Friday, July 4, 2014

Z is for Zebra Crossings (or part of what I learned from British Quakerism)

Abbey Road, London, 2004:
the same zebra crossing shown on the cover of the Beatles' album by that name
photograph taken by Will McC/Gallery and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons

Zebra crossings and now pelican, puffin, and even toucan and pegasus crossings: on the west side of “the pond” (i.e., the north Atlantic), highway crossings with such names would be located in a zoo. What the English call a zebra crossing is merely a garden-variety pedestrian crossing, labeled PED XING on US road signs. For some years we have also had all-way traffic stops at some of the busier intersections. We have even begun large scale-imports of vehicular roundabouts, along with lots of appropriately colorful language that hasn’t changed since the time of Chaucer (or perhaps Beowulf). However, we are not yet sophisticated or “clever” enough, as the English would say, to have as wide a variety of pedestrian, bicycle, and equine crossings, let alone such imaginative names for them.

On Independence Day (a.k.a. the Fourth of July), the day on which the process resulting in “two nations divided by a common language” officially began, it is worth considering what I learned from the country from which my own became independent. In particular, I will take a look at just a few of the many insights I gained from English Quakerism. Although there are reasons not to lump a nation-state and its Friends together, my husband has a point when he says that there are no people more typical of (name the country) than Quakers from that country. Anyone who doubts this can take a look at my Facebook page, assuming that I allow them to do it. One can usually distinguish the Canadian, English, and US Quaker commentators at a glance, without looking closely at the names of the politicians —let alone checking the “current cities” of those writing.

Admittedly, my qualifications for looking at “the Mother Country” are a bit rusty, although my bona fides include a degree from a British university. Still, all those days waking up to the front page of the British version of The Guardian on my iPad and following world events on the electronic version of the BBC must count for something. I checked those sites yesterday, I have done so at least three times already today, and, God willing, I will no doubt do so before breakfast tomorrow. So, before I break all the advice in the Advices of every Yearly Meeting and raise a toast with a glass of California Chardonnay to a glorious Fourth, I will honor the special relationship with an afternoon cuppa of Earl Grey.

To wit:

I. To have a single Yearly Meeting without major schisms over more than 350 years allows British Friends to feel a part of the world community of Quakerism without undergoing an identity crisis.

Yearly Meetings in the USA and Canada tend to look at where they stand on the continuum of conservative unprogrammed, liberal unprogrammed, programmed, and evangelical. Several Friendly umbrella groups have institutional members with very different manners of worship and ways of looking at the broader culture. In particular, some North American Yearly Meetings (Baltimore, Canadian, New York, New England, and Southeastern) belong to both Friends General Conference (FGC) and Friends United Meeting (FUM). Painful differences have arisen between the group of dual-affiliated Yearly Meetings and the group of Yearly Meetings connected only with FUM. British Friends may have more uniformity amongst themselves, but they seem to find it easier to agree to disagree about aspects of Quakerism as a global movement.

British Friends have unprogrammed Meetings, which made it have easy for an American with the same worshipping experience to cross the pond. When I have attended Meeting for Worship in England, my hosts are to some degree relieved not to have to explain what we are about to do. On the other hand, I have often felt they were disappointed that I was not from a programmed Friends Meeting or church, as they were hoping to learn more about those branches of Quakerism and to show off what they had to offer.

II. The British tradition of staffing the civil service with people of exceptional credentials is almost certainly related to the thoroughness of the Church Government sections of the three British editions of Faith and Practice published since World War II. This thoroughness has its advantages.

Meeting officers from a wide range of Yearly Meetings elsewhere find the British materials very helpful and sometimes adapt them to their own needs.

Admittedly, the fact that the United States has fifty states plus the District of Columbia, while Canada has ten provinces and three territories, all with distinct legal codes, has more than a bit to do with the broad strokes with which North American Friends paint that section of our books of discipline.  Perhaps the greatest difference is the degree of detail with which marriage procedures are discussed. Quaker Faith and Practice of Britain Yearly Meeting has a lengthy chapter about how Quaker marriage procedure fits into every type of marriage license in the relevant jurisdictions. While New England Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice has an excellent overview of Friends’ procedure, the legal portion mostly directs readers to the statute numbers for the six New England states.

When British Friends approved marriage equality for same-gender and opposite-gender couples in 2009, they had no trouble envisioning how Quaker marriage would look as part of an updated legal code. Indeed, it is my understanding that when the new legislation was going through Parliament, Friends were sufficiently knowledgeable that they could work with officials on the relevant sections of it. Ultimately, a full update showing both the procedure and the Quaker principles behind it was available on their web page before the new law came into effect. This not only explained Friends’ marriage procedures to Quaker newcomers and the broader community but seemed, at least to this observer, to help demystify to the public at large how changes in the law of the land could work in tandem with religious traditions. Jurisdictions in the United States have fewer types of marriage licenses and somewhat simpler procedures, but showing the “nuts and bolts” of how marriage equality works in those American Meetings that have approved it might help to reassure those who on the fence about supporting it.

