C is for Cathedral

durham

‘Quakers don’t build cathedrals, they have committees’

This phrase, from the introduction to an old version of the Committees* Handbook, was offered to us in vocal ministry at the closing worship of QCCIRs* committee meeting recently.

For me it immediately threw up several pictures.

Firstly, that both are places of worship. At a recent training day for clerks* and committee secretaries I had heard powerfully the importance of worship in the life of a committee*, and the advice ‘if in doubt have more worship, time spent in silent waiting worship* is never wasted time’.

Then lots of images around St Albans Cathedral. I was born in St Albans, and have lived near to there nearly all my life. The abbey* and cathedral are ever-present and have been for many centuries. The Church of England is not only ‘established’ in a constitutional sense, it is established in the landscape. Over the years I have gone to the abbey* for many different reasons including as a tourist; to get a light lunch in pleasant surroundings; to attend large scale services. I am fascinated by the decoration (while also wanting to remove it all). The gradual revelation of paintings on pillars that were whitewashed over in the reformation* has been fascinating.

A particularly powerful memory is of a visit with a group of predominately Muslim women from Watford. When it came to time for midday prayer, they went to one of the side chapels, spread their coats on the floor in place of prayer mats and prayed. I felt that my only possible response was to kneel in the pew nearby and pray too.

Another image that came to me is how parts of this cathedral have fallen down over the years. It has been patched in different materials (flint, stone, Roman brick and tile salvaged from older buildings) and repaired and extended in varied architectural styles. Yet it remains a physically intact edifice, a place of prayer and of pilgrimage, the home of an active Christian community, and, of course, a tourist attraction. Sometimes our Quaker committees seem to be falling down, we rebuild, perhaps with different materials, in different styles, but they too can go on serving.

IMG_2083 Bessie Eoin Douglas Chris Peter

*Glossary

There is quite a lot of ‘Quaker speak’ and other words that assume certain background knowledge in the above, so for those unfamiliar with it I’ll try to interpret.

Committee – British Quakers have committees at all levels from local meetings to national bodies. Sometimes they oversee work done by paid staff, most, especially locally, do the work. themselves. Committee members are almost always appointed to serve for a triennium, only exceptionally do they serve for more than two successive triennia. Committees work using the Quaker business method where the business is conducted in the context of silent waiting worship and minutes are agreed during the meeting.

QCCIR – Quaker Committee for Christian and Interfaith Relations. A national committee that represents and responds on behalf of Britain Yearly Meeting (the national organisation of Quakers in Britain) to other faith groups. It also encourages Friends to become involved in inter-church and inter-faith activity.

Clerks and committee secretaries – clerks serve a committee by presenting the business and recording the minutes in the meeting, they may also handle communications between meetings. They are a servant of the meeting, rather than being in charge of the committee. For national level committees they are often supported by a paid staff member who handles much of the administration of the committee.

Waiting worship – Quaker worship takes the form of expectant waiting in silence. It is usually completely unprogrammed, but anyone may speak if moved by the Spirit to do so.

The abbey – not ‘Quaker speak’ but ‘St Albans speak’. Locals commonly refer to ‘the Abbey’ as if it were the only one.

Reformation – the dramatic change in the Church of England when it split from the Church in Rome under Henry VIII. Monasteries were dissolved, buildings were knocked down, much decoration was painted over or destroyed. It was part of a long period of major disagreement between catholic and protestant factions within the church.

B is for Bible reading

Recently I went away for a retreat* with Christian leaders from across Watford from a wide range of organisations and denominations. One of the strange things to me is the idea of starting with Bible readings. As a Quaker I start with expectant, waiting silence which may lead me to the Bible but quite possibly elsewhere.

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However, on this occasion one of the initial readings was from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (3:14 – 19):

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

The phrase ‘so that Christ may dwell in your hearts’ really spoke to me. Like early Friends I could read this and relate it to my own experience, in this case of the Inner Teacher. It stayed with me throughout the retreat, where our theme was ‘going deeper’ and we considered and shared what it meant to each of us to go deeper with God personally and with our congregation or organisation. The depth of sharing was amazing.

