Monday, 7 May 2018

Revision: A Reaction to the Decision

A computer-rendered image of a figure trepidatiously entering a maze.
As readers of my blog, or indeed those who keep up with Quaker matters in Britain at all, will be aware, this weekend Britain Yearly Meeting met in session, with the principal matter on the agenda being the proposal to revise the YM's Book of Discipline, Quaker faith & practice. This was proposed at Yearly Meeting Gathering four years ago, but Friends were unable to come to unity; instead, it was decided that a group be appointed to help prepare the Yearly Meeting to be better able to take the decision in either direction, and to lay the groundwork for future revision whenever it might occur.
This group, the catchily-named Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group (BoDRPG is how I abbreviate this; it seems that BYM decided the appropriate revision would just be RPG, which I suppose is not too ambiguous in context – even if it makes me think of Final Fantasy or Dungeons & Dragons), has been working hard for over three years. They have been working out logistics, engaging in explorations of theology, and running the Reading Quaker faith & practice programme to encourage Friends to be more familiar with the existing text before trying to make the decision again.
That preparation has borne fruit, with – by all reports that have come my way – an amazingly positive and constructive approach to the question at Yearly Meeting. The decision was taken, with suitable commentary in the minute instructing Meeting for Sufferings, and the to-be-appointed revision committee, about the approach that Yearly Meeting feels they should take.
(Buckle up, this is going to be a long one)
Because this was the main business considered at Yearly Meeting, and I understand also because it was felt to be most likely to lead to a decisive outcome, these matters were considered over several session, focusing on different aspects of the decision before Friends. Wonderfully, each of these sessions was also minuted; many, perhaps all (I wasn't there, so can't tell for sure) of these sessions had the opportunity for ministry that influenced the minute, so these minutes are not simply records of the purpose of each session. This is a wonderful resource for those of us who weren't there, and also a great record for the future, showing not only what decision was made but how it was made.
In that spirit, my reaction will follow along with these minutes, which are reproduced in order below. My reaction is interspersed among them as appropriate. If you want more of my views of the run-up to this decision, you can take a look at the posts earlier than this one tagged with revising the book of discipline.
Please note that all of these minutes are quoted form the uncorrected minutes available, at time of posting, from the Yearly Meeting Documents page on the Britain Yearly Meeting (aka Quakers in Britain) website. Corrections should be matters of fixing spelling, punctuation and grammar, occasionally names and similar, commonly known as “dots and commas”, and should not change the substantive meaning, but for the future Friends should refer to the full and corrected minutes once they are available.
Minute 16: Is it time to revise Quaker faith & practice, our book of discipline? Part 1: Receipt of the minute from Meeting for Sufferings.
We receive Minute MfS/17/12/12 of Meeting for Sufferings, held 2 December 2017, recommending that Yearly Meeting begin a revision of our Book of Discipline.
Yearly Meeting Gathering 2014 considered a recommendation from Meeting for Sufferings that it was time to begin a revision but was unable to reach unity on whether to do so. Meeting for Sufferings was encouraged to engage the yearly meeting in a period of preparation and threshing and to bring the matter back to Yearly Meeting when it felt the time was right. Meeting for Sufferings established the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group to undertake this work and the group presented its final report to Meeting for Sufferings at its meeting held 2 December 2017. An edited version of this report is at Appendix D of Agenda and Notes.
We will be considering whether to accept the recommendation to revise our Book of Discipline during several sessions of this Yearly Meeting.
The documents referred to, particularly Agenda and Notes (and its Appendix D) are also available on the YM Documents page linked above.
This minute essentially sets the scene, being part of a business session that was considering many relatively routine matters at the start of Yearly Meeting.
The minute for part 2 is particularly uninteresting, largely referring to the recommendations of the BoDRPG.
Minute 21: Is it time to revise Quaker faith & practice, our book of discipline? Part 2: introduction to our consideration
Take heed dear Friends to the prompting of love and truth in our hearts.
