Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Quaker Priorities

I've been reading the new 'Framework for Action 2009-2014' (available to download as a pdf here).

The introduction states that:

'This document, from Meeting for Sufferings, the standing representative of Quakers in Britain, provides a framework to guide and unite Quakers in Britain and their central organisation, Britain Yearly Meeting, in their life and work at every level. It provides the basis for allocating resources over the years 2009-2014, though much of the work may extend beyond that time boundary... The framework is a strategic focus for activity, not a straightjacket; it outlaws nothing but provides a focus for work for and of Friends across Britain and an opportunity to achieve a more visible and effective witness for our faith.' So this is clearly an important document for British Quakers. I am still struggling to understand what its implications are, so I would appreciate any clarification from Friends who have been involved in producing it.

The Framework has some promising elements, especially the intention to reform centrally managed work in the direction of 'empowering and supporting, serving Friends by bringing together those active in a field rather than drawing them into central work'. The intention seems to be to decentralise much of the work currently carried out by departments based at Friends House, so that resources are redirected away from centrally managed programmes and towards resourcing and networking individual Friends and local Meetings. This seems to me a useful approach, which addresses the current separation between Quaker activity at local and national levels.

There is also an explicit principle for the framework that states: 'All the work must be led by the Spirit and arise from tested concerns.' This should prevent the framework becoming an exercise in abstract planning, divorced from our practices of spiritual discernment.

So far, so good.

The list of 'priorities for Quakers in Britain for 2009-2014' that follows is a rather broad and probably uncontroversial set of categories: 'Strengthening the spiritual roots in our meetings and in ourselves', 'Speaking out in the world', 'Peace', 'Sustainability', 'Strengthening local communities', 'crime, community and justice' and 'Using our resources well'.

I don't have a problem with any of these categories. I am not clear though about the function of such a 'list of priorities' in practice. Is it simply an arbitrary way of classifying the wide diversity of work undertaken by Friends? Or if its function is to prioritise the allocation of central resources, what currently resourced work will fall outside these areas and hence no longer be a priority?

If these priorities do have a meaningful application, then it is important that the procedure used to identify them has transparency and credibility. This is the main failing of the framework in my view. The 'consultation' process carried out to identify BYM's priorities was shockingly inadequate. I understand that our Meeting had a couple of weeks to make a formal response to the consultation, which did not allow time for an adequate response to be prepared and approved. Given that quite minor matters can often take several monthly Business Meetings to resolve, expecting local Meetings to reach clearness on their priorities for Quakers as a whole to such a short deadline was simply ridiculous, and I understand that our response, and that of many other Meetings, was largely to object to the imposed deadlines.

There was also an online questionnaire which individuals could respond to, consisting primarily of checkboxes against different kinds of Quaker work. There was also a facility to make written comments, which again many Friends used to raise questions about the procedure. Nevertheless, somehow this 'consultation' has resulted in a list of 'priorities for Quakers in Britain'. I'm sorry, but no it is not.

I do appreciate that it is not easy to do a genuine consultation process, especially with such a large and frankly awkward set of people as British Friends. But I have participated in several sham consultation exercises perpetrated by 'Regeneration' agencies and Local Strategic Partnerships, and I am frankly ashamed that BYM has produced something that falls into that category.

Above all it strikes me as a missed opportunity to really engage local Meetings in a patient process of discerning the 'signs of the times' and how we are called to respond corporately as a people and a religious movement. We are living in extraordinary times, as climate change, financial collapse and energy and resource crises are in the process of bringing down the industrial civilisation that has ransacked the globe for the last two centuries. The Framework contains no hint of the profound questions that these times demand of us; how do we prepare for a future of diminishing energy resources and a contracting economy? what aspects of our religious tradition need to be revived or transformed to meet the needs of the future? what ways of life, habits of thought, practical skills and spiritual practices can sustain us and our children through the profound changes that we are facing?

These are the kinds of questions I would love to see British Friends considering as part of our planning for the coming years. Your thoughts and responses would be very much appreciated.


Maurice Bartley said...

Craig, I am with you all the way but I would like If we could temporarily leave on one side the process of how the Framework for Action came into being, and focus just on the document and some interesting issues it raises. I think it offers radical topics for ongoing discussion within our Meeting. If life is a journey and not a destination then this document offers us very fruitful ideas to work with.
I fear there is open fertile ground in between “Together in worship….. and witness”. I believe it is relatively easy for a meeting to be united in worship and in a collective witness. The real question is how do we truly challenge one other to grow and to become more? It is so much easier to state and quote our testimonies, than it is to challenge one another so that each one of us becomes a greater witness to “truth, Integrity, equality, peace and simplicity” in S. York's.
How do we become “kindlers and not snuffers?” How, “more proactive and less institutional?” And we Quakers have our own institution, no matter how much we may pretend otherwise. Do we challenge one another as to how we “strengthen the spiritual roods in our meetings and in ourselves”. I think we are often better at “speaking out in the world”, than we are at speaking out within our meeting. I get concerned about an echo of the doctrine of ‘don’t rock the boat’, that can sometimes, in the name of ‘unity’, take over from ‘What sayest thou?’
Even while writing I ask myself:- should I be expressing this openly? I feel uneasy about how I myself can become complacent about the gifts that have been poured into our laps as a predominantly white, middle class and educated community, perched comfortably in the middle of such a broken and troubled world.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reference and link. I had not heard of this document. Am rather surprised to find that a search on it reveals no reference to 'Jesus' or 'Christ', and only one reference to 'Christian' (in connection with the S of F's traditional roots). I suppose this confirms that the S of F is no longer Christian in an real sense.