07 October 2011

Introducing Quaker spirituality and silence

Churchtown Quaker Meeting House ... celebrating 150 years of Quaker presence and witness in Chuchtown (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

This morning, in an experimental worship and introducing the community to other Christian traditions, we met in the chapel following the form of worship used by Quakers or members of the Religious Society of Friends in Ireland.

I first experienced Friends or Quakers when I was in Lichfield in my late teens, researching the story of Francis Comberford (ca 1620-1679), a Parliamentarian magistrate in Staffordshire who became a Quaker, along with his wife Margaret and two of their daughters, Margaret and Mary, in 1653 when they met Edward Burrough and Francis Howgill, two of the earliest Quakers, at Comberford Hall, between Lichfield and Tamworth.

Robert Spence (1871-1964), “Woe to the Bloody City of Lichfield,” depicts George Fox, bare-fotted and ragged, denouncing the city of Lichfield in the Market Square in 1651 (Lichfield Heritage Centre)

At the same time, I became aware of the story of George Fox (1624-1691), the founder of the Quakers, who was born in Fenny Drayton, eight miles east of Tamworth. In 1650 he was jailed in Derby on a charge of blasphemy. On his release in the winter of 1651, Fox, who was overwrought and weakened by six months “in the common gaol and dungeon,” walked barefoot through the streets of Lichfield on a market day, crying: “Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield!”

His own explanation of the act, connecting it with the martyrdom of a thousand Christians in the time of Diocletian, is not convincing. Fox says his mother came from “the stock of the martyrs” and his protest in Lichfield may have been inspired by his childhood memories of her stories of the Protestant martyrs burnt at the stake in the Market Square in Lichfield during the reign of Queen Mary.

A plaque on the wall of Saint Mary’s Church in the Market Square recalls the Reformation martyrs of Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Thomas Hayward and John Goreway were put to death in September 1555, Joyce Lewes, a niece of the Protestant martyr, Hugh Latimer, was taken there from Mancetter, two miles from his childhood home – it had once part of the possessions of the Comberford family too – and was burnt at the stake in Lichfield on 18 December 1557. Fox would have heard too of the public execution in Lichfield on 11 April 1612 of Edward Wightman, the last person burned for heresy in England.

As a young man, George Fox became disillusioned with the religious life of his time and felt the churches had become bogged down with traditions, rituals and power politics. And so, with like-minded friends, the present-day Society of Friends had its roots.

Enniscorthy Friends’ Meeting House, on the banks of the Templeshannon or east side of the River Slaney in Co Wexford

For an interesting part of my life, Quakers were influential in shaping my spirituality and my Christian activism, especially my lifelong commitment to pacifism. In my early 20s, I often went to church at Enniscorthy Friends’ Meeting House, which was first built in 1756.

In 1797, Enniscorthy’s landlord, the Earl of Portsmouth, renewed his lease to Friends of “a meeting house and buildings contiguous,” with a penalty if used otherwise. The building, on the banks of the Templeshannon or east side of the River Slaney, is still used as a Friends’ Meeting House and local Quakers claim it “is the oldest building in Enniscorthy still used for its original purpose.”

During the 1798 Rising in Co Wexford, the building narrowly escaped being burned down. A local Quaker, Joseph Haughton from Ferns, recalled: “I observed they [United Irishmen] had broken a large hole in the ceiling, which we were afterwards told was for the purpose of more readily setting it on fire, but others of that party stopped them.”

An extension was added to the meeting house in 1869, which comprised a new block parallel with the old, and the building ever since has looked more like a Victorian church than a Quaker meeting house.

I remember Alexander’s Hymnbook being used there in the mid-1970s, although the hymn-writer John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892), author of Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, and Sydney Carter (1915-2004), author of The Lord of the Dance and One More Step were also Quakers.

The former Quaker Meeting House in High Street, Wexford, dates from 1657 and closed in 1927 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The nearest churches to the Church of Ireland Theological Institute are Zion Church, the Church of Ireland parish church in Rathgar, Saint Nahy’s in Dundrum, and the Quaker Meeting House in Churchtown village, which throughout this year has been celebrating 150 years of a Quaker presence in Chuchtown, dating back to 1861.

