Martin Fallding, New South Wales Regional Meeting
During my days at 2018 Yearly Meeting I was asked to write a reflection on being a child in a Quaker family. Being remote from day-to-day Quaker contact, I find it good to spend time with others having similar ideas and values. Reasons for attending Yearly Meeting were also that it was reasonably close to where we live, and an opportunity for our 13-year-old son to experience more of Friends and to meet and share time with other children of difference.
As a child, I grew up among a loose network of many strong, talented, individualistic, and generally non-mainstream people with whom my parents maintained contact. Many of these personalities had connections with Quakers, the peace movement, bushwalking and conservation. While this seemed normal at the time, in retrospect it was not.
Born a late “baby boomer”, my story begins as Australia returned to stability following the stress of two world wars and the Great Depression. My parents encountered Quakerism as young adults, each at a different end of the planet and deeply influenced by the social upheaval they had experienced.
My deeply spiritual mother Vreni grew up in a strict Moravian missionary family in Switzerland, uncomfortable with such narrow Christian belief and practice. She trained as a teacher, and was moulded by the aftermath of World War 2. Her experience as a relief worker, and then an au pair for a Quaker family in Britain strongly influenced how she raised her own children. Two summers were spent at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre near Birmingham, followed by work for Friends Relief Service in war ravaged Germany.
Leaving Europe in 1952 for a new life in Sydney, she met my father John Fallding at Devonshire Street Meeting in Sydney. Raised as a Methodist, his conviction to pacifism led him to conscientious objection to military service during World War 2 and time in a Forestry Commission camp in the Watagan Mountains with others similarly inclined. During this time he found a like minded Quaker community, was strongly influenced by Gandhi, and in 1949 made the lengthy journey to India to attend the World Pacifist Conference. Interestingly, several generations of his mother’s family in England were early Quakers and contemporaries of George Fox.
Diverse interests and friends brought a rich, and often understated, mix of ideas, values and influences at home. I watched osmotically from the sidelines as the post-war environment of optimism and freedom evolved, superimposed on narrow minded suburban uniformity and cold war fear, and this fertile ground brought 1960s experimentation, challenge to authority, and an explosion of popular culture.
Growing up, my sister Heidi and I often felt like outsiders. It was a time of divided dominance between the Church of England and Roman Catholic faiths, and you had to have a label, especially for compulsory school scripture. In primary school, I went under the Methodist umbrella, in high school it was “non-scripture”, where I joined a small number of mostly Jews spending enjoyable and quiet time in the library.
We frequently went to Sunday school at Devonshire Street meeting, where there were quite a few children. I particularly recall participating in, and performing the Christmas story. When we owned a car, my parents regularly attended the then recently established Wahroonga meeting. This was new and fresh, lacking the darkness and aged urban surfaces of the inner city. The best thing for me as a child was the bush setting, and the view from the meeting room window into nature. Although there were always a few children there, I had the impression that most were older or younger, and being a child at meeting felt awkward.
For many years during my childhood, the Vietnam War provided a significant backdrop and social challenge. We were introduced to oppressive authority, protest and the personal and social risks this presented. In others, we observed the limits and costs of personal conviction and social division. I have distinct memories of the dread of being asked what I thought of school army cadets, and the uncertainty and social insecurity that the morality of this question raised.
Both interesting and formative was the frequent personal stories, and discussions held around the dining table at home with many visiting Friends, often from overseas. The value of this became clear when we travelled to India and Europe for 7 months in 1967 visiting many Quaker connections and experiencing places and people that had been formative for our parents.
Our Quaker parents had strong opinions, and an authority built on life experience and clear values. As children we were expected to behave, to be responsible and think independently, but not directly told what to do. My response was to be patient, and to go with the flow.
Meetings for worship were often boring for a child, and sometimes full of suspense or confronting. Sitting still and quietly became a natural thing to do, and incredibly difficult for some. Yet, it was a wonderful time for reflection and thought. This is something I still value, and all too often absent in the modern urban world.
I cannot remember exactly when, but it must have been in the early 1970s when with some hesitation I joined a Young Friends week of being immersed in Aboriginal Redfern, visiting the Aboriginal legal and medical services, learning about injustice, inequality and activism, attending the local court, and singing “House of the Rising Sun” late at night. A group of us also unexpectedly met the police during a midnight walk around Redfern Park when this was definitely not a wise thing to do.
While a student in 1976, I lived as a caretaker in Hanna Lemberg’s house next door to Wahroonga Meeting House for some time while she was overseas. This brought regular participation in that meeting. After that, studies, interests and physical location conspired to remove me from any direct involvement with Quakers for a long time.
Since then, my contact with Quakers has at best been intermittent, punctuated by an occasional visit to Devonshire Street meeting on a trip to Sydney, and our memorable wedding conducted by Norman Talbot from the Hunter Valley meeting at the former Morpeth Anglican conference centre. We have also hosted a small number of Hunter Valley meetings at our Callicoma Hill eco-cabins, and participated in meetings at the Easter National Folk Festival in Canberra.
Having been born into a Quaker family has given me a lifelong insight and appreciation of important values. I have had a largely accidental journey, enjoying casual and opportunistic Quaker connections. I continue to appreciate the continuing, if distant community of interest. The silence, shared reflection, common shared values, and openness are an approach with which I feel comfortable, and very relevant to the contemporary world. Embracing social justice is also hard to forget for someone with Quaker roots.
When casually walking past a Quaker meeting house on Gloucester Road during a 2015 visit to Bristol in the UK, the succinct statement in the artwork on the wall facing the street caught my attention – peace, equality, simplicity, and truth. These words and values resonated strongly.
With a third generation of our family now being introduced to Quakers, I wonder whether and how these values fit in a world that is increasingly rapidly changing, filled with conflict and tension, growing in inequality, over complex, and full of spin and superficiality. Most people are also disconnected from nature. Surely, the values that bring Quakers together are more relevant than ever. The strength of silence and reflection must be used to project a realistic alternative to the doubt and disillusion that exists with so many institutions, practices, and cultural norms. Perhaps this presents an opportunity.
The challenge is how to make the Quaker way and community accessible to more people, and to create a platform where its ideas, values, and institutions can build an alternative to the insecure and crumbling established world around us. Showing integrity, respect and dignity while challenging today’s norms and often aggressive and unethical behaviour, provides a unique opportunity for Quakers going forward.