Welsh Friends reflect on Quakerism, identity and belonging
There was a place – a special place. Down the uneven, breakneck stone steps from the cottage, through the bottom gate, there was a small paddock on the bank of the River Aeron, shaded by a vast old ash and an equally old Norwegian spruce. We put a wooden and wrought iron bench down there, which at once began to rot away and grow moss, making itself part of the landscape. When I walked down first thing in the morning and sat there, I too felt part of the landscape. I felt embraced.
At Meeting of Friends in Wales – curiously, in spite of being an ‘incomer’ and even in spite of having felt all my life that I didn’t really belong anywhere – I had the same sense of being in a special place, and being embraced. I began to identify with Wales and particularly with Welsh Quakers.
Once, a Friend complained: ‘We’ve bent over backwards for these people!’ (The Friend meant Welsh-speakers.) The insult, too, seemed to embrace me. What chutzpah on my part!
I often feel like a bit of a fraud when it comes to calling myself a Quaker. I haven’t actually attended Meeting for Worship in years. I don’t even have an exciting story to tell about how I became a Quaker; I just grew up as one. But when I think about it a bit deeper, I realise how silly I’m being. Of course I’m a Quaker, what else could I be?
Being a Quaker just makes sense to me. It influences every aspect of my life: from the everyday little things to the big things. It’s influenced why I’ve just trained to be a social worker, why I’m so interested in politics, why I don’t eat meat, why I wash my dishes with eco-friendly washing up liquid, why I go on protests, why I support certain charities… the list goes on and on.
Wondering whether or not I’m a Quaker is like wondering whether or not I have ginger hair and freckles. Wondering what compelled me to become a Quaker is like wondering what compelled me to have such long legs and stupidly big feet. I just do. It’s who I am. It’s me.
In 2008 Meeting of Friends in Wales had reached the point, after much consideration, of employing a part time administrative assistant to support the clerks. In practical terms this meant that regular mailings, newsletter publications, resources, and notices could be circulated reliably. I was very fortunate to get the job, all eight hours a week of it. I’ve found working within a Quaker organisation a total revolution in terms of incorporating a spiritual dimension into the workplace. I’ve learned to undo much of the anxiety that drives the notion of ‘work’, or at least notice how the mind employs guilt and fear as drivers, and believes it ought to be motivated thus. In turn I’ve practised turning my attention to seeking guidance, awaiting the quiet direction and allowing acceptance.
With trust comes peace. My greatest joy has been the experience of being part of Business Meetings that open with silence and finish with gratitude. Over the last ten years I’ve met many Quakers of Wales and am constantly humbled by their energy and commitment.
Curiosity first brought me to Friends – a notice in our local paper of a Meeting for Worship not far away. The following Sunday a good friend and I turned up at the Bala Meeting in Frongoch, both familiar with the history of seventeenth century Quakers in the area. The Meeting that day, however, was something way outside our experience.
On the way home we discussed it. My friend had been impressed but had no wish to repeat the experience. He gave two reasons: ‘dim Cymraeg’ (no Welsh) and ‘dim diwinyddiaeth’ (no theology). I could sympathise on the first count, the second as far as I was concerned was neither here nor there. That happened fifty and more years ago. I turned up at the next Meeting and I have kept on doing so ever since.
I was once asked: ‘Why are you a Quaker?’ My reply was: ‘I need to be a Quaker.’ I was asked if there was a difference between Quakers in Wales and Quakers elsewhere. I’ve met and discussed Quakerism (and theology!) with Friends from all over the world. I do not feel that any serious difference exists between Quakers, wherever they are. But I think of myself as a Welsh Quaker. No, that does not say it either. I think of myself as a Crynwr Cymraeg.
‘The wind blows differently here in Wales,’ Joan Southern said many years ago. Think on it. That contains a depth of meaning.
