The whole of Yearly Meeting of Friends in Britain, which met over the bank holiday weekend, 24-27th May, seemed to be given over to creating a safe space for the sharing of deeply personal stories. We were exploring diversity, inclusion and climate emergency using the notion of privilege. Those presenting reports as well as introductions to sessions (‘prepared ministry’) were invited to add an account of their own experience of privilege. With similar stories from spoken contributions from the floor, this resulted in an ocean of experience which almost overwhelmed.
Certainly the gathering was more diverse than in previous years. There was a variety of ages, colours, abilities, languages and accents, sexualities and genders, class and dress. Though the largest group was still white and elderly, and more women than men.
There were times when people were moved to tears, either in speaking or listening. We were encouraged to be ‘tender’ towards each other, and generally I think we were. There was a lot of learning going on. What is meant by ‘ciswomen’? How should we address a non-binary gendered person? Could we always tell the different meanings of ‘privilege’ in context? The Swarthmore Lecturer challenged British Friends with theological language not normally heard, including words and phrases like apocalyptic, theosis, and ‘Kingdom of God’.
I also found a deep level of sharing In conversations over coffee or meals. Often, in talking to complete strangers, points of common interest, links with particular places, and shared joys and worries emerged. At the end of each day I was physically tired and emotionally exhausted. But I also felt in a good place.
The one frustration at the end of Yearly Meeting was that we stayed with personal stories and did not address the structural and systemic changes that are needed if we are to be a more diverse and inclusive community. The process of exploration goes on in the months ahead leading up to the the Yearly Meeting Gathering in Bath in August 2020.
It remains a challenge to try to create safe spaces and communities we can trust in our Local Meetings, so that the same kind of sharing of deeply personal stories can happen. It is often easier to be open an honest with strangers than with those who know us reasonable well, and with whom we have ongoing connections.
The other challenge of course is to learn about ourselves, the prejudices we have, the blind spots, the fears that paralyse us and prevent us from becoming the person we could be. Reflecting on class, race, sex and gender, ability, privilege in my own make-up is likely to be uncomfortable. Changing how I think and behave will require lots of small steps and occasional big leaps. To have the courage to do this will probably only be possible if I have encouragement and love around me.