Robin Sinclair, South Australia and Northern Territory Regional Meeting
Over the last few weeks I have spent much time thinking about what to say in this address. It’s not just a list of what we have done, though that comes into it. The reports are already there in full in Documents in Advance for everyone to read. It’s not to a formula, though there are questions which always recur because of who we are. It’s more of a reflection, or even a meditation on what the reports say, and perhaps what they don’t say. So that is how I’ve approached it.
I want to begin this report on the present by taking us back to the past. Soon after the colony of South Australia was founded in 1836 as an experiment in a model settlement with free settlers, no convicts and a policy of working in harmony with the Indigenous people, Quakers began to arrive. English Friends, wanting to support them, sent a Meeting House. In 1840 it arrived by ship, in flat-pack form. It was a modest wooden building along Quaker lines and principles and very well built. There it still sits, firmly bolted to the earth by iron rods which were included in the pack in case of unexpected weather events. Then, the Australian colonies were outliers of the Quaker community. Now we are a part of a much more comprehensive world-wide fellowship of Friends who care for each other. In a way we are still outliers, with all the other far-flung Friends groups, but in another way we are also at the heart of it, in the way that the heart is wherever Quakers gather.
Today the Meeting House sits staidly in the lee of St.Peter’s Cathedral, rather like a small wooden boat being overtaken by an ocean liner. It is of modest size, comfortably seating a group of thirty to sixty people, even a hundred at a squeeze. In 1860 there were 32 Quakers in the colony. Today in this Meeting House there are usually about twenty at Meeting for Worship, with other small meetings of about the same size scattered around the region.
So, 177 years later, here we still are. Numbers have gone up a bit and down a bit over the years, but one thing you can say: as well as being principled, we are consistent.
People can be drawn to Quakers, as I was, by the combination of spirituality and practicality and by the powerful pull of simplicity and the living out of our testimonies. There can also be a shining-eyed and unrealistic expectation of who we are and how we live, and some who come to us will fall by the wayside as the realisation comes that we are only human after all, and that what we can attain in our lives is not always what we aspire to. Quakers are still people, of our day and age. But we try.
In the middle of the nineteenth century some of my ancestors, in a remote settlement in the mountains of North-Western Tasmania, joined a small local Quaker meeting. It must have been not too long after Backhouse and Walker had come that way and such meetings did spring up, inspired by them and by other Friends. After a while my ancestors stopped going along because they noticed that it was always the same person who was moved to speak. They went to the Methodists instead, where at least they could lay back their ears and have a good sing.
So we are all accustomed to people who come for a while and then leave. Maybe this accounts partly for the decline in numbers this year. We are down by 53: 33 attenders and 20 members, some by death and some simply by drift. We like to let people find their own way. We don’t push. We don’t twist arms. But perhaps we should ask ourselves whether we always pay them the attention they deserve, or need.
Several things stand out for anyone reading through the newsletters, the reports, The Australian Friend, the web-sites. One is our very deep and earnest desire to fix things; to make the world whole; to prick the conscience of the nation. Over the last year the Clerk, on our behalf, has written beautifully expressed and deeply thought-out letters to the Prime Minister and other politicians, on subjects ranging from Same Sex Marriage to the Adani coalmine to issues involving nuclear disarmament, freedom of religious belief and freedom of speech. Jo Jordan, our Clerk, in a recent article in the Secretary’s Newsletter, quoted an American peace activist of the 1960’s: “ We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.” So we do. Some of us are naturals in the trouble-making area and feel called to do it: the Quaker Grannies; the participants in the Silver Wattle Peace in a Time of War workshop over the Anzac weekend who, in the space of four days took part in the Anzac Eve Vigil, the Frontier Wars Memorial march with members of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, and a peace action at the Joint Operations Command Headquarters near Bungendore.
Others of us prefer to make our stand in a more quiet way, as in the Silent Vigils which have now been happening for many years. Others do it, as individuals, by writing letters (Quakers are good at words); or by life-style; or by being a part of groups in the wider community which may be deeply concerned over conservation issues, or Indigenous issues, or gender issues. In every Meeting there are Friends who take their concerns with them wherever they work or go. How many of us make it known that we are Quakers? Does it matter? This is a question that we must all answer for ourselves. It might matter. At a recent Meeting for Worship one of our members talked about her worry that, because of deafness, she couldn’t hear or speak effectively with her grandchildren. “What should I do?” she asked her daughter. The reply was, “You don’t have to do anything. You’re Grandma!” Her message to our Meeting was that we are our presence. So we are.
