Yearly Meeting Gathering 2017: Main sessions

Harry Albright reports on the first days of Yearly Meeting

Friends gathering before the Swarthmore Lecture. | Photo: Elinor Smallman.

The main business sessions of Yearly Meeting 2017 began on Sunday morning with the appointment of the clerk, Deborah Rowlands, and the assistant clerks, Clare Scott Booth and Siobhan Haire, who were to direct affairs in the main auditorium with a combination of efficiency, quiet authority and humour.

The 2017 Yearly Meeting concluded a three-year reflection on ‘Living out our faith in the world’, with the focus at Warwick on ‘working with others to make a difference’ and movement building. In planning the consideration of the theme over the week it was found helpful to think in terms of Heart, Head, Hands and Feet, and these subjects were the focus of four morning sessions (to be reported on in next week’s edition).

George Lakey, the American Quaker writer and activist, gave a powerful and moving personal testimony on the ‘heart’ on Sunday morning.

On Sunday evening, as part of the Meeting for Sufferings report, Lis Burch, clerk of the Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM) Sustainability Group, reported on its work. She said that there has been ‘a lot of progress on reducing our carbon footprint’ and that ‘Friends House is a beacon of good practice’, having won numerous awards.

The group is currently looking at ways to provide better support for Friends and Meetings around the country and to monitor progress. She said: ‘The Yearly Meeting commitment is an opportunity to do something really special, but we’re not there yet.’ She suggested that Friends have already made a lot of the easier changes. The next stage is to look at some of the harder steps, being ‘open to the process of transformation,’ being ‘prepared to make sacrifices’.

She stressed that it doesn’t matter that people are ‘at different stages and travelling at different speeds.’ Those who are farther down the road can serve as patterns and examples. Those who have not yet come as far should not feel any guilt. ‘Don’t be afraid of being a peculiar people,’ she said.

As part of the Meeting for Sufferings report on Sunday night, Lesley Richards, clerk of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group (RPG) reported on the group’s work to date, ahead of its final report to Sufferings in December. Sufferings will then discern whether or not to bring the question of a revision back to Yearly Meeting (YM) in 2018 (see ‘Reading the “Red Book”’).

On Sunday evening YM received the reports of the Quaker Stewardship Committee (QSC) and Meeting for Sufferings, with the clerks giving brief introductions. These reports dealt with work in 2016.

QSC is the committee tasked with certifying that every part of the YM is producing proper financial accounts and property records.

QSC uses a checklist to determine whether Meetings around the country are compliant with charity law. The report states that, for 2015, the ‘reports all met the basic requirements of the checklist but the quality was variable’.

Anne Ullathorne, clerk of Meeting for Sufferings, presented the annual report. She said that Sufferings meets ‘under the guidance of the spirit’, stressing that BYM is a religious, not a commercial, organisation. She said that in February Sufferings had spent some time trying to ‘understand its role’.

Meeting for Sufferings has agreed to check its minutes after each meeting against its terms of reference to see how it’s fulfilling its responsibilities. She said that networking between Area Meetings is an important role of Sufferings, as is listening and feeding back to central committees. Sufferings has been guided by the vision statement Our faith in the future.

The report states that the ‘business addressed by Meeting for Sufferings this year has not been new or major decision making but rather continuing with established items’. She outlined some of those items, including those relating to refugees and asylum seekers; the ‘call for equality’ contained in BYM’s minute 36; sustainability issues; the Book of Discipline; and Quaker Recognised Bodies.

The Monday morning session, after dealing with appointments and nominations to various committees, gave an opportunity for Steve Whiting, of Quaker Peace & Social Witness, to consider the subject of the ‘head’ in movement building. He explained some of the methods used by the Turning the Tide programme to enable those working for change to be effective in their call to action.

Ingrid Greenhow, clerk of BYM trustees, and Peter Ullathorne, BYM treasurer, presented the trustee’s report and financial statement in the Tuesday morning session.

She said that the role of trustees is to oversee the £10 million of Quaker work that happens centrally, and to ensure that the work is aligned with the vision statement, ‘Our faith in the future’, which she described as ‘a road map, not a sat-nav’. There is no disembodied voice guiding the work.

Highlighting some of the work, she noted the redesigned BYM website and a new blog to share the Quaker faith and disseminate information, as well as efforts to ensure that all supplies at Friends House – which received 330,000 visitors last year – are ethically and sustainably sourced. There is a new memorandum of understanding with Woodbrooke to enhance ongoing collaboration. The Meeting House Project counted 345 Meeting houses in Britain, of which 46 per cent are listed. She also referred to the ‘huge achievement’ of a 29 per cent reduction in Friends House’s carbon footprint, including zero waste to landfill and 100 per cent renewable energy use.

Other initiatives include legacy funding for three years for a climate change project at QUNO Geneva and the Sanctuary Everywhere project. Ingrid noted the collaborative ways in which Friends work, saying that clerks of different central bodies often met together ‘to share opportunities and concerns. Meeting face-to-face wins hands down.’

The retirement of three senior managers was an opportunity to reorganise the management structure. General secretaries have been replaced by a management meeting of five: the recording clerk and deputy recording clerk, the head of services, the head of finances and the head of Quaker work. The latter covers the work of Quaker Life and Quaker Peace & Social Witness, which have not been merged (‘that would be a decision for Yearly Meeting’) but rather that they were now able to work more closely together and share synergies. Ingrid Greenhow stressed the importance of titles that were clear to everyone and explained that the arrangements and titles would be reviewed this year and next. She stressed that trustees aim to be open and available, welcoming invitations to visit Meetings, and thanked Friends for their trust.

Turning to finances, Peter Ullathorne said that contributions were stable at around £2 million, as were legacies at the same amount. He said the goal is to raise contributions to £3 million over the next few years. The Friends House Hospitality Company contributed £800,000, its best showing in its ten-year history. He described it as ‘a stable and comfortable year’.

BYM holds £10 million in general reserves, which he described as ‘prudent’. He acknowledged questions about holding so much when membership is decreasing and more could be spent on outreach, but said that caution was advised due to future uncertainty. This included the building of HS2, which could cause major disruption to the Euston area and impact on conference business, and the future of the many BYM staff from the EU after Brexit.

In the discussion that followed, one Friend wondered whether the half-million pounds spent on outreach was working, and another was concerned about stretching administration staff too much. Other Friends expressed gratitude for all the work done.

(There will be more reports on Yearly Meeting sessions and a specific feature on the ‘Heart, Head, Hands and Feet’ programme in the 11 August edition of the Friend.)

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