What made me stay? Geoffrey Durham recounts his early Quaker experiences

‘No two Quaker Meetings are alike.’

‘The members of my Meeting had left me to develop at my own pace.’

Quaker worship gets easier with practice. Most of us know that, but when someone leaves our Meeting after a month we tend to ask ourselves the wrong questions. Were we welcoming enough? Was it something we said? Have we failed?

I’ve recently been looking back at my first encounters with Friends thirty years ago, and remembering the prompts and signposts that kept me coming after an inauspicious start. I hope my experiences may be useful in helping some newcomers to stay.

Like all of us, I came to my first Meeting hoping to find meaning and purpose there. I had undergone what I now believe was a ‘peak experience’ a few months before – a series of blinding religious moments in my otherwise irreligious life – and I needed a place to sit with them, to reflect, and perhaps find a way of talking to God.

But it didn’t happen that morning. The commotion at the start of the Meeting felt catastrophic. It began well enough, but after a few moments someone started playing their radio at full blast just outside the window. It didn’t stop for the next fifty-five minutes, dominating everything: a continuous deafening splurge of piercing music and DJ banter, without the remotest chance of stillness.
I had imagined I was in for a peaceful meditation. I expected to spend sixty minutes shielding myself from the noises of the world and taking no particular notice of my fellow worshippers. Instead, I found myself taking part in what felt like a communal, religious white-knuckle ride.

All of us in that room were concentrating hard on just having a Meeting – as good a Meeting as we could manage in difficult circumstances. We weren’t able to screen out the deafening noise around us, so we were doing our best to listen together for a quieter voice. Nothing was going to stop us from achieving some kind of communion with the eternal, however ramshackle it might be. For those fifty-five minutes, we became a religious collective.

I’ve never experienced a Meeting like it since. I’m glad it happened, because that morning I learned something essential about Quaker Meetings that it might otherwise have taken me weeks to find out: I discovered that this spiritual practice is a communal, connected, joint activity. That can seem obvious to seasoned Quakers – most agree that you can’t have a Meeting on your own – but to this newcomer on that day it came as a revelation. I discovered that no two Quaker Meetings are alike. I learned that they are always diverse, always unplanned, never predictable.

I left the Meeting house before the notices were given. I had been profoundly affected by the Meeting I’d attended, and I wanted to be alone with the outcome. But as I reflected on it, I felt a strong desire to get back there as soon as I could. I was fascinated to find out what this practice was intended to be. Having experienced one unique Quaker event, I was in a hurry to experience another.

It can be easy to forget that, for someone in their first few months, every Quaker Meeting is an event of real significance and a major contribution to their understanding of who Quakers are. I went back the following week and experienced something infinitely quieter. I still recall with affection the single piece of ministry I heard there. A woman talked about a sand artist she had seen in Cairo, and how she had yearned to be the sand. It was an enlightening metaphor, an expression of her need to be useful, and it meant the world to me. I was becoming hooked.

The following week, I went to my third Quaker event. I overheard a conversation between an enquirer and an elderly Friend. ‘Do Quakers believe that Jesus was the son of God?’ asked the newcomer. ‘Oh yes,’ he replied and, channelling the words of William Blake, he added: ‘And so am I and so are you.’ I had never heard anything like that before. My Quaker experiences were stacking up.

By week five I was attending twice a week. Every visit was a little adventure. I still wasn’t speaking to anyone, because I was scared they might try to convert me – or worse still, assail me with facts, dates and universal truths.

It’s worth remembering that a person who comes with a deep spiritual hunger is primarily interested in whether Quakers might be able to help them. There will almost certainly be an urgency to their visit: will they find support here, or won’t they? And so being told about events in, say, 1652 is unlikely to be of much assistance. We need to be careful of sending our enquirers too swiftly out of the door.

In my eighth or ninth week I began to stay for the notices and the coffee afterwards. I was lucky again, because the people I spoke to listened to me, and as a result they understood what I needed to hear. There’s a lesson in that: conversations with enquirers are a two-way process. Newcomers have as much to offer us as we have to offer them. They have to want to change, but we have to be ready to change with them.

One of the Quakers I met, Marie Lasenby, was an extraordinary, prophetic woman with a host of skills, one of which we might all try to emulate. Shakespeare was brilliant at it, and Dickens too, but for many of us it will always remain a tough task. She had the ability to imagine events from another person’s point of view. She put herself inside their skin, understood them in depth and looked at the world through their eyes.

Marie’s ability to empathise with the needs of another person was of profound help to me. She had a habit of spontaneously asking newcomers back to her flat for lunch, often on their first morning, and it was difficult to refuse. We spent long hours together when I was new, chatting about the Peace Testimony, about whether you had to be a pacifist to be a Quaker, about the hazards of ministry, the meaning of membership and the difference between silence and stillness. It never felt like a teacher-student relationship. She was a ‘humble learner in the school of Christ’ and I loved her for it.

After I had been attending Quaker Meetings for about four months, I realised I was there for life. I had come in the first place because I needed somewhere to sit and find a way that I might talk to God. Sixteen weeks later I had done enough practice to believe that it was possible. I was a Quaker regular. The members of my Meeting had left me to develop at my own pace, by letting me sit there and grow.

When I had been attending every week for about three years, it dawned on me that I was turning into one of these people. So I applied for membership. I was admitted. And now, as I settle into the stillness of my regular Meeting for Worship, the first thing I do is say thank you.

Geoffrey is a member of the team from www.discoveringquakers.org.uk, which manages a website for newcomers, gives Meetings practical support with their outreach, and runs weekly online live sessions where enquirers can discover more about Quakers.

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