About this blog

The purpose of this blog is for Quakers and interested fellow travelers to explore the Bible together as it speaks to our condition as individuals.

This discussion is open to Christians, non-Christians, atheists and Pagans; to those who are often confused or angered by the Bible and to those who see scripture as inerrant; to good Quakers and to not-so-good Quakers--to name just a few points of view.

All comments should be given in humility and tenderness, especially where the original poster's perspective is different from your own.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Speak Lord for thy servant heareth

When I was a child my parents and I lived in suburban Kent. We were 'C of E', Church of England, which meant in practice that we usually went to church on Sunday and I went to Sunday School during part of the service and learned hymns and Bible stories.

At home, among my collection of sumptuously illustrated Ladybird books, there were Bible stories too and the one that I remember best told the story of Samuel - The Child of the Temple - who heard the voice of God but did not recognise that it was calling him.

At school, primary and secondary, I learned more Bible stories and read them in the language of the King James version. They became part of my life, but in the same way that Shakespeare did, not set apart as something different.

When I was about 12 years old I had what I later learned to call a 'transcendent experience'. In one moment out of time I knew, with an absolute certainty which has never left me, that everyone and everything was connected and valued in love and that that love was God. I knew that there was life after death because there was life before it in one unbroken continuous thread of which I had been, was and always would be somehow part.

I did not know what to do with this experience. I did not tell anyone about it but I refused to be confirmed in the Church because I did not want to be confined and limited by what seemed like just one set of certainties. I did not give this as a reason though and others assumed that I had no belief. At school I was not allowed to take Religious Knowledge 'A' level because I was 'not religious enough' and although this closed off an academic route to greater knowledge of the Bible with hindsight I can see that was not the way I was meant to go.

Eventually, when I was in my early thirties, I found Quakers and got to know about Britain Yearly Meeting through my job as a librarian in Friends House Library in London. In meeting for worship I recognised a connection with the experience I had had as an adolescent and began to hear the voice of my Inward Teacher. Gently but inexorably I found myself pushed out of my comfortable isolation and towards a life of community and eventually I joined Reading Meeting.

Among other things I felt that I was being urged to get to know the Bible better but I was not sure how to do this in the context of the Quakerism I knew. Over time several opportunities for learning were given to me.

I was sent as a Britain Yearly Meeting representative to Ireland Yearly Meeting and found that there regular Bible Studies were a natural part of the meeting, something I had not experienced before. I attended a couple and found them engaging, the facilitators well informed but not intimidating and relating what was studied to the participants' own emotions and experience. I then attended a workshop given by the 1995 Swarthmore lecturer, Anne Thomas of Canadian Yearly Meeting, which explored a way of looking at Bible passages by acting them out and inhabiting the different viewpoints of the characters involved.

All this was expanding my horizons so that when I read a pamphlet on Friendly Bible Study I was excited and enthusiastic. The idea of studying the Bible in small groups, looking at what each passage says to us now, seemed to me a valuable approach which would concentrate on the truth of continuing revelation, a very important part of Quakerism for me. I tried to bring Friendly Bible Study to my meeting, with the approval of elders, by inviting anyone interested to meet at my home. About half a dozen people came but among them were three older men, all 'weighty Friends' who refused to engage with what I was trying to do but instead turned the meetings into sessions of competitive academic sparring. It was all Greek [or Hebrew] to me. I could not compete or make them understand what I was searching for. I and the rest of the group were silenced and I gave up.

The voice of my Inward Teacher is still pushing me to find ways of looking at the Bible more deeply and most importantly as part of my Quaker community. The blogosphere has brought me into contact with so many Friends who are doing this. I can read and learn from them at a distance but what I long for are opportunities to share with others in my own local and Yearly Meeting. It is not a solely academic approach I am after but a way of sharing spiritual experience with others in the context of the Bible and seeking guidance on our way forward together. I have come to realise that I need companions on this journey for, like Samuel, I need help to follow where God is leading me.

Gil Skidmore is a retired librarian who has been a member of Britain Yearly Meeting for thirty years. She was a Joseph Rowntree Quaker Fellow in 1994, giving workshops on spiritual autobiography, and writes about this and Quaker history, particularly the 18th century. She is currently co-clerk of QUIP [Quakers Uniting in Publications].


  1. Friend Gil,

    I long for the sort of group study you describe, and I'm grateful for your link to Friendly Bible Study. I will propose such a group to my meeting.

    Thanks you,

  2. I'd love to have Friendly bible study too but I don't think I'd be able to follow the rules. If people aren't allowed to bring books, can they at least bring notes? lol

  3. Gil, I'm sorry that you had that disappointing experience with those debaters. I know how you feel. Chris Ravndal's classes were very like Friendly Bible Study -- there's something about having a non-antagonistic relationship with the text; using it as a springboard for sharing with the group, who are the real focus. Then we can bring our academic knowledge, or our innocence, or our different feelings about the Bible, to the group and share them, but what matters is how our spirits react to the different interpretations of the text.

    I appreciated the beautiful relating of your vision at age 12. It's the sort of vision I can yearn for....

