst Friends. Quaker responses to theology appear to range from ‘what is it?’ to ‘we don’t need it’ to ‘theology is a Bad Thing’. To be fair, theology has always had a bad press amongst Friends. Margaret Benefiel offers five reasons why Early Quakers where suspicious of theology:[1]

  1. It was a distraction from real spiritual experience
  2. ‘The available theologies were the production of corrupt, faction-ridden, politically-influenced church councils’
  3. Theology is used as a tool of oppression and to enforce conformity
  4. Academic theology is obscure and obfuscates the truth
  5. Theological speculation creates sceptics

I agree with all of these points – I think… I’ve definitely seen bad theology used harmfully, and read some very wordy and confusing academic articles. So why would I get involved in this theology thing? I can put it best by saying my 15 years with Friends have left me theologically underfed, or have made me hungry for something more than Friends seem to be able to give me. I’m so excited to be getting my teeth into it. I recently wrote on Facebook:

‘…I’ve read several pages of Augustine’s ‘Confessions’ and I’m entranced! He talks about a creation infused with God like a sponge infused with seawater; he interprets his spiritual journey through scripture; he talks about looking within and seeing a transcendent Light greater than all natural lights, and he has a very positive view of the goodness of creation. What, Augustine, a Quaker?! Favourite bit so far is when God says to Augustine – ‘I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.’ Is that a hint of theosis I detect Gus?’

As well as the joy of discovering the inspiring thoughts of past thinkers, questions are being thrown up here and there. I’m discovering that liberal Quakers’ emphasis on spiritual experience has its roots in Rufus Jones, William James and 19th century German Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher. Over the last century, Schleiermacher has been roundly challenged by theologians like Karl Barth. I want to ask how we make sense of our religious understanding in the light of this conversation? And Barth seems to have some quite Quakery things to say about revelation… I feel like a ‘seeker’ again.

Augustine’s hummus is gross but he makes a mean trifle

The theological dinner party

I find it very helpful to think of the tradition of theology as a conversation between the living and the dead. Quaker theologian Rachel Muers writes of Quaker theology as a Meeting for Worship across time, listening for what truth needs to be heard in each voice from the past. I like this image very much. I’m also drawn to the picture of theology as a dinner party, as adding food always makes things better. I posited on Facebook that:

‘When Quakers say “we don’t need theology”, we think we’re throwing off oppressive chains, whereas actually we’re leaving a vibrant dinner party in favour of eating our sandwiches in the car and talking to ourselves.’

Friend Rhiannon countered:

‘To be fair to the Quakers hanging out in the car, some people at the dinner party say things like “Everyone should eat meat because humans were made to eat meat!” and “Gluten intolerance is just a fashion, we shouldn’t provide gluten-free products because it’s just giving in to liberal society!” and eating your own sandwiches is much safer if less vibrant.’

Talking this analogy through with Rhiannon, we thought that if the dinner party is an intimidating place to be, we need to develop some theological resilience. We need to formulate a plan to get back in to the dinner party. This may initially involve some volunteers sneaking back in and bringing back Tupperware full of carrot sticks. Really tasty carrot sticks with some sort of tempting dip.

Theological resilience will help us to articulate why some things need to be rejected and rethought – ‘Oh, so it was Calvin’s potato salad that gave us all food poisoning!’ – and calls us to listen again to voices we may have previously dismissed – ‘Augustine’s hummus may be gross, but he makes a mean trifle.’ Real listening means being open to challenge – ‘Are the sandwiches we thought were made by George Fox actually made by Schleiermacher? And have they gone stale?’ – as well as realising that Quakers have an important voice to add to the exciting hubbub of theological debate – ‘Seriously guys, you *have* to try James Nayler’s incarnational theology… er, I mean his broccoli quiche’. The dinner party will carry on with or without us, and I want to join in.

[Friend Ben has written a great blog post on similar themes.]

[1] Charles Eugene Fager, ed., New Voices, New Light : Papers from the Quaker Theology Roundtable (Wallingford, Pennsylvania: The Issues Program of Pendle Hill, 1995).

Reflections from Greenbelt – Beyoncé and white Quaker discomfort

This year like most years I attended Greenbelt, a festival of arts, justice and faith. As a last minute decision, I attended a panel discussion entitled ‘The Lemonade Effect: Beyoncé, blackness, feminism and white discomfort’. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the festival, being both educational and energizing, prompting me to think more about how my own Quaker tradition talks about race. (You can read chair Chine McDonald’s account of the panel here, and an account from here.)

The starting point for their discussion was the impact of Beyoncé’s album ‘Lemonade’, a work described as unapologetically black. It makes reference to the Black Lives Matter movement, the treatment of black people in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the performance of ‘Formation’ at the Super Bowl that featured Blank Panther imagery. The panel spoke, sometimes tearfully, about how much this celebration of blackness meant to them, with lines like ‘I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros. I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils’.

