Interview: Ben Pink Dandelion, Professor of Quaker Studies, Birmingham

08 October 2008

When I was living in an anarchist peace camp, one of the few things we all agreed to do was change our names to protest against names’ being passed down from our fathers; also to choose ones that were neither obviously male or female.

Quakers don’t use titles, so they would ask: “Who are you?” I would say: “Ben — but I’m not really Ben; I’m Pink Dandelion.” In the end, as more works have been published it would have been confusing to change; so I just say: “Please call me Ben Pink Dandelion.”

As a budding revolutionary, I was prepared to do anything, and, of course, opposition just proves that you’re right — like with the early Quakers, who thought the world was apostate. Twenty-five years on, I don’t notice my name so much. One of the nice things about getting older is that people have stopped telling me to grow up.

When I gave up faith in the revolu­tion, I thought I might as well get a job; so I trained to be a chauffeur. I did a bit of driving, and then went to do a combined-humanities degree at the University of Brighton. Then I got a job at the Yearly Meeting, Euston, organising adult education for Quakers in Britain, and from there I went to Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, to organise weekend and termly courses.

The University of Birmingham has just appointed me Professor of Quaker Studies. It’s an honorary appointment, as I work for Wood­brooke and I’m paid by them. We’ve been teaching theology and religious studies for the last decade, but now our students will be full members of Birmingham University and super­vised at Woodbrooke. We now have 35 M.Phil. and Ph.D. students, and we’re generally recognised as the world centre of excellence in research in Quaker Studies.

It’s also in recognition for my re­search and writing. Quaker Studies is not a common field. Most of it happens in the States, but there is increasing recognition of Quaker Studies’ becoming a field in itself over the last 15 years. This appoint­ment puts Quaker Studies on the academic map.

It’s amazing how popular the post-graduate courses have been. Now we have to limit our intake. About half our students are not Quakers: they are studying for academic interest, and this is just the next step in their career path — students from the United States, Korea, Jamaica, Japan. The other half are mainly UK-based, part-time students in their 50s and 60s who did a Master’s some time back.

I was a cradle atheist — “a Strict and Particular Atheist” — but my parents also believed in education. They had to choose a school for me, and when the choice was between a Roman Catholic and a Quaker school, they chose the Quaker one. Tactically, it might have been better to choose the Roman Catholic one.

So I learnt about silence, pacificism, and equality — though I didn’t go to Quaker Meeting. When I was an anarchist, all those values were in place, without the spiritual dimen­sion. In fact, one of the anarchists said: “I can see God in your eyes,” and I was quite offended by that.

But a year later I had a striking spiritual experience of being lifted up and being held by God. That experience, thankfully, has continued with me. I realised the need to have a faithful, obedient life — to discern what is the right next step, not just do what I want to do.

Experience is primary. How can we know God? By experience. But it is important to take our “leadings”, as we call them, into group discern­ment, and ask: “Is this what God wants us to do?” For Quakers, col­lective ex­peri­ence has greater weight than private experience.

Discernment is absolutely critical, because Quakers haven’t got an authoritative text. We look for direct relationship with God through Jesus Christ the Word, experienced in­wardly. The Bible is the lower-case “word” about Jesus.

There is such diversity among Quakers in Britain, of course. Some would say that God does have a will, and that you can discern what it is. Others would say God has big, broad-brush preferences, and it’s up to us to find out and interpret what they are for our own decisions.

The most important decision I made was saying yes to my wife. And moving north, setting up home here in Lancashire. And now we have the blessing of our daughter.

In National Quaker Week, we’re saying: “Please remember we’re an option.” Early Quakers thought we were the true Church. That’s not the case now.

You go into a Quaker Meeting and it looks as if nothing is happening — but everything is happening. Silence is the approach to God, and a way of experiencing wisdom from God, and discerning whether it is from God.

There’s a joke about a postcard you can carry with the words printed on it: “I’m a Quaker. If there’s an emer­gency, please be quiet.” Silence ac­tually subverts, even in a secular way.

The most important insight George Fox, our founder, had was that, if everyone can have a direct en­counter with God, why do we need priests and all the rest? Sometimes absence is very important to allow presence.

Ideally, the distinction between a spiritual and a social concern is false. All social concern comes out of a spiritual base. It’s an important wit­ness that some parts of the Church are totally committed to other ways of dealing with problems, not war.

My experience of Anglican worship is minimal, though there was a won­derful church in Peckham where I used to go sometimes. Paradoxically, a number of Quakers quite enjoy a High Church service because it’s more experiential, less literal.

We take our daughter to Quaker Meeting, and keep silence before meals to give thanks, and encourage habits of reflection and contempla­tion. To me, education’s about offer­ing options and encouraging dis­covery.

I didn’t grow up reading books; so I’m looking forward to enjoying them with my daughter. But the one I keep going back to is The Darling Buds of May by H. E. Bates. It’s very affirming of life, and joy in life — very incarnational. And it’s wonder­ful about food. And they have some lovely vehicles.

I do regret being mean and mani­pulative as a teenager. But there’s no single decision I regret. I’ve been given second chances — jam on everything, really.

I wouldn’t have a tombstone, as a Quaker, but I’d like to be re­membered for trying to be helpful, for making someone smile, telling a joke.

Apart from Pop Larkin being an inspirational role-model? My father was a big influence. He died when I was 11, but I remember that he was incredibly kind. Then there is Professor Roger Homan at Brighton University — a mentor and a friend.

I like the biblical texts the early Quakers used: Jeremiah 31-34, about there being no need to turn outwardly to God because God would be written on their hearts. That speaks so much to me. And Revelation 3.20, when Christ comes to sup with us inwardly. I don’t like all the slayings, which might not surprise you.

If I wasn’t doing this, I’d like to run a bicycle shop. I don’t have a car at the moment, but I did have a series of totally impractical cars I couldn’t afford to keep. Bristol motor cars . . .

I pray that other people will feel God in their life, and I often pray for people who are suffering from illness or who are having a difficult time financially. I pray that they will be wrapped in God’s love — not so much about fixing the problem. Life should be praying.

I’d liked to be locked in a Meeting house with my family. Or someone who likes to make people laugh. The National Theatre of Brent. We’d sit it out and laugh about our predicament.

Ben Pink Dandelion was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

The second annual National Quaker Week runs until 12 October.

Ben Pink Dandelion was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

The second annual National Quaker Week runs until 12 October.

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