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Feb 2004 / church and state :: email this story to a friend

At Home with the Strong, Silent Types
By Tim Woodcock

Numerous times I have got into conversations in which someone asks me how I met my wife. If we are both in on the conversation, we might trade glances, as if to say, "Do you want to? Have you got time?" Sometimes the reply might be one designed to keep it simple: "We were both at university in Glasgow at the same time."

Or, if I am in the mood for awkward silences, confused looks and/or a tsunami of follow-up questions, I'll give a more detailed response.

"We met at a Quaker meeting," I'll say.

No matter what your brand, religion is a tricky conversation topic. Ideally you'd know where someone is coming from — but he asked you first, and you can't stop the conversation until he fills out a survey designed to ascertain his religious sensibilities. Instead you plough on, knowing that every comparison you make might offend, and every anecdote you tell could make you sound plain wacko.

As a rule, people don't know much about Quakers. And I am yet to find a simple or definitive way to describe Quakerism.

The best I can do is offer a hodge podge of the things that drew me to Quakerism. This is only my view of it all and I am not claiming to speak for all Quakers.

  • Working for peace and justice is at the core of Quaker thinking. Most religious traditions have strains that emphasize peace and justice, but in Quakerism the idea that "the personal is political" is a given.

    There aren't many Quakers in the U.S. — an estimate from1998 puts it at 108,000 — but I would wager that at every anti-war, gay pride and civil rights rally you could find a Quaker contingent. There are a number of historic figures who remind us of the Quaker commitment to social justice: abolitionists like John Woolman, prison reformers like Elizabeth Fry, kindly colonialist William Penn and labor reformers like the Rowntree and Cadbury families, who helped to develop the chocolate industry in attempts to give Brits a non-alcoholic alternative to their beer.

    The need for simple living, concern for the environment and insistence on corporate responsibility may seem like 21st-century concerns that are, just now, getting their moment in the sun, but they have been discussed and written about in Quaker circles for centuries.

  • Quakerism recognizes that faith is something that grows slowly and it does not try to convert people. It is not overly concerned with defining who is or isn't a Quaker. I was brought up in an evangelical church and I never understood the "are you saved?" mentality that many people around me had. To me, the world is not divided into the damned and the saved. I don't believe in heaven. I don't believe in hell. I think religion, or any religion that is going to do more good than harm, has to be about the here and now.

  • Silence. At the heart of any Quaker worship service is silence. In a Quaker meeting there are no set readings or hymns, only a long period of silence. It is punctuated by people standing to share an insight or a niggling question.

    Silence creates a space for deep contemplation and the shared silence of a group is something more than the combined silence of a bunch of individuals. Different people will give different explanations about what goes on in a Quaker meeting for worship. It may lean toward the mystical (the spirit moves people to speak) or the psychological (in silence the concerns of the week bubble to the surface and demand a resolution); some would talk of being an instrument of God; I personally prefer phrases like "the universal Light" or "the still, small voice within."

    Silence is a shapeshifter. It can represent the void of frightening philosophical questions we'd rather not deal with, or it carve out much-needed respite from our agitated lives, or it can wrap itself around us and offer us solace in the time of grief. I am not sure I can give a rational explanation of what happens in a silent Quaker meeting, but I know it is a simple and beautiful way to worship. As Mies van der Rohe said, referring to something else entirely: "Less is more."

  • It is an offshoot of Christianity. It has one foot in and one foot out of Christianity. I don't know if I could break entirely with the faith of my childhood — deny it as I might, it is in my blood: I can't become a full-blooded humanist. In Quakerism the Bible and traditional church teachings are taken seriously, but are not seen as being the final word. (Likewise I know people in the St. Louis meeting who comfortably combine Jewish or Buddhist backgrounds with a Quaker outlook.) I guess what it boils down to is I can't believe in a static religion that is convinced it has all the answers, and I am fascinated by the way all religions evolve, adapting to new circumstances, yet stay true to the past.

  • Quakerism could be described as a "folk religion" in that there is no minister, priest or pastor, and the written texts don't try to give a unified message. Quaker Faith and Practice, the book that is used widely in Britain and in some East coast meetings, is a collection of questions and answers that been collected over the years. It is quite different from the Catholic catechism or the tracts of street preachers, which also use a question-and-answer format.

    Some of Faith and Practice deals with the mundane stuff of running a meeting — the word usually used by Quakers in place of both "service" and "church" — and other parts probe the ethics of daily life. Each entry is a response to a question that came up in a meeting at some time or another, but over the years the original questions have faded away and the responses have been distilled and grouped together under subjects.

    As an example here're two testimonies on "silent waiting":

    "True silence is to the sprit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment." William Penn, 1699.

    "Meeting is the chance to escape from the trivial thoughts of everyday living, and to find answers from yourself or from God. Some people are scared of the silence. ...We can never hide from God but it is easy to minimize the effect he has on our lives — except in the silence where he can be heard." Rachel Needham, 1987.

  • I have attended meetings regularly in Glasgow, London and St. Louis. I like the people. A lot. Some I want to emulate. With others I can't comprehend their life choices or worldview but I know they have something to teach me anyway. "Let your life speak" — there's an archetypal Quaker phrase if ever there was one.

    I think of Billy, a man who is pure Glasgow, always making jokes in his broad Scottish accent. Katy knows him better than I do; she worked with him at a food van for the homeless. In his jovial street talk he offered everyone — the aging pensioners, the homeless mothers, the desperate drug addicts turning tricks on the corner, and even the pimps — the same respect and fair treatment he extends to his closest friends.

    I think of Marga, a friend from east London in her 80s. She lives in an intentional community, where most of the people are a third of her age. She treks across London to go swimming in a lake in Hampstead Heath when the weather is good. She has children in Australia and Africa that she corresponds with via e-mail and goes to visit regularly.

    I think of Stephen, who was in the military based at Scott Air Force Base. In the run up to the war to Iraq, he decided to leave, despite the great personal cost. It was a long process and the meeting, which has a number of people who conscientiously objected in previous wars, stood by him and supported his efforts.

  • Katy. I met this amazing American woman, who three years later I would marry and move continents for. Would I have kept going to the meeting if I hadn't met her the first time I went? Well, I went back in order to get another chance to talk to her, and then I went often enough that I got comfortable with the silent worship and decided to make Quakerism my spiritual home.

The St. Louis meeting meets at 1001 Park Avenue, just south of downtown, each Sunday at 10:30 a.m.

Tim Woodcock is the staff writer for the West End Word.

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