the first quaker..?

I stood at a crossroads…literally…outside Costa at Warwick Uni campus, having just arrived at YMG. It was Thursday and I had come for respite and recuperation ‘among friends’. YMG had been weighing up questions and paths about how we live our lives in the world today all week. And while I was standing there, my friend, Debbie, appeared and gave me a hug. Then, another friend, Mervyn, walked towards me without noticing and I made towards him and greeted him, smiling. As we caught up, Richard appeared out of the doorway, both a real friend and a friend on facebook. ‘It’s not the same as meeting in person, is it?’, he asked. And we hugged too. I waved to someone else, and noticed still another dear friend across the plaza. Seemingly, all I had to do was stand still and I would meet all my friends. ‘Yes, great, isn’t it…like family…’

But I still wanted to take part in some of the serious and fun things on offer at YMG, so that’s how I found myself singing…especially for two friends who could not be here this time and for whom we offered dear 20 second hugs and this song, if you have time to listen…’we hold you in our circle’.

Thirty years ago (was it really that long…yes, 1987), I found myself in my first and up to then only Turning the Tide workshop, which I thought was brilliant. TtT raise awareness and train people in non-violent direct action campaigning…and I’ve done absolutely nothing, well, very little since, as a result of that workshop. ‘It’s the group thing’, I told Maureen. I joined avpb (alternatives to violence Britain) as a facilitator as it’s more one-to-one or small groups. Large crowds have often made me feel anxious, a legacy perhaps of supporting Everton in the 1970s and ‘80s. Nevertheless, wouldn’t it be great if avpb and TtT could work more closely together..? Being here made me ask what had I done with my life..? I stopped myself quickly and reminded myself that because I had been born, I had already changed the world, so just needed to get on with stuff, which I had. I breathed again.

And YMG was exploring faith and action through head, heart, hands and feet motifs. And I had arrived at the feet. We explored the campaign to abolish the Slave Trade in its stages over a significant period of time (decades). How it begins, who picks it up, supporters and opponents, successes and set backs…and ongoing support? We were asked to commit to one act of social action. I chose to replace my plastic drinking flask with a sustainable metal one, taking care it doesn’t end up in landfill or worse in the sea, and explain why to people.

I wish I could join in great marches and campaigning more. Still, just the other day, a young stranger asked me as we drank coffee at a pavement café, do you mind if I smoke? When I wasn’t sure, she decided to smoke a little distance away and when she returned, we started to discuss our mutual interest in education, as it turned out. She asked me if I’d heard of ‘subtle activism’? ‘It’s about making individual choices to help bring about positive change for the good.’. ‘That’s me! I’m a subtle activist!’ What a relief! Finally, I had my label.

And it was three days spent without ‘WiFi’, as I couldn’t automatically connect and couldn’t follow the guest instructions, so found myself making do with following swans in right ordering and geese, definitely or is that defiantly not so; marvelling at trees and a pin while also finding time for visiting Anna and her family to see how they were and receive their bounty without so many words needing saying. Gosh, it is hard to be without WiFi for three days!

I also attended a reunion of my Equipping for Ministry group. While Jan tried to interest us in a game (we played along…), each of us spoke in turn and without hurry of the stories in our lives now in a way and with such love and feeling that comes with prolonged, shared companionship. We spoke about the politics of the middle east and witness, speaking truth to power, of being an Agony Aunt in a journal, of writing another novel, of teachings and publications about the labyrinth, on simply being a Quaker, keeping our meetings; of prison chaplaincy and trusteeship and holding a wake for laying down a concern on ‘dying and death’ now that it has been incorporated into Quaker Life. Wow, do you think I can claim a vicarious connection with all of these gifts, lovingly given? And we chatted in the Woodbrooke tent, appropriately, drinking fizzy soft drinks and munching on stoned dates. I look forward to the next time we meet, dear friends, and don’t forget to share your news and good works…like this gift from Jan…

Praise song for Epping Forest

This I can affirm: I am not owner of my soul

but am part of that great garden of which Gaia holds the whole:

and in nurturing the Spirit, I did, and weed, and sow,

I garden – and am gardened, to help the Spirit grow:

I garden and am gardened, and I help the Spirit grow.


In the glory of the forest, trees breathe out – and I breathe in;

The seed burrs on my jacket show the places I have been.

I travel – and am travelled; the seeds will drop and grow;

the squirrel plants an acorn for a future I won’t know.

The squirrel plants an acorn for the future. That, I know.


It takes a million years to form this pebble on the path;

It takes a month, or three, before a baby learns to laugh.

The pebble and the laughter, the people and the tree,

the breath within the forest – a holy harmony:

the breath within the forest, a holy harmony.

Jan Sellars, Wanstead Quaker Meeting – within Epping Forest

While sharing together in the Woodbrooke tent, I noticed that the poet, Jill Slee Blackadder was sitting at the next table, so I started reading her moving poem, The Rainbow, out loud (I’d taken a photograph of it to take with me to YMG as my gift). And, do you know what..? She joined in, turn-taking. I read half a line and she spoke the other from memory and we read aloud together to everyone’s delight, especially mine.

