Yearly Meeting Gathering

Renoir Two women and a girl in a landscapeMore on Membership.

It is different for each of us, but our insights are collective: ours is a Do It Together not DIY society. Our discipline is difficult, for we must give over our own wills. We move away from a rigid demarcation of members from attenders. Most meetings use attenders to do particular jobs. Some attenders do not apply for membership out of a feeling of unworthiness, but none of us is Worthy in that sense (or all of us)- we keep learning. Some reject membership fearing the burden of the tasks of the meeting, and all those committees. We reject outward sacraments, considering the underlying spiritual reality, but we still have this process. And some, contrary to expectation, find joining transformative. Someone suggested a re-commitment act for members.

Though we are collective, we give space in which each person can work out her/his spiritual journey. We come together and maintain our cohesiveness not through all using the same words, but through mutual respect and care, which is more difficult. We share structures which permit our experiences to happen. We need something which can unite us: perhaps it is the power of God.

We issued a Statement on Gaza urging diplomatic recognition of Palestine. The clerks said that it was particularly carefully drafted, but some speakers from the floor quibbled, wanting more emphasis on Hamas rockets. They delayed our statement by only a few days.

I went to the “Jane Austen Dances”, which were on at lunchtime daily, once. I had not heard dances Jane might have done in Bath around 1805 called that before. It was crowded and enthusiastic and bodged, error-prone. On the Friday evening some people did a demonstration on the stage, but I did not find the chance to perform worth the effort of practising.

I found Ben Pink Dandelion giving the Swarthmore Lecture charismatic. He was eye-catching and charming. He waved a page of A4 saying it was his entire notes. After, a woman told me he was irked sometimes by female admirers sitting at his feet and looking reverent. In his question and answer session, I found his jokes not brilliant, and most of the laughter sounded feminine. But someone else said he is gay.

Thursday morning I was exhausted, and weepy, in misery around not being able to stay on the sick indefinitely, but not getting work either. I sat in the sun in the camp site with a novel, then wandered in to talk to an Overseer. Being heard, I could talk myself into calm. I had met the man at the clerks’ course, but did not recognise him because he had shaved off his moustache. Then I sat in the gathering tent chatting and joking.

Mark Smulian, an Israeli who had been part of a band with Palestinians talked, and led us in a workshop clapping rhythms and taking turns to improvise across the rhythm. Aged 18, he volunteered to be a paratrooper, and had to police a curfew. On patrol, he saw an “Arab” out, so gave chase, and when he caught her found she was 15, so let her go: his human reaction went against his training, law and duty. Thank God.

A filmed experience of YMG:

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:

The words we use

Renoir, la marchande d'orangesIf I use words, I cannot avoid inaccuracy, interpretation and ideas. Sometimes when communicating, only silence will do. However, since communicating in silence remains a rare, intense experience for me, usually I have nothing better than words.

Words trap us in ideas. A clear idea is a vehicle for understanding, and a barrier to greater understanding: the idea that planetary orbit must be perfect, and therefore had to be circular, inhibited observers from discerning the true orbit. I seek to crack open ideas with paradox:

Both are true:

God is

God is not

This sometimes works, sometimes does not.

We know our experiences. We theorise explanations of them. My heart beat fast. I could not stay sitting. I had to speak. This I know, and others hear and instantly recognise their own experience. The theories are that God did it, or unconscious processes did it. If I demand that others accept a particular theory, I create a barrier between people who share experiences. Theist and non-theist share the idea that what is said may be good or bad- from God or from evil spirits, or from communal co-operative or selfish unconscious impulses.

Quakers say “Christianity is not a notion, but a way”. We use “notion” as a jargon term like Marx’s original idea of “ideology”- a false understanding. So my religion is one of practice and attitude, not belief or dogma. I have the experience of Unity in a business meeting, I do not need a theory of what causes it.

Rhiannon Grant led a workshop at yearly meeting on our words. She has done a thesis on the words we use. She invited us to put them in categories: words we never/sometimes/always use. “God” was in all three. I could say “Highest Good/ Truth/ Reality” as a synonym. Some of us are happy saying “Jesus of Nazareth” but not “Christ”. Sometimes it seemed that our most precise words were used less. I was pleased there to see again a man who, in this highly intelligent gathering, is particularly clear and sharp. He is enjoying being a Woodbrooke trustee.

