Saturday, 30 September 2017

Quaker Week

Once again, Quaker Week is here. This is a week that Quakers in Britain designate for Outreach, Friends House sets a theme, and all individual Quakers and Meetings are encouraged to run activities to help raise the profile of Quakers, inform and interest the general public, and just generally be “out there” more.
Outreach is a difficult topic for British Quakers. One of the first things I learned about Quakers could be summarised as “we do not proselytise”. Of course, I learned that in the context of liberal Quakers. Evangelical and pastoral branches of the world Quaker family are quite keen on proselytisation, especially (as you might expect) the evangelical branch. But liberal Quaker, especially the sort here in Britain, just don't go out and tell people they should be Quakers.
Yet, obviously thing we have something worth finding out about, and thus surely worth sharing. Anecdotally, it seems that those convinced in adulthood are growing, as a proportion of our Yearly Meeting, compared to those raised among Quakers. I'm sure someone has figures on that, but I don't have them to hand; in any case, that is the impression I, and others I know, have been getting over the last decade or so, at least in terms of people who are actively involved in Quaker goings-on. When you add our dwindling numbers and ageing demographics, it becomes clear that we would be both selfish and foolish not to try to share this wonderful thing we have found.
So we have “outreach”. Like so many words, it has its own peculiar Quaker meaning. It encompasses public presence, public education, and that fine line between seeming like we don't care whether people come and telling people they ought to come to our Meetings. The question always seems to be “how much can we do to interest and excite people without it seeming like we're proselytising?”
Some hold that our best outreach is just doing stuff in the world – “letting our lives speak”, if you prefer the Quaker cliché. Certainly, our involvement in matters of national debate can increase our profile, such as, in recent years, our support for equal marriage – particularly allowing religious marriages without regard to sex or gender among those faiths who, like ours, support marriage equality on religious grounds. Some attention was stumbled into during the Occupy demonstrations in London, as well. And of course, there's a near-continuous level of awareness-raising by our activities around peace and disarmament – at least among people who spend their time on such things.
In my Meeting, we have two major areas of social action – support for refugees and asylum seekers, and a living wage campaign. Both important areas that most Friends are glad to support. They aren't things that are terribly visible to the public at large, however, and our Quaker ethics also restrain us from shouting from the rooftops about what we are doing; we don't do it for recognition, we do it because it needs to be done. Equal marriage required us to be loud and public to be effective; economic justice ends up being loud when there's a lot of amplification, like there was around the Occupy movement.
Now, I don't mean to say we shouldn't do these things – we do them regardless of the role they can play in outreach, because we try to do what love requires of us. Love requires that we support the idea of a living wage, that we support the idea that desperate people who've fled war and persecution are welcomed and treated like human beings. Nor I am saying they don't have a role in letting the world know what Quakers stand for, something of who we are and what we do. They are, however, quite poor at letting people know that we exist, and especially at giving them the opportunity to learn more about us.
So, social action has an outreach role, but I am very much of the opinion that we also need outreach qua outreach – activities whose sole focus is outreach. It runs the risk of looking more like proselytisation, certainly. It also means that when it doesn't “work” you have achieved, it seems, nothing. Organise an outreach event that has no-one but Quakers turn up, and you have wasted your time. Do some social action and no-one but the beneficiaries, or those being campaigned, hear about it, and you've still done something for those beneficiaries, or at least you'd hope so. Thus there's an emotional hump to overcome, especially for anyone who's tried to organise outreach before and it fallen rather flat.
And so, we return to Quaker Week. Area and Local Meetings across Great Britain are organising things to mark the week, and hopefully to do some outreach. Exhibitions, talks, public Meetings for Worship, all sorts. Here, we are having Friends in the Meeting House for drop-ins across the week, every weekday afternoon and Friday evening. Hopefully, people who are curious (and have seen some of our promotional material – no money spent except on paper and toner/ink, and the odd bit of laminating) will roll on up, and we'll be able to offer them tea and cake (if we have enough volunteers baking cakes), and have a chat with them. Show them some displays, offer them some leaflets and pamphlets, be informative, and generally try to make Quakerism sound as interesting and attractive as we can without it sounding like we're trying to persuade them to be a Quaker. It's a fine line to walk.
Of course, as I mentioned at the start of this post, Quaker Week has a theme. This year, it's “in turbulent times: be a Quaker”. Sounding slightly imperative, I suspect some are uncomfortable about the way it might be read as telling people they should be Quakers. I don't think that's the intention. Rather, it's to highlight the advantages of being a Quaker, or indeed in Quakers existing, in turbulent times – an appropriate message, given that we are certainly in turbulent times now. So we will be highlighting our actions in the world, especially those that are particularly topical, those that are most of-the-moment. We also hope that people might get a message about how reassuring and strengthening Quaker practices can be, how we draw strength from our community. I rather imagine we'll be too bashful to actually make that connection very often, though.
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