Thursday, 24 May 2012

Trusttees decide against Skyspace

I am deeply concerned that BYM trustees have decided to reject the installation of a James Turrell Skyspace as part of the Friends House, London, refurbishment.
Why are trustees making such a decision? - this is surely a matter for the whole of BYM, and I hope that it will be revisited this weekend at Yearly Meeting 2012. Trustees should be concerned with the management of our affairs, not with matters of deep spirituality. The reasons given in the minute are indeed pedestrian and managerial, and I fear for our future if these sorts of criteria are going to become the norm. Anyone with any sensibility who has visited and experienced a Skyspace should know that the light is from within - it is an utterly immersive experience, removing all boundaries of in and out.
As for the other criteria cited: read the Gospel of John, Chapter 12
Are our trustees about to betray us?

Friday, 18 May 2012

Being Salt and Light in a Broken World, a taste of the Kingdom of Heaven

Some personal reflections on being at the World Conference of Friends in Kenya

Being at the World Conference of Friends in Kenya was a blessing and a gift. Nine days among friends, grounded in worship with plenty of time for talking. 
What’s not to like?
On the first evening I wasn’t sure if I was being called on to be a reserve home group facilitator so I went over their training session to find out. A group of us who had arrived on the last bus walked together along the unlit road to the building where it was being held. Once there I discovered that they had cover enough, so I was free to go. 
I stepped out of the door, into the dark African night, alone.
If I’m honest, I’m a bit scared of the dark. Although I knew that the road was straight and paved, and that I knew the way back from where we’d just come, I was afraid to walk it on my own. It was very dark without street lighting. I thought briefly of turning back into the hall and waiting until the session was over to return with others but pride prevented me. Also I knew that the Friend who had shown us the way over just a few a minutes before had set off back directly, on her own.
‘If she can do it, so can I’ I thought; a comfort and a discipline. And so I took the hand of God and set off into the dark night, one foot before the other, all the way home.
That campus did come to feel like home and being at home amongst so many Friends from around the world felt like a taste of the Kingdom of Heaven. I went to the unprogrammed early morning worship each day and from there to breakfast and from breakfast to the plenary worship session in the main auditorium. That’s the way to start a day. Two hours allocated worship time before half past ten.
The mixture of the plenary worship sessions, planned and delivered by a different ‘section’ each day, gave us the opportunity to experience each other’s worship traditions and to hear from speakers from different parts of the world who explored the conference theme. We heard truth and we experienced community. Many of the speakers were younger Friends and it was striking to hear their depth of wisdom and their confidence and ability to preach to us.
I learned that I would like to have more preaching in my life. I valued being given the insights of someone’s passion and thinking and preparation and devotion. I was thankful for their willingness to make themselves vulnerable by delivering a message to us all and I felt inspired both by what they said and their effectiveness in saying it. I want to speak up more about faith and learn to communicate more effectively too.
Not all the words resonated of course, and sometimes I would have been grateful for more silence. I realised after day one that I was going to have to take notes to have any chance of keeping hold of any of it and this felt a bit peculiar. I generally feel very strongly that note taking during meeting for worship is not on. There was a tendency for us to be enjoined to take part in participation activities – to stand up or join hands or say aloud ‘we are salt and light’ – and in the main this felt awkward and self conscious for me.
However when Jocelyn Burnell (the speaker from the Europe and Middle Section) posed us a series of questions on being broken – ‘Are you carrying grief or some other woundedness?’ ‘Do you feel you have failed in some way?’ ‘Do you have a long term illness or disability?’ – and requested that if we answered yes to any of these questions and felt able to do so we should stand up, it changed the whole dynamic of the conference.
Everyone stood up. We are all broken. It is one of the things that joins us together.
Through being given this opportunity to share together as a body, I felt we, the world community of Friends, were given the space to see that we are all the same.  It was one of the most powerful moments of the conference and once again I was required to revise my opinion, this time on the place of ‘group participation activities’ in worship.
Of course, singing is a commonly used group participation activity in worship and I was prepared for that. There was much singing all through the week and although I can feel rather left out and lonely during singing that wasn’t my experience this time at all. I’m not a singer. I come from an unmusical family and I never learned. So mostly I just don’t sing. I also concur with the idea that you shouldn’t join in with singing words that you don’t agree with just because they’re a song.
There were some instances of this during the week but also many songs which I’d happily join in with if only I knew how. At the beginning of one session I was sitting right up at the far back left corner of the auditorium (two layers of raked seating up) and everyone was singing. We were about to have Nancy Irving’s keynote address so the hall was completely full (a quick note here to reference the work Nancy has done in bringing the Quaker worlds together) and I realised that it would be a good idea if I took the chance to nip to the loo.
I got up from my seat in the back row and sped down the stairs, along the balcony, down the other stairs and across the hall, all the while surrounded by Friends of every colour standing, singing ‘Allelu, Allelu, Alleluiah!’ That felt like a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven. It did my heart good.
That song, and the one following it, gave me plenty of time to get back to my seat to hear Nancy’s address! She gave us thoughts on her experience of grace, that it can come prosaically through the need to pay taxes and that it can show God’s hand at work in our lives, if we are listening and willing to respond.
I believe as a community we had the opportunity to experience grace during the conference, not least through the challenges we faced in acknowledging our differences. Such as dealing with our differing opinions about homosexuality. I’m left troubled though by what we did with the opportunity. As recorded elsewhere this came to light most publicly through the matter of the epistle from North American Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Friends that had been put up with the other epistles to the conference, and was then taken down.
