08 October 2020

Anne Thomas, fellow-voyager (1944-2020)

As I look back, I see that my ministry has been as a teacher.
 (Anne Thomas, "Autobiography")

My late friend and mentor Anne Thomas indeed served as a teacher to many people in many contexts. As I grieve her death, it feels right to testify to my own experience of her as an educator in the widest sense.

Early in her career, she taught high school science and mathematics in England. Many years later, having emigrated from England to Ottawa, Canada, she visited Carleton University "to see what courses I needed to take to obtain teaching qualifications in Canada," as she recounts in her autobiography. "While lined up at registration I saw courses that looked interesting that were offered in the Religion Department and signed up for those, little realizing that I would eventually teach courses in that department."

She also took classes at the Ottawa Lay School of Theology. When I was a new Friend in Ottawa, she encouraged me to take some classes there, too. Some of my favorite memories of my education as a newly convinced Quaker involved attending those classes together with her and Deborah Haight.

Deborah had helped start Ottawa Meeting back in the 1950's, and Anne began attending shortly after arriving in Canada in 1968 with her husband Barry and young daughter Helen. (Helen's brother Simon was born in 1970.) At Ottawa Meeting, Anne taught First-day school, served in various volunteer roles, and began a lifetime of ecumenical involvements on behalf of Friends in Ottawa and nationally. Her teaching skills in Bible and theology served Ottawa Friends, her students at Carleton, and beyond. She served Canadian Yearly Meeting on the Religious Education Committee and other committees, and eventually became the yearly meeting's general secretary. She began receiving invitations to lead Bible studies at yearly meetings, United Society of Friends Women events, and Quaker conferences and retreat centers all over North America and in the UK. 

In 1995, she gave the Swarthmore Lecture at Britain Yearly Meeting's sessions. The lecture and accompanying book, Only Fellow-Voyagers: creation stories as guides for the journey, is an amazing example of her ability to open the Bible (starting with Genesis, in this case) and draw us into an exploration that visits the fields of biology, cosmology, cultural anthropology, Quaker spirituality, and the history and limitations of biblical interpretation -- all in the service of illustrating the unity and integrity of all Creation.
Over ninety-nine percent of the atom is space. In the Newtonian universe the vast areas of outer space created a sense of loneliness. In the quantum world space is filled with fields whose effects can be observed. Just as fish are unaware of the water that surrounds them, we are unaware of the fields that are within and beyond us.

Modern science accepts the mysteries and does not seek to explain them away. There is delight in seeing the caterpillar and butterfly as two forms of stabilized structure within the evolution of one system, rather than dead samples crucified in a dusty museum. We do not know how long the coast of Britain is, recognising that there is no final answer. Children's riddles are part of the reality of modern scientists, 'How do you hold a hundred tons of water in the air?' 'In a cloud.'

Scientists are beginning to see that the universe is not a great machine, but that it is a participant universe in which human beings may evoke a potential into reality. Just as the groundling was created to till the garden, we too have an ongoing role, but now we have eaten from the tree we are much more aware of the power of knowledge of good and evil. Like theologians, scientists build explanatory structures, telling stories that are scrupulously tested to see if they are stories about real life. At their best these stories incorporate the non-human voices of our planetary community when we are open to including them:

... ask the animals, and they will teach you; 
the birds of the air and they will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth and they will teach you; 
and the fish of the sea will declare to you. 
Job 12:7
Friends have also trusted me with their personal stories and to support them as they journeyed through difficult times. ("Autobiography")