We also worshipped together in a variety of styles and heard about other unity movements, similar to Christians across Watford, in other UK towns and cities, and across the world.

Some years ago, challenged on a Woodbrooke course to be bold and speak out about how I would like to help change the world, I committed to paper and said to my small group that I wanted to help bring the Kingdom of God to Watford. In one way I believe that it is already here, even though it doesn’t look much like it. What is needed is to show people that and to change the things that don’t fit. A good start is for us all to ‘love our neighbour as ourself’, another is for us to do this together. This group is one that is working towards the same aim (even if we picture the Kingdom a bit differently) and is modelling it in the relations we are all building with one another, and, in our various ways, with the much wider community.

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* I am cautious of the word ‘retreat’ in this context. It suggests to many a quiet, inward solitary occupation. This was a retreat from the immediacy of our daily lives and from Watford (though we only travelled across Hertfordshire), but very much a seeking together for the will of God for ourselves and our town. And it was certainly not quiet, we did a lot of talking, but with a lot of good listening too.

B is for ‘A Heart Broken Open’ – a Book review

I like to read, but I’m quite a slow reader and find little time these days to read actual books from cover to cover. I’ve a tall pile of ‘to be read’ volumes. Recently I picked one out of the pile that had been there since Feb 2014 – I know, because it was a gift and had a note inside. Almost immediately I started to read I was grabbed by it, and as I continued my enthusiasm just grew. A friend hearing my enthusiasm suggested I review it for our local Interfaith Association newsletter – which I did. Since others may be interested, I thought I’d post the review here too.

A Heart Broken Open – Radical faith in an age of fear by Ray Gaston

This book is very much based in the author’s personal experiences in inner-city parish ministry, on a visit to Iraq in 2004 and a desire to be alongside the Muslims in his parish in a time of rising Islamophobia and the beginning of the ‘War on Terror’.

Ray relates his experiences in the anti-war movement in 2003, including his trial for ‘obstructing the public highway without lawful authority or excuse'; his experiences visiting Iraq in 2004 on a pilgrimage with a Shi’a Muslim friend which he describes as ‘beautiful and humbling'; his experiences fasting during Ramadan alongside his Muslim neighbours and his reflections on what he learns. It was at the shrine of Lady Zaynab near Damascus where he ‘felt a real sense of the presence of God’ and ‘… I wept. I felt my heart being broken open by God for the people of Iraq – this was the preparation I had needed …’

He remains grounded in his Christian faith which he finds strengthened by the insights and challenges of learning and experiencing more about Islam. He admits that his actions at times led some to leave his congregation. The way was not always easy, but he clearly felt led.

His account of fasting during Ramadan is almost entirely recounted by reproducing the journal he kept at the time, without editing it. I found this immensely powerful in helping me enter into the experience. The book also includes short chapters from some of those who shared parts of the journey with him. One of these recounts another person’s experience of sharing the Ramadan fast which she found very different to Ray, but a valuable experience none the less.

I was also particularly moved by his court appearance where, when called to stand, he knelt and said ‘Rather than stand before you, I prefer to kneel, not to the authority of this court, but to the authority of God …’ and proceeded to call on all present to join him in prayer for the ‘people of Iraq’ and for ‘our nation’ taking part in such a ‘blasphemous, immoral and criminal war.’ Equally moving, in a much more private scene, Ray speaks of visiting his dad during Ramadan: ‘I also want to give the time … over to him and when we are together make it a space where I focus on him, without my mind being elsewhere. Honouring him, which I so often fail to do.’

A Muslim contributor recommends that this book ‘primarily aimed at a Christian audience’, ‘be read by Muslims, as it is a beautifully written spiritual adventure that will resonate with all those who are seekers of a spiritual path”.

