Life At Woodbrooke | 5 weeks Deep Part 1

I’ve been in the UK for almost 5 weeks now and it feels like the time is flying (I arrived on May 2nd). My Wife, Emily, will be here in approximately 22 days, 11 hours 53 min and 39 seconds. Of course, that was when I wrote that sentence, now it’s much sooner! Life has been fairly hectic since I got here and it’s kept me from reflecting too much on what’s been happening since I arrived but I thought it’d be good to at least say a few things about life in Birmingham at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Center thus far.

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Working with Ben Pink Dandelion and Quaker Theology

I have had ample time for reading and reflecting on the state of Quakerism both in the US and in the UK. This is good since that’s mainly why I came. I also came to Woodbrooke because I wanted to get closer to the heart of Quakerism, learn theology from a Quaker prof, and try and find my place within the struggles that our tradition is dealing with.

First off, this was the right place to come for all this, I can’t believe how many books, articles, pamphlects, etc I have access to at Woodbrooke’s library, it’s really quite amazing.
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And I am totally loving working with Ben, and who doesn’t love his name?, he’s great. You never know how these things work out, working in close proximity to someone thousands of miles away from home, and your degree depending on it. It all could have gone wrong, but it’s been really pretty amazing. One thing I like about Ben is that his work has really been to try and bring scholars from various perspectives together, and offer some kind of overall picture of where Quakerism is, and where it is headed. He’s definitely ecumenical in this sense, which I am very glad about. His work has been helpful, it gives a starting point, especially for my interests, which is mainly geared towards “where do we go from here?”

Concerning my place in this whole thing, I really don’t know. Some days are better than others, some days I see more hope and life, and other days I’m ready to jump ship. I realize that may be somewhat drastic and quite a confession but it’s what’s I am dealing with at a very deep level. On my bad days, I wonder if there is any thing left for Quaker theology to salvage. On my good days, I still believe that Quakers have an important role within the Christian narrative, something worth putting up a fight for.

I guess my main concern at this point is that so much of the energy spent within Quakerism has been spent on insider perspectives that have tended to be pretty insular. There is an attempt to try to create a self-identity, explain why one group over there doesn’t understand historic Quakerism or why that group over there is doing it all wrong. If you looked at all the Quaker scholarship that’s come in the past 25 years, a majority of it has been historical studies. Now I am all for history, we need good history desperately, but the question of good history needs to be debated, and with so much focus on the historical it is as though Quakerism were already dead.

Now I don’t think we’re dead, but if we’re alive then we’ve got to start acting like it. I guess I mean this in terms of theological and philosophical study, but study in a way that has practical impact on the life (and health) of the church. There has been very little Quaker theology written that’s been in dialogue not only with our tradition, but Western culture and with the other Christian traditions and her theologians. We’re not the only church going through major cultural transitions, questions, etc, and many theologians have written about stuff that would be helpful to our group, but we need to be in dialogue with it.

We need to turn our seats that are facing the center of the room outward to the world. I’ve alluded to what kind of theological program we need recently, but that’s far from developed and contains little more than preliminary thoughts. I hope that in the near future we will see Quakers take up these challenges and enter into this much bigger discussion with the rest of the church and the world.

And so as you can see I get pretty passionate in my feelings about all this, and often my meetings with Ben revolve around a dialogue of this nature. So thus far Woodbrooke has been great, it’s also been hard as it has continued to push me in ways I wasn’t prepared for. I think that is where all the real learning happens.

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Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

8 thoughts on “Life At Woodbrooke | 5 weeks Deep Part 1”

  1. i am happy to hear that you are discovering what most christian denominations are also slowly discovering; that we must constantly be doing theology as it relates not only to our time-honored traditions but also to the world around us. how to keep christianity relevant in a time when secular humanism offers a much easier path is difficult, but not impossible. i pray that your continued journey will eventually cause a great impact on your church, and that voices like yours will rise up to meet the challenges of christian discourse in a post-modern society. blessings

  2. Hey Wess, I’m so glad this is turning out worthwhile for you. Your work is an inspiration to me. Do it while you have the chance. Finding singleness of eye is difficult in the long run, especially for those of us (this includes you and me) with a wide variety of interests and commitments. But the ability to translate from one world to another, to see things in different contexts and to articulate the value of one to the other and vice versa – this is much needed in modern Quaker theology and practice.

  3. Robin, thanks for the comment. I appreciate that encouragement and challenge. It’s been really worthwhile and we’re already talking about how to come back here next summer!

  4. Wess,

    Woodbrooke isn’t the heart of British Quakerism – it is just one of the few institutions that has managed to keep going over the years and has a loyal following. Still, its resources are good and so I am sure it will be helpful for that reason. However, I do have to say that theology really isn’t the solution within Friends – at least not UK ones. Most British Friends really don’t care about theology – except a small number who think of it as an interesting intellectual pursuit – like studying history or psychology or literature. And there are no mechanisms for making them care either. A few don’t like it because of obvious historical and religious reasons – the fear of being professors rather than possessors – although there are few of those.

    I do think you are right that Quakers have much to learn from others, and in so many ways, we’re decades behind other Christian groups (probably because most British Quakers don’t define themselves as Christian in any way anymore so they don’t think there is anything to learn).

    When you say – ‘So thus far Woodbrooke has been great, it’s also been hard as it has continued to push me in ways I wasn’t prepared for. I think that is where all the real learning happens’ – be careful, this can just be a Quaker way of trying to convince yourself that there is something valuable in an experience which, ultimately, might well be a waste of your time and energy. Discovering that might be a difficult thing but, paradoxically, the most valuable thing you can do.

    Sorry if this does not sound an encouraging post and a bit uncomfortable. I do wish you all the best,

    Justin

  5. Hi Justin, I really appreciate you comment, it’s honesty and challenge. I began writing a response but found it worked better as a blog post because what you bring up is something I get asked about a lot, enough so that I thought it was time for an apologetic on Quaker theology.

    here’s the link.
    http://gatheringinlight.com/2007/06/03/an-apologetic-for-a-quaker-theology-do-we-need-it-or-want-it/

    thanks again. [Sorry for the bad link, I had to edit this]

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