Openings and closings
Bruce Henry, Victoria Regional Meeting and Presiding Clerk
Openings and Closings for me
Most people wonder if the job they have is right for them. Parker Palmer struggled to find his vocation. He gave up his job as a community organiser and waited to find the path right for him – and he found it!
He comments “Each time a door closes, the rest of the world opens up. All we need to do is stop pounding on the door that just closed, turn around – and welcome the largeness of life that now lies open to our soul.”
At least twice in my career, I decided to leave my workplace. Walking away gave me the freedom to look for a new job, usually in a completely different setting. Thus, at various times I have found myself working with a group of pensioners in London, in the disability sector, with Community Aid Abroad (now Oxfam), as well as teaching. I don’t regret any of these doors opening and closing.
When I was approached to be Presiding Clerk, I didn’t feel up to the task. I thought of half-a-dozen others who seemed more suitable than me and thought of a number of reasons to say no.
I am in awe of Friends’ wisdom as well as the love and care they show for each other and for Quaker business. How could I “preside” over this impressive lot? I was heartened by the confidence that Nominations Committee had in me and by a Clearness Group that searched my thinking. I was also cheered up by George Fox saying “I had received that opening from the Lord that to be bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not sufficient to fit a man to be a minister of Christ”. For me that meant we are equal before God, no matter what our qualifications are or how articulate we are. Filling this position might be possible for me.
A number of former Clerks told me what a privilege it was to serve in this role. I accepted the opportunity to take on this new experience in that spirit. I knew that I would be learning on the job.
I and many others when offered a new opportunity have had to give up something to make it work. When we wanted to be volunteer teachers in a developing country, a friend said that Quakers do “interesting things in Africa”. That led Elaine and me to a Quaker school in Kenya. To open that door and enjoy the whole experience of living in a small village in West Kenya, we had to forgo some financial security. We had a wonderful experience, we became better teachers, we learnt to live simply and we discovered Quakers. This rewarded us well; we gained much more than we could give.
I feel that I have become acquainted with Quakers very slowly, by peeling back “layers of the onion”. Each peeling back has demanded a little more commitment and raised a few more questions about my life. First, I enjoyed sitting in silence and appreciated Friends’ undemanding acceptance. Then I did a bit more reading and realised the rich wisdom in writings like Advices and Queries. Later, I became interested in the “Religious” part of the Society of Friends and discovered something of the power amongst these “silent assemblies of God’s people”.
Each role that Nominations Committee invited me to take on was another opening up, and required me to lay down something else. In particular, being invited to be an elder made me think and read more deeply and enter worship with intent. How should an elder behave? What could I possibly offer to others? I enjoyed attending Silver Wattle as an elder and being part of the Silver Wattle Elder Enrichment Program (SWEEP).
I have found daily readings (for instance Henri Nouwen and Richard Rohr) opened me up to a deeper experience of Spirit. Quaker Faith & Practice is another wonderful resource for me.
Meeting for Learning in Brisbane 2015 was special for me. Meeting for Learning seems to me a great model for building a spiritual community. I remember in one Meeting for Worship the ministry “Remember, you are unique, precious, a child of God”. That spoke to me, it reassured me, but I’ve been asking what it means ever since! It was only later that I realised it came from Advices & Queries!
I have always been interested in music, especially since I was a boy chorister in St Paul’s Cathedral choir. I love church music and the harmonies especially. ‘How Can I Keep from Singing?’ is a favourite of mine, the more so since we sing it in the Victorian Trade Union Choir, of which I’m a member. I hope we Quakers can find more opportunities to sing together!
The poetry of Mary Oliver and John O’Donohue has nourished me and I’ve loved some poetry workshops led by Michael Griffith. I always enjoy Andrew Brion’s poems and it was good to be part of a writing group led by David Parris.
Many of us need some guidance about if and when to switch focus or take up a role. Nominations Committee might encourage a Friend to take up a position while the same Friend is saying to themselves “That name would not have occurred to me”! (That was the case for me). So when Nominations Committee taps you on the shoulder, please give their invitation serious thought and consider saying “yes”.
I think it’s also wise that Quakers stick to set terms (often 3 years) for most appointments, to provide clarity to the person in that position and to discourage “ownership” of the position. Three years is manageable for most tasks!
Openings and Closings for the Society
Quakers, like everybody, have faced many practical difficulties as a result of the pandemic. We were not able to meet in person. Our children’s gatherings were particularly hard-hit and we are only slowly starting to enjoy again the exuberance of our children. Now there’s an opening – to get to know the children and support families to be part of Quaker life.
For many of us, Zoom has been a lifeline, and has kept people in touch with each other. Zoom has enabled us to continue to worship together and to conduct business meetings, including with Friends at some distance from us. However, Zoom meetings risk cutting off those of us who, for whatever reason, are not comfortable with the technology.
Most Local and Regional Meetings are now meeting face-to-face. However, for Australia Yearly Meeting, Zoom is currently the way we do business. It is a powerful technology which encourages efficiency. But many of us feel that we miss opportunities for informal exchanges; perhaps more than ever we need reminding of the words of Isaac Pennington for our Zoom Meetings:
Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another….
Given that Zoom is not a “warm” medium, can we find ways to be especially friendly and joyful on Zoom? More expressive use of hands and face might help.
Many people “pass through” Quakers on their spiritual journey. Friends provide a safe, calm, thoughtful space for people to reflect on their passage through life. Others take to Quakers like a fish to water. However, can we be friendlier to people who come for the first time to Meeting for Worship? And follow them up? Is there an opening for more “intro” sessions about Quakers, to which we can invite newcomers as well as regular attenders? And can we discuss our core beliefs more freely, and share our experience of worship and service with each other?
Quakers have a history of speaking truth to power. In this troubled world, there are a hundred openings for Friends, for action both as individuals and corporately! There are peace and social justice concerns, climate priorities, First Nations concerns, asylum seeker action and issues around integrity to name a few. So the problem for each one of us and for the Society is to discern which of these to prioritise, and which to lay down. To take on too much can be exhausting and we are advised to lay things down when the time is right (A & Q 28)
For me, I feel committed to the weekly Vigil in support of Justice for First Nations people and climate action that Quakers are involved with. Many Friends have decided to avoid flying in order to reduce emissions and I will try to avoid flying as the AYM Clerk.
It’s important to cheer on and support those committed Friends who are challenging structures by taking on various types of non-violent action on a range of issues. Action to highlight the Land Forces Exhibitions in Queensland is just one of these initiatives.
I am very thankful for the work of the Quaker Peace and Legislation Committee (QPLC) which opens up discussion and encourages action on a wide range of social issues Please look out for their Action Alerts, which suggest action we can all take. The long list of documents they’ve produced can be found here.
I hope you find that Quakers is a place of openings, a place of joy, where you are spiritually nourished, where Friendships grow and where your gifts are being used.
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Bruce, thank you for sharing these thoughts, and some of your experiences.
(And good on you for minimising your air travel — may that inspire other Friends to do the same)