David Purnell, Canberra Regional Meeting
I have had a long love affair with Quakers. I was brought up within the Congregational tradition, which had a strong sense of independence of thought and action. When I first attended the Canberra Quaker Meeting in the mid-1960s I felt I had found a spiritual group that fitted very well my own religious journey. The worship based on silent waiting, the link between inward experience and outward action, the peace and justice focus, and the openness to new understanding – all these things made it easy for me to decide to commit to become part of the community of seekers (I joined in 1970).
My inspiration came from a range of Quakers within the Regional Meeting and Yearly Meeting, and I also met some international Quakers who visited Australia for the triennial meeting of the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) in 1973. It felt right to be part of a global society of such people, and to be challenged to grow in my faith. For example, it was the time of the Vietnam War and conscription, and Australian Friends were faced with how to respond in a way consistent with the peace testimony, in particular whether to support young men who refused to register for conscription as well as those who registered as conscientious objectors. I was impressed by the careful and prayerful way Friends at Yearly Meeting listened and waited for light about this.
In 1976 I felt led to apply for the position of Secretary of YM, and I was appointed to this position just before attending my first FWCC gathering in Canada that year. I was able to prepare the way for taking on the role, which allowed much flexibility and open-endedness. I found that Friends were very supportive of my following my own peace concerns alongside my administrative role in the Society. Through my visits among Friends in different parts of Australia I became much better informed about the range of involvements and concerns of Friends, and felt a warmth of support for my own work in linking Friends across the country.
After my time as Secretary of YM (1977-1986) I was asked to serve as Presiding Clerk from 1992 to 1995. I valued the spiritual and practical support of Friends, especially during the times of the annual gathering of the Yearly Meeting. I found it uplifting to seek the sense of the business meetings, confident in the capacity of Friends to take the necessary time for the guidance of the Spirit. This was much evident in significant issues such as what approach to take to voluntary euthanasia.
Throughout this period I was part of the YM peace committee and represented Friends on the Australian Council of Churches and on the Friends School Board. I served as Clerk of Canberra Meeting from 2005 to 2007 after an earlier term in the late 1970s.
On the international scene I enjoyed attending a number of world gatherings of Friends, visiting the Quaker UN offices, and learning more about FWCC. I was appointed to the planning committee for the world conference in 1991. One thing led to another and I was appointed to a more formal role within FWCC as Assistant Clerk and later Clerk (1998-2004). This was a great time to learn more about the diversity and unity of Friends from different traditions – conservative, liberal, evangelical, universalist, programmed and unprogrammed. More recently I have attended several gatherings in the Asia West Pacific Section and am currently convener of the Nominations Committee for the Section.
In late 2000 Christine Larkin and I went to Pendle Hill Quaker Study Centre near Philadelphia for a term. It was a refreshing change of pace, being a student and part of a living community which included Friends and others from many countries. There was a pastoral care system there by which each student had a mentor to meet with on a regular basis, and this was very helpful in developing my learning and reflecting on the experience. I attended courses on such topics as Quaker history and the life and thought of Gandhi. As a project I focused on my own Meeting and explored ways in which we as Friends might enhance our links with the local community.
From an early age I was anxious when people got into arguments and fights. I recall an occasion when at the age of 14 I lashed out at a big boy who was intimidating my younger brother, and I was alarmed at the combination of feelings that arose – (a) how good it felt to actually ‘win’ a physical fight, (b) how nervous I was that he would get a whole gang onto me, and (c) how uncomfortable it felt to be unable to use any other means to deal with the situation. I became more and more committed to seeking nonviolent ways to handle problems and to build more harmonious relationships with others. I learned how to be a mediator and this has been a great experience over many years, enabling me to facilitate communication between people and groups in conflict and thereby enhance the chance of a positive outcome. My Quaker experience of listening and getting the sense of the meeting when decisions are made helped in my mediation practice, and conversely my mediation experience helped me when clerking Quaker business meetings.
There is no doubt that my connection with Quakers has enhanced my awareness of peacemaking possibilities, and has led me to take much more interest in national and international peace and justice. Hence my involvement in the Quaker peace committee, the Churches Commission on International Affairs, and the United Nations Association. I am impressed that Quakers like William Penn were pioneers of the idea of international organisations to promote good relations among states (he had the idea of a European association of states).
A special opportunity for me was being asked to give the 1988 Backhouse Lecture on Conflict. This enabled me to put together a wide range of material on thinking about, and action towards, resolving conflict at all levels – individual, community, and international. I persuaded some Young Friends to help in the delivery of the Lecture in Adelaide on a very hot night in January 1988. I was able to develop course material for a UNESCO publication on peace education, and to run some school programs on peace and conflict. In 1994 I was part of a World Council of Churches team that went as peace monitors for the South African elections. I was based with several others in Mafeking and witnessed the joy with which people voted, most for the first time.
In more recent times I have been part of an ongoing men’s support group within Canberra Meeting. This has been especially valuable as an avenue for men connected with the Meeting to meet each other in an informal and confidential setting. As a result we traverse our personal struggles and joys as well as discussing affairs of the day. I have been appointed as one of the Meeting’s respectful relationships contact people, and this has been a way for me to appreciate even better the needs of different people as we all seek to live together as a community of seekers. A special workshop was held in September on the subject ‘Speaking Across Difference’, and this enabled sharing about some of the difficult issues that cause upset. I expect further gatherings and follow-up will build on this.
The various processes used among Friends to strengthen our community and encourage positive relationships have, in my experience, added greatly to my sense of belonging. For example, in Canberra we have a regular series “This is Your Friend” in which different members tell something of their life journey. I contributed to this series and found it more helpful to reflect on the spiritual and temporal elements of my life. I have also learned a lot from what others have shared. Residential weekends, Quaker Basics programs, spiritual nurture groups – all have been part of the total picture of support.
I was motivated a few years ago to put together a series of stories about the lives of significant Quakers from the past. Initially I did this for the local Quaker radio program Dove Talk – to help those listening to get a flavour of Quaker approaches. What I discovered was a wealth of inspirational material about the range of experiences and insights of Friends across the generations. In all I prepared 30 stories, and these showed the extraordinary faith and courage of many Quakers in many lands, and the way in which their lives were guided by the Spirit. The YM website now contains much of the material I gathered.
The Quaker network is, in my experience, a wonderful source of challenge, opportunity, adventure, and support in the tumultuous world we live in. It enlivens my spirit, engages my intellect, moves me to respond to current concerns, and provides me with a community of intention.