It’s taken me a while to get my thoughts together after Britain Yearly Meeting. That’s partly because there was a lot to think about – with dozens of events over three weeks, plus two weekends full of formal sessions, it was longer and in some ways more complex than even a week-long residential Yearly Meeting Gathering would be normally. It’s also because I’ve got a lot else on – other work, holidays with my wife, books to write, washing up to do, the usual. But I think I do have a couple of reflections it would be helpful to me to write down and perhaps helpful for others to read.
The first reflection is about who attended our Yearly Meeting this year. It’s not a big surprise, after the findings of the surveys which Woodbrooke and Britain Yearly Meeting ran last year, to find that the profile of people attending Quaker stuff changes when it moves online. At Yearly Meeting, I heard a number of people clearly articulating a pattern we identified in the survey: there are significant groups of people who cannot attend in person but who want to be involved. Some people have disabilities, caring responsibilities, travel cost barriers, and other circumstances which make attending online possible when attending in person is impossible. Some were new to Quakers and attending their first Yearly Meeting; others have been involved in a local meeting or other Quaker community for a long time and were attending Yearly Meeting for the first time having wanted to attend but previously been prevented. That’s a huge thing and something to celebrate about meeting online.
On the other hand, there were clearly people missing. Our main sessions didn’t reach the big numbers we sometimes see in person, and although a lot of people participated in some of our Yearly Meeting Gathering, my sense – this is difficult to measure, but comparing notes across several people who tried things like ‘looking for everyone from my area meeting in this session’ I think I have a rough idea – is that a much smaller group than usual attended every formal session of Yearly Meeting. (If you have stats or better information, I would love to be corrected or have more evidence on this, so please contact me.) That stands to reason in some ways, especially because when you have travelled and are all on the same university campus, there’s not the same competition. When you’re at home and have the option to join a session online, you also have the option to… whatever else you want to do. And you may be asked to refrain. Even very supportive family members who are not Quakers may only tolerate a certain number of hours spent on Zoom over the weekend! It might also change the balance of participation, though, and the online format means that some people for whom Yearly Meeting is normally a highlight didn’t enjoy it in the same way this year.
I don’t have a neat conclusion to this point – meeting everyone’s access needs is always complex – but having done this experiment, I hope that we’ll learn from it, even if the answers aren’t simple.
My other main reflection is about the three Yearly Meeting theme sessions and how we share it. We produced three important minutes, on becoming an anti-racist community, on welcoming trans, non-binary, and other gender non-conforming people, and on climate justice. I have learned that I will also be glad these things went as far as they did, and disappointed that they didn’t go further. (I remember coming home from Canterbury in 2011 wishing we could have gone further, especially wanting us to adopt a numerical target for carbon footprint reduction, and gradually understanding why we couldn’t do that at the time. Many thanks to the Friends who talked it through with me at the time, and have done the same after several Yearly Meetings since.) I want us to go further with all of these issues. But I also know that we have to take the whole community with us, and I see Quakers sharing articles which attack trans women, and hear white Quakers using infantilising language about adult Black men, and… and I don’t even know where to start on all the ways we haven’t yet integrated a justice perspective into our work on the climate crisis. And those are only the things I notice, and I’m a white cis Quaker whose home isn’t yet experiencing damage from climate change, so I have reason to think that I’m missing a shedload of stuff which privilege hides from me.
Given what I said about attendance, about who was there and who was not, I have found myself asking: how will we share this? Obviously our epistle is an important way to share it, and this year’s is particularly full of detail about the themes Yearly Meeting worked on. My local meeting had a discussion about the epistle, which helped to balance out the fact that it was so long that elders chose not to read the whole piece out loud in meeting for worship. (Alas, I didn’t make it to the session… one can only spend so long on Zoom, as previously discussed!) But in the longer term we will need to keep developing work in these areas. What can we do to make sure that these things are considered whenever they are relevant, and not just in discussions dedicated to them? Should we ask more often? Rewrite Advices & Queries so that language we hear regularly reflects these priorities? Find experts, from within and outside our community? Try and step back and pass the microphone so those more directly affected can be heard?
I still don’t have any neat answers. But in the spirit of that last suggestion, I will finish with links to some relevant videos and posts by others:
Clare Flourish, blog post on Britain Yearly Meeting on Zoom
Lisa Cumming, blog post on Everyday Solidarity and what British Quakers are doing to put love into action
Sophie Bevan, blog post about Black Lives Matter
Chloe Schwenke in a video about her journey as transgender Quaker
Vanessa Julye in a a video about Quakers and racism
I’m sure there are lots I’ve missed – please share in the comments if you feel led to do so.