Quaking with the Quakers

So you have a Sunday off and where do you go to church? Always a tricky one for clergy. You want to go. You want to receive the Sacrament, if possible. You want to check out what your sisters and brothers are doing out there in the vineyard. One of the difficulties I have here is that I am next door to two parishes where I used to be Rector and it is rather frowned upon to ‘go back’. Especially as they have a new Rector this year. I used to go back to my home parish in Edinburgh but things change and at some point it doesn’t really feel like home again. And if I was a bit braver with driving then I would venture west and try out a certain cathedral there, but that day hasn’t come yet.

quaker-peace-gardenTo digress a moment, one of my little flock has just left us to go to the Quakers. She has always wanted to be a Quaker since she was a teenager and as she is now retired she feels that she can finally do that. (There were a host of other reasons why she couldn’t do it sooner.) We have given her our blessing and she returns once a month when she is on the coffee rota and keeps in touch with old friends. Over a coffee she was explaining to me the preparation process and I heard myself saying, “Can I come with you on Sunday then?” (Well that’s receiving the Sacrament done for, I thought.)

I should perhaps say at this point, that I have worked in the past with many Quakers. When I worked for the Rock Trust with young homeless people we always had a Quaker on our Management Team and they were great contributors. Renowned for their interest in Justice and Peace, I met many in the Voluntary Sector and always had great respect for them. I always intended going to a meeting one Sunday but it just never happened. (Of course, I do know that they do silence rather well and I am not exactly renowned for it.)

And off we set on Sunday morning to the local Quaker Meeting House, which happens to be in a local community centre. As it was the first Sunday in the month my friend told me that the meeting would be slightly different. There would be silence but there would also be a discussion after so there would be an opportunity to talk. However as the group gathered a young woman arrived with two very young children and announced that she was meant to be doing the discussion but hadn’t been able to get anything together so there wouldn’t be one. It was all very relaxed. (How different in our church, I thought. Imagine if I turned up at 10.30am and said I hadn’t had time to do the sermon… Round of applause, perhaps?) There was a low coffee table around which the chairs were set. On the table there were some books about Quakers or Quaker sayings which I was invited to read if the silence got too much. There was also a plant which I took to be the equivalent of an icon or cross – it was our focus for the meeting. We numbered about 9 plus the kids.

The meeting began with no announcement so I nearly missed it (and spoiled it because I was going to ask where the loo was) and suddenly Quakers praywe just lapsed into silence. I was kind of hoping that the Holy Spirit might encourage somebody to ‘witness’ or ‘minister’ or whatever it is they do but sadly She was very quiet herself that day. Some sat with eyes closes, some with eyes open. One man read almost everything on the table. Another woman clutched a small piece of paper with something written on it. The rest of us sat and tried to avoid eye contact. The elderly woman next to me got very quiet and then did some gentle snuffly snoring before going completely silent. So silent, in fact, that I took to checking she was still breathing. The others took it in turns to go and look after the children in the room next door. Near the end the new Evangelical church which also uses the community centre struck up with High Five for Jesus, or at least it sounded like that. It was very jolly. And loud.

An hour later, during which I may have dozed off myself and dreamt or was visited by the Holy Spirit who showed me some birds of prey (? I know, go figure) a woman shook hands with the person next to her and we all joined in and that was it over. (You only shake hands with the person next to you, not like the Peace and go trying it with folk opposite. Oh no.) A wee bit of an anti-climax, I have to say. And then it was coffee time. I expected lots of conversation and interest as to why I was visiting but no. Not one person spoke to me other than to offer me coffee (no decaff available. Who ever heard of Quakers with no decaff?). Now, as you know, I am used to being the centre of attention so it did not sit well with me to be so completely ignored. Perhaps it is not part of their ethos to welcome the stranger. Maybe they don’t do Mission. (How refreshing, not to have to worry about Mission… ) Anyhow, they chatted among themselves about Quakery things and local concerts and Christian Aid. And then we left.

Now one must not make generalisations after only one visit and with only one group… you sense a BUT here, don’t you? No, I shall resist. But I will say that I was surprised that the hour passed quicker than I thought. I did manage some prayer. My observations lead me to believe that most, if not all, Quakers are probably introverts. I missed all the trappings of church to look at : icons, statues, smell of incense, pictures, etc. I missed the liturgy. But I’m glad there are Quaker Meeting Houses for quiet people to go to. Unfortunately I didn’t get to ask lots of questions, like Do you still quake before God or are you more on speaking terms now? Why is nobody wearing a stove-top hat? Why no sacraments? You could do them in silence, if you wanted. Why was your bible the Good News version and have you ever tried something better? (oooh, get her! I’d make a dreadful Quaker.) What’s with the silence anyway? Is it for prayer? Dialogue? Listening? Waiting? How often does the Holy Spirit lead you to speak up?

