It was a busy and enjoyable week, spent amongst 2,000 Quakers, mostly British, in Bath in the southwest of England. It was an all-age gathering with babies present and at least two Friends over 90 years old. And there were more than 80 Quakers from other Yearly Meetings, including half-a-dozen from Germany.
I sneaked into the overseas visitors’ tea on Sunday. Although I am still a member of Banbury & Evesham Area Meeting and hadn’t received an official invitation, I justified this on the grounds that: 1. my wife had been invited; 2. I am living overseas; 3. until I moved to Brussels, I was serving as a representative of Britain Yearly Meeting to the Friends World Committee for Consultation. Fortunately few of the other 2,000 Quakers had the same idea and the Friend at the entrance to the tent did not ask me whether I had an invitation. So I was able to enjoy conversations with a number of guests from other yearly meetings. Since I was travelling to and from Bath on Eurostar, I described myself as an “underseas” visitor.
Now, on my way back to Brussels, travelling at high speed towards Lille, I shall take a little time to reflect on my experience of Yearly Meeting Gathering in Bath. The positives far outweigh the negatives:
Meeting up with friends. It was great to meet up with so many old friends. On Sunday morning I joined in some circle dancing after breakfast. It was a large circle, but opposite me I recognised B, a fellow Sidcot old scholar. We last met some time in the eighties, so I wasn’t entirely certain that she was who I thought she was, until I was able to peek at her name-label. When I told her of my marriage, she congratulated me warmly and was keen to be introduced to Sasha. It was good also to meet friends whom I originally got to know when I lived at Woodbrooke in 1978/79, through my involvement in workcamps, through my peace campaigning work, through my active membership of Hampshire & the Islands Area Meeting (2001-2005) and Banbury & Evesham Area Meeting (from 2005), and through serving on various Yearly Meeting committees (Peace Campaigning and Networking group, Quaker Committee for Christian and Interfaith Relations, and Quaker World Relations Committee).
Two addresses to the whole Gathering have stayed in my mind: Ben Pink Dandelion’s Swarthmore Lecture, “Open for Transformation: Being Quaker”; and Jan Arriens’ introduction to the theme to be considered during Yearly Meetings over the next three years, Quaker witness in the world. Ben warned of the dangers of individualism and secularism. We are called to live out our Quaker witness not only as individuals, but as a faith community. Indeed, our witness may only be effective, if we act together as a community. We must also beware of losing the spirituality which is the foundation of our lives and witness. Ben said that Quakerism is a Do-It-Together religion. Jan Arriens reaffirmed the mysticism which is at the heart of our Quaker faith. There is a divine spark within each of us and we can each have direct contact with the divine, the promptings of love and truth in our hearts. When we rely on the Spirit for guidance and strength, we are likely to find ourselves engaging in effective witness to truth, equality, peace, simplicity, and community.
I attended two “journey” sessions on Palestine/Israel. One of these took the form of interviews with four former Ecumenical Accompaniers, who had each spent three months in Palestine as part of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). There was a strong feeling that the Yearly Meeting should put out a statement in response to the Israeli attack on Gaza. A small group of Friends drafted a carefully crafted statement, which not only called on the UK government to recognise Palestine as a nation state and condemned the use of violence by both sides in the conflict, but also reiterated our firm opposition to anti-semitism as well as islamophobia. Whilst opposing the aggression of the Israeli armed forces and the occupation of the Palestinian territories, we stand together in solidarity with Jews who are increasingly being subjected to attacks just because they are Jewish. The statement was published before the end of the Gathering and can be found on the website of Britain Yearly Meeting (Quakers in Britain).
I was pleased to be able to support Sasha (Representative of the Quaker Council for European Affairs – QCEA), Andrew Lane (Deputy Representative), and Sally Sadler (a member of the Bureau of QCEA) at special interest group sessions and in two “journey” sessions. A significant number of Friends attended at least one of these sessions and we look forward to enjoying their support.
I found programmed worship organised by the Friends World Committee for Consultation most inspiring. There was spoken prayer and a sermon with a message of hope in a time of crisis. Without the hope which derives from our faith in God, we cannot be patterns and examples bringing love and peace into a fearful and war-torn world.
I twice joined some other “owls” for some late-night singing of simple songs, mostly rounds. That was great fun and perhaps a foretaste of the community choir which I hope to join in September.
There were very few negative aspects of the Yearly Meeting Gathering, so far as I’m concerned, the chief one being that my wife had to return to Brussels half way through the week! The accommodation at the university was lacking in some respects (no cutlery, crockery, or kitchen utensils in the kitchen, so lunch preparation was a little difficult), but the cost of the accommodation for a whole week was very reasonable.
I wished I could take all my friends back with me to Brussels. I shall have to be content with the prospect of meeting up with them again at Yearly Meeting at the beginning of May next year – God willing.