Sunday, 3 May 2020

Online life

posted by kathz

Online life is still life, as I’ve been reminded by a blogpost from Rhiannon Grant.

I’ve been using the internet for a long while and I’m in a very happy relationship which started online. Other people are much less experienced with the internet and are trying to get used to the different conventions and kinds of contact it offers. Rhiannon’s blogpost, which can be reached by clicking here, offers some helpful advice.

This doesn’t mean we should expect everyone to use the internet. There are still people who have good reasons to stay away from online experiences as well as others for whom it’s impossible. We still need to value the experience and insights of those who stay away from the virtual world. If we care about equality, we need to remember that the most valuable insights we can gain will often come from those who don’t share our experience or perspectives. These are the insights that can help us learn.

We can also help one another by talking about the aspects of online Meeting for Worship and other online encounters that are difficult. For example, I don’t like the idea of everyone else staring at me in my home. This may say something about my working-class origins - I’ve always felt uncomfortable about the way middle-class people spend so much time discussing their own and other people’s home decor. I’m also lousy at housework. Other people may have other concerns - about how they look or sound or about the difficulty of socialising in a large group when Meeting has ended.

If we’re concerned about equality and building a community in which everyone is valued and loved, we need to be attentive to one another’s concerns and thoughtful about how we respond. It’s not easy to express a lack of confidence when others seem secure. And it’s worth remembering that equality is very hard to practise in a world where inequality is taken for granted.

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Technical Glitches

posted by kathz

In the past fortnight, online Meetings have not all gone well for me. There have been some really good Meetings that nourished me. But there have also been occasions when i couldn't get past the technical glitches.

For one Zoom Meeting for Worship, I couldn't get the video linkup to work for half an hour. For another it didn't work at all. And when I tried a Meeting using adobe connect it kept failing - and I couldn't, in the short time when the connection was good, work out how to manage the video or the microphone.

It's hard to express how painful it is to try to attend a Meeting for Worship and then be distracted or turned away by a technological glitch. It's as though I came to a Meeting House and was told I couldn't go in, or entered a Meeting and was continually distracted by someone whispering in my ear and my own stomach rumbling.

But it has made me think more about those without the technology to attend, or those who choose instead to find stillness on their own. I haven't got a pat solution to offer. Those who find stillness on their own may yet find a way of sharing what they find with the wider Meeting.

The question of those who can't attend for other reasons is one which concerns me more deeply. There are many reasons why people might be unable to join any online Meeting for Worship. These reasons include poverty (the technological equipment and the broadband or data necessary all cost money); a crowded household in which a shared time of stillness would impinge unfairly on others and their needs; and a situation of abuse in which that time of stillness with others will be either prevented or punished by physical or psychological violence.

All these things - poverty, a crowded household with demands, and abusive relationships - affect members of the Quaker community and those who would wish to worship with us. Quite often those in such circumstances feel unable to share those aspects of their lives. And, as a Quaker community, we are poorer for not hearing from them. It is possible that  they have spiritual insights which we are currently losing. It is possible that hearing of their experience - their expertise on their own circumstances - could teach the rest of us.

I don't have a solution to this. I wish I did.

Thursday, 16 April 2020


posted by kathz

I'm used to being a helper. I'm used to doing things for other people. And suddenly the best I can do for others is nothing at all - or what seems like nothing at all. At the same time lots of people - often people whose work has been barely noticed - are doing a great deal to help people like me. They are the shelf-stackers, the shop assistants, the cleaners, the transport workers, the people who make deliveries and so many others as well as the porters, pharmacists, care workers, nurses, doctors and others within the health and  social care sectors. Members of the armed forces - now working to build hospitals that may save lives - are doing more than I am. I'm mostly staying home.

At home I have enough to eat. I can cope with the lack of flour or tinned tomatoes. I'm warm. I'm safe. Others are going without food, have no home or are in places that are not safe. I am privileged.

I am privileged without the power to help anyone or to change the world.

As a Quaker and as a human being I care about equality. At the moment Quakers in Britain are considering questions of privilege and inclusion and it is an uncomfortable process. No-one likes to be reminded that they are more privileged than others - and people who are less privileged often find it painful to talk about their experiences of exclusion. Some people will argue that privilege is allied to power and that power can be used to achieve change for good. They can point to cases where this has happened.