Yes, Quakers are good at words, and we are good at talking about our Quakerliness and our testimonies. That is, within our own group. Again and again we bring them up in Meetings for Worship or business, so that an outsider might ask us, “Why are you so preoccupied about what it means to be a Quaker?” Why are we? I think because it’s important for us to remind ourselves who we are and what we stand for. We need to reinforce our identity to keep us moving in the right direction.
How do we know ourselves?
Through the window of the story
that we tell ourselves about ourselves.”
excerpt from the poem Storytelling, by Robin Sinclair (from Now and Then, 2017)
In July 2016 we had our first winter Yearly Meeting gathering. We have a new Clerk, Jo Jordan, and a new Secretary, Jacque Schultze who worked together this year for the first time at Standing Committee in Perth in February.
From the reports and newsletters I want to mention a little about each region. We have so much in common, yet each has its own particular flavour and emphasis. This is not a comprehensive account. The rest you can read in Documents in Advance, or, even better, find out by talking to the people involved.
Tasmania Regional Meeting
Tasmania Regional Meeting last year hosted the first ever winter Yearly Meeting, attended by 250 people. As it always is, it was a consuming but rewarding experience; that expenditure of energy, followed by exultation, exhaustion and convalescence, which coincide with the planning, carrying out and recovering from hosting a Yearly Meeting. And as always it was an inspiring event for the hosting community, renewing and refreshing.
Hobart has The Friends School, and the Meeting House shares its grounds; something of great benefit and enrichment to both communities. Both enjoy and care for the Peace Garden. Both benefit from the Friends School Community Coordinator who facilitates school Gatherings in the Meeting house, provides valuable outreach for students and others and organises a Friends in Residence programme.
Tasmanian Quaker life parallels that of Friends in other Meetings as they offer spiritual support to each other; in their study groups; and in the joyful and creative activities of art, singing, song-writing and music. Along with other Friends they face in their Peace and Social Justice committee the problems which face us all: “problems that are immense and seemingly intractable – inequality, injustice, racism, climate change, militarism.” We all feel that way; and yet we keep trying, because we feel compelled to.
At the end of their report they say, “Our search for the Truth goes on.” They quote from the British Yearly Meeting’s Faith &Practice: “ ..the Truth is a complex concept; sometimes the word is used for God, sometimes for the conviction that arises from worship, sometimes for the way of life.” Then they add, “The Huon Worshipping group put it this way: ‘in the silence of the Meeting we straighten ourselves out spiritually as individuals. Then we are able to pass ‘this spirit’ in our own ways to others in our daily life’.”
Western Australia Regional Meeting
WA members of Friends in Stitches have now completed two panels, one on Eleanor Clifton, the very first Friend in WA, and one called “The Loneliest Meeting”. It used to be the loneliest Meeting, geographically about as far from other groups of Friends as it’s possible to be. Now, because of the internet, new technology and social media and faster travel we are closer than we’ve ever been. The three Meetings in the region support each other and stay close, in the way of Friends, yet must still feel that the rest of Australia is a long way away.
For this reason it was of particular significance to host Standing Committee this year, and to have visits from three overseas Friends: Margery Post Abbott, last year’s Backhouse lecturer, sharing insights on Everyday Prophets; Alyssa Nelson, the Pacific YM Youth Coordinator, with a workshop on the care and support of young people; and Harry Albright, FWCC communications consultant and international membership secretary.
WA is currently hosting the Earthcare Committee on behalf of Australian Friends. Committee members are well aware that all over Australia Friends are deeply conscious of the issues and are taking action through their Meetings and in their own lives. Three times a year they produce a newsletter which goes out to all Friends through Regional Meetings, called Earthcare Invitation with sections called Prayer, Read, Act and Celebrate. It’s also been of particular significance to the group to initiate and take part in a river journey, meeting every two months to explore another part of the Swan River; building a relationship with the river and exploring it in the light of Aboriginal and European stories, family history and their own experience. They report being “energised and nourished” by it and say, “It has inspired a surprising number of Quakers.” Maybe not so surprising because it offers a concrete and enjoyable way to illuminate our concerns, and an opportunity to connect with the land in an immediate and physical way. It’s not just another committee, or another carefully worded statement. It’s just being there, something we all respond to.