III. Whether or not the custom of serving afternoon tea is, in anthropological terms, a secular analogue for the Eucharist, it is vastly more refreshing for the spirit than a quick drink of  “dishwasher” coffee and a much wiser use of resources than a drink after work.

As I indicated in a previous post, my Quaker friends in England took serving tea very seriously, perhaps even more so than their peers outside of our Religious Society. Even thirty years ago, however, there was a range of opinions about what foods should be served with it. One Friend, who had family members living long-term in Washington, D.C., said simply that it was foolish to be doctrinaire about the menu items. Besides, with an American guest she had the perfect excuse to bake her grandchildren’s favorite brownie recipe.

English friends now tell me that cafés selling quality European and North American-style coffee have made inroads in their country. No doubt this has improved the local brew (although I would never know, as I don’t care for coffee). The real benefit to the coffee shop, though, is providing another way for the fellowship of sharing food and drink to be raised to the spiritual — or, failing that, to the aesthetic sublime.

In the USA and Canada,  coffee and tea shops are finally coming into their own as places inviting serious refreshment and conversation and not just opportunities to down enough caffeine to keep awake on the roads.

Of course, our British —and Irish— friends (and some Friends) have also made the food-friendly pub a place for a slow and healthier drink instead of a quick drink, in case one is wondering about other liquid refreshments — but I am not going to go there.

English Portmerion "Botanic garden" teapot
raspberry-yogurt tart a variation of one found in The Stonyfield Farm Yogurt Cookbook
photograph ©Kristin Lord 2013

IV. If Friends in the north of England and Scotland can mount a flower rota (list of names of people providing weekly floral arrangements) in small Meetings in the dead of winter, so can people in Canada and the northern United States.

If we don’t, it is a question of culture and planning. Families in the UK have similar work-life balance issues to ours and often less disposable income, so we have no excuses. (See my previous post on the subject, which was laden with the usual excuses, including the exception —record-breaking cold— that proves the rule.)

V. English Friends know just as well as their compatriots outside the Religious Society that money and good ideas are not the same.

There is a reason that booksellers here can sell the English edition of Homes and Gardens at a minimum of ten dollars a whack and still turn a profit. It is easy to visualize how ideas from their stately homes can look attractive on a budget. Not only that: the editors also show rooms that are genuinely put together on a budget but which —not to put too fine a point on it— do not look cheap.

Friends believe that, while we all have different talents and skills, ideas and insights can come from any source. That idea has been handed down to us from Quakers in seventeenth-century Britain.

VI. Even if the government of the United States has behaved abominably overseas and/or at home, and even if outsiders sometimes look upon the culture of the USA as being the product of parvenus and weapons fanatics, don’t be afraid to show a broader picture.

It is unseemly for anyone to brag. Nevertheless...

The USA is the home of mass shootings but is also one of two major English-speaking countries with an annual secular Thanksgiving celebration. The other, not surprisingly, is Canada; although the Canadian event occurs about six weeks before its American counterpart, they are similar in most other respects. People who visit either country for an extended period of time tend to miss the occasion when they leave. Perhaps the biggest reason is that, although many religious organizations do something special at Thanksgiving time (and while the American version is connected with the Pilgrims of Massachusetts), the modern holiday has an ethical component that is consistent with the separation of church and state.

Likewise, don’t be ashamed of American achievements in  “high” literature, film, art, music, and cuisine, or of social advancements.

My UK friends have given this kind of example as a parallel: the same time as the British were granting independence to India and other parts of their empire (where the local inhabitants had not always been well treated by the British), they were also establishing the National Health Service for socialized medicine. The NHS set a standard for a number of other countries and was one of the British achievements featured in the opening ceremonies to the 2012 London Olympics.

VI. Finally (here I am speaking both literally and metaphorically), my British friends of all faiths and backgrounds emphasized how important it is to mend fences with all of one’s children, including the obstreperous and overtly rebellious ones — the loud and obnoxious adolescents.

Someday they might do something important.

A moment of pride for people on both sides of the "special relationship:"
the first African-American President and First Lady meet Queen Elizabeth II
at Buckingham Palace in 2009.
photograph by a United States government employee on official business
and thus in the public domain (via Wikimedia Commons)

In any case, you will want to get to know the grandchildren.
Sir Winston Churchill, 1942
photograph by a US government employee on official business
and thus in the public domain (via Wikimedia Commons)
"If my father had been American and my mother British,
instead of the other way 'round, I might have got here on my own."
Churchill to a Joint Session of the United States Congress, 26 December 1941

No comments:

Post a Comment