Senior Conference 2020 Epistle

Senior Conference 2020 Epistle

The Senior Conference 2020 Epistle is now available. All of FSSE would like to give special thanks to everyone involved in this challenging time to make Senior Conference 2020 such a success. Check it out!

To all Friends everywhere,

From
the 15th-19th August 2020, the first ever online Senior Conference was
held. Twenty-seven 14 to 18 year-olds and ten adult volunteers came
together from around the country (and beyond!) to enjoy five days of fun
activities and exploration of our theme: “Understanding our place as a
religious society”. To address this theme, we heard from three speakers,
examining both the theological diversity within Quakerism as well as
the place Quakerism holds within society as a whole. 

On
Sunday, the first full day, we heard from Roger Warren Evans, a
nontheist Friend and member of the Nontheist Friends Network. By sharing
the story of his past, Roger explained his present standpoint as a
nontheist Quaker, ultimately defining himself as an ‘evolutionary
nontheist’. Roger shared that he grew up surrounded by vastly opposed
theological views. Though attending a Quaker school, this conflict made
him hesitate to take any strong standpoints towards the beginning of his
life, keeping his head down religiously and generally “fudging the
issue”. As a student, he was the secretary of the Cambridge Humanist
Society led by E.M. Forster, whom Roger quoted as saying “tolerance is
what’s left when love gets left behind”. This impacted Roger’s view that
he could not simply be an atheist. Later in his life, Roger returned to
Quakerism as he felt that it was a “genuinely open-minded culture”, a
sentiment shared by many conferees. He concluded philosophically that he
believes humans are a “malfunctioning species”, and that it is our
actions which are most important. This is what can change the future. 

Monday’s
talk was from Mark Russ, a self-identified “Quaker-shaped Christian”.
Mark asked us to consider what our understanding of religious experience
is, and shared his own experiences with us. He explained how he sees
religion as a set of practices, beliefs and stories, which all come
together to form an individual’s experience of the world. One of the
most famous Quaker quotations is from George Fox: “there is that of God
in everyone” — and to some Quakers, in everything — however, many
religious people experience periods of time when they are closer to God,
or further away. Mark shared that through his years as a Quaker he has
learned not to be hard on himself, or on God, for these periods of
spiritual dryness. He also shared four turning points in his life where
he felt as if he encountered God. The first, was Mark’s experience of
coming out as gay age 17 and the subsequent “spiritual coming out” — a
deep connection to God and the world. He also shared other experiences
with us including comparing drag queens to priests for the gay
community: “Drench me in that big, gay, glittery Holy Spirit”. Mark
reminded us that religious experience is not always big and dramatic,
but sometimes small or retrospective.

On
Tuesday, for our final speaker session, Grace Da Costa talked to us
about the other side of our theme — the place held by Quakerism in a
sociopolitical context. As Public Affairs and Advocacy Manager for
Britain Yearly Meeting, Grace talked to us about her role as a lobbyist,
explaining how building strong relationships with influential
individuals and groups can help bring about change in line with Quaker
values. She also explained the reasons why faith groups, including
Quakers, have such an important role in political environments, citing
that faith in action can often be powerful and elicit a more positive
response among others than action taken in other contexts. Grace
encouraged us to think critically and challenge the position of
privilege that we all recognise British Quakers hold in society as a
majority white, middle-class, Christocentric group. We were reminded to
remain humble, listen to and learn from the opinions and voices of those
marginalised in society as a whole and within the Quaker community —
especially when their experiences are different from our own. We will
continue to think analytically about our aims, action and audiences in
every step we take towards a more equal future.

Building
a strong community online over the course of five days was never going
to be as simple as if the event were in person. A staple of Senior
Conference is base groups — small groups facilitated by conferees —
which provide a comfortable space for participants to make new friends
and share experiences and worries. Despite not having the usual ‘hub’ of
a base group room, ‘breakout rooms’ on Zoom provided the privacy and
intimacy needed for the conferees to bond, discuss themed sessions,
create comedy sketches and play a variety of online games. In addition
to base groups, prologue and epilogue each day provided a sounding board
of spiritual togetherness among participants and a place to get into
and out of the Conference headspace. On Tuesday night, many 18-year-olds
experienced their final Senior Conference epilogue, and this made for a
typically atmospheric and emotional last evening in spite of the
physical distance between us.

As
always, the event was full of fun activities. The evening entertainment
sessions allowed us to come together over Zoom even though we could not
achieve the sessions’ normal physicality. Ents included a quiz (with
questions well-designed to avoid any cheating!) and a ‘themed showcase’
during which each base group turned up in costume, accompanied by a
pre-prepared video which was shown to the whole group. For the final
night, we stuck to Conference tradition and had an online adaptation of
the classic talent show. Conferees sent in a variety of videos
showcasing their diverse skills. We ended the night having seen a Quaker
rap, slam poetry and even some live fortune telling. Each night, one
person volunteered to read a bedtime story after epilogue. These proved
extremely popular and we heard tales from great children’s authors such
as Beatrix Potter and Dr. Seuss. Though online, these activities helped
create the wonderful sense of togetherness for which Senior Conference
is so loved.

Conferees
left this year’s event with a heightened understanding of the position
of Quakers in both a theological and societal sense. As well as seeing
first hand the diversity of beliefs within Quakerism, we learnt of the
importance to recognise and understand the religious (or non-religious)
standpoints of others. We know the significance of putting our faith
into action and how, when combined with the willpower to change things,
we can use this to make a positive difference in the world. Perhaps the
most noticeable thing to be taken away from Senior Conference 2020 is
the sense that, even in these difficult and divisive times, young
Quakers can always come together as one.

Signed in and on behalf of Senior Conference 2020,

Jonathan H and Issy C-W, Clerks.