Quakers and gender diversity

Can we as [Britain] Yearly Meeting acknowledge and welcome gender diverse people who are or would like to be among us? Can I as a trans woman contribute to our discernment?

I mourn the loss to the Society, and to my nonbinary Friend, who felt forced out of their meeting. I have met a gender critical feminist who also felt forced out of her meeting.

Do you know what “gender critical” means? It is like the few Friends who have a detailed knowledge of the political statements of Hamas, and the treaty obligations relating to Area C, when I mean well but have no real clue about Palestine and Israel: generally Friends do not form sides, but in these issues we come close. Many Friends will not have heard of Helen Joyce or Laurel Hubbard, or know why each is a hero and a villain to different sides. I might think of platypuses, giggle, and then need ten minutes to explain why.

We are constantly triggered. I can barely look at The Times. I read in the New Statesman that gender critical feminism is now respectable, and Cancellation will not work any more. So before meeting with Friends I write a letter, then find Friends sympathetic yet uncomprehending.

Facts matter. The last Labour government constructed a scheme whereby trans people would be treated as our true gender from the moment of deciding to transition, with trans women using what the Equality Act refers to as “single-sex” services for women, when there were only a few thousand trans people who were all expected to fit gender stereotypes. Now there are ten times the number, and the concept of “living as a woman” is known to be indefinable.

Trans women can be excluded from women’s services if it is “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”, and the courts are yet to flesh out what that means.

So both sides can have their cognitive bias of loss aversion activated. I know I am generally entitled to be in women’s spaces, and am triggered when Liz Truss deploys the magic words “single-sex” now redefined to mean excluding me. Others fear a flood of people looking like men in women’s spaces. Misinformation makes it worse: you can read online that only trans women with a gender recognition certificate, after a psychiatric diagnosis, are conditionally entitled to be in women’s spaces.

How can those on a Side hear and value each other when there is this Hell-spawned zero-sum game? For either I am allowed in, or excluded. One’s win is another’s loss.

Some Friends believe that preventing children from having puberty blockers, and 18 year olds from having cross-sex hormones, is protecting those children and young people. I disagree. I know that people of any age beginning to express ourselves in our true gender are intensely vulnerable, often suffering rejection and fearing it everywhere.

I know that Friends, gender critical feminists, have experienced the oppression of patriarchy including male sexual violence, even within our Society. I know that they are entitled that Friends do what we can to reduce that oppression. I do not believe that excluding me from spaces I have been in as of right and often welcomed for years will reduce that oppression.

It seems to me that Friends who are gender critical feminists are particularly distant from feminine gender stereotypes, and have a great deal in common with nonbinary people who were assigned female at birth. To a great extent their aims to subvert gendered expectations are the same, and their conflict is merely over language. But gender critical feminists have told me all women are oppressed by feminine stereotypes equally. Some gender critical Friends have applied the words “gender diverse” to themselves, however uncomfortably.

Welcome means individual meetings welcoming particular individuals, knowing and affirming the whole person. Yet one meeting’s minute can offend Friends in other meetings, who then feel less welcome.

I know that expressing myself as a woman is living my truth, and that living my truth helps others do the same. I know trans men are men, trans women are women, nonbinary people are valid, and that my being trans is as real and worthy of affirmation as anything else that is biological. I know all aspects of being human are subsumed under socially constructed meaning and culture.

I have enough experience of speaking from my Inner Light to believe I can do it all the time, and develop theory around what that means, what helps, and what hinders. I know this means casting aside the stereotypes through which I habitually interpret the World, and seeing people individually. I quail from the overwhelming amount of new information intake that would mean. And sometimes God in me sees God in the other, and I feel joy.

In worship, I feel turmoil. Jesus said,

I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

And,

How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.

Writing out of the Silence

The world has depth. The world is magical. There is infinite complexity and beauty beyond the surfaces we impose and the concepts we use to manipulate the world. We need the concepts to get what we want.

The world is huge. There is God in all of it: all the people and all the things. I want to bring treasure back, for the delight of Friends. I find it within. I shall find the beauty and truth in myself, and use it to bless others.

