Considerations of the insider/outsider problem in a Quaker meeting

By Joseph Nelson, final year undergraduate in Theology and Religious Studies at Leeds Trinity University. This was submitted originally as an assignment for the module “Religions in Leeds and Bradford”.

Carlton Hill Friends Meeting House

The Quakers in Leeds website suggests that you should not expect an easy definition of Quakerism (2018, NP). The website says that ‘Quakers seek religious truth in inner experience and everyday life, rather than authority, ritual and ceremony’ (Quakers in Leeds, 2018, NP). A key issue that was striking during this site visit was the insider-outsider dichotomy in Quakerism. The lack of specificity in Quaker belief is likewise a consideration that is important when doing fieldwork today. This tension is also apparent in the article by Peter Collins and the blog post by Rachel Muers. This portfolio will consider the unspoken, yet felt, insider-outsider distinction within Quakerism and the effect this has on fieldwork.

During any fieldtrip ‘students come as “outsiders”’ (Knott, 2010, p243) to a religious group. In many religious traditions the distinction between those who are insiders, or part of the group, and those who are outsider, not part of the group, is a pronounced and obvious distinction. It could be argued that this is not so with Quakerism. As observed in our site visit, the meeting starts when people enter the room for worship. There is no liturgy or preaching just a still silence that appears to almost envelop all those present with no clear distinction in any way between those who belong to the group and those who are just visiting. As a result of Quaker meetings being ‘open to everyone’ (Quakers today leaflet, ND, NP) and there being very little regulation there is no definite insider- outsider distinction as there are in other places. This was made clear by one of the elders who suggested that she doesn’t believe that there will be membership to Quakerism in the future as there is today thus further blurring the insider/outsider distinction in this case.

Collins points out that what it actually means to be a Quaker isn’t clear (2009, p205). He argues that ‘in order to understand Quakerism it is necessary to understand Quaker faith and practice’ (Collins, 2009, p205). In other words the central aspect of faith for a Quaker, according to Collins, is a deeply personal experience and is essentially about the individual rather than collective faith. Likewise Muers even questions if there is an outside to Quaker worship/practice and that to be an insider is to experience something during time worship (Muers, 2012, NP). These two articles demonstrate how complex the question of the insider/outsider can be when discussing Quakerism. A key theme that was apparent in both articles, in the site visit and in the booklet we were given for the visit- advices and queries- was that Quakerism is more about practice then it is about faith. For example ‘Advices and Queries’ says that what Quakers commit to is ‘a way of worship’ (2010, p3) but that the ‘deeper realities of our faith are beyond… verbal formulation’ (2010, p3). On the site visit one of the elders even spoke of how she is an Atheist but is still a Quaker. This further confuses the insider/ outsider distinction further yet also places the emphasis once again upon practice.

Collins concludes that shared stories make the Quaker identity (2009, p217). Once again, this is echoed during the site visit, ‘it is about experience’ and ‘we have no dogma or creed but we have testimonies.’[1] This could be the distinguishing marker between the insider and the outsider. Muers suggests that there is no real obvious distinction between someone who is observing and someone who is participating in Quaker worship (2012, NP). Thus it could be suggested that every participant is an observer (Knott, 2010, p250) and every observer is a participant (Knott, 2010, p252). This unique situation presents unique issues that need to be considered when one visits a Quaker meeting. Can an observer truly maintain objectivity in Quaker worship? Or Quaker worship itself is so very individualized that anyone who partakes by default become subjectively involved in the experience (Knot, 2010, p25).

There are many considerations that need to be reflected upon when visiting a Quaker meeting. However, the question of Quaker identity is one that will come up time and again, particularly when discussing the insider/outsider divide. However, as much as questions of identity are beyond this piece, individual experience and stories (Collins, 2009, p217) are key to understanding each individual Quaker and any serious study of Quakerism needs to dwell on the consideration of the place of stories in these groups.



Collins, P. (2009).  ‘The Problem of Quaker Identity’. Quaker Studies 13(2). Pp 205-219.

