Gretchen Castle, FWCC General Secretary, World Office in London
I am a Quaker. I am part of a world-wide Quaker community, and I inhabit that knowledge daily. It helps me live the way I want to. The knowledge and reality of that community membership informs my life and gives me the strength I need to live faithfully, to speak truth to power, to witness in the world. Celebrating the Quaker Way, by Ben Pink Dandelion
I had never been to Australia before, yet when I walked into Australia Yearly Meeting sessions, I knew I was among Quakers. I felt as though I had walked right into Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the meeting I have participated in for 30 years. I somehow expected to know everyone and to commence with the greeting of significant friends with hugs and expressions of delight. I was quickly introduced to many Friends and felt welcomed into the fold.
It seems the majority of Friends take great interest in business practice, and I am no exception. I was fascinated by business sessions at AYM. The presiding clerk, the assistant clerk, and the secretary worked collaboratively at the clerks’ table, as well as or perhaps better than I have seen in any yearly meeting. Documents in Advance included reports from 30 committees and associated bodies. AYM is a most active yearly meeting! The range of issues was most impressive! I was grateful that there was room on the agenda for us to hear from Friends World Committee for Consultation including a panel and the guest from Japan Yearly Meeting. In spite of the heat, we had a very full attendance.
What was more impressive than the range of issues though was the unusual way in which the yearly meeting seasoned the issues, allowing for much business to be carried forward. While the discipline and spiritual grounding of AYM’s practice was familiar, the actual progression of a considered issue was different from what I have seen before, and it could be recommended to other yearly meetings. It is not so unusual to have issues considered by meetings prior to yearly meeting sessions, but what was refreshingly different and effective was the use of Preparatory Sessions held during yearly meeting. The clerks of the Preparatory Sessions offered revisions to the initial report bringing revisions back to the Formal Session which allowed for a deep level of consideration. It did not preclude or exclude further consideration at the Formal Session, allowing the full body to take decisions that had been discerned fully over time, and articulated thoughtfully in very helpful ways. I did hear the clerk gently admonish a Friend speaking to an issue having not attended the Preparatory Session, for if he had, he would not have raised the issue in Formal Session.
The clerking, as every Friend present might hope for, served the body well. The clerks were gracious and appreciative, and when they needed to, they asked Friends to speak once to an issue, to resist the temptation to repeat what had already been said, and to keep comments brief. I have always appreciated this in a clerk, even if I am the one needing a reminder! When the Young Friends came to the Formal Sessions with a concern that had been considered rather thoroughly in the previous year, the clerk was beautifully sensitive, finding a way to hear more fully from the Young Friends. From my seat, it was lovely. I trust that in that moment of awkwardness, there was a mutual sense of being heard.
The assistant clerk kept a running list of those who felt ready to speak and they appeared to be taken in that order. This doesn’t give the clerk as much leeway in deciding the order of speakers, and it assumes each person who wants to can speak. In larger yearly meetings, everyone who rises to speak cannot assume they will be called upon. As a former clerk, the progression of the discussion often determined whom I would call on and how long I might wait between speakers.
As I travel among Friends, I see many different ways of carrying out Quaker business. We can learn a lot from each other. And still, it looks familiar in most any context. At a recent Section meeting, one person commented that he had learned a lot by participating in the business session. No matter where and how we practice, we have much to learn.
While AYM has a strong business practice that can be shared, one element I found Friends challenged by was the language used to describe the Divine, the Holy Spirit, the greater good, God… A tendency I see among unprogrammed Friends, is a hesitancy with language, not wanting to exclude those who are toward one end of the non-theist spectrum. Whether it is a discomfort in one’s own skin, or a sensitivity toward others, I believe Friends would benefit from discussion of this discomfort and perhaps find a way to reclaim language that works. What I observe is a reticence, a stop in one’s expression of faith. I have seen the flow of conversation of spiritual experience come to a grinding halt, falling over words or failing to find words. I find it prevents the expression of joy, which I personally feel is at the very heart of my experience of God. Coming out of both a programmed and an unprogrammed Quaker tradition, I am grateful to have the words to express the power of faith in my life, to feel confident about the place God has in my life. Throughout the week, I did not have this conversation, and I found myself longing for it. I wonder if other Friends feel the same longing. I wonder how, in our spiritual communities, we can be sensitive to a wide range of needs.
I felt most grateful to have shared this time with Australian Friends. I felt very much a part of the community, as Friends were generous and curious and, well, extremely friendly!
As Ben Pink Dandelion observed, as long as we stay within the Quaker fold, we will most likely meet again. He goes on to say, “It is companionship of the greatest depth and trust. These friendships are ‘for life’ in every sense.” I value these connections and trust this will be so.