‘Think it possible that you may be mistaken’. This is the final sentence of number 17 of the Quaker Advices and queries (a key text in Quakerism). Is there anyone, anywhere, any time (pass the Martini!) who couldn’t benefit from sitting with that idea for a while?
Here I was, arriving from Oxford at Didcot Parkway on the way to a Quaker Enquirers’ course at the splendidly-named Charney Manor. I was emotionally exhausted after the morning’s encounter with lost youth, and physically exhausted after having a run (flatter than Kendal, but muddier also), wandering round town for miles, and lugging a large backpack whose hipbelt, I discovered too late, was no longer operational. And friends, there’s a lot of train stuff at Didcot Parkway. I mean, a LOT. What with that, and the absence of hills, and the dreadful dearth of lambs, it all felt a bit alien. Nonetheless, the excitement was there alongside the exhaustion: all sorts of things, over months and years, had led to me being here (I don’t mean in a mystical sense; though, who knows, maybe perhaps I do?):—those things including:
Item 1: a congenital need to trust and uphold my own experience, thinking, judgement—including, of course, the consideration of others’ ideas, experience and judgement; we’re not talking solipsism here (or at least, not all the time). I’m a pretty standard curate’s egg of a human being, but integrity matters to me, if only as something I can’t always achieve. I need to believe what I’m professing. I recently discovered the Quaker joke: How do Quakers sing hymns? Very slowly, because they’re always reading the next line to see if they agree with it. Geoffrey Durham quotes this joke in an interview in The Church Times, adding: ‘if I never have to sing the line, “Lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb” again, it won’t be too soon – I find such sententious twaddle very difficult to take. Religious music has a huge place in my life, but not in my religious observance.’ Yes, yes and yes. This leads me nicely to…
Item 2: a sense of the spiritual, the numinous, the transcendent, which had never yet found a lasting home in any religious practice or institution. A longing for a way to express and share this in a way which is also consonant with item 1.
Item 3: the clarity and general excellence of the free introductory pack which you can get from Quakers.org.
Item 4: coming to learn quite how many of the people I meet and respect in the course of everyday life turn out to be Quakers. Included in this number is a dear friend who answers a lot of questions and gives me a lift to local meeting; which leads me to…
Item 5: my experience in local meeting, Preston Patrick, which I’ve attended for some months now. Gosh, I feel lucky to be able to go there. Acceptance, generosity, kindness, inspiration, honesty, challenge. And not bad biscuits, either.
So, here I was, Enquiring at last. We taxi-ed through the odd, flat countryside towards the village of Charney Bassett (a lot of very other-seeming place-names: Kingston Bagpuize, Denchworth, Goosey, Hinton Waldrist). Arriving at the manor, we were welcomed with tea, cake and lanyards (though not in that order). The lanyards, endearingly, simply bore our first names, handwritten, on unevenly-cut pieces of lavender-coloured paper. There was an informal tour—a lovely C12th building, all honey stone and bulging beams, complete with solar and a special listed-building-style fire-escape (!). There was no disabled access (those thoughtless monks) so we weren’t going to be using the manor itself for the weekend’s sessions. I needed a little time to feel disappointed about that; but then I got on with settling into my large, simple but comfortable room before having dinner—no cooking! no washing up!—and meeting the other Enquirers, and the facilitators Ingrid, Sarah and Paul. And so to session one…
The contents of this and all the others run together a bit in my mind; and anyway, I can’t go into blow-by-blow detail for the usual and necessary reasons of group confidentiality. I think the clearest thing I can say is that course as a whole involved both content and process/experience: there was the learning more about the facts, structures and ideas of Quakerism, and there was the being in a Quaker group, going through a Quaker process.
It was encouraging to hear so many different questions asked, some of which I’d also wondered about, some of which were new. What is going on in Quaker worship? what is Meeting for Sufferings? what are the testimonies of truth and integrity, equality, simplicity, peace and sustainability? what’s the difference between a-theists, non-theists, non-non-theists, agnostics? do those differences matter, and to whom?? Even more encouraging than the variety of questions, though, was the variety of answers, viewpoints and insights shared in response: I had a sense of people offering sincerely of themselves, of their own experience, and doing so without any high-horseness about This is The Way. I didn’t ask about the word ‘worship’ in itself (a potentially problematic word, I think), which I now slightly regret—not from a sense of having missed the chance to learn The Answer, but simply because I’m sure I’d have heard interesting things. This truly was a meeting for learning, for discovery, for sharing, where all were received as equals. It was wonderful. The Quaker refusal of hierarchy and power-over was being enacted.
It wasn’t perfect, obviously. The question of Enquirers potentially being “in the honeymoon period” was raised, and it was made clear—with examples!—that Quakers are not ideal human beings. That’s a relief. I had a bit of a moment on the first evening to do with something I was struggling with in the group dynamic. I needed to do what I call ‘getting round the back of myself’—ie, understand what was happening for me, be less critical of myself, and hence less so of the others involved—and, though I wasn’t managing this on my own, I had sense enough to ask for help. I was received without judgement or favour, accepted where I was; and this, together with acknowledgement of the “realness” of the issue I’d raised, enabled me to get to a different place. The issue in itself turned out not to matter. How it was handled was crucial.
As well as the group sessions, there was time for a lovely walk on Saturday afternoon, across stubbly fields towards some kind of ancient camp, now grassed over in spring-brilliant green. Larks were strobing away in the high blue sky and, just when we happened to be talking about hares, I looked aside at the adjacent field and lo, there were two hares—well-camouflaged, powerful, apparently unafraid. There were red kites, too, and the long hoots of owls to be heard, later, in the inky, un-light-polluted night. There was a bring-and-share session on the Saturday eve—a great variety of music, sketches, poems, deftly MC-ed and closing with a shared singing of Tallis’ canon. There were conversations over the plentiful (if slightly stodgy) food, and in the beautiful, beautifully-kept grounds, and over late-night hot chocolate. It was both stimulating and relaxing, energising and exhausting.
And of course, at the heart of it, there was Meeting for Worship: sitting in silence together, centring down, being open to the light. I’m not going to attempt to define these terms—wiser, Quaker-ier heads than mine write whole books about it so I’m not going to nail it in 50 words—but the poem attached to this post says a lot of it, for me: ‘deep calling to deep… [moving] out over our own fathoms’.** (The plural pronoun is important: this is a co-created experience.) What I can offer is what’s emerging for me, over the weeks and months, often in the form of single words—like peace, relaxing, safety, belonging, feeling connected, feeling released, feeling held. After this weekend at Charney, I also have a clear mental image: of seeds or specks of light, small but halogen-bright, widely-scattered yet connected. My life feels better for having all this in it. That’s more than enough to know, for now.
*You can read the full interview with Durham here.
**You can read the poem here.