HOW ARE THE MIGHTY FALLEN!
A REPORT ON THE PROCEEDINGS AT THE LONDON YEARLY MEETING OF THE SOCIETY OF FRIENDS (QUAKERS) 1994
(Part 1 in May, and Part 2 in July)
The story is told of a Friend who attended this Yearly Meeting and died the following weekend. Called by God to give an account of himself, he recounted how he had attended London Yearly Meeting. "The Devil take it!" said God, "I knew I was supposed to be somewhere last weekend."
Sadly, in essence this story is true. No more grievous harm was ever visited upon George Fox in 1652 by enemies than that visited upon him in 1994 by Friends.
At their London Yearly Meeting this year, The Society of Friends adopted a new Book of Discipline - in fact a Book of Indiscipline - then in two volumes three centimetres thick, eight years in committee but available in print to the members of the Society for scarcely three months, which contains twelve sections which imply or declare that sodomy is morally acceptable, a kind of union blessed by God, equal in this respect and superior in some respects (the absence of violence, and of inherent legal injustices) to heterosexual marriage.
I do not wish to be misunderstood. A Christian Church worthy the name embraces sinners - it is by His grace that I became a member - but it does not embrace sin. Jesus said to the woman taken in adultery, "Neither do I condemn you" (to death by stoning) but He did not say, as we read in the July Quaker Monthly, that adultery can be beautiful. He said, "Go, and sin no more." Many of us have been willing to greet homosexuals as Friends and fellow-pilgrims. Perhaps, if we were to follow the example of George Fox, who referred to Christopher Atkinson (when he was bringing the movement into disrepute by his immoral conduct) as ‘that dirty man’, we should refer to Harvey Gillman the Outreach Secretary, Ben Pink Dandelion the Resources for Learning Advisor, and David Blamires the Editor of The Friends Quarterly and member of the Re-Drafting Committee, and many others, as ‘those dirty men’.
After a notable history of three hundred years, through persecution and suffering steadily building up a universally-acknowledged reputation for the truest piety, this Society has now thrown all that away, and deserves to be ostracised by the ecumenical movement. It will become a laughing-stock amongst the religious, the butt of professional comedians, and a refuge for perverts of all denominations.
This was a case of wilful murder, and the non-voting procedures of the Society were so manipulated that the dissenting Friends present were rendered impotent witnesses,
To prepare the ground, seven cardinal markers were put down.
1. On the first Saturday, David Gray the Woodbrooke Lecturer related the story of two Friends whose sincere belief that the Society might be about to fall into serious error led them to ‘threaten’ the Society with their resignations. He held such Friends up to ridicule, and was rewarded with gales of laughter, when he suggested that any such hilarious offers should be promptly and joyfully accepted.
2. On two occasions we had the Clerk’s very slow and solemn reading of William Penn’s words, now placed at the beginning of Chapter 22: Love is the hardest lesson in Christianity; but for that reason it should be our most care to learn it. This sentence was in fact reflected in the old Query 13, and refers to the effort required to love those whom we do not find it easy to like, not because of any perceived moral infirmities, but rather because of their lack of the social graces, and indeed the readiness to make this effort is the very hall-mark of Quakers. Here is was being twisted to mean, "Those Friends who are horrified by the suggested inclusion of these sections condoning and extolling sodomy must struggle to subdue their revulsion in order to show that their love is capable of being extended beyond accepting the sodomites as Friends and fellow-pilgrims, in order to accept sodomy itself."
