Called to be Friends
Traditionally called the ‘Public Lecture, the text of the Ireland Yearly Meeting Address 2011 follows. It was presented by W Ross Chapman who lives in Newry and is a member of Bessbrook Meeting
Before entering into the topic chosen for this evening, here is a preamble about this annual event that we have practised at our Yearly Meetings for 80 or so years. It was officially commenced in 1926 and the minute which gave authority to its setting-up reads as follows:
‘The Yearly Meetings Committee is directed to arrange for an address or lecture dealing with some aspect of Quaker teaching or history to be given annually before or during the Yearly Meeting’. Of the addresses or lectures which have been given in accordance with that minute, about 30 of the speakers have been Irish, and about 40 from England, with a few from America and other parts. It tends to be the best attended event of the Yearly Meeting but I wonder sometimes about the title.
Have you come this evening to be lectured to? The title ‘public lecture’ brings up some ideas of attentive students receiving information from a person of greater knowledge, a form of instruction, a sermon, a dissertation. This room, as you can see, is a lecture room. An address seems more suitable on this occasion; like a letter addressed to you.
Is it public ?
A second question is, is it public? It is called a public lecture and is advertised as such. However, down the years I would say it has largely failed in that endeavour. Certainly the public are warmly invited and welcomed here but it is a matter of some interest to me that we have this event, a so-called ‘public’ lecture. When do you think was the first public lecture given by Friends in Dublin? It seems to me that it was in 1655. Two women Elizabeth Smith and Elizabeth Fletcher stood up in St. Audoen’s church just beyond Christ Church cathedral, it’s there still. They probably faced a hostile and amazed congregation. After the priest had finished his liturgy, they took their stand and preached or gave our first public lecture. Probably they got some heckling and jeering. Yes, they preached good news. Had they, and others, not done so, would we be meeting here this evening?
A further point about this Yearly Meeting Address as I prefer to call it, is that it is, for those who are new to the Society of Friends, a misleading introduction. One person is authorised to speak from a script for maybe an hour and no one else is permitted to add anything. It’s preposterous, yet these are the fetters with which we have shackled ourselves, in the interests of good order. We fear it would be too much of a risk to throw the topic open and have an invited speaker criticised or questioned. And so we have decided that it is best to let the lecturer go ahead without challenge or without having the topic deepened and augmented. I would suggest that it might be a good idea that we have a shorter address and then an appointed Friend, having seen the text in advance, to be the opener, as it is called. Or the chairman might give a more expanded and broader view on the topic, rather than leaving it all to one individual. It is out of line with Friends’ ways for one person to deliver a long, prepared text and everyone else told to be silent.
You are my friends
Having got that off my chest, now we may go ahead with the talk. It is as you know from John’s gospel: ‘You are my friends; I call you not servants but friends. You are my friends if you do what I ask you’.
The word ‘friend’ is the topic this evening. Do you remember the radio game where a speaker had to talk without hesitation, deviation or repetition? I will be guilty of all three flaws in an effort to cover the subject. It is a delight every time I hear the word ‘friend’, and it’s better said than written because it allows a happy ambivalence. Has it a capital F or not, you ask? Aha.
This lovely word implies fellowship, camaraderie, concord, fraternity, warm-heartedness, shaking hands, holding out the olive branch. As I look at the word in other languages I think we can learn something. Maybe the first phrase we should learn in any language should be ‘My friend’. I’m no linguist but I do like the address in Irish, A Chara or French, mes Amis or German, meine Freunde. We have been called friends, that was the word that Jesus gave to those close to him. We have inherited those words and by extension, we are called to be friends and continue to be called to be friends. It is our ongoing destiny.
The mark of the Christ
Who is calling us? My theology is weak. I couldn’t win an argument in catechetics, I can hardly say the word. My theology was shaped somewhat in Dublin 1950 or so, attending Churchtown meeting now and again, listening to a little bearded 90-year-old man, William Wigham. The messages that he passed on I can hear them yet. ‘Do you ever look closely at a donkey?’, he did say, ‘Did you ever notice the cross on his back? Do we show the mark of the Christ as we go about day by day?’ Also a similar message he gave about a robin getting its red breast from wiping away the bleeding from the brow of the One who wore a crown of thorns. Are we bearing the mark of the Christ in our lives? Here is my little bit of theology this evening. My feeling is that ‘the Christ’ is an accurate name for that spirit that is eternal; the link stretching from Ruth and Samuel and Daniel, then shown in the light of the world that blazed in Jesus, and continues evident in lives ever since. It inspires and is revealed in human beings today and tomorrow. We are called to be friends of the Christ .
