Clerks

champion peaceAfter giving feedback from the breakout session- you know the drill- I had my best compliment for some time. The woman said she heard her exact words, said forcefully to get the idea over, and it was as if I was acting her, saying them. This is what I desire, to hear what others say, rather than merely forming an impression. I said would you like a hug. Wonderful later to read Octavia Butler stating what I seek to avoid: she listened to what I told her and, I suppose, heard it according to her own experience. So often, people do, and the clerk must avoid that.

The weekend was magical because of H’s dinner party, but I went to London for the AM clerks’ conference. The thing which I will take away and consider encouraging is the Testimony, the biographies that we write about our deceased members: the “Testimony to the Grace of God in the life of”-

This can be difficult. Some AMs produce Testimonies for everyone, because they feel that our Testimony to Equality requires it. Others do it for no-one. One AM had lasting unhappiness because a Friend who had been particularly active and Spirit-led moved to be close to his children. So the people in his new AM had not known him, and did not write a Testimony.

Cut Poverty UpdatedOne AM has a Book of Remembrance: every person gets two or three paragraphs recorded about their life. Some get a longer Testimony. Some but not all of these are sent to Friends House, and included in the Epistles and Testimonies part of the papers for yearly meeting. Some people find these inspiring, I glance at them. Some are read to the Yearly Meeting in session.

The “lasting unhappiness” is the most memorable thing. One AM- other than South Wales, where I had heard something similar- had a person who had resigned and reapplied for membership, and the visitor opposed granting it and would not give way. That visitor “was, in his own perception, a weighty and seasoned Friend”. The dark irony of the phrase “in his own perception” brought a bitter laugh from me.

Because what we do is Divine, it is so difficult. If we are ever satisfied with the appearance of the Quaker way, or seek the appearance because we cannot find our way to the reality, it becomes hellish.

It was lovely to be with my kind of people. I had the impression that one woman I talked to was particularly wise, and perceptive. Such experiences are blessings to treasure.

Quaker business

File:Renoir - Bouquet in a Vase, 1878.jpgWhen the Yearly Meeting gathered to discern the leadings of God, those planning our business expected cautious support for equal marriage. Instead, with the fire of the speakers and the unity of those who did not speak, we demanded that we be able to celebrate gay marriages in the same way that we celebrate straight marriages, and so changed the legislation to permit that.

I wish I had been there.

Sarah commented acidly that when we decided to join Churches Together, “The clerk knew who to call first”. He deliberately called speakers opposed first, supportive after, so that it seemed that the mood of the hall was moving towards joining, according to her.

This year we had a fudge. Meeting for Sufferings recommended that we revise Quaker Faith and Practice. This came up in the evening session on Sunday, when I was elsewhere, and there was no unity for it. Why should we spend so much time and energy on a navel-gazing exercise? What we have is all we need. “Would you go back to the previous book, approved in 1959?” I asked. “Yes,” said Axel, definitely, surprising me. But there are holes in it. For example, the previous book had no out gay voices. The revision process will reveal what those holes are. This, Axel thought, was the best argument for revision he had heard.

File:Renoir-Chrysanthèmes-Rouen.jpgThe clerk being unable to discern unity, with no time on the Friday morning to come to unity, proposed the fudge. We would proceed with preparatory work towards a revision, without committing to do it. I wanted to revise. The procedure could take ten years, and in 2024 I want our book of discipline to have contributors who are still alive. I want it to state timeless truths in contemporary language: the 17th century quotes will still have value, but the 1980s quotes will need pruned. At the clerk’s proposal of a way forward, I had to let go of my desire. This was my most intense spiritual work of the Gathering.

Much of the rest of the business was formal. We have to agree certain nominations, but do not challenge them. The possibility of challenge may affect the process of those nominating. One committee drafted our Epistle from the Yearly meeting. I stood, then, to advocate restoration of a sentence which had been deleted. I was not called to speak, and probably the sentence was correctly deleted. We received reports, and there were other sessions for any questions.

On the Saturday evening, we sang, sometimes in Rounds:

Make new friends
But keep the old
One is silver
and the other gold

This manages to be both trite and tendentious, and drew the heckle “Rubbish! Appalling!” I wondered what the press bench thought. The words don’t matter- no group of Friends will agree on words- but togetherness from singing does.

On Membership, I considered ministering on the Friday morning on my own experience of joining: I was a stranger, and you took me in. Frightened and vulnerable, I needed a place to belong. Considering words I might use, it came to me that I have found it: I belong, Here. My ministry was for myself, not for the meeting, and I began to sob. The Friend next to me was concerned for me, and I reassured her quoting “Excess of joy weeps”. I stood to share something around Love in our membership procedures, but was not called, and another expressed it quite as well as I could.

Here is a video we saw together.

And one on our work together:

Faith in meeting

Vincent_van_Gogh_-_Avenue_bij_ArlesAt its best, the Quaker business method enables human beings to set aside our egos and desires for the good of all, and to choose that Good. Sometimes it is dialectic: from thesis and antithesis comes synthesis, something better, revealed in the Meeting. I feel this is so difficult that it needs religious belief: while Respect for Reality, and Trust, might get us there, Reverence for God, and Faith, help me to set aside my ego.