We need love in one hand and truth in the other.
We are both excited and fearful as we approach this possible revision.
Are we open to the possibility that revision of the book may be a personal and corporate renewal?
Are we open to being vulnerable?
Are we ready to plunge in to the deep water and feel invigorated?
We need to maintain our work and witness on the issues of the world.
We hope we can engage with the continuing process with open hearts.
We have heard from the clerk of Yearly Meeting Agenda Committee about the thinking behind the planning of Yearly Meeting sessions.
We have also heard from members of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group about their work and the journey they have taken, both as individuals and as a group.
They have told us why they are recommending revision and outlined the reasons behind the four recommendations they make:
  • The revision should begin with, but not be limited to church government, namely the sections which focus on our procedures and corporate discipline.
  • The revision should divide material between that in the main body of the book, which lays out principles, and supplementary material, which gives details.
  • The revision should draw on the richness of theological thought in our yearly meeting, now and historically, seeing diversity as fundamental to our community, not as a flaw.
  • The Revision Committee be given the freedom to be creative, while remaining in close contact with the yearly meeting.
We will return to these recommendations later in our agenda.
While it is uninteresting, however, it is important for setting the scene, especially if you haven't read the report/recommendations in the agenda package. You will have to read those documents to get more on the reasons for the four recommendations, but the point of those recommendations informs the structure of the consideration of the question over the course of the Yearly Meeting, and gives it a concrete context – something I think was probably key to the positive and constructive way this matter was considered.
Minute 24: Is it time revise Quaker faith & practice, our book of discipline? Part 3: parallel sessions
We have spent the first part of our time this afternoon in parallel sessions exploring in different ways, including through dance and art, our responses to the questions before us. We have engaged with various aspects of the possibility of revising our book of discipline such as: religious difference, church government, and missing identities.
Now, here I interject some points based on what I have heard in more detail about the conversations in and around Yearly Meeting; I will continue to do so as appropriate throughout this post.
Religious difference is a key point that many felt worried over, or in other cases as an opportunity, from the idea of revision. Might we “get rid of God”, as some in the press described it. This idea worried many, and sadly also was seen as a positive for some. The opposite view was also felt in places around the constituent Meetings of our Yearly Meeting, though less attention paid to it – perhaps because it was less sensational; that is, there are some who saw possible revision as an opportunity to limit the theological diversity of our Yearly Meeting. Some are happy with the idea of other theistic traditions beside Christianity in our Yearly Meeting, but not with non-theism; others wish to return to definitively-Christian roots. Just as some like the idea of this as such an opportunity, some fear what it would mean for their place in the Religious Society of Friends. In both cases of fear, there has also been the hurt that anyone would want to remove them, or at least their honest expression of spiritual experience, from British Quakerism.
As we will see in a further minute, church government was a key element of this decision. Indeed, the recommendations of the BoDRPG that we have already seen make it clear that revising the church government section is a particular priority.
Missing identities, however, is a key theme emerging throughout these minutes, and from what I have heard in reports of conversations in and around Yearly Meeting. I will explore this further following the next minute, which explores the idea of speaking our truths though they may be different, and the value in embracing and celebrating these differences – as well as the perils they can present.
Minute 25: Is it time to revise Quaker faith & practice, our book of discipline? Part 4: What canst thou say? Listening and leaning from each other.
How can we make our religious differences and our varied expressions of our faith a source of strength and richness? We have reflected on the following questions:
  • What have religious differences shown you in your Quaker community?
  • How was your faith and practice been enriched by these differences?
  • How can we find a way to get beyond potentially divisive words?
Contribution 1: How we are with the world depends on how we are with ourselves. We should be confident in the language in the language which is right for each of us. Then we can respect, be tender and value the language of others.
Some have said that our sometimes archaic language can be a barrier to understanding whilst others have seen that its ambiguity can leave room for personal interpretation.
C2: We are aware of the voices which are missing from the current book including the voices of the younger generation. Do we always put on our best faces? We need to also show our real lived lives.
