M is for Marriage

On the day of my wedding, some 30 years ago now, my spouse and I had decided to greet all the guests ourselves, so we were in the lobby of the meeting house as the Meeting for Worship for Solemnisation of Marriage gathered. As the meeting settled down the sense of Presence was tangible out in the lobby. We have never forgotten it, and the certainty of that loving, caring Presence has sustained us through the times of doubt and difficulty that have happened since, as they do in all lives and relationships. I can say with Thomas Ellwood, recalling his own marriage in 1669: ‘We sensibly felt the Lord with us and joining us, the sense whereof remained with us all our lifetime, and was of good service and very comfortable to us on all occasions.’ QF&P 16.02


At Yearly Meeting Gathering in York 2009, the Religious Society of Friends decided that marriage should be equally available to same-sex and opposite-sex couples and that we would seek a change in the law to allow us to solemnise all marriages in the same way. I went to York broadly sympathetic to the idea of equal marriage, but expecting that Yearly Meeting would defer any specific decision. Having a whole week together gave us plenty of time to consider the issue. We had were lots of special interest groups that looked at specific aspects, for instance, I attended one that just considered what word we should use – marriage, partnership, something else – and the various meanings that are attached to these words. Another day several couples spoke a full hall of people about their experiences of being in a long-term, loving, sexual relationships (whether or not they had been able to ‘marry’). Among other things, this helped us to understand that having and bringing up children need not be an issue. Some same-sex couples are bringing up children, some opposite-sex couples do not have children, through choice, infertility, or age. My lasting memory of this session is watching Alistair stand behind his partner Sean who was speaking to the assembly. Alistair was a strong, silent support. Nearby, but not dominating. I thought ‘that is exactly what I want in a marriage partner’ and then I thought ‘that is exactly what I have in my marriage partner’. At that point I was convinced that the gender of the partners was not important. What matters is the quality of the relationship. The Yearly Meeting was also greatly helped by the presence and contribution of the young people, who, on one occasion, simply didn’t leave the meeting as planned during a shuffle break, but just stayed until the decision was made. As well as deciding that these relationships were of equal standing and so should be treated equally, Yearly Meeting decided to use the word ‘marriage’ because it is the only available word that expresses the spiritual dimension of the relationship, which is the aspect we particularly want to celebrate. And to recognise that, in George Fox’s words: ‘…for we marry none- it is the Lord’s work, and we are but witnesses.’ QF&P 16.01

M is for Meeting

My son says, half jokingly, that I am addicted to Meeting for Worship. It is true that I usually go twice a week, and will happily go everyday if it is practical to do so (as it is at Woodbrooke).

So why do I go? What is the attraction? Sitting still in silence for half an hour or an hour, when there is so much else I could be doing, travelling to do this with other people when I could sit still on my own just as easily.

Well, to take the last point first, in practice I don’t do it much on my own. I lack the self discipline. If I do manage it I usually need to have an awareness that others are doing so too (for instance, I may sit quietly at home at the same time as ‘quiet time’ at Claridge House). Looking at this the other way round though, practising regularly with others does tend, in my experience, to make it slightly easier to discipline myself to quiet times on my own.

When we gather together to listen to the Spirit, to the Light, there is usually a much stronger sense of the Presence than I feel when alone. The size of the gathering does not matter, two or three at a midweek meeting is as effective as the eight hundred to fifteen hundred we may have at a yearly meeting. I also feel a supportive connection to those present, and to other Friends not there. And there is the excitement of not knowing quite what might or might not happen. I have occasionally been so terrified (as on the first occasion I gave vocal ministry) that I resolved never to go to meeting again. Sometimes I have cried and sometimes I have laughed. Mostly I sit calmly, aware, at least for moments, of the Presence, which is there for myself and others, and have glimpses of new insights into matters significant and trivial, and that is enough to keep me going back for more.

L is for Learning

In 1981 I went to Woodbrooke for the first time. A friend had said ‘if you ever get the chance to go to Woodbrooke, take it’ so when I saw an advertisement for an assistant cook (and I was looking for work) I applied. Woodbrooke offered me an expenses paid interview including an overnight stay (I was living in Edinburgh at the time). When I arrived I was invited to join in with the activities that were going on, in the time when I wasn’t being interviewed. One of these was a term-time course group who were considering, that morning, something about staff-management relationships in business and the role of trade unions. This was material I was familiar with from my recently completed management degree.

quiet rm

The ‘tutorial’ was a revelation to me. We sat in a circle in the quiet room, the tutor on a totally equal footing with the students and myself. Everyone’s views were listened to and valued. Everyone had the chance to contribute. It was so different to university classes where the tutor (especially in this subject area) told us what to think, what to read, virtually what to write in our essays. He had not expected us to have views, let alone valued them.