Imperfection is only in our minds. I don’t want to say “All I need is freely available” facilely, but I have usually had what I needed- except at the trauma. I don’t want to say “Flow like water” facilely, as conscious incompetence is good too: but that is also Flow, as its desire is not divided, like mine is- for appearances, what I ought to want, propitiating my inner Idol. Out of many desires, I will make one, by submitting to God within.

God, Love, is who I am. I am who I am. I am waiting for what I want to happen, or I am maturing, changing like a chrysalis, reordering within. I do not know what that would look like. False ideas of God get in the way of the reality of God. What must I let go?

I submit, to God, or to a great lie that is my enemy, an illusion that promises little and gives nothing. If I am struggling, the struggle is unconscious. I could not bear my fear and sadness if I were conscious of them, but sometimes I become conscious of them and the world comes alive.

I am never safe. The way I seek safety is barren. Only love is real.

Stating my needs

I was blessed today by a beautiful role-model. She stated her needs as she saw them, fully and completely. I wasn’t taking notes, so I am not completely sure how she expressed them. It was hard to hear. She said she needed “single-sex spaces” because of male violence against women. I don’t know if she used the term “trans women”, but I don’t think so. I am pretty sure she spoke about “male-bodied people” meaning trans women. I know she meant trans exclusion. She claimed that the Equality Act allowed “single-sex spaces” which is misleading: the Equality Act allows women’s spaces, which include trans women (anyone who has decided to transition male to female). Trans women can be excluded too, but that is a separate step requiring separate justification. Continue reading

The theology of Advices and Queries

Can we find a Quaker understanding of God in Advices and Queries?

Advices and Queries are guidance for life, rather than a creed. They are practical guidance on how to relate to God and each other. And in their repeated references to God we find an understanding of how God is thought to act on us, and who God is.

As well as 43 references to God throughout, there are references to “the divine” (3), the “spirit of Christ” (2), the Holy Spirit (3), the Light (5) and the spirit of God (7). I am not clear that these phrases mean anything different, here, from the word “God”, but Advices and Queries are closer to poetry than to statute, and different phrases may evoke different understandings as we grow in our relationship with God.

God is in us (2), and in everyone (17). Does God have an existence beyond humanity? Several references seem to indicate that: the phrase “the splendour of God’s continuing creation” could be a claim that God is in all that is, or in some way eternal and beyond it (42). When we worship, it appears that we have one communal experience of God: we can be aware of “God’s presence among us” (12). We can be aware of God at any time (7), but when we come together in worship we find “God’s love drawing us together” (8). And a visitor to our homes, who might not have direct experience of God in them, might “find the peace and refreshment of God’s presence” there (26).

God is vulnerable, and needs to be cherished (2). We can be distracted and disturbed (12), or turn to God; we can open ourselves to God, but God is at work in us even when we are not aware of God (7). Our proper attitude is reverence for God (9) and for life (42). Jesus’ relationship with God (4) is our example, to challenge and inspire us.

God is intimately involved with us: there are references to God’s love, guidance, presence, gifts, word (in vocal ministry, 12), forgiveness, help, purposes, and God’s will (36) for individuals or divine guidance (14) for the community.

God is in everyone, and may be working in them though we cannot see it (17). I cannot judge what God wants for any other person, 19 says: I might think that I know more than a child, but must learn from them, “leaving them free”- God leads them as God wills. We have a responsibility to nurture children, not to constrain them. Our “wishes and prejudices” (36) should not get in the way, and we can still help them discern God’s will for them.

We have responsibilities to God, including our standard of integrity (38), which should be “strict” (37).

Some of this fits my experience of God, and some challenges my ideas. I am a materialist. I do not believe in a divine creator: I can see “that of God in each person” has a useful meaning, and relates to human psychology in a useful way, but find “God’s continuing creation” more difficult. This cuts to the heart of disputes around nontheism in the Society: will we be religious, if atheists can expunge all references to God that they do not like?

When I contemplate all that is, I know that I do not understand it all, and that wonder, awe and reverence are valuable attitudes to it. So seeing God in everything may have value as a metaphor, reminding me of that. And calling the part of me which seems to best fit this conception of Light or Spirit “God” helps me balance my value with the value of other Quakers, other people, and wider reality. Spiritual language can only approach reality, not convey it like a scientific text hopes to.