3. From the outset, the word from The Table was that much care in these deliberations was unnecessary and would be considered out of place. The messages employed promulgated the idea, "we are not seeking perfection", and, sadly, nobody dared to ask, "Why not?" or, "Should we not nevertheless regard it as important to come as near as possible to perfection in so vital a matter?" Bolstering the idea were two riders: (a) that we would be having another revision in a generation’s time; and (b) that the current Book would still be in our possession. The first rider was so transparently feeble that it was an insult to the intelligence. Both were grossly irrelevant, because it was the new Book which was under discussion.; and the latter was doubly misleading, firstly because it would be upon the new Book that we would be judged by enquirers, and secondly because the current book, if not already out of print, would very soon become so. However, for some Friends, the tactic proved effective at once. One speaker said, "It is only a book. It is not the Koran, being handed down by angels. Why worry?" Another said, rather enigmatically, "Let our deliberations be slow, but not too intense." A third said, "As a former maker of railway time-tables, I know such things when published always contain errors. Why worry?" (I rather think that most Friends regard our Book as of rather more spiritual guidance than a railway time-table, and I fail to see how an inaccurate time-table can be "nevertheless a guide", since it may lead me to miss a train I wished to board, or to board one bound for an evil destination.) All these contributions were of course echoing a letter in The Friend of that week, which said, "It is not intended to last for 1,000 years."
4. It was emphasised that dear and trusted Friends had been working very hard for us, for many years, to prepare the draft, - another nudge towards the previous idea, again echoing a letter in The Friend of that week, which said in effect, "It would be most unQuakerly to upset the drafting committee."
5. Unspoken but much fostered throughout was the quite invalid idea that we really must hurry along and clear up this whole business by the end of this session.
6. Allied with this was the repeated exhortation to move forward, with its suggestion that forward-looking Friends must regard any new departure as progress, and that any reluctant to move forward stood convicted of backwardness.
7. Much was made of the somewhat paradoxical and clever-sounding phrase, "A Book for our comfort and discomfort." Our late Friend Ormerod Greenwood wrote a study-booklet entitled The Uncomfortable Queries. This alluded entirely to the fact that, when faced with such questions as: Do you come faithfully to Meeting? Are you giving time and thought to the study of the Bible? Are you honest and truthful in word and deed? Do you give a right proportion of your money? most Friends would be uncomfortable in the knowledge that they were falling short in some of these ways. The mention of discomfort now was intended to ring pious bells in Friends’ minds, whilst actually concealing another impious twist of meaning: "If you are uncomfortable about the inclusion of any section here, you must not take this as a spur to active opposition, but as a sign that what you are suffering is good for your soul, and is to be silently endured as such." I was speaking to Ormerod’s son David a week after Yearly Meeting, and he agreed with me that his dear father would have been astounded and deeply saddened by what has taken place.
Immediate evidence that at least one Friend was aware of the significance of all this manipulation was provided during Part 1 by the speaker who asked, "Is it intended that we should let each chapter pass with either a nod and a smile or a nod and a frown?", and this perceptive question was not answered, but received by The Table with that good-humoured appreciation noted later in the final Epistle.
The nudging continued in The Friend and elsewhere, during the three months between Parts 1 & 2. A prime example, (p.555) which perpetrated, by the use of a plural pronoun, what was in fact an insidious lie, read, "Others spoke of how helpful they had found these pages (on Sexuality) in discussions with young people, and of the courage and tenderness they displayed." In fact, only one spoke of this, and I don’t recall the "courage and tenderness", but the force of that unlimited plural will have reverberated throughout the Society.
What happened at the beginning of Part 2 was a feat of forgetfulness. The position at the end of Part 1 was that the sections which had been taken were minuted as broadly acceptable, and the session on Chapter 22 came to no decision but concluded with an interim minute recording Friends’ deep divisions. Broadly acceptable, when challenged, was officially interpreted as subject to further revision by the appropriate committee, whose members would faithfully be taking into account everything which had been submitted verbally and in writing. However, by the commencement of Part 2, broadly acceptable had silently been re-interpreted as accepted, the deep divisions were silently passed over, and no account was given of submissions received.
More pressure was to follow. Addressing Friends on the first Saturday, Assistant-Clerk S.Jocelyn Burnell, conducting the business and introducing Chapter 22 - (CLOSE RELATIONSHIPS - Friendship, Sexuality, et c.,) began by saying, "Deal gently with one another, Friends." She said it again when re-introducing Chapter 22 on the second Sunday morning. Considering that the great majority of Friends present were of almost twice her age and experience, this was truly, prima facie, a breathtakingly offensive remark. They needed no lessons from her on how to behave, and if there is one place on God’s earth where gentle dealing with one another may be absolutely guaranteed, surely it must be when Friends are gathered in worship in their Yearly Meeting.