Often we say what we are not. “Quakers do not have a creed”- yet we have accumulated a number of verbal formulations which we assent to, the first being “There is that of God in every one”, ripped out of George Fox’s original context and made gender neutral. We don’t have a lot of those, though, and most are images, leading people on rather than leaving them in a definite (so probably erroneous) idea.

“Inner Light” is a good word for what leads us. We know what we mean. Outsiders might not. So in discussions we seek to use words people will hear and resonate with, treading carefully and checking their responses. Though if someone merely wishes to deride my idiocy, I can be more knockabout.

One woman found she was using verbs rather than nouns: “Encounter” rather than “God”. Again, this brings us back to the experience rather than the theory.

Let there be no barriers between us!
As my words move in your mind
We become one flesh, like lovers
though we only pass in the street

Membership

La sortie du Conservatoire, Renoir, in partAt YM, we discussed the meaning of membership. I want to belong. When I joined Quakers, as I moved towards Transition I felt isolated and vulnerable. I was a stranger, and you took me in.

However we are counter-suggestible, often, and not all feel like that. One woman said she had been an attender for thirty years before joining, and each suggestion that she join put her off for longer. Sometimes, Friends wish such an attender to be an elder or a clerk. Thoughts, and thought-experiments:

In Tripoli five ex-pat Quakers have a meeting in each others’ houses. They all retain membership of British area meetings. Someone joins them, and wants to become a Quaker. For this person, a Membership procedure has great importance. They could, together, discern that this new person is one of them, a Quaker entire, but they have no power to call him a member of our Society.

I could say the first attender should grit her teeth and allow the formal procedures to recognise the reality of her membership, her being a Quaker, however unhappy she feels about joining; or the second should be satisfied with the welcome and inclusion he gets from the other ex-pats. Or, I could say that Friends should accept fuzziness around membership, that the first is obviously a Quaker and can be given the jobs, but the second needs a formal membership procedure and British Quakers should give him one.

We are members of area meetings originally because we operated a parallel poor law, and needed a group which would be responsible for our poor; but we don’t, now, and the difficulties of having a National membership should not be insuperable. A small committee could be appointed, or an existing committee could deal with it. We have lots of committees. Generally, we are members of particular area meetings now because we are members of communities of people, Friends in practice as well as theory, but not all of us need be.

Sometimes things are important to people, and the rest of us should look after them. I met a woman who loathed the very word “God” because for her it was irredeemably masculine, a Father which excluded her, and no matter how reasonable I am, saying God is agendered, and being careful with the pronouns and language I use, when she hears the word “God” she gets upset.

My role, here, in these disputes, is to be a peacemaker, a role most Quakers like. “Can you give what they want? It should not be too hard. It is not a great denial of Principle,” I say, winsomely, to both sides. This is more Quaker than “plain speech” is, so there.

Membership, the word “God”, the ability to reject formal membership procedures, all have value, but each individual human being has greater value.

To provoke thought, I suggested a “proposal of membership”. Elders could identify an appropriate attender, and bring the matter for the discernment of Area Meeting, then tell the attender that we will recognise her/him as a Quaker, a member, if s/he only agree to it. Some people are frightened of the membership procedure, imagining they might not get through. Some don’t.

Conversations

Renoir, Moulin de la Galette rightWe are serious people doing serious things, but it was a lot like a party for two thousand people going on for a week. S complained about looking like a little old lady, and was not reassured when I said she was a lot more impressive after one had talked to her for five minutes. Her hippy coloured trousers did not help: the eye passing over a “little old lady” does not notice them.

In the bar I would see couples chatting away, recognise the style of name badge, and ask if I could join them. I was not rebuffed. I talked to a big burly man with a thick, wild beard about the Salter Lecture, the “Socialist rant” as he called it. I was disappointed last year in the talk on co-operatives. It was on tax justice this year. He says law must follow opinion: tax avoidance must be seen to be Wrong before we can make it unlawful. I disagreed: the discrimination law was ahead of public opinion.

