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YM Clerks Reflections

Yearly Meeting Co-clerks' reflections at Yearly Meeting 2015

Elizabeth Thompson: When preparing for Yearly Meeting 2013 we read Elizabeth Duke’s 'State of the Society' address from when she was clerking 25 years ago. It was very applicable today, as were many of the Clerks' contributions in intervening years. At the same time I kept on talking about State of the Nation address instead of the State of the Society. While I could compete well with John Key on the state of the nation, today we are presenting some reflections.

In March together with Alison, Elizabeth Duke’s daughter from London, we had four great days canoeing down the Whanganui River. The beautiful old bush, naturally sculpted patterns on the riverbanks, and reflections on the water calmed our souls. I had a deep sense of this time preparing me in the spirit for this Yearly Meeting further down river.

Four years ago we were house sitting in Bournville, Birmingham, when we received an email from Viola Palmer asking if we were willing for our names to be considered as Yearly Meeting Co-clerks. My immediate reaction was a strong NO. I know when I get this reaction it is a calling which I need to listen to, though I may not want to. We decided to take as long as we needed for discernment. I was about to attend a Woodbrooke retreat on spirit-led photography. At the same time Elizabeth was attending a theology course. During the retreat I was mulling over various aspects of the possibility of co-clerking rather than centering in on the beauty around me. Each day Elizabeth and I worship-shared on our own process. After about a week clarity came and we accepted. During the discernment time Elizabeth said, 'This will test our relationship'. We have learnt how we react to stress and I have learnt that she can get angry, though neither of these have been concerning our relationship. This time has strengthened our relating.

Throughout our first year I resented the time clerking was taking and what it prevented me from doing. This puzzled me somewhat. If it was a calling and we had discerned correctly, what was I doing resenting the service? At Yearly Meeting 2013 at Kāpiti, I had a deep sense of love coming from the floor. Your love dissolved my resentment and I knew why I was serving in this way.

We are a people of love, peace and truth. When I am in a deep spiritual place it is easy to be loving to others. Then I truly respond to that of God in others. We have a great community when we are able to be loving.

One of the joys of this job has been visiting Quakers throughout the country and listening to your delights and griefs. I do appreciate getting to know the smiles that go with the names in the address book. Our visits to Christchurch Meeting have been particularly poignant. We have deeply felt your struggles and frustrations.

Another joy has been being kept up to date with Meetings, and committees through your minutes and newsletters – often knowing what is going on throughout our motu.

There have been many lessons for me. One time I had been very upset about the actions of two Quakers. Shortly later I saw, separately, very fine acts by both of them. We all have both light and dark within. There have been many times when I have felt critical of someone or have been judgemental then find myself doing something similar. This I call my spiritual mirror. It has been busy during these last three years.

I have become increasingly aware that when I am stressed I am not trusting the spirit enough.

Early in our relationship we made a commitment only to fly in Aotearoa New Zealand when necessary to attend funerals. This is to try to lower our carbon emissions. The result is that it took three days travel to get here from home. Travel has taken a big chunk of our time so we return home to a full email box. This travel offers us time out to enjoy the scenery, seals, dolphins and lambs. We are good at dozing through the Canterbury Plains. Seven a.m. buses are not a joy. The travel does give us a chance to step back from our work and put some perspective on it and Yearly Meeting as a whole.

For my earlier spiritual growth I am very grateful for encouragement from Ann Olsen and Betty Fowler. We do need to lovingly encourage those who are newer to Quakers, helping them to come and experience Yearly Meeting and the Settlement. For those who are holding responsibilities, have you thought of succession planning? Who will take over from you? What will they need to do so? They do need your encouragement. I wonder if we need to build succession planning into job descriptions.

My first Yearly Meeting was a combined Yearly Meeting / Summer Gathering at Feilding. I was able to attend just the sessions that particularly appealed. I had previously learnt about spirit-led decision making but my own Meeting’s Meetings for Worship for Business were extremely fractious, so to experience spirit-led decision making was deeply impressive. Attending Yearly Meeting became very important to me. Spirit-led decision making is a special part of Quakerism. At many Yearly Meetings there is also a deeply spiritual presentation. This spiritual depth is very moving for me.

I become upset when our decision making is referred to as by consensus. Are we ashamed of saying 'spirit led decision making', thinking it sounds rather Pentecostal? Is consensus shorthand? I think we are selling ourselves short when we use the term. Consensus is a rational process which involves bargaining and tradeoffs. Spirit-led decision making is about letting go of our own ideas and wants and truly listening to others. So often the way forward could not have been anticipated. It is a way forward that all involved can and do accept.