Knott, K. (2010). Insider/Outsider Perspectives. The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion. 2nd Edition. Ed: Hinnells, J, R. Routledge Publishers. Abingdon, UK.

Muers, R. (2012). ‘What I’m really thinking: The Subject of Fieldwork’, Knowing Experimentally: Rachel Muers’ Blog. Accessed at: (Accessed 19 Feb 2019)

Quakers in Leeds (2018). Quakers in Leeds Website. Accessed at: (Accessed on 19 Feb 2019).

Quakers Today Leaflet (ND). Quakers: Quaker life outreach.

Quakers (2010). Advices and Queries. The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, 1995, 1997 and 2008. London, UK.

[1] Elder at the Quaker Meeting House that we visited.

St Patrick’s Day – parades and pints

By Dr Patricia Kelly, Senior Lecturer in Catholic Studies at Leeds Trinity University

St Patrick’s Day – 17 March – is marked world-wide by parades, buildings and rivers turning green, and the consumption of vast quantities of Irish stout, soda bread, and ‘bacon & cabbage’. But who was St Patrick, and how did he come to be patron saint of Ireland?


Image credit: Seth Anderson (2012) []

St Patrick was born around 420CE, in what was then northern Britannia – possibly near Birdoswald fort on Hadrian’s Wall. In his Confessio, or autobiography, he tells us that his father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest – Christianity had become the religion of the whole Roman Empire some half-a-century before his birth, in 380. His name – Patricius – tells us that he was Roman, and he refers to himself late in life, as ‘living in exile among non-Roman peoples’ (Letter to Coroticus 1). He was kidnapped at the age of 16 by Irish pirates, and sold into slavery: scholars think he spent much of the next six years in the north-west of Ireland, around modern day Counties Sligo and Mayo. Six years later, the young man managed to escape, returning to his family, and eventually, in his 30s, returning to Ireland to preach the Gospel to these ‘non-Roman’ heathens.

There must have been some knowledge of Christianity in Ireland before Patrick however. We can be confident of this for two reasons. First, there is ample archaeological evidence of contacts between Ireland and the Roman Empire – remains of pottery, wine, olives, and glassware have been found in the south-east of the country, while the second-century map-maker, Ptolomey, described Ireland in surprising, and surprisingly accurate, detail. Second, the fifth-century pope Celestine sent a missionary called Palladius to Ireland in 431 – some time before Patrick went as a slave, let along as a missionary – although later Irish accounts suggest that Palladius wasn’t too successful, and hurried back to his Mediterranean homeland. Of course, these medieval Irish authors may have wanted to promote Patrick, rather than Palladius, as the true ‘apostle of Ireland’, and there is some suggestion that they might have confused stories about the two bishops, whether intentionally or not.

What is certain is that by 600, Patrick is described as ‘the apostle of our land’ and ‘the St Peter of the Irish’ – strong stuff, to be equating him with the ‘first among equals’ of the apostles! He is associated with Armagh, in the north of Ireland, where he died and was buried, and the Archbishop of Armagh remains the ‘Primate’ or ‘senior bishop’ of the Catholic Church in Ireland. He has been the patron saint of Ireland for 14 centuries, which is pretty impressive, especially considering that he didn’t drive the snakes out of Ireland (you’ll need to ask a soil scientist for more details). 

It seems that St Patrick’s Day parades began in the nineteenth-century United States, when it was much less of a ‘melting-pot’ than we tend to think. Generally immigrant communities kept to themselves and didn’t mix – so Irish Catholics would have had their own areas of the city, their own employers and jobs, and their own churches in which to worship, very different from Polish, Italian, or Spanish Catholics. But they had their feast day, and then their parades, just as the other Catholic communities did, and eventually – probably in the 1950s – this worked its way back to Europe. In Ireland, meanwhile, the day was generally quiet – under British rule it wasn’t a holiday, and after independence, there were few parades aside from military ones. The Irish government initially banned pubs from opening on St Patrick’s day – hence my mother-in-law, who grew up in a pub in County Roscommon in the 1930s and 1940s, remembering that St Patrick’s was one of the three days in the year when the pub was locked shut.

