Open Quakers

Dedicated to Openness and Inclusivity in Quaker Meetings

The Lie

"If you can't say the word, you can't see it, it doesn't exist."
(Eve Ensler, interviewed on Channel 4 News, 4th March 2019.)

The Application

In August 2008 I applied for membership of the Lancashire Central and North Area Quaker Meeting. This simple act set in train a series of events that were to cause great distress both to myself and to others in the meeting, and which caused me to completely change my view of the Religious Society of Friends.

I am confident that, in describing what happened, I will inevitably be accused of breaching confidentiality. I have two things to say about that. Firstly, 'confidentiality' has been used over the years by many individuals and institutions to protect themselves from well–justified criticism: it is the first public defence of bullies, fraudsters and rogues the land over. Secondly, I have worked as a journalist and as a teacher for many years and I have an approach to confidentiality that is very conventional. Leaving aside the question of children's rights to privacy (which are not relevant here), my practice is to respect the confidences of those I deal with – unless they relate to serious crime, or unless they contradict what my informant is saying in public and the matter is in the public interest.

My application for membership was a little unusual insofar as I had not been attending worship at Yealand Meeting (one of what were then eight local meetings in the Lancashire Area) for very long. Furthermore I had been in membership elsewhere some years before and had resigned my membership. I rather expected that my application would be left on the table for consideration later in order to allow Quakers in Lancashire to get to know me better.

What actually happened was that a minute was agreed that Rex Ambler and Marion Dadds, both of whom were members at Yealand, should act as my 'guides towards membership at Lancashire Area Meeting or elsewhere'. I suspect that some of those present when this decision was taken imagined some kind of befriending process. In the end things turned out very differently.

'Mentoring' by Rex Ambler & Marion Dadds

Rex and Marion's interpretation of what they had been asked to do was to set up a series of four meetings with me, between October 2008 and May 2009, at which we discussed my spiritual journey and my beliefs, Quaker or otherwise. From the beginning, Rex and Marion described themselves as my 'mentors'. This was a term that troubled me for reasons I couldn't quite put my finger on, but I said nothing about it.

At first I quite enjoyed these meetings, though I am not sure they really achieved very much and I now regret agreeing to make myself so vulnerable in this way

In December 2009, over six months after the last of our scheduled meetings, Rex and Marion presented me with the draft of a report that they intended to send to Area Meeting to assist members with their assessment of my membership application. This came with a letter from Rex. This letter stated that I could "correct (the report) in a matter of fact. We recognise that we might have unwittingly misrepresented the facts at some point, and if you make this clear to us we will amend the report". I did in fact ask Rex and Marion to make some changes and we met up for a fifth meeting, in January 2010, at which these were discussed. I am not a mind reader, but I suspect that even by then we were all getting a bit tired of this rather time-consuming process.

In February 2010 I was presented with a major re-write: the second version of Rex and Marion's report. They had clearly heard what I had said, and I was broadly happy with what they had written (and told them so). However I did ask them to change one single sentence which was rather ambiguous. As it concerned the reasons I had given them for leaving my previous meeting (and thus pertinent to one of the major concerns expressed at area meeting when my application for membership was first presented), I asked that the ambiguity be ironed out. This would have involved the re–writing of one fifteen–word sentence, and I think this could have finally given us a report that all three of us would have been entirely content with. In all probability this report would have been accepted by the area meeting, and the usual membership process, with the appointment of visitors, would have been set in train with no more ado.

However, things were not to be so simple.

When I e–mailed and phoned Marion Dadds, though hesitant at first, she became quite fulsome in her agreement that the short edit be made.

The Turning Point

However, when I e–mailed and then phoned Rex Ambler, it was an entirely different matter. For some reason he refused point blank to make the small change I had requested, even though he admitted that the sentence I wanted changing was ambiguous. To this day I cannot understand why anyone would adopt such a position. Rex himself is a prominent member of an organisation that purports to facilitate the quest for 'God's Truth'; he does painstaking and detailed research on the books he writes; and, in relation to this report, he had previously offered to "correct (the report) in a matter of fact" (see quote from letter of December 2009, above).

After a few minutes the conversation suddenly turned nasty. Rex called me precious and questioned my integrity. This was a side of him that I had not seen before and I ended the call as soon as I decently could.

There followed further correspondence between myself, Rex, Marion and the area meeting clerk, during the course of which Rex and Marion accused me of being 'aggressive'; Marion did a complete 180° in relation to making the small correction I had asked for; Rex tried undermining me with cod psychology; and in the end I felt it necessary not to take part in any further 'mentoring'.

