Let me begin by saying to any members of my local Meeting who read this blog, I have great affection for my local Quaker community. This post is intended to provoke discussion, and if any offence is unintentionally caused I hope you’ll feel able to talk with me about it.
I was recently invited to join a group of Quakers from my local Meeting to consider a question that has been put to all London Quaker Meetings: What is our ministry? Is our Meeting House suited to it?
It was a great privilege to be asked for my input, and the process of meeting in each others’ homes, sharing food and our reflections, has been very enjoyable.
Something that has emerged from out discussion is the sense that our Meeting community could be described as a ‘Sunday club’. The majority of worshippers don’t live in the local area. Our Meeting House generates a large income from being in almost constant use by community groups, with Quakers generally only using the building on a Sunday morning. I’d like to explore what I believe to be the essential elements of a local Quaker community, and the pros and cons of being a ‘Sunday club’, if indeed that is what we are.
Those familiar with my blogging will know how much I love the writings of Patricia Loring. Her Listening Spirituality series sadly never reached completion, but I feel the two volumes she has bequeathed us encapsulate the essence of the Quaker way. In sequence they describe personal spiritual practices among Friends, corporate spiritual practices among Friends, and Quaker ethical engagement with the world. These three components describe very well the essential elements of Quaker living.
Personal spiritual practice can take many forms. My partner and I have very different temperaments. I prefer a formal routine of silent prayer whereas he would much rather go for a walk in the park. Whatever we are led to, religious wisdom through the ages encourages us find ways to connect daily with the Divine.
Coorporate practice is the real heart of our faith. Quakerism is not a hermit’s religion. Ideally, in community we are able to care for one another, share our joys and sorrows and learn from each other. Together we can hear the leadings of the Spirit more clearly than we can alone.
Patricia Loring refers to ethical engagement with the world as the third component. I’d like to rename it evangelism. I know there will be some who recoil at the word, but bear with me! So, evangelism comes from the Greek euanggelion, which means ‘good news’. You may associate it with ranting on street corners or being asked to accept seemingly irrational dogma. However, the evangelist in a pre-Christian context was a messenger who ran from the battlefield bringing news of victory and peace. This is good news, not about escaping hellfire after death, but about the quality of our lives right now. A couple of years ago I heard a pastor speaking about the food bank recently set up in their church. He said that giving people food would provide an opportunity to share the ‘good news’. I thought, “but giving food to the hungry IS the good news!” When asked on the street by a Mormon elder what I thought the gospel was, I said “that bit where Jesus quotes Isaiah”. If I knew my Bible better I’d have been able to recite:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
So, any work we do to bring healing, fight poverty, foster peace and liberate the oppressed is our evangelism.
The Quaker Way in community – a model
Now I know there’s no such thing as a perfect community, but as a way to generate discussion, here’s a model of what I believe a vibrant Quaker community might look like:
Personal practice, corporate practice and evangelism all feed and support each other. Personal practice and evangelism can take many forms, hence the varied circles within circles. You will notice I have placed three specific elements within our corporate practice. I will come back to those later!
The ‘Sunday club’
My local meeting may resemble a ‘Sunday club’, where we only come together for an hour every Sunday to sit in silence, followed by some tea and biscuits. Now for some, or indeed many, this may be just what they want: some time-out from a busy schedule, space to think and reflect, some well earned me-time. No commitment is required of you, and it is very easy to leave without speaking to anyone afterwards. At my meeting it is not unusual for a steady trickle of late-comers to arrive throughout the hour, and I would suggest that this is a symptom of ‘Sunday-club’ syndrome. If people are here for individual refreshment then it doesn’t really matter if we don’t start at the same time.
A ‘Sunday club’ worshipper (and who’s to say that I’m not one?) might be modeled like this:
Here’s Meeting for Worship is just one of a number of personal practices, which may or may not feed into whatever evangelism the individual is or is not involved in.
I shall now be intentionally provocative. I agree that there should be room within the Quaker community for individuals seeking a quiet and undemanding space. However, in the absence of any corporate element, this is not an expression of the Quaker way. A room filled with silent people, sitting in a circle with Quaker Faith and Practice on the table, may look like a Meeting for Worship, but if everyone there is a ‘Sunday club’ worshipper then there is nothing Quaker about it.
This model leaves us to work things out by ourselves, which may sound freeing, but to me feels like a lot of hard work.
The essentials of corporate practice
I will now return to corporate practice, which I feel to be at the heart of the Quaker way. Quaker community life has many components: pastoral care, care of the building, meetings for worship for business, finances and the tea rota to name a few. I want to talk about three essential elements (and notice that membership of a committee is not one of them!), without which I feel a Quaker community is lacking. These are public worship, private meetings and shared meals:
Public meetings – meeting to worship in a public place allows us to come together as a whole community, and share our ministry and manner of worship with strangers.
Home groups – by meeting together in small groups in private homes we can get to know each other in things both eternal and temporal, trusting each other with our joys and sorrows. We can learn from each other and encourage one another in our discipleship. Opportunities for discussion, learning and intimate sharing are present here that are impractical at public meetings.
Table fellowship – I am convinced that shared meals are the foundation of community life and should be an integral part of both our public and private meetings.
These three elements are what I hope all Members would feel able to commit to. A community whose only regular offering is public meetings is missing so much! Meeting for Worship is a wonderful thing, but it is not big enough to contain the entirety of the Quaker way.