By Stephen Cox
Have Quakers in London an appealing Vision and a plan to keep going? Over 200 Quakers from across London met to begin the debate.
Quakers in London have around 40 buildings (and we were constantly reminded that all meetings don’t need buildings.) Meetings are currently grouped into seven Areas (of which two are really struggling, and of which all seven feel structure and process sometimes gets in the way of energy and growth.)
Positives: half those present said their meeting has more people attending than a few years ago. The Link Group for teenagers, interesting witness at demonstrations, Prides and at saint Paul’s, Quaker Quest and the like were all cited as positives. Certainly there was a great vision struggling to be born, which was about deeper worship and better social action, not seeing them as alternatives.
However, challenges include:
sustaining 40 buildings, some now in really obscure places and requiring increased investment to meet our obligations at a time when many of us feel we have less energy to give;
increasing our visibility and increasing our witness;
and a Quakerism that is fluid – most people don’t go to their geographically closest meeting, many young people engage outside the structures, fewer people see joining Quakers as important. (So although formal membership per meeting building has halved… does that demonstrate that active participation has halved?)
Finding and agreeing the necessary decisions to make, would take more than an afternoon in a hot room.
Local meetings are where we worship and do most of our Quaker stuff. How best to sustain them, what mutual support and learning do they need? It seemed obvious that we will need to give up some local buildings for others better suited to the purpose and in better places; we will need more meetings that take place without owning the building (perhaps in our homes, or places on busy highways); and most existing buildings will be used in a new way.
We will need to think more cleverly about the level at which things are done. Currently only a few things are done Londonwide but it seems functional conferences on oversight, witness, outreach could run very well on this basis. (Central London Quaker venues are no further away from most of us than our regular meeting.) One radical idea which frightened some horses was a single London Area – it might work for money and property and big functional events, but would it work as well for membership, say? (I think its an idea noone should dismiss without further discussion.) The alternative of merging seven areas into four seems to me a less fundamental look at what we do, and unlikely to be a happy experience for some meetings.
London is a city which should be full of Quakers – full of people working in education, health science and the arts, home to many extraordinary charities, diverse and often tolerant, a home to people from all over the world, and where all the issues of poverty, violence, discrimination and injustice are alive and kicking. It is a place to speak truth to power and a place which desperately needs Quaker values, Quaker discernment and Quaker silence. After all if only one person in a thousand attended a Quaker meeting our numbers would treble.
There were times when we began to feel the possibilities. Let the debate begin.