D is for Doorkeeping

At twenty-five to I excuse myself early from the special interest group and make my way to the large meeting room. Leaving early is unfortunate, especially when I’ve just asked the speaker a difficult question, but I’m to be doorkeeper and time keeping is important.

Initially there is little to do except chat to the other doorkeeper and reassure the rota organiser by being present.

By ten to people are arriving, taking their seats for the session and acquainting themselves with their neighbours – where are you from; oh, do you know …; I went there once when I was staying at …;

At the door we are greeting Friends, answering questions, advising on where to sit to benefit from the loop system. Someone asks if he can take his coffee into the meeting room and I advise against it, so he stays just outside to drink it, and talks to me. He is an attender who has come from Alnwick, Northumberland, for Yearly Meeting, he’s never been so far south before. The hospitality he has received from Friends in London, combined with the experience of Yearly Meeting, has convinced him to apply for membership. I feel privileged to have heard his story. He finishes his coffee and slips into the meeting room just ahead of the clerks and elders. As the elders take their seats, we close the doors.

I stand outside, trying to hold the silence within the Meeting, while still being aware of the needs of those outside. Whispered explanations to late comers as to why they can’t go in, though yes, they may peep through the window to see if their friend is there and where the seats are. Suggesting that Friends sit on the benches in the corridor and wait in silent worship until they can be admitted, or that they might like to go upstairs where there will be more seats. Most are happy to accept the discipline. I’m not really aware of the time, but I guess it’s about 20 minutes before the elders stand, the clerks come to the table, and my fellow doorkeeper opens the doors to admit people. I alert the blind friend who has waited patiently on the bench that we are now going in and accompany him to a seat, then climb the step to the doorkeeper’s seat, where I can see the corridor outside through the special window, whilst being in the Meeting. During the session I need to maintain an awareness of those who may wish to be admitted, letting them in at appropriate times; and of those who may need to leave, perhaps urgently, enabling this, too, to happen with minimal disturbance to the business of the Meeting.

This is a quiet, inconspicuous ministry, but one that needs a lot of ministers (Friends House has eight doors to the large meeting room). It has often occurred to me that it is a metaphor for a ministry we can offer to the wider world, being at the door between the ‘real’ world of everyday practicalities and a ‘place’ where one can be aware of spiritual realities. It is particularly a role Friends may have in the Council of Churches in Britain and Ireland, and in Inter Faith dialogue, to be at ‘the door’, aware of the needs of those on both sides of ‘the door’ and facilitating movement in both directions.

This article was previously published in ‘The Friend’.

D is for Diversity

MfW sculpture

Look around an average Quaker meeting on an ordinary Sunday morning and you will not think ‘what a diverse group’. You’ll see a lot of grey hair, neat casual clothing, most people present will appear to be white and middle class. So why an interest in diversity? Ask these Quakers what they believe and you’ll unearth a wide spectrum of views. Some will define their beliefs in traditional Christian language, some will use alternative terminology from early Quaker writings, some will use language from other religious traditions (which they may have been/still be actively involved in or have come from), others will refuse to use any ‘religious’ language at all.

shop window

Quakers have always refused to have a creed, a form of words to which all are required to subscribe, because they perceive that any form of words will fail to encapsulate the truth. The refusal of creeds is probably one of the few things almost all Friends will unreservedly agree about. Words are good and help us communicate, but they are also a problem and lead to misunderstandings. Often people have different ideas about what a word means. If I say ‘God’ and you immediately think of God as sitting on a throne on a cloud issuing instructions to men, or you think or a fierce old man sending earthquakes and causing volcanoes to erupt, you will have totally misunderstood me. I am thinking of a loving, creative force that surrounds us all and is like a spark within us all, the purposes of which force we can chose to align ourselves with. Other people have other ideas what the word ‘God’ means. The result is often misunderstandings. While I often use the phrase ‘that of God within’, I will also comfortably speak of a person’s ‘inner Buddha nature’ or ‘inner Light’, I will say ‘Allah’ or ‘Adonai’ if that seems likely to be better understood by my hearer. I may write ‘G-d/d-ss’ or ‘YHWH’, I have been practising saying ‘She’ instead of ‘He’ and really like it a lot better.