If you know the answers, please do comment below. I have bought a copy of Quaker Faith and Practice so one day I may get around to reading it myself.

1 star from this mystery worshipper. (If you’d spoken to me you’d have got a whole lot more.)

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9 thoughts on “Quaking with the Quakers

  1. I too have a copy of the book; and am waiting for the right moment to read it… my Quaker contact came through trying to offer a “Stop in the Name of God” day in a [small] city centre church, and involving all denominations. The Quakers were great! afterwards we talked a bit, and they said they wait for someone to be inspired by the HS to speak into the silence, there could then be a further revelation, or just continuing silence. So you might have been unlucky and hit a day when the HS was busy elsewhere?

  2. Not a Quaker but I’ve attended a few unprogrammed meetings and have a family interest (lots of Quaker ancestors). Each yearly meeting (equivalent more or mostly less to one national church in the Anglican Communion and like the Communion not all seeing eye to eye) has its own Faith and Practices book and they are modified over time (I have a copy of the London (now Britain) Yearly Meeting from around 1900, quite different in some ways from the current). (The BYM has its Faith and Practices online http://qfp.quakerweb.org.uk/ and it can just be dipped into; some other yearly meetings also have theirs online).

    Many modern yearly meetings aren’t much into getting people to join (Kenya which has the largest Quaker community in the world may be among those that are different); you have to seek them out. Simplicity is considered a value so new fashions in clothes etc. were avoided hence the very old fashioned clothes that was worn (a reaction in the late 19th century to wearing such distinctive clothing led to most and eventually almost all Quakers to wear current but plain clothes so they don’t stand out that way). As for sacraments:

    “To Fox and the early Friends the whole of life seemed sacramental, and they refused to mark off any one particular practice or observance as more sacred than others. They took the same stand with regard to Sunday, or First Day; it was not in itself more holy than Saturday or Monday; every week-day should be a Lord’s Day. Their whole attitude was gloriously positive, not negative. They were ‘alive unto God’ and sensed him everywhere.

    We do not say that to observe the sacraments is wrong, but that such observance is not essential to wholehearted Christian discipleship and the full Christian experience. We do not judge our fellow Christians to whom the outward sacraments mean so much. Rather do we wish, by prayerful fellowship with them, to be led unitedly with them to a deeper understanding of what underlies those sacraments, and so to share a richer experience of the mind of Christ.” Gerald K Hibbert, 1941 http://qfp.quakerweb.org.uk/qfp27-39.html

  3. I’ve been to Quaker meetings (1st as part of the obligatory Coates Hall Church crawl). it sounds as if you’ve hit an atypical one. I’ve always found the one at Victoria Terrace quite friendly and open to questions.

  4. It seems a tad judgemental of you I have to say to generalise from one visit to one group. You extrapolate that Quakers are Introverts based on this. I wonder how you would feel if I judged all Christians to be homophobic, misogynistic bigots based on the church in my village. I enjoyed many of your blogs but was saddened by this one

  5. Oh dearie me, Maid (whoever you are) I am sorry you are saddened by my post. I didn’t think that calling someone an Introvert was a derogatory term like homophobic or misogynist. It was just an observation on this group, and of the other Quakers I know. It was certainly not meant as a criticism.

  6. I am a Quaker who started going to Church of England services so I can see it the other way round. I was looking for a bit of noise and framework, I even decided to get confirmed.
    I am not sure where you are in the country but I think you should try a couple of other meetings to see the difference. Try London and Sussex where there are plenty of radical very active, well attended spirit filled meetings.
    Like the difference between diocese where the bishop is into ordaining women or not ….perhaps if you had approached it as the apostles did when they sat in a room quietly waiting for the Holy Spirit it might have been different. Like when I look at the funny outfits clergy wear and try to see whether the Spirit is hiding under the robes. As to sacraments, they suggest to some that some thing’s are sacred and others aren’t , where Quakers believe that everything is sacred.
    Ministry from the spirit can be both vocal and quiet. To many but not all the bible is not as important as the author ( Holy Spirit) Quakers would be James than john. Faith is not enough it’s deeds that do it.
    How would you be if someone questioned you directly after your sermon or rose and preached an alternative, would you be open, would they be shouted down by the congregation.
    How do you feel on gay marriage, gay priests, women bishops. Quakers believe before God we are all equal and have done since their foundation, these issues seem to haunt organisations where four legs good two legs better gets a hold. Quakers will cut a leg off to avoid this 😉

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