Thursday, 29 July 2010

Meeting in August - and afterwards

posted by kathy

For many years, Beeston Quakers haven't met together in August. This started because it was hard to organise when many members had young families and it gave the small core of Beeston Quakers, who took responsibility for the Meeting week after week, a chance to enjoy other weekend activities and to attend other Meetings.

The people involved with any Meeting change over the years and so do their needs and commitments. This August we're experimenting. There will be a Sunday Meeting for Worship on the first three Sundays in August (the 1st, 8th and 15th) at 10.30 a.m. (but not on the last two Sundays). Visitors are, as always, welcome.

Meanwhile there's a danger that the Day Centre (properly the Middle Street Resource Centre) where we meet will be closed in the current round of County Council cuts. This won't be a disaster for Beeston Quakers who can move to another building or attend other Meetings. However it presents a serious problem for the people who use the Centre in the week - and they're busy campaigning against it.

The Middle Street Resource Centre is used by people with mental health difficulties - and, judging from what we see at Meeting on Sundays, it's well used. In the time we've been meeting there - 18 years, I think - we've seen the centre grow from a functional institution to a place that is loved and cared for by its users. We've seen and enjoyed the wonderful gardens that have been planted. We've read the notices on the walls and seen the signs of a supportive social life in which the people who come to the centre help and teach one another. We've seen that people do art and creative writing, go on outings together, learn a huge range of subjects. It's a place which people value - and where they feel valued. The centre is a living witness to what we as Quakers recognise as "that of God in every one" - though the users of the centre would probably have different language to describe it. The centre as it is now doesn't feel like a place of difficulty and illness but a place of healing and health.

Visiting the centre on Sundays, we've read the notices and information about mental health on the walls and tables and have become much better informed. Some of us have talked about our own experiences. 1 in 4 of the population have mental health difficulties at some point in their lives - the centre helps people with the kind of problems that everyone encounters in themselves, their families or friends. I've never seen a centre set up to help people that so evidently does a good job.

The county council is proposing to give centre users an individual account so that they can still get help. But this would deprive the users of the support they have now and the network of friendships they have built up. The centre is a sociable place. It feels loved.

The users are campaigning to keep the centre which means so much to them - and to which they have given such care. Readers of this blog may wish to sign their petition. There's a copy in the Oxfam shop on Beeston High Road and you can also sign it on-line, HERE.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Ethical Dilemmas in the Shops

posted by Rhiannon

This theme may be old to many f/Friends, but I am feeling it afresh, spurred on in part by a green issues home group in Leeds and in part by reading about Cat Chapin-Bishop's plastic fast. In seeking to be ethical consumers, how do we make choices?

Here are three considerations - not the whole picture, but enough to get us started.

On the one hand, I believe in social justice, and that movements such as Fairtrade are worth supporting.

On the other hand, I see good reasons to think that we need to reduce our use of fossil fuels, and hence of fossil fuel powered transport, plastic, and other related products.

And in a third corner, sitting behind me because I am reluctant to admit to it, I have a need to look after myself to a certain extent: to feed myself healthy food at a reasonable price, to travel sometimes, to use products which come in plastic packets.

Now let me tell about my local supermarket. It's the cheapest place with the widest selection within a walking distance which is reasonable at my present level of health. They sell, for example, two kinds of bananas: fairly traded bananas in plastic bags, and ordinary bananas which are loose. (Should I be sad or thankful that they don't complicate this further by selling organic bananas?)

Sometimes I want to buy bananas - I like them and they're good for me. I want to buy fairly traded bananas because, well, I want to be fair. However, I don't want to buy a plastic bag. Which kind do I buy?

For bananas, I have developed an arbitrary mechanism. I like my bananas greener than most people do, and it takes me a week to eat a bunch, so I buy the greenest ones. This seems to produce about the same result as if I flipped a coin to choose between the two kinds.

