Britain Yearly Meeting to revise Faith and Practice
On May 6, at its annual gathering at Friends House in London, Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM) decided to revise Quaker Faith and Practice, the book of discipline that guides the 21,000 Quakers in England, Scotland, Wales, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man.
“Once in a generation, Quakers in Britain decide to take a long hard look at our faith, what it means to us, and what we can say about it,” said Paul Parker, BYM’s recording clerk (a position analogous to a general secretary in the United States). “The bold decision to revise Quaker Faith and Practice means it’s time for us to do that again. It’s exciting. We want to hear the insights of younger and more diverse people, and set out how we are a faith fit for the twenty-first century.”
The last revision took about ten years to complete and was published in 1995. But this time Parker hopes advance preparation will shorten the revision time needed. The yearly meeting has spent the last four years in a preparation period, during which there has been a program of reading Quaker Faith and Practice chapter by chapter to familiarize Friends with the current book.
“We also convened a theology think tank,” said Parker, “which looked at the issue of religious diversity, with a brief to see if we could have a dialogue about this without it becoming polarized into non-theists and theists. That led to the publication of the little book God, Words and Us [in November 2017], which has been used in reading groups in many meetings. It was this careful preparation which enabled the yearly meeting to reach unity at this year’s annual sessions that it was time for us to revise again.”
This revision cycle will look at the “church government” section which covers meeting procedures and has not been revised since the 1960s. Parker noted that over the last 50 years, the yearly meeting has changed from a community of largely lifelong Friends who looked to Faith and Practice for procedural details to a community of largely convinced Friends who want to see the theological principles behind meeting policies and structures.
The aim is for Central Nominations Committee to consider the names that are brought to it and discern about 24 Friends to bring forward to yearly meeting representative Meeting for Sufferings for appointment by the end of the year. Then the Revision Committee will be in place and ready to start work by early 2019.
The proposed committee terms of reference states: “special care should be taken that, the membership should reflect the breadth of the Yearly Meeting in terms of gender, age, abilities, geographical location and other factors. Committee members should be in tune with the theological diversity of Friends in the Yearly Meeting, but should not be selected to represent any point of view, and should be able to understand and work with and within that diversity.”
Grave marker unveiled for abolitionists Benjamin and Sarah Lay
On Saturday, April 21, Abington Meeting in Jenkintown, Pa., unveiled a grave marker for early Quaker abolitionists Benjamin Lay (1682–1759) and his wife, Sarah (1677–1735).
Two-hundred-eighty years earlier in 1738, Benjamin had been “written out” of membership in the meeting because his anti-slavery activism was seen as disruptive for the meeting, which contained slaveholders at the time.
Benjamin Lay’s story has recently received greater attention due to the release of a biography, The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist by University of Pittsburgh historian Marcus Rediker, in 2017. The title was reviewed in the September 2017 issue of Friends Journal.
The biography recounts Lay’s most notorious protest that occurred in 1738 at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Lay walked into the crowd of pacifists wearing a military uniform and carrying a sword and a hollowed-out book, in which was tucked an animal bladder filled with pokeberry juice. Lay stood up and proclaimed, “Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.” He plunged the sword into the book, splattering juice over his brethren.
Lay’s book, All Slave-keepers that Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates (1738)—one the earliest abolitionist books available in the colonies–was published by Benjamin Franklin as Quaker overseers blocked the publication of the book by Quaker printers.
Lay was so convinced that slavery was wrong that he grew his own food and made all of his own clothes, so as to not use or partake of any product produced by slave labor. He stopped eating meat and got around on foot because he did not want to exploit animals either.
“In some ways, Benjamin Lay was the founder of the idea of complicity,” Rediker said. “He’s basically saying you have to live in a new and virtuous way. Abolitionism is part of it. All of that is revolutionary.”
“[Rediker] suggested that we reconsider Benjamin Lay’s membership,” said Loretta Fox, Abington Meeting’s administrator. “Maybe we could right the wrong done to him.”
The unveiling marks another point in Abington Meeting’s coming to terms with Lay’s legacy. A November 12, 2017 minute from the meeting reads, “We now recognize the truth behind Benjamin Lay’s abolitionist efforts. Although we may not reinstate membership for someone who is deceased, we recognize Benjamin Lay as a Friend of the Truth and as being in unity with the spirit of our Abington Monthly Meeting.” Later this year, a historical marker will be erected on a nearby street.
“He needed to be recognized,” said Fox. “He was a little person, a hunchback, a person who clearly had a difficult life. Yet he spent his energy speaking for people who didn’t have a voice. Maybe the fact that he was a dwarf had something to do with why he was so aware of other people’s humanity.”
Lay’s activism led Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to change their position on slave-owning shortly before Lay’s death and inspired later gentler activists such as John Woolman.
Twelfth Pacific Northwest Quaker Women’s Theology Conference meets
Eighty-four women from programmed and unprogrammed Friends traditions gathered in Canby, Ore., June 6–10 for the twelfth Pacific Northwest Women’s Theology Conference. Over four days at the Canby Grove Christian Center, participants explored the conference theme, “Answering That of God in Everyone,” through worship, plenary talks, small group discussion, and experiential activities.
Leann Williams, co-clerk of the 2018 planning committee with Susanne Ratcliffe Wilson, noted, “Our worship was varied and rich. Times of deep silence, sweet singing into the silence, and vocal ministry were experienced. We also shared in programmed worship through hymn singing, original music, dramatic reading of scripture, and vocal prayer.”
The Pacific Northwest Women’s Theology Conference brings together women from diverse Friends’ traditions biennially to share their present experience of Quaker faith and practice. Modeled on the International Quaker Women’s Theological Conference held at the Woodbrooke in England in 1990, the conference uses narrative theology, using story to describe what participants know of God.
“I found it a rare and precious space to articulate my experiences of Spirit in my life, as well as my seeking and questions, in an environment of honest sharing and trust,” said attender Sarah Schmidt. “I have nowhere else I can so openly talk about my experience of God and my struggles to live into my Quaker values.”
Of the 84 who attended, 30 were programmed Friends, 50 were unprogrammed, and 4 were from other faith traditions. Thirty women attended for the first time. Both the 84 total attenders and the 30 first-time attendees represented highs for the conference.
“We retreat from our world of separation to become unified in acceptance and celebration of our diversity, as well as build and sustain our commonality,” commented Kate Jaramillo, a member of the planning committee. “We are all enriched, inspired, and renewed by the experience.”
A planning committee is working to determine the dates and place for the 2020 conference.