So how do I find it possible to enter into worship with people whose conception of ‘God’, if they even have one, is so different to my own? And how can we make decisions in the Quaker way, by seeking together to know ‘the will of God’ when some of those present deny the existence of God? I believe that, whatever terminology we use to try and explain our experience, when we sit together, honestly and openly, in silence, and wait expectantly, we can perceive together something else. It may be something deep inside ourselves and/or something beyond ourselves, but if we trust the process (rather than the words) we will be guided to the right step forward at this time for this group or individual. We can align ourselves with that positive force in the universe, whatever we may or may not name it. Sometimes, we do not seem to get any particular guidance, and then we should use our common sense, intelligence and past experience to decide the best way forward. To me, these assets are ultimately from what I call God, so there is no contradiction in this. Sometimes, as I put it when clerking our local meeting: ‘God may not care what colour we paint the walls, but we’ll ask her, just in case’. Our different understandings all contribute to, rather than detract from, our ability to do this as a group.

Blanket squares

So I give thanks for the Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, non-theists, seekers, Sufis, Universalists and others who join with me in Meeting for Worship, regularly or occasionally. All contribute to a rich mix that strengthens our meetings.


D is for death

Death led early Friends to their first acquisitions of land. At that time nearly everybody was interred in the churchyard. The established church did not want to bury these dissenters, Friends did not want to be buried with the rites of the church. So, very early in Quaker history, land was acquired for use as burial grounds. In many cases meeting houses were later built on these same plots of land, but some remain as burial grounds only, in isolated sites, such as at Ashgrove Quaker Burial Ground near Shaftesbury.


These days, although some Friends are interred in Quaker burial grounds, many are cremated (their ashes may be interred in a burial ground or a meeting house garden, but there is no fixed pattern). Increasingly, Friends concern for the environment leads people to choose green, or woodland, burial, and to consider alternative materials for the coffin (I’ve asked my family to use a willow casket when my turn comes).


Quaker burial grounds are generally notable for their simplicity and equality: ‘Friends are left at liberty to adopt the use of plain gravestones in any burial grounds; it being distinctly understood that, in all cases, they are to be erected under the direction of the area meeting; so that, in each particular burial ground, such uniformity is preserved in respect to the materials, size, form and wording of the stones, as well as in the mode of placing them, as may effectually guard against any distinction being made in that place between the rich and the poor.’ Quaker Faith and Practice 15.20



So, what is different about a Quaker burial? Well, to a Quaker, a funeral is the same as any other time that we gather together in worship. We meet in the silence and wait together. We may be at the graveside, in a crematorium, at a meeting house or elsewhere. The spirit usually moves some among us to speak, and, following a death, people will often be moved to speak of the deceased. These days, there are often family members present who are not familiar with Quaker ways, and the funeral may be conducted in a semi-programmed way with some music or prepared ministry being included. I had the privilege of attending a funeral for one man who had had much contact with Quakers, although he was not formally a member. It was held in a local church and we sang hymns (of his choosing), had some prepared readings, and a period of silent worship. It still felt very much a Quaker funeral or, as we often say, ‘meeting for worship to give thanks for the life of ….’.


What about our attitudes to approaching death? Advices and Queries 30 says: ‘Are you able to contemplate your death and the death of those closest to you? Accepting the fact of death, we are freed to live more fully. In bereavement, give yourself time to grieve. When others mourn, let your love embrace them.’. This is really sound advice, but I feel Friends, like others in our society, are often reluctant to talk about death and what it may mean to us. I was tempted to have a little rant here, about Friends not living up to their aspirations in this area. However, last Sunday, it was announced that the discussion after our next shared lunch will be on the topic of approaching the end of life and making arrangements for funerals. So, rant withheld.

HHMH garden

In my own family, I was kept shut away from death when it did occur. I was not allowed to attend the funerals of my grandparents, or to visit them in their last days or weeks. Admittedly I was only six when my paternal grandfather died, but I was well over forty when my last grandparent came to the end of his life. I mean no criticism of my parents or grandparents for this, I realise that they dealt with the situation in a way that met their needs.


I was thirty-five before I ever went to a funeral. Then a Friend in our meeting died, who had been a member for over sixty years, with a particular gift for teaching ministry. I felt that he would be glad if his funeral was a learning experience for me and determined to attend, although it was the same day as my son’s fifth birthday party. It sounds odd, but the two sat together well, reflecting different aspects of life. I have since made a special effort to attend all funerals in my local meeting if I am able to do so. The Quaker way requires the support of others to uphold the worship, even if the deceased was not well known to some of them.


For myself, I was also much helped by a Friend, whom I was able to visit from time to time, although she had moved away from my home town. Shortly after her death I wrote:

I visited Jenny a week before she died. On this last visit I felt Jenny and Peter were giving me something,

though I couldn’t identify it entirely. This morning (6/4/09) I have some awareness of what their gift was. It was what Jenny was so good at, just being there beside you and sharing the experience, or as much as

one wished of it. She was never intrusive. She was a huge support to me when I was very ill, awaiting tests and diagnosis. Now she was letting me share in her dying as she had let me share in her wedding, in bringing up our children, by just being there and letting me be alongside, even if only briefly, something my own family had been unable to give me. Jenny and Peter had shown me how, even with a difficult illness, death can be a normal, natural, part of life.


