Towards a Quaker View of Sex

Writing TQVOS 1988


On the 25th anniversary of TQVOS, David Blamires, now editor of The Friends Quarterly, invited Anna Bidder to write her account of the process of writing TQVOS.


Reproduced by permission of The Friends Quarterly, October 1988, pp. 146-50.


Dear David, you asked me to tell you about Towards a Quaker View of Sex, its origins, its methods and the subsequent reaction, so here you are.

I came up against the subject of homosexuality when various associated problems were causing distress among Cambridge Young Friends. That must have been 1953-54. I did not convene the group, however, until about 1957. My father died New Year 1954, and I was occupied in clearing up our old home and establishing myself in a temporary new one for the whole of that year and later in building and moving into my present home. I was able to keep up the Young Friends evenings and from them or from some of them received a minute or letter urging me to get Friends to "do something" about the Wolfenden Report. As I learnt more and got freer of my personal affairs I began to consider the possibility of a Quaker group. I discussed the matter first with Lotte Rosenberg, a psychiatrist, and she was encouraging. I then wrote to Duncan Fairn and Alfred Torrie, who both welcomed the idea of a Quaker study group on homosexuality. I also approached Alastair Heron at the same time. Alastair, Duncan, Lotte and I had a preliminary get-together at the end of Yearly Meeting in a committee room at Friends House which we were lent. I am not clear what year--about '57 or '58, I should think.

I think we must have agreed then on some more names to be approached--Kenneth Nicholson, Kenneth Barnes, Mervyn Parry, Keith Wedmore. Richard Fox was, I think, added soon, but not the first time, but I'm not sure.

We met for the first time in a queer small room that was available in my Club, the University Women's, in Audley Square, and that room continued to be our meeting place till the end.

It is important to remember the climate in which we came together - the law had not been changed - public opinion was ignorant and biased and many otherwise good and inspiring Christians regarded not only homosexual acts but homosexual feelings as sinful. I had been encouraged by finding more open-mindedness among Friends than elsewhere.

So the first question before us at that first meeting at the Club was 'What do we think right and wrong in all this, and why?' - and before that session had closed we had agreed that the only way to approach the problem was to attempt to answer those two questions for the whole of sexual behaviour, hetero- and homo-sexual, and that was what occupied us during the five to six years we worked together.

After quite a few meetings we realized that the only way was to agree on one day a month and stick to it. I forget which Sunday it was, but on each Sunday we met 10.30 at the Club and began with a meeting for worship. Coffee then appeared at 11:30 and with that we began our morning's work. We lunched together at the Club and resumed work about 2.00 or 2.15. Some stayed for tea, some left about 4.00 p.m. to catch trains.

I think I was chairman for a bit, but Duncan Fairn soon took over and was, of course, excellent. As I said, I think Richard Fox was brought in almost at once, and then Joyce James, because we felt the need for a married woman's point of view, I being a spinster and Lotte having been divorced by her husband, in Germany, many, many years before (because of her Jewish blood). Then we decided that we would not add anyone else - we were getting to know each other and developing into a working group, and if a new person were brought in, we would have to go back to the beginning for them.

We sought for information and counsel, however. For some months we had at each meeting a representative of some Friends group: another schoolmaster, a representative from Young Friends, from the Friends Guild of Social Workers. We approached the Marriage and Parenthood Committee (later laid down - a pity. I think), and they asked for one of us to go and talk to them, so I went and shared in one of their weekend conferences and addressed them at one session. Each visitor shared the whole morning and lunch with us and was then thanked and sent away, and the afternoon was spent discussing what we had learnt from them.

Our last guest was Stephen Thorne, then Recording Clerk. We were rather wanting to be recognized by the Society, and he discussed it with us. when he pointed out that, if we were accepted by the Meeting for Sufferings, then Sufferings would be able to appoint Friends to join our group, we saw at once that we could not try for recognition since we have already decided not to add to our numbers. I may say I was immensely impressed by Stephen Thorne's very fine mind.

We must have been meeting for eighteen months or two years before we decided that we had better try and write something - and you know the result! I should say that the writing was a truly group activity. Various individuals produced the first draft of various sections, but all drafts were circulated through the whole group and criticised and amended at the next session.