I say prima facie because of her real purpose there could be no doubt. She was issuing a coded message. Her message was, "It would be well if those Friends present who abominate the sections which condone or celebrate the delights of sodomy were not heard, but if they must be heard, they are not to be heeded, for it would be most unQuakerly to hurt the feelings of our homosexual and bisexual friends." Many of them nevertheless did speak, some truly quaking under the power of their conviction, and they far outnumbered those putting the contrary view; but the procedure for this Meeting for Worship was quite different from that which obtains everywhere else. The Clerks have absolute power of choice as to whom they give permission to speak. After the anguished objectors had been heard, care was taken to call a prominent homosexual to speak, after which a healing silence was called for, and then the question was slyly put: "Are Friends now ready to accept this section?" Quakers’ traditional way is for those in favour to answer together "I hope so". In a gathering of 800, fifty voices suffice to generate the volume required for the Clerk to perceive a positive response, and in any case, "No" has the same essential vowel sound as "I hope so". In fact, of course, the wrong question was put. In good conscience she should have asked, "Do Friends wish to reject this section?, and then there would have arisen a much louder chorus of "I hope so". It must also be noted that the version of Chapter 22 then "accepted" was not available to the Friends before the weekend, so they had very little time even to read it through and detect the new changes and additions, and certainly no time to subject it to the traditional processes of discussion in Preparative and Monthly Meetings. When challenged about this, the Clerk replied that all the new material had been in print elsewhere for some time - an argument valid for the inclusion of passages from Lady Chatterley’s Lover! In fact, one new section had its first appearance in print in the July Quaker Monthly, and none had been in print as proposed for inclusion in the new Book. As a very concerned Friend I had since January watched most carefully for, and agitated for, an early sight of new revisions and additions, but it was not until the Saturday that I heard that there were a limited number of copies available in the Small Meeting-Room, and when I tracked them down I found only five copies there (among 800!) and all these were marked Please read and return.
Thus the previously honourable appellation Friend has taken on a whole new meaning, the Society has adopted a Book of Indiscipline, and perhaps it is only a matter of time before letters will be addressed to The Society of Partners, Gays House, and all our Meeting-Houses will be under pressure to open mid-week as Lesbian and Gay Centres. Not many years hence, when the moral pendulum has returned to equilibrium, the names of the 1994 Clerks and of all those who prominently aided and abetted and encouraged them will be inscribed with infamy in our history. This is sad, because I am sure that they sincerely believed that they were being led by the true Light.
Thus our homosexual Friends have gained something, whilst we have lost everything. Being already accepted in London Yearly Meeting as Friends, they have gained what they did not need. Being no longer in good conscience able to accept membership of London Yearly Meeting, I have lost what I formerly treasured.
The very first paragraph of the previous, now superseded, Book of Discipline relates the story of how George Fox met a cousin and a friend, both of whom made a profession of religion, at a fair. They invited him to drink beer with them but afterwards began to drink healths and called for more drink, agreeing together that he that would not drink should pay all. This so grieved George Fox that he cast a groat upon the table and said, "If it be so, I’ll leave you." What grieved him was that these two professors, whose business as such was to make a stand against loose and undisciplined living, were content meekly to move with the times and to adopt its lax customs. This experience led him, after much distress and seeking, to acknowledge Christ as his personal guide and Saviour. It was the seed which in time grew to become our beloved Society. In humble imitation of George Fox, and as a member of the Society for 25 years (after 5 years as a regular attender), an Elder and erstwhile Convenor of Lewes monthly Meeting Elders, and Clerk of my local Meeting for seven years, I have cast my groat upon the Clerk’s table and said, with unutterable sadness, If it be so, I’ll leave you.
Ralph Hill 1994
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