C3: Our religious diversity is a richness but it comes at a cost; a social cost as we risk our sense of community, a time cost and an emotional cost.
When we believe in continuing revelation some amongst us are always grieving
C4: However we have also hear of the transformation and deep spiritual experience which can happen when we really listen to one another and ensure that each voice is heard.
I absolutely love contribution 1. Each be confident in the language which is right for ourselves, but also respect, be tender with and value (emphasis mine) the language of others.
I am not a Christian. If I use Christian language, I'm usually quoting, but I might be using it for rhetorical language or for the sake of poetry (and I may use language associated with other faith traditions in the same way). I use the language that best expresses my thoughts and, most importantly, my experience. I want everyone else to do the same, as appropriate to their thoughts and experience. Otherwise I am not getting their authentic expression, and I do not have as good a chance of understanding them as best I can.
Contribution 2 is about missing voices, but notes that the voices which are missing are not entirely a matter of our theological diversity – there is also a generational divide. I suspect there are others as well. When we look for items to include and partly base our decision on the “quality” of writing, we end up with an inevitable educational bias as well; this is not to say that educated people write better, but that educated people consider the kind of writing produced by other educated people to be better. Of course, that ends up with it probably not speaking as well to those who are less educated. I'm sure that sort of analysis is only scratching the surface of the voices and identities missing from our current text. This is not to say that there is no such things a “better” writing, that would be a whole other debate. Rather, some elements of what we consider better writing are defined by class-cultural background and life experience, including our experience of education. I'm sure most of my writing is not very accessible to a lot of people; I express myself in the way that I find truest to myself, which ends up being quite high reading-level, I'm sure. If the anthology material in the book is mostly material written by people whose approach to writing is like mine (and fortunately the current version is not, though I feel it has some bias in that direction), it will speak poorly to those with a different approach to reading and writing.
Contribution 3 reminds us of the cost of our diversity of belief; there are advantages to a community where people can safely assume more about other members of that community, and in religious communities those safe assumptions are often bound up with creed and doctrine. Do we have enough to bind us without that? I would, you will be unsurprised to hear, say that we do – or at least we could. It might take more work, though, and we need to actually engage in that work.
Contribution 4 is the positive side of my own thesis when it comes to diversity of belief. If we gloss over our differences, we miss the opportunity they provide. One of the things that could help bind us as a community is the joyful and respectful sharing of our different views and experiences, if we can get over the fear that doing so will divide us. It is good to hear that many experiences of this sort of sharing as a positive were shared at Yearly Meeting.
The reports I have heard of the conversations in and around Yearly Meeting indicate that it was not unusual for Friends to feel trepidation at the question of diversity of belief – particularly, given the coverage in the mainstream press, the idea of “getting rid of God”, the conversations and sessions helped alleviate this. People could get concerns off their chest, but it all led to reassurance and increased comfort and confidence.
Minute 27: Is it time to revise Quaker faith & practice, our book of discipline? Part 5: Reflections
We have continued our consideration of the question before us by reflecting together. We will take these questions and comments into our further consideration this afternoon.
Okay, that's another simple record minute that tells us nothing. Moving on…
Minute 28: Is it time to revise Quaker faith & practice, our book of discipline? Part 6: Church Government
During this session we have considered the Church Government sections of our book of discipline, celebrating and giving thanks for all the work which has gone into update since 1994.
However the passage of time means that these sections of our book of discipline are no longer fit for purpose.
In any future revision, we agree that it will be helpful to separate the core principles which would be in the book from the detail which might be in supplementary material. We know that a lot more work is needed to establish clearly where the balance lies.
Whatever we do, all this material should be freely accessible to all.
Here we can see a more decisive movement towards revision. It is accepted that the continual updating of the church government sections of the book – which were, in 1994, taken almost entirely from the previous version that existed going into the last revision – has left them unfit for purpose. I understand a metaphor that came up repeatedly was of a road. The road surface gets damaged, and potholes appear. They get filled, but a filled surface is never as good as an intact one. Eventually there's more patch than original surface, and the only way to improve is to tear up the surface and lay a new one.
