Oliver Robertson believes all Quaker activity should be rooted in worship
If you want the essence of this article in one paragraph, it is this: which parts of our life bring us closer to God? Which parts are spiritually deadening? And how can we change the second type into the first?
For me, one of the crowning geniuses of the early Quakers was the Meeting for Worship for Business, because it turned administration into a spiritual activity. It turned it into worship. We shouldn’t underestimate the magnitude of that achievement, but nor should we underestimate its simplicity, because at its core it just needs us to look differently at the issue and think not ‘we have this business that we must do’ but ‘how can we make this welcoming enough for God?’
I believe that, at base, if a part of our Quaker activity is not a spiritually uplifting experience we’re not doing it right. And with this, like with anything else, we get better with practice. My best experience of Quaker Business Method is with Young Friends General Meeting (YFGM), the national gathering of 18-30ish Quakers. There, they don’t just do business, they also teach us how to do business with introductory sessions every time we meet. To keep it fresh, they deliver it in different ways, through straight talking, song, pictures or role-playing a really bad Business Meeting, but the most important bit, the core, which in this case is the information – that stays the same.
We should always be asking ourselves: what is at the core of whatever we’re doing? Which parts of it are necessary? What is needed? For me, the core of Quakers is very simple. It’s about people worshipping their God, and then following whatever promptings emerge from that. And if that’s all we need at heart, we should ask ourselves why have we got everything else? How do our committees, our Quaker libraries, our post-worship tea and coffee, our recording clerk help us to lead lives that are close to God? Some or all of these clearly do work for some or all of us, but we could be much more rigorous in testing and re-testing this and then jettisoning the things that are pulling us down so that we can rise up and go Whoosh!
My personal experience of doing this comes from the YFGM Nominations Committee. I don’t understand why there are vacancies on Nominations Committees because it’s a wonderful job, focused on finding ways for people to flourish. It’s about nurturing people and encouraging them to use existing skills, and develop new ones, in the service of God and the community. Unfortunately, too often, people can get caught on the periphery of thinking: ‘We have these jobs, and they must be filled’. I remember speaking to a Young Friend who was so excited to be appointed to one of the jobs at Junior Yearly Meeting, but that at her Local Meeting her parents were very much ‘oh well, I’ve got to be elder again’. What are we doing wrong if our roles are seen as a chore rather than a joy? What does it say about our communities if we require people to do jobs that neither they nor anyone else care much about?
Whenever I think about community I remember and struggle with Quaker faith & practice 10.20, in which George Gorman says: ‘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.’ I don’t fully grasp this, but I do feel that he’s probably right. Certainly the Meetings where I have consistently felt the greatest spiritual depth have also been the ones where I am closest to my fellow worshippers, and the Meetings where I have felt closest to my fellow worshippers are ones where I don’t just worship and drink tea. Again, I think back particularly to YFGM as one of the strongest Quaker communities I have found.
A Quaker who just goes to YFGM gatherings and a Quaker who just goes to their Local Meeting on a Sunday will probably spend a comparable amount of time among Friends each year (a bit over a hundred hours in each case). But the experience can be very different. At ‘normal’ Meeting I get the regularity of contact but often not the same depth. What works to stop that? What role do notices play and the fact that they are the last thing we hear in Meeting? What role does tea and coffee play, and the fact that we usually drink it standing up, which can encourage shorter conversations?
Perhaps we’re not together long enough for the ebb and flow of conversation to wash us back towards the shores of deep sharing. When we spend longer together, such as Young Friends do at their weekend gatherings, participants have a chance not just to worship together, but also to do Quaker business together, play together, clean together and eat together. All these things are important in developing a rounded understanding of each other. Members of a community need to know one another in the things that are ephemeral as well as eternal.
I am not suggesting that every Meeting copies YFGM. Clearly, Sunday worship works well enough for tens of thousands of people across Britain to attend, but it does show that we can be more varied in how we worship and practice without losing the core of our Quakerism. ‘Whooshing’ is about doing more of the good stuff, which is not necessarily the same as doing more of the existing stuff.
This article is a shortened version of his introduction at the recent ‘Whoosh’ conference at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre.
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