The FGC Gathering 2010 — Freer At Last??

FGC Theme 2010

In keeping with its theme, this year’s FGC Gathering will feature a very welcome free “Gift of the Spirit,”namely:

A long overdue END to the practice of a forced “sabbath” midway through the week.

And it’s about dam time!

The 2010 FGC Gathering theme

(A bit of context for newbies: FGC= Friends General Conference, the association of liberal Quaker groups in North America. The FGC “Gathering” is its annual week-long conference/festival/tribal reunion, the largest Quaker assembly on the continent. This writer has attended most such events since 1979.

The daily schedule at the Gathering runs like this: intensive workshops in the mornings. Afternoons “free,” but many ad hoc discussion groups, interest groups, performances and so forth come together during that time. Evenings feature speakers or performers at plenary sessions. )

The Gathering is organized, in proper Quaker fashion, by committees. Committee members are volunteers, and mostly quite dedicated.

For some, however, dedication over time begins to morph into a sense of stewardship, and even take on a certain proprietary flavor. We know how you can get the most out of the week. And before one quite realizes it, dedication has become oppression.

Thus it was a number of years ago, that some experienced and wise committee members saw that many Friends were swept up in the many activities and intense fellowship that often occur at these events; and by mid-week, it was noted, many get tired out. Indeed, many such, it was observed, by Wednesday (hump day), could use a nap.

FGC Logo design -2010
The 2010 FGC Gathering logo image

Yes, went the discussion, motivated solely by tender care, Friends by Wednesday not only could use a nap, they needed a nap. And from there it was but a small step to a decision that they shall have a Wednesday nap, or at least would be institutionally prodded to do so, by removing all visible hindrances thereto.

Thus was born the Wednesday sabbath. It was to be enforced by the withdrawal of all institutional opportunities and services: no informal meetings could be scheduled or announced; support services such as golf carts for elderly and disabled attenders were suspended. The staff was gone, or at least out of sight.

It was, the committee concluded, lovely; a patch of quiet amid the hubbub, a chance to calm the tendency among many to fall into overbusiness and a frenetic pace that could, the wise ones knew, take the less-centered away from the still silent center which, the wise ones understood, was at the heart of Quaker spirituality.

And so it was written, and so it was to be done.

I will not euphemize here: I thought it was a terrible idea, from Day One. For small children, imposed regular naptimes are one thing. For adults, my naps are my business, thank thee very much.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m no antinomian. There are Gathering rules, and mostly I’m fine with them: no drugs, no booze, no smoking, no guns, etc. Not a problem. But no nothing on Wednesday afternoons?

Err, just a minute — could we go over that last one again, please?

Furthermore, the withdrawal of services felt like a ripoff: Gatherings are expensive; they eat up big chunks of precious vacation time; many travel long distances to be there. And if we want to spend the limited afternoon times in open, unashamed, semi-organized fellowship with others we only get to see once a year — then dammit, who is some committee to snatch a key chunk of that time away from us, especially without a corresponding discount for services un-rendered??

It was the same feeling as when I picked up the 16 ounce can of beans and discovered, after paying, that it had suddenly shrunk to 13 ounces, but with no reduction in price.

Not to mention the fact that, for liberal Friends especially, the notion of imposed rituals — and this quasi-sabbath was indeed a ritual enforced with religious zeal — is anathema. If we want a by-the-book ordering of our religious life together, there are many other sects waiting to greet (and direct) us; yet most of us had turned away from such approaches as we found our way to Friends. This new rule was regress, not progress.

So from the start the sabbath faced an undercurrent of resistance and resentment. Each year there was seditious talk of civil disobedience. (The idea I liked was a Wednesday afternoon rogue meeting for healing: “Tell me, Is It Lawful To Heal On The Sabbath?”

“Sorry, buddy, no dice. It’s Wednesday afternoon. You know the rules.”

That never happened; but one that did was the Gathering ritual of filling out evaluation sheets; and I know I set some of those fairly afire with yowls of outrage. Evidently others did too.

But a Quaker committee, once set on a course, can be hard of hearing and slow to react. So it took years of objecting, nagging, and pleading to get their attention. Especially when the wise ones on the committee were sure they had acted out of only the most tender loving care for the rest of us.

Yes. But ahem.  Maybe a bit too much care, Friends?? Few of us adults need a nanny committee to micromanage our time to that extent. And those who do — well, maybe the Gathering is not the best setting for them. It may be the largest Quaker assembly, but I know lots of people who don’t like it: too big, too noisy, too whatever. And they exercise their judgment by being somewhere else that week. Fine. Different strokes.

I think it’s been ten years since this oppressive rule was imposed. And finally, this past year, somehow the complaints began to register. And when the Advance program for the 2010 Gathering arrived in the mail this past week (one of the liberal Quaker signs of spring), the alert reader noticed a certain lacuna in the traditional daily schedule diagram: there was no more greyed out patch over Wednesday afternoon, bearing the cheery instruction to “Take a Nap!”

This is how Quaker committees typically backtrack: with as little admission of error as possible. Perhaps no one will notice, and everyone will go take a nap anyway.

But one notices. A quick email exchange with the relevant officials confirmed that it was not a misprint.

Yet the Sabbath, one was told, had not been given up; it had been merely, er, modified. It also elicited the following by way of elucidation, which I believe is something of an “official” advice:

FGC Title


On Wednesday afternoon we take a break from the busy-ness of the Gathering to focus on rest and reflection. Everyone is invited to an afternoon of spaciousness. This may be a time for solitude, for simple togetherness with a friend or family member, or for worship. After this sabbath pause, we trust that we will be more present to each other and to Spirit during our last two days together.

Advice for scheduling Wednesday afternoon events: We ask Friends to carefully discern whether an activity is in the spirit of sabbath before scheduling it for Wednesday afternoon. [Emphasis added.]

 The last bit is the nitty-gritty: as elliptically as possible it allows that starting this summer we can once again actually plan and schedule things on the sacred day; one was also advised that the golf carts will operate, so that the mobility-challenged might no longer be confined to one spot.

And I for one have already carefully discerned that there should be a party, a spaciousness party on Wednesday afternoon. No champagne, of course, but some bubbly Martinelli’s cider will serve for a toast — a toast to a Gathering that is freer at last, freer at last, thank God a’mighty, it will be freer at last.

But of course, others may choose to take a nap.

CAt nap

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