Bruce Morley wrote in his wonderful Pendle Hill pamphlet Beyond Consensus:  "The process of reaching unity in the light brings us close to the peace that passeth all understanding"

There are people who have particularly assisted our time in clerking: the Nominations Committees who have been very efficient and easy to work with; Linley and Claire Gregory who have educated us lovingly by reminding of what we had overlooked or omitted, also filling us in on back ground information; Murray Short who has truly blessed us with his wisdom, calmness and gentleness - we hope we can reciprocate; all of you for your loving gratitude for our efforts.

We are very grateful for the opportunity to serve in this way.

Elizabeth Duke: Elizabeth has spoken about the impact of the message we received from Nominations Committee. After we had come to the end of our discernment I thought, “Well, I’ve done this before so I guess I can do it again. It will be a little bit different now that messages come by e-mail.” “A little bit” was an erroneous estimate. More importantly, I learnt that I don’t know everything. Working in partnership, we have a far better result, even though it demands more time. There is so much I have learnt from Elizabeth.

As we come to the end of our term I have been reflecting more generally. When I was quite new in Dunedin Meeting Marion Jones, the Friend who was caring for the library, noticed that I had been reading the fat blue Quaker histories, and got into conversation. Suddenly she asked me, “What is the Meeting for?” Without taking time, I found myself replying, “To do the will of God”. She didn't ask me to explain that; I suspect I would have had difficulties.

Now I ask, “What is Yearly Meeting for?” “Why are we all here?” One answer is what I learnt from the Australian Friend, Janey O’Shea. We have chosen to live according to a spiritual path, we have chosen to do it as part of a community, and Quakers are the community which we have found right for ourselves. What is the path for Yearly Meeting? I see we are here for three things: to engage in worship and spiritual growth according to the faith and practice of Friends, to care for and support one another as a body, and to offer witness and service as we are called.

Incidentally, I see that both Janey and I have spoken in threes. I’m not sure why, as bipeds with a fair degree of bilateral symmetry, humans are so given to grouping things by three.

I could answer the question,“What is Yearly Meeting for?”, with my earlier response, “to do the will of God”. But does that have any meaning, both for those Friends who would say, “I don’t know what you would mean by God”, and by those who, like me, trust in infinite goodness but cannot picture a celestial script-writer who demands that we learn our lines and perform a pre-determined part? For me God is mystery, a mystery which is beyond all understanding but which touches our lives in different ways, some of which can feel like a personal relationship.

To be attuned to this mystery is, as I see it, to follow our first Advice, to listen to the promptings of love and truth in our hearts. Love and truth – these, for me, bring us into the core of our being.

How does Yearly Meeting listen and respond to the promptings of love and truth? We can see many things which we could be called to do in love – far too many for any of us to undertake, or for us to engage in as a body. Documents in Advance record some of the ways in which we are acting now, but there are always other possibilities. How do we choose whether to promote human rights in Uzbekistan, to conserve coral reefs, or to work for the survival of the Aymara language?

This is where truth comes in. How do we discern the truth of our calling? What is the truth of our situation, and of the possibilities of action? How can we act truly, live truth, do truth? I would like us to learn from the way in which the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) staff discern how to undertake and how to lay down work. They are engaged at the international level, with countries and their diplomats, within the structures of the United Nations, and they are engaged as Quakers. These are the truths of their situation. Friends and others bring to them the many needs of the world which need intervention at the international level.

One consideration for QUNO staff is whether the work is within their powers. Even though QUNO has been recognized as having the largest permanent staff of any NGO at the United Nations, they are very few. If they are to undertake a new task, what are they to lay down? Do they have the skills and contacts for this work? Another question is whether the call is to a piece of work which is not being already done by others better equipped. Is it a niche which calls for the Quaker skills of listening, unprejudiced mediation, “being in the middle by being at the edge” as two mediators, Sue and Steve Williams, described it, bringing parties together in a neutral space securely and confidentially, and finding and offering truthful information which will make a difference? Is the work in accord with our testimonies? Is it needed? In the end the choice of work by staff and their supportive committees is a process of discernment in faith, a blending of love and truth.

The right way forward may take us by surprise. Think of the good Samaritan, who rescued one of the Jewish people who despised and excluded the Samaritans. He seems to have been a small trader, travelling with a donkey to carry his goods, and likely to return to the same inn to which he entrusted the victim for care. So a good Samaritan might be expected to be an honest trader, setting reasonable prices and fulfilling his contracts (a bit like early Quaker business owners, perhaps). But instead he found himself dealing with a medical emergency, with the victim of criminals who might still be lurking by the road, a man so badly injured that the respectable leaders of the Jewish people had passed by on the other side. That was the truth of the situation. He perceived it, and acted in love – in love to one whom he might have seen as an enemy.

So as we look toward our future, can we also bring together love and truth? Can we in faith build on our foundations a new creation? Can we discern, beyond what we might do and what we want to do, what we are called to do by infinite love and ultimate truth?