There are now, in Ireland, two threats to this calling. The first is to insist on articles of belief within the Society of Friends. Since Robert Barclay there have been attempts to formulate a Quakerism argued out, point by point. How we have survived without a systematic man-made construction of doctrine gives pause for thought; and thankfulness. The second challenge is a more seductive blind alley which is being offered today. It is to ditch our Christian basis; to abandon our relationship with the Divine; to offer ethical humanism as the alternative way for us to travel along.
We are called to be friends. Not so much servants, as the text of scripture says. A servant implies a lord. If we accept this offer of being a friend, does it replace the lord/servant relationship? What place should that favoured word ‘service’ have amongst us? Frequently used and treasured, Quaker service, our service for others. It’s the old tension between Martha and Mary.
Not so much followers or disciples, though I like those words, they imply a guru, a teacher.
It’s like an apprentice learning under a skilled craftsman, under a discipline and a system of rules. Yet to be called to be a friend is a quite different relationship. A follower is a position many of us adopt. It implies a leader. It is a rather passive position.
When we think of friend, another word comes to mind, enemy; the opposite of friend; a relationship which we have to endure and manage somehow. The Christian commandment, Love your enemies, in human terms it’s impossible, by definition. We members of the Society of Friends tend to want people to like us. After all, don’t we like everyone? We try to be pleasing. In preparing for this talk the devil’s whisper tempted me, ‘Say things that they will like to hear. Say things that will go down well with the audience’. Then the truer word came through, ‘Woe unto you when all men think well of you’. In Aesop’s fable of the man, his son and the donkey the folly of agreeing with everyone is shown up. I have had my enemies, some in my working life, some even in the Society of Friends. It’s a disturbing, unsettling and destructive part of the human condition. John Wesley aimed to be the friend of all and the enemy of none, so do we all here, I think. But honesty compels me to say that how we cope with enemies is a defining feature of every friend.
Friendliness to strangers
Another word is ‘stranger’. One thought on friendship which is in scripture and has eternal quality about it is: ‘I was a stranger and you invited me in, etc. Inasmuch as you did it unto one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it unto me’. Our calling is to unite with the Christ within that stranger. From The breastplate of Patrick, he calls us to find the Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. A hallmark of Ireland is friendliness to the stranger. Those of our Society have often done the befriending, the spiritually strong being the subject rather than the object. It’s good sometimes that we are in the position of need, of receiving the touch of a good Samaritan.
When I think of previous Yearly Meeting lectures the ones that stand out in my mind are the ones which were upsetting. Thirty years ago, Gerald Priestland, a BBC radio religious affairs correspondent, came with the title, ‘Quakers and sin’. He was a brave man. Our local experts in that topic were dismayed at his offering on the subject, and wanted to have some redress, though by then he had flown back to the safety of England. Some years later John Tod in Waterford gave a lively address ‘Life is an adventure’ which was disturbing to several of those attending. His generalisations about missionary work in Africa were too sweeping so a meeting was hastily arranged next day to allow time to talk it over with him. I intend being here tomorrow should the occasion arise.
The purpose of this address is to provide food for thought; not that you must agree with me, or must disagree but chew it over and after rumination see what comes of it.
It has been said that the two words, Quaker and Friend are synonymous. I’m not so sure. There are shades of meaning and implications; there are contrasting emphases. So, not so much a Quaker as being more of a Friend. Over recent years within the Society of Friends I notice the demise of the word ‘Friend’. It is being eroded from our vocabulary. The word ‘Quaker’ has taken over. Looking at the titles of previous lectures, and of the 80, 25 have included the word Quaker, only 4 have included the word ‘Friend’.
Meanings: Quakers and Friends
Quaker, I would suggest stands for something that is different from its original meaning. Then, there was a physical trembling in the presence of God in a powerful way caused by the presence in which they lived. Friends quickly accepted the term. William Penn used the word in a pamphlet he published in the 1670’s. But never till this present generation has the word ‘Quaker’ been so widespread as to supplant the word ‘Friend’. I know the reason why. It is said to be misleading to use the word ‘Friend’, people don’t understand when you say Society of Friends whereas the word Quaker is distinctive. My address this evening is a call to re-instate the word ‘Friend’ and encourage its use; to grasp its underlying significance and its precious beauty.
