Know Thy Friend: David Purnell

by | 6 Dec, 2020

David Purnell, Canberra Regional Meeting

Born in Sydney, I moved to Canberra as a child with my family straight after WW2, and have spent most of my life here. I have a younger brother and sister. Both my parents were active in community life (such as the Congregational Church, service clubs, the repertory theatre and the musical societies) at a time when these social supports were developing in the newly planned city. They and the church minister were great role models for engaging in community.  This encouraged me to take action in directions that have been important to me. The population has moved from 15,000 in 1946 to 420,000 now, and I feel connected with the place and its social milieu.

After school and university I joined the Public Service and spent several years in the Australian Bureau of Statistics (including a year in Perth where I met my future wife Katherine) before moving to become an administrator at the Australian National University. This led to an appointment with the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee in the 1970s during the exciting Whitlam era when tertiary education was given a strong boost.

An unexpected development for me was when Australian Frontier was established by Peter Mathews, a dynamic Congregational minister, in the 1960s, to enable stakeholders involved in community issues (e.g. care of the elderly, education programs, town planning) to meet in a form of dialogue to consider ways to enhance their work. As convener of a panel of people in arranging such meetings, I found it was an eye-opener to get such a range of participants together with a clear focus on improving mutual understanding and communication.

Katherine and I decided to join the Quakers in 1970 after attending for several years and feeling at home. It was especially valuable to have such Friends as Brigit and David Hodgkin, Kenneth and Winifred Townley, Edna and Lister Hopkins, and Dorothy Gregory, to learn from. To us, the integrity of the Quaker approach to worship and action was very important. Our three children also became part of the Meeting. At the same time, Katherine and I shared with our children in the formation and development of an alternative school with a strong child focus.

In the mid-seventies I took on the position of full-time national secretary for the Religious Society of Friends. For nine years from 1976 to 1985 I had openings to travel around Australia, to build the national organisation, and to foster links among the different Regional Meetings. I was on the national Quaker peace committee, and remain part of the Quaker Peace & Legislation Committee. I also took on the voluntary role of Secretary of the Churches Commission on International Affairs of the Australian Council of Churches, which took radical positions on peace and justice issues during the 1980s. This was a period of important growth in my awareness and commitment to peace and justice.

After my time as YM Secretary, I became a consultant on conflict resolution and peace education, taught some school programs, and helped set up a mediation centre in Canberra. Mediation has been a major part of my working life – I have done many hundreds of sessions with clients, and also been involved in training and assessing new mediators and in lobbying for funding of mediation services. To me, mediating with those in conflict is completely at one with my Quaker principles. I have extended my interest to restorative practice in the justice system, education, and community life. There are many examples – family conferencing, sharing circles, and Indigenous “courts” with elders as part of the process.

I was on the Board of Life Line Canberra when it began in 1970, was part-time administrator of the United Nations Association of Australia in the 1990s and early 2000s, and helped set up a centre in the 1990s for men to share more of their lives and problems with each other in a safe setting.  I was a member of the first ethics committee of the Australian Institute of Health & Welfare. In 1998 I was awarded the medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for my peace work.

In the 1990s I served as Presiding Clerk of AYM from 1992-1995 and found this rewarding, especially in clerking the business sessions so as to enable shared discernment in carrying forward Quaker worship and witness in Australia and beyond. I became part of the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) through my role as Assistant Clerk (1994-1999) and then Clerk (2000 to 2004). I continued by being part of the Asia-West Pacific Section.

Katherine and I parted in the mid-80s, and I formed a new partnership with Christine Larkin, who is an active Quaker. We have shared many experiences together such as co-editing The Australian Friend, and having a term at Pendle Hill in USA.  I now have a wonderful extended family including Christine’s children and grandchildren, my siblings’ offspring, and with Purnell grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I have been blessed in many ways.

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