I am Wales-born but spent my early life in Chester. The old curfew bell is long silent and Welsh people are no longer excluded after nine pm. Living in the Marches equips you to seek compromise and to respect different voices, languages and cultures. Family connections, love of landscape and history came with moving back to Wales – knowing where you belong. I worked in education, teaching young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who took longer to shine than more confident peers. Not attracted by city lights or working in the media, as the backbone of our society they contribute wonderful skills to rural communities. Working with them was a huge satisfaction and privilege. Retired, I ‘reinvented’ myself, researching place names which both conceal and reveal history and culture and show our landscape’s evolution. I enjoyed developing methodologies to unlock our past, sharing it through articles and television series.
I doubt I’d have become a Quaker without our Local Meeting conducting worship and business in Welsh – my lifelong language of worship. A handful of enquirers followed the ‘Becoming Friends’ course with a Welsh-speaking Quaker, some travelling long distances to her home. Two have become members and the others regular attenders at our small but vibrant Meeting. All our discussions were in Welsh and that experience is something I shall always cherish.
At Yearly Meeting Gathering I attended a lecture on ‘John Edward Southall: forgotten Quaker, adopted Welshman’. Like John Southall, I am an ‘incomer’, born in Essex and growing up in Bristol, and, like him, a linguist, coming to Cardiff University to continue studying modern languages. Here I met my husband, who is from the Welsh valleys.
We started attending Cardiff Meeting twenty years ago and our children have been welcomed into it: Taliesin, Arianwen, Ceridwen and Efnysien – three names from the Mabinogion collection of Welsh folk tales and the other from a daughter of Brychan Brycheiniog, ancient Welsh king with many children, all saints. They are educated through the medium of Welsh. We attended Welsh classes together as soon as the first was born, made possible by the generosity of Quakers living nearby who agreed to babysit every week.
Unfortunately, the children are not as keen as their parents on speaking Welsh, so we are not getting as much practice as we hoped! They are also not keen on coming to Meeting for Worship at the moment. Nevertheless, we hope that they will grow up appreciating Quaker values and their Welsh heritage.
Cardiff/Caerdydd and Vibrancy in Meetings development worker for Wales and Southern Marches
Being brought up a Quaker in Wales meant Meeting for Worship in our house once a month. We read from the Bible after supper and discussed it – each child listened to with respect, but each having to show where in the text our ideas came from. Ackworth School next: Meeting for Worship was the best bit of the day and of Sunday – the peace, mental solitude, rest from having to join in, and occasionally ministry which opened the mind and the soul.
Coming home to Wales after university in Iceland brought me back to my Welsh roots. Being head of a (Welsh speaking) comprehensive at a time of great educational change could be tough. My area has a strong memory of descent from those early Quakers who emigrated, so the expectations of me were high locally. It needed deep soul-searching to live with that.
Walking to Britain Yearly Meeting in York (2009) was inspired by local Quaker Dorothy Owen, a minister who died in 1793. She walked to Monthly, Quarterly and even Yearly Meeting in London.
For twenty-five years, Meeting of Friends in Wales has affirmed Quakerism for me as being greater than one nationality, one culture and one language. It embraces us all.
I grew up among Quakers in Sweden, so I find it hard to distinguish between my personal values, my family’s values and Quaker values. My faith is important to me and I feel insulted when people tell me I’m not ‘deeply’ religious. (They mean well – in that I’m not a fundamentalist.)
Religion to me is about doing the will of God, at all times. I don’t always succeed, but I try. If I need to measure the success of my life that’s the measure I want to use. John Woolman said that we should ‘bring all our resources into the stream of all-encompassing love’. That’s what I try to do in my work supporting women who have experienced domestic abuse. It’s also what I try to do when I am involved in various community campaigns and as a twenty-something elder at Cardiff Meeting. It’s what I try to do with friends and family.
I know I often fall short, but, to me, my attempt is what being a Quaker is all about. Meeting for Worship is at the centre of this, helping me to discern whether what I’m doing really is what God wants me to do. Wales is my home now, and the place in which I do this.
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