The Quaker Lesbian and Gay Fellowship would not change its name to a longer acronym, but a bisexual man said he was not recognised. So they have the slogan “Accepting all sexualities”. A woman challenged me on this- what about paedophilia? Well, Adam is a sympathetic paedophile. The act is abominable, the person tempted to it is not. I have experience of the Normal People pointing at the Weirdos Over There- me; and being unable to do anything but transition despite its weirdness and difficulty; so have sympathy. Bestiality- can the animal consent? I have read those who do it say the animal does, and bestiality is also compulsive. Necrophilia? Er-Renoir, Moulin de la Galette centre

She also said that if trans women really were “the shock troops of patriarchy” we could find a better way of going about it.

A woman told me about the historical Jesus- definitely Not God, definitely Jewish. She had been reading Geza Vermes. Oh, OK.

Two women talked of “our children”. Hmm. Are they a couple? It feels like they are, though the phrase does not make it certain, and I feel unable to ask: being lesbian is entirely normal, one doesn’t make a thing of it.

The last time I met Sue, I felt excluded. She did not want me there, and I thought- “But I’m not the Bad Person”. On the last evening I joined her and her husband, and we talked of how their children were getting on, and R’s children, and Cardiff meeting, which is growing, with more younger people. She was at the meeting with H and felt there was movement towards reconciliation. I have now facebook friended her. It was a gentle conversation. We hugged. I would not want to discuss previous issues, though perhaps “worship sharing” would be possible- saying how we felt and what we thought had happened, without discussion or dispute. Here at least we can take pleasure in each others’ gifts and happiness.

I noticed that what I remember of these conversations is what I say. This is not necessarily a bad thing, for it can help me get things clear in my mind to articulate them, and I respond to the other speaking at the time. However I thought it would behove me to listen a bit more, and try to remember.

Wells Cathedral

Nave

The ceiling of the nave shows the Tree of Life design. You can see right through, past the altar now generally used- the priest stands behind the table, in full view of the congregation, as is fashionable, rather than far away, celebrating a secret mystery. Those arches, looking so modern, are internal buttresses put up when the tower began to lean.

nave 2

This shows Christ, and the ubiquitous fan vaulting.

I particularly like the heads, carved everywhere on the walls.

head 1

head 2

head 3

This is my favourite. He owns everything he beholds. It is new to him, and he is excited.

Tombs, now:

tomb 1

He has his feet on a snow-leopard, and an angel whispers in his right ear.

tomb 2

The Bishop had this carved before he died, and saw every time he came here what he would end up looking like.

tomb 3

Not a problem for the Jacobean.

organ

altar frontal

Chester certainly has the advantage of Wells on modern art. Their millennium addition was this set of altar frontals.

clock

clock 3

clock 2

But who needs modern art, when you have possibly the oldest clock in the world still telling the time with its original movement? The guide did not say that movement is now in the Science Museum in London, so I thought it was here. Wikipedia says I was completely under the wrong impression: that jouster has been knocked off his horse since the 14th century, said the guide. Hm.

capital

colour

The whole, including the West front, would originally have been brightly painted. Edward VI ordered all churches be whitewashed inside, and this is all the colour that survives. However I was surprised that the statues outside remain intact.

font

So now I don’t know whether to believe that guide, that the font is Saxon, and its wooden cover Jacobean.

fan vaulting

icon

window

“What moved you most?” asked Susan. I was intrigued, or fascinated; I was impressed; but what moved me most was the birds flocking on that stone cliff, and descending as one before rising again in a circular motion, back to their roosts.

West wall

Atheist Quakers II

Hor-Asha-Khet, Ptolemaic periodMark, camping in a field of forty tents and ten caravans of Quakers, was distressed by the Swarthmore Lecture. He is atheist, married with two sons aged around ten, has been interested in Quakers for two years but committed for six months. He is spiritual but not religious, and wanted his sons to have the community we offer. He tried the “Sunday Assembly“, but was disillusioned, as it appeared to be a huge marketing campaign with lots of people having different expectations of it- a bit like some churches.

