A time of change

Ian Kirk-Smith reflects on Yearly Meeting 2018

Friends gather in the Large Meeting House before the Swarthmore Lecture. | Photo: Trish Carn.

A wide ranging and careful consideration of a book at the heart of British Quakerism, Quaker faith & practice, dominated the main sessions of the 350th consecutive Yearly Meeting of Friends in Britain, held at Friends House in London between 4-7 May 2018.

The unbroken sequence of Yearly Meetings is a remarkable achievement – a sign of continuity, tradition and legacy. However, there was a distinct feeling that ‘change was in the air’ and a sense of looking to the future in Friends House over the bank holiday weekend.

The main focus of Yearly Meeting was a question: whether it was time to revise Quaker faith & practice.

The decision to proceed with a revision, agreed in unity in a powerful session on Sunday afternoon, was accompanied, over the weekend, with a deep commitment to change in areas such as diversity and the need to include more Young Friends in the organisation of British Quakerism.

In the wake of Yearly Meeting Gathering in 2014, at Bath, Meeting for Sufferings set up a working group, the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group (RPG), to look at Quaker faith & practice, which was last revised in 1994. The ‘Reading Quaker faith & practice’ project, an initiative that encouraged Friends across Britain to engage with the Book of Discipline, has been extremely successful. A subsequent ‘theological think tank’ at Woodbrooke explored the nature and implications of religious diversity within the Society. The resulting book, God, words and us, also proved very significant.

In a comprehensive report, the Group recommended that the time is right for a revision of the Book of Discipline. Lesley Richards, clerk of the Group, spoke to the report at Yearly Meeting and ‘set the scene’ by making very effective use of the huge screen in the Large Meeting House. Photographs were projected on it showing different generations of a family and how it had changed over many years. The pictures were taken at dates when the Book of Discipline was revised.

Lesley Richards talked about the compelling case for revision, particularly of the church government sections, and explained the recommendation of the RPG that, in addition to explaining more clearly how and why Friends do what they do, the ‘whole book needs looking at’.

Adwoa Bittle, a member of the RPG, highlighted one of the reasons for a new revision: ‘Where are the words on experience of assisted dying, marriage breakdown, being transgender, sustainability and climate change?’

She also cited the extraordinary changes that have happened in the world since the last revision. An invention called the internet does not appear in the current Book of Discipline!

The Yearly Meeting devoted most of the main sessions to the question of whether it was time to revise the Book of Discipline. The quality of contributions from the floor was impressive throughout the weekend – thoughtful, often passionate and heartfelt, sometimes practical and rational, illuminating, tender and truthful. Recent media coverage concerning ‘Quakers and God’ was a topic of lively conversation in the corridors and an undercurrent in contributions in the main sessions inside the Large Meeting House (see ‘Quakers to “drop God”?’).

Friends highlighted the need to get ‘beyond divisive words’; to reflect ‘lived lives’; to acknowledge that a revision process would ‘open a can of worms’; to ‘be vulnerable’; to ‘prepare to be wounded’; to confront the existence of ‘real differences’; to change ‘archaic language’; to recognise the beauty and ambiguity of ‘archaic language’; to embrace change; to be cautious of changing too fast; to heed the ‘promptings of love and truth’ in our hearts; to be relevant; and to value ‘all expressions of spiritual experience’.

Friends, after many hours of discernment, agreed that the time was right for a revision and a historic decision was taken. A carefully written Minute 31, confirming the decision, contained the sentence: ‘We want a book which can speak and be accessible to all present and future Quakers.’

The Epistle of Yearly Meeting 2018, signed off on Monday, echoed this sentiment: ‘Many voices, experiences and identities are missing from our current book. Since the last revision, our Quaker community and the world around us have changed. We need a book of discipline that reflects more closely who we are now, and explains how and why we do what we do.’

A strong theme over the weekend was the need to address questions of diversity. There was a particular concern to involve Young Friends more in the running of British Quakerism. It was stated that of some 400 positions on committees, only about a dozen were filled by Young Friends.

The need for change has been championed by a younger generation of Friends for some time. The Swarthmore Lecture, given by the multidisciplinary artist and Young Friend Chris Alton, perhaps did more than any single action or resolution in recent years to promote it. He brought freshness, vigour, contemporary relevance and informality to the Lecture and his style of delivery was seasoned with wit and a genuine sense of joy.

He rooted his talk, ‘Changing ourselves, changing the world’, in his family and personal experience of Quakerism, and spoke about the role of art in challenging issues such as racism and injustice, illuminated his work and approach, reflected on the meaning of his friendships among younger Quakers and talked of his interests and influences, which embraced everything from skateboarding to disco. He described playfulness and subversion in his work and brought more than a little of it to Yearly Meeting. His message for Friends, on their future, was eloquently expressed: ‘We must imagine this future, for if we cannot imagine it, we cannot speak it into existence.

He also raised, with great clarity and power, subjects such as the growing reality of young people in their twenties living at home, the iniquity of zero-hour contracts and the gig economy, and the strains and pressures on young people today. The appointment of two young Friends under the age of thirty as new trustees of Britain Yearly Meeting was a welcome sign that actions are beginning to follow words and that change was, truly, in the air in Yearly Meeting 2018.

A theme in some events, like the Salter Lecture ‘Bearing witness or bearing whiteness? Britain, Africa and Quakers’ delivered by Diana Jeater, and in groups such as those devoted to diversity, was ‘white privilege’. The word ‘guilt’ – prompting a challenge to self-reflection, self-examination and empathy with the ‘other’ – popped up in many contributions.

A highlight was the Meeting for Worship with the Children’s Programme on Sunday morning, when Melinda Wenner Bradley sat on the floor at the front of a thousand seated Friends with a group of young children and engaged them with a ‘Faith and Play’ story on the theme of listening. As ever special interest groups on a huge range of subjects – demonstrating the extraordinary range of activities engaged in by Friends – were held between the main sessions and a lively and diverse programme was organised for children, young people and teenagers.

The tradition of offering extracts from testimonies to the life of Friends provided three powerful and moving experiences – Helen Steven, Christopher John Holdsworth and Malcolm Whalon.

Ingrid Greenhow, outgoing clerk of Britain Meeting trustees, and treasurer Peter Ullathorne presented their final reports to Yearly Meeting on Monday morning.

There was a sense of deep appreciation and a tinge of sadness as they took their leave after some years of dedicated service. Both are respected and admired individuals with a distinctive and engaging style.

The Yearly Meeting was very ably clerked by Deborah Rowlands, first assistant clerk Clare Scott Booth and second assistant clerk Gavin Burnell – particularly the handling of the revision of the Quaker faith & practice sessions and the demanding challenge of writing a clear and correct minute under enormous pressure.

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