World Gathering of Young Friends 2005: Lancaster, England

This August, 226 Friends gathered together at the place where our Quaker movement first bore fruit, Lancaster University (UK), in the heart of 1652 country. 58 Yearly Meetings and nine monthly meetings were represented, with speakers of more than twenty different languages. It was called the World Gathering of Young Friends 2005.

I went to this Gathering. It was an extraordinary event, filled with spiritual power and a sense of God working in the world. I was on the Pastoral Care Team there, which meant that I was allowed to be a leader amongst the youth leaders of Quakerism around the world. Both the event itself and this opportunity for leadership changed me, and even now I am still uncovering the ins and outs of those changes.

Before the Conference: Pastoral Care Team Meeting

I drove home from New England Yearly Meeting, took a shower, and immediately got on a plane to Manchester, England. I got off the plane and took a train to Birmingham and a bus to Woodbrooke. I had arrived for the orientation for the Pastoral Care Team for the World Gathering of Young Friends.

I was nervous about this orientation. First of all, I was tired after Yearly Meeting. Second, I didn't know who was on this team, what we'd be doing, or how we were going about doing it. And third, from conversations before the conference, it felt like the leaders of the team didn't have any idea what we'd be doing either.

Well, it did turn out that they didn't know what we'd be doing or how we'd be doing it either. But we had some good discussions and hit upon some ideas and decided what our role would be. Strangely enough, the conference planners had invited us and paid our conference fees without giving us a charge! But I suppose that makes sense--bring the people and let them tell you how God moves through them.

Between us all, after learning about the program for the conference, we decided to:

  • write a description of what the Pastoral Care Team would do and hand it out to all WGYF attenders,
  • furnish and staff a Pastoral Care Room where folks could come for quiet reflection, to pray, or to talk,
  • organize an unprogrammed and a programmed meeting for worship each morning, have a representative from the PCT attend the meetings of the other teams
  • wear purple scarves (color-coded scarves are typical in European Friends gatherings), designating us as people to talk to about problems, and
  • have someone "on call" throughout the night, with their number published in the daily bulletin.

Before the Conference: Pre-Gathering Gathering at Woodbrooke

The Pastoral Care Team meeting ended several days before the WGYF. At the last minute, I arranged to stay at Woodbrooke during those days for a pre-WGYF gathering. This might have been the luckiest and most fortuitous decisions I made regarding the WGYF. As this gathering was smaller, I had time to really get to know the folks who were there. And what a diverse bunch we were! We hailed from many places: Evangelical Friends International, Friends United Meeting, Friends General Conference, unaffiliated yearly meetings, Cuba, Nepal, Canada, Ireland, Britain, the US, and so on. The whole group was a lot of fun as well as being deeply grounded and articulate about their own faith experiences.

The Eve of the Conference

I left Woodbrooke before the end of the Pre-Gathering and took the train to Lancaster. About sixty folks from the WGYF came in waves that night to the Lancaster Meetinghouse, ready for the conference to begin.

It was quite a heady feeling--after hearing about this conference for a year, it was actually going to happen. I remember commenting to someone at the time that there was nothing any of us could do to stop the WGYF now.

There was activity in flurries. The Pastoral Care Team met with a few more members to talk about our discussions in Woodbrooke. The Base Group Facilitators met to discuss what was going to happen in the "base groups" (which were small groups that met each day so that attenders would be able to discuss things more intimately). There was a visit to the local pub, where I discovered one of the other attenders was my fifth cousin! And there was much cooking and meeting and greeting and even a little sleeping in the wake of the excitement.

There was also a great deal of shock and sorrow. Many were finding out for the first time that almost all of the African and Indian representatives (about 60 of the 68) had been denied visas for travel to the UK, and therefore wouldn't be coming. We knew at this point that in some sense, this would not be a World Gathering without them. And many representatives were excited to know about African Quakerism particularly, because we had heard that it is so vibrant and fecund and large.

