Reflections on a Home-coming

Doreen E Dowd

Address to Ministry and Oversight at Yearly Meeting, 2005

Good Evening, Friends;

For those of you who do not know me, I am a life-long member of Ireland Yearly Meeting, Dublin Monthly Meeting and attend Eustace St. Meeting. In 1992 I left my job as a respiratory physician in Dublin, and went to work in a Salvation Army hospital in Zambia. My work permit described me as a missionary. In 1998 I moved to Lesotho, which is a tiny mountainous kingdom, completely land-locked by the Republic of South Africa, and worked for six years as the Flying Doctor. I was officially a civil servant, but as I was flown several times a week to various remote mountain clinics by the pilots of Mission Aviation Fellowship, I was close to the missionary community in that country.

I have been asked to describe my reactions on returning to retirement in Ireland, in May 2004, both to society at large and to the Religious Society which has always been my spiritual home.

Having visited Ireland at roughly two year intervals, I had had sequential views of the progress of the Celtic Tiger. Last year, I found a very affluent society, where one cup of coffee and a bun cost more than two people would pay for hamburger, chips, salad and coffee in Lesotho. But direct price comparisons are unrealistic when Lesotho had so many people unemployed, struggling to live on maize grown in a rocky field, and to find money from haphazard employment to clothe the children, and perhaps send them to school.

Another feature of Irish society is of course corruption. Some of the Basotho used to say to me “but we far too corrupt to make democratic government work in our country”, whereupon I would show them the Irish Times, sent to me once a week by a benefactor, and tell them that if they wanted the post-graduate course in corruption, the Republic of Ireland would be a good place to apply! Here in Dublin, when my bungalow needed some repairs, I discovered too late the significance of the words “This is the price for cash” prefacing verbal quotations from tradesmen. It might have been a better witness to Quaker integrity if I had challenged them, but at the time I genuinely did not realise the implication.

I discovered on previous trips home that a quick way to catch up on the “vibes” of local culture is to watch TV. Many programmes were devoted to “make-overs”, in which gurus offered to upgrade your garden, your house, your wardrobe, even your sexual prowess. Everyone wants the “Good Life” With a disturbed sleep pattern, I found myself channel hopping, at odd hours of day and night; and it was an eye-opener. Sexual innuendo no longer amuses, because terminology is so explicit. Four-in-a -bed sex, with any blend of genders, is not difficult to stumble across. Then I wondered whether TV was a true mirror of living society, but two incidents persuade me that it is not far from reality.

My octogenarian aunt, rather a prude, enquired for her grand-nephew, and asked, not whether he has a girl-friend, but whether he has a partner. A much broader view of Irish society is presumably given by our Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, who caused some stir when she commented on “…the vulgar fest that is modern Ireland. The rampant, unrestrained drunkenness, the brutal random violence, that infects the smallest of our townlands and villages, the incontinent use of foul language with no thought to place or company, the obscene parading of obscene wealth, the debasement of our civic life, the growing disdain of the wealthy towards the poor,…”. Later she suggests that we “…recognise the new religions of sex and drink and shopping for what they are and tiptoed back to the churches..”.

Many Friends of the older generations may continue to live in an ordered society, where work, family, hobbies, Sunday Meeting, and perhaps Monthly Meeting, and often considerable good works, make for a civilised life-style, but our younger Friends are exposed to a very different world, and it behoves us all to be aware of the world that we live in. We know William Penn’s . “True Godliness don’t turn men out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavours to mend it” But what about the next sentence: “Christians should keep the helm and guide the vessel to its port; not meanly steal out at the stern of the world and leave those that are in it without a pilot to be driven by the fury of evil times upon the rock or sand of ruin.” Is that now politically incorrect? Are we older Friends living in the present world, or in earlier, safer times?

I do not want to suggest that Irish society is all bad. There is a refreshing openness. Despite episodes of racism we have welcomed many non-nationals into our communities; social mobility and education is available for most of those with ambitions, awesome medical technology is available despite problems in the health services, and we still expect to live peacefully and well. The generous donations to victims of the tidal wave in SE Asia show that we can still have compassion. Concern for the environment is blossoming.

And what of our Religious Society in Ireland? When I received a letter asking me to talk about my reactions to returning to Irish Quakerism, I was quite surprised by my own thought when the word that came into my head was “lonely”. Let me try to explain by describing a few details of my recent life, particularly in Lesotho.

