Sheila Keane, New South Wales Regional Meeting
When I was first asked to give this address, I was at a loss on how to approach the task. So I did what all good Quakers do… I waited. Expectantly. I held it in a prayerful background state and eventually a question began to form: “How does Truth prosper?” It was an improvement on complete writers block but not much of an outline.
So next I reflected on what is our expression of Truth, and that formed into five words which now serve as an outline for this talk. I offer these words in the hope that the Voice which spoke to Fox’s condition those three hundred and sixty-odd years ago can also speak to our collective condition now, our State of the Society at the 2018 Australia Yearly Meeting gathering.
The first word I offer is community. After all we are the Religious Society of Friends. Community is fundamental to who we are as Friends.
Universally, Friends report the importance of their shared worship, their relationships and their activities together: everything from twice monthly Friendly Friday discussion groups in Canberra to over 45 Friends celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Mount Lawley Meeting House in West Australia. Relationships are also fostered through our work together on committees and the ongoing tasks that support our meetings. A favourite way to build community is to share meals and discussions after meeting for worship. Darwin meeting chose “conflict” as its discussion theme this year and reported having “much and vigorous discussion” every fourth Sunday.
Another way that community is expressed is in our care for one another. Western Australia Regional Meeting took up a collection so that an attender could return home to Sudan for a family funeral. In Queensland, Friends did the practical work of finding, purchasing and delivering a car to a member who needed help. Canberra held a mental health first aid training day. Victoria Regional Meeting hosted Standing Committee and had to turn back an excess of offers to billet visiting Friends. We also grieved together the passing of 16 Friends who died this year.
Community is also forged as we nurture the growth of spirit in one another. Annual retreats were held in all but two regional meetings this year, as well as many one-day gatherings held by local meetings; a mix of workshops and silent or quiet days.
Quaker Learning Australia moved from Tasmania to West Australia this year. During their period of care, Tasmanian Friends produced a fabulous website which deserves widespread attention. It contains links to online courses (including Quaker Basics), articles by Dale Hess, audio and video resources, Backhouse lectures, Quaker biographies, and resources for the spiritual care of children. We need to spread the word about this wonderful resource. Meeting for Learning remains at capacity, with 12 Friends registered for Perth next year.
Friends School has affirmed its intention that meeting for worship be the heart of the school’s values, and is exposing 1273 young people to the life-shaping experience of silent worship.
When Susan Clarke became ill and Silver Wattle was without a director for 7 months, 32 individuals off site and 22 resident volunteers stepped up to keep the Centre running until new directors were found. This is community in action. As well as working together, a mid-week online meeting for worship gathered them. Silver Wattle offered 8 courses and hosted Friends Fellowship of Healing, Friends in Stitches, the Easter Family Gathering and the Junior Young Friends (JYFs) summer camp.
All JYF activities were organised with equal responsibility between the JYFs and a group of about 8 supporting adults, including our Yearly Meeting Children & JYF Coordinator. The summer camp activities included creating a JYF statement, creating illustrations for Who are Quakers What do we do?, leading epilogues, providing service to Silver Wattle, and enjoying a music session and Trivia night. Charles Stephenson, who was the “Quaker Presence” volunteer at the Easter Family Gathering exuded his joy at their depth of spirit saying, “Our future is in good hands”. I agree.
The meeting as preparation and calling
Community also empowers and calls us into action. Canberra Regional Meeting is particularly good at this. They formed 5 working groups to attend to specific matters this year, and filled 71 positions from a field of 188 members and attenders. This level of activity is made possible by its large size and financial resources, but even smaller meetings could learn from their example of involving nearly 40% of their members and attenders in the internal and external work of the meeting.
Community can serve to guide and to create collective wisdom. For example New South Wales Regional Meeting developed role descriptions for clerks, elders, treasurers, and members of Nominations and Ministry & Care/Oversight committees. Canberra Regional Meeting did a great deal of work exploring ecologically friendly ways to heat and cool their Meeting House, and developed guidelines for Friends wishing to offer sanctuary to asylum seekers. Victoria Regional Meeting wrote a business plan for their new Meeting House which could be of use to others who own property. For the most part this work was not widely shared. However, many meetings did benefit from NSW Regional Meeting’s checklist about safety and legal obligations for upkeep of our Meeting Houses.
