Once upon a time, well in 1994 actually, I set out on a journey round Britain Yearly Meeting as a Joseph Rowntree Fellow with a project called 'What canst thou say?' I was trying to reintroduce Friends and others to the tradition of spiritual autobiography, not just as an historical exercise but as a way of sharing our different spiritual journeys with one another.
Eventually I wrote a book about the fellowship called Turning inside out, a title that expressed what for me seemed the most important part of the exercise. I was trying to encourage Friends to look inside themselves and think about their spiritual journey, then to write about it and eventually to turn the inside out and share that spiritual autobiography with others in whatever way and at whatever time seemed right for them. I also stressed that it was equally important to listen to others' stories even if they were very different from our own.
When I started out I was reacting to what I saw as a sense of isolation among British Friends and a lack of opportunity to share our spiritual journeys with one another. More than one person told me that the only time they were given such an opportunity was when they were visited after they applied for membership!
I continued giving the workshops for nearly ten years after the fellowship ended but although what I had to say was generally well received I ended with a sense of failure. It seemed to me that people were happy with the first steps, looking at their spiritual autobiography and even writing it for themselves, but that turning inside out and sharing it with others, as well as listening to others' different experience was much more difficult.
Certainly over the years the practice of spiritual autobiography has become much more widespread, particularly in America and through blogging, but I still feel that there is a problem with British Friends. Perhaps we really are more reserved and uncomfortable with personal disclosure. Perhaps it is tied up with our increasing individualism and the idea that anything goes. If we are not looking for a way to draw together and discern a way forward as a group, if we are only looking for other like-minded people to feel comfortable with, then we do not have to acknowledge our differences and can dismiss the 'other'.
When I came across the convergent conversation in the blogosphere I felt an excitement and hope that I had not felt for some time. I thought that what I had tried to do before had failed but that now perhaps what I need to do is to ask the questions of British Friends again, to encourage them to make connections in love with the 'difficult' people and beliefs in their own yearly meeting and in the rest of the Quaker world.