Thursday, 27 August 2009

Quakers in Transition

The Friends Quarterly has recently launched an essay competition on 'The Future of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain'. This is a subject I have been thinking about a lot, especially in relation to the Transition movement, and I would like to ask for your help in working out some of these ideas by reading and responding to my 'work in progress'; part 1 of which is below. Any comments, suggestions or questions much appreciated.

We are living in extraordinary times. A combination of climate change, energy crisis and resource shortages are undermining the industrial civilization that has dominated the globe for the last two centuries.

The questions and struggles of British Quakers over the coming decades will not be those of the past. The most pressing and controversial issues will no longer be about our relationship to our Christian and theist roots, or the challenges of pluralism and secularism. These were the debates of the age of globalization, that effectively ended with the financial collapse of 2007/8.

The debates of the age of the ‘long descent’ will be quite different. 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?

This is not a perspective that comes easily to British Friends, and it may turn out to be exaggeratedly pessimistic. It is certainly unrealistic, however, to expect the next few decades to continue on the same trajectory of accelerating economic growth and energy consumption that we have lived through since the 1950s.

The usually unacknowledged basis of much of the prosperity of the late 20th Century was cheap and abundant fossil fuel energy, chiefly oil. Just as Britain’s Industrial Revolution was powered by coal, it was the cheap and ever-increasing supply of oil that fuelled the last century’s massive expansions in industrial capacity and technology, first in the USA, and then throughout much of the world.

However, the physical limits to oil production are well-established. Once the cheapest and easiest to reach oil deposits are extracted, production first plateaus and then goes into an irreversible decline, as each remaining barrel of oil requires more energy and expense to extract. This pattern has already repeated itself over most of the world’s 800 major oilfields (including the North Sea). It is also a pattern that applies to the world as a whole, in which oil discoveries peaked in the 1960s, and oil production will inexorably follow it. The International Energy Agency, official energy policy advisor to the main Western governments, has recently predicted a peak in world oil production by 2020, with a global ‘oil crunch’ sufficient to prevent economic recovery from the current recession within the next five years (The Independent, 3rd August 2009).

These hard facts of resource depletion and energy scarcity have far-reaching consequences for a civilization that has been built on the necessity of ever-increasing consumption. A prolonged period of economic contraction with spiralling energy, food and fuel costs; at the same time as climate change is blighting much of the world’s food producing capacity, will have deep political, social, cultural and spiritual effects as well as economic ones.

How will these global shifts affect our society, our economy and our own lives and neighbourhoods? How will they re-order our priorities and concerns as a religious community? And what resources and relationships will we have to draw on to guide and support us?

Sunday, 16 August 2009

201 and counting

Having just heard the Prime Minister claim to speak for all with regard to our being in Afghanistan I can't help but wonder how true it is as he certainly doesn't seem to speak for me. As we know from our own life experience death is a long-term painful loss and that there are increasing large numbers of seriously wounded - and that is simply from the reports of what 'our boys' (which is inclusive of women as well from what I have read) are suffering but what about the sufferings of the people of Afghanistan and related regions in Pakistan? Are we not giving some a reason for war rather than taking away a potential source of conflict?
Increasingly failure to support our actions is tied with accusations of lack of patriotism but what I fail to see is the toleration of dissent which is the sign of a democracy of the type we claim to have and wish to install in Afghanistan. Is patriotism truly the 'last resort of the scoundrel) to quote Dr Johnson or is it as, Ambrose Bierce wrote in 'The Devil's Dictionary','In Dr. Johnson’s famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer, I beg to submit that it is the first.'?
Afghanistan is not purely a secular issue. It is not just a matter of politics - which are confused to say the least - though it no doubt will have political weight in any forthcoming General Election. In the midst of the suffering there is a spiritual aspect but are we meeting it or even respecting it? Matthew 25:35 - 40 to me seems to find a form of reflection here if we go beyond the literal meaning of the words to the underlying sentiment.
There appear to be no immediate or apparent ways at finding a beginning to its end. When senior military figures talk about being involved for at least 40 years what prospects does it hold for the young on both sides? Are there implications regarding potential conscription if the death count is given daily? What about the wounded who are demanding being treated in special military hospitals rather than with the 'non-understand' general public with whom they are having to share space in NHS institutions? 40 years plus sounds almost medieval/early modern in these terms.
Already, I feel, there is the potential for inter-communal conflict within the UK but how do we meet it? Where do we as Friends stand in this? What can we do? What should we do? I ask because I feel that I get no clear sense of vision and purpose relating to this matter.
How can we proceed in such matters if we claim that there is that of god in all or is god selective in his causes as some seem to think?
In confusion and waiting for the counting to stop

Saturday, 15 August 2009

All of you

I do love reading this blog. I do love all of you dear Friends who write here. Thankyou so much.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Reading Rumi

'Lo, I am with you always' means when you look for God,
God is in the look of your eyes,
in the thought of looking, nearer to you than your self,
or things that have happened to you.
There's no need to go outside.

