Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Reflections on 'Many Heavens, One Earth' - written by Helen Rowlands

Helen Rowlands reflects on the recent ‘Many Heavens, One Earth’ conference at Windsor. For her report on the event, please see last week’s post.

Helen writes:

What messages did I bring away from the event, for myself and for Quakers?

First, I was personally challenged by the very nomination to serve by representing Friends. At the event itself, I was awed and somewhat burdened by the way in which introducing myself as a Quaker so often prompted an admiring response – ‘you guys have been doing such good work and leading the way for so long.’ Whilst many individual Friends have been and are pioneers in their thought and action (and more than one of the NGOs present testified to the contribution of Friends to their foundation), corporately we have struggled to express consistent witness. When I look at the work of other churches and faiths, I don’t see us as being particularly ‘ahead of the curve’ in environmental witness – up there with others, for sure, but not ahead. As Pam Lunn has observed, we tend more to mirror what is going on in our own local, geographic communities. Our concerns are those of an affluent, gas-guzzling society, even when we aspire to simplicity. It’s not good enough for me to feel proud (which I do!) that I belong to a faith group which tries to put its beliefs to work in the world. My own living also has to be entirely congruent with my expressed faith, and somehow to connect with people in parts of the world most affected by the consequences of our over-consumption – and I know that I fall short on both counts.

This brings me to my second area of reflection, which is about leadership. Quakers always struggle when we are asked to be represented by a ‘faith leader’. Who are our leaders? Sometimes an appointed office-holder or an employee is indeed a leader, and we should not shy away from viewing them as such – why would we want to disempower someone we have appointed, because of their skills or knowledge or wisdom, to carry out a task for us? At other times, we choose to send someone with no designated authority in the particular area, as was the case for me at this conference.

At the presentation of certificates in Windsor Castle, as we made our way forward to greet Prince Philip and Ban Ki-Moon, the audience was being given information about the faiths. We heard people being described as the ‘leader of half a million Polish Orthodox Christians’, or speaking ‘on behalf of five million Catholics in England and Wales’, or that there are ‘100 million Buddhists in China’. We learned that a single Muslim Seven Year Plan has been developed, and a single plan for Judaism through their environmental campaigning organisation, Hazon. During the conference, it was possible for the Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem to announce the creation of a new partnership between major pilgrimage cities around the world – the idea had arisen during the 48 hours, and the people were there who could simply decide that it should happen.

Yet we few Quakers find it hard to get our act together in that way. Would we even want to? Maybe there is a significant contribution that arises from our understanding of dispersed, situational leadership arising from a sense of spiritual leading. We don’t have to wait for figureheads to guide us in our behaviour – we know the nudgings and sometimes the not-to-be-ignored-demands of an Inner Guide. We don’t have to wait for ‘top-down’ plans – we build movements which integrate ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ in circles of mutual encouragement, stimulus and consciousness-raising.

As we consider, for example, the impact of natural disasters or climate-induced migration on communities the world round, what could we offer towards preparing people for new forms of local leadership which are not dependent on hierarchy and therefore on communication systems that could be disrupted? Or, whilst many of us are active in geographically-based initiatives such as Transition Towns, what might it mean for Quakers to become a dispersed transition community? Could we use our differing forms of leadership to make this happen, and thus demonstrate to other faith groups how they too could do it?

And as each of us seeks to follow our leadings, to be faithful to the leadership of spirit or conscience, how does our witness speak to those around us? We all are leaders, as well as being able to decide to follow the leading of others. In our daily lives, wherever we find ourselves, we are given myriad opportunities to ‘do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God’ (Micah 6:8). We let our lives speak. In conversation with friends, with family, with colleagues, with people on the bus or in shops, we are also given opportunities to explain what we are doing and why. Each of these acts and conversations can gently challenge others, and each person who decides to change their behaviour contributes to a changing climate of opinion. Eventually the barons – industrial, political and religious – can no longer afford to ignore the change and we reach a tipping point where new priorities can take over. Are we anywhere near it? Our leadership, quiet or noisy, personal or public, in matters small and large – our leadership, based on values that are beyond ourselves – our leadership matters.

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Thanks to Helen for this article.

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