Barbara Windle reviews her time at Yearly Meeting Gathering
This has been an extraordinary Yearly Meeting. Not just because it has combined Junior Yearly Meeting, Summer Gathering and Yearly Meeting into a single event, not just because of the subject matter or the numbers participating. Above all, it has been a supreme vindication of our business method well used, our ‘book of discipline’ precepts actually lived out by the Friends gathering in York. We are asked every time we come to Meeting to do so with heart and mind prepared and in readiness to be open to new light from whatever direction it may come. Time and again we saw Friends living out those difficult advices. I can’t count how many people I’ve heard say in Meeting, or have I heard reported, or have said to me directly, something that amounted to: I have been taken to a completely new place, a new understanding, an illumination; this has enabled me to feel glad unity with the historic declaration we minuted on Friday, making our commitment to hold same-sex marriages.
We heard at the start of the week those famous words: ‘We did conclude among ourselves to settle a meeting, to see one another’s faces, and open our hearts one to another in the Truth of God once a year.’ This week showed why we meet face to face and how it does indeed open our hearts. Friends saw individuals who opened their hearts and described their life journeys: perhaps their own difficulty in accepting that they were gay, certainly the inequalities to which this exposed them in every aspect of their lives. And what they saw were faithful loving people whose enduring partnerships could not have the celebration that society affords as of right to other couples. They saw them simply as human beings, who had not sought to be different, who asked only the joy of being able to be themselves, ‘ordinary’, part of the world instead of an add-on – an add-on that was not wanted and was invisible or rejected as far as much of society was concerned. And the watchers, the listeners, opened their own hearts and minds and affirmed us all.
For me, after over sixty closeted years and the usual host of discriminatory, painful, cruel, unjust incidents that any gay/lesbian of my age could recount, this has been a week I shall never forget and that I can still hardly believe has happened. Quotations are usually ringing in my ears, uninvited but apposite and a way of crystallising my feelings at the time. At the start, there were two, most unexpected ones that would not leave me alone. The first was unexpected because, as someone conscious from early childhood of inequality in my own life, I do not like sexist language. I respect it in quotes from past ages, while avoiding it myself. But here it was in my head and my heart – the anti-slavery slogan ‘am I not a man and a brother?’ The second was the heartfelt cry that Shakespeare gives to Shylock: ‘if you prick us, do we not bleed?’
I have had – I have – every reason in the world to be grateful to Quakers for giving me a space where I can be myself, where openness has been more possible than at any other period of my life. With rare exceptions, I have felt deeply supported and upheld among Friends. Yet last Friday the first words that came to me as the minute was agreed were ‘Free at last! Free at last! Praise God almighty, I’m free at last!’ I’ve been trying to work out why. I think it is the very fact that this sense of freedom no longer rests on the goodwill of individual Friends, individual meetings. As of 31 July, this is the openly stated position of the beloved community to which I belong. And that’s different. Another gay Friend expressed to me what it meant to him in the words: ‘For the first time, I feel a full member of the Religious Society of Friends!’ That does not precisely express my own feeling, but I see exactly why it is his and why it will meet a resounding ‘Yes!’ from many others.
There was one other quotation that spoke to me too. Not an especially Quaker one, but it’s how I feel. It’s Shakespeare’s Henry V , before the battle of Agincourt:
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here…
(To fight) with us upon St Crispin’s day.
Except that instead of ‘fighting’ there was a deep, grounded unity and sense that we were all being upheld. Perhaps something like this would do:
And Quakers all in Britain now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here
To stand with us on this historic day.
Historic is what it felt. Someone said to me that he’d never been to Yearly Meeting before and it was tremendous. My response was that I may have been to lots of YMs, but never one like this. In the past I’ve heard some registrars take the line that of course, they couldn’t have anything to do with a Meeting for Commitment lest it jeopardise their right to register marriages. I’ve repeatedly heard people express discomfort with the extension of the meaning of marriage. In both contexts I’ve nodded understandingly, while sometimes also attempting to suggest that what I was hearing was the unspoken – indeed the unrecognised – thought that heterosexual marriage is after all the only real thing but see how generous we want to be; we’ll allow you not merely a civil partnership but a low-key blessing in the Meeting house.
By contrast, this week I met people who said plainly: ‘but I don’t understand why the word marriage matters to you. I just see marriages and committed relationships as equal but different. Please tell me what the problem is.’ These people listened when I said what I was hearing: that the word marriage matters to you because it expresses the ideal union of your life – it is the best, the most precious thing you have. And so is my love to me. Being refused the word inevitably tells me that my relationship falls short of the ideal and that however faithful, loving, cherishing in sickness and in health my love and I may be, for however many years, it’s not good enough to be called marriage. And arguing that the distinction only lies in the ‘fact’ that marriage is for procreation is unconvincing, because I see frequently (and share in) the joy people take in affirming marriage between those beyond childbearing age, or marriage between people one of whom is dying, or between those who cannot have children ‘of their own’.
To have someone come up to me a while after that sort of quiet conversation and say: ‘I’ve changed my mind. I want to go along with the same term for everyone’ was one of the many very special moments of this week. Such openness is inspiring.
I’m so grateful to those many Quakers who have enabled the Society to come to this place. Towards a Quaker View of Sex reads very datedly now, but it was ground-breaking in 1963. Individuals who had nothing to gain personally have put their heads above the parapet, from Susan Hartshorne at Sufferings in July 1987 to Colin Billett making the introduction to YM in session last week. There are countless heterosexual Quakers who have simply made clear their conviction that quality of loving is what matters and gender is immaterial.
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