[Originally posted on the Sheffield Quaker blog, 7 August 2009]
During the last week of July, God was pushing British Quakers around further and faster than (I think) any of us expected was possible.
I’m really not used to talking in these terms. I’m trying to overcome embarrassment around talking openly about God and about my faith, because one of the big lessons of Yearly Meeting Gathering for me was about honesty, integrity and communication.
My beliefs haven’t changed noticeably, but I want to talk about them and to use language that feels right, despite the best efforts of both ends of the religious spectrum (fundamentalist atheist to ‘fundamentalist’ religious) to restrict their meanings.
God is love. God is truth. God is faithfulness and integrity and simplicity and that inexplicable something that makes us do things that might not make evolutionary sense but seem like the right thing to do.
Committed relationships were definitely on the agenda for our Yearly Meeting sessions. Meeting for Sufferings (the representative body that keeps the national Society in touch with itself between Yearly Meetings, had done lots of consultation and recommended that we should add procedures for supporting, celebrating and recording same-sex partnerships to Quaker Faith and Practice. MfS said that now was not the time to lobby for a change in the law. No recommendation was made either way about whether or not these partnerships could be called ‘marriage’, but I thought that enough people had reservations about it that we would probably stick with ‘committed partnerships’.
The first session introducing the subject was on Monday, when Colin Billett spoke. The text of his introduction is available online, and I highly recommend it (see the links below). After that session, there were response groups, and informal discussions, and I started to get the feeling, probably on Tuesday, that we might, after all, begin to officially call all marriages ‘marriage’, rather than having separate terminology for same-sex couples.
There was a ‘talking wall’ in one of the central buildings, where people could contribute their ideas by writing on post-it notes. Part of the purpose of this was to allow people who had reservations about the direction of the meeting to express them anonymously, in case they felt unable to do so publicly. There were a couple of notes expressing worry or fear or the thought that we were doing the wrong thing, and a hundred or so saying we were going in the right direction.
On Thursday afternoon, there was a Yearly Meeting session to consider the subject. There was a lot of spoken ministry. Again, there were three or four contributions expressing discomfort with what was happening, or the speed of it, but even they seemed to feel that the outcome was inevitable. By the end of the session the clerks were able to begin a draft Minute, and it looked as though we were quite likely to call for a change in the law, to ask governments in the UK to recognise same-sex marriages that take place in a religious context. (The law currently allow civil partnerships, but it’s illegal for them to have religious content.)
On Friday morning, we continued to consider the matter carefully, and then… well, we changed the world. Or rather, God changed the world. It was noticeable to me that God was mentioned more in the ministry that led to our conclusion than sometimes happens in Quaker decision-making. It was also noticeable that the hearts and minds of those present were being changed at a speed that was almost visible. Many who arrived at the gathering fearful of what would happen or wouldn’t left it proud to have been part of such an historic Meeting and hopeful that the God who is love is really at work to change the world.
At the beginning of the week, when we first started talking and thinking about it, it was clear that we needed to make progress because Quakers have a strong testimony to equality. By the end of the week, when the decision was made, it was still about equality, yes – but we’d twigged that it was also, very importantly, about our testimony to truth and integrity. We (a worshipping community) don’t make a marriage: that happens between the people involved and God (whatever God means). We just witness it. To witness a marriage and call it anything but a marriage is untruthful.
Interwoven with all this, throughout the week, was the ‘official’ theme of the Gathering: Creating Communities; Creating Connections. I only participated in a couple of sessions that explicitly linked to the theme, but it was present throughout the Gathering anyway. I think the fact that we had plenty of time just to be together, to see one another’s faces, between the sessions, helped enormously with the sense of community. With my (self-selected) home group, I appreciated silence, conversation, quiet worship, eye contact, hugs and just sitting together. Deep connections of friendship were established or strengthened, and I think these will be a source of courage and support back in our daily lives.
Very sad news from our Meeting back home about the unexpected death of our Friend Robert Clement drew those of us who’d gone from Sheffield to the Gathering together, reminded us of the local community of Quakers that we’d come from and would return to, and quietened our celebration.
My week at Yearly Meeting Gathering ended quietly and gradually. On Friday evening, hundreds of Friends gathered around the lake in the centre of the campus, to sing and to watch paper lanterns fly away into the sky. After Epilogue, my friends and I talked about our experience of the week over a pint or two of very good ale, then sat by the lake chatting until the early hours.
Saturday morning was Meeting for Worship, followed, for me and a friend, by feeding the ducks and talking quietly until it was time to travel home with an ever-decreasing bunch of Quakers.