Dealing with property
Many (in fact, most) meetings hold their worship and activities in rented accommodation. This has advantages and disadvantages. Where they exist, Meeting Houses presented difficulties to some degree and used up financial and human resources. Devonshire Street Meeting House in Sydney is suffering greatly through the light rail construction just outside their front door, and Brisbane is dealing with neighbouring property development which threatens the tranquillity of the Meeting House gardens. Canberra had two break-ins and possums in the roof. The new Victorian Friends Centre had water damage that was not covered by insurance, but this did nothing to dampen their delight with their new home.
Our Meeting Houses are precious. They afford opportunities to host our worship and meeting activities, store our libraries, support other groups in their work for social justice and spiritual development, provide space for local community activities, offer accommodation for visiting Friends, and provide a visible presence for outreach. But they are expensive and labour intensive as well.
Many Meeting Houses offset costs through facility hire. This year Canberra wrestled with whether to accept a lucrative extension of facility hire which would limit their own access to the Meeting House for about 3 months. Clearly there is a balance to be struck between usage and finances. We should be thinking about what our Meeting Houses are for, and it is clear that we need to be grown-ups about taking care of them.
Sometimes community fails us. To address this reality, the Yearly Meeting Safe Quaker Communities committee ran a useful workshop on Bystander Intervention. But conflict can also be constructive. Nothing exemplifies this more than Queensland regional meeting which spent much time this year healing from an ongoing major conflict. Their reflections offer prophetic words to us all, and I quote:
We accept our corporate responsibility for the pain that [people] have suffered, and apologise for our failings. We pray that we may find a way for healing, for [individuals] and for this whole meeting…
…In order to become community, we need to go to a deeper level with one another. We have ideals which we want to live up to but we have a sense of being rushed and too full of busyness. There was a sense that something has been lost – a grounding in love is an antidote to our sense of disconnection.
Being community takes commitment and we are being compelled by the Spirit to engage with one another by being ready to listen, being genuine and moving to a deeper level with those of us who are no longer visitors or newcomers.
Queensland has spoken a truth to us which needs our attention. And this brings me to the second word on offer: prophecy.
Our prophetic voice, the one that speaks truth to power, is a strong one. For example, in the past year the 15-member Yearly Meeting Quaker Peace and Legislation Committee issued ten action alerts and made detailed submissions on foreign policy, climate change, relations with North Korea, and citizenship legislation. They also ran a lobbying workshop for Friends, using this as an occasion to lobby for a nuclear weapons ban. The lobbying workshop had strong participation and financial support from all Regional Meetings, and the experience reverberated throughout the Yearly Meeting as Friends returned home.
The QPLC sub-committee on marriage equality deserves special mention for their campaign work and drafting of an open letter which received widespread attention and served as a public witness and consequent outreach.
Many meetings wrote to protest the Adani mines and participated in vigils and demonstrations regarding the appalling treatment of asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru. For people whose spiritual life is grounded in silence, we sure are a noisy lot!
And it’s not just words either: we act prophetically as well. This brings me to the third word in this address: witness.
We have found many creative ways to ‘pay the rent’, including scholarships for Indigenous children and university students, donations to Aboriginal organisations, and supporting Indigenous community gatherings, conferences and protests. West Australia Regional Meeting held a “Welcome Both Ways” smoking ceremony and meeting for worship, and Canberra Regional Meeting hosts a Listening Circle where First People come and speak to those who are ready to learn about the reality of living life as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander in Australia.
Our activity on refugee concerns was equally vigorous. Victoria and Canberra Regional Meetings both offer sanctuary for asylum seekers, and a number of individual Friends help with language and practical support of individual refugees and their families. Victoria Regional Meeting hosts weekly tutoring and a monthly meal at the new Meeting House, and supports a sewing group that empowers women to socialise and build employment readiness. Tasmania and South Australia Regional Meetings have small grant schemes and Canberra Regional Meeting organises care packages to be sent to Manus Island.
QSA received a major bequest this year in support of refugees and Friends are now in discernment about how best to make use of their allocated portion. QSA also supports aid projects in Cambodia, Uganda and India.
The Yearly Meeting Earthcare Committee has challenged us to act on carbon offsets for travel by setting up a Regional Meeting “dollar a refill” fund. This has not been widely taken up, instead leaving the earth care witness up to individuals. It is a weakness. However, Friends are increasingly using Zoom to reduce Quaker-related travel and our individual commitment to action is widespread.
