So much has changed since January, when we reflected on the successes of 2019 and looked forward to the year ahead. Since then, the coronavirus pandemic has challenged and changed the way we live: our work, our travel, our social and cultural activity.
But through all the challenges of reduced income, closed buildings and staff working from home or furloughed, our determination to deliver the collective work of Quakers across Britain remains unchanged.
We haven’t delivered as much as we had planned but, amid the challenges, we’ve found new ways of working and worshipping that would have seemed impossible barely a year ago.
[Image: Recording Clerk Paul Parker at work in his home office]
Support for Meetings
Our Quaker Life team has been working closely with staff from Woodbrooke to respond to the needs of Quaker communities across Britain. We provided written guidance, online sessions and email support on worship, eldership and oversight, and using technology in an ever-changing environment.
Friends have developed skills and had fun in learning how to use platforms such as Zoom, and working out the complexities of new cleaning regimes. We have seen new ways of being a community emerge through this support, including varieties of outdoor meetings, livestreaming, joining via WhatsApp or email – or even a blend of methods in a single meeting!
We communicated government guidance (in six jurisdictions) relevant to our worshipping communities and our role within local communities on everything from face masks to furloughing staff. Our local development workers have been busy supporting Friends in their regions, including running a nightly epilogue since mid-April. We continue to work towards placing more of these workers across Britain.
“Thank you for your good advice on outside meeting for worship. A Friend asked if we could meet in their garden last Sunday, as it was such a beautiful day. So, we did, in masks – suitably spaced, of course – in the sun.”
Image: Wanstead Quakers' socially distanced meeting for worship.
Quaker Peace & Social Witness (QPSW) held its Summer Series in response to the Quaker community – like so many others – being hit hard by the pandemic. Amid the shock, confusion and fear, it felt important to offer online spaces in which Friends could still gather and be together.
Across ten well-attended weekly sessions, we created participatory online spaces where Quakers and the Quaker-curious came together to discuss where they felt led to act. Each session was also a chance to showcase the work of QPSW and of some of our key partners. Topics included spirituality, climate justice, peace activism, and building a new economy in the UK.
Feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Almost all respondents were willing to recommend the workshop they had attended, while 72 per cent said they would be taking action or making a change in their lives as a result.
“The key thing the workshop prompts me to do is to make time to pause, read/inform myself and reflect – where do I need to be now, and doing what?”
Image: Quaker pilgrims on Pendle Hill by Sasha Bosbeer
Children & Young People
It has been a particularly confusing and challenging year for children. Schools and many youth services were forced to close, and uncertain academic progress and social distancing comes at a key period of personal development. We were quick to adapt our work so that young people could keep meeting, socialising and developing spiritually during lockdown.
We moved support groups for children and youth meetings online and held weekly online groups so that more children could experience worship. We remained responsive to local and national needs, created virtual spaces to develop and maintain communities, and supported volunteers. Running virtual weekend ‘residentials’ allowed for more attendees by overcoming common barriers such as disability, finance or geography.
We received lots of messages from young people saying how much they valued having guaranteed, regular check-ins and safe spaces to explore the feelings and challenges they faced, without judgement. We intend to continue with online work even after face-to-face meetings are possible again – it has allowed young Quakers to meet with others more regularly and easily to build relationships and community.
“It is important for me to connect with people my age at the minute, because I'm not going to school so not seeing my friends.”
Image: Edinburgh Quakers' Lego video call meeting
Turning the Tide GB
In the summer, 80 Friends came together online in the spirit of the Quaker testimonies to equality and peace to discuss whiteness, allyship and the UK context of the Black Lives Matter movement. We coordinated the discussion in response to the direct action, reflection and call to challenge privilege that was triggered by the murder of George Floyd.
A collaboration with Woodbrooke, ‘Black Lives Matter: Whiteness and racial justice learning for Quakers’ challenged the assembled Friends’ preconceptions, privileges and prejudices in five demanding weekly sessions.
The combination of presentations, sharing in groups and worship aided powerful and reflective learning. As a result of the course, many Friends were inspired to act or make personal changes. Many of the local cluster groups are continuing to meet regularly to explore individual, local and international questions.
“I have a strong sense of drive and hope coming out of this, and I look forward to seeing what changes come within Quakers as well as in the world as a result of this.”
Image: A socially distanced Black Lives Matter protest in Machynlleth, Wales
Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI)
EAPPI is an international programme that sends volunteer human rights monitors – ecumenical accompaniers (EAs) – to the West Bank. The pandemic led to all foreigners being evacuated from the West Bank to Jerusalem, with EAs returning to their home countries. A subsequent rise in abuses against Palestinian communities has starkly demonstrated the continuing need for EAs’ protective presence.
