Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
What, for you, matters most in your beliefs and spiritual practice? And how do you communicate that to your children, - while giving them the space to choose, act and believe differently? And how do you do it by showing, sharing the experience, not telling. Not easy.
Last summer First-, Secondborn & I spent a week at Yearly Meeting Gathering, the residential and business meeting of UK Quakers (www.quaker.org.uk/ymg). 1500 quirky Quakers of all ages at the University of Kent at Canterbury, - where 15 years ago I'd done my MA. A chance to get back in touch with the agenda & issues for my national faith group. To catch up with old friends, old haunts, first bosses, our local meeting, fellow committee members, friends' parents - and to have conversations, of the depth of those with old friends, with people you've just met.
First and Secondborn came to Meeting for Worship each week when we lived in UK. The worshipping circle included two small chairs near the entrance, for them. They were embedded. Belonged. The (elderly) meeting were like their local grandparents. But there's been a three year gap since we've been in Kenya, where our local meeting doesn't have a children's meeting. So for me, one of the key bits of YMG was to be the Young People's Programme. A chance for the kids to encounter Quakerism as something for people of their age too. To meet a wider range of adult Quakers. For them to have the fun and nourishment in a Quaker community of their peers that I do. And for us all to experience how others convey the heart of Quaker worship and values to young people - and to their elders.
Growing up as an only child, an only child of mixed race in a single parent family, in a community which was far from diverse, in the years before inclusion was seen as important, my Young Quaker community was central to my happiness. The far-flung twenty or so Young Quakers in South Wales & Midlands, aged 11-15, would set off with their rucksacks three times a year, to spend a weekend sleeping on the floor in a local meeting house.
Friends came and spoke to us of their lives, work, dilemmas, their faith. We got to know the parents of our friends in a very different way from the parents of our friends at home. Different kinds of conversation, different things which mattered. Relationships of equals, not from senior to junior. 'Humble learners in the school of Christ.' We learned of Amnesty International and wrote letters to political prisoners. We planted trees to regenerate industrial wasteland. We cooked and worshipped, tested boundaries and played crazy games together. As a shy, bookish preteen it was wild.
With hindsight, thirty plus years on, what stands out? Uncomplicated friendships in big gangs. Belonging. Friendships without assessing or being assessed as cool, or not. Late night conversations, fun and fundamental. Football. Big brothers. Boyfriends. The adrenalin of trust games falling backwards from a mantlepiece 6 foot up, into a crowd far below. Abseiling out of the second floor window of Cardiff meeting house, down the rope safety fire escape, on a Saturday night, as the prenightclub crowds looked on. Huge games of Sardines, with 15 of us cramming into one tiny space. Kinder role models of coolness than those in my fend-for-yourself massive comprehensive. Camping trips in the rain, without adults. Bonfires by the beach. Worship woven into everyday life. Travelling independently all over the country.
Looking back, it wasn't that we weren't dealing with big issues. There were parents with severe mental health issues, were friends without growth hormone so their stature was very stunted, were friends grappling with adoption, with absent parents, with identity, with just being a teenager. And, just like re-reading My Naughty Little Sister or The Famous Five books as an adult in 2012, I'm struck as I look back on my memories, where were the adults outside the sessions in those halcyon days? Were they there? Was this a light touch regime? Or were they there, but just not where my teenage attention was at?
These experiences, and annual Summer School, Leaveners - the Quaker Youth Theatre and later Young Friends Central Committee, Manchester Young Friends and European & Middle East Young Friends, engaged me in Quakerism till I reached the mainstream. They fed and nurtured my identity, and my identity as a Friend. They helped me feel that who I was, the person with the values that my family lived, was acceptable, liked, in the wider world in a way that was far less clear in my home community. And they also helped prepare me for the more difficult bits of trying to live out my faith. Hearing others describe how they spoke up when needed. Taking that step out of the second floor window without knowing what came next. Realising that sometimes you did things on your own, knowing that there was a rooted community behind you - hundreds of miles away - who would be cheering on your faltering steps if they knew.
A century ago things were somewhat simpler, I believe, for young Quakers. You intermarried with other Quakers. Your cousins and second cousins were Friends. You probably attended Quaker schools, wore plain dress, your identity was confirmed on all sides. Yes, ahead there would be difficult thresholds. There might be extravagent boots to be yearned over. Piano playing to be off limits. If male, the decision whether to apply to tribunal to be recognised as a conscientious objector and all that that entailed. But in childhood and teen years, maybe more of an incubator as the hatchling grew. For me, Junior Young Friends, Young Friends Central Committee, and the like, was that protective incubator in which I could learn from others, test and disclose the bits of myself that I valued most.
But now, looking on for our children, what matters for them? They, I think, are in a happier place than I was at their age. They, in UK, attended a village church school, where staff and parents were at ease with their values, spoke of them, of their beliefs, struggles and shortcomings, where community, where celebration of the different gifts of different individuals - were modelled daily. That isn't so of their school in Kenya. But here there are, I know, far more opportunities and occasions for discussions with their parents about what what we do and why, where we struggle, where we are listening but unclear on the way ahead. Where I and they pray together, from our pain or uncertainty or fear for others or desire to reencounter magnetic north in an uncertain, changing world.
So what, as a parent, do I celebrate in the Young People's Programme?
For Firstborn, just twelve, YPP was already much that JYFs had been to me. A world of independence opening up. Where in Kenya we don't feel it safe for her to be out in our neighbourhood alone, where the freedoms she had three years earlier in UK have been withdrawn, there her programme ran till 10pm, she walked herself out and back, she hung out with new mates in the youth club space, she flourished.