The effects of the Covid-19 virus remind me how profoundly unequal society is in Britain and in the wider world. My privilege is not earned. It is a matter of luck - and it isn't accompanied by power. 

Some of the people doing vital work at  the moment may be among those who lack a safe place to live. They may be dependent on food banks. At the same time they are risking their lives for people like me.

Helplessness is hard to live with. How much more pleasant it is to help people than to receive help. But if I'm able to to offer help again, I hope I remember this experience of helplessness. I may find I know a little more about how those needing help feel. I must remember that those needing help may be among those who worked to save lives or make other people's lives bearable.

As Quakers, we look for that of God in everyone. We need to see what we can learn from the words and experience of others, whether or not they are Quakers. We don't own the whole truth - we are seekers. And we don't practise equality yet thought we value it - we're just trying to get there. Helplessness may turn out to help me on the way.


Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Online first-timers

posted by kathz

I've been wondering what it's like to attend your first Quaker Meeting online - and how best to welcome newcomers to an online Meeting. This post doesn't have easy answers but it does attempt to give some advice on how a newcomer might approach an online Meeting for Worship.

If you came to your first Meeting for Worship before lockdown, you were probably welcomed at the door. You might have been given a leaflet about what happens in Meeting. Even if you arrived a little late, there would still be someone on the door. You would have the opportunity to ask questions - and then there would be a chance for more conversation and questions after Meeting, usually over tea and biscuits.

Online Meetings can't do this. There might be a short opportunity for chat if you get there early - but there will probably be a fair number of other people, making conversation difficult. And if you're a little late - or quite a lot late - as may easily happen with a tricky internet connection, you are plunged straight into the experience of being silent while seeing the faces of strangers. And faces seen on the internet rarely seen as friendly or approachable as faces encountered in real life.

But you may still want to join an online Meeting for Worship - and you would be very welcome to do so. I'm going to make a few suggestions about how you might approach it. These are based on my own experience and they are not the only possibilities.

First of all, once you have got through the technicalities and arrived, try to settle into the silence. It won't be complete silence. There are always other sounds. You may, if you're lucky, hear birdsong. It may be traffic, voices from outside or a dog barking. Take these sounds into the stillness with you.

Being in Meeting for Worship is often about listening - but that doesn't mean straining to listen. It's a kind of openness to what may come. Don't worry if your thoughts wander or if worries come to mind in the stillness - perhaps that wandering or coming face to face with a worry is what you need to happen. Let it be there and try to rest in the stillness you are sharing with others.

Don't worry if you become restless or if you lose a sense of the stillness. This happens to all of us from time to time. Gradually take yourself back into any stillness you may find. Try to be comfortable despite the technological apparatus.

Someone may speak - it's what we call "ministry" - and this should be because they feel led by the Spirit to do so. Ministry isn't for the individual alone but for someone else or some others in the Meeting. It may respond to your needs. If it doesn't, think it possible that someone else in the Meeting is helped by what is being said. And if you feel an overwhelming urge to minister, try to do so clearly and briefly (remembering to unmute your microphone before you speak and to must it again when you have finished).

Online Meetings usually have an opportunity for conversation at the end. You may welcome this or wish to reflect on your own. Choose whatever is right for you. 

Many Meetings, like Beeston, have gone online for the first time and Quakers are still getting used to the experience. Woodbrooke Quaker College in Birmingham have been holding online Meetings for a long time and have added a number of new times. These often include Quakers from other countries and in different time zones. They use Zoom and Adobe Connect. If you want to find out about their Meetings for Worship, click on this link.

You may also enjoy hearing what some young Quakers have to say about Meeting for Worship in this short video. 

Saturday, 11 April 2020

Locked down Quakers

posted by Kathy

There was a time, back in the seventeenth century, when it was not unusual for Quakers to be locked up - usually for disturbing the peace, for worshiping in a different way, or for refusing to pay tithes (subscriptions to the Church of England). British Quakers have been locked up since then, most recently for protests against the arms fair or for involvement in Extinction Rebellion. But now we're all under lockdown and what Quakers experience is part of a general imprisonment which we try to endure for the sake of the greater good.

Conditions of our locked down lives vary. Some are in the highly vulnerable category, so unable to leave their homes at all. Others make the most of their daily walk or bike ride for exercise. Some struggle with mental or physical ill health. Some live in crowded conditions or lack a secure place to call home. Some endure difficult or abusive relationships. Some don't have enough money for food, for electricity - let alone for some of the small pleasures (books, games, etc) that make life feel worth living.