The public response to the epistle being taken down came from one of the clerks of the conference organising committee. From the platform she told the whole conference that taking this epistle down was ‘an act of hatred and violence.’ Had she said ‘it felt like an act of hatred and violence’ I would have had to accept that this was her experience. But to make an unfounded emotive accusation in this way felt to me to be at best misguided and at worst actively damaging. To one-sidedly escalate a conflict in this way seemed to me like an abuse of power.
In my home group we had a good discussion about the matter and we were able to hold each other’s opinions and feelings without damaging our relationships. We heard from a Friend who said ‘Just tell me where it says in the bible that this gay marriage is ok and then I’ll accept it’ and we heard of the tension between the Inward Guide and the external authority and the ongoing life of Friends’ experience of trying to balance this tension. We heard a clear challenge to taking any authority from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah when it advocates giving up your virgin daughter and her hand maids as an alternative to the intentions of the Sodomites to rape a guest. None of us agreed with rape as an acceptable practice, or of sacrificing virgins.
We heard that in Ezekiel we’re told that if you know your friend is sinning and don’t tell him to stop that God will hold you responsible for his sin as well as your own. And we heard that there was grave concern from our Kenyan Friends that the epistle was up in public, on an open campus where there were reporters present and that if word got out in Kenya that ‘Quakers are ok with people being gay’ that it could seriously compromise the safety of Friends and the Quaker church as a whole. It’s still illegal to be gay in Kenya.
It struck me that we heard that taking down the epistle was probably an act of fear and protection.
And with this understanding of the likely motives of those who had taken it down I began to wonder about the intentions of those who had put it up. I went to look at the epistles and the others were mainly from either recognised constitutional groups of the Society of Friends – YMs or MMs. There was one from American Friends Service Committee (an international organisation) and one from a pre-conference study group (specifically formed in relation to the conference). I query the process by which it was decided to put up an epistle from an informal group from one country which was known in advance to bring a contentious issue into play in a public and unfacilitated way.
When I was choosing a Thread Group to attend I was drawn to the one on ‘Broken Sexuality’ because I knew it was an edgy topic. It was to be facilitated by a Friend from Rocky Mountain YM (USA) and so I did some research to find out what that meant. An American Friend told me ‘That’s a very evangelical, politically conservative, Yearly Meeting. You’ll find they’re more likely to want to tell you what’s right than to listen to other opinions.’ So I signed up to enter the fray.
But then while I walked there (along that road again, this time in the bright daytime sun) I mused on what had been said to me. ‘They’re more likely to want to tell you what’s right than to listen to other opinions.’ It was one of those moments when a voice speaks in my ear: ‘Well, why are you going Rosie? To give your opinion? Or are you willing to listen?’
In the event the group was facilitated with tenderness and sensitivity. We shared from across our range of beliefs and experiences, and the Friend from Rocky Mountain showed clearly that her only agenda was for open and honest communication to take place. I heard some exciting messages from African Friends – about moves towards gender equality and challenges to damaging practices. I could see that they are doing their own work in their own culture, in their own time and that currently homosexuality is not top of their priority list. Which if we look back at our own history we can see it wasn’t for us until after we’d got women sorted with the right to own their own land either.
I was enriched by the experience of this group - I learned from listening and offered what I could to develop the conversation through sharing my experience. As a community we worked together to develop the conversation and through this process we came away richer. And I made sure to go back to the Friend I’d asked about Rocky Mountain YM to tell them that in this case their stereotype was mistaken.
So I know it can be done -we can look beyond our stereotypes and listen to each other. This is how we will gain strength as a community. This is what being a community means. ‘Consider it possible you may be mistaken.’ Friends, the key moment to consider this is exactly at the point that you are most certain that you’re right. It’s considering this that enables us to listen to another experience.
So one of the things that I learned at the World Conference is that I care most passionately about how we deal with conflict, regardless of what the issue is. I care that I’m not inadvertently part of a process that carelessly tramples over sensitive cultural issues without thinking through either how may feel to others or to the potential implications for individuals within our community.  That it’s of key importance to listen and to seek to understand.
In my other Thread Group I was one of the facilitators and it was on the theme of Quakers in Prison. We learned of different work Friends are doing with people affected by prison. Just one example is an amazing story of a woman who has developed work in Rwanda to promote communication and healing between the wives of those who were killed in the genocide and the wives of men imprisoned following it. It was a privilege and an inspiration to share these stories.
In the dinner queue (many of the conversations of the conference happened whilst waiting for food) I was talking with a Norwegian Friend about which Thread Groups we were doing. On hearing of my prison theme she told me that it was because of captured Norwegian sailors meeting Quakers in British prisons that Quakerism came into Norway. Being amongst Friends is rich with such moments of easy sharing of topics of interest.
The dining room was VERY NOISY. All those hundreds of conversations in many different languages echoing round the hall. You could really only easily hear the person sitting right next to you. In some ways it was challenging but in others it gave a vision of determined communication. You looked around the hall and every one was leaning forward straining to hear, shouting to be heard. And that was my primary experience of what the conference was like – we were all leaning towards each other to hear and be heard.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