Every working day, I joined the pilots of MAF in a short devotion, to ask God’s blessing on the activities of the coming day. We were all comfortable to speak of Jesus as “Saviour”, but none of us saw ourselves as evangelists. We “knew each other in the things that are eternal”, believing in personal salvation, divine guidance in daily situations, and the relevance of scripture.

However, I do not want you to think that I had found Paradise, a communion of saints united in thought, word and deed. The general attitude was to avoid discussing areas of disagreement, and these were highly practical people, some of them not greatly interested in the secular world.

As several were American , war was a very sensitive issue, even before 9/11. When a group of their supporters visited, after the Iraq war had started, I found it much better, rather than bandying Scripture verses, to ask, “”Do you think Jesus would fly a plane to bomb an Iraqi village?”

If sensitive subjects were off limits at work, the same did not apply to the Friends and attenders of Lesotho Allowed Meeting. Traditionally, the hour of silent worship was followed by “After words”, in which discussion was encouraged, on activities of the previous week, or concerns or problems. When the Meeting grew from a quartet of expatriate Friends over the age of fifty to a dozen or more, of several nationalities, of all ages, the talk was often fast and furious, with no holds barred. If your next Elders’ meeting is dragging, try to decide whether a Quaker bridegroom should be expected to pay a “lobola” or bride price for his intended, and estimate the monetary value of the traditional twenty cattle, an acceptable alternative for town dwellers!. Answer a young man’s question, “But what are you actually DOING during Meeting for Worship?”.

At the time it was all very stimulating, but it is in looking back that I sense the desperation of people in their twenties and thirties, some of them too poor to eat properly, conscious that many of their friends had died or were infected with AIDS, possibly worrying whether they themselves were infected. Western style advertising and access to the Internet made them aware of the Good Life, as expressed in material possessions, and often associated with the supposedly Christian First World, but they were also aware of the corruption and power struggles that were ruining many of the local churches.

Ireland Yearly Meeting loves to boast of its diversity, but Central and Southern Africa Yearly Meeting spans at least as broad a spectrum of outlook, and are much more articulate about their diversity. During YM 2004, a Friend rose, reminded us that it was Easter Sunday, and continued, “Christ is Risen”, to which many in the Meeting responded, “Christ is Risen indeed”, while the rest of the Friends kept silent. Another Friend asked in a Worship Sharing group, “But what do you mean by “Grace”?” Another is a practising Buddhist. As far as I could determine, Friends were not just willing but eager to share their spiritual experiences and values.

So what of Ireland Yearly Meeting?

It seems that the administration of our Society is suffering badly in several parts of the country. This may in part be to the ridiculous, archaic bureaucracy that has not moved with the times, also to changing demography, so that people have less time for committees and business meetings: but I think too that we have devalued such activities, seeing them as a boring necessity rather than an avenue of divine service.

What of our local Meetings? Why do most have a static or decreasing membership? I suggest it is in part due to our failure to present a clear message about who we are. I can imagine that a stranger coming amongst us might wonder whether there is a secret pass-word that would unlock a clear and articulate description of why we do the things we do. And when we do venture into words, we assume that everyone else will understand our meaning..

If all the newspaper articles that were written about our 350 year celebrations were analysed, would any clear picture emerge? If it did, I suspect it might be a picture of absences, if such is possible, rather than a positive image. We do not have a creed, no liturgy, no paid clergy, no consecrated church buildings. While much was said about our contributions to Irish industry and business, our stance on non-violence, our emphasis on integrity, I felt that there was little explanation of the reasons why or how we have reached these values. And if somebody had pursued such enquiry in different Meetings, I suspect they might have been confused by the diversity of answers.

Since coming back to Dublin I have joined in some discussions about the revision of our Book of Christian Experience, and gather that the Friends who form the committee of revision have had much deep exchange of ideas, but there are many of my contemporaries, Friends I have known since we were all Young Friends, who are as closed books to me. I have no idea what they really think about Jesus, about this life or the next. It was very interesting to read in the Friendly Word of one Friend’s willingness to spell out his beliefs; and although some of his ideas are not my ideas, yet I was grateful for his honesty and openness. If my memory is correct, we were advised at a past Yearly Meeting to “be more articulate about our faith”, but have we heeded this advice?

