Saturday, 30 August 2014

"Brief Encounter"- Is this all Quakers need to do?

One day when my children were very small, I made a list of all the things people enjoy doing while they are away on holiday. Since practical considerations prevented us from travelling about the world sight-seeing, I decided to spend some time each year having a holiday focused entirely on the things it is possible to do elsewhere but also quite feasible in your garden.

These days we no longer put up a tent, make dens with old blankets or have much use for a paddling pool. Instead of entertaining children, a gang of sparrows have been joining us every morning at coffee time expecting to be in fed. For those adults pretending to be all sensible and mature it may be helpful to know that there is an alabi for wet messy fun. This involves sticks, sloppy blanket weed and is usually referred to as pond maintenance!

I love being in my garden, feeling safe, and sustained through the exclusive company of people I know very well. It is so relaxing not having to go out and meet people, a very necessary holiday for me although ever Sunday morning I am still aware of other Quakers out there who just happen to be in Meeting.

 For those who have ever felt tired after a working week, enjoyed a morning lie-in, time to properly enjoy breakfast, coffee, reading the paper, pottering about the home, doing a bit of gardening and spending time with the family, it would not seem necessary to explain how precious Sunday morning's can be. In all these different ways it is possible to celebrate the moment, refocus, sort out priorities, even worship and be as Quakerly as we like (on our own!). With so many competing attractions out there, it would seem Quaker Meetings do very well these days to attract anyone at all.

For many years I might well have described myself as one of those "Brief Encounter"  Quakers, attracted by the promise of freedom. Through the absence of a creed and our silent worship, there is the opportunity to step outside the usual constraints associated with religion. It may seem surreal at first to be surrounded by so entirely by the worshipping opportunity of silence. Across the floor of each Meeting House there is the attraction, even passion, and a need that feels in some way fulfilled. Although it is undoubtedly love which draws so many Seekers of Truth to our Meeting, and an initial feeling of having found your spiritual home, there is the railway timetable and a world outside to consider. A whistle blows, and when it is only freedom that you are looking for, the spiritual journey moves on.

A considerable number of Quakers I know come through a sense of duty. They attend knowing that meetings need to be sustained through their presence and it is not merely a case of numbers. There is however a very fine line between a sense of duty and importance. Perhaps some roles in our meetings can give individuals a sense of superiority over others. When the job ends, the absence of any other identity leads them to mysteriously disappear for a time until a new role of usefulness is created. Perhaps it is assumed that our tasks and responsibilities about Meeting are so arduous and unrewarding that no one could possibly wish to do them very long. It could be said Quakers methodically shoot themselves in the foot every three years through a system of triennial appointments. This deliberate inconsistency may be a reason why we can be embarrassingly deficient at some types of organisation especially where leadership is required. It would seem almost anything is better than having a hierarchy in our Meetings.

At one time almost every Quaker Meeting struggled to keep going. The problems associated with getting to Meetings often began with a walk or horse-ride of a considerable distance in all weathers that might well involve some expense and take all day. This journey with its associated absence from church services, marked you out as being separate from the rest of society, unsure of any rights associated with property or protection from the law. Those who travelled in the ministry were regularly identified as being vagrants. As Quakers became an obvious target for intense persecution and arrest, their usual Meeting places were boarded up. For the duration of a Meeting and in all weathers, Quakers were often obliged to meet very publicly often amongst a hostile crowd in the open .

In my town every adult Quaker was imprisoned. In the notable absence of protective parents, there were some very good reasons why traumatised, vulnerable Quaker children should remain at home on a Sunday morning. Instead they were quite regularly beaten with sticks and doused in water for holding a Meetings for Worship in the street. This was the "ice-bucket challenge" that no one else appreciated for Truth.

Although some Early Quakers identified very strongly with being a persecuted people, it would not seem very likely that Meetings for Worship were identified with freedom. Being mocked, beaten and doused in water was most unlikely to give their children a feeling of security or importance. At times it may still take the children of a past generation to remind us that there is a stronger reason for attending a meeting for Worship than the comfort associated with having a particular role or the rights we have come to associate with freedom.

Children maintaining meeting for worship in my community were likely to have known Isaac Pennington. Initially this son of London's Lord mayor might well have seemed like a celebrity. With everything to lose he deliberately chose to attend a Meeting for Worship and so came to share a prison sentence with their parents. Perhaps even then it was necessary to keep reminding themselves just how good a Quaker meeting for Worship can be.
Isaac Pennington later described how
"Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand."

Perhaps these days lack of adversity has allowed Quakers to relax in their expectations of Meeting. It is so easy for us to forget that quite exceptional environment where everyone felt included, everyone felt loved, everyone reciprocated that love through the pattern of their own lives, shared a testimony of suffering for the Truth and kept their Meeting going. Over time the people attending a Quaker meeting may change a great deal on the outside but the heart remains constant. That capacity to love honestly and without exception, drawing communities together and bringing out the best of each one, is still I believe a characteristic of being human.
As my own holiday at home draws to a close, I expect to attend Quaker Meeting very soon. In this big messy pond of distracting blanket weed and so many other people, in my own spiritual journey I am learning through example to be a child of my Meeting.

No comments:

Post a Comment