When I first started attending, contemplating Advices and Queries helped me commit to the Society. I use them in outreach. I recommended them to American Friends, and one wrote that he “was so profoundly touched and inspired by the freshness and the vitality of these advices and queries that I wanted to share them more widely”, including to non-Quaker friends. Expunging any suggestion in them that there is a God beyond the brains of humans should not be done lightly; what do love and integrity require of us?

As an atheist, I would not want a lowest common denominator, when the word “God” was used only when everyone could agree on it. 17:

When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people’s opinions may contain for you.

Instead, I notice the word, and see what meaning I find in it.

Hope, beauty, and God Within

I need a source of hope, and wondered if I might find it in beauty.

I have slept in the same bed every night since January 2020. I have not gone on a bus since about March 2020. I see people almost every day on Zoom, and often can be heard on it, saying what I believe, showing who I am, and being affirmed for that. Perhaps this is why I value the blog so much, as I am heard there. I want to be seen. I want to be heard.

If I know I am valued, it has to be by myself. I noticed when I transitioned that I got a lot of love and acceptance from colleagues and the Quaker meeting, and yet when someone was rude in the street it affected me for days. I realised that the rejection of some random stranger meant more to me because it was echoed in myself. I had to create my own self-acceptance before that of others meant anything to me. This may be ABdP Johnson’s superpower: an invincible sense of his own worth, which survives all the condemnation of others, and all the damage he does.

My hope was that I could come wholly into the present moment through perception, with feelings through my fingertips as I touched whatever I could, in the beauty of the park, its trees and birds. I would simply be me in my perception, relating directly to the world. Relating to beauty and feeling delight I would gain a sense of self. This is who I am, the being that loves this.

On Friday 4th I met J, who told me some of the bad management and bullying of the office she is leaving. Even Paul, the most equable and self-effacing of men, had made a complaint. This brought to mind my troubles in various offices over ten years, which though they ended ten years ago feel as alive, as I type, as they did then. Further psychotherapy is a possibility.

On Monday 30th, in worship, it seemed to me that I had to let go of any desire for an outcome from the Yearly Meeting on gender. What was required of me was Love, including for “gender-critical” Quakers; and faith, trust in the process of worshipful discernment. This seemed like spiritual preparation, and letting go seemed like being better attuned to reality. Perhaps they were.

On Tuesday evening in worship I felt rage and terror, my old emotions. The thought came to me,

I have a right to exist.

I felt that “the iron enters into my soul”. That is from the 1662 prayer book rendering of Psalm 105:18, and is not the usual translation. I find it evocative, as a double meaning- iron cutting the soul, or infusing and strengthening it.

While the anti-trans campaigners have a rigid refusal of sympathy to trans women- women’s needs, reality and bodies should not be subordinated to “men’s feelings”, they say- my feelings matter.

If it is a matter of my feelings, it is the difference between expressing who I am freely and being forced into a mask, a pretence, an act, a falsehood, and the desolation I would feel at that falsehood.

I have blogged a lot. My fascination with blog statistics comes from my hunger to be seen and heard. And I grow sick of it, indeed of all social media. Of twenty posts in May, Google lists only seven of them: if you search for a direct quote from the others, Google will draw a blank. It is not a way to be seen. And, the anti-trans campaigning is fierce. If I check a trans facebook group, I am likely to see rigid, hateful articles by transphobes shared, to show how commonplace and orthodox anti-trans arguments are in Britain, and defiant, angry, or miserable comments after. It makes me ill. If that transphobe wins her case at the Employment Appeal Tribunal, I would have critiqued the judgment, but feel no appetite to. Though, if she wins, it will advance the Equality Act, protecting beliefs even if they are disgusting and irrational. The question of how acting on belief might be protected would remain open.

So I may not blog so much. Advices and Queries tells me that if I “cherish that of God within” me, “the healing power of God’s love” will “grow in [me] and guide” me. This is my working theory on what “that of God in me” might mean, and what might get in the way of me hearing it.

