I was surprised and pleased to be asked to represent Australian Friends at the Aotearoa New Zealand Yearly Meeting in May. My partner Gary and I decided it was an opportunity for a longer trip and after contacting a friend there, he spoke at five orchid societies on the North Island over two weeks. So we did lots of travelling and managed to contact other Friends on the way.
The location, Friends Settlement at Whanganui is within the former Friends’ School grounds. With 16 permanent residents, guest accommodation for up to forty, meeting rooms, a library and other resources, it is used for courses, seminars and meetings by Friends and a number of other groups. Residents help run the centre. Australian Friend Rowe Morrow was Friend in Residence, running workshops before and after their Yearly Meeting.
Aotearoa New Zealand Yearly Meeting differs from Australia’s in several ways. It takes place from Friday evening until midday Monday and is just business sessions (with an evening lecture I will mention later). Summer School, interest groups, committee meetings or ‘Show and Tell’ take place at their Summer Gathering at a different time of the year. There are no children and social activities are limited to meal times, but we were very well looked after.
Another difference is their system of decisions between Yearly Meetings. Their monthly Clerks’ Letter to Monthly (Regional) Meetings sets out matters for consideration and suggested decisions for agreement. This reduces the amount of business at Yearly Meeting. In addition, they circulate Documents in Advance, then circulate Monthly Meetings’ responses to these, and finally hand out ‘Gold papers’ at Yearly Meeting. These are the Monthly Meetings’ responses to the responses. Hence participants are well prepared for Yearly Meeting and many decisions have been agreed beforehand.
There were about 100 participants, including Shin Haeng Sook from Seoul Monthly Meeting, an invited guest from the FWCC Asia-West Pacific Section. She gave an interesting presentation on the history of Korea, as well as her small Monthly Meeting.
The main topic on Friday night was the earthquakes in Christchurch (and also Japan). Christchurch F/friends gave a moving account of some of their experiences and the consequences. ‘Earthquake brain’ (vagueness and general disorientation) was mentioned several times. They now ‘live with uncertainty’ with over 8,000 aftershocks still causing distress and the need to plan the future of their Friends Centre. Friends who attended the Asia-West Pacific gathering in April talked of Japanese Friends’ experiences of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster.
Another excellent session presented information about the Aotearoa New Zealand political system and the government proposal for a constitutional review. They do not have a written constitution, but they do have the Treaty of Waitangi (Tiriti o Waitangi) with the Maori people, signed in 1840. Its terms are still disputed (there were an English and a Maori version as well as some wording differences in various copies). Friends have, of course, supported Maori rights for many years. There was also mention of the recent Bolivian constitution which includes specific rights of the environment as well as a variety of indigenous groups.
On Saturday night, the third annual public lecture, Changing the Prison System was given by Friend Tony Taylor to about 160 Friends and members of the public. Tony gave an extensive overview and history of the penal system in New Zealand and Quaker involvement. He ended with a call for an independent Penal Commission. The lecture was timely; in the previous week the Finance Minister in the New Zealand Government had described prisons as being a ‘moral and fiscal failure’ and had said that there would be ‘no more prisons built under his watch’.
There were many discussions of other peace and social justice activities, carbon offsets and other interests of Aotearoa New Zealand Friends. One that particularly interested me as Australia Yearly Meeting Treasurer was that their Yearly Meeting is much better off financially than we are. This is the result of bequests, the sale of the former Friends School, the Whanganui Quaker Settlement, and the fact that their Yearly Meeting owns all their Meeting Houses (they are not owned by individual Meetings).
It was a pleasure to catch up with the Aotearoa New Zealand Yearly Meeting co-clerks, Claire and Linley Gregory, and witness their smooth running of meetings. The care and concern of our hosts — the residents of the Whanganui Friends Settlement — was also outstanding. I can commend it as an inspiring and peaceful place for anyone who wishes to attend a course, or just stay for a while.