The First Night

I left Lancaster Meetinghouse around noon the next day, to go to the university. There I helped people find there rooms and whatever tasks I could find to do. And before dinner we had our first large group gathering. A letter from Britain Yearly Meeting was read to us--and that letter greeted us as "The World Gathering of Young Friends". The feeling in the room was electric. We were the World Gathering of Young Friends!

General Impressions

Some general impressions of the WGYF follow.

The conference had the loving nurturing feeling of a New England Yearly Meeting Young Friends retreat, but more so: here, complete strangers loved each other freely.

Because the African Friends were absent, the theological line was largely where the language line was. That is, the more evangelical and conservative Friends mostly spoke Spanish, and the more liberal Friends spoke English.

I was often surprised at who was an EFI Friend, who was an FUM Friend, who was an FGC Friend, and who was Conservative or unaffiliated. People's actual beliefs often did not match the stereotypes. As an example, you could find folks who believe that God loves all love--even homosexual love--among all branches of Friends.

Jeff Hipp from Friends Meeting Cambridge (Massachusetts) coined a term, "Quaker jackasses", after observing me and three other Friends who have the same boisterous energy and ability to be grounded that I do. We were from such different places and traditions--Ireland, the US, Nepal, Cuba, FUM, EFI, FGC, unaffiliated--but at least superficially we were so similar.

There is such a difference between the Londoners and the other Brits--there is so much wacky energy in the North of the UK! Indeed, the North Americans served as a grounding force, which I wouldn't have expected.

It was shocking to have a leadership role among people who were so spiritually deep. Part of me felt like I wouldn't really be able to contribute anything. Part of me wondered what I was doing there. It did turn out, though, that I was able to contribute. Being loud and boisterous, staying up very late, being light while talking about things going wrong, and giving back massages were all things that were useful for me to do.

Though the participants at the conference had obvious spiritual power, as did we as a group, there was some sense that it was potential, and that it was waiting for something to actualize it. I didn't really feel like that thing ever came.

Early Quakers were very privileged--they could read. That was true of only a third of the population in seventeenth-century rural England.

It seemed we were less challenged than the 1985 World Gathering of Young Friends. Perhaps people were prepared for the theological differences and mostly didn't labor with them.

At times it seemed that the differences in our faith and practice--even the rejection of differences itself--makes more sense in different cultures and different parts of the world.

An initiative came out of the WGYF: to partner Yearly Meetings together to help in each other's work, in the way that New England and Cuba have been partnered.

For me, the best part was meeting and spending time with Quakers from around the world, meeting people from diverse cultures and having just a taste of those cultures. It was pretty extraordinary to meet Quakers from all continents and to see how God is working in so many places.

A Few Personalities

There were Friends from Nepal, Russia, and others who barely spoke English or Spanish and thus could only speak with people from their country. There was a Friend from Indonesia who could barely speak to anyone.

A Friend from the West Coast constantly brokered massages, conscripting people to massage the overworked members of the staff.

One Friend was fluent in Klingon.

One Friend played the didgeridoo.

Many Friends dressed in plain dress.

Many Friends sang together during free time.

A Friend from Cuba greeted everyone passionately as "mangos", which he said in Cuba meant attractive people, "ripe for the picking". A Friend from Kenya later told me that to him "mango" meant "Management Accounting for Non-Governmental Organizations".

One Friend was so closed-minded about his faith that other Friends would burst into tears after speaking with him.

One of the speakers encouraged us to leave to God what is God's and to focus on doing our own work. One of the speakers asked us to read the Bible, even if we do not believe in it.

A Friend from England woke me up every morning. A Friend from New England helped me take some time for myself.

A Friend came to the World Gathering partially to escape a bad marriage. I have heard from her since. She is getting a divorce.

A few fellows from the university invited us out for beers. Some Friends were going to go, but then decided that that might not be terribly wise.