In the UK and Ireland, meanwhile, we saw the results of our advocacy work. Together with other charities and activists, we supported the case against the UK government’s ban on local authorities making ethical choices in their pension investments. The ban – an attempt to curb boycotts against the Israeli occupation of Palestine – was overturned by the UK Supreme Court in April.
New partnerships and a focus on online tools have greatly extended our reach. Talks given by EAs are now being heard in parts of the British Isles not yet visited by EAs, and by people from as far afield as Australia and the US. Our global #NoToAnnexation campaign, largely developed by EAPPI UK & Ireland staff, has reached over a quarter of a million people on social media. We are now backing a new campaign to raise awareness of the violence and destruction that disrupt Palestine’s vital annual olive harvest.
“My family and I are in good health, thank God. But we suffer because of the economic conditions and because there is no work.”
Quote: Eyewitness Blogs / Image: West Young Quakers join EAPPI's #NoToAnnexation campaign in a group video call
Turning the Tide East Africa
Turning the Tide (TTT) is an approach that links peacebuilding with nonviolent campaigning. In Kenya, Burundi and Rwanda, trained local facilitators help campaign groups to identify, analyse and address injustice while ensuring they use nonviolent methods.
Activities and programmes supported by TTT often rely on large gatherings, which haven’t been possible due to the pandemic. East African TTT staff have therefore worked with their community partners to shift much of their grassroots activism online. They have also been making sure that local groups have access to face masks and hand sanitiser so that community engagement and activism can continue safely. This has proved vital, especially with the alarming rise in gender-based violence during the pandemic.
Besides calling on East African governments to increase support to families during the crisis, TTT East Africa is backing campaigns aimed at sensitising communities to the pandemic. In Kenya alone, the programme succeeded in reaching 1,800 people and ensuring that 500 locally made face masks were distributed to vulnerable community members. Its work has also helped to identify the underlying causes of the rise in gender-based violence. TTT is now working with local campaign groups to call out the violence, amplify the voices of those affected, and develop ways to tackle the abuse.
“I wish I could reach other widows suffering like me. I never knew I could be powerful one day and overcome the injustices I have gone through as a widow. I had given up. I thank TTT and its partners.”
Image: Public roleplaying to force behavioural change by Turning the Tide Burundi
Reviewing the impact of coronavirus on Britain Yearly Meeting
Yearly Meeting Gathering
A Yearly Meeting has been held every year since 1668, with a larger triennial Gathering being held in recent years. Sadly, due to the pandemic, Yearly Meeting Gathering 2020 could not go ahead as planned.
Though we were prevented from coming together in person, a virtual Yearly Meeting session is scheduled for Sunday 15 November 2020. Its emphasis will be on worship, receiving reports and managing required business.
One annual event that did go ahead as usual was the Swarthmore Lecture. Organised by Woodbrooke and delivered by Tom Shakespeare, it was broadcast live online for the very first time. You can buy the accompanying book from our bookshop and watch the lecture here:
Communicating with Friends
Friends and meetings needed more support than usual during lockdown. With the challenges of staff on furlough, no access to Friends House and no distribution via meetings, we had to find a way to deliver the information Friends needed.
We did this by bringing everything together in a weekly edition of our e-newsletter, Quake!. Between March and November, the number of subscribers to Quake! grew by 27%. More than 11,000 Friends are now reading it every week.
Staff and well-being
Throughout the pandemic, we have provided opportunities for working and furloughed staff alike to attend resilience and wellness sessions. We have worked with Second Nature, which is backed by the NHS, and Rising Minds to support the physical and mental health of staff.
Initial feedback shows that staff appreciated this continued support and the services available to them. We kept in touch regularly with furloughed staff and gave them access to training.
But staff costs form the majority of Britain Yearly Meeting’s spending, and we have had to seek significant savings. Staff were consulted on a range of measures to help meet the financial challenges of the pandemic. This included an offer of voluntary redundancy. To date, thirty-one staff have taken up this option – twenty-six from our Hospitality team and five on the charity side.
Britain Yearly Meeting's finances
Before the coronavirus pandemic arrived, BYM was spending more each year than we had coming in. We had a five-year plan in place, to move steadily from this situation to one where we had a balanced budget. It was safe to spread this change over five years because we had high reserves and growing commercial income.
The pandemic has changed that situation in two ways:
- our commercial income has been massively reduced and will take time to recover
- our reserves have also been reduced as we have protected jobs and continued our work to support Quaker faith and witness.
We now forecast that our trading income from activities like room bookings and catering will be down by £3.5m this year, and our unrestricted reserves will be reduced by £2m.
Because of this, we now need to move to a balanced budget more quickly – over three years rather than five, and to a budget that is smaller than we had planned.
The pandemic has also had an effect on income from Quaker meetings, as some of them have suffered similar losses from lost room bookings.
Some of this has been offset by increased individual giving, but the income from these two sources combined is only half the size of our hospitality income.