This was a totally different approach to learning, and it really put into practice Quaker ideas about equality. I have never forgotten it.

dining rm

Another very significant learning experience for me was a course at Charney Manor early in 2006. One of the tutors introducing the course remarked that there would be things offered to us during the weekend that we might not like. He did not ask us to like them, but did request that we try them, because we might come to like them, or to learn something from them. At a later session we came in to some chanting being played on a CD. I took an immediate dislike to this noise and nearly walked straight out. Fortunately I remembered the tutor’s request and stayed. The music stayed in my head all day and overnight (an earworm). It could have been really irritating, but waking in the night I found it helped me to cope with the symptoms that had woken me, calmed me down and got me back to sleep. I was hooked and next morning was asking the tutor for details of the CD. I have played it many times since.

garden room

I have since become particularly interested in how we learn, how we unlearn, and how people can be helped to understand the Quaker way by different ways of learning about it. There is a place for factual, information-rich head learning, but the experiential heart learning is also vital. Even more important is enabling people to access what they already know but may be unaware that they know. The role of tutor, or facilitator, is often far more one of modelling ways of behaving and of learning, than one of teaching and imparting information. It involves creating a supportive space and enabling people to access deeper levels of understanding, which are often beyond words. It involves recognising that my role is to let ‘God’ act through me, so I must set aside my personal aims and agendas. Ultimately, learning about things of the Spirit, the things which are eternal, is the work of the Spirit, of the Light of Christ (whatever we call it) working in each individual, the role of a facilitator can only be to help enable that. As George Fox said ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition‘ QF&P 19.02

art room

I am grateful to my meeting, to Woodbrooke and to my co-facilitators for the opportunities I’ve been given to facilitate a range of learning groups at Woodbrooke, online, in my meeting, at Swarthmoor Hall and elsewhere.

L is for Light

Quakers use the word ‘light’ a lot. Sometimes it is ‘light’ and sometimes ‘Light’ – we like our capital letters.

Usually people mean light in a metaphorical sense, though we do also talk about turning the lights on (and even more about turning them off to conserve electricity and save the planet, though that may mean sitting in the dark, at least in some people’s opinion) and admire the way the sunlight falls on the floor or the furnishings as it streams through the meeting house windows.


Metaphorically we have phrases like ‘open to new light’ meaning receptive to new ways of perceiving things, and ‘an infinite ocean of light and love’ which George Fox ‘saw’ flowing ‘over the ocean of darkness’. QF&P 19.03.


Used with a capital L, ‘Light’ refers to an aspect of the Divine, or may be used as a synonym for God. In Advices and Queries we find: ‘Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.‘, ‘Hold yourself and others in the Light, knowing that all are cherished by God.‘, ‘Take time to learn about other people’s experiences of the Light.‘ and ‘Appreciate that doubt and questioning can also lead to spiritual growth and to a greater awareness of the Light that is in us all.

So we have the Light belonging to, or being an attribute of, God. The Light being something or somewhere that people can be held in (I often envisage an armchair – it holds me supportively, I can relax, even sleep, but I can also be alert, ready to get up and act, importantly I am not held in the sense of being restrained, I can leave at any time if I wish). The Light being something we can all experience and be aware of – I understand this to include the ‘Inner, or Inward, Light’ that early Friends spoke of, as well as something outside of myself.


We also have ‘Light groups’ – these are not Quaker weight loss groups, or groups considering the conservation of energy and types of light bulbs. They are groups using a meditation technique also known as ‘Experiment with Light’ based on Rex Ambler’s research into methods used by early Quakers. The gently guided meditation allows people to pay attention to things that may be concerning them (which could be significant issues or apparently trivial matters), holding them in the Light in a relatively detached way and waiting in the Light to see what emerges. Practised regularly in a supportive group, the technique has proved useful to many people. While most practitioners are Quakers, there is no restriction on who can use the method, though some people prefer to practise in a closed group (that is a group where the same people practise together).


So what is your experience of the Light?

Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?‘ George Fox quoted by Margaret Fell Quaker Faith & Practice 19.07.

K is for Know

Quakers are generally very hesitant to say ‘I believe …’ but there are times when we will say quite clearly ‘I know …’. This may seem quite inconsistent, but the ‘knowing’ is generally something that comes from personal experience, so that we are saying, as George Fox said ‘And this I knew experimentally’

The word ‘know’ appears several times in Advices and Queries: 3 ‘Seek to know an inward stillness, …’ and ‘… knowing that all are cherished by God.’ and 18 ‘Seek to know one another in the things which are eternal, …’. The ‘knowing’ here is experiential not academic, it is ‘heart-learning’ not ‘head-learning’. We could, perhaps, replace the word ‘know’ with the word ‘experience’: seek to experience an inward stillness; experiencing that all are cherished by God; seek to experience one another in the things which are eternal. This gives a flavour of what I understand the phrases to mean. The last is a bit odd, but I think what it is saying is that we can experience together the things which are eternal (the things which are of God), with an awareness that we are doing so communally, that we are gathered together to do it, and, in the context of A&Q18, that this is how we can build our community, our sangha. (I borrow a Buddhist word that seems to encapsulate the fuller meaning of the supportive, spiritual community.)

Another use of the word ‘know’ that I have found particularly helpful, is to write down, from time to time (perhaps every few years), my current answer to the question1: what have I actually come to know regarding my spiritual life? Today I know that my spiritual life is vitally important to me and that it is nourished by sharing experiences with people from other faiths (both listening to their accounts and practising together), by challenging questions, by listening to enquirers and newcomers to Quaker ways and by attending meeting for worship regularly and frequently.

1‘The Pure Principle’ Jim Pym p61

Sunbrick stone circle

And then there is one of my favourite mantras for settling into the silence of meeting for worship (psalm 46:10 for those who like to know the sources):

‘Be still and know that I am God’

which is even better when shortened at each repetition, perhaps taking a repetition with each in-breath:

‘Be still and know that I am God’

‘Be still and know that I am’

‘Be still and know that I’

‘Be still and know that’

‘Be still and know’

‘Be still and’

‘Be still’