There is also the agreement of a key principle suggested by the BoDRPG, that we make the whole more maintainable by having key principles outlined in the book itself, in a manner that is unlikely to need regular updates to document changes in practice or structure, or changes in the law. Those matters that are more specific, more likely to need updating, would be in supplementary volumes. The BoDRPG suggests that these volumes may not even need the authority of Yearly Meeting, nor even Meeting for Sufferings, to approve changes. The idea is, as I understand it, that the level of authority needed for incremental changes therein will be settled on a case-by-case basis during the upcoming revision. So some things might be better left in the authority of staff, such as changes to the procedures around marriage; those will usually change a result in change in law or record-keeping practices. Other things might be left in the authority of a specific committee, perhaps of similar nature to the current Church Government Advisory Group – or perhaps several with greater focus, or perhaps some things left in the care of Quaker Life Central Committee or another existing standing committee. Some may be left under the authority of Meeting for Sufferings, or of Yearly Meeting in session, who would most likely be acting on the advice of a standing or ad hoc committee but able to exercise their discretion over any proposals or recommendations.
This is a key minute that shows progress towards a final decision. Earlier minutes have shown progress of the body of individuals comprising these sessions of Yearly Meeting towards understanding, towards comfort with the risks and opportunities of revision, but this one shows actual decision. The final decision is given in the next minute, the final one in this process of decision-making.
The final minute is rather long, however, to include verbatim in this post. It is, as I write, available as an unchecked minute on the BYM website, and I have also posted it as a page on this blog for reference. It records the nature of the reflections of Yearly Meeting, but most importantly it gives instructions, priorities and aspirations to Meeting for Sufferings as it begins the work of taking this decision forward. It also records the input from the various programmes for children and young people taking place at or parallel to Yearly Meeting, ranging from the Fox Cubs (some find that name cute, I just roll my eyes, but each to their own) for those aged 35 years, to the minute of Junior Yearly Meeting. While these all explore reasons and hopes for a revision, the minutes from the Young People's Programme (over 11s) and Junior Yearly Meeting (comprised of representatives of Area Meetings – and a few others) united with the proposal for revision. The output the earliest age ranges were not described as minutes, so presumably don't represent the output of discernment; though the 911 age range are described as providing a minute, the sense of that minute is not reproduced in the Yearly Meeting minute. All are listed, presumably between them, as calling for more simple language and and celebration of diversity. Both the younger people and Friends of all ages have called for young people and children to be involved in the revision process, an aspiration with which I heartily concur.
The four specific recommendations of the BoDRPG are accepted (and repeated again, which is important for recording the decision – this minute is likely to be read in isolation, rather than always with the minutes leading up to it). Appreciation for the BoDRPG is recorded – another matter regarding which I heartily concur with the minute. The minute also acknowledges that we can expect to experience things that are not entirely positive as part of this process – it will be hard. Again, I concur.
While the minute is too long to include the text as a whole in this post, I will reproduce the elements of it that actually ask people to do things. Those are not the most important, but they are the ones that will directly drive action.
We ask Meeting for Sufferings to draw up terms of reference for a revision committee, which should be as diverse as possible in its composition. It should include both younger and older Friends. We encourage the group to work flexibly to involve a broad range of contributions of different kinds from Friends.
We ask Meeting for Sufferings to appoint and oversee the work of this committee, expecting to receive regular reports and consultation as necessary at future Yearly Meetings and in other ways.
With regard to the first recommendation, we recognise that this will not necessarily mean waiting until work on church government elements is complete before moving on to other parts.
We encourage the revision committee appointed to challenge Friends in a wide variety of ways. Our continuing witness in the world should inform this revision, be invigorated and energised by it and not be diminished by it, by either resources or capacity.
We ask Britain Yearly Meeting Trustees to make appropriate resources available.