And I have repeatedly seen it go wrong, traumatising people. In one group we could feel community until we tried to accomplish tasks together. I came back from Thailand, where I had my vaginaplasty, and M emailed the group- “Ah, Clare. Welcome back- what’s left of you.” I have not forgiven him. I do not want to see him, and I wish him ill. And a group of people whom I had thought mostly decent cannot bear the presence of my friend, and exclude her despite the efforts of many “weighty” Quakers, over years, to reconcile them.

What am I to say of R leaving in September? He thought the Society he had sojourned with for decades was turning away from Christianity to such an extent that he no longer felt comfortable with us. Or, as it seemed to me, he did not trust (have faith in) our business method, so that he had to control our meetings. He misunderstood so much I call him delusional and when others blocked him, he walked out. The trouble is that I don’t have that faith either: rather than humans emptying ourselves of Self for the good of Community together, I see egos tiptoeing round each other to minimise confrontation.

But some decisions seem to evince a conservative clinging to the familiar.

Oh, faith. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen? Not for me, taking the step forward which must be taken now, though I have no certainty of the end I seek. Part of why I am unemployed is that I have little faith in myself or in my apparently atomised society.

Yet it can work. As the clerk, my role in recording the decision gives me power to influence it, and the duty to take that decision from the words of Friends present, with at least acquiescence. I thought I should not influence, just be a clear glass through which the decision of Friends is seen, then I realised how much I wanted particular decisions. I see the uncertainty and fear and Will to Good of my fallible Friends, and have faith that it will be alright- until it isn’t.

Be not too curious of Good and Evil;
Seek not to count the future waves of Time;
But be ye satisfied that you have light
Enough to take your step and find your foothold.

Charles Carter finds a strong, sure faith an overrated virtue. Given the complexities of life, it is a comfort blanket, not a valid protection in the time of trial.

Clerking matters

My first area meeting as clerk gives me a lot to consider about my second.

We received reports on the Visioning New Fire conference: here is its epistle, and the threshing group reports which I had not previously seen. However at the previous meeting, clerked by my predecessor, “The future of the Society” came up. I anticipated ending the meeting with ideas for further discernment, or questions, for a fuller discussion at the next meeting next month. Here are the questions, as I drafted them in my minute:

How may we renew and strengthen our spiritual fellowship?
How may we make our office bearers and actions fit the legal requirements, including of the Charities Commission?
Is there value in cooperating with other area meetings, for example in trusteeship of our meeting houses following the example of Six Weeks Meeting?
How could we organise our meetings as an Area Meeting to improve the spiritual side of the meeting?

No-one questioned this draft, but it could be that after 2½ hours they were nearly asleep.

The Presence in the MidstMy questions did not address Outreach. There is a lot of spiritual hunger, and a lot of people seeking to satisfy it- Buddhists, New-Agers, workshop-leaders of all kinds as well as us, but we Quakers feel we have a particularly good answer to it. There are many natural Quakers, we reassure ourselves. How may we let them know who we are, so that they might wish to join us?

I could also raise the efficient use of our members: we had some difficulty filling the role of assistant clerk, though it is not an onerous task. Could we streamline all the roles we give ourselves?

I said to myself, before the meeting, that I should not be attached to any particular outcome. The ideal of our meeting is that we discern together the leadings of the Spirit, or the highest Good for us now. For that, we need to put aside desire for any particular outcome. Sometimes a way emerges in the meeting, and “we unite behind it”- someone in the meeting proposes a new way of proceeding, and we all feel as if that is Right.

But in particular, I as clerk should not be attached, because it is my role to discern when we have reached unity, and to record in words our decision. I cannot do that if I want a particular outcome, even for entirely non-selfish reasons. I am plagued with thoughts of what could go wrong, and have to let those go, too,

hoping that if we do go wrong, eventually that will be obvious and unbearable, and we will improve.

Dispute- Leading- Yes

At its best, in the Quaker business method we thrash out our disagreement, and someone will be moved to propose a solution. Then the atmosphere changes, and we all unite behind that solution, in a joyous Yes. We do not shout yes- we might murmur, “hope so”, douce quiet Quakers that we are- but there is a sense in the air.

Unfortunately, things get in the way. One person may be overly attached to one particular solution: so we attempt to seek what is Good: “God’s will”, or the highest Good accessible from where we are now. We need to seek that good without attachment. We need to love and consider each person in the room. We need to allow each person to say what they feel moved to say, trusting that the process will lead us to the right decision through each of our presence, despite each of our failings; and we need to be content with unknowing, and defer a decision to another day if necessary.

I am aware of cases where we have got this spectacularly wrong, where a small clique has successfully controlled the decision making to create a decision they feel happy with, rather than the right decision. The root cause of two particular cases of this was one person being valued more highly than another. Equality is essential in a Quaker meeting: the only hierarchy is from respect, earned individually from each person, and a high baseline of respect given to everyone. And yet I know Quakerly decision making is possible, and I am committed to felicitating it.