What it means to be a Quaker in the light of my experience

I should begin by saying that having only joined Quakers 3 years ago, at the age of 70, my comments are more to do with my past life experience – which is now far longer than my future – than it is as a Quaker theme, or my experiences in my Local Meeting.

Preparing my thoughts on equality has been a difficult – even uncomfortable – task.

  1. Asking a 74 year-old to reflect on life experience briefly is almost impossible unless he has experienced or learnt almost nothing in those 74 years. So, I might just take a few more words.
  • More seriously, I have been uncomfortable during my preparations for this because at 74 I am in a very privileged position. Despite challenges, a successful career, home ownership and a pension leave me in a relatively safe place.
  • In that context I am acutely aware telling a personal story, from a position of privilege, can easily be perceived as boring, and appear to gloss over issues which are current, and painful, for some other people – so I unreservedly apologise in advance should that prove to be true.

Personal Experience:

  • I entered my teenage years in 1960, having failed the 11+, left secondary school with two O levels, and wandered through a printing apprenticeship.
  • I reached the (then) magical age of 21 one year after the passing of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. My dominant (but illogical) memory of the struggle with my sexuality in those days was the thought: Would a policeman be able to tell I was homosexual simply by looking at me, and would I get arrested? Another legacy of those years is that, for me, the word ‘queer’ terrifies me.
  • In the 1970’s I got rebellious and bored and threw the printing career up.
  • Not for the first time in my life I encountered luck and opportunity; the chance of a job as a social worker (in an inner city), then falling into a place on a social work training course, which provided the opportunity to bump into people with learning disabilities (then called Mental Handicap) and their families.
  • Equality was a fundamental here. Overcoming enormous deficits for individuals in terms of Rights, Independence, Choice, and Inclusion. Being an ally to people who showed so much determination, courage, and achievement was inspiring.
  • I continued to be an active member of the church, but in the 1980’s against the background of Aids (“the gay plaque”) and the infamous Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, I faced up to the fact that my sexual orientation (had I admitted it) in the eyes of many of my fellow Church members would have excluded me from their principles and values (which were powerful) – and so I left………
  • In the 1990’s – which was the low point of my spiritual life – but released from religious principles I got careless about my real identity which resulted in the harrowing experience of an attempt to blackmail me – money, or my carefully guarded secret would be out. I suppose, in a way, equality reasserted itself as I confronted my blackmailer, refused to be blackmailed and I survived sharing my sexual orientation with both my family, colleagues and my employers – in what seemed like 24 hours of solid confession.
  • Finally, my working life concluded as a Lecturer at my local University teaching social work practice and disability studies (and incidentally Equality and inclusion theory and practice) on a Social Work Degree course and (another of those unexpected opportunities) added academically to my 2 O Levels.

So, where does that life and sexual identity experience leave me as a Quaker and my understanding of equality?

  • Its importance to me remains paramount, but experience has taught me it is complex.
  • In one respect there is a sense in which we are not equal. A simplistic understanding of the word equal can leave some struggling with things they have not been prepared for. Equality of opportunity and access is key, and some people may need help and support to access that opportunity. We must, I suggest, add to the word Equality, both diversity and inclusion to take account of the need to value difference and address both intolerance and the barrier that exist for many people.
  • Academic writing, group protest etc play an important part in raising awareness and pushing for change in all areas of human rights. But we must not generalise, or make assumptions: fundamentally, we must listen to an individual’s account of their life experience of equality, inclusion, valuing diversity and difference – or not; what it has meant for them to live that experience; and explore ways respond to their needs and aspirations.
  • Despite the progress that has be made with championing equality, diversity, and inclusion I must remember that any perceived threat to our society’s structures re-illuminates inequality immediately, and results in narrow bands of political and economic power reasserting themselves, ground is lost and for each generation new struggles, new inequalities emerge, and the battle begins again.
  • When I read Geoffrey Durham’s book ‘Being a Quaker – a guide for newcomers’, I took notice of one sentence in his book: Quakers commitment to equality is an essential component of all their testimonies, you cannot have truth, simplicity, or peace without it. And for me that links with two Quakers values:  Respect that of God in everyone; and do what love requires of you.

Where am I now?

  1. My world has now narrowed down to family, motorcycles, and Quakers; important as they are age and retirement shield me from the wider world. Quakers feels like a good spiritual home; it may also be my age and personal profile – which fits well with my Local Meeting profile – has mellowed my thinking & anxieties and the scars I carry, as many do, are much less obvious.
  • Consistent with my age, I can be guilty of thinking my generations’ experience of life was the real and valid one; that many younger people have greater access to knowledge and opportunities compared to my day; and they think trouble and stress was invented after 2000.
  • Reading, technology, social media however do alert me to the very real issues for a younger, more multicultural gender diverse, generation – economic divisions, mental health issues, threats of the worse kinds of violence. It’s impossible not to be aware of the missing profiles from my Local Meeting, of which age, sexual orientation, and ethnicity, possibly class, are the most obvious.
  • If anyone – young or old – needs to share their experiences and anxieties with an old man I hope I will be prepared to listen and support as I can, and I try to be guided by the parable, or story of the Good Samaritan, which, since my teenage years, has always inspired me and not pass by on the other side.

John Presland