I would endorse that but extend the recommendation to all ‘seekers of a spiritual path’ of whatever religion and to all those who seek to apply their spiritual insights in their daily lives. This book is very much about how one person has responded to God’s call to action to make the world a better place for everyone. I am inspired and humbled.

My Faith in Practice

This is the text of what I said at Area Meeting today10/1/16. Most of it is already on this blog under Q is for Quaker in 2013. But a copy was requested for circulation and it seems as well to post here too while it is, in some way, topical.

I was only asked to speak today at short notice, but yesterday morning, in response to a question, I found myself saying:

What do I know? Not very much:

  • that I should stayed married to Jim

  • when I breathe in I know that I am breathing in, when I breathe out I know that I am breathing out

  • I am alive, which is better than the alternative

  • God loves me

These things are deeply spiritual and also quite pragmatic. The Quaker way is, I’m increasingly aware, simultaneously mystical and practical. Basically, all I need to do is follow Advices and Queries 1 ‘Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts …’. The rest just follows.

And now, as I said to Ryan, and in true ‘Blue Peter’ style, here’s one I wrote earlier:

Why am I a Quaker?

because it’s where God wants me to be,

because it’s a place I can work out how to follow the teachings of Jesus without the rituals and creeds that troubled me in other churches,

because I feel it’s where I belong,

because it gives me a safe spiritual home from where I can engage with different traditions,

because I feel accepted and challenged,

because together we seek the will of God for us, here and now, and try to follow it,

because Quakers understand that words are inadequate for expressing deep spiritual truths (which is why this is such a hard question to answer!),

because I go to Meeting for Worship and am aware of the Presence.

I discovered I was a Quaker in my late teens/early twenties when searching for an understanding of God, what God wanted of me and what my Guide promise to ‘do my duty to God’ really meant. I’ve realised that it doesn’t matter to me whether God is ‘real’ or a human construct, but that it does matter to me that I believe. Within Quakerism, I have been able to explore my beliefs and deepen my understanding, and experiment with different ways of expressing those beliefs.

How am I a Quaker?

by remembering that there is ‘that of God’ in everyone I meet, be that face to face, by telephone, by email, in online forums, or otherwise (I was LM clerk when I wrote this, so lots of these opportunities arose),

by acting from love, not from anger,

by finding frequent opportunities (alone or with others) to be quiet and reconnect with the Presence,

by pausing to give thanks for food, friends, health, doubts, difficulties, sunshine, rain, everything life offers me,

by heeding the ‘promptings of love and truth’ in my heart,

by expressing gratitude,

by giving time to listen,

by being aware of the present moment, where I am, and who I’m with,

by trying to love my neighbour as myself,

by questioning why I’m doing what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, how I could do things differently,

by asking ‘is this the way it would be in the Kingdom of God / Republic of Heaven / Paradise ?’

by continuing to make changes (however small) to the way I live to make my lifestyle simpler, more peaceful, more honest, better aligned with the will of the Divine.

In practical terms, I do a lot of Quaker stuff: attending Meeting for Worship, serving as elder and registering officer, convening children’s committee, accepting the huge challenge of being on Quaker Committee for Christian and Interfaith Relations (even saying the title is quite a challenge!).I do a small amount of Buddhist stuff: walking mindfully and trying to follow the five mindfulness trainings.

Outside Quaker structures I do a very ordinary, part-time office job for the NHS, run a Guide unit, serve on the committee of the local interfaith association, grow some fruit and vegetables on my allotment, try to keep up with the housework and support family members. I am blessed with a supportive family and local meeting, good colleagues and friends.

I have a vision that the Kingdom of God is right here, right now, in Watford, as elsewhere, and a desire to help other people to perceive that. The way to that end is by many small steps, and mostly not by talking ‘God language’. It is by what I do and how I do it, not by what I say.

