Monday, 10 December 2012

The Worshippers Part 7: Visit to Quaker Meeting House

The Sunday morning I visited the Quaker Meeting house in Retreat Road, Richmond was quintessentially autumnal: clear, crisp and sleepy.  The meeting house is located down a beautiful small cul-de-sac off Richmond Green very close to the Thames tow path.

The structure is in fact an enormous Georgian house currently under renovation (located where it is, it must be worth a fortune).

I arrived a few minutes late for the 10.30 meeting, but was able to wait in the foyer with one of the church elders who told me we could go into the meeting room with any other stranglers at around 10.45.  She was very warm, welcoming and amenable when I explained the purpose of my visit.

We entered at the arranged short break time, took our places and the door was closed – this time, for the rest of the meeting.  There were around 20 ‘friends’ and I seated in a large lounge, mostly around the perimeter of the room, with some additional seating in rows in an adjacent space.  We sat in silence for around 45 minutes; some with eyes closed, others with eyes open.  There was a single reading which broke up the silence around 5 minutes into the worship – a short couple of sentences about sharing the faith with younger generations. 

According to their literature, Quakers believe:

We can worship alone, but when we join with others in expectant waiting we may discover a deeper sense of God’s presence.  We seek a gathered stillness in our meetings for worship so that all may feel the power of God’s love drawing us together and leading us….Yield yourself and all your outward concerns to God’s guidance so that you may find the evil weakening in you and the good raised up.[1]

At the end of the meeting I was able to chat to two members of the congregation who were open to sharing with me their beliefs as well as willing to hear about my experiences in the various stops I’d made on my faith journey.

The Quakers, I learned, do not espouse any single belief system or set of doctrines; rather they believe that everyone can find their own personal path by entering the silence.  Some meditate, though others do not.   They believe that each person has a particular experience of God and must each find his or way to be true to it.  This also from the literature:

As Friends we commit ourselves to a way of worship which allows God to teach and transform us. We have found corporately that the Spirit, if rightly followed, will lead us into truth, unity and love: all our testimonies grow from this leading….Friends maintain that expressions of faith must be related to personal  experience…The deeper realities of our faith are beyond precise verbal formulation and our way of worship on silent waiting testifies to this.[2]

I found this interesting sentence among the Advices and Queries booklet: "Are you open to the healing power of God’s love?  Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you.  Remember that Christianity is not a notion but a way.”[3] I have difficulty with this; the new age ‘ground of being’ is a notion.  The Tao is a way.  Christianity is neither a notion nor a way.  It’s a person.

The idea or tenet that truth is found by going deep within sounds laudable; but it isn’t difficult to see that when some look deep within and act on intuitive impulses, the resulting behaviour can actually be destructive.  Again from the literature, “Respect the laws of the state but let your first loyalty be to God’s purposes.  If you feel impelled by strong conviction to break the law, search your conscience deeply."[4]

One of the Friends I spoke with was rather disdainful of the doctrines and practices of the Christian faith.  I’ve noticed this quite a lot – that there is often disgust expressed for the church, Christian practices and the gospel.   And whereas it is right that we Christians are convicted when others point out where our actions and beliefs contradict one another (hypocrisy); it seems nonetheless difficult to accept a faith whose bedrock is personal, autonomous truth.  I don’t understand how one can assert relativism with regard to ultimate reality without denying it.  The Quaker Way puts it like this: 

It should not be imagined, however, that Quakers are impossibly 'good' people.  Like others they have faults and fall short of their own aims.  Nor do they claim that their path is the only true one, they have simply found it right for them.[5]

[1] Advices & Queries, The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, 2009, based on writings of George Fax, 1656.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] "The Quaker Way."

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