Currently, in my meeting, several people are undergoing treatment for severe cancers, which may be terminal, another has embraced his diagnosis and is going forward without surgery, chemo- or radio-therapy. Others are facing up to the need to move into care homes. They are contributing to our community by sharing their experience, and we are upholding them in prayer as they go forward. I hope that we can all truly accept the fact of death, so that we may be freed to live more fully.

C is for Luke Cock

I first met Luke Cock when I was moved to pick up the unfamiliar book from the table in meeting for worship. I’d only been attending Loughborough meeting for a few weeks and was curious as to what this book was. It was ‘Christian Faith and Practice’. I opened it, apparently at random, and encountered Luke Cock.

QF&P on table


The words spoke to me then, and have continued to ever since. The same quotation is included in the revised edition of the book ‘Quaker Faith and Practice‘. My family tease me about my tendency to refer to ‘my Friend Luke Cock’, but that is a good way to express my response to this passage. It appears to be the only recorded piece of his ministry that we have, though you’ll realise that his is not an easy name to run a google search for, so my research has been somewhat curtailed.

The language is archaic dialect, but to me has a ring of the style of speech of my grandparents, giving it a certain homely familiarity. The absence of particularly ‘Christian’ language makes the passage more accessible, I like the idea of ‘my Guide’, clearly an inner spiritual guide. He speaks from the heart, from his experience. He exposes his fallibility ‘I mun leave Thee here: if Thou leads me up that lane, I can never follow’ and makes clear that there is always hope, however often we fail ‘I said, if I could find my good Guide again, I’ll follow Him, lead me whither He will. So here I found my Guide again, and began to follow Him’, but that we need to persist ‘This was very hard; yet I said to my Guide, ‘Take my feeble pace, and I’ll follow Thee as fast as I can. Don’t outstretch me, I pray Thee.’ His fear that ‘I’se be ruined of this butchering trade, if I mun’t lie for a gain.’, but eventual experience that ‘I had been nought but beggary and poverty before; and now I began to thrive at my trade’ may well have something to say to us today. The image of ‘my Guide led me up another lane’ appeals to me, especially as it is only one lane at a time – there is no compulsion to achieve everything at once. I’m trying to apply this to leading a more sustainable life, changing one thing at a time, however small. One step at a time towards the goal.

Bristol Road


I admit that I still don’t understand all of the passage, especially the reference to ‘creep under the hedges’, though I have gained some insight into ‘a watering’ which is a phrase used by other Friends of that time about some meetings. It remains my personal favourite passage from Quaker Faith and Practice.


C is for Children

This year, I find myself appointed to the children’s committee of my local Quaker meeting. I’m a bit surprised at this, I’ve been going to meeting for over thirty years, mostly fairly regularly, mostly in the same meeting; helped on the children’s meeting rota all that time; brought up two children in the meeting and child-minded another one; and never been on children’s committee. Until now.
This has led me to think about what we are aiming to do, why we are doing it and how we are doing it.


I’m sure we are not doing it because ‘the children are the future of the meeting’. The future of the meeting is more likely to be in the hands of those over fifties out there who haven’t even found Quakers yet. The children are the ‘now’ of the meeting, along with all the other people who worship with us regularly or occasionally, or join in with our other activities. Like everyone in the meeting they need opportunities for friendship and for learning; to feel part of the community and able to be themselves.


I enjoy helping with the children’s meeting because I learn a lot, both in preparing for the sessions (especially if I am asked to lead a session on something I know little about) and from the youngsters’ responses and the chance to see things from their perspective. I like spending time with different members of the meeting in smaller groups with a certain amount of structure. This includes children’s meeting as well as bible study, Wednesday (writing) group and spiritual journeys. I especially like all age worship Sundays in Watford. The opportunity to chat with people over a simple relaxed breakfast, to join in simple activities together (chopping fruit, or painting, or playing as equals), to come together in worship is very welcome. I started going because I had children to go with, but I’ve kept going since they grew up and moved on.


What are we trying to achieve? We want the children to be safe and happy. We hope they will find an understanding of something in our silent worship, but, like adults, some take to it easily and some find it really difficult. I hope they will gain some basic knowledge of Quakerism and of the Christianity in which it is rooted, and of the wide range of Quaker belief and activity in the world. I think we also want to encourage them to ask questions, and to seek their own answers while respecting other people’s views.