At the beginning of WA’s report I mentioned their panel, “The Loneliest Meeting”. Friends in Stitches, the narrative embroidery project that tells some of our stories, is important in this community and to all of us. It reminds us of own our history and also helps to tell people in the wider community about it. Its impact on non-Quakers can be considerable. It involves a small but significant number of people, both Quakers and non-Quakers, in designing a stitching the panels, and is a wonderfully creative and congenial way of being together. Like the Quaker community in general, its impact is greater than the sum of its parts. We need to recognise, celebrate and enjoy it.
South Australia and Northern Territory Regional Meeting
It’s a big slice, right down the middle of the country. Like other regions with far-flung groups, staying connected has been a priority. It’s been important to have at least one Friend from Alice Springs or Darwin at the RM weekend. This year’s gathering was memorably energised by the presence and input of the young, including an extended Burrundian family. Wonderful music round the campfire. The theme was “What does Love require of us?” One of the issues discussed was one which is troubling many Friends: the fact that we often have more committee positions to fill than we do members. Why is this? Are we trying to navigate by an out-of-date instruction manual? Yes, Quaker processes – how we discern, how we conduct meetings –are essential. They are what make us who we are. But have we got an over-commitment to committees? Could we be addicted to the committee, either because we have always had them, or as a way of dealing with every situation? Having a core of members who are over-worked, over-extended and over-used is not a good Quaker look. What happened to our testimony of simplicity?
Planning for Yearly Meeting has also taken a good deal of SANTRM’s attention this year.
The Quaker Op Shop often gets a one-line mention in reports as a wonderful fund-raiser for QSA. It is; but as it gets ready to celebrate 50 years we should note that it is much more than that. Over the years hundreds of people, both Quaker and non-Quaker have worked there, receiving as much in care, fulfilment and joy as they have given in time and effort. In terms of outreach the Shop is the public face of Friends in Adelaide. People who know little of our peace efforts or worship know about the Shop, and customers often ask to learn more, or take away the leaflets on the counter. It’s true that somebody once asked suspiciously, “Are you really Quakers?” When told that yes, we are, she said, “But you can’t be! They’re all dead.” Not yet. But the best comment came from another customer who said, “This is my favourite shop in Adelaide, and do you know why? Because you serve with love.” What better form of outreach could there be?
South Australian Friends remember with great affection and admiration Enid Robertson who died this year. She was closely connected with The Quaker Shop, and with every aspect of Friends in SA, being a descendant of those pioneering Quakers, the May and Ashby families. She said that she was both a birth-right Quaker and a Quaker by convincement.
Victoria Regional Meeting
After several years of thought and planning Friends in Melbourne have been settling into the renovated Victorian Friends Centre in West Melbourne. More work on stage two is planned. A number of new Friends have become members, and it is hoped that the Centre will be a hub for welcome and for outreach. As a result of the move two meetings have been laid down. One new one has also been formed.
Like other Friends they are much concerned with peace and justice issues, and this year they have made a submission to the Defence White Paper, advocating the abolition of nuclear weapons. In common with several other Meetings they are also offering refuge to asylum seekers.
Their March Gathering this year took the theme of Connection to Country. It included an intergenerational exploration of connection to country through the senses, and featured two Aboriginal speakers and a focus on the testimonies. The Friends in Stitches panel on the long-standing Silent Vigil has now been completed and others are in progress.
New South Wales Regional Meeting
New South Wales Friends speak of “a pattern of movement and renewal”, as Friends relocate from expensive Sydney to regional areas. The smaller worshipping groups have grown, and in local meetings there are more enquirers and attenders, starting ‘a new cycle of growth in spiritual seeking’. They also speak of their awareness of the importance of keeping in contact with some of the more distant meetings, and the devastation caused by flooding in the Northern Rivers towns.
A significant event was the inaugural Quaker Peace Prize Awards, involving high school students from across the Blue Mountains. The exhibition on the Quaker Response to World War I continues to travel and has been seen this year by Northern Rivers and Blue Mountains and will shortly move to the Hunter Valley.
The Devonshire Street Meeting House in Sydney now hosts the office of the YM Secretary, and Jacque speaks of her pleasure in being able to meet Friends from all over Australia as they pass through.
