This Saturday (or 7th day) past, six of us met at the Priory Rooms in central Birmingham to have a ‘Meeting for Worship for Renewal’. This occasion sprang from the Quaker Renewal UK Facebook group set up to discuss issues raised by Ben Pink Dandelion’s recent Swarthmore lecture. Prompted by my assertion that renewal must be lived and not just talked about, I set a date and waited to see who’d come.
From our initial sharing, it seemed that we were connected by dissatisfaction with our experience of British Quakerism. Coupled with this was a strong feeling that, despite this, the Quaker tradition resonated deeply with us. We were a group of sojourners. One came into Quaker membership as a child, now lives in a Catholic community and was recently baptised into the Church of England. Another has taken a break from her local meeting to visit all manner of different churches. Another worships in an Anabaptist house church. I sensed both a lament for the lack of religious education we’d experienced within British Quakerism, and a fierce thirst for spiritual depth and a hunger for rigorous grounding in the rich soil of the Quaker tradition.
We began our worship with meditative Taize chants, allowing ourselves to be guided by the Spirit in the length of each chant. The words we sang included ‘wait for the Lord’, ‘Holy Spirit, come to us’ and ‘Jesus Christ, bread of life’. I felt a real power in naming our desire as a group – to be aflame with the Holy Spirit, to feed on the risen Christ. I feel there is a suspicion of words among Quakers, but as we were singing, I sensed the words we sang together were very significant. ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them’ [Matt 18:20].
We then entered waiting worship, setting no time limit but giving a couple of members of the group the responsibility of closing the meeting as the spirit moved them. We entered a time of vocal prayer, sharing joys and sorrows. When all hearts were clear, we held hands and closed the meeting. Excited conversation and singing continued. There was a sense that, had we more time and no trains to catch, our fellowship could have extended well into the evening. Email addresses were swapped, and goodbyes said.
What next? Well, I think we should meet again.
A reflection on renewal
I’ve been immersing myself in the New Testament book of Revelation. I’m struck by what a Quakery text it is, and how many of our Quaker practices are affirmed by it. Central to the message of Revelation, is the process of naming and the call to ‘come out’. To name something is to reveal what it truly is. Many names in the Hebrew Scriptures are descriptive, and changes of names are significant – Jacob is renamed Israel (with means ‘struggle with God’) after he wrestles with an angel. Naomi (meaning ‘pleasant’), after the death of her husband and sons, says ‘Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, (meaning ‘bitter’) for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.’ Revelation continues this tradition as a means of ‘revealing’ the true nature of the dominant social, political and economic powers. 1st Century Rome is renamed Babylon. The Empire is named a dragon and Caesar a ravenous beast. The goddess Cybele, the image of an important and popular Roman cult, is parodied as a ‘whore’ drunk on the blood of those faithful to God. The church is called to name things as they really are, and to ‘come out’ of Babylon, the image one of withdrawing from copulation.
How does this relate to Quaker renewal? In my experience of Quaker meetings, most of them fit the mould of a place where people come to recharge their batteries after a week of being busy doing good works. People doing very worthy things spend an hour on Sunday morning in quiet reflection, enabling them to reenter the world on a Monday refreshed. There was a time when I would say ‘if that’s what people want from a Quaker meeting, then that’s ok’. Now I say that if that’s all a Quaker meeting has become then we have totally failed to comprehend the Quaker tradition and the seriousness of our predicament. Engaging in the world is vital, and I’m not proposing that Quakers become like an enclosed religious order, shut off from everything outside the meetinghouse walls. However, are we spending too much time trying to reform the beast, and too little time building counter-cultural communities outside the walls of Babylon? How can an hour on Sunday be anywhere near enough to create a gathered people strong enough to resist the seductive lure of empire? The message of Revelation is ‘Where is your faith placed?’ In Caesar or in God? In the State or in the Creator of the Cosmos? In the saving power of the armed forces, or in the saving power of sacrificial Love? In your insurance company, weekly salary and your good health, or Christ and his Body? As long as Quakerism remains a Sunday club then the serious business of renewal cannot take root.