He felt comfortable with Quakers, but in the lecture Ben Pink Dandelion said we should get back to our core beliefs. Quakers tend to be “fuzzy”, said Ben, a former Anarchist- all the anarchists could agree on was changing their names to something silly. Our Book of Discipline, Quaker Faith and Practice, is clear about who we are and what we do, but if you ask a Quaker about Quakers s/he will start “well, for me…” Mark saw this as an attack on him. His atheism is our fuzziness, and if we got back to our clarity we would exclude him.

I can state what we do in materialist terms. We set aside our egos and seek the highest Good, which (most of us) call God’s Will. We speak as moved- by “The Spirit” or by unconscious brain processes. We seek Unity and Discernment, not necessarily theist concepts. I told Mark that if he valued what we do, I wanted him in Quakers. I had thought the “fuzziness” Ben attacked was me- call myself a Quaker, but make no great advance on our Testimony, which in former ages set how we lived our lives. I loved Mark’s enthusiasm, and impressed him: he thought me thirty.

There were some polemic views. Sarah wanted Quakers to leave Churches Together, and said in the seminar on the language she used that she had used religious language when she was a child, but had matured now. She is only trying to get at her wife, a theologian, and just because you have matured out Column capital of the God Bes, Ptolemaic periodof particular language does not mean that anyone who uses it is childish. The Non-Theist network and the Committee on Christian and Interfaith Relations worked together. A man told me that though we could divide ourselves by the words we used, our differing experiences cut across those divides.

Trying to do too much, I slept through Michael Wright’s talk on “Atheist prayer”, but picked up some things. He is a former Anglican priest who had what he thought was an experience of God, and never had another though he craved it. He felt bereaved of God, but still heeded the intellectual and spiritual challenge of love, and just, compassionate living. Our responsibility is to ourselves, not God. Our promptings of love and truth come from within ourselves, not beyond. He used the Anglican mnemonic ACTS- Adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, supplication but changed it, so S was self-examination; but Thankfulness is a useful practice, whatever one believes. He recommended Gretta Vosper and the Progressive Christianity Network.

Camping

Durer, Salvator MundiThis morning at 6am, I stood in the field outside my tent with the sunlight through gaps in the trees, almost no wind, and a balloon from the nearby Ballooning Festival high above. I was blissful. I was In the Now. Om Shanti.

We had our camp social on Wednesday evening.
-Are you camping here?
-Yes, I said, pleased at the surprise. I decided to look as if I were not camping, in a dress and tailored jacket, silver high-heeled sandals and beautiful jewellery. The effect was lessened, later, when a man brought out his “rocket stove” and I put on my woolly hat. Sparks can ruin a wig. The rocket stove is a cylinder of insulation with a metal grate supporting the wood above the ground, and a chimney leading to the hob. The air flow makes kindling burn quickly, and all the heat goes to the pot, far more efficiently than open cooking fires.

Who wants to look as if they are camping, in jeans and shapeless hoodies? I was fed up with my alleged two person tent, which would only fit two people if they had no kit. Fed up with balancing on my shoulder-blades to pull up my jeans, I got a tent I could stand up in- the Vango Icarus 500, which sounds like a Harry Pooter broomstick. It’s last year’s model: this year’s has shorter sleeves for the bendy poles, and more hooks. Honestly. I mean to say. Tents are practical things for practical people, who go back to nature, and Vango attempt to make us buy the latest model. Fashion, in tents! What is the world coming to? Still, I got it with a reduction. Canny enough.

Durer, Virgin and child with St AnneThe chemical loos were disgusting. I heard one desperately pumped twelve times, and thought sententiously “What a waste of the chemical. You will fill the thing up.” Then a woman emerged, disgusted, mortified and distressed because her turd refused to fall from the flap. After a little thought I went to get a stick to push the matter off the trap-door. Several people are burning wood, it can’t be too difficult. However the man I asked wanted to know precisely why I wanted it, then explained that he was not the organiser, and introduced me to Rob, who co-ordinates Quaker camps. Rob had a stick, and the man started a verbose complaint, putting great eloquence into a trivial matter.

Our gas-powered shower, when it turned up, needed an electricity supply which we did not have. I showered in the sports centre. Bath university takes athletics seriously, and there are pictures of medal winners and Inspiring Quotes. I felt inferior and invisible among the beautiful people congregating by the door.

All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. TE Lawrence! Back to the Empire!