There has been a thread running through our history, the Quaker thread, which causes trouble, is argumentative, condemnatory, insulting, discourteous, all in the interests of Truth. Just as a quake causes earth tremors, so a Quaker set about to upset the status quo, whether in the steeple-houses of Dublin in 1655, or on the streets in recent times, or in newspapers denouncing the government, lobbying the powers that be, and using that phrase, speaking truth to power. It is rather presumptuous for a group which comprises 0.005% of the population; it’s like rejection of the ballot box. The Quaker thread appeals to the political activist, impatient for a revolution and re-alignment of the wider community. This Quaker trend wants to be noticed and courts publicity, it enjoys being guilty of conduct liable to lead to a breach of the peace. Yes, Jesus did it. George Fox etc did it and it has been an enduring aspect of our Religious Society. But, it is different from being a Friend.
A friend is fallible and imperfect
A friend is fallible and imperfect. Friendship does not expect or imply a perfect companion.
Jesus said to Judas at the time of his betrayal, ‘Friend, wherefore art thou come?’
And on another tack, when John’s gospel says ‘I have called you friends’ there is a group, a plurality there, a society. We are in an era of stressing the importance of the individual—- I’ll do it my way – not in tune with the ways and practices of Friends down the years. Do we hear the voice, calling us together to be Friends, calling us to be friends together?
To be a friend is a mutual relationship. Can you be friends with someone who does not respond or reciprocate? I don’t think so. It takes two or more to create trust and understanding. It is a mutual, bilateral and multilateral relationship.
Another aspect is that offering friendship does not ensure that we will be liked. Looking for the best in everyone, a key practice of our Society, expecting a warm response to our offer of friendship; some accept it, some reject it, reject us, see our failings, or see our self-confident pride and run a mile. ‘Woe unto you when all men like you.’ You’ve heard of the book ‘How to win friends and influence people’. It was a best-seller. Are we wanting to ‘win’ friends? That sounds a bit of a selfish agenda. To be friends is more what we are about.
The idea of the ‘friend’ which Jesus used and which we have embraced is portrayed in the picture of the Christ at the door, knocking, and if the door is opened the divine visitor is welcomed, and in a colloquial translation we might say, ‘Come on in for a drop of tea and a while’s crack’. In turn this divine friendship inspires a similar type of friendship in our daily encounters with all sorts of the human race and with other creatures too.
Faithful are the wounds of a friend. Only a sincere friend can make a wise criticism or correction. Human weakness, blindness, arrogance and self-interest make correction from outside ourselves necessary. Who is going to do that correcting? The current wisdom in some quarters of Quakerism is that we must be non-judgmental. It is expounded as a worthy ideal, but a faithful friend should and will make timely and wise criticism in the best interests of one’s friends. A friend needs to be sincere enough to speak unpalatable truth. A faithful friend is the medicine of life.
So, we are called to be friends, to practice this friendship with the Christ, the spiritual source, and meet together. Another word closely related to friend is ‘meeting’. Wherever you have Friends you have meetings. Our worship times and our business times are called meetings. Other branches of the church conduct services, implying the other idea of a leader or master and servant or follower. Friends meet together in meeting; the presence, the Christ, is in the midst.
Is there any danger or weakness in this analogy? Maybe. Remember every one of our attempts to grasp the divine are imperfect. When we see the Christ as a friend is that to trivialise the relationship? Today’s trend is towards informality, wisecracks, flippancy; all tending to diminish the sense of reverence, wonder and respect in worship.
Mother Teresa knew a thing or two about being a friend of the Christ. She was asked ‘When you pray what do you say? I say nothing. And what does the Christ say to you? Nothing. We just gaze at one another.’ She lived in the presence. She knew about being called to be a friend, on the banks of the Ganges or in Ballymurphy. Her life showed us there need be no choosing between either Martha or Mary; let’s include them both.
Who is my neighbour ?
When Jesus used the word ‘ neighbour’, the pernickety, pedantic lawyer asked, ‘But who is my neighbour?’ Instead of giving any definition, a story was used as illustration. Rather than me trying to analyse any more it is better to gives examples of those who are beacons of what it is to be a friend. Some belonged to our Society, some did not but all were called to be friends. None of them looked for publicity.