What stops me hearing it is my judgment of what it ought to say, based on introjects and learned morality. That of God in me is that which I locked away and silenced, which began to emerge in February 1999, my feminine self that feels rage and terror at assertions that I should present male. It is that in me which is burned out by work, so that I could no more go into my old office and attempt a PIP or UC appeal than I could call myself John again.

The closest thing to ego in me is denial that I am burned out at all, and a belief that I could go back to work if I had to, sustained by as rigid a denial as that which I needed to present male. It is that which drives me on to work harder than I can at exercise, and creates misery at my judgment on my own inadequacy.

I could not see God in me, for how can I see what I think of as wholly inadequate and call it God? I am delighted today to come across the concept of Theopaschism, belief in a God who suffers, indeed a God who suffers for me. I must dive to the depths of the suffering in order to fully experience the delight.

So, this month. Less blogging, probably. Time spent consciously seeking out delight in beauty. Acknowledging the misery, weakness, anguish, rage and terror. I am still seeking out health, power, strength, effectiveness, as always, but seeking them through what I have seen as weakness, for in my weakness is my strength.

Is the Quaker meeting a safe space?

The Meeting might seem a safe space, where we come together in Friendship to worship. We come to recharge, away from the World, to be better fitted to live in it. Often it is. I come away feeling loved. And “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”.

God gave me a gentle working over at Zoom worship, reducing me to tears. I hope I come away with strengthened Love, better fitted for my world, with greater understanding, and it was painful. It did not feel safe at the time.

There was a harsh sound like a fog-horn, in repeated blasts, and I was irritated. Someone should mute themselves. They are not showing proper respect to the meeting. Such a horrible sound would distract anyone. I was certain of the rules, and my entitlement.

Then my wise Black Friend ministered on the love and mercy of God, quoting psalm 139 on God’s inescapability. Black Friends have told me the Quaker meeting is not always a safe space. “Can I touch your hair?”

The meeting is safe as far as we work to make it so. We have love, one for another. The practice of sitting still, like poker players where a sigh or the slight tightening of muscles indicates inner turmoil, is an attempt not to distract our Friends. (I find sitting still difficult.) Only love will bind us together, create safety amongst ourselves as we run our meeting, with our different desires and understanding.

Some find that having something to do with their hands, such as knitting, seems to help them centre down. Others find this distracting- perhaps, it is the sense that the crafters are breaking the rules. They should not be doing that. Here is a Quaker discussion. Love can bring us together- the person who is easily distracted, the person who needs something to do with their hands, and others supporting both.

Looking back at it, Quakers are delighted with our 2009 YM, agreeing that we would treat gay marriages precisely equally with straight marriages. This outcome was not widely predicted. Gay Friends went to YM feeling valued members of their meetings, their relationships accepted, even celebrated, knowing that “the acceptance of homosexuality distresses some Friends”. Those Friends too might be apprehensive about the meeting. We came together in Love, led by Spirit, and other yearly meetings have split over accepting gay people, each side believing they were rooted in Christian principle and even in Love.

Again Friends approach YM in fear. Again, our sense of ourselves- the trans person, and the gender critical- feel threatened. With the clerk in a discussion group, I knew I should not lobby her about the Correct Result of YM, but the temptation was so great I could not speak about the topic.

We must be prepared to be changed. I have been changed beyond recognition, and as God Loves me into wholeness it has been intensely painful. In Meeting I am weeping, for myself and for the World. And at the end of the meeting I hear the foghorn again, accepting it. It does not bother me, and I weep again in joy.

Only Love can save us. All will hear things that might hurt them, but the meeting is not mine to control, and others will say what seems to them right at the time, which may be an act of courage. I pray for a good result, and try to let go of conceptions of what that result should look like.

Becoming the whole self

Trying to make a man of myself was a betrayal. How can I heal that trauma now?