At area meeting on the 13th May 2010, my membership application was brought up and Rex and Marion presented the third and final version of their report about me. Not being a member of the society I was not permitted to attend. This meant that anybody could say anything they liked about me without my having the chance to respond. (This is entirely normal practice when applications for Quaker membership are being considered).

Copies of Rex and Marion's six-page report (the third and final version) were given out just before the discussion, along with a written response that I had been allowed to present in absentia. It is clear that some of those present were frustrated by the lack of time available to read what they had been given.

The report consisted of an Introduction, a Part One and a Part Two:–

The Lie

I had no particular quarrel with either the Introduction or the main body of Part One. With hindsight it is clear that I was unwise to participate in a process that led to some very personal issues being aired in front of dozens of people, most of whom I barely knew, but I think that what was written was a genuine attempt to describe the gist of what I had told Rex and Marion during several hours of meetings.

That said, Part One of the report did contain a blatant lie. In a little footnote at the bottom of page 3 – a note that was not part of the original version of the report that Rex and Marion had originally planned to submit to the area meeting but which they slipped in later, presumably to suit their new agenda – they wrote: " . . To resolve this ambiguity we would follow Robert's later phrasing and make it read . . ". This refered to the small edit that I had asked for that Rex, and eventually Marion, had so curiously refused to make previously.

In March, Rex had written to me " . . I was firm in rejecting your demand that we change the text and still feel that I was right to do so". Yet here he was (together with Marion) in May, pretending that their earlier, frequently repeated refusal had never happened. By appearing to have been reasonable all along, they made all my protests seem utterly absurd. It is clear that many members at the area meeting in May 2010 swallowed this deception hook, line and sinker.

In Part Two, the later addition to Rex and Marion's report, I was described as having "an aggressive, somewhat hostile and condescending manner". They went on to say that " . . the time (was) not right for Area Meeting to proceed with (my) application". It should be noted that nobody at either Yealand Local Meeting or Lancashire Area Meeting – and that includes Rex and Marion – had ever accused me of being aggressive or condescending prior to the dreadful phone call in February when Rex started calling me names.

It would have been interesting to have been a fly on the wall at the area meeting. From what I can gather it was quite something.

During the course of a discussion that lasted an hour and a half, one of Rex Ambler's long–standing personal friends was apparently seen to quiver with emotion as she described how I had described Rex as 'evil' – which of course I hadn't.

Needless to say, my application for membership was not approved.

The Aftermath

Over the next eighteen months there were several meetings of one sort or another, a great many e-mails were sent, and a sort of 'clearness' group was set up. At various times there was a proposal to involve a mediator from outside the area (I have seen this work very well elsewhere), and another proposal to seek help from Quaker Life, but neither of these proposals were accepted by the area meeting.

Eventually the area meeting seems to have decided that the whole issue should be buried and that we should all forget it ever happened. So, visitors were appointed to meet me in the usual way to discuss my application for membership (area meeting of November 2010), and Rex Ambler went on to be appointed for a further year as elder.

Not everything was entirely warm and fuzzy however. For example, a woman who had, a couple of years previously, kindly driven me home after a social event at Yealand because I had no car at the time, and then had a cup of tea quite alone with me in my flat, now, at area meeting, questioned the wisdom of appointing two women as my visitors: it might have been safer to have at least one man present, apparently.

Despite all the abuse that had been targeted at me, I was at first pleased to be able to move on and take part in an orderly membership application process. However, two appointments for my visitation had to be cancelled due to bad weather, and this gave me the time to ponder whether I really wanted to be a member of an organisation that was content to record so many untruths in its official minutes, and which included so many members who were keen to vilify me.

During the summer of 2011, I contacted two senior officers of Britain Yearly Meeting and Quaker Life. Both made it clear that they could not get involved without a formal approach from Lancashire Area Meeting. One of them suggested that there might have been a breach of procedure in relation to Rex and Marion's report. The other told me that in his experience "Friends will not apologise"; he added that he would pray about the matter. (I have since heard it said that the Religious Society of Friends is essentially a franchise operation with no quality control systems in place – it's a good description).

In November 2011, having exhausted all possible avenues within the Society, I made a formal complaint to the Charities Commission. Despite their published guidelines with regard to fairness in matters of membership, they refused to take the matter up. Given the length and detailed nature of the document I sent them, and their huge workload, I was disappointed but not entirely surprised.

Eventually, in January 2012, I wrote to the area meeting clerk withdrawing my application for membership and also asking that somebody else be found to manage the website I had created for the meeting. It was about this time that I stopped coming to worship on Sunday and resigned from the Yealand children's committee.

In Conclusion

It has taken me seven years to feel able to return to these events and write this account.

A number of things are now clear to me:-

— Robert Powell, 9th May 2019