1. Ireland 300 years ago was a harsh place. ‘In the County Tyrone near the town of Dungannon’ as the song says ‘There’s many’s the ruction meself had a hand in’. A place of distrust and intolerance. A young fellow called Arthur Kelly grew up in that area and went abroad to train as a priest, it being the time of the Penal Laws against Catholics. When he returned his functions were greatly curtailed but he travelled around offering in secret places the sacraments in the manner of that branch of the Christian church. Priest-hunters were paid to catch anyone like young Kelly. The authorities gave rewards for help towards his arrest. There were not many safe houses where he could find a haven. But, in his home townland of Syerla there were several members of Grange meeting living nearby. They had grown up with Arthur, maybe cut turf together, maybe they had saved hay together as neighbours would. So they provided safe shelter for him. Friendship can be risky; if caught they would have suffered along with him. Maybe their friendship would be misinterpreted by some of the Monthly Meeting who would accuse them of condoning popish practices. Their calling to be friends made them follow the right course. Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter.
- In the early 1800’s in Dublin a young orphaned teenage girl was fostered by a wealthy childless couple. Her name was Catherine McAuley. She says her foster-mother was a Quaker and that the bonds between them were strong. So much so that when the couple died they left all to Catherine. She founded the Order of the Sisters of Mercy and with the money set up the premises in Baggot St which remain to this day. Her life-story is too long to unfold but her practical attention to detail is inspiring. In times past a person’s dying words were often recalled and respected as being of eternal significance. Maybe they are still. On the afternoon of Catherine McAuley’s death some guests had arrived after a long tedious journey, of which she was quite aware, so from her death-bed her final words were ‘See that those sisters get a cup of tea’.
Friendship can be costly
- There’s another instance of friendship that I want to salute. It comes from the Ulster poet, John Hewitt, and he tells how his great-Granny, we’ll call her Hannah Hewitt, was living not far from Richhill. If she wasn’t a member of the meeting she was an adherent because many had been disowned for marrying someone, not according to Friends regulations of that time. John Hewitt tells us that it was the time of the Famine and after it there were many tramps on the roads. One cold morning a man came by and leaned over the half-door and says ‘ Any chance of a drink of water, ma’am?’ Hannah Hewitt was after baking a few farls on the griddle; she had churned that morning so she said ‘Come on in, pull your chair up to the fire. I’ll get you a cut of bread and a mug of buttermilk’. And he told her he’d been walking for days, sleeping rough trying to get to Belfast or somewhere away from the terrible pestilence. As he talked he had a dreadful hoarseness in his voice. He didn’t stay long. He got up after gobbling down the home-made food. He called all the blessings of God and his saints upon her and her family. But he left her something more. Within a week, Hannah had sickened and died of the famine fever. Friendship can be costly.
4. Among the renegade Friends that have been in our Society in Ireland but could not comply with our principles is one, Bulmer Hobson. His involvement with Irish republican gun-running and similar activities was more than Friends could tolerate. As a boy he had attended Friends School at Lisburn and carried memories of events there to his dying day. As an old blind man living in Connemara he was asked to give his memories of his time at Lisburn 70 or more years earlier. As happens at schools, he had been punished for some misdemeanour which was not his doing. Remarkably, a couple of days later Charles Benington, the strict but fair master involved, came and said ‘Bulmer, I punished you unfairly. I am sorry.’ The old man recalled the incident clearly and with wonderment, ‘Just think, that he should apologise to me, a mere slip of a lad. You know, you learn things at school, things you never forget.’
Androcles and the lion
5. This world is a place of wonder. Human beings are not its only inhabitants. We share this globe with other creatures who can teach us lessons of friendship.
In the time of the Roman Empire a man was trekking in a remote part of Africa when he heard a pitiful meowing and moaning. It was a mighty lion struck down by a painful thorn jagging into his paw. The man was in two minds whether to go closer or not, when the lion held up the swollen paw as much as to say, ‘Can you help me? I’m in a desperate state.’ So this brave man sucked the thorn out and the lion licked his hand in gratitude.
Some years later the man, Androcles by name, was taken captive and dragged to Rome. To give amusement for the high and mighty ones he was thrown into the arena at the Coliseum to face a lion which had been starved so as to be keen and ready for the kill. The lion bounded up to the poor slave but the audience were aghast when the beast got a whiff of his scent and purred and rubbed up against the terrified Androcles. Friendship is stronger than the base appetites.
