In the first of a new series, Alec Davison describes the origins and developments of Quaker Quest and celebrates a decade of an experimental vision
As we travelled, we came near a very great hill, called Pendle Hill, and I was moved of the Lord to go up to the top of it… From the top of this hill the Lord let me see in what places he had a great people to be gathered. - George Fox Our ‘Pendle Hill experience’ was to imagine viewing, from the summit of the London Eye, the vastness of one of the largest cities in the world – and the invisibility of Quakers. So few of us amongst a populace of so many: so much to offer but so feeble the proffering. We felt the stirring of a leading.
There were six of us, all elders of Hampstead Monthly Meeting, as it then was, and professionally involved in the Society. We had met together informally, over four years, to give each other support and to instigate experimental workshops for elders. Now a focus emerged of bolder, more robust, action. But should this be for an outreach or an inreach scheme? A paper was prepared.
The enthusiastic clerk of Monthly Meeting (MM) advised on outreach, as more likely to catch the willingness of Friends to be of service to others. So Quaker Quest was settled on. At the May MM, when each Local Meeting shared its outreach activities, the presentations finished with the Quaker Quest proposal. Amazingly, there was not only an eager response, a feeling that this was what the Society urgently needed, but, as well, a good handful of Friends submitted their names immediately to be involved for the proposed year’s commitment. By the July MM a team of twelve had consolidated, a room had been booked at Friends House on Monday evenings, a cycle of six weekly meetings established throughout the year, a fund-raising scheme set in motion, sub-groups established to prepare each session and a regular monthly Sunday evening planning session, with food, activated.
2002 was the three hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Religious Society of Friends. On 14 January the first Quaker Quest was held. Would anybody respond to the abundant flyers and posters, sent to all forty-two Local Meetings in London for their distribution, or to press advertisements in Time Out and local papers? Again, amazement. In all, there were sixty-four people in the room: our team, loyal Quaker supporters, but also a good thirty seekers. In the last ten years there has been an annual average of twenty-six to thirty-two people in the room.
Those weekly Monday evening sessions are ongoing today. Quaker Quest’s tenth birthday will have seen 450 of them and the movement is strong. The original twelve have completed their service, though some come back to speak at one-off sessions. A new keen core team of facilitators steers the enterprise, meeting regularly for planning and reflection. It is fascinating how infectious the encounter is with newcomers; the team all speak of how it invigorates and rewards. Some, who were seekers a few years ago, are now leaders and speak from their Quaker Quest experience.
A successful recipe
It took a good three months to settle into our accepted style and format of a two-hour Quaker Quest session. Topics need to be ‘juicy’ and on the pulse of what seekers are really searching for, not academic or zealous. Speakers need to give honest voice to their real experience. Three speakers are always much better than one – to show the variety of Quaker beliefs and attitudes within a shared framework of values. Six minutes is quite enough from each speaker if crisp and succinct.
Variety in an evening is essential after a day’s work and the following format has evolved: a clear introduction, a first input of three speakers, time in small groups to reflect and question, a second input, open group questions, concluding with half-hour worship and notices. This format is well tried and works; it is a firm structure in which local originality and imagination is given ample scope. In London there are usually ongoing cycles of six sessions but most local Quaker Quests present four sessions in one or two cycles. The tone of the session calls for friendliness, humanity, vulnerability and humour. Sessions are not to evangelise or proselytise but to inform and educate. Yet it is a welcome fact that many hundreds now come regularly to Quaker Meetings across Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM) as a consequence.
With Quaker Quest Euston getting into its stride, Friends visited from other parts of the country and began to imitiate what it was doing – Bristol and Romford being two of the earliest. Within three years an application had been made to the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT) and a two year grant enabled ‘Travelling Quaker Quest’ to be set up in May 2005 without having to charge Local Meetings. Initially, all the team were those with training skills and experience from the London project but, as the work developed, the team began to include Friends from anywhere in BYM. By 2008 this work had grown out of the Area Meeting and become the ‘Quaker Quest Network’, an independently recognised group, with a further three year grant from JRCT.
Reaching far and wide
Now, well over a hundred Local Meetings, some working by themselves, some with resources of the Area Meeting, have run a Quaker Quest project. Most were guided by two members of ‘Travelling Quaker Quest’ through workshops that aim to (a) inspire and motivate and then (b) to train the local team. Some Meetings now run a yearly, or two-yearly, Quaker Quest as a normal part of their programme. Several thousands of Friends have become involved in local projects as speakers, telling seekers of their spiritual journeys and their discoveries within the Quaker Way. It is an unexpected form of inreach for the Meeting, as Friends share deep experiences that may have been unknown before.
Friends from abroad visiting London also caught the potential of Quaker Quest and took ideas back home, inviting the ‘Travelling Quaker Quest’ team to visit and train. Australia, South Africa and Ireland have all run their idiosyncratic Quaker Quests but none more so than the USA, especially through the instigation of Friends General Conference. Amongst the handful of resources the team takes with them have been our training ‘How-To-Do-It’ manuals, new books, posters, flyers, the Twelve Quakers and… booklet series, DVDs and newsletters. New forms of popular communications evolve. A website keeps up-to-date information of current Quaker Quests (www.quakerquest.org). For the Society at large, Quaker Quest initiated a unique market research project. A great deal has happened in ten years.
Along with subsequent ‘Big Outreach Conferences’ and national ‘Quaker Weeks’, Quaker Quest has jump-started a change of culture amongst Friends. The belief that if God wants there to be Quakers he will send enquirers to us, without our either declaring a Quaker presence in anonymous back streets or vigorously declaring in the competitive interfaith market what the Quaker way is all about, is now seen as fallacious – a folie de grandeur. If we do not speak with Spirit and humanity to the world at large we shall implode into a puritan black hole.
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