There were several examples of individual witness being supported by meetings. For example, Queensland Regional Meeting supports the refugee support work of Abel Siboniyo as well as David Carline’s work with Indigenous people at Cunnamulla. Tasmania, Canberra, West Australia, and NSW Regional Meetings all helped prepare applications to the Yearly Meeting Peace & Social Justice Fund for their members: Joss Brooks’ tree-planting project in India, Dave Hodgkin’s concern for a School of Peace in Indonesia, Jarrod McKenna’s First Home Project supporting new Australians, and Aletia Dundas’ work in Ecumenical Accompaniment in Palestine & Israel. Victoria Regional Meeting funded Jason MacLeod’s Civil Resistance Guide and a project led by Lorel Thomas dealing with unexploded munitions.
Friends also provided financial support to a wide array of causes. The Quaker Shop in Adelaide raised $74,000 for QSA last year. They have 55 volunteers and regularly run out of the pamphlets about Quakers which sit on the counter.
This leads me to the fourth word: evangelism. I know that many Friends think that evangelism is a four letter word, and might prefer to call it outreach. But they are not the same. Outreach lets people know that we exist, and its aim is to increase our numbers. Evangelism is about offering opportunities for others to be changed as we have been changed through our shared worship, community and witness. Evangelism is about changing lives, with a side effect of increasing our numbers.
Though few, there were examples of outreach this year. Victorian Friends held an open day at their new Meeting House in Melbourne; NSW Regional Meeting had a stall at Mardi Gras; and Hunter Valley Local Meeting in Newcastle hosted the WW1 peace exhibition for Quaker day, which resulted in 4 new attenders. The panels being created by Friends in Stitches provide a great resource for future outreach. But it is the example of what we do and how we live that is our best outreach. We could all do better at claiming our Quaker motivations and open a door for others to experience the goodness we have found amongst Friends.
We welcomed 17 adults into membership this year. Eleven resigned their membership, two of whom did so out of disillusionment with Friends. The number of adult members has remained relatively stable at 892. Children have increased by 8% and attenders have dropped by 2% to 755, making a total of 148 children and 1647 adult Quaker participants in Australia.
Numbers matter: we need critical mass to finance and empower our witness and our spiritual nurture in the world. Where are we growing? What are we doing right? These are the useful questions. Also, where are we shrinking, and why?
This brings me to the final word I offer: condition. Think of it is something a doctor would say to a patient. We all have a spiritual condition that needs diagnosis and treatment. We can also be in “good condition”. Usually it’s a mix of both something to celebrate and some shortcoming to be revealed and allowed to heal in the Light.
The lack of growth in our numbers may reflect a certain spiritual stagnation. If our spiritual base is vibrant, we will attract more. Lots of people speak truth to power and do good works. We have to be more than that. We need to enhance and display the spiritual basis of these activities in order to grow meaningfully as a society. The number of Young Friends in particular is small, and they need our care and nurture. Maybe they can help us upskill in IT usage which will be needed to address our ecological witness.
But I think the greatest ailment we have now is our temptation for creedal debate: including stubborn conflict about what is or is not “Quakerly” and heated debate between atheists and those who speak of God. To this I offer the following story:
One evening a guest was sharing supper with two elderly Friends. He asked them how Friends understood God. One of the elders answered, “Well now, I guess I don’t really know. I know what I think”. Then, turning to his friend, he said: “Thee and I have been worshipping together for almost fifty years. I don’t know what thee thinks about God. I don’t think we’ve ever talked about it.” The other Friend agreed, adding: “I really don’t think it matters much. If thee shares the experience in the worship, it doesn’t much matter how thee puts it into words.”
As Queensland has advised us, we must speak with another one another under the discipline of the spirit. It may be helpful to use the same rules as in meeting for worship for business:
- Speak your truth, but listen too
- Be prepared to be changed by the encounter
- Be prepared to live in a patient uncertainty, perhaps for years, enabling disagreement without animosity
- Set aside self & ego in deference to Truth.
And so I return to the questions I was given in preparing this talk.
How is Truth prospering?
How do these expressions of Truth prosper in your meetings? Community. Prophecy. Witness. Evangelism.
If a Voice could speak to our condition, our state as the Religious Society of Friends, what would it say to us? I pray that we may hear that Voice, and that we may follow its counsel.
Open our ears that we may hear
Voices of truth thou sendest clear
And while the wave notes ring in our ears
Everything false will disappear.
Silently now I wait for thee
Ready my God thy will to see
Open my ears, illumine me