Saturday, 10 November 2012

Ploughing up the Fallow Ground

'Bring all into the worship of God. Plough up the fallow ground. Thresh and get out the corn; that the seed, the wheat, may be gathered into the barn... None are ploughed up but he who comes to the principle of God in him, that he hath transgressed. Then he doth service to God; then is the planting, watering, and increase from God.'
(George Fox, Journal 1694)

Fallow ground is land that has been left uncultivated for a year or more. Letting land lie fallow is a traditional farming practice - allowing the soil to regain fertility between years of cropping and harvesting that would otherwise leave it depleted of nutrients. The point of Fox's metaphor, though, is that the fallow ground has been left uncultivated so long that it has become unproductive. As every gardener knows, neglected land quickly becomes colonized by weeds. 
It is my impression that Britain Yearly Meeting has been left fallow for far too long, drifting in the organizational equivalent of ecological succession, by which a vital and living movement becomes increasingly inward-looking, focussing on its own institutional structures and routines, and the needs of its own members. But it seems to me that British Quakers as a whole may be going through a process of 'ploughing up the fallow ground' right now.

Quaker Quest, Experiment with Light, The Kindlers, and the recent 'Whoosh' conference are some of the renewal initiatives that are starting to break up the settled Quaker culture of 'hidden-ness'. Friends all over the country are starting to speak openly and confidently about their faith and to seek out deeper and more disciplined expressions of spiritual practice. Participants at the 'Whoosh' conference this year called for a new emphasis on spiritual leadership, preparation for membership, and a confident teaching ministry. The Kindlers project is working with Meetings around the country 'to rekindle the power of Quaker worship by renewing and deepening our spiritual practices'.
In farming, ploughing incorporates the stored fertility in the leaves and roots of vegetation into the soil, to make it available for the following productive crops. British Quakers too have a huge amount of fertility stored up in our experiences and traditions. The quietly committed lives of Friends throughout many generations have created a rich store of wisdom, discernment and example to nourish the new growth of our movement. We now need a vigorous, nutrient-demanding crop of new Quaker prophets, teachers, accompaniers and ministers capable of drawing on this fertility before it drains away below the topsoil. If we genuinely want and intend to know the 'planting, watering, and increase from God' we need this generation of British Friends, of all ages, to put their hands to the plough.

This is an edited version of an original post on my blog, Transition Quaker.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Sustainability and Spirituality – the challenge for Sheffield Quakers

Britain Yearly Meeting in Canterbury last year was a historic event for British Quakers. At that Meeting, Friends from throughout the country made a commitment to become a 'low-carbon, sustainable community'. This was largely inspired by the vision of Pam Lunn, who delivered the annual Swarthmore Lecture to Yearly Meeting with the title 'Costing not Less than Everything - Sustainability and Spirituality in challenging times'.

Over three Thursday evenings recently, Friends from Sheffield have been watching a DVD of Pam's lecture, and discussing the themes it raises, so that we can find ways of continuing to deepen our Meeting's commitment to becoming a sustainable community.

In the lecture, and the book that expands on it, Pam Lunn explores images of the Earth as our 'one home', and of humanity and ultimately all life as 'one family'. The lecture looks at different forms of community life, and what they can teach us about building communities that are resilient in the face of hardship. Pam also asks us to consider how we can begin to prepare ourselves for a future of growing financial, energy, and resource crises, as the effects of climate change and energy shortages have an increasing impact on all of us.

In our discussions after the film screenings, there was a sense of possibility about engaging the whole Quaker Meeting and the wider community in practical ways to deepen our relationships and extend our practical skills. A further meeting is planned for Monday 19th November, to develop some of these ideas into practical proposals for the Meeting as a whole, and all are warmly invited to take part in this discussion.

The decision of Yearly Meeting at Canterbury, which is now known in Quaker jargon as 'the Canterbury commitment' (or even more obscurely 'Minute 36') could mark a turning point for British Quakers, with a potentially far-reaching influence on our wider society. The model of a 'low-carbon community' is not something new, it is being used by many neighbourhood groups to support each other in making sustained and progressive reductions in their energy usage and carbon emissions. The idea is to work together to keep making year-on-year progress towards a level of carbon emissions that is potentially sustainable for everyone on Earth. Although many small groups have been using this approach for several years, so far as I know Britain Yearly Meeting in 2011 was the first time anywhere in the world that a whole religious society has made a collective commitment to become a national 'low-carbon community'.

That decision was based on the discernment of Friends from all over the country (every British Friend being entitled to take part) in the Quaker manner of vote-less decision-making. It is not a 'top-down' or centrally-imposed agenda, and the decision will not be translated into action without the willing, creative participation of local Meetings throughout the country. Nevertheless, many Friends (and many Meetings) have significant reservations about the idea of a collective commitment to 'sustainability', a word which is well on the way to becoming a meaningless jargon term with little spiritual or imaginative resonance.

For me, the 'Canterbury Commitment' is a challenge to Friends to move together towards living in a right relationship with the Earth our home, and the family of living beings. Perhaps this is the challenge of our times for the generation who are alive now, in an era of continuing ecological crisis.

As Friends we are proud of the collective action we have sometimes undertaken in the past, most famously our contribution to the abolition of slavery. Friends such as John Woolman laboured for decades with their fellow Quakers, many of them slave-holders, to develop a shared sense of concern for establishing a right relationship with the African Americans who had been sold or born into slavery. Once the Religious Society of Friends was finally rid of the corrupting influence of slave-holding within its own community, it was freed to become a powerful influence for the abolition of slavery throughout the world.

Yearly Meeting in 2011 challenged our generation to a similar deep examination of our relationship to the 'community of all beings', at a time of existential crisis for our industrial civilization and our own, and very many other, species. If Quakers can find ways of living together that move us away from destructive exploitation of natural systems, and towards a right relationship with the Earth our home, perhaps we will also become a 'leaven' that can eventually influence nations and governments.

If Friends at Canterbury discerned rightly, and this is genuinely a calling that is laid on us as Quakers in this generation, then we have a privileged opportunity to respond, not out of a sense of guilt or duty, but joyfully with the guidance and power of the Spirit that is leading us.

Both the book and DVD of Pam Lunn's Swarthmore Lecture are available to borrow from the Sheffield Central Meeting House Library. Pam also writes a regular blog here.