A serious search

Friends abroad: Beth shares insights from her time as Friend in Residence at Pendle Hill

During our four months at Pendle Hill, the American Quakerism I’ve explored here is different in some ways from the British Quakerism I know so comfortably. Does this variation spring from American attitudes and temperament? Can we learn anything?
Pendle Hill, like Woodbrooke, is a centre for Quaker education. It’s open to non-Quakers too as serious explorers, and maintains a term-long programme for its students, many of whom stay for nine months. Unlike every other Quaker establishment I have ever been part of, it works hard and consciously at being a community in which most of the domestic jobs are done by those who live here; so I spent yesterday afternoon deep-cleaning all the coffee makers and thermoses in every kitchen on the site, and you can find yourself after a meal scrubbing at baked-on lasagne to clean the gigantic pots and pans, alongside the dean of students, while the tables are wiped by the senior fundraiser. And we all live together on a beautiful campus – in fact, an arboretum – and it’s possible to live a very secluded life. So I am experiencing a very particular type of American Quaker style! Nevertheless, we are also meeting Friends off campus and the same questions come to my mind in the local Meeting houses.

The only possible description of many Friends here is ‘devout’. They are devoted to Quaker practice; they follow it faithfully; they care deeply for what we do together, and they talk lovingly and reverently about it. They use the distinctive Quaker language with affection and real meaning. ‘Let’s meet at the rise of Meeting’ or ‘I’m reaching clearness about such and such’ or ‘I feel very blessed in this’ are common phrases. Discussion of a business item ends with the clerk’s question: ‘Are all hearts clear?’ Is this just because Americans in general are less embarrassed about religion than we are? So they don’t hesitate to use the old Quaker language and phraseology, and they don’t feel it sounds odd or unusual? Whereas we Brits perhaps feel it’s uncool or off-putting to use words that are, after all, our own technical terms?

Some examples of this go beyond phraseology, such as ‘seasoning’. I already knew our expression ‘seasoned Friends’ to describe those among us who have been weathered by many years’ exposure to the sunshine and rain of a Quaker community. But over here, an agenda is ‘seasoned’ before the Business Meeting by being made available for comment and development in advance. Nominations too are ‘seasoned’ – the suggested names are announced a few days before the date of the appointing Business Meeting, so that they can be seasoned, and Friends are invited to comment to the nominating committee. In Britain Yearly Meeting we do this for some appointments at Yearly Meeting; might it be useful at our local level too?

Local elders gather in a ‘Committee on Worship and Ministry’, which does what it says on the tin. The Committee of Overseers is often called the Committee on Care and Counsel, and in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s discipline is asked specifically to enter into their work ‘prayerfully, with an alert willingness to be of service… in a spirit of consecration and love.’ We would understand the same attitudes but we don’t put it quite so strongly in our faith and practice. Again, devout or devoted language is used.

In particular, people here are serious about our silence. They talk of a ‘gathered Meeting’ or a ‘covered silence’ and they know what they are talking about. Pauses for quiet before a Business Meeting are deliberate, not skimped; a group of Friends who heard bad news at a meal-time sank spontaneously into prayerful quiet together – a practice that I have also experienced in Britain.

At Pendle Hill, we prepare for the daily Meeting for Worship carefully, and the Worship Committee regularly considers how the Meeting is developing. The Barn where we meet has a facing bench – no worries about hierarchical perceptions here! – and two Elders sit there, backed by others on the bench behind; both are in place ten minutes before the start of Meeting. As we meet each day for thirty minutes, the community knows each other well and we sink deeply into the quiet; visitors are taken into the flow easily. At the end of the half-hour, one of the elders invites us to give voice to prayers that may be rising in our hearts, and the same Friend will draw the prayers together after about five minutes. This time, established for several years here, has something of the same feel and effect as the ‘Afterword’ that some British Meetings have, except that it is consciously framed as prayer; I sense that it offers a space for those of us who might otherwise bring a need in to ministry, perhaps inappropriately.

We had the opportunity to go to an extended Meeting for Worship here – I know that these are also held in Britain but this was the first I have been to. As early Friends did, we gathered without any expectation of when our worship would close. Twelve of us settled on old benches in a historic Meeting House, with traffic roaring past us, and autumn leaves falling from maples and sycamores outside. Forewarned, I wrapped myself in a big shawl – the heating was historic too, and those old Quaker shawls were functional as well as decorative! We sank into deep, deep silence, which lasted three hours, with three spoken ministries, one quite long and powerful. We were free to get up and go outside if necessary; we found ways to be comfortable on our bench; and I am still revisiting, thinking about and gaining from the depths and stillness we reached together. An extended Meeting is a gift, and I am glad we in Britain have it too.

The silence is the same silence that we know in our Yearly Meeting, the testimonies are the same; the flow of feeling and thought is the same, the Spirit’s leading is the same.

I have often wondered if much of what we, in Britain Yearly Meeting, consider to be a Quaker style is in fact just a British way of behaving and doing things? Or maybe, to be even more specific, an English way of behaving? Is our understatement, our greater restraint in language a real Quaker testimony, or is it just Englishness? Can Friends from other national traditions – Welsh, Scots or Black British or African – pick out the different ways in which they express their Quaker faith? There’s certainly a difference between Lancashire Quakerism and London Quakerism!

Can we find an irreducible minimum of ‘Quakerism without the cultural accretions and patterns’? Or do we only know the rich variety of our shared search, our common findings, as it is embodied in a multitude of cultures? Can we learn useful methods and words, approaches and attitudes, from other Yearly Meetings? Or is it more authentic, more in keeping with our Truth and Integrity, for us in the UK to live out confidently, in the fullness of our own distinctive rich variety and multiple styles, whatever is our own Britain Yearly Meeting tradition, our own way of being ourselves? What can we say? Across the world, what can we truly hear other Quakers say? I have certainly learned to be more serious in the search for God, and more faithful to what I find.

Beth and Peter Allen were Friends in Residence at Pendle Hill during the autumn of 2009 sent by BYM’s Quaker World Relations Committee.

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