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What Happens at the Religious Society of Friends' (Quakers) Yearly Meeting Gathering? - A Report From a Local Quaker

Thursday 1 January 1970, 00:00
By Jean Imray

YEARLY MEETING GATHERING, YORK – 25th July to 1st August 2009

Registration, on arrival at York University, went smoothly and I was glad to discover that my room was in James College, close to the restaurant, Exhibition Centre with Information Desk, snack bar, book shop and Tradecraft stall – all to be used regularly during my stay. Across the bridge over the large, attractive lake was the Central Hall, where all full sessions would take place. We were each allowed to choose a hand decorated paper carrier for the documents we were given: "Events Listings", "Trustees Report & Accounts" and Epistles & Testimonials". Sadly, after a day or two of more papers and the rain, mine burst its seams!

The first thing to come to terms with was the size of the University Campus and the fact that 1600+ temporary inhabitants were taking part. Another was an early supper, at 5.30pm, which meant frequent trips for snacks later!

Gathering Together, the welcome and introduction, took place at 7.30pm in Central Hall on Saturday. On Sunday, for example, if you were a LARK you could start at 7.30am with Circle Dancing, Yoga, Morning Exercises, then Meeting for Worship in Central Hall, this was followed by ten different options ranging from a Yearly Meeting Session on "Connecting the Spirit" to Dancing, Poetry, Spinning in the morning then, after a lunch break, no less that thirty six programmes on offer, for all ages, and after supper, yet another sixteen. The OWLS amongst us could end the day at 10.00 or 11.00pm with a film.

I decided to look for events which would help me personally or might be useful to my own Meeting and rationed myself to three sessions a day. My first day went very well and as the hour passed in Meeting for Worship with such a large number of Friends, I became more and more conscious of the depth and power it was generating in the silence. If nothing else, it gave me courage to face what I knew would be an exciting but also an exhausting week.

One of my choices was "Find Your Own Skyspace" – since a visit to the north of Scotland, I have become much more conscious of the sky, its depth, its colours and the clouds – and this proved to be a talk and film about the American artist, James Turrell, who has a Skyspace installation in Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Since the opening, Yorkshire Quakers had been allowed to hold meetings for worship but, by 2008, it was felt too restrictive and a non-religious event was organised so that other members of the public would be welcomed. The lecturer was Susan Robson, a Friend from Leeds, who helps organise the yearly event and she spoke about his work. My day finished with a lecture by Richard Wilkinson, University of Nottingham, author of "The Spirit Level": he is convinced that the happiest countries are not necessarily the wealthiest and his talk, "Disfunctional societies: why inequality matters", explored the gap between rich and poor in society. I have yet to read his book but I can accept his conclusions.

So many sessions with great meaning for me but I found the most important was the annual Swarthmore lecture, given by Peter Eccles, a mathematician from the University of Manchester, talking on "The Presence in the Midst: Reflections on Discernment", beginning with the importance to Quakers of stillness and telling us about his own experience of the world, drawing us into some of the difficult decisions Quakers had to make in the recent past.

Other lectures that will stay with me include Julia Ryberg of Sweden Yearly Meeting's "Creating Connections" with amazingly evocative symbolism; a smaller session about the Israeli/Palestine problem (although I was a little disappointed that the promised 'extraordinary stories about ordinary Palestinians and Israelis' turned out to be a report by two Friends); "Connections with Friends" by Swiss Friends in this 500th anniversary of Clavin's death (I hope to be in Basel this Christmas); and the last session I attended, about Quaker Gardens and Burial Grounds and their care, which I thought would be helpful to Wincanton.

On the final evening everyone joined in a ceilidh, ending in an incredible chain of hands right around the lake, singing and releasing aerial lanterns which drifted across the sky.

I felt the whole Meeting Gathering was very well thought out and managed, considering the number of people involved and the difference in their ages and found the Information Desk, however overwhelmed by requests, helpful and unflustered. The same was true of the College porters I met as well as Friends House through the special telephone number for Yearly Meeting Gathering.

Yearly Meeting Gathering 2009 has made me very conscious of the strength and importance of the Society, both in this country and overseas. I think in our own Meetings we are sometimes too parochial and forget that we have obligations not just to our own Local Meetings or to Britain Yearly Meeting but also to Friends wherever they are. If you have a chance to visit a Meeting other than your own, take that chance and you will probably learn something. Try to attend Britain Yearly Meeting in London and look forward to another Yearly Meeting Gathering proposed for 2011 in Canterbury.

JEAN IMRAY, September 2009 (edited by Sarah Maude)

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