Quakers will be considering trans rights in August, and I am optimistic and pessimistic at once. Possibly we will have a revelation, as we did with equal marriage in 2009. And Quakers can be conflict-avoidant and arrogant, imagining we know best and we can reconcile conflicts. So some well-meaning Quakers might try to find a reasonable middle line between trans people and the anti-trans campaigners. And some Quakers are anti-trans campaigners, imagining themselves good and righteous and wanting all trans women out of women’s spaces, and all treatment for trans children to cease.

I must convince them trans is real.
I fear nothing I can say will be enough.

I thought, if I can show trans people cannot be other, are not making a lifestyle choice but expressing our essence, then they might accept trans rights are at least of equal importance to others’ rights. If we could be other, I would be. I fought to make a man of myself. I paid privately for aversion therapy. I asked a priest to lay hands on me to heal me.

And I am weeping helplessly, wordlessly, convulsed in my pain and grief, screaming and moaning. I fought like that to make a man of myself because the fear of death was in me.

There is a me that just wants to survive
That, with hands round my throat holding me underwater
will do anything.
There is one goal.
What I preserve of myself there is mere life.
Everything else is stripped away.

For the avoidance of doubt, this is a metaphor. Being drowned is the only metaphor that captures the fear for me. It is the small child, dependent on parents, distraught when love is taken away. And, to forgive the betrayal of ceasing to express me, becoming the male-acting automaton, I need to fully acknowledge the threat I experienced. I was forced, and it was not my fault.

That was when I was broken, as a horse is broken.
After, I would do anything to avoid being underwater.
I worked it out, so I did not need telt.
I forgave my mother’s, and the world’s, betrayals:
there is nothing to forgive.
The betrayal I cannot forgive is my own.

I want to be Perfect-me,
that being that does everything I ought to do,
want to do,
would like to do
have to do to survive
effortlessly.
Without perfect me
all I have left is failure and betrayal.

There is no perfect-me. My betrayal of myself was under pressure I could not have borne.

I take a postmodern view of Wisdom-sayings. If it has some meaning or value for me, I accept that, and I don’t care if that is its “true” or “original” meaning. If it’s a proper wisdom-saying, I doubt it could have one true meaning. If it has no meaning for me, I can let it go. Sometimes, when I loathe a wisdom saying, it can be particularly fruitful. I can’t get my head round Jamie’s idea of the “walking permission slips”, being ourselves and allowing others to become themselves too.

I know I am myself
interpreting a statute
comforting a friend in tears
cycling uphill and downhill
confident and assured, or doubting and fearful.
Always there is the sense of threat.

And there’s something there, of being fully aware of the feelings, of being in the doubt and fear without regressing to the traumatised child, who felt fear and shut down. Fear must not be a switch, to turn me off, or to beat me. It must be integrated into my adult self. So there’s another bit to my verse which is true but difficult. I don’t want to say it and it is just cheap consolation.

Oh the beauty and wonder of it
It is too much for me to bear
and it is all glorious.

The glory comes if I can feel the feelings fully, and still function. The glory is in being fully myself, feeling all my feelings. It is not easy.

Then, to a Zoom group. How is S? I saw his email. He is detained in a mental hospital, and desperate to get out. I am pretty sure he needs the anti-psychotics, and he hates them because they mute his spiritual experiences. Right at this moment I sympathise. Feeling the full range of feelings seems insane: people will be shocked and disgusted. I feel disinhibited, tempted to behave inappropriately. I want to stop twitching.

A Black woman went to Kenya when she was twenty, in a gap year, and saw a picture of Jesus Mary and Joseph. She could see it was them, the haloes proved it- and they were Black. It was the first time she had seen such a thing, just in a souvenir shop, hunting at the last moment for tatty souvenirs. It touched her deeply, and she expresses that. And I am feeling all the sense of liberation I imagine could be in that moment. I am remaking myself, closer to the image and likeness of God.

All glorious? I want to insist on that. Everything that is. All of humanity. And one says the larger the church, the more evil can hide in it. Yeah, s’pose. Possibly the glory is me, the full feeling self. And I am not alone.

This is not for everyone. My colleague was born again, and felt liberated from a life of drunken sexual promiscuity. The rules felt protective. She wanted something formal, secure and comforting. And I want something more: the Glory of God, the full glory of my whole self. To be the whole human, and give permission for others to be whole too: answering that of God in every one.

