Sunday, 13 May 2007

Part 2: Expressing our faith: Response to Marshal Massay and Peter Bishop

Outside is dark, grey and very wet even though its lunchtime. Friends who get to the core of things will want to know if I got to Meeting and if I had the cup of tea. Sadly no in regards to the tea but yes for attending Meeting. But I have been to the shops, got my ribosh tea bags (ordinary tea is full of caffeine so bad blah, blah) and so a hot, steaming pint mug by my side.

To explain why I have written a part two I need to share with you part of my personal journey and my experience with Friends. Last night, I was watching a programme about problem eaters. these case studies are about individuals who will only eat chips, or processed food but who still look healthy. The series explores the emotional basis for that behaviour and the struggles of the individual to change 20-30 years of learned behaviour over a 4 week period. The man whose life we observed has not eaten or prepared any fresh food or vegetables since he was 5. The root of this behaviour was him associating an image of a slop bucket of waste at school with him being bad inside as the reason why his father abandoned him.

One of the things that helped him finally helped him change his behaviour, was creating an effigy of his father and taking this to his old school. Then in the school hall, throwing handfuls of waste food from a slop bucket at his " father" saying each time what he felt and what he had been angry and upset about. It made for powerful viewing and it was liberating for him.

I have never had a eating disorder but I was abandoned by my father at birth and so never knew him. My mother had six other children mostly by different men and we are all bastards. Illiterate, she lived in complete fantasy world so she like my grandmother were never clear who my father was. The stories ranged from a USA soldier on the way to Korea to a local electrician who could not stand your mother's lies . My mother abandoned me but not the other children. Excusable behaviour perhaps because when I was born, people like my mother could be sectioned permanently under the Mental Health Acts as a moral degenerative.

I lived with my Grandmother who pretended to be my Mother. I discovered the deception when I was five and the anger was with me for a long time. She was grossly overweight, her legs had weeping sores and she was depressed as her husband had deserted her around the time I was born. She also carried a deep sorrow at the loss of various children that had died unbaptised and so in hell according to her view of Catholicism which she had abandoned soon after. I was physically abused and neglected while in the family, often having books ripped away from me as I escaped into them. Beaten and locked in rooms, turning up to school unwashed and cloths covered in dirt and worse.

We lived in a small village where the family had moved to during the war and we were of Irish origins. In the 40's and 50's the Irish were treated in the same ways as Black people would have been treated if moving into a white neighbourhood. No one bothered to deal with my neglect as what can you expect they are Irish. No one bothered if my performance at school was bad(it was discovered at 11 that I was so short-sighted I couldn't see the board, and so deaf that I needed various operations) as what can you expect they are Irish.

We left the village when I was 11, to a slum house with no bathroom or inside toilet and went to one of the worse schools in the town. It had a Grammar by selection school system so the failures went to Secondary Modern schools and mine was at the end of the line. Eventually for a year I moved to one of the poorest pubic housing estates in the town which is still one of the most deprived areas in the UK. Bullying in the community and in the family continued.

At 18, I abandoned them and started my life. I left with a passionate belief in the importance of social justice and a complete lack of trust in God and Christian language and practices. Where was He and them for me when I was crying in the dark covered in filth.

Throughout my 20's I was a confused and angry young man. Part of my change in direction was my suicide attempt. Up to that point, I was living a defensive lie that my family had kidnapped me and if I was ill then my real family would rescue me. I was ill and they didn't but the rush that I had to be responsible for myself got me kick started. By the time of my mid 30's I was educated up to Masters level, a qualified lecturer in social policy as well as being an ex social worker and in the process of getting married in a Quaker Meeting House. This kick also made me sceptical of anything from drugs to a Christianity and God talk that acted as crutches and a limit on self responsibility.

I got involved with Friends in my confused 20's and was drawn to them because of their democratic and radical roots. I joined and then abandoned my membership yet remained involved with them for the rest of my life in ways perhaps more attached then many regular Friends. Why am I still in the Quaker Community? Part of the reason was that I struggled with the God language, but today this less of a problem for me. I have read more and have faith in my experience so open to affirm and look at what I deny. Part of the reason was that Quakers was the only community that allowed me room to grow.

