Joan Mary Fry and The Communion of Life

Nigel Morgan explores her legacy

Joan Mary Fry | Photo: Friends House Library

Joan Mary Fry was an extraordinary Quaker. It is interesting to reflect, as we come to the end of another year and to the celebration of the birth of Christ, of her significance in the history of the Religious Society of Friends; for it was one hundred years ago that she became the first woman to deliver the Swarthmore Lecture.

Joan Mary Fry gave the third Swarthmore lecture on the evening preceding the holding of the Friends’ Yearly Meeting of 1910. ‘The Committee have aimed’, she said in the lecture, ‘at having Quaker ideals presented from… a woman’s everyday standpoint’.
But, as befits the history of the Quaker movement, there is little in her lecture that points directly to the female experience or sensibility.

This lecture, she said, attempts to ‘show clearly the intimate connection of religion and ordinary affairs.’ She continued: ‘Quakerism is nothing unless it is a communion of life, a practical showing that the spiritual and material spheres are not divided, but are as the concave and the convex sides of one whole, and that the one is found in and through the other.’

It was just such language that drew me first to this social activist, pioneer vegetarian, biblical scholar, prison chaplain to conscientious objectors and organiser of food aid to Germany in 1919. I was searching through an anthology of Quaker writings and testimony for words that might amplify the essential nature of The Society of Friends, looking for a way to share my recent membership with my Christian colleagues for whom Quakers are just those people ‘concerned about peace and who worship in silence’.
As I am a composer I had decided to find and set to music three diverse texts that spelt out some of the fundamentals of this ‘way’ I had adopted. In the writings of Joan Mary Fry I found two very powerful passages. One speaks directly to those, like me, who find the present day marginalisation of Jesus so often present in Meetings hard to accommodate:
‘… perhaps some who love the Lord Jesus in sincerity and truth will do well to exercise a larger charity towards those who cannot take upon their lips the “usual” expressions about Him. It needs great faith and insight to recognise a disciple under all disguises’. The other passage was the one I eventually made a poetic paraphrase of and set to music under the title ‘Meeting for Worship’. My paraphrase begins, ‘for each and all, we need silence and stillness; for each and all, the atmosphere of waiting souls. It is not the hush before the storm, when no leaf moves no twig dares to stir.’

Later I found a copy of the lecture and have recently explored the whole text. And what a text! Truly an impassioned piece of writing that carries in it something of the timeless mysticism so often associated with our seventeenth century Quaker forebears. In exploring the idea of a Communion of Life, Mary Fry sets out several tenets of the Quaker experience: a body of men and women for whom worship is part of living and to whom the whole of life is sacramental. She begins by stressing that for life to be such a communion, religion rather than ideals is essential to lead us to knowledge of the presence beyond ourselves. She tackles the difference between individuality and personality, the latter being ‘the sum of one’s relationships’. She cleverly avoids the word-label ‘church, ’ referring instead to a ‘communion of souls’. She calls creeds ‘indicators of the beaten track that cannot be a guideposts to undiscovered truths’. She is quite unafraid to embed the emphatic teaching and example of the Eternal Christ in so much of what she says of ‘ how teaching can be adapted to the conditions of modern thought’. The reader is often reminded of how, as today, science continually challenges our relationship with nature.

A discussion of and concern for worship takes up nearly half the lecture. She regards worship as where a consciousness can be created to get into ‘right relations’ with ‘the world of things’. It must teach the sacrament of nature. ‘Friends’, she says, ‘take the simplest and most everyday basis, so, to ensure the communion through personalities, they use the barest of means’. Then, as mentioned earlier, an extensive reflection of the Quakers’ chosen form of worship, the silent Meeting where silence ought to be social, ‘a door into a larger life’.

Finally, worship as adoration, the real stuff of Quaker mysticism found in the writings of Rufus Jones (a near contemporary), is discussed in conclusion. This is full of language that is rare in Quaker writing (that I’m aware of anyway). Immanence, incarnation, the infinitely intimate sits side by side with Fry’s own special additions to Quaker vocabulary, such as thought-harmony and the Divine Self-Giver.

What I find so refreshing in celebrating this lecture’s centenary is its complete lack of the anecdotal, so often the starting point of any expression of faith. I do find what passes for writing about spirituality today can often be cursed with the inconsequential personal experience, rather than the creative imagination employed in this lecture.

I reckoned the other day (and succumbing to anecdote) that I was only one handshake away from Joan Mary Fry, in that I knew her cousin’s wife in my teenage years. Because of my fascination then with all things Bloomsbury (Roger Fry the artist and founder of the Omega Workshops was Mary’s brother) I do relate to what seems to be a pre-echo of Christian existential thinking so present in this lecture.

Last summer, in trying to offer words of support about a colleague’s bereavement, I found myself saying I thought Friends seem pretty good on the business of living, not so forthcoming about dying. I wish I’d had this text, Mary Fry’s final letter before her death in 1955, and her only contribution to Quaker faith & practice:
I believe it is of real value to our earthly life to have the next life in mind, because if we shut it out of our thoughts we are starving part of our spiritual nature – we are like children who fail to grow up – none the finer children for that. Not only do we miss much joy in the earthly life if we imagine it to be the whole of our existence, but we arrive on the further shore with no knowledge of the language of the new country where we shall find ourselves unfitted for the larger life of the spirit. George Fox urged Friends to ‘take care of God’s glory’. That is a motto for all spheres known and unknown.

Nigel Morgan’s musical setting of an extract of Joan Mary Fry’s Swarthmore Lecture is available from
http://bit.ly/joanmaryfry. The world premiere was given in 2009 at Brigflatts Meeting House in Cumbria by the soprano Alice Fox and the composer.

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