The Friends Quarterly essay competition
As the four judges of the 2009 Friends Quarterly essay competition, we share a powerful sense of privilege and of responsibility for the thoughtful and prayerful work of so many Friends who entered, and those who supported those entries. We also have a strong feeling of continuity with those who launched and who wrote for the 1859 competition, which was the inspiration for our project. We hope that what will arise from, and as a consequence of, the contemporary essays will have at least as great a beneficial impact on the Religious Society of Friends in Britain as did the nineteenth century predecessor, which was instrumental in the re-invention and re-invigoration of Quakerism in this country. We are deeply grateful to the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust for their financial support and continued encouragement throughout.
We were greatly impressed by the number, range and quality of the entries. 106 essays were received (most as written essays but some as web sites and using other electronic media). The entries ranged in length from under one page to over 50 pages. They came mostly from Britain Yearly Meeting, but there were seven entries from other yearly meetings. Six entries stated that they were from those aged 35 or under, whose participation we had actively encouraged. There was a fine diversity of entrant, topic and concern. If we were slightly disappointed that more entrants had not taken the option of using a wider spread of media, that does not detract from the quality of entries as a whole. Interestingly, two thirds of the entrants were male, almost the opposite proportion compared with membership of Britain Yearly Meeting as a whole. While we have no scientific basis on which to claim that the views expressed are necessarily representative of Quakerism as a whole, we are clear that this body of work, taken together, represents a remarkable and substantial compendium of what many Friends think, hope for, fear and believe.
The daunting task of judging this volume of entries occupied the judges across the end of 2009 and the start of 2010. Each of us read all the entries, and we shared our own long and short lists, before we came together to select the winners, seeking discernment after the manner of Friends. Every entry was assessed anonymously, and we were therefore unaware of who were the authors of the winning essays until the judging process was complete. The winners were announced in The Friends Quarterly February 2010 issue, and in our sister publication The Friend on 12 February 2010.
We awarded the first prize to Linda Murgatroyd of Kingston & Wandsworth Area Meeting for her essay, The future of Quakers in Britain: holding spaces for the spirit to act. This remarkable tour d’horizon of the issues concerning Quakers in Britain today was inspiring as well as being easy to read, with a depth which rewards re-reading. We especially valued the exhortation to create all sorts of spaces for ourselves, for others and for the Spirit to act. Linda’s use of her own original artwork harnessed art and creativity in just the way she urges us to do in taking Quakerism forward. We considered that it stands alongside other examples of significant Quaker reflective writing, and that its relevance extends beyond those already overly conversant with the inside of British Quakerism.
Reflecting the large number of worthy entries, we used our discretion to award two further prizes. Felicity Kaal of Bristol Area Meeting wrote of The Future of Quakerism in way which we found especially compelling. Her awareness of the origins and mainsprings of our beliefs, and how those need to be tested and developed in a changing world, spoke to our conditions and we believe those of Friends as a whole. She urges us to retain, retrieve and change what we already have in order to the Society. For her as for Linda there are no soft options, with progress requiring work, prayer, thought and determination to ensure a relevant future for Quakerism.
The most radical challenge comes from Simon Best of London West Area Meeting in The future of the Religious Society of Friends: Simple, contemporary, radical? His vital and direct essay focuses on younger Friends, seeing them as the present just as much as the future of the Society. Simon’s vigorous approach aims to take us back to what we should be – a worshiping group – and away from being merely people who meet on a Sunday morning for social as much as spiritual nourishment, and he look to the younger generation to lead that drive.
We have been upheld by the expressed support of very many Friends through the project so far. The trustees of The Friend Publications Limited, Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust , Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre and Friends House have been unfailingly helpful, and many individuals have given assistance and encouragement. Possibly most of all, we have been heartened by the many comments received from those who entered but were not prize-winners, saying how valuable they have found the stimulus to encapsulate their own thoughts in an essay, irrespective of the judges’ selection. We have received a few criticisms, most notably regarding our wish to retain copyright of entries, but we have placed no restrictions on entrants using their work in other ways, asking only that this where possible may be timed to fit in with the wider presentation of the entire body of work to the Society as a whole.
Judging the entries has been a pleasure and a privilege, daunting at times and always demanding . We hope that we ourselves may be judged by how readily we make the widest range of material available to Quakers in Britain, and the steps we can take to encourage others then to follow the paths to which it may lead.