Many of us who walk the Goddess path have come to it from other spiritual traditions, the most likely being Christianity. For some, this is a past to be left behind; some religious groups make it harder than others for those who want to move on, or we may have had difficult experiences as children. For others, the traditions in which we were brought up, or which we embraced in our earlier years, still have meaning and resonance for us, even as we recognise a new way opening up. This dilemma is not easy to resolve, and those who honour it may do so in solitude – it can, after all, feel like a very individual problem, not amenable to sharing.
So it may surprise a number of readers to find that there have been Quakers at the Glastonbury Goddess Conference for most of its existence, finding their commitment to Goddess practice compatible with their Quaker membership. It took us a while to discover each other, and then we felt we would like to meet more often than once a year, to explore the ways in which we handled our dual allegiance. We arranged to meet as a private group at Woodbrooke, the Quaker College in Birmingham, and almost immediately generated interest. People asked us for leaflets, wanted to know where to find our web-site, and when our next conference would be held…. Slightly bemused, we realised we were the tip of an iceberg of interest of unknown size. Quakers have from the beginning accepted the value of using women’s talents to the full, and all official documents have used inclusive language for decades. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that there should be considerable interest in a form of spirituality that addresses the Divine as She; Quakers have traditionally believed that they should be open to new ways of exploring, including those adopted by non-christian faiths.
So we evolved from a small group of women and men who met occasionally into an e-mail group which could absorb enquiries easily, without overloading founder members who are already heavily committed elsewhere. Two of us are now preparing to run their second ‘Goddess and Green Man’ weekend course at Woodbrooke; the college is also offering a Quakers and Pagans course in October, and will be hosting Caitlin Matthews in the new year. When we set up the e-mail group we saw to it that we had official blessing; we are on the list of Special Interest Groups approved at Friends House in London. We have done very little publicity, mainly passing on details to contacts of our own who we think might be interested; our only leaflet drop so far was at the 2006 Goddess Conference, where we launched ourselves. We are clearly, however, getting known within Quakerism, and forthcoming articles and book chapters will raise our profile further.
We took a lot of trouble in setting up the network; we felt that enquirers might be hesitant about what for them is a new approach to spirituality, and expected that a number would also be unfamiliar with the way e-mail groups work. It was therefore important to make the space on line as safe as possible. We also wanted, for our own sakes, to keep the technicalities as simple as possible. So we still have no web-site, but our e-mail address links to the mail-box of our Postfriend, who receives and deals with enquiries and acts as a channel for mail to the network. Our welcome pack includes a copy of our leaflet, a book list, and a list of terms and conditions which explains how to behave in an e-mail group and promises to keep everyone’s e-mail address confidential. We were worried that we might get some aggressive mail from fundamentalist Christians (very rare among Quakers, but if you put out publicity, you never know who responds), and to cope with this we devised standard admonitory letters and a rota of founder members to support the Postfriend. We haven’t needed any of this (yet!) – the only problem we hadn’t anticipated was a couple of people who wanted to meet like-minded souls in person. We dealt with this within our principles of anonymity and found that no-one else wanted to meet other than on line.
We’ve about 30 members by now, and have evolved a pattern of correspondence structured round the major pagan festivals. Some members have well established pagan connections – there are Quaker e-mail lists in the US which have been running longer – but others are new to basic ideas and experiences like the wheel of the year. Early contributions help those who are not familiar with the festivals to see where they could start; others respond with what they have done or experienced. Often this is individual or family practice, and the on-line contact may be a valuable way for some to share important personal experience. On the whole the group goes quiet in between the festivals, but this can be the time when people send in notices of interesting events or things to read. One of our members has looked at ‘Quagans’ (Quaker pagans) as part of her PhD thesis, and we got an advance copy of a book chapter she’s written1 – fascinating stuff. At first some of us were concerned that correspondence was patchy, but it now seems clear that what we have grown is a version of a Quaker Meeting on line, stretched over weeks. In this kind of context, Quakers are sparing of words and contribute only if they feel they have something they feel is worth sharing. In my limited experience of e-mail groups, this is somewhat unusual – and very refreshing. After all, Quakers value silence – that is where you may hear the voice of the Goddess.
When we set up QGN, we weren’t sure who would respond – Quakers, pagans, both? We thought there were possibilities for cross-fertilisation, with each having the opportunity to learn from the other. After a year, although we can’t be sure, we think that our membership consists mainly of Quakers who respond to the Goddess, rather than Goddess-loving women and men who are interested in Quakers. To be asked to write about this group for Goddess Pages, therefore, is an interesting opportunity to say a little about Quakers themselves.