World Conference of Friends, Kenya 2012

Sheffield Friend Chrisse Hinde attended this once-in-a-generation gathering of Quakers from around the world in Kenya last month. These are some of her reflections on the experience:

The Conference was far more spiritually uplifting and Quaker affirming than I thought or hoped it would be. The venue at Kabarak University was very lush and spacious, filled with beautiful trees and flowers, giving the whole conference a very relaxed ambience. We were about 850 Friends in total but it didn’t feel crowded. The Kenyan Quakers (approx 400 at the conference) were very welcoming and had done some fundraising in order for us to have a subsidised excursion day mid way through. A Kenyan Friend remarked: ‘In Kenya we welcome visitors as blessings’.

Each morning a different FWCC section led the Semi-programmed worship session. The programmed ministry from inspirational speakers around the globe was first class and continues to uplift and challenge me as I reflect on it. Our European and Middle Eastern section talk was by Jocelyn Burnell who spoke of our ‘brokenness’ being a place from which can learn a great deal and advised us not to rush to heal our pain. She quoted Thornton Wilder: ‘In love’s service only the wounded can serve’. Thomas Owen (Asia and West Pacific section) spoke of how man created religion in order to know God, not vice versa, so all religion is limited and flawed but for him Quakers offered the best system for relationship with the Spirit and Community. Most of the talks are available on the web site.

Our home group of 15 did feel like a Quaker family. We were mixed with half Kenyan Quakers, 3 British, an Australian and 3 North Americans. When we started one of the Kenyan Friends pointed out that most of the white folks were sat on one side and black folks on the other! From that point on we made a point of mixing up each session. We talked about our Meetings back home and our different styles of worship.

As the week progressed we shared our experiences of other styles of worship. African Friends from programmed Meetings had come to our early morning unprogrammed worship, and spoke of how they encountered a deeper connection with God in the silence. I and others shared how much the regular singing opened us up to the spirit in a way that talking didn’t, and through dance we could embody our praise, and prayers helped us to focus more immediately. We were given a song book and singing formed a regular part of our worship.

We also shared our different views on whether it was OK to be Gay. One Kenyan Quaker said he’d been to Pendle Hill, where he’d met Lesbian and Gay Quakers who were more spiritual than him and they have become his friends. He no longer had a problem with Gay Friends. One of our ground rules in the home group was to use ‘I’ statements, as we’d anticipated some conflict, but people were very respectful, and the group did feel safe, grounded and a place where we could share difference.

It’s fair to say that as a World Gathering we didn’t achieve unity on whether it is OK to be LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender). This remains a yawning divide, but I remain convinced that it’s often the small conversations, spoken from the heart, that make a difference. I did find it painful when people gave anti-gay ministry quoting the Bible, and I felt for my fellow LGBT comrades, but I appreciated people’s honesty and willingness to stay engaged. There was a huge amount of good will and desire for unity that was palpable, and for me made our divisions bearable.

The visit to our Gathering by Ex President and Kabarak Chancellor Daniel Arap Moi, seemed to derail us, and for me felt discordant and disturbing. It caused further division amongst us as we couldn’t find unity on how he should be greeted, or indeed whether we should be meeting on his land and enjoying his hospitality! I think many Kenyan’s felt hurt by the strong objections raised. Many of them felt it necessary and right to observe the custom of addressing him as ‘Your Excellency’ and to stand when he entered and left the auditorium. My impulse was to do the right thing by our Kenyan hosts, but there was a strong sense by many others that we’d really compromised our core values as Quakers, in the way we did greet him. It was a big rupture that left me and many others very heavy hearted.