The QSA office is also at Devonshire Street. This has been a pivotal year for them, with a new constitution and the adoption of their status as “a company limited by guarantee”. Jackie Perkins says, “Limited by name but not by thinking!” This year they received a 5% increase in funding from the Australian Government’s Dept. of Foreign Affairs. Activities have included monitoring visits this year to Cambodia, Uganda and India, and there are continuing projects to do with Indigenous concerns.
Queensland Regional Meeting
As with every region there is a concern to keep members and groups in touch with each other, and this year the Clerk has visited all six groups, from North Queensland to the Gold Coast. As with other regions there is a great care for the young people and children of the meetings, and a regret that there are not more. Each region deals as well as it can with committee structures and with over-extending its members, and this year Queensland has held a Threshing Session so that they could clarify their direction: a traditional and thoughtful way of helping to resolve differences.
The Alternatives to Violence Project has a strong following among Queensland Friends. This programme was begun by Quakers in the 1970s and has since been taken up world -wide and is a recognition that issues of peace are not concerned only with conflicts between nations, but that self-understanding and understanding of others is the beginning of peace. One Queensland Friend, Valerie Joy, is a member of the Asia West Pacific Friends Peace Team, which this year has taken part in regular AVP training at Peace Place in Central Java.
Canberra Regional Meeting
Their theme for the year has been “Embracing Diversity — joys and challenges”. They are aware, as most are, of the aging of our population, as a society and in the broader community, and attention has been paid to the needs of older people. They have also looked at the issues of palliative care and euthanasia.
As for all of us, their young people bring great joy, and among other activities they held a workshop on being adult allies to youth.
And, as for all of us, climate change and other environmental issues have been a strong concern, and the running of the Meeting House has been adapted accordingly.
The Committee of Racial Equality has continued to host a “Sharing Stories” series with Aboriginal speakers, and these meetings have been attended by a large number of non-Quakers, a valuable and valued form of outreach.
The residential weekend had a theme of “A Green and Meaningful Christmas”: what Christmas means and how it is celebrated or not celebrated by Quakers. It was held at Silver Wattle. They conclude by saying, “Our joys help unite us, our struggles deepen our awareness that we are all on different paths and need to work together to find common ground as we strive to let our lives speak.”
The Silver Wattle Australian Quaker Centre comes within the Canberra Regional Meeting. Eight years after its beginning it continues to grow in significance. If Yearly Meeting can be seen as representing the mind and heart of Friends, Silver Wattle is its soul. Friends who visit, live or work there become much refreshed in spirit and more assured of their direction. It would be wonderful if all Friends could visit and stay; but, as we’ve noted before, in terms of distance Australia is very badly designed.
Susan Clarke, the Director, now sadly and unexpectedly ill, says that Silver Wattle is “thriving spiritually and surviving financially”. Improvements to the property have been made possible by generous bequests and donations from Friends. Susan says, “Please hold us in the Light, and better still, visit with willing hands as we continue this marvellous, impossible faith-driven experiment.”
So who are we? Are we what we believe and aspire to? Only if we carry it out in our lives. The wider community sees what we do and, sometimes, hears what we say, but we’re more than our deeds and our words. Our lives must speak. We are our presence.
And what is the state of the Society? Much as it’s always been. But I think there may be a danger of losing our way in a preoccupation with “much doing” and possibly unnecessary busyness. Let’s take a deep breath and centre ourselves, and remember that at our heart is our Meeting for Worship, and allow ourselves to be aware of the Light within.
The Meeting for Worship is at the core; that stillness and silence which centres us. We each sit in our own small pool of silence and gradually the pools join to become a lake.
A couple of years ago I wrote a poem in which I tried to express what happens in a Meeting, so I will conclude with it:
In the Meeting stillness holds.
Alone we seek the space within,
together find it.
Moth-like our memories and thoughts obscure the light we seek.
They settle, and the space that’s left begins to fill
with living stillness.
Words we hear or speak float briefly
and fall back into the silence.
The heart of it, the stillness
at the beginning and the end of all,
the velvet hush that holds within itself the seed of life,
the tiny space that holds the universe,
the quiet that contains all speech,
all wild exuberance of sound,
the nothing yet made up of everything.
The heart of all, the stillness.
excerpt from the poem The heart of it all,
by Robin Sinclair (from Now and Then, 2017)