Sunday 16th: before worship, I read various stuff on conversion therapy, including a transphobic lie. I am wound up. Then in worship Dugan quotes QFP 2.12. Suddenly

I am the light. I am the Fullness.

I am the light, noticing, accepting, loving. Rather than descending into that part of me which is wound up, and stewing in it during meeting, or attempting to suppress it, I am the Light, aware of it, noticing, accepting, loving it. Noticing, accepting, loving, all of me- body, thoughts and feelings- and being in the Love. It makes me think of George Fox’s instruction to dwell in the power of life and wisdom. Ministry moves on to the conflict in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. It is hard to hear this in love. Now, there is my reaction and the other person as well, to hold in awareness and to love. Finally there’s the sound of a music keyboard through someone’s zoom account. That’s against the rules. What is he thinking? Still there can be the other person, my reaction, and me in the Light, noticing, accepting, loving all. That would be a dwelling-place of tremendous power. It is something to practice. It is a religious experience this morning, an hour of fabulous wonder, and I want to take it out into all of my life, so it becomes my normal state. I ministered, explaining some of this.

Yearly Meeting and Trans people

At our Yearly Meeting Quakers in Britain will consider “acknowledging and welcoming gender-diverse people”. This will be

early steps in a longer journey. As a starting point, we hope to name the places where there is unity, acknowledge that there are trans people in Quaker communities and state that they are welcome.

We are enjoined to respect our diversity and “take care over how you communicate”, and told bullying will not be tolerated, either from unconscious patterns of behaviour or deliberately: people breaching the guidelines may be excluded. Immediately I feared being excluded, which I hope is just a paranoid reaction on my part. I don’t know it has ever been seen necessary to warn against bullying before. I agree bad behaviour is more likely online than in person, and Quakers are not immune.

And, the distress felt by people affected may result in hasty words. I hope this could be handled with sympathy rather than condemnation. Stating that trans people are welcome seems innocuous, and minimal, but do we trans people feel it? I know trans people who have been in dispute with meetings. A cis woman Friend, with whom I reconciled after years, suggested trans women were like teenage girls. Well, possibly. We are in adulthood coping with unfamiliar hormones which change us, and coping with the loss of male privilege passing as straight. Even if that trans person who left was being totally unreasonable, could love have found a better way?

There is huge hurt around gender diversity. I know of trans people, allies, and sex-based rights campaigners who have felt unable to continue worshipping with their meeting or with Friends.

The hurt is not always expressed as hurt. Arguments for reducing trans rights may be couched in impersonal, superficially rational terms, without expressing underlying hurt, which I believe is the trauma of male privilege and violence. I am aware of male violence against women even among Quakers. Asking people to express their hurt makes them vulnerable, so requires a space where they feel safe. Rooms full of Quakers do not automatically feel safe for everyone.

We do not share language. The concept of “sex-based” rights is an attempt to exclude trans women from women’s spaces by stating we change gender but not sex. Sex-based rights campaigners can demand the end of trans rights without mentioning trans people, because of their definition of “woman”. There is a campaign against “medicalising children”- that is, to prevent trans children having treatment they, their parents and specialist doctors consider necessary.

I am glad documents for YM use the term “gender diverse”- in my experience sex-based rights campaigners are often particularly different from feminine gender stereotypes, and have a great deal in common with nonbinary people and trans men. However, they might say all women are oppressed by those stereotypes.

We do not share facts. Trans women have been in women’s spaces for decades, and with legal entitlement since the Equality Act 2010. Some campaigners argue the law is far more restrictive.

A Friends Quarterly article included the claim that most trans women do not have genital operations, based on a false interpretation of the source it cited. The scary idea of penises in women’s spaces is used to incite fear of trans women.

I have seen a minute claiming that adolescent children are making life-changing decisions, that is, getting hormone treatment they will later regret. In fact, since November 2020 trans children have been refused hormone treatment their doctors recommended, because of a high court decision.

