I don’t know quite what to tell you about Yearly Meeting. I don’t think I want to tell you about the structural paperwork side of it, and I don’t think I know enough to tell you about all the work it does (although I can tell you that besides doing paperwork and running a bookshop and providing all kinds of support to Quaker meetings, it runs all sorts of projects in line with Quaker testimonies).
I think I’ll tell you about Yearly Meeting itself, and what it’s like for me. I’ve been going to Yearly Meeting on and off for a long time – I think the first one I can remember is 1997 – but when I became a member I decided to try and attend as often as I could. I think I’ve been every year since 2009.
2009 was a big year. We met in York, and we spent most of our time on the issue of same-sex marriages. After much deliberation, our discernment was that we should treat them just the same as any other marriage, and that we would lobby the government to be allowed to do so – a change in the law which is now close to happening. I remember airing my own doubts about marriage in the threshing meetings (the usual feminist worries: name changes, upholding the nuclear family/woman at home model, and so forth). I remember singing around the lake.
In 2010 we discussed many things, but one of the big decisions was about whether journalists should be allowed in to observe sessions of Yearly Meeting, traditionally closed. I remember listening to other Friends with a growing sense of dislocation – they all seemed to assume, to slide back over and over towards the idea that ‘journalist’ meant ‘newspaper journalist’ and that ‘the media’ meant ‘print media’. It’s always a frightening thing to find yourself on your feet in a Meeting for Worship, and I’m pretty sure I was physically shaking when I stood to tell the Yearly Meeting that anyone can be a journalist now: that’s what blogs mean – news from anyone, anywhere, anytime. We also had a discussion theme something like ‘What are your gifts?’, which put me in tears more than once, not least because I didn’t have anything to give. I’m not sure I do now; and the things I do have and try and give are often not what’s wanted!
What I remember about 2011, Canterbury, is the heat in the Big Top marquee we were using for meetings. We wrote an important minute about sustainability – at the time, I didn’t think we went far enough and I was pretty sure all the environmental groups would just laugh at us; now I think they were all going to laugh at us anyway, and we still have to do what we can. It is a problem, though, because some local groups are so far ahead of us and we are slowed down by having to make our own way.
In 2012 I was jaded. The big topic was about economic justice, and a lot of people said things about how ignorant they/we are, and even more shared their really good ideas about what someone else should do (a fictional but suggestive example: retired white British father of three suggests that people in ‘over-populated’ countries should avoid having children). I became clear early on that I didn’t have the energy to do any of these things – I haven’t done half the things I should about sustainability anyway – and although I disliked disengaging in that way, it seemed necessary.
I hope that in 2013 I will be able to engage again as deeply as I have done in the past (even if it means crying during the worship). I don’t know what the topic will be (although I’ve seen a Meeting for Sufferings paper about the possibilities, all of which I think could be useful), but I’m not sure that matters as much as informed, prayerful, thoughtful participation.