Wednesday, May 31, 2023

A way forward


In the Library. Thomas Pole. 1806

I have been giving some thought to what effect Britain Yearly Meeting 2023 has had on me.

I have been going to Yearly Meeting now, fairly regularly, for nearly 50 years. Sometimes it has been inspiring, sometimes difficult, even depressing, but I have kept on going as I always find something there to feed my spiritual life.

This time I found that, beginning with the introduction on the Book of Discipline Revision by Rosie Carnall, I was often reminded of my good intentions which I had not followed up on. I meant to send in possible extracts to the committee, particularly from the 18th century which is woefully under-represented at the moment - but I have not got round to doing it.

As I listened to Rosie - and to William Penn - the words of the pragmatic 18th century Quaker John Bellers came into my mind. In 1714 he said 'He that doth not write whilst he is alive can’t speak when he is dead.' Death is always a possibility but at 75 years old it feels closer than it once did. I have researched extensively and given talks and workshops on spiritual autobiography and 18th century Quakers. I have written blog posts on a variety of Quaker subjects but increasingly infrequently.

Sitting in the Yearly Meeting sessions I had an experience I have had before, an inward 'voice' prodding me, pushing me forward, repeatedly reminding me that I must write. If not now, when? I must send extracts to the Revision Committee. I must get on with my 18th century researches and put them into some order. I must write and even publish - articles or even a book - and I must come back to this blog.

So I have made a start by sitting down at my computer and returning to the work of transcribing the 18th century letters which I photographed in Friends House Library many months ago. Once that is done I hope I will see where to go next.

It was becoming clear to me before Yearly Meeting that I needed to step back from the many Quaker roles which I had undertaken and by the end of this year I will have let most of them go. At first I could not see a way forward from this but after Yearly Meeting I do. What I am working on may seem to others too personal, irrelevant to the wider world, but I have a sure sense that this is the path that I am being led, or 'pushed', to take. I will try to be faithful to that leading.



Friday, May 27, 2022

No More Quaker Heroes - or Villains

  A Book of Quaker Saints by Lucy V. Hodgkin

  illustrated by F. Cayley-Robinson

A Yearly Meeting preparation session on 'Uncomfortable Quaker Histories' which I attended on Zoom yesterday allowed me to revisit work I have done myself on challenging Quaker myths and legends and got me thinking about how to take this forward.

We were presented with stories of Quakers in Lancaster and in America (including William Penn) who had been profitably engaged in the Atlantic slave trade and who had not always been challenged effectively by their contemporaries. We were also reminded of the ambivalent attitude of some Friends in the past to the poor - only to be helped if they were suitably grateful and knew 'their place' and never wholly accepted as equals. In this context we were asked if a testimony to equality had ever existed.

Back in the 1980s I gave a series of talks on Quaker Myths and Legends, questioning assumptions that were taken for granted at the time such as equality between men and women and how the peace testimony came about. In 1986 I was part of the group who wrote and presented the Quaker Womens Group Swarthmore lecture 'Bringing the Invisible into the Light'. As well as questioning whether equality had always been an integral part of the Society of Friends, the lecture included examples of painful personal experience such as domestic violence among Friends. The lecture was welcomed by many but also provoked very strong negative reactions - disbelief that Quakers could act in this way and denial that Friends were not always perfect in their relations with others. A lot of the discomfort stemmed from our audacity in challenging some Friends' established world view.

We are now looking at our past again through the lens of sexism, racism and classism and what we are finding is uncomfortable. I would say that this is what an honest study of the past should be. There never were Quaker Saints. Quakers have always been humans with human imperfections, shaped by the wider society they found themselves in but also by changes in the practices and attitudes of the Society of Friends through the centuries. I think it is better and more helpful to identify with past Quakers who were not perfect than to put heroes and heroines on a pedestal from which they may come crashing down. We may feel shame at the actions of Friends in the past and seek in some way to make amends but I believe that we should also try to reach for understanding, to learn where we are going wrong now and how we may change and improve.

We may remove the name of William Penn from a room in Friends House but I hope we can continue to give him his due and not reject him totally as a Quaker villain. We should not reject his writings because of some aspects of his life because his words are still valuable. When my meeting was reading through Quaker Faith and Practice several years ago as part of the revision process I was surprised to find that the extracts Friends found most helpful were not the most modern writings but those by William Penn and Isaac Penington. 

We need meticulous research, such as we were presented with in the preparation session, looking in detail at Quaker links to slavery, attitudes to the poor and other marginalised groups. The more we learn the more we can understand rather than only condemn. Local studies are a good start but these themes also need to be seen in a wider context - for example the way in which womens' meetings evolved, their purpose and their influence.

I have tried in my biographical posts on this blog to include a broad range of past Quakers, including women of course but also lower class Quakers without much money. There are also 'difficult' Friends and those with mental health problems. Just a few examples are Ruth Follows, Thomas Shillitoe, Benjamin Lay and his wife Sarah, Josiah Langdale and Rebecca Jones. James Jenkins was trying to write honest rather than idealised testimonies to Friends he had known in the 18th century, There is much more work to be done to bring invisible poor Quakers, Quaker servants and Quaker people of colour into the light, but a start has been made.

If there is one lesson we can learn from the past it is that there should be no more Quaker Saints. We must do away with Quaker heroes but I hope we will not go to the other extreme and cast Friends as villains. Idealising the past makes us unable to face reality but so does seeing it only in black and white rather than in Quaker gray.

Sunday, January 09, 2022

Here I go again!

Woman at a window. Jacobus Vrel. 1654

In April last year I decided to try to resurrect this blog. I had good intentions but I only managed three posts in 2021, all in April!

Over the years I have often had problems with writing regularly here although, as I said last year, I have been writing regularly elsewhere. I think perhaps that a blog post feels like a substantial piece of writing - and certainly my historical posts do require quite a bit of research - so that I often feel too intimidated to begin.

With the beginning of a new year I feel inspired to try again, but not to be too hard on myself. I will aim to write once a month (or 12 times a year) and I will broaden my range of topics. Sometimes, as I am doing now, I will just sit down and write and see what comes. I will write about Quakers and Quaker history but may change my format. I hope to share some passages of Quaker writing that have helped me and may even suggest passages to the Book of Discipline Revision Committee! I may also share other passages that I have written in my commonplace book over the years.

Another way in which I hope to continue with this blog is through visual images. Over on Facebook I have been sharing art from my Pinterest boards each day without comment. Perhaps here I can comment about the art, the artist and what the image means to me.

I have good intentions but I have had those before and not written. Let's see how I get on in 2022!