We all agreed that it was the most remarkable group work we had ever known. I remember a relaxed feeling, although we were working hard. I was away from the group, on biological work in the West Pacific, from September 1960 to June-July 1961. I timed my departure so that I could attend the morning of one of our sessions before catching an afternoon plane and arrived back on the Saturday before another Sunday meeting. During the meeting for worship I was feeling strongly that vocal ministry from me after so long an absence was inappropriate. Nevertheless, a message presented itself which could not be denied utterance. After a while Duncan said, 'I haven't done the homework I said I would do for this session, and, since Anna has spoken, I have understood why.' We were as close-knit as that.

At a later stage in our drafting we decided to have a week-end together, based on my flat. I put up Lotte Rosenberg; Richard Fox had his caravan in the drive; Duncan, Alastair and Keith all had hospitality available in Cambridge; my sister kindly put up Kenneth Barnes and Alfred Torrie; Mervyn Parry lived in Cambridge, of course, and I think Kenneth Nicholson must have driven over each day from Saffron Walden. I spent an entire day cooking before they came, and my sister produced two puddings, and we had a profitable and enjoyable week-end - with splendid washers-up!

We had a small Rowntree grant for expenses, and Friends Home Service Committee published our pamphlet. It was to be published on a Monday. and publication to be announced at a television programme on Sunday, in which Kenneth Barnes and I took part, together with Anthony Storr. This arrangement started the project off on the wrong foot with many Friends, for, at that time, but few Friends had television - so on Monday morning they were greeted by their non-Quaker friends who had sets with 'What are you Quakers up to? - or words to that effect - and Friends didn't like not knowing!

A very unfortunate mistake, which also exacerbated opposition, was made, for which I have always held Home Service responsible, in that no mention of authorship appeared on the cover. We had to be anonymous, because of Duncan Fairn's position in the Prison Service, but 'by a group of Friends' on the cover would have made it clear that it was not an official publication by the Society of Friends. This error, (corrected in the 2nd edition) was naturally resented by many.

As you know, the reception was mixed - and extreme both ways. We had heart-warming appreciation both within and without the Society, and we had criticism and abuse. Kenneth Barnes and I had the mail, of course. I didn't mind abuse from outside the Society - I had a grubby anonymous note saying simply, 'You're a whore'. The men of our group were horrified and apologetic. I didn't mind - after all it wasn't true! But I allowed myself to mind much more than was reasonable some of the reproaches I received, by letter or in speech, from Friends. I remember sitting in a Sufferings and hearing a Friend say, 'This pamphlet which I cannot bring myself to name could spread a poison through our Society from which it must at all costs be protected.' - But you may say we were avenged when, some months later, Sufferings was receiving an account of the Book Centre's finances - out of the red for the first time for years 'largely due' (I was told it was added) 'to the sales of a certain pamphlet' - and I am glad to add that I understand that Sufferings broke into roars of laughter! The strength of the criticism took everyone by surprise, but I think it was noisier than the praise, and that positive welcome has been astonishingly lasting. I would have thought it would all be vieux jeux by now, but I have, in fact, quite recently heard of two Friends, quite unconnected, who were drawn to the Society by reading the pamphlet.

It was a wonderful experience, those years of working together. We all learnt a lot from it - I wouldn't have missed it for anything.

Was it a 'concern'? I did not so feel it when I began, acting on a human judgement of my own and of others. I think, however, that we very much felt ourselves to be acting under corporate concern once we got going, and that was why we decided to stop recruiting more individuals to our group. When Kenneth Barnes and I went to our television programme, we went from a meeting with the others and I personally was strongly aware of being prayerfully upheld.

The negative reaction of so many Friends surprised everyone. It was a shock to me because, when I first became involved, I had been glad to find Friends much more open-minded and prepared to be sympathetic and compassionate for the problems of the homosexual - much more than found other equally 'good' people. We had, of course, wonderful welcome and support, but the comment I valued as much as any was 'I don't agree with you, but you were right to publish if you felt like that.' We did not in the first place plan to publish. We met as a group of Friends with very different experiences and outlooks, all feeling that Quakers should have a contribution to make towards understanding a bitter problem.

It all happened twenty to thirty years ago. It moves me to think that so many thousands have read and often been helped by what we wrote, and some are still reading it.