  4. I'm commenting as "anonymous" because I don't have an ID of the sort asked for by the drop-down menu.

    I'm really baffled by the idea of shutting down a Bible study class. I don't think of myself as in any way a traditional Christian - I'm Pagan, polytheistic, pantheistic, I don't consider God/dess to be a human-shaped being, but a huge process I can only barely comprehend. But even if I didn't have a real fascination with Jesus and Christ, I'd be really interested in Bible study. As far as I can see, the problem with the anti-Bible brigade is the same with the religious fundamentalists: a basic lack of understanding of the Bible. Seems to me that, in order to participate in Quaker worship and processes, I need to understand Quakers' beliefs within the local Meeting, and I can't do that if they don't talk about their religious experiences. I also need to work out what my relationship is with Christianity, and that means learning more about the Bible - including its history, its cultural and religious context, who the gospels were written by and for and to what purpose, how translations drove politics and politics drove translations, what the attitudes of the early Christianities were, and so on. And, let's face it, religious and historical texts are just fundamentally INTERESTING. Why would someone else's relationship with a text upset me? I want to engage with it, find out how I respond intellectually and emotionally, see what Light emerges. It might change my attitudes, but it might bolster them - who knows? I find myself more interested in the Bible than most people I know who are members of mainstream Christian denominations (and who seem a bit boggled by someone who venerates ancient British and Irish deities, has an ancestor altar, and pours out libations to the spirits of this patch of land being enthusiastic about the Sermon on the Mount).

    If you're not interested in a study group, why shut down the possibility for other people? I just don't get it. Surely a diversity of spiritual experiences is a strength for any group, a source of nourishment and challenge and growth as we learn what is and is not for us, what unexpected insights we gain from others - isn't it? Pushing away your own opportunities for spiritual growth isn't the cleverest thing ever, but closing down other people's seems weird, especially for people considered weighty Friends.


  5. K, I could be wrong, but I think the issue is less with wanting to shut down Bible study groups as with having a single sort of mindset about what that study "should" be.

    A lot of Quakers these days encounter Friends in academic settings, I think the accusation that liberal Friends especially tend to intellectualize our religion is worth thinking about... It takes some imagination to even contemplate a way of relating to the Bible that is not focused on an academic/historical model on the one hand, or a didactic and preacher-led, "here's what you're supposed to think and believe" approach on the other.

    And I think there's something about the silence in an unprogrammed meeting that makes shy people shyer... at least about the stuff that matters. I remember vividly, when we began a series of discussions at my local meeting that focused on individual Friends' experiences within worship, how one long time meeting attender said at one point, "I didn't think we were supposed to talk about this." It's surprisingly hard for a lot of Quakers to talk about their spiritual encounters with the Bible, maybe because, for those who are having them, the words run so still and deep that they don't easily rise up over coffee and tea at rise of meeting...

    And maybe because there has been resistance to any discussion around the Bible, at least at times and in places where Friends have felt attacked or belittled, whether among Quakers or elsewhere, for expressing themselves in the "wrong" language around Spirit or the Bible.

    I'm hoping we'll all manage to be present, vulnerable, and real together as we share a kind of online Bible study. And I'm grateful to Gil for sharing the journey with us. (To you, too--y'all come back now, hear?)

  6. Cat - I hear you, and I think I do understand what you're saying. I just find it... odd that people would join a religious group and not want to discuss, well, their beliefs. I find it odd that a religious group which has so many tried and true processes in place for listening to one another even when disagreeing seems to have such a hard time actually trusting those processes.

    I've been in situations where a religious group's members all thought they were on the same page, and simply weren't. The discussion of how to deal with it was fraught and at times painful, but oh! how much better to have that discussion than to have everyone seething away or simply drifting off without working on it. And guess what? We took Quaker models of listening, sitting together, taking the sense of the meeting, and having a blocking vote. It worked brilliantly. All we had to do was trust the process, even if we didn't trust ourselves...


  7. Just a few words to say thank you to everyone for your comments.

    I was happy to talk about Friendly Bible Study and have been inspired to try to set up another group in my meeting, perhaps by invitation this time!

    I know it should not be difficult for Friends to share their beliefs with one another but I also know that in my experience it often is. I spent many years trying to encourage Friends in my Yearly Meeting to first write and then share their spiritual autobiographies. In general many were happy to write but only a few would share.

    Bible study can be particularly difficult for British Quakers who often feel that they turned away from such things when they left the churches they were brought up in to join Friends. It is difficult to find a model that might be acceptable to everyone.

    I hope that this blog will also provide a helpful way of sharing our differences as well as what we have in common. I'm looking forward to reading the next post and writing more myself in the future.

  8. Gil -- it sounds like you and I were on parallel tracks in the 90s -- however I was fortunate to have the Meeting Bible Study group I helped start pretty much survive and thrive, at least for a number of years. Interpersonal issues are always a challenge, which is what I heard going on in your group. Our group (and another I helped start) seem to work better with a somewhat modified "Friendly Bible Study" format, in which we each take turns sharing what strikes us about the passage, and then discuss it more generally. When one or two or three participants dominate the discussion, it's my experience that one or two or three others need to share responsibility for opening the door to other directions. My suggestion for anyone trying to start a Meeting Bible study group, is to not just do it yourself, but have one or two co-facilitators, especially at first. That way if it's not going the way you'd hoped, you have more options than just stopping the group altogether. Just a thought.