By Molly Byford, Third Year Liberal Arts.
Quakerism is often just a term, amongst many, seen dotted throughout history textbooks and niche political articles, or perhaps more recently sparingly mentioned in Extinction Rebellion reports. It is drilled into the school curriculum through slavery abolitionists, conscientious objectors, and Christian sects that go against the mainstream. Yes, its adherents created Cadbury, Rowntree and Bournville, but they did not start Quaker Oats. However, its place in any modern cultural community is vastly overlooked. By getting down the facts, a brief discussion of my personal experience and the Quaker presence in Durham, I hope to show you the joy of silence and its universal benefit.
Harking back to Year 9 History, Quakers are members of the Society of Friends that began in England in the 1650s. There are around 17,000 Quakers in Britain, with 400 meetings taking place every Sunday (including 9,000 people who attend but are not members). Quaker beliefs can be succinctly summed up in four founding principles: valuing stillness and silence, community, simplicity and equality. They see an inner light in everyone (which some believe is God), emphasise a direct, personal and spiritual experience, and they focus on religion within everyday life. Worship consists of waiting in collective silence for someone to be moved by the spirit, meaning there is no leader and ministry is a role that anyone may potentially take. Quakerism for the individual and regional community varies hugely and almost nothing is set practice; so, please do forgive me if what I write following this isn’t how others perceive Quakerism.
Bernard Canter, 1962 – “faith is not something frozen at a particular moment in history that can be captured in a fixed code of belief”
According to my mother, I first attended a meeting for worship at five days old and I’m sure my silence was only a consequence of sleep. Luckily for me, our location meant we had a Children’s Meeting, which had fifteen minutes of silence compared to the adults’ hour, and the remainder was a session led by someone who was part of the community. Our place of worship was an old Victorian building in which circles of chairs surrounded a table with flowers, or sometimes a candle, on it. Once worship was over, most people stayed behind to share tea and biscuits, occasionally followed by a shared lunch.
For most of my younger years there, fifteen minutes of silence seemed eternal and it was only once I began to pester my mother with questions that my interest grew. She had never made us attend worship and never had us baptised, deciding that it was up to us to make our own informed choice about religion and that it was our choice to attend. In my questioning, I was told stories of political rebellion in Quaker history, as my great-great-grandfather was a conscientious objector. Facts such as an ability to refuse oath-taking in court spiked my interest further. Soon, the silence was intriguing and almost a challenge. The first time I stayed for a whole hour of silence and partook in the closing shaking of hands was a triumphant day for young me. Then pre-teenagehood hit and the political side took the forefront. My first place of worship seemed like a liberal refuge in a very conservative area to many of the adults, meaning I met people from all walks of life including Buddhist Quakers. And although I have experienced many other styles of worship, it does seem to be my Quaker upbringing that has nursed a suspicion of rigid theology. However, I have also taken away the same element that seemed to be at the core of my mum’s worship: there is a light within everyone.
William Penn, 1699 – “True silence is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment”
Amongst the numerous churches in Durham City Centre, a small Quaker Community sits in silence and often unnoticed in Allington House, the Community Centre. They quietly wait in silence for a direct relationship with God, yet there is a sense that they wait for people too. Like many meetings for worship, the contingent is not dominated by any means by young Quakers; in fact, on many an occasion not even one student can be found there, as the DSU society no longer stands. The community struggles to fill the few service jobs needed in the worship group – partly it seems because so many who used to volunteer are now expected to work at an older age than generations before. They are an incredible little community that support a multitude of charities in Durham, especially working hard with food banks. With both a Bible Study Group and an open welcome to all Christians, non-theists and any other religions, they open their door every Sunday at 11am giving people a chance to welcome stillness into their life. As a fresher, having not been to worship for years due to my old meeting house giving their space up for needed YMCA housing (https://www.timeslocalnews.co.uk/tunbridge-wells-news/tunbridge-wells-quaker-meeting-house-to-become-homeless-flats), I returned principally out of a feeling that I needed to. And recently I returned a second time for a personal need: a need for stillness.
I write all this not in an attempt to proselytise (as it is not in my, nor the Quaker, nature), but to show the importance of Quakerism’s four founding principles to a universal culture. This culture has the potential to find us a chance to breathe amongst a busy student life. Some already find that in church, or a catch up with that one friend who you can see in any mood over a coffee or at a pub. However, Quaker culture and community is a safe space to think, doubt and test your conscience.
Advices and Queries, 7 – “There is inspiration to be found all around us, in the natural world, in the sciences and arts, in our work and friendships, in our sorrows as well as in our joys”
I realise that we are very close to Christmas and I read the Advices and Queries number 41 in the run up to the big day: “Try to live simply. A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength. Do not be persuaded into buying what you do not need or cannot afford”. What do we need? Whilst the busyness of this time of year encompasses you, do try to find some stillness for yourself; it enables us to ground ourselves as the New Year takes off. It is a time of reflection, so perhaps we should try to reflect in a variety of ways. Quaker community champions human relationships over the material and finding the joy in the everyday. Let us do that, because perhaps now more than ever is a time for rallying around a community, finding stillness and seeing a light in everyone.