Friday, 3 July 2020

Sojourning in silence and systems

100 days into Covid-19 lockdown, and many people’s lives have changed. In lots of cases these are for the worse, but also things have become possible which were not previously seen as possible. Some have tried new patterns (as well as having new patterns forced upon them) – in my case I’ve also been returning to old patterns.

Here are two changed patterns.

I was a Quaker for fifteen years, a time of deep spiritual nurture, strong sense of shared values, and close community. I learnt hugely through my time as a Quaker, made many friends, served the Religious Society of Friends on several committees, and met and married my lovely wife Becky. I owe Friends (Quakers are the Religious Society of Friends) a great deal. Yet in time Becky and I chose to leave Friends, for both personal and theological reasons, and joined the United Reformed Church which is close cousin of the Church of Scotland where I grew up. We’ve been active in the URC for ten years now. 

But in lockdown I’ve returned to Quaker worship, which has entirely shifted online through Zoom. For the first few weeks of lockdown I attended online URC services in a variety of places (our own local church’s leadership refused to organise online worship) but found them slightly dissatisfying and passive. For a change, I attended my first Quaker meeting for worship in years, through a large gathering at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre. It was anonymous enough not to feel visible (though I recognised some names among the 150 people on Zoom), but I had a strong sense of rightness about the experience. Quakers sit together in silence, praying or meditating, until someone feels called to speak. There was a worshipfulness in the silence, strong ministry among those who spoke, and I had a sense of returning to something very familiar and loved – even though it was online and those 150 people were scattered through their own homes around the UK and beyond.

After a few weeks of attending worship at Woodbrooke, I thought it was time to make links with local Quakers. So I asked the clerk of Northampton meeting (where Becky and I were members for a few years) if I could have the link for the local Zoom meeting, and have been worshipping there every Sunday for a bit less than two months. Early days. And given that I didn’t leave Quakers entirely happily before, I’ve got quite a lot to process. But I feel a real rightness about being in the meeting for worship. 

Now these are extraordinary times for us all – times of transition, times between times, times when we’re all forced into new places. Quakers use the word sojourning for those Friends who are living away from their home meeting for a limited period of time, and who join in the active life of the meeting where they’re currently living. Sojourning Friends are full members of their current meeting, but only on a temporary basis. 

This is roughly how it feels for me to be attending Quaker worship at present. I honestly can’t say how things will feel after lockdown and face-to-face worship returns. I may return to the local URC, and to the lay preaching in other churches that has given me a lot of satisfaction over the past eight years. Or I may stay with Quaker worship, and consider rejoining the Religious Society of Friends (if they’ll have me). Of course this affects others in my family, and so it’s not just my decision alone. And of course there’s other context – our minister at my local URC has recently retired so the church is in vacancy, which can be a very fruitful or very challenging time for churches; and it’s still only nine months since my father died, which I’m still coming to terms with (and because he was deeply involved in churches, my feelings are inevitably affected by his death). 

A second story. This autumn I’ll be marking 20 years of employment at The Open University. I joined the Systems Department, and enthusiastically worked on systems courses for years, perhaps most fruitfully writing my book Systems Thinkers (written with Karen Shipp), which we published in 2009. I learnt hugely from people in the department, and learnt how to do good systems work. For various reasons – frustration with some of the department’s ways of working, a faculty and departmental restructuring, and keenness to work with others – I drifted away from the Systems Department. When our temporary department was split in two in 2014, I went with my colleagues in the ICT group and joined a new Computing & Communications department, and left the Systems people completely (who all joined the Engineering & Innovation department). I designed and led a new module with a strong Systems component (and drawing in some of the Systems group) but didn’t consider myself part of the residual Systems group – though I did edit a journal of cybernetics and given the work I was doing on information theory, was never far from the Systems world in research terms. 

Gradually wounds closed and I was persuaded to work on a second edition of Systems Thinkers, to support a rewrite of the successful Masters programme in Systemic Thinking in Practice which made use of the book. I had a really great time doing this last year, and realised in the process how much I missed working directly with the Systems group and on explicitly Systems courses. So I asked whether I could work on Masters programme, and agreed a block in a module on Managing Change which needed attention (with due permission from my head of department to allow for the complexities of OU inter-departmental politics and costings). 

It’s been a pleasing and strange experience to return to the Systems group, to return to the lineage of ideas and techniques which predated my arrival at the OU by more than 25 years, and to resume work with the people who I’ve known throughout my time at the OU. I’ve been a bit slow to get my head around approaches to systems in the material I’ve been given to revise, that are somewhat different to my own, but that’s no bad thing as a challenge. So my head is full of communities of practice and social learning, the theme of the block I’m writing/revising.

And I’ve made new connections. Prior to the lockdown I went to a workshop in Bristol on systemic leadership, run by the National Leadership Centre, along with two people from the Systems group. And since the lockdown began, I’ve spoken to my co-author on the Masters module weekly, Ray Ison, and attended a weekly online meeting with the Systems group. Through that weekly meeting, I agreed to co-facilitate an online workshop with a small charity to help them develop communities of practice, along with a Systems group colleague, Natalie Foster, who has joined the group in recent years and who I’ve only met in person a couple of times. Running that workshop was also a challenge but again really interesting.

So in many ways I’m also sojourning with the Systems group. I’m quite an active participant at present, in terms of teaching and research but also of group affiliation. It’s a bit of a different experience from my Quaker sojourning. The nature of departmental ties means that, because we’re in different departments, it would be a bit of a struggle to carry on like this for a long time – but not impossible. And I have other ties (teaching, research and administrative) that continue with people in Computing & Communications. 

But for now I’m happily sitting with part of my academic life back within the Systems group, just as I’m sitting with part of my spiritual life back within Quakers. Sojourning in each, who knows for how long? For the present, it’s a good place to be.

“For my journey was not solitary, but one undertaken with my friends as we moved towards each other and together travelled inwards.” – George Gorman, 1973 (Quaker Faith & Practice, 2.03)


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