A personal account of Ireland Yearly Meeting, 8th – 11th April 2021

The main theme of this year’s Ireland Yearly Meeting (IYM) was ‘A Time to Act Together in Faith and Hope’.

A wide range of subjects was explored during the online gathering, from peace and resurrection to sustainability, advocacy on contemporary Quaker concerns, and the positive and negative aspect of new technological innovations. There were illuminating reports given on the good work of Quaker Service in Northern Ireland and on the projects supported in Ireland and in other countries by Irish Quaker Faith in Action (IQFA).

Friends differ in their views on the kind of ‘God’ we should place our faith in but we could, at least, confidently put our faith in the new ‘Zoom-world’ … or could we?

The Special Interest Groups held in advance of the historic online IYM, were stimulating, rewarding and technically very successful. The new ‘Zoom-world’ seemed to working fine in our home in the countryside.  All was going smoothly. 

On Thursday afternoon, however, on the eve of the main programme, a large delivery lorry brought furniture, and disaster, by pulling down our broadband cable from the skies. Having agreed to report on Yearly Meeting, my heart sank like that cable, and we had a new kind of Covid isolation.

In the magical ‘Zoom-world’ though, miracles do happen. A temporary hub was promised the next morning and BT engineers would later arrive to climb poles, fix cables, and re-connect us promptly.  I was disappointed to miss the Ministry and Oversight session on Thursday evening but was really looking forward to re-connecting for the sessions on Faith in Action and Connecting with our Neighbours on Friday.

The BT technical stars amazingly arrived on Friday morning and had ‘fixed it but not quite fixed it’. Sadly, the engineer for the telegraph poles, who had come and gone, needed to return again the next day. Our faith and hope were tested.

We listened to the Public Lecture on my mobile phone that evening. Eoin Stephenson of Limerick Meeting was once a Trappist monk at Mount Melleray Abbey. Now a Quaker with a family, he spoke on the topic ‘Resurrection and Personality’ and posed the challenging question: ‘Can we cope with the resurrection?’.  His considered, engaging delivery and lucid presentation made his personal interpretation of this question, and his response to it, very accessible.  

Eoin used vivid images and measured words in his interpretation of the different biblical references to the resurrection and wore his considerable learning lightly. He described the experience of encounter, recognition and presence in an individual as elements of resurrection in our lives and went on to say that, “for some it is a clear moment of explicit recognition. For others, recognition grows slowly over time into a sense of personal presence”.

Eoin described his ideal of a healthy ‘whole personality’. He said that individuals could have a closed or open personality and spoke of fear and anger closing down the open personality. Having an open personality was essential, he felt, for responding to resurrection and living as fully as we can.

Other resonant ideas and phrases still echo for me: ‘Do we embrace life as it unfolds in all its challenging newness, or do we stand with the certainties we have established in our lives?’ and ‘The love that brought us into existence will hold us in death so that we share in this new life.’

Eoin related his ideas on resurrection and personality to his religious experience as a Friend. Silent Meeting for Worship, he said, was a ‘place of encounter with Divine Presence’ and ‘in this encounter our personality grows.’

We were operational again in time for Session 3 on Peace and Social Justice.It was a most revealing session for many Friends. We heard about the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. It illuminated a frightening innovation in warfare: the development of fully autonomous weapons.  Clare Conboy Stevenson, of the campaign, talked about concerns, such as flaws in facial recognition being accurate on all ethnic groups, and explained her fear that moral judgements that should reside in human beings would be delegated to robots.  Leading powers are presently devoting millions to these weapons. Quakers were urged to support the international campaign to ban their use that now includes 66 countries, and this was recorded in the final epistle of IYM. IYM also agreed to sign an interfaith statement against killer robots “A Plea for Preserving our Shared Humanity”.

We also heard in this session about the ‘Stop Fuelling War’ campaign. This French lobbying charity, set up in 2017, aims to raise awareness of the arms trade in France and to oppose one of the largest arms fairs in the world, Eurosatory, which is held every two years in Paris. Karen King talked about how the campaign lobbies to re-direct the huge amount of money and jobs tied up in this industry into alternative uses, such as peace building and prevention, and sustainable industries. The words ‘defence’ and ‘security’ need a complete re-think and a new approach. I was glad to hear Karen stress the importance of addressing the causes of conflict, which, though complex, are often fuelled by poverty, deprivation and feelings of abandonment and hopelessness. The present troubles locally on the streets of East Belfast offer proof of what happens when this is not done.

A particular highlight for me was the session on Sustainability.  Four Friends spoke from the heart about their personal experiences of working for sustainability.  A young Friend, Kate Harty, spoke passionately about the campaign, Fridays for Future.  She has found a caring community in this activist group.  I liked the idea of the mental health check-in system they use online, selecting a coloured digital heart to indicate how they are feeling.

Kate Fletcher shared some of the challenges she has faced in working on environmental issues over the years.   She said that the environmental crisis is fundamentally a spiritual one and spoke about the importance of maintaining hope.  She said that hope was the decision not to give up when faced with the learned helplessness of despair, but to keep going anyway. 

Brian O’Suilleabhain said that there was hope for the future in that more people are beginning to say, “yes”.  People may not know what to do, but know they must do something.  They may not know what to say, but know that they must say something.  He asked, “What canst thou say?”

Oliver Robertson of Britain Yearly Meeting spoke lucidly and thoughtfully.  He said that we bring the whole of ourselves to our closest relationships and wondered what it would be like if we brought all parts of our selves to caring for the environment.  He maintained that we need people at every step of the journey towards living sustainably, so that we can see what comes next. 

The session was peppered with interesting statistics; we learnt that the US military produces more CO2 emissions than some countries.  There was advice to lobby politicians and a reminder not to forget the importance of civil servants and party members. There was also a welcome dose of optimism. We were told ‘there is nothing so energizing as doing something’, asked to counteract a resignation that the problems are too overwhelming, and recognise that ‘times are changing’.

Friends at IYM always look forward to the report from Young Friends and this year, as ever, it filled us with inspiration and hope.

The Sunday session allowed time for Friends to reflect on IYM and on the benefits and drawbacks of meeting online.  There was discussion about how Friends could use their experience of this way of doing things in the future.

I missed meeting in person, but still felt that strong sense of belonging, identity and community that IYM always represents for participants. Seeing and hearing old friends lifted my spirits again.

And the promised ‘next morning’ mini-hub that could provide instant internet access to IYM for us?  It eventually arrived on the Monday after Yearly Meeting! We live in faith and hope.

Rachel Kirk-Smith, South Belfast Meeting