From the affirmation felt by Beyoncé’s black audience, the discussion moved to the discomfort felt by her white fans and critics. It has been joked that this was ‘the day Beyoncé turned black’.

In response to ‘Lemonade’, Piers Morgan wrote in the Daily Mail:

‘The new Beyoncé wants to be seen as a black woman political activist first and foremost, entertainer and musician second. I still think she’s a wonderful singer and performer, and some of the music on Lemonade is fantastic. But I have to be honest, I preferred the old Beyoncé. The less inflammatory, agitating one.’



Where does white discomfort spring from? Is it embarrassment arising from white privilege? Is it a reluctance to admit white privilege in the first place? The panel spoke of it as what occurs when people of colour call white people out on unintentional racist remarks. (See here for a useful parody of ‘white sensitivity’)

I have my own experience of white discomfort. When living in London, I was invited to speak at a local church about Quakerism. During the Q&A, a black member of the congregation asked what I thought about Quakers and slavery. I started talking about John Woolman and the work of Quakers in the anti-slavery movement. She stopped me and said ‘but Quakers owned slaves!’ Things got rather heated after that. I was indignant that she’d asked a loaded question and I felt under attack. She was implacable, and was outraged that I would claim to be ‘proud’ of being part of a religious group that had once allowed the enslavement of people. It didn’t end well. Reflecting on the event years later, I can see that I was naïve in my understanding of Quaker history – Quakers did indeed enslave black people, and John Woolman spent a lot of his time trying to convince other Quakers to free them – and I should have approached the question with a greater degree of humility.

The panel also suggested that ‘liberal’ churches are more reluctant to talk about institutional racism than ‘conservative’ churches. White discomfort occurs when a white person feels they are accused of racism, but as one member of the panel pointed out, it would be very surprising to meet someone who wasn’t racist in some way. This isn’t about personal morality, it’s about admitting that we inhabit a system that is deeply racist. This then causes us to behave in an unconsciously biased manner. How could our racist culture not plant the seeds of racism within us? It’s not about attributing blame, but still being able to admit there’s a problem.

In the British Quaker community, I find ‘sin’ to be a dirty word. We are very reluctant to speak about sin. This may be for several reasons. Sin may be associated with crippling guilt, with unconvincing theories of the atonement, or with bad experiences in other churches. We also have a very optimistic view of human nature and moral progress, and talk of sin may seem to go against this. ‘That of God’ in everyone is sometimes translated to ‘that of good’ in everyone. I think as Quakers we’re also used to being the ‘good guys’, generally on the right side of history.

Are we one of those ‘liberal’ churches that find conversations about race difficult? If so, does our reluctance to speak about sin have an impact on our willingness to discuss race and systemic racism? Are we reluctant to admit that ingrained within us are the patterns of racism by virtue of the society we inhabit? Is this a kind of original sin that we soak up from the moment of our birth? Do we need to get better at talking about sin?

Is the behavioural creed a barrier to inclusion?

Something that many British Quakers will be familiar with is the anxiety that as a Religious Society we are too white, too middle class and too intellectual. (Although I would say this is true, it’s sometimes forgotten that globally there are a lot of black Quakers, although they’re mainly evangelical, and I get the impression that for many British Quakers, being evangelical is a Bad Thing.)

Accompanying the realization that, despite our theological pluralism, we are generally culturally homogenous, I feel that in general:

  • We are discomforted by this, as we want to be a diverse group
  • We don’t know how to become more diverse
  • We are worried that in order to attract more black people we would have to become evangelical like the Quakers in Kenya (which as I’ve said, many would see as a Bad Thing).

It is very easy to say that Quakerism is for everybody, and I think it should be for everybody, but it’s worth at least posing the question – is there something intrinsically white, middle class and intellectual about how we operate as British Quakers? As an educator I learnt that for a long time the British music education system claimed to be for everyone whilst favouring those students with certain musical values and backgrounds. Would it be that surprising if the way we are as Quakers is biased towards particular groups of people?

The collective identity of liberal British Quakers, rather than being formed around a particular story, is formed around how we do things, what Quaker scholar Ben Pink Dandelion has called a ‘behavioural creed’. Although the way Quakers behave has changed slowly over time (e.g. we no longer separate worshippers according to sex, the length of worship has decreased and worshippers rarely, if ever, kneel in prayer), with increasing diversity of belief the pressure to maintain behavioural conformity is even stronger. To change how we behave becomes a threat to our group identity.