I also many years ago started to forgive my family understanding that if I remained angry then I was still a victim. But in seeing the food being flung at the effigy I wonder if still have a few more miles on that Journey. It did also make me revisit why I had thrown my membership out. At the time I was finding it difficult to be in Friends, those of my age were from older Quaker families or from public schools. I found it difficult to connect my life with many Friends who were liberal comfortable middle class. It was the ignorance of youth who saw the experience of poverty more important then poverty of experience. I wanted to be held but wasn't. My overseer was caught up in the drama of his wife leaving him for another woman so understandingly now but not then he didn't have the time to pick up my unspoken pleas. I got angry of being abandoned again so rejected them but choose to stay on my terms. Yet I can see I need to move on and reflect on rejoining and face the anger of 30 years as being old history and not the fault of Friends.

When I raised the issues of part 1 in the Meeting this morning, it opened up the floodgates of my involvement with Friends. It prompted a Ministry from the meeting that illustrated the way to look at the issues raised by Marshal Massay and Peter Bishop and the experience behind my Theology and religious practices. This was a reading of what William Penn wrote in 1693.
The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask they will know one another, though the divers liveries they wear here makes them strangers. This world is a form; our bodies are forms; and no visible acts of devotion can be without forms. But yet the less form in religion the better, since God is a Spirit; for the more mental our worship, the more adequate to the nature of God; the more silent, the more suitable to the language of a Spirit.
So I need to face what I deny and affirm. Or in Biblical language own up to what Matthew says in 7.3 (NRSV).

Why do you look at the speck that is in your neighbour's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?

Expressing our faith: Response to Marshal Massay and Peter Bishop

Its Sundry morning, and last night as my wife and family are away, I could indulge in reading late into the night listening to the rain beating on the window as I was safe under the lamp-light in a world of shadows. In reading the Blogs last week from Britain Yearly Meeting, I was curious about reading Beth Allen's Swarthmore lecture, Ground and Spring: Foundations of Quaker discipleship. Then by chance I was working opposite Friends House in London and so could buy it. It's this that I was reading as I fall asleep last night.

When I wake up, the first thing I do is to check my emails and RSS feeds, in truth to check if I have any books and book-chat(ardent book swapper and reader- see my other blog if curious) but also to see if anything new comes up from the Quaker community. This is what caught my eye. This is a correspondence on different views of what it is to be Quaker. Links to the discussion can be found by clicking on
following-is-reply-by-marshall-massey.html. The core of the debate for me is captured for me in this extract.
Traditional Quakerism takes its practitioners to a specific face of the divine that is (in my personal opinion) either identical or virtually identical to the face that the historic Jesus Christ showed his followers. But (still just speaking personally) I do not believe that the face of the divine experienced by modern Pagans who "draw down the God" is the same face or even anything near the same face. I do not deny that there is something one may validly call "divine" about it, but I do not, personally, believe that what is divine in it is what Christ wanted us to practice and approach.

A community that defines itself by relationship to the divine, without looking carefully at what it means by that word, is, in my personal opinion, a community that is quite capable of going profoundly wrong. I think it was this sort of inattention to changing understandings of the divine that led the humble, meek early Christian religion to evolve over the course of a thousand years into something that hosted the Inquisition and the Crusades.

This spoke directly to the pages I was reading as I fall asleep. Beth Allen on page 61 talks about British Friends that hurt others by their ministries and are then hurt by the responses back. One group is those that have a close and personal relationship with Jesus, God and the Spirit and see the answer as turning to the Christian God for all of us to be flooded with the experience of God's Love. The other group she mentions are those that go beyond all traditional Christian and Theistic God language and want Friends to move away from historical and dated forms, Both remain baffled and even angry when they are eldered that this is not speaking to the condition of all.

Friends practice rests on experience and asking what does it mean to you rather the authority of others. So when faced with these conflicts, one way forward is not to argue with the words but to explore why Friends experiences lead them to express the Divine in the way they do. As at the heart of our lives is often an attempt to answer the Francis of Assisi prayer, God, who are you? God, who am I?

Beth Allen also puts forward a key principle she has discovered over the years based on an approach first put forward by J.S.Mills. This is
People are mostly right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny.
By this she means, I like to read contemporary literature so those that read mass paper book romances are wrong. In doing that I am denying the richness of their experiences. So lets ask instead,
What are the people whom we find so difficult denying, what are they affirming-and why? What am I denying and what am I affirming and why?
To end as Beth does, as I have not had a morning cup of tea and I have to leave to attend Meeting in five minutes,

What is forbidden to me? despise another's wisdom, to blaspheme another's God ( Quaker Faith and practice 26.41)