The Meeting House at 82 Lower Churchtown Road is a few steps away from the Luas stop at Windy Arbour. It was built in 1861, but its origins date back to a meeting in a private house in the Dundrum area in the late 1850s.

In 1860, Charles Malone gave a plot of land for building a meeting house, although he retained mineral and hunting rights as well as his rights to use a well on the site. Building began in 1860, and the meeting house, which was built at a cost of £878, opened in 1861.

Churchtown Meeting House could be described as a cool classical design. The architect’s name remains unknown. The meeting house originally had a ministers’ gallery, for elders, overseers and recognised ministers, but this was removed in 1949.

Having gained members in 1930 when Rathmines Quaker Meeting closed, Churchtown meeting lost members once again when a new Rathfarnham meeting opened in 1957 in Crannagh Road on a site offered by Lamb Brothers, the jam manufacturers. Charles Malone’s well collapsed in 1959.

Woodbrooke, Europe’s only Quaker Study Centre, is based in the former family home near Bourneville of the Birmingham chocolate maker, George Cadbury (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Apart from the Lambs, well-known Irish Quaker family names include Allen, Bewley, Davis, Haughton, Jacob, Pim, Poole, Wigham and Webb. Well-known Quaker family names in England, where many Quakers were involved in banking and the manufacture of chocolate, include Barclay, Cadbury, Fry, Lloyd and Rowntree. Today, there are about 1,600 Quakers in Ireland, and about 340,000 worldwide.

Quaker Meetings for Worship are open to the public, and usually take place in a Quaker meeting house on a Sunday morning. They are based on quiet worship, and communion with God and with each other. Anyone present who feels moved to do so may speak, pray aloud, or read from the Bible or other writings, including excerpts from Christian Faith and Practice or sometimes reading the Queries for Serious Consideration, which serve almost like a spiritual guide to lifestyle and discipleship for Quakers.

The special quality of Quaker worship depends on the prayerful participation of everyone present. Quakers have no paid ministers, and every member undertakes responsibilities for worship and the life of the Society of Friends according to his or her abilities. They regard the whole of life as a sacrament, and the Meeting for Worship itself as a form of communion.

The Quaker conviction that there is “that of God” or “the light of Christ” in everyone has its origin in Christ’s teachings and life. In outward matters, they aim at simplicity and integrity, they oppose all war as inconsistent with the spirit and teaching of Christ, and they try to avoid conflict in their daily lives and to work towards reconciliation and the relief of suffering.

Quakers do not claim that theirs is the only path to God, but simply that it is the right way for us, and often express their theological approach in the pithy saying: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”

Quakers in Churchtown are celebrating a century and half of worship and witness in their meeting house (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Quaker theology is usually summarised in a Book of Discipline, a book published by a Yearly Meeting and setting out what it means to be a Quaker in that Yearly Meeting. The common name for this book varies between Yearly Meetings, and includes Book of Discipline, Faith and Practice, Christian Faith and Practice, Quaker Faith and Practice, Church Government and Handbook of Practice and Procedure. Extracts from the book are sometimes read aloud in Quaker meetings for worship, or may be reflected upon individually.

The Penn Club in Bedford Place, London … a room here commemorates the Quaker theologian, Edward Cadbury (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Attempts at systematising Quaker theology have been made by Edward Cadbury (1873-1948) of Woodbrooke and Bourneville, who was instrumental in establishing the Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham and the Department of Theology at Birmingham University, and Ben Pink Dandelion, a staff member at Woodbrooke, the Quaker college at Selly Oak and Bourneville.

But can there be an Anglican Quaker dialogue, given the apparent Quaker approach to liturgy, sacraments, creeds and liturgical space, and the apparent drift away from Christianity among some sectors of Quakerism?

Two pioneers of Anglican-Quaker dialogue in recent decades have been Canon Paul Oestreicher and Beth Allen.