Friends who do try to express their beliefs assume that their language is quite clear to anyone who speaks English, but some comments I have heard about the revision of “Christian Experience” illustrate how false this is. I am told that one Friend announced that only those who were “Christians” should be allowed to participate. I suspect that Friend had a very clear definition of what he or she means by “a Christian”, but needs to be reminded that the name of Christian is claimed by a vast spectrum of believers, from George Bush to Mother Teresa, from Greek Orthodox to Closed Brethren. I have also heard a suggestion that the word “Christian” be dropped from the title, and be replaced with a term such as “spiritual”. Is there a risk that each Meeting will develop its own outlook, and as Darwin found that each of the Galapagos islands had its own sub-group of finch, so Irish Friends will become so diverse that dialogue is impossible, and it would take an anthropologist to discern their common ancestry? A younger Friend commented to me that Young Friends from different parts of Ireland had no common terminology to describe their spiritual journeys. At least they are trying to talk to each other, while I feel older Friends have given up the attempt.

It is said that when you point the finger in accusation, three fingers are pointing back at yourself, so I am challenged to declare my position. Like George Fox, I am compelled to declare that Jesus is my Saviour, my mediator with God the Father. Because I am a sinner saved by grace, I am also part of “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that I may declare the praises of him who called me out of darkness into his wonderful light”. The Jesus, who lived in first century Palestine, was crucified and rose from the dead, is one with the Eternal cosmic Christ, and He is also the light that lighteth every person who comes into the world. I realise that I am fortunate in being able to accept a traditional faith quite easily, but, I hope, not facilely.

Incidentally, could I also make a plea that we stop using the phrase, “Northern Friends”, to describe those who share my understanding of the role of Christ. It is not geographically truthful!

This is the only interpretation of the role of Christ that makes sense to me, but I am well aware that there is controversy in many Christian denominations about the divinity and/or humanity of Jesus, and the meaning of the Cross. I believe we need to spend more time considering what was the message of Jesus, whether as mystical prophet, social reformer, ethical teacher, or Saviour of the world..

I have said that there is controversy in almost every denomination. However, I suspect that Friends have a particular difficulty, in that we have become very hazy about our source of Authority. We speak, sometimes rather diffidently, of being “led by the Spirit”; however we must have sympathy for the Friend who recently outlined two very different views of a topic, and added, with some exasperation, “and both those groups claim to be led by the Spirit!”

On what do we base our Society? We trot out isolated Bible verses when it suits us. Many Friends justify our silent worship, and absence of liturgy with Christ’s words in John, 4, 24, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth” but are very uncomfortable with his claim in the next verse to be the promised Messiah. Whatever the vegetarians’ reasons for not eating pork, nobody is bothered if women come to Meeting without hats, despite 1 Corinthians 11 5! . Where is the line between a literal belief in every word, and a pick-and-choose use of Scripture? Some Friends hint at belief in reincarnation, or pantheism, or a version of universalism that is inconsistent with the Judeo-Christian scriptures.

What about George Fox? We quote “answering that of God in every man”, but some would slide rapidly over the paragraph in one of his epistles. Quote “But, I say, you are redeemed by Christ. It cost him his blood to purchase man out of this state he is in, in the Fall” End quote. Some of us will quote Fox “Christ has come to teach his people himself”, but I suspect not all Irish Friends would be willing to see themselves as Christ’s people? Others dismiss Fox as irrelevant to the 21st century.

I will not enter here into any discussion of homosexual orientation or behaviour, but this controversy is the most vivid illustration possible of our uncertainties.

What do Quaker parents say to a child who is excited by a neighbour’s winning of a large amount of money on the Lottery, or to a teenager who wants to redesign her bedroom on the principles of Feng Shui?

I am not by any means advocating a witch-hunt for heresy, but rather pleading for more open communication amongst Friends, and then by Friends to those around us. Ministry at a recent Meeting for Worship described how recollections of the gentleness and integrity of a neighbouring Quaker farmer had been partly instrumental in the speaker, many years later, joining our Society. While it is likely that our neighbours will take more notice of how we live than of what we say, this need not exclude us giving to those around us a clear declaration of faith ….if we have one. St Francis may have said, “Preach the Gospel; use words if you have to”, but his hearers were not bombarded by words, from TV and radio, corporate logos, advertising jingles. Out of our silent worship should grow a coherent, ever maturing, expression of faith, as many of the writings of early Friends bear witness.