For me this raises the question: is the behavioural creed a barrier to inclusion? The panel highlighted the difference between diversity and inclusion. Diversity is welcoming different people, but according to your rules. Inclusion is welcoming new people, and remaking the rules together. The message from this was – if you want to include more people, you have to be prepared to change. Authentic welcome means a readiness to take part in something new. At another point in the festival, I heard an Anglican priest relate how she had welcomed a large number of refugees into her church. The Guardian reported that ‘some members of the local congregation have been receptive. But many have left, saying they feel alienated by the hundreds of new-look Christians, uncomfortable with the multicultural flags and incredulous at what they see as people taking advantage of [Rev Sally] Smith.’

If we want to be more non-white and less middle class, are we willing to change?


Preparing to be discomforted

Chine McDonald closed the panel by quoting from Dr Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from A Birmingham Jail’:

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth… The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.’

I saw in this description of ‘creative tension’ a parallel with the words of early Quaker leader George Fox:

‘Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.’

With words like ‘cheerful’ and ‘blessing’, this passage sounds awfully nice, but answering that of God in someone is not about being nice, it is about challenge. Through public truthful living, we seek to challenge others to self-examination, ‘waking the slumbering Christ’, providing the opportunity to turn to the Light that shows us our darkness, opening the door to negotiation.

Are white Quakers ready to be discomforted? Are we ready to have that of God answered within us, and our darkness disclosed? As well as welcoming others so that they may be changed, are we ready to be changed in order that we may truly welcome others into our communities of faith?

Vibrant silence

Here’s the second of a few posts from my first, now deleted, blog that I think deserves a second reading, and a new home here at This was originally posted in May 2012, and was written during the developmental stages of the ‘Vibrancy in Meetings Programme‘, a project which is now coming to fruition.

Every now and again I take part in a Quaker Meeting for Worship that is totally silent: a whole hour where not a word is spoken. To an outsider looking in, all these occasions may look the same, but to the worshipper these experiences can vary wildly. Sometimes I rise at the end of worship with a sense of nourishment, and have at times been graced with a renewed sense of connectedness to my Friends, God and everything. I vividly remember one totally silent Meeting where I felt a palpable, heavy presence of love in the room, and the glances, smiles and excited words I exchanged with fellow worshippers afterwards confirmed that everyone felt the same. It was a truly gathered Meeting. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, I have also experienced silent worship that was silent for a very different reason. These silences were dead.

A research project is beginning in Britain Yearly Meeting to better understand what makes a Meeting vibrant. Why are some silences vibrant, alive, feeling-full, and others dead and drab? Although the felt presence of God in a Meeting for Worship is ultimately a grace, and not something we can control, I think the way we approach the silence is important. In many secular contexts, silence is a space to be filled. I have witnessed many Meetings for Worship where this attitude is apparent. The silence is a blank canvas for us to paint with our witty aphorisms and pious observations. This idea of silence only leaves us paddling in the shallows of God’s ocean. The silence is not the space into which we speak, or even a space to think. Silence is a response to the Divine. Indeed, it may perhaps be the most perfect response.


God dazzles Job with a sweeping poetic glimpse of the unfathomable mystery of creation. Job can only respond, “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth.” The Psalmist knows the limits of human knowledge when confronted with God’s presence: “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it” [Ps. 139:5-6]. I have heard ‘ministry’ that is so wordy or intellectual as to be incomprehensible. We can struggle so hard to formulate our thoughts in worship that we miss the mystery altogether.

Silence is a response to mystery. I feel here that Quakers have an affinity with the higher end of the church, as another response to mystery is music. C S Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters imagines a Hell where there is only noise, music and silence belonging to Heaven. Silence and music are the most appropriate responses to mystery, acknowledging unknowing and the limitations of words and concepts.

Silence is not a blank canvas, it is an offering. In worship we offer our silence as we would offer a hymn or a dance. I’d like to continue the art metaphor by suggesting that the blank canvas idea of silence is anesthetic – it results in a numb, feeling-less space where nothing grows. Conversely, silence as response, as offering, is aesthetic – a sensuous, feeling-full experience as one might experience through the arts or sexual intimacy, with vocal ministry flowing from and adding to its transformative power.

I’m not advocating that we should experience mystical ecstasy every time we worship together. Deep silence can also be characterized by obedient listening, and there may often be times when God seems absent, protecting us from addiction to spiritual thrills, as John of the Cross so wisely describes in his Dark Night of the Soul. However, in my experience, an anesthetic silence contains neither listening nor expectant waiting, but is simply dead.


Does vibrancy in a Quaker community flow from the quality of worship, or from the quality of everything else the Meeting does together? I’m becoming more and more convinced that vibrancy arises from relationship, and God is love, so God is relationship. I rarely feel called to minister at a Meeting where I am a stranger, and I think my lack of relationship with those present is part of that. The quality of our relationships with each other effect our communal worship. Jesus said that “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” [Matthew 5:23-24].