 

A is for anywhere, any time

Firbank Fell

Quakers have always claimed that people can meet for worship anywhere at any time. No time or place is more sacred than any other. Early Friends often met out of doors, having no where else to go. The British climate being what it is probably encouraged them to seek indoor spaces and they met in homes and barns and rented rooms. It wasn’t long before meeting houses were being built. But the desire to keep meetings open to the public meant that some meetings continued to be held out of doors. When Quaker meetings were banned by law and meeting houses barred against Friends, worship continued wherever it could.

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In recent years my own local meeting has become quite stuck in the regular pattern of Sunday morning at 10.30 in the meeting house (although the much smaller worshipping group on Wednesday lunchtime will gather out in the garden when the weather is warm and sunny).

Having attended the ‘New Expressions’ conference last October two of our number came back enthused to try offering different opportunities to worship together.

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So on evening of New Year’s day we gathered round a fire in the garden behind the meeting house. The rain held off for a while and about 35 of us worshipped together for about 30 minutes. Then we went indoors for soup, baked potatoes and fellowship.

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Both the worship and the socialising were good, people came from other parts of our AM, some came who rarely come on a Sunday morning, there was a good proportion of younger people, we had some spoken ministry which was appropriate and well received.

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We’re considering repeating this regularly and perhaps trying some other gentle experiments with different timings and durations. Hopefully it will strengthen our community, and encourage us to go out into the community.

Anyone for meeting for worship in the shopping centre?

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G is for Glasgow

‘Wow, that was quite a journey!’ commented the ticket inspector as she checked my ticket just as we approached Watford Junction, my return destination.

‘It was well worth it’ I replied.

So what made it worthwhile?

travelling to Glasgow on the train

raindrop tadpoles swim

across window, barrier me

from world I pass through

I like that isolation on the train. I read or sew or knit and watch the world pass by. It’s a transition from my everyday life to where I’ll be and what I’ll do next.

My journey involved several changes. As we approached one station my bag was just too heavy for me and I crumpled to the floor of the carriage. I was not hurt (just felt daft) and my fellow passengers were brilliant about lifting my backpack and helping me up. Beyond Lancaster the scenery got a lot more interesting and the rain got a lot less. I looked out of the window a lot more.

Michael and Tim met me at Glasgow Central and I felt welcomed and cared for. Having arrived at Michael’s home, Tim and I spent an hour or so finalising plans for the morrow, being prepared for several possibilities so that participants would have something of the sense of choice that is an important part of Becoming Friends. We were there to deliver a Woodbrooke-on-the-Road workshop ‘Living and Learning with Quakers’, drawing on our experience of ‘Becoming Friends’.

Then we could all relax over a delicious vegetable pie prepared by Zem and talk about everything and nothing, putting the Religious Society of Friends to rights, clearing our clutter and getting to know one another better, interspersed with bird-watching.

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Glasgow Meeting House had been flooded due to damage from the demolition site next door. I’d had difficulty imagining this, but it was clear when I saw the old house converted for Quaker use and the huge ‘concrete monstrosity’ being demolished. So we were using rooms at Renfield St Stephens nearby.

There was a good feeling in the room as about 30 people gradually gathered and were soon chatting over refreshments before we began the formal sessions with a period of worship and introductions. Thinking about our own first time at meeting and how we learnt about Quakers and sharing this with the person sat beside us soon had everyone involved, remembering and sharing.

A more intensive listening exercise followed when people were invited to share an experience of spiritual friendship in their own life both deepened relationships and heightened awareness of the value of being truly listened to. This is a challenging thing to do, but consistently it is the activity that people make most positive comments about on the evaluation forms.

In the afternoon we tried to give a taste of the choices available in the ‘Becoming Friends’ course. Participants could choose which of two units to look at. I facilitated one group and Tim the other. In my group we did tasters of all the stages – distinctives, discovery, deepening – changing groups every time. It was rather rushed, but I hope gave an overview. Tim’s group settled on an activity that interested them and spent the whole time on that. To anyone doing the course either approach, or some middle way is equally possible.