In bringing forward revisions to the church government parts of our book of discipline into core principles and supplementary guides, the revision committee should ensure that there is a consistency and a coherence between the core principles and supplementary material and within the various parts of the supplementary material. Modern media and technology can be used to help with this. We should use language which is as plain and simple as possible.
We want a book which can speak and be accessible to all present and future Quakers.
We encourage the revision committee to be prayerful, joyful, creative and bold. We hope that this book will help us to be more resilient for an uncertain future and that the process of revision will act as a catalyst for renewal.
I am told that there were significant changes made to this minute, particularly the concrete instructions and encouragement, at “the last moment” following ministry to the minute. Of course, this happens, and I would hope that the Meeting would feel able to decline to accept the minute after unwelcome amendments, even if time is getting on. I'm also not sure why one person who mentioned this felt the need to indicate that the ministry came from Friends who were “young-ish” (I think I recall the word used correctly, but might not have). I shall leave that without further examination for the time being.
I think it's important that this minute does not constrain the operation of the revision committee in many ways. All of the aspirations are ones I can agree with, though the wording “language which is as as plain and simple as possible” worries me in terms of how it might be construed. Are we to reject as anthology material anything that is not in the plainest possible language, excepting those that are naturally in archaic language due to their age? The latter exception I deem likely due to the supportive notes in the minutes regarding the ambiguity of archaic language, but also because I know that there's not a snowball's chance in hell that a revision committee will get rid of all of the quotes from Fox, Penn et al., not unless they were instructed specifically to do so – and then it would be hard to find people willing to serve.
But there is much modern writing that is not as plain and simple as it could be that might be in the anthology sections. The injunction for “as plain and simple as possible” is in a paragraph referring to church government sections, true, but the new book will focus on setting out the principles of our church government, and we already supplement this with quotations and material that is of a similar nature to that in the sections that are purely anthology. We want everyone to express things in the language that is truest for them, most reflective of their experience; sometimes that language will be less plain and simple than it might be. I hope that, perhaps, it might be interpreted conservatively, that all content that we deem it important that people read and understand be presented in language as plain and simple as possible. Some might argue that church government sections should only include things we consider important that people read and understand, but I think the additional richness of context may be worth the extra length.
I think that the task before the revision committee, once it is appointed, will be an interesting one. The task much more imminently before Central Nominations Committee will perhaps be even more interesting. They are asked to try to find a group that spans the age range, that must implicitly have a lot of skill, creativity and imagination. The group must be able to bring in input from Friends who are too young to serve on the committee, and perhaps those slightly older than “too young” who will be thought of as too young to nominate; I think there are a lot of under-18s in our Yearly Meeting who could make great contributions, that could functionally be part of the committee, but I suspect that it would be seen as inappropriate to actually nominate them without some sort of framework for doing so ensuring they are supported and included “appropriately”. Safeguarding would also be a concern, naturally.
I've heard it said that Central Noms will have a particular thought for Friends with a reputation for writing; I hope they are looking further than that. The convenor/clerk of the committee will have to have formidable organisational skills, even if there is staff support for the basic coordination of communication. The group will need those with an understanding of current technologies and people who are well-placed to understand the potential of new technologies emerging now or over the course of the revision process. There will be a need for editing skills, and for immediate communication skills as the revision keeps people across the Yearly Meeting involved. It will need skills in theology to be able to see if we are actually managing to give a good impression of the breadth of experience and belief among British Quakers.
There is a hard task ahead of us. A hard task for Sufferings, as they determine terms of reference. A hard task for Central Noms as they seek names of people to work on this, likely for an unspecified time (the draft terms of reference from the BoDRPG call for appointment “for the duration”, so to speak, though allowing for release and, if necessary, replenishment). A hard task for those appointed. Most importantly, though, a hard task for us all, as a Yearly Meeting. It was a hard task taking several years work to get us ready to decide to do this. It will not, in the grand scheme of things, get easier from this point in.
But I, for one, am sure that it is worth it.
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