This year, October 4th is World Quaker Day, and I have been thinking about what it means to be a Quaker at the moment. For me, one of the effects of the pandemic and the move many people have made to increased online activity is that geographical boundaries have broken down – events I couldn’t have travelled to are now accessible (so long as I have time!) and I can attend Quaker meetings for worship not just based in other places, but with a genuinely international community.
In a recent conversation, I was talking about membership and how it works in Britain Yearly Meeting, and in the group who were discussing this we got a bit tied up in the difference between the Yearly Meeting as an event (a meeting usually once a year) and a community (everyone who is associated with an area meeting in Britain, whether or not they attend the event). Actually, in Britain Yearly Meeting we hold membership at the Area Meeting level – neither in the local meeting, the one in your town you are mostly likely to have encountered, nor in the yearly meeting as a whole. But we also have the informal concept of the ‘Yearly Meeting Friend’ – the kind of Quaker who does attend the event, with the implication that they are more likely to understand how our structures work at the yearly meeting level, and so on.
That set me wondering about whether there’s such a thing as a World Quaker. I think the ‘world’ in World Quaker Day is meant to modify ‘day’ – it’s a day for Quakers all over the world. But what if it was a day for World Quakers? If a Yearly Meeting Friend is someone who has direct knowledge and experience of how Quakerism works at the yearly meeting level, a World Quaker would be someone who has a wide experience and good understanding of how Quakerism works around the world. Some people achieve this by travel, either for their own reasons or as part of a specifically Quaker role in which they meet people from many Quaker traditions. Some might achieve it online – through social media, blogs, international Quaker publications, and online worship we can have both strong local links and a wide range of international contacts. And I think there are a group who may be going straight into Quakerism as World Quakers. Especially if you have found or returned to Quakerism during the pandemic, and started out and/or found a home with an international worship group (like those offered by Woodbrooke, Pendle Hill, or Ben Lomond), a sense of Quakerism as an international community may be built into your understanding, rather than something which – like me, and many others who began our Quaker journey as Local Meeting Friends – you arrive at one step at a time.
World Quakers face challenges. In a recent Twitter conversation, some of us spoke about members of specific Quaker communities who aren’t aware of the huge international community and the diversity which exists within it. For some it might not matter. For others, especially those who are trying to work out ‘what Quakers all do’ based on a very small sample, it can mean missing some of the richness and multiple possibilities of our tradition. But with that richness, of course, comes not just difference but also disagreement and potentially painful conflicts.
This World Quaker Day, being a Quaker means, for me, being part of a complex international community. It means celebrating that and being ready to face the challenges head-on.