In the concluding session we checked to see if we’ve covered the hopes for the day that people put on post-its when they arrived. All except “to learn what the ‘central office’ of Quakers is saying” and “the answers to all my questions even those I have not yet formed!”.

A good day.

Next day I was able to stay long enough to worship with Glasgow Friends. It’s always a delight to me to visit other meetings for worship.

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Glasgow meeting, deep,

centred, grounds us for action.

But what will I do?

Rather a dash to get to Glasgow Central in time for my rail replacement bus, and there was nowhere to park. Michael ended up having to dump me rather unceremoniously on the pavement somewhere in the vicinity of the station. But that’s fine.

Leaving Glasgow sun

day enthused uplifted

‘Living and Learning’

I just went with the bus ride, and the scenery. I’d be back in the town soon enough.

Travelling southward

feasting eyes with distant hill

copper and spring greens

Beyond Carlisle it was back to train travel. The train was far busier than Friday’s, with passengers having to stand. Everyone was friendly and we made the best use of the seats that were available. It felt good to be sharing the journey.

And then I was back to Watford, with the slightly surprised London Midland ticket inspector.

F is for Faith Leaders’ Forum

The Faith Leaders’ Forum in Watford is a new initiative that I have had the privilege of being part of (having been appointed by Watford Quaker Meeting).

The initiative came from a Muslim who is a long-standing member of the executive committee of Watford Interfaith Association and who is also a police chaplain. He consulted with the (Christian) town centre chaplain and some other people who encouraged him to go ahead.

The initial aim was to provide an opportunity for faith leaders in our town to be ‘friends before we need to be friends’, to make connections and to be better placed to explain to our communities about issues affecting another faith community.

Relationships between different faith and cultural groups in Watford are generally very good. People here live in very mixed communities, rather than in geographically separated areas, and this means that everybody tends to know people from different backgrounds as their immediate neighbours.

At the first meeting of the Faith Leaders’ Forum, held in a meeting room at North Watford Mosque, the level of pre-existing friendship was very apparent and reassuring. However, there were marked gaps and we felt the need to encourage participation from those groups not represented, while gently limiting the number of leaders attending from large groups (so the Christians are currently represented by a few people with wide contacts among Christian and other groups in the town). Discussion was wide-ranging and all were respectfully listened to.

We parted agreeing to meet again, to encourage other Faith Leaders to join us, and to enthuse to our communities about our meeting.

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The second meeting was at St Michael’s vicarage in West Watford with a similar level of attendance and a few more faith groups represented. Most of the proposed formal agenda was discarded, but we heard about current concerns in some communities and considered how best to use our valuable time together. We’ve agreed to meet again at the Synagogue choosing a different day and time in the hope of enabling wider participation. We plan to consider what the difference is between Watford Interfaith Association and Watford Faith Leaders’ Forum, how we can best support one another and our vision for Watford.

I feel hugely privileged and much encouraged to be part of this new initiative. This time I took the role of making notes, which I have written up rather more like I might produce a Quaker minute of a discussion and consideration of issues, than by simply typing up the notes I made. It wasn’t yet appropriate to offer that to the meeting at the time in the Quaker manner, but offering record-keeping of the meetings is something I feel able to contribute.

This feels like a slightly delicate, very valuable, plant that we are nurturing. I look forward to seeing it take root and flourish.

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F is for Felt

A group of people is already busy in the art room when I arrive. Colourful creations are drying on the radiators all around the room. Water is sploshing around on the tables and people are rolling bubble wrap or selecting coloured wool.

Jenni soon explains to those of us just joining the group. All we need is wool, soap, hot water and friction.

We begin by teasing out tufts of wool and wrapping it around our thumbs. Then we soak it in hot soapy water and roll it between our palms. It’s quite energetic work, but, with persistence, it turns into a ball of felt. I make another one.