If we are experiencing ‘blank-canvas’ Meetings for Worship week after week, we must examine our attitude to the silence and our relationships with each other. How often do we see each other outside of Sunday morning? How willing are we to give our time to eat together regularly? Do we know the joys and sorrows of each other’s lives? We should not be satisfied with Meeting for Worship feeling continually like a dentist’s waiting room.

God, food and me

Before Jolly Quaker, I began my blogging adventure on, the catchily titled ‘Quaker Intentional Community in London’ blog. That blog no longer exists, and we never did start a Quaker intentional community in London, but many great conversations were had, and I wrote a few good posts. Here’s the first of a few that I think deserve a second reading, and a new home here at This was originally posted in April 2012.

I am convinced that at the heart of a community is a shared meal. When I consider my local Quaker Meeting, we eat together only once a month, and it is always precursor to something else, never existing for its own sake. More and more I am convinced that a stranger who attends meeting for worship and leaves after tea and a biscuit has witnessed only half of the Quaker experience. Meeting for worship is not complete until the community has broken bread together, and by that I mean shared a full sit-down meal.

In another post I’ll tackle these thoughts from a theological angle [this was ‘Quakers and the Peacemeal’, also posted in April 2012], but first I want to share my own experience of combining food and religion.


Growing up in a non-religious home, I rarely came into contact with the traditional Anglican wafer and wine communion. At 14, I was offered communion and informed that I was eligible to take it, having been baptised into the Church of England as a baby. As well as being confusing, now communion was offensive. Some were welcome to eat and some weren’t. It was absurdly exclusive. I was welcome not because of any belief or commitment, I was an atheist at the time, but because I’d been given a magic sprinkling to keep my grandparents happy.

At University, now a Quaker, I participated in ecumenical services. I was still uncomfortable with communion, especially with the bread in wafer form, and felt it to be part of my Quaker witness to abstain from taking part. I still wanted to demonstrate my unity with the other worshippers so I received a blessing. I couldn’t see why everyone didn’t want a blessing – the words (from Numbers 6:24-26) were beautiful and I found the physical laying a hand on my head a powerful gesture.

After University I began my relationship with Adrian, a Christian. We ended up going to the Greenbelt festival together. The big event where everyone came together was on the Sunday morning – communion. We sat with friends of Adrian’s. They were preparing to share flapjack and juice instead of bread and wine. Over the weekend I’d begun to think that maybe this might be the moment when I’d take communion for the first time. It had begun to take on an exotic flavour and attraction, and using flapjack and juice appealed to my love of being different. It got to the part of the service to share the bread. “This is it!” I thought, “my first communion!” At that moment I had a realisation. Underneath it all I had been hoping that one day I’d be holy enough to take it. Just in time I really understood that I didn’t need the symbolic elements to experience true communion with God and other people. I didn’t eat the flapjack, I asked for a blessing instead.


In the August of 2008 I encountered Sara Miles, whose books ‘Take This Bread’ and ‘Jesus Freak’ I highly recommend. The way she talked about communion in such a broad and inclusive way really caught my attention. The week after Sara and Paul, from St Gregory’s San Francisco, led a service at St Luke’s Holloway. The authenticity of the worship moved me deeply. I looked up and saw the ceiling covered with branches and the words ‘and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations’. I saw the people of God as the tree of life, with the Quakers as one branch, and myself as one of many leaves. We are for the healing of the nations. It was time for communion. We processed to the altar, encircled it and prayed. As the bread was broken, real bread, I realised I couldn’t separate myself. I had to express my unity with what had just occurred. I was given the bread and told ‘the body of Christ’, which I heard as an expression of Church unity. Feeling an overwhelming sense of God’s working through all communities passionate for peace and justice I ate the bread.

So now my attitude is that I’ll take communion if I feel moved to, which is more often than not, as a sign of hope for Church unity. The challenge for me now is how do I honour Jesus’ exhortation to remember him through food when the practice of remembering no longer exists in my Quaker community, and even eating together is rare?

[I should add that since 2012 my attitude has shifted once more. If I’m ever in a situation where I’m representing Quakers, at an ecumenical service perhaps, I wouldn’t take bread and wine communion, to honour Quaker sacramental understanding. However, if I’m ever in a worship situation where I’m present as myself and bread and wine communion is offered, I’ll always take it. I’ve come to realise that if bread and wine communion is a sign of church unity, I can’t choose to receive it only when I really like the worship. The church is messy and imperfect, just like me, and if I’m in, I’m in, both when its good and when its bad. As Dorothy Day said: ‘The church is a whore, but she’s my mother.’]

I originally noted down these thoughts in 2009, thinking of them as part of a manifesto for instituting Quaker Meeting for Eating. In my next post I will explain and explore how a shared meal both complements meeting for worship, provides new opportunities and experiences for vibrant community, and allows Christ-centred Quakers to remember Jesus in their faith community. How I long for the day when a Quaker Meeting sharing food every week is seen as a necessity and joy rather than a burden!