Rumi - Selected Poems

Monday, 10 August 2009

Us And Them

Below is an shortened version of David Zarembka's Address to Baltimore Yearly Meeting´s Annual Session August 4, 2009

Dave is Coordinator of African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams and has given permission for me to share this with you. I really like what he says.

About five years ago I was at St Louis Friends Meeting (unprogrammed). Early in the Meeting, an elderly woman gave a message in which she indicated that "Whites" were "us" and "Blacks" were "them." Uhgh! I couldn´t let this pass, but then Quaker Meeting is not a debating society and one needs to respect what people say, even when it shows racism. So after thinking deeply on the proper approach, I shared the message about the uselessness of racial classifications and the need to see everyone as a human being.

After the Meeting, a half European/half Asian member of the meeting thanked me for my comments as she felt that some response needed to be made. The really discouraging aspect of this interaction was that a young, White man was listening to us and he commented, "I didn´t hear any racial slurs". So I had to explain to him that when you call "Whites" as "us" and "Blacks" as "them," you are excluding Blacks as a separate, alien group.

Then, recently a few years ago, there was a Quaker conference in Washington, DC and one of the main Quaker leaders working with the African Great Lakes Initiative in Rwanda was going to be in the United States at that time. I arranged for him to be a presenter at the conference. About two months later, the invitation was withdrawn because the organizers of the conference said that this particular African was homophobic. Really - I didn´t know that! I complained but he was not put back on the agenda, although he was allowed to attend like anyone else. It then occurred to me that the organizers were confusing this Rwandan Quaker leader with a Kenyan Quaker leader who at that time was publicly quoted as opposing the elevation of the gay Episcopal bishop in New Hampshire. Are all Africans the same? Were they confusing two black men without investigating?

So I talked with the Rwandan and found that he was not homophobic. To really test this issue, I arranged for him stay with a lesbian couple in DC during the Quaker conference. The organizers of the conference had seen themselves as "us" and Africans as "them." One aspect of this labeling is that all of "them" are given stereotypes.

There are so many variations of this. White versus Black, rich/poor, male/female, educated/illiterate, pro-gay/homophobic, pro-choice/anti-abortion, blue states/red states, Friends General Conference (FGC)/Friends United Meeting (FUM). The list can be endless.

My understanding is that we all do this "us/them" dichotomy too frequently. When we do, it becomes a hindrance to understanding an issue and more importantly a block towards a resolution. As peacemakers fondly say all the time, "Conflict among humans is inevitable. It is how people deal with this conflict that is important". My small bit of wisdom that I am adding to this is that when a conflict is defined between "us" and "them", it becomes almost impossible to resolve. Think of the major, long-standing conflicts in the world-Israel/Palestine, Hindu/Muslim in India and Pakistan, the Christian/Muslim conflict now called the "War on Terror". All are based on an "us-them" mindset. An important attribute of these dichotomies is that no one is allowed to be in the middle. People are not allowed to be "half and half", to be mediators, to be neutral, to stand outside the fray. This is why us-them conflicts are so hard to resolve.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Yearly Meeting Gathering 2009 (the long version)

During the last week of July, God was pushing British Quakers around further and faster than (I think) any of us expected was possible.

I'm really not used to talking in these terms. I'm trying to overcome embarrassment around talking openly about God and about my faith, because one of the big lessons of Yearly Meeting Gathering for me was about honesty, integrity and communication.
My beliefs haven't changed noticeably, but I want to talk about them and to use language that feels right, despite the best efforts of both ends of the religious spectrum (fundamentalist atheist to 'fundamentalist' religious) to restrict their meanings.
God is love. God is truth. God is faithfulness and integrity and simplicity and that inexplicable something that makes us do things that might not make evolutionary sense but seem like the right thing to do.

Committed relationships were definitely on the agenda for our Yearly Meeting sessions. Meeting for Sufferings (the representative body that keeps the national Society in touch with itself between Yearly Meetings, had done lots of consultation and recommended that we should add procedures for supporting, celebrating and recording same-sex partnerships to Quaker Faith and Practice. MfS said that now was not the time to lobby for a change in the law. No recommendation was made either way about whether or not these partnerships could be called 'marriage', but I thought that enough people had reservations about it that we would probably stick with 'committed partnerships'.

The first session introducing the subject was on Monday, when Colin Billett spoke. The text of his introduction is available online, and I highly recommend it (see the links below). After that session, there were response groups, and informal discussions, and I started to get the feeling, probably on Tuesday, that we might, after all, begin to officially call all marriages 'marriage', rather than having separate terminology for same-sex couples.

There was a 'talking wall' in one of the central buildings, where people could contribute their ideas by writing on post-it notes. Part of the purpose of this was to allow people who had reservations about the direction of the meeting to express them anonymously, in case they felt unable to do so publicly. There were a couple of notes expressing worry or fear or the thought that we were doing the wrong thing, and a hundred or so saying we were going in the right direction.