I’ve long wanted to try felt-making (and have been hoarding scraps of wool), but written instructions and photographs just don’t give the feel. This [Woodbrooke tutor development] weekend we’d been encouraged to ‘do what we needed to do’ and what I needed just now was some ‘hands-on’ learning. Felt-making was perfect. In the next hour or so I make several samples – felt balls, lengths and flat pieces. I am loving the colours and the way they blend together, and the freedom to make a mess.

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And the group blends together while we learn. Different ages, different backgrounds, but all beginners here. Advising each other about what we had just learnt, about how long to roll for, how much water to use. And sharing our results, the colours, the way the wool shrinks and binds together, the appearance of a multi-coloured felt ball when sliced through.

We envision buttons, seasonal tree decorations, bookmarks, purses, pockets. I start to wonder what else would make felt. That old shabby jumper I’ve been loathe to part with – Jenni suggests using the washing machine.

I also begin to see lots of metaphors, blending colours together while retaining their identity, making new from old, rough times eventually producing something new and good, … , I’m sure you can think of more for yourselves.

E is Economic Equality

Over the last year or so I have becoming increasingly aware of the economic inequalities in British society. The low paid and those on benefits (who are not scroungers) are increasingly struggling to feed themselves and keep warm (why does such a wealthy country need food banks?) let alone participate fully in society. The very wealthy are even wealthier. The ratio between the top earners and the lowest earners in most organisations has increased considerably in recent years.

I applaud moves to address this problem. Asking big companies to declare the ratio between the pay of their CEO and of their lowest paid workers (or even the average pay in their company), encouraging all organisations to pay the living wage not just the minimum wage to all employees and discouraging excessive bonuses are all good.

But overall I think that what we really need is a complete change of attitude to a view that threats every person as equally valuable. I see a basic income (sometimes called a citizens income) for everyone as the right way to go.

Now the question is – to can we reform society to achieve that?

E is for Elder

As of first day of first month this year I have been an appointed elder of Luton & Leighton Area Meeting. In over 30 years worshipping with Quakers this is the first time I’ve been formally appointed to the role (though all in the worshipping group have responsibility for the right holding of meeting for worship). This has led me to think about the responsibilities this entails, and to explore this with the others appointed to this role in my Local Meeting.

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Most people attending meeting for worship more than once will be aware that it is usually elders who close the meeting by shaking hands. People are also aware that the elders may reprimand (‘elder’) someone for speaking inappropriately during worship. They might, perhaps, say that elders are responsible for the ‘spiritual nurture of the meeting’ or words to that effect.

Quaker Faith and Practice 12.12 has a long list (a-l) of the responsibilities of elders – it is quite daunting.

The first item speaks of upholding and praying for the members of the local meeting. My meeting has about 100 people actively involved (40-50 attending on any given first day morning) and only 4 appointed elders, so this alone is quite a big task – just trying to remember that many people is a challenge.

Also daunting is that this is an Area Meeting appointment and carries responsibilities for the right holding of meetings for worship appointed by the AM – for business, for solemnisation of marriage, for funerals and for other purposes from time to time – though this is, of course, shared with a wider group of fellow elders

In Watford we have inherited a good pattern of opportunities for learning and spiritual nurture – monthly shared lunches followed by a variety of speakers and/or discussions, a twice monthly bible study group, a monthly enquirers’ meeting, a monthly light group and a twice monthly upholding group, with occasional Saturday workshops as well. But in a meeting as big as ours there is room for more. And scope for experimenting, not for complacency.

So I’m a bit daunted by the enormity of the task, but I’m much encouraged by the enthusiasm and open-mindedness of our local elders (tempered by an awareness that over-stretching ourselves won’t help anyone).

I’m also comforted by some of the detail in that long list of responsibilities – 12.12 d ‘to be responsible … for the arrangement of seating …’ – that I can understand the importance of, and can do.

MH