‘I’m knackered already’, I told Keith, heading towards the Quaky Duck for fish and chips and a pint for tea. What next..? Keith was going to see the drama performance by Three Acres and a Cow, so named because this is all we need to live well on the planet, apparently. They retold hundreds of years of Quaker and English history, setting it in context to music and text. And I nearly missed it. It was brilliant, starting with John Ball, I noticed. After each contribution, they pegged an A4 sheet onto a washing line, strung across the stage. As I left to go to epilogue, it was the 1880s.

Epilogue is a quiet 15 minute space at the end of the day where people meet to listen to a story or song or silence and think about the day. At the previous epilogue the night before, my friend, as she became, Thuli, had shared a story about an young woman accusing her mother. You have taken everything and left us with nothing. And the mother looked at her daughter before replying, ‘Yes, you are right. When we were young, we had so much. We played out all day, running and climbing and eating fishpaste butties for lunch, running back to our friends and walking for miles… We were very lucky. We had everything.’ And so it goes…

At the last epilogue, the elder read out a poem, ‘Do not be dismayed… , which led to ministry from a young teenager. He had received some bad news earlier in the week about his leukaemia. In hospital, he’d experienced the silence of being all alone and afraid. But here, he felt the gathered stillness and felt held and supported by everyone in the silence. I returned to Three Acres and a Cow in the 1950s.

There was a ceilidh still to go to. I love ceilidhs but they are not always easy to get into, especially if you arrive in full swing, as this one was. I’d experienced the misery at Canterbury YMG of not being able to join in, feeling like ‘Billy No Mates’. I tried to breathe. Standing by the door at the far end of the packed room watching 70, 80 or more Quakers , young and old, whirling round the floor, I thought ‘I’m not going to get in. Oh, well, it has been a great day and I’m ready for bed anyway.’ There were two ways I could leave the room. Straight out of the nearest door and along the corridor, avoiding most people. I went that way last time. The other was to go along inside the room…and I chose this way and what a difference it made!

‘Do you want to dance..?’ I was asked almost straightaway, but then two men came and joined the group. ‘Never mind, I’ll find another set’ but I didn’t. I got to the far door and paused next to Rachel. Just one last look, I thought. Everyone is having such a good time! Rachel said, ‘You off? Not stopping for a dance?’ ‘I can’t get in, Rachel. I’d like to but I can’t get in. I don’t know how.’ ‘It’s easy. You just put you hand up and people come and join you. Look!’ And I could see, funny how I’d never noticed it before, people with their arms in the air, indicating they needed dancers. ‘I can’t do that, Rachel. I’d like to but I can’t.’ ‘I can,’ she said. ‘Come with me. We’ll dance with Roger. He knows what he’s doing.’ And we did. And we danced all night to the fiddle and the banjo…

Quakers joke about 10pm being ‘Quaker midnight’. Everyone is usually in bed by then at Woodbrooke and other places. But when I turned the lights out to go to sleep, it was actually midnight. And the words of the ‘Young Owl’ (early teenagers), at her first YMG returned to me, ‘I hope that every person in this room feels loved.’ Ah, that’s nice, I thought.

And then it was time to go home. Well, I was ready to. I shared a coffee with my good friend, Maureen, outside in the fresh air. You know, she told me, John Ball was the first Quaker.’ ‘Really..?’ How do you know that?’ ‘Because of the song, you know the one Three Acres and a Cow sang last night…do you know it?’ ‘Something snagged at me but I could only think of John Bull and that that couldn’t be right, surely?’ ‘I’ll sing it to you.’ And she did and I knew it instantly…one of my favourite songs…and while she sang the verses, I joined in, my eyes closed, with the chorus.

And we brought Thuli back to Liverpool to visit our meeting to say thank you for the financial support we have given to The Cape Town Peace Centre work for many years.

In meeting for worship that Sunday, the clerk read out the epistle from YMG. And it seemed it would be a quiet meeting after that. Till I thought I should sing the chorus from John Ball. Why not..? Why so..? Absolutely not, no way, am I singing. My voice is terrible. I’ve had a cold. I’ll forget the words. I waited three times for the feeling to go away. It had gone or so I thought. Suddenly, I had an image of Barbara Whitehead, who used to sing all the time in ministry well into her 80s. She stood before me…I was on my feet and singing…

Sing John Ball

And tell it to them all.

Long be the day that is dawning.

You crow like a cock and carol like a lark

For the light that’s coming in the morning…

For the light that is coming in the morning…

…for the light that’s coming…

Phew, thank goodness it is three more years till the next YMG. I think I will just go for the day next time..!

Our community

One of the unexpected things I have learnt in my life as a Quaker is that religion is basically about relationships between people. This was an unexpected discovery, because I had been brought up to believe that religion was essentially about our relationship with God.

If we are sensitive, we find that everything that happens to us, good or bad, can help us to build a vision of the meaning of life. We can be helped to be sensitive by reading the Bible and being open to experience of nature, music, books, painting, sport or whatever our particular interest may be. It is in and through all things that we hear God speaking to us. But I do not think I am alone in my certainty that it’s in my relationships with people that the deepest religious truths are most vividly disclosed.

George Gorman, 1982, Quaker Faith and Practice 20.10