One question that is often asked springs from bafflement – ‘but surely you’re Christian, how can you be involved with the Goddess?’ Yes, the Religious Society of Friends is rooted in Christianity, and Bibles are around during worship. But we also have a very well-established principle of being open to new light, from whatever quarter it may come. We worship mainly in silence, broken by short contributions from individuals based on their personal experience, which can be very varied. We do not use creeds, which erect the words of others as standards. So it is not surprising to find that there are those who respond to the Goddess, isolated in their small Quaker worshipping groups, perhaps not familiar with goddess literature and spiritual practice, but ready to explore when the opportunity arises. And, speaking for myself, I have two feet, both planted firmly in different camps. The workshop I ran at the 2007 Goddess Conference worked with the Goddess Sophia – and I found my inspiration in the Biblical Book of Proverbs, with its gutsy portrayal of the Jewish wisdom goddess, not in the Goddess Oracle card which reminds me of a pregnant swan – placid but inactive.
Quakers have a long tradition of involvement in radical change - the anti-slavery movement, prison reform and the peace movement may come to mind. This balances our contemplative pattern of worship. We expect to walk our talk; indeed, part of what makes a Quaker is a ‘behavioural creed’. Acting on the principle that God/dess has no hands but ours, you will find Quakers somewhere in most of the justice, peace and social witness movements of today (though since we don’t tend to parade our religious commitment, it may not be very obvious). And of course, you will find them in the environmental movement. In Quaker terms, it is not enough to love Mother Earth, to pray to her, even to pray for her and conduct healing ceremonies to seek to undo some of the harm people have done to the planet. We must also take practical action, look at our lifestyle and our carbon footprint, and see what we can change. It was interesting to see the Goddess Conference addressing this issue this year.
And because Quakers have no designated priests or priestesses, recognising ourselves as ‘the priesthood of all believers’, we are all well used to being responsible – not just for our own spiritual life but also for the quality of our community and the quality of the decisions we make together. Our approach to group decision-making has been described by outsiders as one of our best-kept secrets. We believe that the Spirit will guide us – and we listen for this guidance not just as individuals but also as a group. We do not vote. We seek the sense of the meeting, beyond consensus, the leadings of the Spirit. This can be slow, and it doesn’t stop disagreements or fallings out. But it does work to build community through mutual respect, and through a collective wish to look beyond individual enthusiasms and dislikes, and to check these out against the group’s efforts to discern the will of the Spirit. James Nayler, in the 17th century, thought God wanted him to ride into London on a donkey with his followers waving palm branches. Some of them also were given to ‘going naked for a sign’. These activities got him and his followers into a lot of physically painful trouble with the state. They damaged the reputation of the early Quaker movement for a while, and taught us the value of checking out one’s own interpretation of the will of the Spirit against that of others. Quaker visionaries check their visions out formally, with the full group - we find it’s better in the long run.
It may seem surprising, but when I initiated in the first Priest/esses of Avalon training course in Glastonbury, the thing I found most difficult was the label. The stories of the Goddess were an exciting extension to my fund of inspiration, I could see uses for the skills I was learning, and I was accustomed to being responsible for my own spiritual practice and to supporting others on request. But Quakers have traditionally taken a dim view of honorific titles, and those who have special responsibility for worship serve for a limited period, then move on to other work. In the wider world, many Quakers rarely see the need to mention their religious affiliation, being aware that it can function as a barrier to communication rather than an asset which will commend one individual to another.
So if any readers are intrigued by what Quakers might offer, where would they find out more? Some of us will be at Goddess events, and you can contact the Quaker Goddess Network. However, some of the things which would interest Goddess-loving men and women are difficult to experience on-line or in individual conversations. You could also visit a local Quaker Meeting on a Sunday morning; this will provide you with a quiet hour for reflection, a welcoming cup of coffee afterwards, and a chance to ask lots of questions if you want. The UK national web-site http://www.quaker.org.uk/ will help you find your nearest Meeting for Worship and also provide other information, including a free introductory pack. But finally, the most important thing to seek amongst Quakers is the power which will guide, comfort and support, surging through the simplicity of silence.
1. Giselle Vincett, Quagans; fusing Quakerism with Contemporary Paganism, in Ben Pink Dandelion and Peter Collins, eds, A Sociology of British Quakerism, London, Ashgate, in press 2008