But Patrick can still teach us lessons. He tells us that he focused on converting slaves and women – the dispossessed – although he does admit to bribing the powerful on occasion (necessary to save his life and his mission). He wrote a strongly worded letter to the soldiers of one Coroticus, complaining about their massacre of new converts and their appalling treatment of captives. He was an internationalist, born in Britain, travelling to Gaul, and spending much of his adult life in Ireland. And he lived in a time of chaos and uncertainty – the Roman Empire, which had ruled Britain for four centuries was collapsing, along with law and order, stability, and the social structures he knew – yet he continued the fight for what was right, insisting on the dignity and integrity of all human persons.

So lessons from St Patrick: enjoy your Irish stout, wear your green leprechaun hat, and remember to respect all those around you – especially those working so hard to serve you your pints! Slaínte!  


More information about St Patrick, including translations of his writings, may be found at, from where the citations from his Confessioand Lettercome.

The KFC Christmas in Japan

By Ilaria Vecchi, PhD researcher in Religious Studies, Media, and Visual Anthropology at LTU and Visiting Lecturer at York St John University

A few days before Christmas I found myself talking to a Japanese friend about end of year celebrations, including the impending trip back home and family visits. When she requested a photograph of my festive home decoration, I sent a pic of my dining table by the window with some candles lit for the occasion and decorative lights around the window. She found it very kawaii (pretty) and promptly reminded me that “we celebrate it too, with lights and the rest of the bits and pieces.” Unlike Halloween, which is celebrated with annual parades in Tokyo and many other cities over the country, Christmas has gained a special place in the Japanese calendar. The popularity of the celebration is not due to the number of Christian followers; on the country – barely a 1% profess to being Christian. As Kimura (2005) suggests, “the Christian basis for the holiday does not even enter the consciousness of most Japanese celebrating Christmas.” Not only in Japan but in the so-called Christian world too, Christmas has very little to do with “religion”. It is enough to observe how we are reminded about the incoming Christmas period: beginning with what the advertisement TV broadcasters propose, to the messages on social media, and concluding with the choice of songs most radio stations play during December: this annual celebration is rarely about Jesus or the Christian idea of peace.

Christmas is celebrated in a number of countries in the world, so it goes without saying that there are variations in the form of observing it. As Hobsbawn and Ranger (1983) theorised traditions are invented and strengthen over time because institutions and society support them. As for culture, traditions are not static objects but change with time. In our case, Japan, a country rich in celebrations often related to harvesting time and other seasonal recurrences, has shaped its very own way of marking this event, adopting and personalising its tradition. It is crucial to remember that the most important event at this time of year is the New Year’s Day celebration.

As many authors have suggested, Christmas has filled the vacuum in the calendar of annual events. Similarly in Europe or America, the spirit behind Christmas in Japan is capitalism where the celebration is seen as the perfect occasion for buying a small present or milling about in a German Market decorated with millions of lights in Roppongi, maybe after having taken a photo with a Finnish Santa.

Picture1Figure 1 Christmas menu adverts on the Facebook page of KFC Japan (Credit KFC Japan).

So, if on one side Japan replicates the classic symbols and characters populating any European city square in December, on the other hand, it adapts it to its own taste. In Japan, this annual event has a “love affair” connotation by being associated especially with couples. Not a surprise since most of our Christmas pop songs talk about love and longing for a mysterious partner, and everything rotates around spending money for a loved one. Turkey, a product mainly consumed in US-influenced Anglo-Saxon countries (in other geographic areas fish or other types of meat are consumed), is substituted with chicken and KFC in particular, which has organised a suitable Christmas package for its Japanese consumers (fig. 1). Like many other chains, KFC found a vacuum in the market and designed its product to satisfy the demand for something similar to a festive American dinner. This all-in-one box – also known as a Party Barrel – contains fried chicken, salad, cake, and disposable plates or wine for the most expensive version; the most exciting thing is the queue people seem keen on facing to book their meal. As any respectable tradition, you need your pilgrimage, your ritual to confirm you are part of a larger community of followers, thus the food, the market and the rush to The Fast Food (Fig. 2). These characteristics make of Christmas a perfect example of globalisation, providing crucial information to explain much of what we see in Japan – or other countries – and recontextualising it.


