Decentering ourselves: Reflections on Britain Yearly Meeting Gathering 2021

This year, Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM) met online from 19 July to 8 August, for what was an intense, humbling and in parts astonishing gathering. I like to offer a blog post reflecting on BYM, as it helps me process and remember the experience. I hope these reflections might be helpful for other Friends. I experienced BYM as a Woodbrooke staff member, as a trustee of the George Gorman Memorial Trust, and as a member of my Area Meeting. It’s impossible to cleanly say when I’m inhabiting each role, and I’ve long given up trying to, accepting that the lines between them will always be blurred. However, to be clear from the outset, these reflections are purely personal, and don’t necessarily reflect the opinions of any Quaker organisation I’m involved with voluntarily or professionally.

So much of my experience is reflected in the excellent epistle which you can read here. I encourage you to read it, and won’t repeat what is said there.

Writing this the day after BYM finished, my overwhelming feeling is relief that it’s over! Many factors combined to make BYM a draining experience. After each online session, I either felt completely empty or buzzing with energy. I’d find myself needing to go for a walk round the block just to shake off all the feelings brought up by the session, and emotionally exit the virtual space. The place I most wanted to be post-session was in the pub, having a laugh and catch up with Friends. (Should there be another online BYM, I’m putting in a request for a virtual bar!) As an extrovert, I often experienced the sessions as a one-way flow of energy, putting lots in but not getting much back. (I think this is one of the reasons I struggle with online worship.) I missed the energising nature of the in-between conversations. I was heavily involved in the BYM anti-racism programme, and anxieties about how Friends might receive this manifested as backpain. There was also the difficulty of mixing BYM with my home life, including helping with family birthday celebrations during the final week. By the final weekend of BYM, I was so tired I could only manage two of the five sessions. All of this said, I don’t want to ignore the benefits of a spread out, online BYM. As well as a number of Friends being enabled to attend BYM for the first time, I also felt part of a large learning community, struggling and discovering together, something that is difficult to achieve in a weekend.

Yet again, I was reminded that I’m part of a faith community that spans time and space, with all the various extracts from Epistles of other Yearly Meetings, and Testimonies to the Grace of God in the lives of departed Friends. I also valued the ministry we received early on in the gathering, that discernment isn’t about compromise, about amalgamating all words spoken into a representative minute. Discernment means to test the spirits, to distinguish what is and isn’t of God. Not everything is of God, even words spoken in worship. Where are the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) in our words? I was filled with gratitude for our Clerks, who were truly servants of the Yearly Meeting, crafting minutes under very challenging circumstances.

The threads of Yearly Meeting

Anti-racism

I found our session on anti-racism very difficult. I think our discernment confirmed to me that, as a Yearly Meeting, we are much further behind than we have dared to admit. It does seem like we’re starting from ‘ground zero’, as one Friend put it. There’s something shameful, and self-perpetuating about the overwhelming whiteness of Quakers in Britain. It is clear that Friends are still all at very different places on the journey to being anti-racist, and our commitment to being an anti-racist community has to be proved at a local level.

I appreciated the presence of Richard Reddie from Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, and Paul Goodliff from Churches Together in England. Having them witness our discernment made me reflect on the importance of ecumenism. We don’t have to be an antiracist community alone. In fact, doing it alone is impossible! Too often we think of Quakers as self-sufficient. How are local Quaker communities partnering with other faith groups in our attempts to be antiracist?

During the session, I was overcome by a sense of our smallness, our insignificance as Quakers in Britain. We are a tiny community. So often we talk about what Quakers have to offer the world, but what have we really got to offer in terms of anti-racism? We have an intense need, and we can bring this need into our worship, acknowledging our dependence on the Spirit, and not on our own resources.

Maybe this recognition of what we lack is itself progress. Maybe this is our ‘rock bottom’ as a community. Sadly, there are still white Friends who don’t think racism is a problem, and this may never change, but I hope that when we return to anti-racism as a Yearly Meeting we can truly see some kind of collective progress away from ground zero. We can’t keep starting at the beginning forever.

A key question I’m left to wrestle with is: how do white Quakers educate themselves in a way that listens respectfully to Friends/people of colour, without exploiting their emotional labour? Perhaps in trying to avoid the latter, we’ve not paid enough attention to the former. We haven’t got this right yet, and we need to do better.

Gender diversity

In the week leading up to the session on gender diversity, I became very nervous. I was anticipating a difficult, conflict filled and hurtful session. I focussed my efforts on praying for the spiritual protection of trans and non-binary Friends. In preparing myself for the worst, I was astonished at an overflowing Spirit of Love present amongst us. Some of the ministry made me cry out in joy (on Zoom I can shout ‘Amen!’ without disturbing other Friends). The Yearly Meeting took the important step of not only welcoming trans and non-binary Friends, but affirming them too. In ministry we heard that God is revealed to us in trans and non-binary people. It made me think of Margaret Fell’s words: who are we to dare stop Christ’s mouth by denying the ministry of truthfully lived lives?

Climate crisis

Because of how draining I found YMG, I only attended those sessions on anti-racism and gender diversity, but there’s one small comment I want to make about our discernment on climate justice. Is God’s creation is ongoing or does climate chaos mean it’s coming to an end. Bearing in mind that God’s creation includes distant galaxies, the end of God’s creation is not in sight yet. The extinction of humanity is a different question, but as humans aren’t the centre of the universe, our extinction doesn’t mark the end of God’s creation.