I attended a thread group on Broken Sexuality, which was very skillfully facilitated (thankfully!) It gave us a chance to bring our differences on LGBT issues to a supported setting. African Friends invited their friends to the 2nd and 3rd session saying ‘we never get a chance to talk about sex’. The African women in particular wanted to talk about rape, domestic violence, polygamy and gender inequality. It was precious to have a place we could talk openly about these painful and difficult issues.

I also attended a thread group on Quakers & American Civil Rights. I chose this partly because it was co facilitated by Vanessa Julye (who wrote ‘Fit for Freedom not for Friendship’.) It was also facilitated by Hal Weaver (who wrote ‘Black Fire’). We covered dubious aspects of Quaker history in which some Friends were slave owners and Klu Klux Clan members. Also how African Americans were not permitted in many Quaker Meetings in 1950s. I learnt about the BlackQuaker Project, which celebrates, researches and documents achievements of Black Quakers of African decent.

I discovered that some North American Meetings have stopped using the term Overseer because of its use to describe those overseeing the Slave Plantations, and thought this a very good move. A Jamaican Friend now living in UK spoke of how she continued to be wounded by insensitive racist remarks from well meaning Friends and had often considered leaving, but chose to stay. This continues to prod me into thinking we need to do more to welcome our wonderfully diverse community in Sheffield into our Meeting.

The party on the last night of the Gathering was a truly amazing occasion. Kenyan musicians blasted out funky dance tunes causing a huge body of Quakers to get to their feet and, strut, sway and gyrate themselves around the auditorium in crocodile formation. Young and old, gay and straight, black and white Friends united in joyful celebration. It’s an image and a memory I will treasure for the rest of my days. A perfect finale to this wonderful event. I feel hugely blessed to be part of a world family of Quakers and to have met Friends from the far reaches of our planet. Asante sana FWCC!

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Same sex marriage and weddings

I have heard it said from official Quaker quarters that we should not call a same sex union a 'marriage' or call the ceremony a 'wedding'. This includes not using the words on the certificate. (NB: it seems that this was a misunderstanding, and hopefully the revised marriage procedure which treats everyone as equally as we possibly can under the law and uses the terms 'wedding' and 'marriage' for all will be accepte3d at Yearly Meeting next week. However, my own feelings in what follows still stand.)

It seems to me that Quakers have got so caught up in legal procedure and respectability that we have forgotten our heritage.

The original purpose of a Quaker marriage certificate was to provide public recognition of the act of marriage. It was signed by everyone present to give legal weight to the public declaration by showing that it was witnessed by lots of people. The certificate could be presented by the meeting to a magistrate to show that the couple’s children were not bastards and that they could hold property together and bequeath it to them, and so subvert the challenges of disaffected relatives.

We need to go back to our radical roots and actively demonstrate total equality by using exactly the same language on our marriage certificates irrespective of the sex of the couple. These means calling it a marriage and calling the ceremony a wedding, since there are no better words available.

It took a 100 years before there was implicit recognition of Quaker marriages in law (Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act 1753), and nearly another 100 years before there was explicit recognition (Marriage Act 1836). It will hopefully not take as long for full equality in marriage to be recognised in law, but in the meantime we should boldly witness to full equality for Quaker marriage in our meetings for worship, and leave the civil partnership legislation to it's own devices.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012


“And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.” (Exodus 3:2)

“.... they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them? ….say …. I Am hath sent me unto you.” (Exodus 3:13,14)

“And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, ..... we wot not what is become of him.” (Exodus 32:32)

Relationships are hard work. Communities cannot be created, or be built, or grow. A community can only be lived. You have to look into the burning bush; you have to climb up the mountain. It takes time and effort. You have to sweat it out. You have to let yourself be knocked down, then you have to get up again. You have to be broken and stay broken.

Oh how much easier it is to migrate into one's own head, and create there an image that will comfort us and purport to show us the way. To let other people tell us the way instead of working it out for ourselves. To read all about it in books instead of telling our own story.

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them” (Exodus 20:4,5)

We might not bow down and worship golden calves, we might well keep our meeting houses free of distracting images. But if all we are doing in worship is contemplating the image in our heads, then it is still idolatry.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Land and Freedom in Zimbabwe

The latest post on Transition Quaker has some observations on the political situation in Zimbabwe, and especially the contested area of land reform. Zimbabwe is almost always viewed as a 'failed State', with a society and economy devastated by a corrupt dictatorship. My experience of living and working in Matabeleland has suggested the situation is more complex, and caused me to question the way that our media represents Zimbabwe and perhaps other 'pariah States' too. You can read the full article here.