Paul Oestreicher is a canon emeritus of Coventry Cathedral but also the Quaker chaplain to the University of Sussex, and has had a high public profile as a vice-president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), and a former chair of Amnesty International.

Beth Allen, who is married to the Revd Peter Allen, a retired priest who has served in the Dioceses of London and Southwark, is a lifelong and active Quaker but was baptised and confirmed and also licensed as reader in the Church of England. She found that dual membership gave her new perspectives on both traditions, which she has seen as complementary. She quotes Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s advice: “People are mostly right in what they affirm, and wrong in what they deny.”

Quakers say that all of life is sacramental. Yet the silence of a Quaker meeting can be imbued with the mystical and sacramental experience that we know in the silence at the Eucharist.

The Quaker Meeting House in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

In advance of this morning’s small, quiet time of worship, we distributed the Queries for Serious Consideration currently used by Irish Quakers.

Appendix 1: Queries for Serious Consideration, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Ireland

The intention of directing these queries to be read and considered in our meetings, is to encourage each of our members to examine whether he himself is coming up in that life of self-denial and devotedness unto God, which becomes all who make profession of the name of Christ; remembering that it is to individual faithfulness to Him, in daily dependence upon the Holy Spirit, that we must look for growth in the Truth, and for vitality in the Church.

1. Are you convinced of the reality of God and do you respond to His Spirit at work within you? Have you individually, through repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, experienced true conversion of heart? Do you depend on the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit and do you show this by your devotion to God and by your love to all people?

2. Do you make time, in private retirement, for meditation, prayer and thanksgiving, and do you take opportunities for reading and understanding the Bible and other writings which reveal the ways of God? Do you encourage these practices in members of your family, individually, together and in other groups?

3. Do you gather together at Meetings for Worship in expectant waiting on God, prepared to share experiences and insights? Are these Meetings occasions, when, by the help of the Holy Spirit you are enabled unitedly to worship God? Are you open to the promptings of the Spirit, and sensitive to one another’s needs, whether your response be in silent worship or through the spoken word?

4. Is your way of life in keeping with the teaching of Jesus? Do you watch against conformity to commonly-accepted standards, and against the love of ease and self-indulgence which hinders your spiritual growth and service for Christ?

5. Are you honest in your daily work and in all your personal relationships? Do you maintain integrity in your dealings with government authorities and other outward concerns? Do you guard against covetousness, remembering that the quality of life does not depend on the abundance of possessions? Do you seek to discern how much of your time, talents and resources you should devote to the service of others?

6. Do you cherish an understanding and forgiving spirit? Do you avoid unkind gossip and the spreading of rumour? Do you avoid damaging the reputation of others? Do you cultivate an appreciation of each individual’s worth?

7. Do you live in that life and power which takes away the occasion of violent conflict, and with God’s help work for reconciliation between individuals, groups and nations? Do you faithfully maintain our witness that all war, or preparation for it, is inconsistent with the spirit and teaching of Christ?

8. Are you concerned with the Preparative, Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meetings during which the business of the Society is conducted? Are these meetings held in a spirit of worship and dependence upon the guidance of God? Do you take your right share in the service of these meetings, realising they are essential for the support and development of our corporate concerns? Do you carry out discipline, when advisable, in a sensitive and Christian manner?

9. Is your meeting one to which all can feel a sense of belonging, taking their full share in its concerns and practical work? Do you as a meeting maintain a loving and watchful care over all who worship with you including those who are unable to attend?

10. Do you, who are parents, and others having children in your care, seek by prayerful endeavour and example to lead them to a knowledge of the Truth as it is in Jesus Christ? Do you make opportunities for all, especially the young people in the meeting, to learn of essential Christian truth and to understand the basis of Quaker experience and witness?

11. Do you fulfil your part as a religious society and as individuals in promoting the cause of Truth and in spreading the message of Christ throughout the world?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

1 comment:

Michael said...

Enjoyed reading your blog. Friends (Quakers) Meeting in Enniscorthy have launched a new website with lots of photographs, history and information. Visit it at www.quakers-in-wexford.ie

Enniscorthy Friends Meeting (Quakers)