Removing ourselves from the centre

For me, this BYM has raised the question: who is at the centre? When we centre humanity, the non-human is marginalised. When the consumption and comfort of the wealthy is centred, then the world’s poor suffer on the periphery. When whiteness is centred, blackness becomes the ‘other’. When cisgender and gender conformity is centred, gender diversity is seen as ‘deviant’.

Quakers often talk about centring down, about going inward into ourselves, with an intense focus on our own experience. Perhaps in our belief that God can be found anywhere, we also assume that God is always where we are, and where we are is at the centre. Can we remove ourselves from the centre? Instead, can we see God at the centre? If God is at the centre, then our relationship to each other, and to the non-human creation, is that of sibling. We are all part of the wheel rotating around a Divine hub.

If God is at the centre, and we are not, that means we cannot assume that God is always where we are. A name for Jesus is Emmanuel, meaning ‘God is with us’. Who is ‘us’? My understanding of the Christian tradition is that God is especially with the crucified, the crucified human and non-human creation. God is with those who suffer from racist, transphobic and gender-based oppression and violence, with people who suffer the effects of the climate crisis, and with the non-human creation that suffers destruction at human hands.

For those of us who are not the crucified, how do we make our way to the cross to be in solidarity with those who are? How do we truly love those whom ‘the powers that be’ wish us to hate? How do we love those whom ‘the world’ positions as our enemies? This love is the narrow way of the cross: ‘For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it’ (Matt. 7:13-14). I believe we have received a taste of how hard the road is, and how narrow the gate is, in our discernment at BYM.

In ministry, we heard a quote from Philippians. Also in Philippians we read:

‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.’

Philippians 2:5-8

Can we empty ourselves of all the ways we try to be like God? Can we remove ourselves from the centre and see the strange, crucified Spirit of Love there instead? Can we recognise the seriousness of the challenge before us, a challenge that might cost us everything?

[Featured image photo by Halil Ibrahim Cetinkaya on Unsplash]

9 thoughts on “Decentering ourselves: Reflections on Britain Yearly Meeting Gathering 2021

  1. Hi Mark,
    Thanks for your reflections. Something that struck me was:
    “If God is at the centre, and we are not, that means we cannot assume that God is always where we are” – which seems to play on (I don’t know whether this is intentional or not) an ambiguity or equivocation on ‘God with us’, or what it means to ‘be with someone, or be where someone is’.

    The sense you seem to be using it in is ‘to be on the side of, to be in agreement with..’, in which case it makes sense that God may not always ‘be with us’, but of course an equally common meaning is the simple one of ‘to be in the same location, or to be close at hand..’. I’m imaging that wasn’t also the sense you meant when you said ‘we cannot assume that God is always where we are’, or have I got that wrong, is God distant from us in both senses when we are self-centred and wrong-headed?

    All the best
    Phil

    1. Thanks Phil. I think what I’m trying to do is disrupt the idea that God is equally present to all at all times. Does our Quaker conviction in the leadings of the Spirit lead us to claim an overfamiliarity with it? As I don’t see God as a distant creator, in one sense God is present to all as the Spirit of Life. But in the Biblical narrative there’s also a sense of God being particularly present in certain circumstances or with certain people, and often those places and people are the opposite of where you’d think to find God. I’m thinking of the magi expecting to find Jesus in Herod’s palace. (I really like Moltmann’s description of God being with the godless and godforsaken.) I suppose I want to raise the possibility that our Quaker communities might be like the church of Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22) with Jesus shut out, knocking on the door.

      1. Ah, OK, that makes sense to me, as does such a conception of God. To pick up that metaphor, I guess I’m trying to pull apart the sense that God is not (‘was not invited to be’) there in the room, but is nevertheless close at hand knocking, ready to enter when allowed. The not being in the room is the ‘not with us’ of us not being true to the Spirit, but God is nevertheless ‘with us’ in not having abandoned hope, and continually trying to get our attention. When we wise up and open the door we won’t, I think I’m suggesting, find the doorstep empty, God was always there, close at hand waiting, whether we deserved it or not.

  2. Thanks for sharing Mark. I saw at least one of your tweets and was glad to hear something of the reason for it (along with the Epistle). On the antiracism question – I was at Othona over the weekend where I failed badly (despite my best efforts) at a conversation on privilege. I think in part because it echoed the experience of BYM past with people struggling to accept the difference between privilege (the elite, lords of the manor) and privilege (as in white, gender, etc). More work to do

    1. Thanks for sharing this Alan. I think “more work to do” applies to alot of us It’s definitely a marathon.

  3. Thank you Mark – very helpful commentary. I am sorry I was unable to attend BYM so this is valuable. I love “rewind the Quakers” in the epistle.

    I hope you get a chance to rest after what sounds like an absorbing experience – we need your teaching force.

    Donal

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  4. I was blown away by the Epistle when I read it yesterday, as were my Meeting this morning. It led to some extraordinarily positive and powerful ministry – spoken and unspoken. Not having been present at YMG online it’s been fascinating to hear your part in the journey, particularly the surprises along the way.

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