By Wies Schuiringa, New South Wales Regional Meeting.
During Yearly Meeting (YM) in Canberra in 2013 Friends made decisions about matters that are of importance to Quakers in Australia. The pointy end of these decisions is when we need to make decisions about strategies, actions or monies.
At this year’s YM, money from the Peace and Justice Fund was allocated for the work of the earth care and peace worker but not from the general AYM account. Some money from the general account was made available for the Children and Junior Young Friends committee, but not the amount that was asked for. It was decided to set up a special fund in the AYM accounts for donations for the work of this committee. It was also decided to set up a fund for donations for the work of the First Nations Peoples Committee.
At the 2012 YM a fund for donations was set up in the AYM accounts for the work of the earth care and peace worker. It took discernment and time to make these decisions, especially as some Meetings and Regional Meetings have had difficulties in meeting their quota.
Quakers have discerned concerns, leadings or passions for a long time. The first phase in the discernment process identifies to what extent the concern becomes that recognised and supported by the Quaker community for spiritual, strategic and, at times, financial support. In this phase we discern the leading of the Spirit, we reflect on our Quaker testimonies and history and we include the current developments in our society or in the world. We seek unity in the essence of what it is to be the Religious Society of Friends in Australia – Quakers.
Quakers have accepted many concerns, some of them historical that have resulted in the many peace related committees and actions. Others have been formalised in the last 50 years or so such as overseas aid projects by establishing QSA, membership of ecumenical bodies, the First Nations Peoples and earth care committees. Individual Friends also follow leadings or concerns that are anchored in Quaker testimonies without these actions being brought to or supported by a Local, Regional or Yearly Meeting such as a change in career direction, taking responsibility in a local community group e.g. an Aboriginal Reconciliation Group, setting up a centre like Silver Wattle.
Once unity has been reached and the concern is supported by a Local, Regional or the Yearly Meeting, a second phase in the discernment starts, namely what strategies or actions flow from the concern. This second discernment phase is just as essential as the development of the concern in the first phase as we discern the “what”, the “how” and “how are we going to pay for it”. Although this process is also Spirit lead, other sources of knowledge are called upon e.g. the development of a “project plan”, fund raising and financial accountability, legal implications, dynamics in the current political landscape, the network of stakeholders who we have become part of. These fields of knowledge do not sound very Spirit lead and are often associated with the language of management, politics or backroom plotting.
At Yearly Meeting we often do the hard work of this second phase and when it is difficult to find unity, there is an appeal to the unity of the first phase, “this is a deep Quaker concern, now you need to support what we want to do and allocate the money”. Unity for a concern does not mean that there is agreement in the second phase of discernment. We share a deep unity about the centrality of children and young people in our Meetings, but is employing a worker for 10 hours a week to work across Australia the best strategy to develop this concern. We have a long history in our concern for the environment and the spiritual nurture from the natural environment. Is this concern best expressed with the strategy to print and distribute 850 copies of the current 48 page draft document “A vision for a sustainable and peaceful Australia: Quaker voices”.
At times, actions from a Summer School or Share and Tell are brought to YM for decision making and action. This year, there was a letter from the First Nations Peoples Concerns Committee to the Prime Minister that was accepted with no further comment. The letter was not in Documents in Advance and had not been presented at Standing Committee either. I had not been part of any discernment processes about the content of the letter and I did not agree with some of it. I did not speak up and relied on other Friends to speak up. Nobody spoke against the letter and I let it go as I did not want to be “difficult” and it would have become “political”.
A letter from a Summer School urging the Prime Minister to convene a non-partisan forum on climate change was not accepted at YM. Several Friends did speak up. The letter has since been substantially changed and a media release has also been made available. I wonder if making decisions at YM when there is limited discernment (and perhaps more heat than Light) results in good decisions.
We deeply care about the history and current situation of our Indigenous population and we care deeply about the earth and what we are doing to it. However, the second phase of the “what” and “how” requires time and reflection. I felt an urgency that these letters needed to be sent, while YM was in session, but what was the urgency? Should we be careful in making decisions about matters that have arisen during YM and not rely on a short, passionate moment of corporate discernment?
How do we prepare for the discernment of this second phase in our Local, Regional or Yearly Meeting, in our Meetings for Worship for Business? The passion and power of the concern can dissipate in the wrangling of the second phase and that is when a Friend will speak and say “this is a very deep concern to me, don’t spoil it … agree to the proposed action”. It can almost feel like sacrilege to question the use of money or a letter to be sent to the Prime Minister. However, decisions made under pressure of time or not wanting to be seen as a “lesser” Quaker when questioning the action for an important concern, can then result in ineffective ways of using the future time, energy and funds of Friends. As well, we might also not present ourselves in the best l(L)ight to the outside world.
We can trust in the Spirit to guide us and we need to identify when to have patience in our discernment to make strong decisions.