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How are we doing this? For the younger children, we read them stories, run around the garden, paint, draw, make models, maybe act out a story. We could sing or play music (though that’s not my strength). We also need to make time for being quiet together, reflecting on what we have done and listening to God. With the teenagers, we tend to do more discussion and less crafts and running around. That may or may not be a good approach. Of course, this is only the Sunday morning bit, many do take up other opportunities such as Area Meeting camp, Link group, summer school and Junior Yearly Meeting.

It may be that these methods are good, but there may be other things we could try. I’m sure that it’s our attitudes and the way we behave that have the biggest impact in the long run. Treating the children and young people as a vital part of the meeting is a good place to start, including them in the planning and giving them some responsibility is a good way to progress. It’s also important to remember that people learn by doing, so we can all learn more about meeting for worship by coming together in worship than by talking about it (though talking has it’s place).

Let’s have some experiments: try different formats for all age worship; let young people be elders and conclude the worship; have the children join the adults at the end of meeting for worship instead of the beginning (or vice versa); worship outdoors; make a noise; invite the adults to listen to some stories; any other ideas?

C is for Christian

‘Are you a Christian?’ asked one of my fellow students, about 35 years ago now, ‘I’m trying to be’ I replied.

At the time I could be observed by my fellow students to get up and out early enough on Sunday mornings to attend the Anglican communion service held on campus, to go to the Methodist church on Sunday afternoons/evenings and to mix with others who did likewise. They may well deduce that I was a Christian. If any of them listened to the student radio station, I could have been heard (with a group of other students) examining issues of how Christianity might work out in our lives, every Monday evening on a programme we called ‘Sunday on Monday’.

I was observed by the chaplains to sit firmly in my seat while everyone else received the bread and wine, to remain silent during much of the liturgy (especially the creeds) and to chat over coffee afterwards making no secret of my doubts and questions. I joined in many of the activities offered by the Student Christian societies on campus including discussion groups and a pilgrimage to Iona. To the chaplains I was, I heard, ‘a bit of a problem’.

I was seeking to work out what my commitment as a girl guide to ‘do my duty to God’ might mean in practice. Church and the Christian societies were where people were prepared to talk about God, so that was where I went.

I found a lot to think about, and a lot of questions. I learnt to sit in silence for prolonged periods. I asked God a lot of questions. Very occasionally I received a clear answer. In retrospect, I can see that answers did, gradually, become clear to me. I was very uncomfortable with the creeds. I didn’t believe most of the content and refused to lie. Others assured me that nobody believed it all, but they said it anyway. That didn’t make me any more comfortable. I could not understand the necessity of the ritual of baptism. (I was not baptised as a child, but my parents had been clear that the decision was mine should I wish to take that step.) I could not understand why the ritual of bread and wine was needed (and why it was only available to those in membership) – the words said ‘every time you do this (break bread, drink wine) do it in memory of me’ not ‘make a once a week ritual of remembering me’.

The pilgrimage to Iona helped. It exposed me to a wider variety of Christian practices and interpretations and emphasised the community aspects and the importance of living our beliefs out in practice. A Methsoc retreat in Grantham on the theme of prayer led me to a deeper understanding of the vital importance of listening as an aspect of praying, and to a meeting with an elderly member of the congregation who was actually a Quaker and who was an important influence on me. Then I read ‘Quaker by Convincement’ and kept responding ‘I agree’, ‘now I understand’, ‘me too’. I found the opportunity to attend Quaker Meeting for Worship and was immediately convinced that this was where I fitted in. Here were people trying to live out the Christian faith in practice, who spent more time listening to God than talking to God, who required no creedal statements, who regarded the rituals of baptism and the eucharist as unneccessary.

‘Are you a Christian?’ If asked today, how would I reply? I’d probably respond ‘it depends what you mean by Christian’.

If you mean ‘do I subscribe to the creeds?’ – no. If you mean ‘do I try to follow the teaching of Jesus?’ – yes, I try to. I might use the term ‘Jesus follower’. If you mean ‘do I do my best to do my duty to God’ – yes, though I am very aware that I could do better. The girl guides now say ‘to love my God’ and we’re currently consulting about the words we use and how meaningful they are to today’s girls. The change in wording (despite my quakerly qualms about any form of words) has not altered the fundamental question for me. What I want to do with my life is what God wants me to do, which may or may not mean following a ‘Christian’ path, but definitely does involve developing my understanding of what the word ‘God’ means to me and to other people. It does, currently, involve taking the life of Jesus as a example to follow. It does, fundamentally, involve listening to God, taking heed of the ‘promptings of love and truth’ , and, vitally, getting out there and doing the best I can in practical ways. It involves accepting my failures, accepting that they are forgiven, picking myself up and trying again today and every day.