First, some vignettes.
In the room set aside for crafts, near the YMG information desk and the bookshop, I used to find six or seven women, sitting round a large table piled high with balls of wool of many colours, knitting squares to be sewn together to make blankets for refugees, and softly chatting. In their quiet work they embodied Quakerism for me.
For my accommodation, I chose to stay among strangers – strangers who quickly became friends. There were six of us on our floor, four from Pendle Hill Area Meeting, Daniele, a young Italian from Suffolk, and me. The Pendle Hill four catered for themselves, whereas Daniele and I took meals with hundreds of other Friends, half-board; but the way was open for all of us to get to know each other.
One of the delights of Yearly Meeting is the opportunity to meet old friends and to make new ones. One of the aims indeed is to build a community. Although it is not possible to get to know everyone, it is vital to sit with people you don’t know and to make an approach – and hence to learn new things. In this regard (community building), I think that YMG was a success.
The University of Warwick (the host site) is not situated in Warwick but at the very edge of the City of Coventry. It is a good location for a large gathering – flattish, fairly compact, and modern (so, fairly accessible for Friends who are frail). The City of Coventry itself forms quite a contrast. It is well worth a visit. It presents a mixture of buildings from various ages – and notably several medieval buildings, which survived the World War Two bombing. The Friends Meeting House, simple and practical, dates from 1953. Visiting Friends received a warm welcome (with tea and cake). I visited the two cathedrals, medieval and modern, for the first time. In the Chapel of Unity, I found a copy of the booklet that lays out the British Christian Response to the Palestine Kairos document: I found the name of my wife Jane among the signatories, and I felt a thrill of pride.
There were many Quaker visitors from around the world, and guests from other Faith traditions, who appeared very happy to be present and to be able to contribute to non-business sessions.
Indeed, the choice of what one might loosely call “spiritual nurture” sessions (or workshops) was vast, and one had to choose carefully and pace oneself.
I enjoyed the Retreat Lecture, given by my Friend Bronwen Gray, who vividly conveyed the connections between our faith and the principles of good mental health care (seeing that of God in all). I enjoyed too the lecture by Gethin Evans on the life and work of printer and publisher John Edward Southall (1855 – 1928), who came from Leominster but moved to Newport and vigorously promoted both Quakerism and the Welsh language. (Repeated from the lecture Gethin gave at the 2016 National Eisteddfod.)
Lectures were given in front of much larger audiences: first, the Swarthmore Lecture, by Catherine West MP, and secondly, the Salter Lecture, by Molly Scott Cato MEP. Both Friends gave good accounts of themselves and made a good case (in my opinion) for active involvement in politics, including campaigning through political parties. They served as a useful counterpart to the business sessions.
The business sessions.
Sometimes, there were four women (no men) at the table – three Clerks (including Deborah Rowlands), plus Juliet Prager, Deputy Recording Clerk (who alternated with Paul Parker, Recording Clerk). This seemed right and fitting. The clerking was of a high standard.
With hearts and heads prepared, we slowly moved forward, on hands and feet, to work out what our involvement in the world should or might be. We heard from the Friends that addressed us about movement building and co-operating with other organisations, in the cause of social change. In particular, points were made about overcoming barriers to working with others, especially when some of their assumptions and procedures are different from ours.
I recollected Minute 36 of YMG 2011 (our ‘Canterbury commitment’) concerning sustainability and also our Minute 36 of 2014 about social justice and equality. I did wonder whether we were consolidating rather than changing anything. There was not the thrill created (for example) by the YM 2009 minute on equal marriage; but it is not right to expect great excitement on every occasion.
I appreciated the ministry of a Leeds Friends, who referred to her participation in party politics in her city and her service as a Councillor. I had wanted to say how much I had enjoyed canvassing in the 2017 General Election, and how this had felt the right thing for me to do, but I was not called to speak.
I was struck by a non-business session in which our young introducers (Rachel Muers and Rhiannon Grant) told us the story behind the eight ‘Foundations of a true social order’ (Quaker faith & practice 23.16). Despite the passing of a century since, and their male-centred language, the Foundations have stood the test of time; and no way has been found of improving on them. (They were agreed speedily – during World War One! Could we produce something so concise and punchy, in such a short time, nowadays?)
A highlight of the business was the oral report of the work of BYM Trustees (backing up the written one), given by Ingrid Greenhow (Clerk). Ingrid made her points with great wit and enthusiasm.
In conclusion, many of the YMG addresses and lectures can be viewed via the Quakers in Britain website. Recommended!