I watched her carefree, caught up, unassessing, there in the moment with peers. One afternoon I left my workshop early, to spot a group of Japanese language students sitting, cautiously, backs against the wall, gobsmacked on the grass, as a group of five thirteen year old girls chased an adult helper with his hair in a pink mohican tearing on roller skates round the campus.
'Tell us a direction!' the teens hollered as eventually they collared him, and he, giggling, sent them on to the next zany character in the campus-wide live Hunt the Quaker scavanger hunt.
'We caught five other people who weren't involved in the game at all,' Firstborn reported, flushed and happy, that evening. 'I think they worked at the university. They seemed a bit surprised.'
Fun pure and simple. Doing things, breaking minor boundaries, with like-minded others you'd never do alone. Permission to transgress. Yeah.
'What did you like best, Firstborn?'
'I really liked my base group. I really liked how everyone was included. How the adults talked to us. The chats we had. I felt I got to know them well. I liked the games alot too.'
Oh the games. Happy memories. Bigamy used to be my favourite, a Wink Murder derivative with wild running from chair to chair. Firstborn described Wink Ministry.
'If you are winked at you have to minister on a topic of your choice until someone elders you,' 'Friend you have been heard.'
Then you can sit down. And someone is trying to work out who is winking. Gentle fun-poking at our ways. Important in a frequently dour, over-worthy Society.
First- and Secondborn didn't like the silent worship. Found it hard to get to grips with. Not their way. Which is fine. But they liked the depth of sharing and listening to others, and they liked the strong, trusting community - the essence, in my opinion, of what can spring from our worship - and they experienced far more than can be summed up in words.
And looking back, I remember silent worship, Quaker-style, as difficult to learn. But I also recall the power of silent worship with peers, unmediated or uninstigated by adults. Sitting on Easter morning by a frozen Norwegian lake in a circle with other European Young Friends. In front of each of us, articles each had discovered in the blossoming woods, individual symbols of resurrection in our lives. Around us the ice on the lake creaked, thawed, cracked in the April sun.
Or teenage evening worship at Summer School, candlelit, when towards the end someone blew bubbles, and we watched them float and pop in the candlelight. The realisation that worship is something you engage in, not which is done to you. That the quality of your listening, to friends in the group, makes a difference - as does the quality of your listening to the still small voice, and the willingness to be changed and to act afterwards.
I, this YMG, loved the chats. Re-encountering mates from my teens and twenties, as we waited to pick up or drop off children at the Young Peoples Programme. Yes we were plumper, greying, in mid-life - but recognisably the same individuals, and the pleasure at the massive YFGM reunion was great. Meeting the volunteer prison chaplain who spoke of what she does to support depressed prisoners, and of what she hopes to initiate in an environment which does not welcome new initiatives. The former priest, then worker with people with disabilities, now freelance celebrant of a-religious funerals speaking of his conviction that those of no faith background are not coerced into a straitjacket not of their choosing at the last. The reminder, palpable all around, that belief leads to action.
Most of all I am grateful to those enthusiastic, upbeat, inspired, caring, listening workers on the Young Peoples Programme that they modelled a Quakerism which is cooler, teen-closer than mine. That for a heady week, Quakerism, that stigmatised solitary activity to which my family perceive I sally forth on a Sunday when the family is having fun, was embodied by role models with cool haircuts and birthdates in the 1990s. And that keeps channels open. Keeps our children in the incubator. And where-ever they end up, whichever community they choose to nurture the gossamer-light best of who they could become, Quaker or beyond, these peer role models who speak frankly of how they experience the divine to fellow teens, they nourish our children and their world.
I'd written up to here a year ago, shortly after YMG. And let the piece lie, uncertain how to finish. As I write, a thousand Quakers from around the world - from Cuba, Bolivia, Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, US, Denmark, UK and the rest, are meeting in Kenya for a once in a generation World Conference of Quakers. Twenty one years ago, at the last one, Tom had been based in Kenya long-term to coordinate arrangements and logistics, and I was just starting an internship at the Quaker Council for European Affairs in Brussels. Friends changing planes in Belgium returning from the Conference ministered by singing and clapping Kenyan-style in Brussels silent meeting. A wholly unexpected, totally memorable flash mob ministry. Shell-shocked US Quakers downloaded their encounters with African realities as they reached a Brussels safe house. Related their horror and new understanding, when the school at which they were staying ran out of water, which was shipped in, a day later, by bowser. Exclaimed with excitement at our flush toilets. A colleague, who'd attended the Honduras conference, related her new understanding of the grinding poverty faced by many. Beyond the theological, the changes to the world view of many were major. And at the personal level, Tom, visiting a Friend he'd made at the conference and I were about to meet for the first time. So for us, in our lives, that World Conference made a massive difference too.
On the sidelines now, we've had multiple visitors staying with us over the last week, en route to this generation's Conference. Friends with whom we were Young Friends in our teens and twenties, have seen again, but not till now had the time for long chats that we did in those heady days. In my home meeting, I was one of the very few of working age, the sole parent of children in the meeting. And I rediscover, those links with my Quaker age-peers matter. If our faith is about encounter with God, it matters to hear where this encounter is taking our peers, as well as those of different generations, different nations. How have our perspectives changed? How do we face the challenges of mid-life? How are we raised up by the stories of others, bound together, caught in a net? Who are we becoming, together?
It is a great gift to have friends in our teens who know us deeply, who show us different ways, who value us in the things which are eternal. And a great gift in midlife to encounter them again. Thanks be.