Tuesday, 4 November 2008

The Friend e-bulletin November 2030

Craig Barnett looks back on changes in the Society of Friends over the last two decades.

With hindsight, the name-change of 2015 from 'Religious' Society of Friends to the more universal 'Society of Friends', was perhaps a significant turning point for British Quakers. Alongside our new Mission Statement; 'to be a modern and progressive organisation, promoting ethical lifestyle choices and social reform', it was intended to revitalise our dwindling local Meetings. However these long-debated changes failed to produce the influx of new members we had hoped for. They contributed instead to the formation of several breakaway groups, including 'New Quakers' (formerly Young Friends General Meeting), and the 'spiritual realists' or 'Friends in the Spirit'.

The continued rapid decline in local Meetings culminated in the landmark decision to reform the SoF as a dispersed network of autonomous groups and individuals, rather than a unified organisation. The last CEO of the Society accepted redundancy in 2024.

Friends House was sold 5 years ago, but Friends continue to be involved in its new role as an emergency hostel for climate refugees. It proved an essential refuge when hundreds of families were forced to take shelter there during the recent anti-refugee riots. London's City of Sanctuary teams have since been working hard at peacemaking in the affected areas and most families have now been able to return to their homes.

Friends have also played an important role in mediating at the recent 'Truth and Reconciliation' hearings, which have tried to resolve the bitter conflicts between young adults who came of age in the 2020s and older people of the so-called 'climate genocide generation'.

New Quakers have also been instrumental in securing prosecutions for climate negligence at the International Criminal Court against former Prime Ministers Blair, Brown and Cameron. Continuing legal delays and the infirmity of the defendants mean that these cases seem unlikely to reach a successful conclusion.

With hindsight, the series of financial, energy, food and climate crises that started to unravel Britain's 'age of greed' after the crash of 2008, should have been a clear signal of the drastic changes that were necessary, long before they were eventually imposed by the emergency government of 2020. Those of us who remember those times now find it difficult to account for the strange inertia that gripped British Quakers in the days when they could still have helped to avert the worst of the current climate chaos.

We are are now justly proud of the Quaker Meetings that did become early supporters of local Transition Initiatives, which have been such an important factor in Britain's conversion to a low-energy society. Woodbrooke has also won several Transition Awards for its role in re-training unemployed Friends and other Birmingham residents in the practical skills that are in such high demand in our modern, localised economy.

More recently, there have been unexpected signs that our new slower-paced and community-scale society is encouraging the growth of many small groups of 'spiritual seekers'. Some of these groups are starting to draw on quaint-sounding Quaker practices that the SoF has long abandoned, such as 'silent Worship' (forerunner of our modern 'Quiet Time'), and even 'discerning leadings'. (No-one in the office was able to tell me what this means, but according to Wikipedia it was some kind of pre-modern risk assessment.)

Our next e-bulletin should be available in December, carbon credits permitting.

Yours in Friendship,
Craig Barnett

2 comments:

Robert Kirchner said...

Craig, you must be pretty pessimistic about the future of Quakers in Britain to have written this, I judge. What, in particular, prompts this sarcasm? My perspective, as a relatively new Quaker finding my way in the Canadian Quaker world, after having experienced Sheffield Meeting, is that the Truth prospers greatly among you: you have a THRIVING, loving meeting, full of faithful, discerning Friends, including you, Craig. (I was particularly impressed and inspired by your recent Transition Sheffield initiative, and I hope to compare notes with you at some point about similar initiatives in Edmonton which I am now getting involved in.) The Quaker world here over here in Western Canada offers much leaner pickings than what I experienced in Sheffield: perhaps the Quaker fellowship I find here is all the more precious to me because of that.

Craig Barnett said...

Hi Robert,
Thank you for your response. My intention was to warn of one possible future for British Friends. I certainly hope that we will avoid taking the road I have described.
Sheffield Central Meeting is certainly thriving in many ways, but in BYM generally there seems to be a strong current of opposition to religious language and practice, in favour of models imported from the business world and secular humanism.
A recent statement from meeting for sufferings described the theological divide amongst the current generation of Bitish Friends as between theist and non-theist. I had never found this particularly contentious until I heard David Boulton speak at a recent conference on Quaker Identity. From this, it was clear that at least some Quaker non-theists are not just rejecting traditional language about spiritual reality, but categorically deny any reality to spiritual experience itself (memorably equated with 'ghosts, goblins and Gandalf's magic staff' by David Boulton).
Recent letters in The Friend calling for the word 'Religious' to be dropped from the RSF, and a course for elders at Woodbrooke at which one elder said that she and her whole Meeting don't do God, have suggested that this is now fairly widespread.
At the same time, I could hardly believe that the Recording Clerk of Britain Yearly Meeting has now adopted the title of CEO - something that would have seemed too far-fetched to invent. We have also had circulated a Risk Assessment document, which neglects any mention of Quaker discernment, and prescribes 'strategic plans' for all local and Area Meetings.
My concern is that we have been too vague about the specific nature of the Quaker religious tradition. Over many years we have accepted into membership large numbers of people with no interest in or respect for Quaker spirituality. We have done little to teach or promote the Quaker understanding of Christianity and the spiritual life.
In short, that 'if we carry on the way we are going, we will end up where we are headed.'
In Friendship,
Craig