Needless to say, I find this solution intellectually unsatisfying and non-transferable, although it satisfies the hunger better than not buying bananas at all. Almost every food comes with a similar dilemma: all fresh fruit and veg in the shop is a plastic/fair trade/organic/food miles toss up (I'd grow it, but I rent a house which only has a tiny concrete garden). The frozen veg is in plastic, and though it might be brought by boat rather than plane, freezing requires fuel. Putting things in tins takes energy, too. Pasta, rice, many potatoes, and bread all come in plastic, and who knows how far? I'm vegetarian, but milk and cheese come in plastic, possibly a long way; even if I went vegan, the rice milk or soy milk (which might be GM...) would come in a Tetrapak - as does my fruit juice now. I can drink water but I can't swallow tablets with it, and when you take them every day, you get through juice. In any case, water's good but it's hardly full of vitamins and doesn't count as one of your five a day.

Sometimes this makes me want to throw up my hands in horror and give up eating entirely. Other times, it makes me want to move to a smallholding in Wales and try desperately to grow everything for myself. Mostly, I just sigh and feel a bit guilty while I eat my banana - whichever kind it is.

Which bananas would you buy? Why? What buying choices do you struggle with?

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Britain Yearly Meeting 2010: a personal report

posted by Rhiannon

Firstly, I'd like to welcome any visitors who are here because I mentioned this blog in a Yearly Meeting session.

Secondly, I'd like to apologise to Beeston Meeting for writing so little for you in recent months; actually, I have been writing, reams and reams, but it's almost all been essays and papers and my dissertation. I'm enjoying my course, though, and being in Leeds, and Carlton Hill Meeting.

On to today's real topic: Britain Yearly Meeting 2010. This write-up will be rather impressionistic and very personal, and should not be taken as more than that.

I arrived on Friday evening, met my family at Kings Cross, and was instantly swept into Friends House Restaurant and the gathering throng. One of the chief pleasures of Yearly Meeting is seeing again old friends (later in the weekend, I met a woman whom I once knew well, but hadn't seen for at least ten years. Apparently I haven't changed much!), but another of the pleasures is getting to know new people - sometimes old hands whom one hasn't happened to speak to previously, but also those attending for the first time.

The most important business grouped around three topics: our engagement with the political process, our ministries of giving, and the question of allowing journalists to enter Yearly Meeting sessions.

My main reaction to the first two of these was tears. It's good to hear about other Quakers who are engaging in political work internationally, nationally, and at their local level; but my personal engagement with the political process is at the moment extremely frustrating. I don't think this is the forum in which to go into details, but I will just say that I tend to feel misunderstood, alienated, and lacking in power. I'm glad that not all Friends feel this way.

There are, of course, many kinds of giving: those chiefly under consideration are the gifts we make to the Yearly Meeting, which mostly consist of either service or money. I give some service to my Local Meeting, but none nationally unless we count presence at Yearly Meeting itself; as a student, what money I have has been given by someone else and is firmly marked for a specific purpose, so what I can give on a weekly or monthly basis is peanuts (sometimes literally).

The power of the business method was very clear to me in these sessions. To be open in that way, in that great silence, for nearly seven hours a day, is to make oneself very vulnerable. Nowhere is that clearer than when one is called to speak. I spoke twice to the issue about journalism, and one in non-business worship on Monday afternoon.

On Saturday afternoon, we failed to reach clarity about allowing journalists into Yearly Meeting; I felt that the contributions were, taken as a group, confused and fearful - sometimes for good reason, sometimes not - and this showed again on Monday morning. It becomes clear that when many Friends imagine 'a journalist' they are thinking of a man from a daily newspaper, someone who writes, and whose interests are more secular than spiritual. They aren't thinking of the citizen journalist whom the internet has created - they aren't thinking of me - and they aren't thinking of the religion and ethics correspondents who may be Quakers already. They're thinking of people who probably wouldn't want to come anyway: no sensible fashion correspondent is going to sit through a three-hour silent session in order to be able to report that Quakers frequently wear socks with their sandals, and if they did want to report that, they could stand on the Euston Road and find out the same thing in ten minutes.

This was the point to which I was speaking when I mentioned this blog. Some suggestions had implied that journalists were a distinct breed and could be set apart or asked to introduce themselves: what about me? I asked. Do I count as a journalist, since it's been requested that I write a blog post, which will be published for the whole world to see?

In the end - and I think this was the right choice - we have written a minute which sets out that in principle journalists could be allowed to sit in on some sessions of Britain Yearly Meeting, and asked our Clerks, Agenda Committee, and others to consider how best this could be handled. I hope that we will uphold those doing this service as they seek to discern the best advice to give to Friends on maintaining our discipline while meeting non-Quaker journalists and being themselves citizen journalists, the best briefings to give to any professional journalists who do wish to attend, and which sessions will need privacy or be most interesting for a visitor.