On Thursday afternoon, there was a Yearly Meeting session to consider the subject. There was a lot of spoken ministry. Again, there were three or four contributions expressing discomfort with what was happening, or the speed of it, but even they seemed to feel that the outcome was inevitable. By the end of the session the clerks were able to begin a draft Minute, and it looked as though we were quite likely to call for a change in the law, to ask governments in the UK to recognise same-sex marriages that take place in a religious context. (The law currently allow civil partnerships, but it's illegal for them to have religious content.)

On Friday morning, we continued to consider the matter carefully, and then... well, we changed the world. Or rather, God changed the world. It was noticeable to me that God was mentioned more in the ministry that led to our conclusion than sometimes happens in Quaker decision-making. It was also noticeable that the hearts and minds of those present were being changed at a speed that was almost visible. Many who arrived at the gathering fearful of what would happen or wouldn't left it proud to have been part of such an historic Meeting and hopeful that the God who is love is really at work to change the world.

At the beginning of the week, when we first started talking and thinking about it, it was clear that we needed to make progress because Quakers have a strong testimony to equality. By the end of the week, when the decision was made, it was still about equality, yes - but we'd twigged that it was also, very importantly, about our testimony to truth and integrity. We (a worshipping community) don't make a marriage: that happens between the people involved and God (whatever God means). We just witness it. To witness a marriage and call it anything but a marriage is untruthful.

Interwoven with all this, throughout the week, was the 'official' theme of the Gathering: Creating Communities; Creating Connections. I only participated in a couple of sessions that explicitly linked to the theme, but it was present throughout the Gathering anyway. I think the fact that we had plenty of time just to be together, to see one another's faces, between the sessions, helped enormously with the sense of community. With my (self-selected) home group, I appreciated silence, conversation, quiet worship, eye contact, hugs and just sitting together. Deep connections of friendship were established or strengthened, and I think these will be a source of courage and support back in our daily lives.

Very sad news from our Meeting back home about the unexpected death of our Friend Robert Clement drew those of us who'd gone from Sheffield to the Gathering together, reminded us of the local community of Quakers that we'd come from and would return to, and quietened our celebration.

My week at Yearly Meeting Gathering ended quietly and gradually. On Friday evening, hundreds of Friends gathered around the lake in the centre of the campus, to sing and to watch paper lanterns fly away into the sky. After Epilogue, my friends and I talked about our experience of the week over a pint or two of very good ale, then sat by the lake chatting until the early hours.
Saturday morning was Meeting for Worship, followed, for me and a friend, by feeding the ducks and talking quietly until it was time to travel home with an ever-decreasing bunch of Quakers.

Colin Billett's talk
Britain Yearly Meeting Epistle
Britain Yearly Meeting Minutes

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Brave new world

For months, if not years, I have been considering the following words from caliban in Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' when explaining to people who may be encountering the silence of Meeting for the first time. I feel that they have something to offer in that from experience I know that people can effectively panic when being taught how to breath in yoga/relaxation for the first time. Breathing is something which we take for granted but having to focus upon it and the process of breath control can make people feel extremely uncomfortable and can induce something, as I say, akin to panic.
Silence is something which we think we know about but rarely encounter and wonder if it has a similarity with Propero's island which causes Caliban to say:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

Our heads can fill with many things in the silence from wondering whether we have locked the dorr to shopping lists. Even with hearts and minds prepared it can be difficult to center down. Achieving the silence can be daunting and can surface long forgotten fears. It is our step into the unknown. To quote Lennon and McCartney we needs must attempt to 'turn off our minds and surrender to the void'.
How have others found their encounters with silence to quote John Punshon?

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Make of it what you can.

My U.S. Friend Jan Lyn sent me this link.

Interesting I find but...not to question Friends...not spontaneous Ministry perhaps?
That said it has the Q sense of fun which is well known amongst us but not to the rest of the world which is represented here I feel. A good form of outreach in many ways though I can see various objections especially the one which has been knocking around for ages, i.e. I am not a Christian but I am a Quaker.
Having been in membership for over 20 years I know the issues that this raises but to change the subject greatly, and not slightly, I was collared by a neighbour today about BYM. He had, as to be expected, picked up on the same sex issue in the popular press. I explained, as best I could, what I understand the expected Minute to read - having not been there.
Should I have called this 'what you will' rather than 'what you can'?
In Friendship

Saturday, 1 August 2009

A deep dear loss

To me and many Friends this week the hardest things has been to bear the loss of our respected and loving Friend Robert.
May comfort and grace be visited upon Frances and his daughters.
In loving Friendship
Peter ( and many others)

Yearly Meeting Gathering 09

I got home about an hour and a half ago from Yearly Meeting Gathering.
The big news for the outside world is the decision of the Meeting to recognise and record marriages for same-sex and opposite-sex couples in the same way, and to ask the government to change the law to allow religious marriages of same-sex couples to be legally recognised.
For me, the Gathering was about witnessing and taking part in amazing change; about finding new connections with new and existing friends; about taking time to recognise the sacredness of everything; about learning how I can be more articulate about myself and about my faith; about answering that of God in those around me; about integrity and truth and communication about what matters.
I feel changed by my experience of this week. I hope it lasts; I intend it to.