A Friend from England wore angel wings through much of the Gathering.

Another Friend from England wore a dress. He was often referred to as "the fellow in the dress"--which was said refreshingly without judgment from anyone.

Many Friends had very different customs about when to touch other people. I often found it surprising when people put their arm around me, hold my hand, or such.

Some Friends were not aware that not all Friends are Christian. Some Friends were not aware that so many Friends are Christian.

Two Friends, one from the US and one from Russia, were frequently confused with each other. Many told them they looked a lot alike. Finally, on the third day of the conference, they found each other. Indeed, they did look alike. They became friends.

One Friend would grunt quietly when spoken ministry was deeply true or the worship felt gathered.

A Friend from Ireland offered me tea, but then it turned out he didn't have any. But then it turned out that I did.

One Friend had recently suffered a harsh illness and had lost some of the light in his eyes.

On the last day, a Friend from New England hopped on my back, and we ran around, shouting that we were the hug monster and that we would hug them. Many Friends took us up on this. One Friend hugged us so hard that it loudly cracked my back. It was great.


Deep within the vision of the World Gathering was the idea that Quakers from around the world would come to the place where Quakerism was born. Indeed, the programme committee asserted that despite their desires to the contrary, God insisted that the Gathering be in 1652 country.

To fulfill this vision, there were two days of trips built into the conference. The first day we split into five different groups, going to Swarthmoor Hall, Firbank Fell, and the Quaker Tapestry at Kendal. Also, as part of the pre-WGYF gathering, we went to Fenny Drayton.

It was fascinating to see these landmarks in the development of our faith. Visiting them made the gathering feel more like a pilgrimage, and allowed us to do something together, which so rarely happens at conferences.

Fenny Drayton, the Anglican church in which Fox grew up, did not even feel like a sacred place to me. It was small, cluttered, and had an indoor tomb marked by a suit of armor. How strange that it was the place that Fox was raised! And yet, I can see that being told that that place was sacred might lead one to question the teller.

I went on the trip to Firbank Fell, also known as Fox's Pulpit, where George Fox first preached to a multitude. The hill itself and the land nearby were extraordinary in their beauty. Small hills swept and undulated to the horizon, deserted except for tufts of grass and a narrow, winding road. The view from the top of the hill was breathtaking, especially when I imagined a crowd gathered underneath. Indeed, when we climbed atop the hill there was a sense that someone should preach. Eventually a Friend from Ireland and I did an impromptu rap, which broke the tension, but definitely did not fulfill the desire. Then, when most of the group had wandered off, another Friend preached about the decline of our Society and about how faithless we Quakers can be. It was quite powerful.

The best trip was the last. We--all 200 odd of us--climbed Pendle Hill. It was indeed steep. And high for a hill in England. And so green! When we were climbing the white of our clothing stood out against the hill--white raiment indeed. At the top of the hill, you could see miles and miles of tame countryside, broken only by fences and the occasional building. The wind whipped by us as we ate our food, took pictures, sang, and prayed. We definitely were a community that afternoon on that hill. I would have liked to linger there a little longer.


During the week, as part of my role with the Pastoral Care Team, I found myself talking at length with various attendees about many things. I will leave you with the questions they brought up:

  • Am I a Quaker?
  • Are all of these other people Quakers?
  • Why is my home life difficult?
  • Why is my home life so different from that of others?
  • Is the program meeting people's needs?
  • Is homosexuality acceptable to God?
  • Is homophobia acceptable to God?
  • Is universalism acceptable to God?
  • Is Christianity acceptable to God?
  • How do I get to know people who do not speak my language?
  • How do I deal with the loneliness of following Christ?
  • How do we compare to the 1985 World Gathering of Young Friends?
  • How will I be friends with the people I have met here?
  • How will I integrate the lessons I have learned?


Read my reflections and recollections of the WGYF in Kanamai, Mombasa, Kenya.

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