If you include Quakers who support trans rights, like me, and those Quakers who are anti-trans campaigners, there is no unity. Individual Quakers do not have a right to “stand in the way” of a Yearly Meeting decision if most Friends are convinced it is a spiritual leading; but a decision can hardly exclude those most involved or concerned in the issue.

Unity might have to go back to the most basic principles. Quakers value Equality. But we do not all agree about Privilege. White straight men with professional careers can get nervous when the word is mentioned, as if it were an attack on them. Privilege is usually unconscious. Stevie Krayer’s article in The Friend gives an example: she had an immediate reaction she then analysed, and found it was unconsciously racist. Quakers may have such reactions without performing the necessary analysis, and, believing their adherence to the testimony to equality is sufficient protection, not see their unconscious prejudice. Society is awash with racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. People, even Quakers, take it into themselves unconsciously.

The sex-based rights campaigners would argue I have male privilege. In a negotiation, I would not want to concede that. But a Meeting for Worship is not a negotiation, but coming together in Love under Spirit.

I love meeting on Zoom. I have experienced gathered meetings on Zoom. Some Friends have not found Zoom meeting nourishing and sustaining, and miss meeting in person; when meeting for worship in person has been discontinued some have not worshipped on Zoom.

God moves in mysterious ways. I trust the process of meeting. I know that for there to be progress, people must come prepared to be changed. Common-sense, rational answers will get nowhere.

Meeting for Stillness

Does the term “Meeting for Worship” put off people who are “Spiritual, but not religious”? Jan Arriens in The Friend suggested “Meeting for Stillness”, and Peter Jarman dismissed worship as “what happens in other churches”.

As an Anglican I believed in God the Eternal Father, Whom I worshipped. Just before I came to Quakers I found Matthew Fox’s explanation of Panentheism, God suffusing all that is, and later William Blake’s statement “Everything that is, is holy”. Rather than worshipping, I was communing- with the Mystery, with that which is greater than myself.

I took a combative line as a Christian against the non-theists: it’s a Meeting for Worship, we must be worshipping something, and was referred to Old English: weorþscipe, meaning worth or dignity: noun, not verb. But I still think Quakers have always used the term as a transitive verb. We worship God. What of those who reject God, as refugees from the Churches, or consider God a superstition? Meeting as a spiritual practice has value, and does not depend on belief.

Some might come to us having meditated, as a Buddhist or even non-religious practice. We tell them our meeting for worship is not meditation, as it is something we do together. Well, Buddhists meditate together, but in Meeting someone may feel moved to speak in love for the others gathered there, and for the World.

Jan referred to David L. Saunders’ article saying stillness is so much more than silence, which is merely the absence of speech or noise: it is about Presence. Be still and cool in thy own mind. In stillness, Saunders says, we seek the place of being, encounter, power.

There is no silence outside an anechoic chamber. Friends can worship at a noisy demonstration. There will always be distraction: I try not to be distracted, and sometimes the distraction inspires me.

Stillness is also a deceptively simple concept, the absence of motion. I sit in stillness for what happens in stillness to my perceptions, of my surroundings, the others with me now, and my accumulated experience of life in the world.

In a “Meeting for Worship” I still think you must be worshipping something. I turn outward to the mystery of all that is outwith myself, and inward to what is within me but beyond my ordinary conscious experience. What do I worship? If forced to put it in a simple phrase, I would say the “Mystery of being”, but the phrase does not satisfy me. I want a phrase which is immediately understandable- like, “Meeting for Stillness”- but which leads the enquirer attender or member into new depths. If I said I worshipped God, I would mislead some, and deter others. I am not a theist.

I do not like the word “Meeting for Worship”. I thought of “Meeting for Contemplation”. Meeting needs our concentrated attention, and diligent practice.

Another alternative is simply “Meeting”. At the moment it is shorthand- we go to Meeting, we say. It could be the whole term. Meeting what? Each other, or- something else, perhaps.

I thought of “Holy Meeting” or “Sacred Meeting”- a time set apart from worldly concerns- but these words remind me of the Christianity which at least since Constantine has been used to oppress people and maintain worldly control, and I support the seeker’s rebellion against that.

Meeting. Or, Meeting for Stillness. A practice of Love which helps human beings reach our full potential as individuals in community.