It's important to realise how various our experiences of life under lockdown can be - and how reluctant some of us (even some Quakers) may feel to share the difficulties they are experiencing. That's a sad thing for those of us in more fortunate circumstances because we urgently need to learn from the experiences of others.

Meanwhile Beeston Quakers continue. In the years since I last wrote, Beeston Quakers has grown and, until lockdown, Meetings for Worship averaged around fifteen attending every week - not the same fifteen every week and there are probably between thirty and forty people associated with the Meeting.

But in lockdown we're unable to meet in person. Instead, those of us who are happy to do so gather online and hold Meeting for Worship online via Zoom. That's right - pause for laughter - we actually share silence online! And our Meetings have been mostly silence although there's time and space for chat before and afterwards.

This change in approach has made me think more about what we're doing in our Meetings for Worship and the difference between a Meeting and individual meditation. I don't think the online experience is vital - I know that some Friends choose instead to sit in a quiet place (even a garden if they have one) and experience a sense of connection with others at the usual time for Meeting for Worship. Some Friends don't have the technology to go online or find it unhelpful - having a computer, phone or smartphone has never been a prerequisite for Quaker worship. But I use my netbook and  headphones because I like to see the faces of others and know who is worshiping with me - and because I'm lucky enough to have this equipment. Others connect on phones.

So what exactly am I doing? I can't speak for others but I think that what I''m trying to reach is a place of deep listening. Quakers used to say they were listening for God's guidance but that's a tricky phrase - whatever God is or may be has become caught up in the limitations  of human imagination and what I'm talking about is something much harder to define. Words like "Spirit" or "Light" may be better but I'm really talking about an experience that has always resisted being put into words - or into my words anyway.

I don't just sit down and let this listening happen. I let myself be aware of other people, I notice odd details around me, I let worries and concerns surface and then, very gradually, I find myself slipping into to the deep place of listening. I don't always know I'm doing it. Sometimes it's only when I surface at the end of Meeting that I realise things around me have made a slight rearrangement and I've adjusted my relationship with the world.

Occasionally in Meeting someone is moved to speak. This may be by speaking - and that's not aways clear with my dodgy broadband connection - or they may  type into the chat area. I take what I can from this, recognising that what doesn't work for me may, in Quaker-speak, speak to someone else's condition. Or I may be filled with an overpowering urge to say something or read something - often something that arrives quite suddenly in Meeting and that wasn't on my mind before. When that happens, I speak as clearly and briefly as  I can - but I may let the words order themselves in my mind before I begin so that it's clear to others. When the words order themselves, I find myself stripping out the inessentials.

Of course, online  Meeting has its technical problems - microphones that need to be muted, video connections that fail. And it can be hard to find a quiet space. But some people will also worship with cats, dogs and small children around them, or may choose to join a Meeting just for the few minutes or half hour they have.

Online Meetings for Worship are taking place all around the country and elsewhere. They may include friends abroad and people whose disabilities have previously prevented them from reaching a Meeting. It's not the same as attending a Meeting in the same physical space as other people - but it's not as different as I feared it might be.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Handing over to new writers

As you can see, this blog has lacked posts for some long time while I have been busy with work. Rhiannon, whose posts many enjoyed, is now at Woodbrooke College as a tutor in Quaker roles. You can find her elsewhere in the Quaker blogosphere.

However readers of this blog may be pleased to learn that Beeston is now a growing Quaker Meeting and that one of our newer members has expressed an interest in taking over the blog. If asked, I may occasionally pop up as a contributor.

I hope that readers will return as new posts are added - and that you may also be interested in various new activities, including podcasting.

Meanwhile, if you're ever in Beeston, Notts on a Sunday morning and feel like dropping in, be assured of a friendly greeting, an hour of stillness and a choice of hot beverages and biscuits to follow.


Tuesday, 30 December 2014

City of Sanctuary - the Birmingham Declaration

One of the central concerns of Quakers is to look for that of God in everyone. This is, I think, at the heart of some of our testimonies, including those for peace and equality. Quakers naturally differ in their understanding of God but they recognize that there is something they might term "the divine" or "the inner light" in all human beings. This doesn't mean that all human beings act well, since obviously they don't, but that there is something in human beings that we can, at  the very least, try to nurture and address.

