Ray Brindle, Victoria Regional Meeting
There are more than 90 Yearly Meetings and associations of Friends around the world. We received epistles during 2014 from about one fifth of those; including a couple obtained through FWCC, we have 18 to hand: 10 from US YMs (mostly in the “unprogrammed” tradition); three from Continental Europe plus Britain and Ireland YMs; and Bhopal (programmed), Japan and Aotearoa-NZ in our Asia-West Pacific section. There are none from Africa, Central America or South America…
So the epistles that we received are a rather selective list. The near-absence of epistles from Programmed and Evangelical Friends, who make up about 90% of Quakers world-wide, is interesting and perhaps puzzling, even allowing for the fact that many in the Americas would issue their epistles in Spanish. I wonder about the rest, though. Is it because they do not have the “epistle” tradition, or are there sectarian influences at work, I wonder – a tendency to share epistles only between YMs with shared traditions, sort of like choosing who you exchange Christmas cards with?
This overview of gatherings of Friends around the world is therefore somewhat biased towards “Friends like us” – those in the liberal, unprogrammed tradition. Keep that in mind when we observe that this collection of epistles from others in this “Religious Society” of ours reflects an apparent reluctance to utter the Name of the Nameless one (God language alert). Only our Friends in Bhopal were comfortable with referring to “the Almighty” and “Christ”. Only half of the epistles referred to God; there were more references to “Spirit” or “Light” or “the Divine”, and even then not very often. Four of the epistles made no reference at all to the Ineffable One by any name. I note in passing, without making any judgement or drawing any conclusions, that we also have avoided mentioning “God” in at least our last four epistles, and referred to the Spirit only twice and Light three times. So we are in like-minded company. No doubt we would get a different picture from epistles from Friends in Africa, Latin America and most of the Asia-WP section, had they come to us.
Similarly, nearly all of the gatherings that gave rise to the received epistles sounded like ours. There was a familiar range of underpinnings, concerns and preoccupations:
- Faith and practice
- reference to the testimonies
- concerns about children, their care and spiritual nurture and the roles they can play in meetings
- climate change and caring for the Earth
- peacemaking, of course
- Indigenous concerns (not many)
- structures, organisation, ways of doing things with small numbers of people, and
- self-reflection on issues such as membership, futures, dealing with difficulties..
No great anxieties or difficulties were reflected in this batch of epistles. Indeed, one new YM in the USA expressed relief that they had, in the great American schismatic tradition, separated from their former YM. It sounded like a happy divorce.
Even so, Friends everywhere have a talent for crafting quotable quotes and pithy summaries. For example:
On membership: “Coming into membership of the Religious Society of Friends (said Britain YM) is not simply arrival at a comfortable place; it is also a point of departure: a commitment to the Quaker community and to a life-long process of learning, together with others. What matters most in this community is the quality of our relationships.”
On faith and practice: Britain YM quotes Ben Pink Dandelion: “We should rekindle a strong sense of our Quaker identity, our clarity about who we are, and we should reclaim the spiritual. Our ‘love in action’ is not an alternative to the spiritual life; we need to be both Martha and Mary.” Northern YM adds: “For some of us, Spirit seems to be saying, ‘Wait. Listen. Be patient’. Others hear the urging, ‘Well, what are we going to do about it?’ Some of us hear both.” Netherlands Friends considered a practical question: how would they “answer that of God in extreme Right politicians”.
On Testimonies: Netherlands Friends pondered the question “who God is to us now”, and added “what or whoever this is, we are the hands and feet to do the work”. Action trumps theology. Britain YM were on a similar theme: “What would our world look like if we truly lived out our testimonies?… Whatever you are called to do, be faithful to your calling. God has no hands but ours.” Intermountain YM remind us that “The Peace Testimony is not so much a philosophical position but the fruit of an inward spiritual journey”.
On WW1 commemorations: Britain YM tell us that they “reclaimed the white feather as a symbol of peace and created with our feathers a dove of peace.”
On faith and hope: “how can our light make a difference in a broken world?” (Ohio Valley YM). “In the face of our distress at the darkening of the world, we are renewed in the hope and love that is also part of our faith.” (Britain YM) “Rather than feeling helpless in the world, we are called to find our voice as part of our witness”, suggested North Pacific YM.
Ohio Valley YM offered a poetic analogy: “The light given each of us is like a screen made up of many pixels that alone do not look like anything, but taken together form a beautiful picture. From our individual gifts we have a role to play, however small, that is our part of the whole. We were given encouragement, tools, and opportunities to put our gifts and testimonies into practice.”
Southern Appalachian Friends asked themselves “how tuning into the Spirit can help lead humanity safely out of our impasse. Can diving deeper into the Inner Light open our eyes to our connection with the entirety of life, move us to a new understanding of our place in nature, and liberate us from complacency and confusion over how to meet the challenges of the 21st Century?”
On a lighter note, but probably no less profound, Junior YM in Ireland had the theme “21st Century Fox: What would George Say?”
On structures and processes: North Pacific YM report: “We made a change in structure that invites participation rather than requiring it, hoping that more voices will be heard. …We are still wrestling with the tension between approaching our business worshipfully and having enough time for all of our business.” We are not alone, it seems.
On how we relate to each other: Northern YM were asked “if perhaps one gift we can offer each other is help in talking more openly about difficult topics.” Switzerland YM were encouraged by the familiar words of Rufus Jones: “I pin my hopes to quiet processes and small circles, in which vital transformations take place.”
And finally, on the family of Friends: Ohio Valley YM “were reminded that we are not alone in this enterprise. Others join with us to bring growth in each one of us, much as plants grow toward the light. An awareness of the problems of our world could not be avoided but seeds were planted that can only bear fruit if we care for ourselves, our families, our meetings, and the communities where we live, breathe, and have our being.” Intermountain Friends end by saying “we enjoy acknowledging the threads of connection we have and cultivate in the complex Quaker web, and send our greetings and encouragement to you”
What a rewarding family we are part of!