We are told that Fox’s words were for his generation, and we must find the words for our generation, seeking to be guided by the Spirit of God, and I have much unity with that outlook, but surely, if we believe we have a divine message, we should not be so coy about declaring our convictions, nor so secretive about their source?

May I add that when I started to write down these thoughts some months ago, I did not know that the question of “Authority” would crop up in other parts of our Yearly Meeting, as I believe it will.

Another term beloved of Friends is to call ourselves “Seekers”, or “Seekers after Truth”. If we mean that the nature of God is beyond our understanding, and that many of our questions will be answered only when we get to heaven, then, like Job, I have no difficulty with this term. However, if I have to face serious illness, or major decisions in life, or to-morrow morning, I want to feel I am stepping into this new situation with a faith that will sustain me. To use a metaphor from my previous career, my patients wanted to be told, “reliable authorities say that this will work, and it is for you to try it for yourself” Better still if I could say “I have tried this, and it works for me” rather than telling them that we are all searching!

Part of the explanation may be that Irish Friends are very respectable, serious, law-abiding, and with a few exceptions, we attract our own likeness, and indeed worship a God who is as vague and liberal as ourselves. The life stories of those attending Lesotho Allowed Meeting included murder, theft, drug dealing and prostitution, and I believe they were, consciously or otherwise, looking for “true Conversion of heart”, to quote from the Query that is so seldom read in our Meetings. It may surprise you to learn that it was Rufus Jones who pleaded for “the overwhelming sense of God, the staggering consciousness of sin, the transforming discovery of divine grace, the joyous assurance of forgiveness”.

It is now timely for me to make a statement, before anyone else does, that I am somewhat of a hypocrite! In about forty years of attending Eustace St., Meeting, I have spoken in Meeting for Worship probably less than ten times. This is partly because I have a firm conviction that to speak in Meeting is to declare that you have a message from God. But my reticence is reinforced by the realisation of how words can mislead and confuse, especially when brevity is expected. I also fear offending Friends who do not think as I do, none of which is being faithful to the Lord’s leading.

So, why am I still in Friends? Firstly, the Lord has not told me to go anywhere else, and anywhere else might not be thrilled to have me. When I went to conventional church services in Lesotho, because, PLEASE NOTE, everyone else in the Meeting had gone to Yearly Meeting, I had little sense of participation, and described it as like being at a rather boring concert. Since nobody ever handed me a Quaker creed, I have been forced to work out my faith for myself, and decide how to apply it to daily living. In this aspect, the diversity of Friends has indeed been a challenge, and I appreciate Friends who devote their abilities to considering how Gospel order relates to nuclear power, race relations, right use of the earth’s resources, and many other issues, but would like them to be more forthcoming about their motivation. And of course, there is the profound experience of a gathered Meeting for Worship.

I value the concept of the Light that lighteth everyone who comes into the world. The weary old grandmother in Lesotho caring for her grand-children orphaned by AIDS, the heroic workers in the aftermath of the tsumani, all are responding to the Light.

I like to think that Irish Quakerism could claim one of the titles George Fox used for his associates, “Primitive Christianity Revived”. At a time when the old certainties are breaking down in Ireland as least as fast as in the rest of the world, I would like to think of our Meetings as resembling the early churches. Imagine a street in Ephesus, and the neighbours collecting in one of the houses to find out why the family had changed since the two strange Jews had taught there last month. Why did they no longer go to the temple, why had they melted their silver statuettes of Diana and given the money to the leprosy-smitten beggars? Why had the son decided not to join the army? Who is their leader? Whose was the Spirit from whom they seemed to asking for direction and strength? Why were they so cheerful? What’s this stuff about not having anyone set aside as a priest, because everyone is expected to be a minister of the Gospel?

So, Friends, despite my former career, I suspect I am better known for afflicting the comfortable than for comforting the afflicted, and some desk-bound officials in the Ministry of Health in Lesotho can confirm this!

I would like to end by reading the passage of Scripture that I often used to close the Meeting when the Salvation Army invited me to preach “under the flag” in Zambia.

Ephesians 3. 17-21