By David Purnell, Canberra Regional Meeting.
David Purnell from Canberra Meeting presented the annual reflection on the reports in Documents in Advance. The full text of the address is included in Documents in Retrospect. What follows is an abridged version.
We in Australia Yearly Meeting are a small part of a global community of Quakers. It is of note that the majority of those Friends have a programmed form of worship, and many are on the evangelical end of the continuum between universalist Friends and evangelical Friends. The Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) seeks to provide opportunities for Friends of all hues to meet and share worship and witness. The recent world conference in Kenya was the latest example of this, and 850 Friends attended.
In the Epistle from the world conference, there is a phrase: “We may not always understand each other fully but we are united in our yearning for transformation”. My own experience of such gatherings is that the differences in Friends’ approaches and beliefs are able to be heard deeply, and a sense of unity can be felt, especially in the small home groups. At the same time, the differences can lead to friction and misunderstandings. It is therefore reassuring that the Kenya gathering was able to adopt the Kabarak statement on Peace and Eco-justice, in which the following is asserted: “We dedicate ourselves to building the peace that passeth all understanding, to the repair of the world, opening our lives to the Light to guide us in each small step”.
I mention this to emphasise that there is something remarkable about the Quaker way – something that allows us to feel part of a movement that values listening, learning from each other, waiting for the leadings of the Spirit, and working together for common ends, especially in education, social justice, peace and earthcare. This is particularly important when we are dealing with issues of concern and passion where different perspectives can generate as much heat as light. I see these elements reflected in the reports we have received from our Meetings.
Let me say something about membership. The figures in DIA suggest a continuing decline in overall numbers within our Yearly Meeting. Stephen Hodgkin (who has maintained the membership data base so faithfully) has done a longer-term analysis (over the past 8 years) which shows that the numbers rose by around 5% between 2005 and 2009 and then declined by a similar amount between then and 2012. For 2012, applications for membership have been almost equaled by resignations. The number of deaths has been significant (21) – the same as the net loss in membership overall. Attenders totaled 1156 (843 adults and 246 children) – a total greater than the number of members. This situation has existed for some years. The challenge remains to encourage attenders to become members, as we consider what the future source of our membership is.
The Regional Meeting reports cannot reflect the many individual activities in which Friends are engaged in the wider community. It is not uncommon to count several Quakers at meetings of social justice, peace, environment, education, welfare, political and artistic groups, that help build our sense of belonging and help shape our overall experience as citizens. Also, all the Regional Meetings host one or more Yearly Meeting activities, so Friends are engaged at more than one level of commitment in enhancing our corporate life.
All the reports reflect the sense of the central place of the Meeting for Worship. All speak of the range of activities at the level of worshipping groups and local meetings, of the attempts to increase the involvement of children, and of the links being developed with smaller groups and isolated Friends. Residential weekends, healing groups, spiritual nurture networks, Quaker Basics, retreat days, and opportunities to hear about each others’ lives – all are regular features of our Meetings.
I am led to ask where are the growing points for the Society? What are the opportunities that we have to deepen our faith and our witness? As I see it, the following areas are worth highlighting:
1. Corporate Vision. My experience of being part of the group that has developed the vision for a peaceful and sustainable Australia has reminded me that we Quakers have usually benefitted from having a shared sense of where we are being led. Many voices have been heard and we have reached enough common ground to create a clearer vision, which should be a valuable resource for Australian Friends’ corporate witness in the year ahead. What I want to raise is the issue of how we can, in our disparate lives, create more occasions for the emergence of corporate vision that will help set our course for action and reflection. One approach might be to do a ‘stock-take’ of the concerns of individual Friends in our meeting, and from that discern whether there are some new shared visions for the group as a whole.
2. Dialogue. Our Quaker heritage has given many examples of the use of listening to help overcome barriers to communication and understanding. The Quaker role at the United Nations is probably the longest practical demonstration of this, bringing diplomats together to explore current global issues. In the Australian context, the First Nations People Committee has set up dialogue between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, the Quaker Peace & Legislation Committee has held several dialogue sessions for people from different Sri Lankan groups in Australia, and the Circles of Trust program has been working with similar processes at different levels. I believe there is also scope for the use of dialogue methods by Quakers in the area of inter-faith relations. May there be some among us who feel led to take up and develop this concern within their Meeting and our Yearly Meeting?
3. Outreach. If we are to strengthen our spiritual community and to build for the future, we will need to give more attention to how we are perceived by potential members and supporters. Quaker Quest and Open Days still seem to have possibilities for attracting interest from newcomers. Public witness through vigils and taking part in demonstrations has been a way of raising awareness of our presence. The use of new technology is going to give us headaches, but has a lot to offer. The placing of The Australian Friend on-line opens up some new avenues of outreach, and it will be important to monitor how effective this is. It has been interesting to read of the experiments in holding on-line meetings for worship and business. Also, it seems clear that the Quaker Service website offers those interested increased information and more avenues for contributing. We should be gathering more information on how our national and regional websites are used and how they can be developed further. In addition, how far are we using traditional media to spread our concerns?
4. Spiritual Nurture. Already there are many examples of how Friends around the country are offering mutual support in small groups or networks. This seems to have much potential for further growth. To what extent can this occur across the generations? What ways through on-line links and chat rooms? What role do residential gatherings have in this? Can isolated Friends and groups be offered new ways to be in touch with larger groups within their Regional Meeting, through inter-visitation or regular internet hook-ups? Of course, support can be given to those attending programs at regional and national level, including Silver Wattle and the Meeting for Learning. Can ‘mentoring’ be tried by Ministry and Oversight committees as part of their role in supporting Friends’ spiritual needs? The YM children’s committee has done valuable work in identifying needs and inviting our response through greater commitment of resources and energy. The Fellowship of Healing is also working for more opportunities such as the Olaf Hodgkin Healing Unit at Silver Wattle.
5. Working for Nonviolent Change. My impression is that our involvement in campaigns on particular issues of concern has been more limited in recent times. The reports say little about this kind of Quaker witness. QPLC tries to help Friends by preparing Action Alerts that highlight issues of current concern and indicate ways in which Friends might respond. QSA also has regular briefing notes on its work that include details of how Friends can offer support. We probably need more consistent analysis about what impact these forms of advocacy are having. The role of the peace and earthcare worker in advocacy is an area for development in the coming year. Also, there is the question of how far we can get relying on volunteers for our advocacy work. The various initiatives of the Alternatives to Violence Project – notably with refugees, remote Indigenous communities, and community groups – are significant pointers to the potential for growth in our witness for peace.
6. The Wider Quaker Scene. Now that we have had the stimulus of a world conference, I wonder what might be Australian Friends’ ongoing contribution to the Quaker world. My experience is that we are warmly welcomed in international meetings and through contact with Friends beyond our shores. We have been a significant part of the Asia-West Pacific Section of FWCC, we have contributed to some of the FWCC consultative work on global change, and many of us have made direct contributions in person or finance to maintain the Quaker United Nations Offices. QSA maintains important links with Friends in several continents. I hope we will continue to seek ways in which we can share responsibility for the development of Quakerism worldwide.