Figure 2 People queuing outside a KFC in Tokyo (Credits KFC Japan).

Apart from these curiosities, often looked at as exotic behaviours, there are a few interesting points which are worth noticing. The place Christmas has gained within  Japanese society over recent decades is indeed considered very relevant, as it appears in surveys from the late 1990s that the majority of Japanese people interviewed listed it within their annual celebrations. Nevertheless, this event is kept at bay and spatially restricted to some areas, marking out even more its consumeristic character. Christmas is confined to places like malls, markets and the like, and excluded from temples, shrines or Japanese related institutions such as the Royal family. Therefore, if on the one hand, this celebration is de-facto incorporated and consumed by millions of Japanese, on the other hand, its nature is restricted by limiting its presence in space and in time. In fact, after the 25th of December, all decorations are removed to make space for the main annual event, the New Year’s celebration.

Junko Kimura & Russell Belk (2005) Christmas in Japan: Globalization Versus Localization, Consumption Markets & Culture, 8:3, 325-338

Hobsbawm and Ranger (1984) The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Hanukkah and Christmas

By Jon Simons, Reader and Associate Head for Research and Knowledge Exchange, School of Arts and Communications, Leeds Trinity University

The Jewish festival of Hanukkah is a good illustration of how different cultural contexts shape the way the same festival is celebrated. Hanukkah is a winter festival, also known as the Festival of Lights, and its timing in the Jewish lunar calendar means it often falls close to Christmas. The festival is observed in religious terms by the nightly lighting of an nine-branched candelabrum over the eight days of the festival, beginning with one flame (plus a ‘servant’ light) and building up to all eight. In Jewish terms, Hanukkah is a minor festival. There are no holy days during it, (other than the regular sabbath) on which Jews are forbidden to work and there is only a slight variation to the daily liturgy. The festival commemorates events after those retold in the Hebrew Bible, namely the successful revolt in 165 BCE by the Maccabees against the Seleucid (Greek-Syrian) ruler Antiochus IV, who then controlled Judea (where modern-day Israel-Palestine is). According to the traditional story, mentioned in the Talmud, Antiochus banned Jewish religious practices and defiled the Second Temple by having pigs slaughtered on its altar – not at all kosher! Having defeated this Hellenistic descendant of Alexander the Great’s empire, the Maccabees set about rededicating the Temple but discovered there was only enough purified olive oil to light the holy candelabrum for one day but that it would take seven days to bring a fresh supply. The miracle of Hanukkah, according to religious tradition, is that the oil lasted for all eight days.

Latkes fried in oil

Growing up in the UK, I happily experienced Hanukkah as a time of receiving presents from my relatives. Some of them followed the older tradition of European (Ashkenazi) Jews of giving money instead but, hey, that was easily converted into more presents that were the same as what our non-Jewish friends were given around the same time. Hanukkah greeting cards began to be sold too – another alternative to a Christmas custom. When I moved to Israel I realized that Hanukkah did not have same associations for the Jews who came from the Islamic diaspora (called Mizrachim in Israel). Without the influence of commercialized Christmas in Western Europe and North America to shape the celebration, there were no piles of toys and games to mark the rededication of the Temple. Not only that, but even the usual formula of many Jewish festivals – they tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat – was observed differently. While Ashkenazi Jews in the Diaspora favoured latkes (fried potato pancakes) to mark the significance of oil for this festival, the preference of the Mizrachim for fried doughnuts became the cultural culinary choice in Israel.

Just as some Jews have adjusted their festive practice to suit Christmas, so have non-Jews – especially in North America – expanded their knowledge of Jewish festivals because of Hanukkah’s proximity to Christmas. Those who want to create an inclusive winter holiday season keep in mind that not everyone is celebrating (only) Christmas. Does anyone want a latke with their turkey?