It is not surprising that Quakers have, for a long time, been concerned to help asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. Quakerism has its roots in Christianity, a religion which has numerous stories of refugees and migration (as do very many religions). The flight of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus is a well-known example. Similarly the disciples of Jesus became migrants. Quakers are now praised for the assistance they gave to refugees in the 1930s but this was not always a popular course of action.

Current hatred and fear of migrants is disturbing. I don't think the majority of the population feel hate and fear towards the individuals they encounter but it's easy to fear the unknown - and the media frequently treat vulnerable migrants as a mass who lack individual human characteristics. 

The City of Sanctuary movement calls for hospitality towards asylum seekers, refugees and  migrants. Recently it has asked groups to put their names to the "Birmingham Declaration." Beeston Quakers are very happy to sign this Declaration. The text can be found below. If you are a member of a group which would like to sign this declaration, it's easy to do so using this link.

City of Sanctuary - Birmingham Declaration

Britain has a long tradition of offering protection to those fleeing persecution, many of whom have gone on to make a considerable contribution to our society. It also has a reputation for fairness and justice that is the envy of many other nations.

We believe that the great majority of British people are sympathetic towards those who come here seeking help and protection.

We have come together in Birmingham on 15th November 2014 in recognition that the position of refugees and migrants is aggravated in Europe and in Britain in an unprecedented way. We can no longer just watch in silence as millions flee Syria only to be warehoused in refugee camps and thousands drown in desperate attempts to reach the Western world across the sea. This is a matter of life and death.

We commit ourselves to work together to ensure that our great country continues to be a safe place for those fleeing persecution and a welcoming place for all people who come here to study, work or join family and who will work alongside us to build a just and fair society.

We commit ourselves today to a core set of principles and asks that will strengthen our collective efforts to protect the rights of strangers amongst us. Through these commitments we seek accountability and justice. We are asking our Parliament and our Government to take necessary steps to deliver that change.

These commitments tackle the causes and consequences of the very vulnerable position refugees and migrants find themselves in. They are within the scope of the international protection framework that Britain has been signatory to for decades.

Recognising that we all have a role to play, we are asking our Government to do all they can to ensure that:

1. All asylum seekers, refugees and migrants should be treated with dignity and respect.
We ask that the debate on immigration is conducted with care for the dignity of people who are vulnerable, who do not have a voice in the public domain and who have to suffer the consequences of inaccurate and inflammatory language. We appeal to all politicians and to the media to conduct the pre-election debate responsibly, sticking to the facts and bearing these principles in mind.

2. A fair and effective process to decide whether people need protection should be in place.
We ask for a high standard of decision making on refugee protection cases. After years of very public failure, we demand a system that is fair and efficient and ensures protection for those who need it. People should have access to good quality legal advice and representation during the process, publicly funded when they are unable to pay. Not everyone is entitled to refugee status in Britain, but they are entitled to a fair process to determine if they are in need of protection.

3. No one should be locked up indefinitely.
We seek an end to the indefinite detention of asylum seekers and migrants. No one should be deprived of their liberty with no judicial oversight. Indefinite detention is unacceptable, costly and ineffective. We ask for a reasonable time limit to be introduced and other safeguards put in place to ensure the lawfulness and fairness within the system.

4. No one should be left sick or destitute in our society.
It cannot be right that people are left destitute in modern Britain, banned from working but denied support. Until they are granted protection and can work, asylum seekers should receive sufficient support to meet their essential living needs while in the UK. We are asking that those whose cases have taken more than six months to resolve, or who have been refused but are unable to return home, should receive permission to work. All of them should be allowed free access to NHS services

5. We should welcome the stranger and help them to integrate.
People should integrate, and we should help them to do so. We are asking for support for asylum seekers to be welcomed and befriended on arrival. To help them integrate and participate in the local community they should be able to learn English, with free tuition provided where needed.
We make a commitment to take action on these principles and asks together and translate them into collaborative actions in our organisations and communities locally and nationally in the run up to the next general elections and beyond.

We commit ourselves to work strategically together. We will come back next year to check our progress against these principles and asks and make plans for what needs to be done in the future, together. Below are the first of what we believe will be hundreds of organisations signing this declaration.
(Flight into Egypt by Millais)