Another story of a faithful four-legged friend concerns a member of Grange meeting, Isaac Edward Haydock. He was a bachelor farmer and as such relied much on his collie dog. The dog was his right-hand man on the farm, and also his constant companion in later life. When Isaac Edward died and the hearse slowly covered the few miles to Grange for burial, the dog padded alongside. After the burial, the dog lay on the grave and would not move till a week later some neighbours came and dragged it away. There is that of God in every dog.
Preparing for worship
6. Sometimes a newcomer to our meetings asks how we prepare for our time of worship. A woman Friend in the 1950’s had this practice. She would arrive for Sunday meeting quite early and seat herself where she could see everyone as they came into the room. Then as each one entered she flashed a quick wordless prayer towards them, invoking a blessing on them individually, whether she knew them or not, that they would be liberated to join in the time of united worship. This woman lived out her calling to be a friend by her unassuming concern for those meeting with her. She was Isabel Douglas.
7. Coming to more recent times in my home town of Newry, I think of a time in the 1970’s two young men in their teens were sent with a bomb to carry into a pub in the town on the morning of Christmas Eve. They walked in with this bomb and at the same time another 18 year old lad walks to look for his father. The bomb went off prematurely and the two IRA volunteers along with the other fellow, Aubrey Harshaw, were all blown to bits. Only one of the numerous tragedies that happened but what makes this one memorable was that young Harshaw had two uncles who in their sorrow and distress went to their Methodist minister, an austere and forbidding figure, George Watson, and said to him, ‘Would you come with us up to the houses where the two IRA fellows lived and speak to their parents?’
George Watson and the two uncles went up to find where these two families were mourning.
They were received very warmly. They were called to be friends and responded to the call.
We don’t know what words were said, but the action spoke louder than any words could utter. There was no publicity and few now know of this uniting in grief which was done without any underlying agenda.
8. At the Yearly Meeting in Dublin about 20 years ago there were two appointed representatives from Germany, Gerd and Christel Wieding. They came a few days early and expressed a wish to meet a variety of political opinions. So that was arranged for them. Among those they met was a republican activist who after chatting with them for an hour, asked a favour of them.
‘There is a young woman in prison in Germany from this town. She is being held on remand accused of a bombing of army barracks in Germany. She has no one to visit her. Would you do this for us, for me? Would you go and see her?’ They could not promise but said they would see what might be done. They did visit her and through their visit doors were opened back here. And hearts and minds were opened too.
As a contrast to that act of quiet friendship let us picture a peace march in this city in those troubled times. Some hundreds gathered by special train from north and south in righteous indignation to condemn the actions of the leading paramilitary organisation. The march with placards and banners had as its destination the headquarters in Kevin Street where we intended to deliver a letter of protest and hold a rally. The confrontation, shouting and heckling meant that no one listened. The protest only got backs up that caused resentment and bad feeling. The action of Gerd and Christel Wieding in being a friend was far more productive and in keeping with the best that we have to offer.
9. It is as well to remember that sometimes an offer of friendship is not welcomed or reciprocated. Not every story has a happy ending. In the time of the hunger strikes in 1981 an Ulster Friend wanted to express her concern for the bereaved family after their son had ended his life in such an appalling fashion. Eithne Doran was a fearless and hugely optimistic Friend, so she went alone to the home to say what? Who knows? She was called to be a friend in that situation but was not well received. Perhaps it was her cultivated accent. Perhaps the family were still too raw and bitter. Perhaps her action did have some good result later when emotions had simmered down.
All these nourished their friendship with the Christ within and that led to friendship becoming a way of life . These human friendships in turn nourished their friendship with the Christ. One nourishes the other.
The breath of kindness
Maybe next week someone will ask you, ‘Did you go to the Yearly Meeting lecture? What was it about?’ Your reply might be, ‘I can’t remember much of it. But do you know who I saw there? It was good making up with her again after that dust-up we had. And there was tea afterwards when I met a young fellow who put new heart in me and gave me hope for the future. No, those long talks are not for me. I think it was about friendship.’
If that is the result of to-night’s encounter, it is enough.
I have come here with a good deal of old baggage. What else can you expect from an 80-year-old Ulsterman? If we don’t like someone or what they stand for, it’s easy to diminish them by saying ‘They carry too much baggage’ . On the other hand if we like them, then we say, ‘Oh yes, a friend of vast and profound experience.’ I come with a good deal of old baggage and now I rest my case.
A friend is one to whom one may pour out all the contents of one’s heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that the gentlest of hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping and with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.
Ross Chapman 29-4-2011