My memories of Anne are grouped into two phases. The first memories all relate to the years (1974-77) when I lived in Ottawa and attended Ottawa Friends Meeting. Those years included some difficult times for me, as I struggled with my family's rejection of me, formalized by my being removed from my parents' wills. Eventually, I had to act to take my surviving sister out of the USA and settle her with my Canadian relatives before the courts would have removed her from my parents' custody. Another challenge: my application to stay in Canada after graduation, and settle there permanently, which failed despite the best efforts of Friends and my own Canadian relatives. I had plenty of personal demons to deal with, as well, centered on my first experiences of love and rejection. At times, all of these crises threatened to affect my academic work. Through all this mess, Ottawa Friends as a community, along with my own Heyerdahl relatives in nearby Manotick, Ontario -- kept me sane, and made God's love and care a daily reality. They even encouraged me to take on my first volunteer roles among Friends, both locally and at the yearly meeting. Anne and Barry Thomas, and their lively children Helen and Simon, were very much part of this support.

With my degree in Russian in hand, and with my small collection of theological books bought with my employee discount at the Anglican Book Society, I moved back to the USA in 1977. I had very few chances to see Anne and Barry again over the next decade and a half. Then in 1993 I became general secretary of Friends United Meeting. Anne was general secretary of Canadian Yearly Meeting and a member of Friends United Meeting's board, so she and I were once again co-laborers in Quaker service. Around the time that I began, Anne had helped head off a major potential crisis for FUM by warning us against investing in what turned out to be a Ponzi scheme that had drawn in several Friends groups, including the planners of a major Quaker conference involving many FUM constituencies.

Anne's care and support continued through other waves of challenge and crisis too numerous to recount now. Over the years Anne endeared herself to many FUM board and committee members from diverse backgrounds, some of which were outwardly very different from Anne's own English and Canadian history and unprogrammed Quaker experiences. Many board meetings ended with everyone heading for ice cream at a nearby restaurant. I remember one such gathering, where Anne recounted one of her high school dances in England that featured a relatively unknown local band, the Beatles.

Anne's Bible study for January-February 1998;
PDF version is here.
During my FUM years, Anne found another outlet for her teaching skills: she wrote a monthly Bible study column for FUM's periodical, Quaker Life.

Finally, Anne's words about her ministry to people in "difficult times" reminds me to add one more detail that I'd not been aware of until I read the autobiographical essay that Helen was kind enough to send me in the days after Anne's death. 
I also represented Canadian Yearly Meeting on the Interfaith Committee on Chaplaincy and the Correctional Service of Canada for many years. Committee meetings were often held in penitentiaries and this experience was focal in helping discern the role of chaplains in Canadian Yearly Meeting. It also led to my being part of an ecumenical group of women who led Sunday evening services at Prison for Women in Kingston, Ontario.
Anne departed on her final voyage on September 4. It has taken me this long to assemble these poor words to pay tribute to her influence on me -- and doubtless on many others in and beyond the Quaker family. I believe that, in God's good time, our paths will somehow intersect again.

Anne's obituary

Information about her memorial meeting:

Dear Friends everywhere,

New Brunswick Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends and the family of the late Anne Thomas of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia invite you to attend an online Memorial Meeting for Worship where friends and family will gather to remember Anne.

The meeting is scheduled to take place from 2:00 until 4:00 PM, Halifax, Nova Scotia time (GMT-4) on First Day (Sunday), November 8th, 2020. There are options to attend the Zoom meeting by computer with video and audio or by telephone with audio only.

Programme for the Meeting:

1 - Welcome and Programme review - Vincent Zelazny, Clerk NBMM

2 - Introduction to Quaker Memorial Meeting - John Calder

3 - Reading of Memorial Minute - Ellen Helmuth

4 - Meeting for Worship with Ministry to the Grace of God in the Life of Anne Thomas - All

5 - Closing of Meeting for Worship - Vince Zelazny

6 - Cosmic Tea - a series of 15-minute small-group conversations in breakout rooms

Please register in advance for this meeting using this link:

After registering, allow some time to receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.

Please share this information widely with your friends and through Friends' networks.

Yours in Friendship,

Vincent Zelazny

Clerk, New Brunswick (Canada) Monthly Meeting

Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)

voice/text: 1 506 470 3921

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