a precious habitation

“The place of prayer is a precious habitation; for I now saw that the prayers of the saints were precious incense; and a trumpet was given to me that I might sound forth this language; that the children might hear it and be invited together to this precious habitation, where the prayers of the saints, as sweet incense, arise before the throne of God and the Lamb. I saw this habitation to be safe,—to be inwardly quiet when there were great stirrings and commotions in the world.”

John Woolman, 1770

I’m nearer to the end of my service at Rep Council than the start and I want to try and get over some of my experience of being here for two reasons. Firstly, it is important for our Area Meeting to have a representative to reflect on the richness of Quaker Life. The second is to give a flavour of exploring deepening questions and themes, raised here, and how they influence the individuals present and the wider circles of friends with whom they connect.

Being an Area Meeting Rep means a commitment of two weekends per year, one in April, the other in October, fully funded by the Area Meeting. The theme of this latest one is how new people find us and, once they do, are we worth the finding!

In our home groups, we were asked to think of our own first coming to meeting. And about what had stopped us coming before, perhaps, a lack of familiarity with Quakers or imagining them to be something else, like the Masons, or simply being unaware there was a meeting nearby? Many of us said we first came along with a friend. So, why is it in all other respects but this one, I feel I am a Quaker, but always bite my tongue, when the opportunity occurs to invite a friend or colleague, a fellow seeker, to come to meeting with me? Put like this, it doesn’t seem so hard and I am minded to ask the next friend, who shows any interest in Quakers, to go with me.

And what if we can get a fingerpost put up, directing visitors to the Quaker meeting house or simply alerting them there is one? How about organising open days,   displays of art and other stuff and cream teas in our meeting houses, where there’s  a quiet corner for prayer or a space for curious conversation..? You may be able to offer a labyrinth walk on the beach in summer..? What lovely ‘inreach’’ too!

Digressing a little, have you ever thought of going to Woodbrooke in Birmingham? If not, I wonder what stops you? Could it be the cost? Or the time involved..? Bursary support may be available from both Woodbrooke and your Local or Area Meetings, and there are offers for first timers, young people and new members. There is even a Sunday night special, something I take advantage of after a hefty Rep Council to experience the peace of the place.

Well, nearly 100 representatives from over 90 Area Meetings from Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM) met for the weekend, supported by staff from Quaker Life from Friends’ House. And we were also well looked after by volunteer Friends in Residence (FIRS) as well as the centre’s admin and catering staff. 

Woodbrooke is a study centre near Bourneville and it’s also a ‘thin space’, where we open ourselves up to God’s grace, however we experience it. Did you know you can volunteer for full board and accommodation as a FIR for stays from three weeks up to three months? Or, perhaps, you prefer working in the grounds as the Gardening Friend or volunteer, no previous gardening experience necessary.

On Sunday afternoon after most of the Reps had left to go home, I walked around the lake and the grounds, remembering the stories connecting me to different parts. Here, the three gifts of the apple tree; over there, the questions and responses of the labyrinth; now, sitting on the bench overlooking the lake, realising with surprise and relief that I can be my own father; sitting deep in the forest, singing and telling  stories around the bonfire; down the path, where two dragons lay sleeping, waiting…; learning to nettle strip in autumn drizzle and, then, back out into the sunshine, cloudwalking in bare feet over the cool summer grass. 

I notice the cowslip patch, where I sobbed farewell to my lovely mum is growing again. Over a decade, so many stories in this place for me and for everyone, who comes here. And what a sharing we have…

Our concern  this weekend is how we welcome strangers coming to our meetings for the first time. We also spoke of how we still welcome those, who are still coming after many years. One friend said he loved his welcoming pack from Friends’ House, and yet it took him another two years before he went to his first meeting. He walked up and down outside so many times before going in. What stops him..?

On one of the optional Saturday afternoon workshops, we drew pictures and made collages of how a bad and good Quaker welcome looks. Have you met any of our friends below?

Under green trees, we talked seriously and with humour at times about the way we organise ourselves. Is it possible we focus too much on the ‘plumbing’ in our buildings and less on why we’re Quakers? On the other hand, this is a difficult matter for friends, especially with seemingly fewer people around to deal with such practical matters. The danger is that friends can lose heart, even burn out.

In Ben Pink Dandelion’s 2014 Swarthmore Lecture, Open for Transformation: Being Quaker,  he talks of one meeting finding itself in dire straits, then discovering it needed only three committees to keep it going – the committees of us, them and stuff. Maybe, this may not seem relevant to your meeting but it did lead one friend in our home group to offer this helpful formula, used to calculate the realistic number of roles per member (rpm) they can reasonably be expected  to take on – up to five, apparently. How many are you doing..?

But change ‘m’, member, for ‘w’, worshipper, and we include more people. We asked how many more worshippers are there, willing to offer service, when it’s time to lay yours down? And what are the ways in for new worshippers? Are they clearly ‘signposted’? And what part does the work of Nominations committee play in all of this?

During Rep Councils, we share our experiences of our Meetings, of how we tackle the big and little questions.  Anf Friends are happy to share their experiences. And we also have Quaker Life (QL), which provides marvellous support and resources for meetings. But not everybody agrees with me. In the Cadbury room on Friday night, we watched a playlet, mapped out by Alistair Fuller, Head of Ministry and Outreach at QL. In it, five friends quizzed Helen Drewery, Head of Worship and Witness, about what on earth does Quaker Life do…and, oh, yes, that big question, whetecdo they spend all our money?

I have been often unaware I am drawing on resources and knowledge, provided by QL. It helps with worship, with nurturing meetings and looking after archives. It offers information and support on good employment practice, on Quaker roles, such as Treasurer, on Eldership and Oversight. It publishes leaflets and posters and other publications, including my favourite, Quaker Voices. And it organises events, for example,  the forthcoming Family Learning Day. It supports various cluster groups, such as Clerks and Mental Health.

There are times when being or becoming a friend/Quaker seems full on with tasks, projects and exciting events. Do we still need times for quiet reflection and contemplation? I think we do, whether we’re new or old to the Religious Society of Friends. If we don’t make time for prayer in our daily lives, we won’t find ways for our meetings to be a spiritual and prophetic community, as Joannie Harrison challenges us to be? One of the key note speakers, her talk on her hospital chaplaincy work inspired, nurtured and challenged us to look outwards.

I hope you’re now getting a taste of what Rep C is all about. My time is ending sooner than I thought – just one more to go for me. Six years has flown by and soon my Area Meeting will appoint a new Rep and, hopefully, a deputy too. What a team! Might you be one of them, I wonder, discovering and sharing your gifts, friends, tenderly nudging and leading your meeting? Consider it possible. Indeed, who are you not to..?

Helping Seekers Find Quakers – Being Worth the Finding

Quaker Life Representative Council – April 2017

Report for Hardshaw and Mann Area Meeting

Religious Society of Friends