The time is now

Ian Kirk-Smith considers a very special ‘Quakerfest’

It was uncomfortable. It was unsettling. It was wrong. And yet there was a sense that we all knew where it was coming from: from people who were all too human and felt frustrated.  In several decades of attending Quaker business meetings in Ireland, it was a sound that was very strange to my ears: applause. It was an important business session. A Friend had been waiting a long time to speak. He finally did and clearly echoed the views of a number of people present. Almost in relief, some clapped.

Last year a Friend, who had attended an Ireland Yearly Meeting, described it, in a rather patronising tone, as rather ‘slow’. Did he mean old-fashioned? Was this the new English fashion? Certainly not. The clerk, very promptly and very firmly, reminded Friends present of Quaker business discipline. It was very well done: a crisp, clear, and strong judgement.

Some Friends, driven to putting their hands together, rather than their hearts, might have benefitted from reading the introductory pages of Documents in Advance:

‘In all our meetings for church affairs we need to listen together to the Holy Spirit. We are not seeking a consensus; we are seeking the will of God. The unity of the meeting lies more in the unity of the search than in the decision which is reached. We must not be distressed if our listening involves waiting, perhaps in confusion, until we feel clear what God wants done.’
Quaker faith & practice 2.89

A Quaker Meeting for Business may seem strange, but another quote reminds Friends that it is ‘not a debating forum or a town meeting where everyone has the right to speak… no one has the right to speak in Meeting – rather Friends have the privilege and the duty to lay before the Meeting whatever relevant insight they may possess’.

The idea of combining a ‘gathering’ with a ‘Yearly Meeting’ is an adventurous and challenging one. Can you mix business with pleasure? This incident, during a yearly meeting session when many people were anxious to speak from the floor, seemed to encapsulate one aspect of the dilemma.

‘The trouble with combining them,’ a Friend said, ‘was that you have a lot of people, some with young children, who are not so familiar with the Quaker business method.’ They have not come, as it were, with ‘heart and mind prepared’ to do Quaker business but for a wonderful week of fellowship, stimulation and inspiration. It has been a terrific event, in these terms, but there can be a tension’.


The extraordinary range of activities on offer at Canterbury was a great tribute to the energy of contemporary Quakerism – and the organisers. It was a real ‘Quakerfest’, reflecting everything from work on criminal justice in Europe and women prisoners to the active Quaker engagement with issues such as torture and the indefinite detention of asylum seekers. The peace testimony, in its 350th anniversary year, was an important thread in a week headlined by the theme of sustainability and climate change. The main lectures were all very well received and, as a Friend confirmed, ‘inspiring’.

There were enriching workshops on many aspects of the spiritual life. The craft workshops, where you could find a place to knit, crochet, bead or help make a quilt for the Friends World Committee for Consultation event in Kenya in 2012, were hugely successful. It all contributed to a sense of engagement and renewal.

‘It was absolutely brilliant’, a Friend enthused. ‘I got to some really good events. But I actually spent most of my time just sitting and talking to people. I have really enjoyed having the time to do this. It was great to see so many young people’. ‘Sometimes,’ another Friend said, ‘there was just too much good stuff going on at the same time. It was so hard to choose. The epilogue by Harvey Gillman was really inspiring. But you have to have a lot of events for so many people’.

One in ten

It was estimated that almost one in ten of all the members of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain were in attendance at Canterbury. The huge scale of the proceedings gave a great sense of drama and occasion to many events. It also provided some humour. There were quite a few smiles in the Big Top when Tony Benn expressed his surprise, looking at the hundreds of faces in front of him, at the ‘size of the Quaker Socialist Society’’!

The Talking Wall, various white boards and flip-charts, filled with a wealth of reaction from participants, became a barometer of enjoyment and concern: ‘I loved the community singing’; ‘The stargazing was amazing’; ‘We need to reconnect with our radical past’; ‘What was the carbon footprint of the Big Top?; ‘Did we really need to print so many pages?’; ‘Quakers are lovely! But lots of others are lovely too!’; ‘Sustainability is a buzzword that politicians will introduce to their rhetoric’; ‘We need to practice nonviolence on the land’; ‘To change the world we must be political’.

A Friend, burdened or blessed with a natural cynicism, believed that the ‘decision-making process was manipulated from the centre. It is all set up and pushed through carefully. All top down. All about control. It’s New Labour.’ Others felt differently – involved and included – while agreeing that size could be a problem.

The campus at the University of Kent was enjoyed by many Friends. It provided excellent accommodation options – from catering to self-catering and a nearby camp-site – and a variety of choices for food, including a well-stocked shop. There was plenty of space for the various tents that were needed, both for administrative needs, workshops and activities.

‘But events were too far apart’, a Friend complained. ‘It would have been much better if things had been closer together. It was at York.’

For the younger Friends, of whom nearly three hundred turned up, the event was, generally, a tremendous success. ‘The organisers and the many volunteers,’ a Friend enthused, ‘were wonderful.’

A six-year-old Friend was one of many who had a good time at YMG. It was his first experience of worship and he enjoyed the programme of evening films. He phoned his parents: ‘Can you believe that the Quakers are showing us Wall-E and Despicable Me!’ It all came together one day in the Worship Tent when he decided to read out a story from the Bible – it featured Jesus and his despicables!

Gathering up the threads

Size sometimes produced problems and, at times, Friends found extremely innovative solutions. In the ‘Gathering up the Threads’ session the clerk was faced with almost a thousand people to divide up in to nine ‘Threshing Groups’. She produced a brilliant solution: asking Friends to choose the first letter of their address and sorting them out according to this. The groups worked very well. The weakness at Canterbury, for some present, was in achieving a really spiritual basis to some larger sessions.

‘After the threshing groups came together, in the main marquee, there were just too many people standing to speak,’ a Friend said. ‘And you had people who were frustrated. You have someone who represents the views of many present but who cannot get an opportunity to speak. When he eventually does, you got a very unusual ripple of applause. It is the problem of scale and of people who are not familiar with discipline.’

Among the sandals, cotton bags, natural fabrics and ‘quiet business’ of a mostly elderly, but ‘young at heart’ community, there was a real affirmation that Quakerism was more a ‘way of life’ than a rigid set of beliefs. As part of that way of life there is now a commitment of ‘the whole movement to becoming a low-carbon, sustainable community’.

‘I feel as if I was let off the hook with the minute’, a Friend said when talking about the wording of the minute on Gathering up the Threads. ‘It was a masterpiece of English, but I felt a real need to have a firmer decision. Proclaiming that we are ready to be ready is not enough. We need to act. The time is now. We need targets.’

That, another Friend advised, is for Meeting for Sufferings to decide. The process continues.

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