Friday, April 30, 2010

John Punshon and Opening Doors

I taught feminist theology at the Quaker school, Woodbrooke College, in Birmingham, England, many, many years ago. One of their first bi/lesbian tutors, I think I shocked the school! One famous Quaker, however, became a good mentor and short term friend: John Punshon. John is a famous Quaker historian, who taught at Woodbrooke for over a decade. While we were there, both teaching, I took private tutorials on Quaker theology and history with him. They remain some of the greatest tutorials I have ever had!

John is still famous in Quaker circles not only for his scholarly books on history and theology. For many years he took groups from first Woodbrooke, and later the American Quaker college Earlham, around England on the Great Quaker UK tour. From visiting Pendle Hill, where George Fox received revelation directly from God about founding the Quaker movement, to Swarthmore Hall, home to famous early Quakers Margaret and Judge Fell, to the vales of Lancashire and the mountains of the Lake District, the tour was a blast. I got to go back in 1987!!! (Yup, I'm that old!) I remember feeling ghosts in old Quaker meetings and spirits floating across the moors. I am not nor have I ever been Quaker, but I loved the history of this so radical Protestant group.

One of John's tutorials stands out to me; I have written about it often. Discussing my own class - where nasty me required the students to actually read their assignments if they wanted to attend class - John was amazed I got away with such stringent requirements. He spoke of how often Quakers wanted to write their own rules, attend Meeting whenever they felt like it, and support the Quaker movement of today when it is convenient. He said:

"It is up to us lowly types, those of us who aren't evolved, to show up every week and open the Meeting doors for the ones who want to come when they feel like it. It's up to us less evolved types to pay the heating bill and sweep the floor, should the spiritual ones feel moved to attend this week. We raise the money for soup kitchens, first day school, homeless shelters, and people who feel more moved by the spirit not to help, can have their religious lives conveniently"

Ouch! How is that for a scathing comment on casual religious commitment?

So when people ask, and they do, "Why do you go to church?" I find the best answer is to explain John Punshon. I go to church at least twice a week because I bring my kids to choir and lessons, and while they are there I help with serving soup and tutoring kids and sewing costumes and teaching afterschool programs and escorting children and assisting wonderful teachers and serving meals and raising funds. And the doors are partly open, the bills paid, the soup kitchen running, and the homeless shelter open because my kids and I are there. (Ok, in honesty I also gossip with friends and sometimes read a book!)

At the same time, I find much that is nurturing to me. An inclusive church, I have some of my best bisexual friends there. A multiracial church, I have some of my closest friends with multiracial families there. And despite those male-exclusive-language on Sunday sermons, I cherish the Lady Window in the Sancturary and the Lady Chapel on the side, and well, why not see church spires as Asherah poles?

Many years ago a minister at church informed me that she saw herself as very "post-denominational." I just see that "post-denominational" as inclusive of Pagan and Hindu and Wicce. I don't see the problem.

I urge everyone to find a similar church home. Well, a similar religious home. It certainly does not have to be a church! But keeping doors open is a good spiritual practice - especially in this world of closed doors and closed opportunities. As part of my Bridget worship I light a fire for her every 17 days, tending the fire and keeping it lit. Tending to something requires faith and dedication. And it adds to the world.

Years ago a Christian friend told me "constantly opening doors" was her definition of God. Tending those doors, so anyone can enter when they need, is a spiritual calling.

What will you open?

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