The George Gorman Lecture: Movement building from stillness

Elinor Smallman reviews the George Gorman Lecture

If the Spirit is in every person then the Quaker community is, by definition, open to all.

In the George Gorman Lecture, held on Tuesday 1 August, Tim Gee explored themes such as power, diversity, and the spiritual root of action.

An activist, author and Young Friend, Tim Gee currently works for Quaker Peace & Social Witness but delivered the lecture in a personal capacity.

He began by recalling the story of the children of Reading Meeting who, when Quakerism was illegal, continued to worship together after their parents had been imprisoned. Through such stories he ‘inherited an understanding of the Quakers as a movement for peace at prayer and… in action.’

Being raised a Quaker, he said, was ‘rather like growing up in a very lovely village… dispersed across the country’. But he added that ‘building the peaceable kingdom is a bigger task then maintaining a cosy village’ and said: ‘We have to invest in our structures, our relationships and our communal journey as a community of faith if we are to be in any way useful to anyone else.’

He rooted his reflections in Meeting for Worship: ‘Seen from the outside, a silent and still Quaker Meeting doesn’t look much like a movement at all. Seen from within… it’s what it’s all about.’ He spoke of Meeting as ‘a place to reflect in the deepest way possible… not a place to close our eyes to the problems of the world’.

Tim Gee emphasised the central importance of the Meeting as part of movement building: ‘In showing love and care for every person… we are upholding the spirit and community that supports us to take action for change.’ However, he also drew attention to the last time Yearly Meeting considered movement building. In Margaret Heathfield’s 1994 Swarthmore Lecture she described a movement as ‘open, stimulating, supportive and perhaps rather flexible around the edges’ rather than a closed group with strict rules.

Tim Gee recognised her characterisaton of the modern Society as ‘a “push-me-pull-you” creature trying to be both an open movement and a closed group at once’. He went on to consider power: power from within, power between people, and power from below. However, he also considered the detrimental effects of power not being distributed well: ‘I think that it’s still fair to say that, on the whole, there is a concentration of privilege in the Society of Friends.’

The issue of racial diversity was held up as an example: ‘If it turns out that all of the introductions and speeches in plenary this week are given by white people, I hope that we can agree together that this should be the last time that that happens.’

Friends were then confronted with a startling comparison: ‘Using the last available statistics I can find, the UKIP candidates for election are more ethnically diverse than the Society of Friends.’ In a spirit of tenderness, he added: ‘I don’t think this is an issue of fear.’ He shed light on acts of witness by Friends addressing the treatment of immigrants and refugees: ‘This spirit of generosity fills me with so much hope.’

He went on to speak of newcomers to Meetings who had not felt welcomed and invited Meetings to ‘make the simple act of being actively welcoming to all a priority for our movement right now’.

Eight recommendations generated by Young Friends were shared: an ‘Equality Commission’ to help the Society be more inclusive; ensuring decision-making within the Society becomes more representative; practising the ‘diversity welcome’ at all Meetings; providing ‘ramps to participation’ and ‘micro-volunteering’ opportunities for newcomers; nurturing a culture of conversation and co-learning; organising more small groups at grassroots level; placing a copy of the World Religions Bible on the table in Meeting for Worship; and expanding eldership and oversight to include the Meeting’s relationships with the wider community.

As the lecture drew to a close Tim Gee exhorted Friends to: ‘Rise up and take action!’ He expressed the hope that ‘the next step in our movement building journey will be a conscious effort to dismantle any of the walls around the Quaker village’.

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