Saturday, 3 June 2017
Testimony to the grace of God in the life of Sue Bowers
The following testimony was prepared in accordance with the practice of Quakers. It has been approved by Witney Friends, read at an Area Meeting and forwarded to Britain Yearly Meeting for record.
WITNEY LOCAL QUAKER MEETING
Testimony to the grace of God as shown in the life of Sue Bowers (13.7.33- 27.4.16)
To the very end, Sue retained a vigour and a smile which characterised her whole approach – to people, to opportunities, and to the mediation and peace work which she pioneered.
She was at the forefront of bringing conflict resolution work into UK schools in the 1980s, supported by Kingston on Thames Friends, where she and her husband John first came into membership in 1975. This was something of an impromptu second career; Sue had trained as a nurse in the 1950s, giving this up after marriage to John, a shipping executive then based in Liverpool, with whom she had a son and a daughter.
Sue was one of the founders and leaders of Kingston Friends Workshop Group, the outcome of her concern about bullying in schools. KFWG introduced to the UK a wide range of tools to help prevent and manage bullying in schools, and the use of mediation for conflict resolution in the school environment. At the time, what could be described as peace education was often regarded with suspicion, especially in a rather right-wing council, where the first initiatives were taken. However, both an imaginative educational inspector and a committee member with a child in a local school gave strong and effective support, and within a year, the group was giving workshops to train teachers in conflict resolution techniques. The broad approach was summarised as ‘communication, affirmation, cooperation and problem-solving’, based on four key questions: What happened? How do you feel about it? What would you like to do? And what can we actually do?
The methods which the group pioneered have become widely known and disseminated, and live on in common practice in schools, though their origins are probably not widely known or celebrated. Sue would not have cared about this. Modest, loving and deeply convinced, she shared her insights with a sense of joint exploration. She was passionate that peace was not about avoiding conflict, but about confronting and working through differences. She carried this approach into every enterprise undertaken with Friends and others.
John’s second retirement in 1990 brought a move to Dorset, where for thirteen years they held between them most of the posts within the Area Meeting and contributed greatly to it. Sue’s kindness and compassion showed through in all she did; and her energy and enthusiasm were such that sometimes it seemed as if only John’s gentle direction of it prevented Sue from self-destructing!
The legacy left to Dorset of Mediation Dorset that was set up by Sue has been immense. It was ahead of its time, and right – every solicitor and court now offers ‘mediation’ but the quality and impartiality that was integral to Mediation Dorset was invaluable to its clients and a flagship for Quakers.
Sue went on to teach conflict resolution with Marian Liebmann in Woodbrooke Quaker Studies Centre and Queen’s College, Birmingham, work which was greatly valued by Quakers and theologians in training alike.
Life was also for living – Sue and John’s shared interests in music and sailing, and the embedding of a musical creativity in the family, nourished them and their friends. A move to the Cotswolds to be nearer their children brought their energies first to Charlbury meeting, and then to Witney meeting. Here they once again made themselves part of the heart of both meetings.
In 2004, following the Iraq war, Sue and John became prime movers in what eventually became Peaceroots, an independent charity formed to support people in war-torn areas attempting to find non-violent solutions to conflict, to bring reconciliation and to build sustainable peace. It also aimed to raise the public profile of such work, and to demonstrate its benefits through dialogue with governments and decision- makers. This work ran alongside that of the family trust set up by Sue and John which provided support for 40-50 charities a year. One example was the Olive Tree programme, in which Israeli and Palestinian students at London universities were enabled to meet each other as equals and friends, rather than strangers and enemies.
Finding a home which was more accessible as age and health became more pressing concerns had a particular influence in the re-establishment of Witney meeting, which had been laid down some decades earlier. Sue and John, retiring to the town from Charlbury, initiated the home group which has now become a thriving local meeting in its own right. Sue was always keen to take on fresh ideas, and to keep those working with her in training, as it were, and part of her commitment to the young meeting was to create opportunities to learn together. She helped ensure that the Quaker experience was explained and explored through the provision of study groups for both enquirers and longer-standing Friends and she planned for members of the meeting to get to know one another better in away days and shared lunches. There were outreach events, when distinguished lecturers were invited to share their expertise, and she and John offered hospitality and challenge with love and enthusiasm. Her ministry in meeting was always rooted in practical experience, given with strength and wisdom. Though we knew that sometimes Sue’s organisational expectations could outrun the time available, we all welcomed her practicality and enthusiasm.
It was characteristic of Sue that she and John both responded in good time to the advice to plan well for one’s funeral and death. The guidance to the funeral advisors for Witney in 2012 was full of love and realism: organ donation (her body was accepted for medical research), green burials, flowers and catering were spoken of alongside the family needs, the trust in Quaker processes and the foundation of Quaker experience. Sue lived out her precepts to the end. Her own severe illness in 2013, and the onset of John’s dementia, meant careful planning about where and how to live out the last few years. They had hoped to move to a new retirement village in Witney, but had to accept that by late 2015, it would be necessary to go to a similar community in Letcombe Regis. It was still near enough for Witney Friends to remain in touch, and to help prepare the memorial meeting in summer 2016. At this, music from her family and friends soared over the sadness and gratitude of the hundred or more who gathered to give thanks for the grace of God in this life of committed and creative service.