Quakers in Britain have a similar issue having rejected the word “Overseer”, meaning, roughly, pastoral carer, but not agreed on a single preferable term yet. We should check the terms we use periodically: might they mislead, or put off, someone who might otherwise join us? Are they accurate descriptions of the things they refer to?

Quakers and Equality

Quakers have no hierarchy, but we have leadership. Every time someone speaks in ministry in the business meeting, they offer leadership. The rest decide whether to follow or not. With a single leader, decisions might be made more quickly, and not necessarily less well, if that leader listens to others. If anyone can lead, everyone has to be willing and able to follow when appropriate, or we just bicker pointlessly.

This is difficult, and requires practice. On listening to others, Britain YM’s Advices and Queries says, “try to sense where [the words] come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people’s opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language.” We have to be careful in both speaking and listening.

Every human being has inexpressible value. We are made in the image of God. Jesus says the hairs of your head are numbered, all valued by God. Quakers say there is that of God in every one. I am materialist, averse to the idea of a mind or soul in a body, so think of it as the incomprehensibility of the whole human, responding in the moment, so much greater than ego or consciousness which is just a part of it.

On the spiritual path, we learn our value, and the value of every other human being.

Unfortunately, out in the world, we learn the opposite. Capitalism values people for what they produce. White supremacy and the ideology of empire values white people higher than others. Men are valued higher than women. People who have been to university or have higher status jobs are valued higher than others. Certain accents are valued more highly.

My autistic friend is devalued because of his difficulty reading certain social cues, rather than valued for his excellent memory and systematising ability.

In hierarchy, life is a struggle. How can I exalt myself, and do others down? Or, how can I keep up? In the Kingdom of Heaven, which is among us, ready for us to step into it, everything is beautiful. Just as we seek the value in others’ words, we seek the value in everything, and are rewarded by seeing it. What is there that is good, in this moment, situation, encounter?

We grow up in the world, we are steeped in the world, and we are imbued with the world’s habits of hierarchy. It teaches us not to see God in the other. Seeing God needs practice, effort and thought. The unconscious reaction that another is a lower status person is hard to shake off. First we have to become conscious of it. My source of pride, that I am white and educated, is an invisible barrier preventing me from seeing the value of others. It is painful to lose something that is a source of pride, and gives a sense of entitlement and safety in the world, yet felt so normal and natural I thought no more of it than I think about gravity.

Quakers are wrestling with these matters now. Iowa YM (Conservative) asked “How is white supremacy keeping us from hearing God’s voice?” Well, by making Black people uncomfortable amongst us, so that they do not stay, or do not imagine they will be welcome, and by making white people think less of Black people’s ministry. More widely, our privilege stops us listening to the disprivileged, and makes them feel unwelcome. We do not hear the voice of God in the words of those we subtly devalue.

I am aware that the Black person’s experience of a Quaker gathering may differ from my own. I feel assured of my welcome and that if I speak I will be listened to. A Friend told me of Quakers touching her hair, a put-down so cliched that it made a book title. Perhaps the white Friend thought she was being friendly. She meant no harm. She was blind to the disrespect she exuded.

With LGBT folk, in the 1950s Quakers might tell them their love was sinful. Since then we did a great deal of discernment to come to the point where we support equal marriage, but Meetings have split over the matter, and even now some LGBT folk feel pressure to appear normal among Quakers.

Our initial steps to include disabled people can feel othering: it is what we, the good Quakers, who are able-bodied, do for them, the disabled. A ramp gets a wheelchair into the building, but not necessarily its occupant into the position of trust and service fitting their potential. Or some talk of how “we Quakers” are well-off, which can make people who are struggling financially feel excluded. In reality it should be what we can do for us- every person has gifts, strengths, needs and weaknesses, and we must care for each other, allowing each to serve.

When we restrict the range of people in our meetings we restrict the range of perspectives we hear. The Spirit speaks through people, and cannot say what her instruments are incapable of saying. White supremacy restricts God’s voice among us.

Most Quakers come to the Society as adults. We are on a spiritual path. We are not perfect. We do the work necessary as we become aware it needs done.