I'm tired now - long days, long commutes, and the trembling that goes with ministry will do that - but happy, and feeling empowered and energised to go forward in my own little tiny involvements in local and national politics, interfaith and ecumenical work, and giving what I can when I can. My thanks to everyone who made Yearly Meeting (and my attendance) possible.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Votes and testimonies

posted by kathy

Sometimes life gets in the way of things we plan to do. I've been busy with work and Rhiannon with her studies. There were things to say, but we didn't say them on this blog. .

There were plenty of conversations in between, especially after Meeting. Lately we've been discussing the general election. We're not unanimous and many of us are undecided. One of today's attenders summed up the question as whether to vote strategically or vote your conscience. I suspect that's a dilemma many voters face.

There's no one party particularly favoured by Quakers. I've known Quakers in all three mainstream English parties as well as a number of fringe parties. Most aren't members of political parties at all but they usually vote, take a strong interest in politics and may support causes where they think they can make a difference.

Quakers don't have a creed or a body of shared beliefs. We do have what we call "testimonies," which are perhaps best explained as areas of concern. We consider these important when making choices and decisions in our own life. They are also important in our relationship as a body to public life and are therefore bound to influence the way we vote and talk to people in positions of power.

There are different interpretations and descriptions of the testimonies but most Quakers in Britain agree on four core testimonies: truth, equality, simplicity and peace. We agreed today to ask the six candidates for Broxtowe to say where they stand on these testimonies and to post their responses as comments to this blog. Tony, a member of our Meeting, has agreed to draw the attention of all the candidates to this blog.

Because the testimonies are broad, it seems sensible to explain how they have currently been interpreted and prompted action among friends.

People are most likely to encounter the Quaker truth testimony in court. Quakers don't swear oaths - they hold that they are required to speak truth all the time and oath-taking implies more than one standard of truth. In the last twenty years, Quakers have been concerned with the question of integrity in public life, including the pressure on public servants to be dishonest in various ways. Last year, when British Quakers finally decided, after 22 years of consideration, to hold same-sex marriages in Meetings just as we hold opposite-sex weddings, the truth testimony was at least as important as the testimony to equality. Those present - about 1700 Quakers - were reminded of George Fox's words on marriage: "This is the Lord's work and we are but witnesses." We saw that our duty was to witness to what we already saw as marriages.

The Quaker testimony on equality is rooted in the belief that there is that of God in everyone. Sometimes this is described as "the Light within." Quakers are as fallible in acting on this testimony as on any other. However the idea that we should see value in all humans has led us to oppose discrimination and cruelty prompted by such differences as race, gender, sexuality and disability. It has also led us to care for justice between individuals, groups and nations. Quakers are involved with prisoners and asylum seekers and have recently been involved in the Circles of Trust scheme, working with dangerous offenders after their release from prison. You may find it helpful to know that many Quakers refuse to use titles and address all people directly by their names.

The Quaker testimony on simplicity seems particularly apt in a time when there are concerns about the depletion of natural resources and damage to the environment. Historically it has also been linked to the testimony to equality with past Quakers, including William Penn and John Woolman, urging Quakers to avoid the acquisition of wealth for its own sake or for the sake of ostentatious display, especially in the face of poverty. Many Quakers are very concerned for the environment and sometimes care for the environment is listed as a separate testimony.

The Quakers' peace testimony is probably the best known. Almost all Quakers are pacifists. This isn't just a matter of refusing to support or fight in wars. Quakers look for what they term the "seeds of war" in their own lives, in society, in political structures and public actions. Quakers are involved in opposing war through a range of activities and organisations. These include work against military recruitment in schools, opposing the recruitment of child soldiers in Britain and overseas; campaigning against nuclear weapons and the arms trade and also working in schemes which offer training in conflict resolution to children and adults.

It's not possible to offer a summary of all Quaker concerns but I hope this post helps readers to consider some of their own priorities. I also that all the candidates will reply and explain where they stand in relation to the broad points raised by the testimonies. This will help Beeston Quakers and other readers of this blog to decide how best to cast their votes.

I am posting responses as comments, as they arrive. Click on "comments" below to read them.