Saturday, 8 August 2009

Truth, Equality ... and Friendship

posted by kathy

I wasn't looking forward to Yearly Meeting Gathering. I considered ducking out of the sessions and spending my time as a tourist in York. Rhiannon persuaded me to attend, offering to turn up in Goth clothes at every session where I was present.

What's so scary about Yearly Meeting? Well, to begin with, it's the numbers. I learnt at the end that 1700 people had been present, and that's an awful lot of Quakers, especially when we rarely manage ten at Meeting for Worship. The thought of so many determinedly nice, good, sandal-wearing people was particularly alarming, even though I was wearing sandals myself. (I make no claims for niceness or goodness though of course they're a good idea.) I didn't even feel keen about reflecting on "committed relationships", one of themes for the week, since the main focus was partnerships and I'm not in one at present. And then I'd booked into a self-catering house which meant I'd be sharing kitchen and bathroom with people I didn't know - the spectre of loneliness loomed.

In the end, it wasn't at all as I'd feared. It was the best Yearly Meeting I've attended. And the self-catering aspect turned out very well since I was able to reflect on my own when I wished but also had plenty of opportunities for conversation and friendship. The discussions in the shared house were a valuable way to reflect on the subject of Yearly Meeting but also a chance to learn about other people, share jokes and explore ideas and opinions. There was even an occasion when, quite by chance, three of us pooled ingredients and shared what turned out to be an excellent meal (pasta with vegetables in tomato sauce topped by cheese followed by gooseberries with Greek yogourt).

I've learnt by now to pace myself at big Quaker events. Rhiannon may have been dancing with the larks before breakfast but I felt it was OK to miss one morning session entirely so that I could arrive in the afternoon with an unclouded mind.

Unclouded minds were important as were a willingness to listen, an openness to the words of others and being prepared to be led in unexpected directions. Consideration of committed relationships mostly centred around the question of what marriage is. The question wasn't just whether same-sex couples should hold Quaker weddings but how we recognized and defined marriage. But it was the question of same-sex marriages that was expected to lead to the most disquiet and uncertainty so we determined to listen to one another's experience and leadings.

This listening began with a talk from an older friend who discussed his own experience of marriage and the relationships and hopes of his four children. The next day, individuals and couples spoke of their relationships. The assembled Quakers became aware of the hurt that was caused to Quakers whose loving and committed partnerships were marriages in everything but name but not treated as such, even within the Religious Society of Friends. While we remained concerned for the very few within Britain Yearly Meeting who remained unhappy and doubtful, the sense of the Meeting was more overwhelming than anything I had experienced before. Minds were changed during the week. But openness and listening worked in more than one way - one young, gay man in favour of same-sex marriage wanted to seek out people who were opposed not in order to argue with them but simply to listen discerningly to their views.

At the beginning of the week there was no plan to make major changes - just to listen to one another and continue the usual lengthy Quaker process. But for once Quakers outran the original plans. In the Thursday afternoon session, one young Friend was called to speak. "You've been discussing this for twenty-two years," she said. "That's longer than I've been alive. Let's get on with it. It's not exactly a snap decision."

By the end of that session, the leading of the Meeting was plain, even to those who couldn't share the decision. We had explored the subject in big meetings (the main hall held 1200, I think) and in small response groups. We'd been asked to think about the history, language, theology, social aspects and law about marriage. We returned to the words of George Fox on the subject: "This is the Lord's work and we are but witnesses." The decision we made had as much to do with our testimony to Truth as our testimony to Equality: we saw that many same-sex relationships were marriages undertaken in a religious context and it we had no choice but to witness to what we understood.

The Minute
wasn't written till the following day - not perfect but, as we accepted "good enough." But from the moment we saw where we were going the mood was overwhelmingly joyous. I had a small video camera with me, and I think you can see some of that in the small clips below, despite the shaky camera work (I haven't yet got used to the technology).

This is my home group - a "walk and talk group" in a garden on Thursday, just after we realised that we'd reached the decision. The garden was open to the public in aid of the Salvation Army and, once we'd done a little walking, we sat down and were served tea.

This is the epilogue on Friday night. We left the ceilidh and other evening activities to stand round the lake singing while young Friends launched huge, fire-powered crepe balloons into the dark sky. Those who are concerned with such matters may be pleased to know that the event was checked for health, safety and environmental impact.

And here Gordon (from another Meeting) and Rhiannon (contributor to this blog) comment on the week and their experience of Britain Yearly Meeting Gathering 2009.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Lasting Effects of Yearly Meeting Gathering

by Rhiannon

I went to help on my parent's allotment tonight, and with just half an hour picking blackberries, my hands were painted purple. I still haven't managed to wash the last of it out from under my fingernails.

Yearly Meeting Gathering seems like blackberries - juicy and sweet fresh from the bush, and it leaves a mark on you that you carry forward into the rest of life. Perhaps minutes are good on muesli, too, or maybe I'm pushing this analogy too far.

I came back from YMG in York tired (a situation somewhat increased by having spent the week before volunteering at Oxford Mencap's holiday scheme - I had so much fun I wore myself out) but also bubbling over with excitement about the business method, which I'd never really seen in action on that scale before, and about the things which were said. In particular, I'm proud to be able to tell people about our new stance on same-sex marriages. I was led to read Minute 25 (see them all here [pdf file] or read it in the context of the press release here) as ministry in meeting on Sunday morning*, and I enthused wildly over tea-and-biscuits (in my case, a glass of water) about the whole experience.

I also have a few other come-back-from-YMG symptoms. For example, having been to lark's circle dancing nearly every morning for a week, I'm waking up expecting to go circle dancing, and am disappointed to remember that I can't. Luckily, I'm not still trying to work out what tickets I need for tomorrow every afternoon!

* Not in Beeston, which as far as I know isn't meeting in August, but in Watford, my pre-university meeting.