Describe the visit in the Quaker Meeting House and assess the relevance of visiting religious communities for the study of religions
In order to try and give a full and balanced account of my visit I have attempted to discuss what I observed, what occurred, the experience of my revisit and practical participation in a normal Sunday “Silent Worship”, and my conclusions.
The Quaker house
Set in a quiet backstreet of Central Bangor in the middle of a row of terraced houses, sits the plain, unassuming Quaker house. Through a small porch way, leading to an entrance hall furnished with a wooden plaque containing several different pamphlets and booklets, all informing us about the U.K. Quakers. Once inside the building is set on two levels, the downstairs consisting of a mainly unfurnished large room with adjacent kitchen, and the worship / business room where on arrival we were directed to enter. Approximately 45 ft by 25 ft with high ceilings, decorated with modern wooden beams and mainly bare walls with the only reference to religion being a copy of the bible which sat on a sparse wooden table in the room’s centre alongside a plant.
All the seating was arranged facing inwards towards a “space” with the table resting at the centre. Two large patio doors on one side and several high windows supplied ample light. An upright piano rested in one corner of the room which comfortably held fifty.
On arrival we were directed to the “Worship Room” and firstly welcomed and given a brief safety talk. A two minute silence followed, furthered by an introduction of the speakers and the agenda for the visit.
Our host and first speaker Keith, was to give an explanation of Quakerism, our second Barbara, was to give an account of business and third and final speaker Humphrey (a retired scientist) was to talk of weddings and funerals. This was to be followed by a question and answer session and finally tea and biscuits for anyone who wished. During the silence I observed the eight or so Quakers in the room whom were all relatively elderly keeping there eyes closed during the silence.
Keith, as well as being the primary speaker also took the role of host and responsibility for the welcome and safety talk. He began by informing us of the root of the Quakers, formed by a mystic called George Fox in the 17th century and the problems that ensued, ( being a Quaker at that time could result in being imprisoned). Following no doctrines or scriptures, holding no hierarchy, no belief in any religious systems, however as U.K. Quakers they were seeking “a direct experience with God”. Keith introduced the main principles being peace, truth and integrity and where one’s word is absolute. Keith used an example that a Quaker does not swear on the bible in court, his word being his truth. He also discussed that Quakers would refer to God being within them rather than believing in God.
Opening with a quote from Jung, Jenifer proceeded to inform us of the society of friend’s, business functioning’s, informing us “that business was conducted in a spirit within the inner light”. During a meeting everyone present is given opportunity to voice their opinion, normally only speaking once, with periods of silence between the speakers. Although there is no hierarchy a clerk, assistant clerk and chairman are appointed. The clerk is to provide background information with no bias, and to attempt to summarise the feeling of the meeting to the chairman. There is no vote, if agreement is not reached further discussion and silence will take place, if this still does not arrive at agreement a third and final discussion and silence takes place, normally resulting in a third way. The silence is time used to reflect on what has been said, and to let, God within you be expressed through feeling then speech.
Humphrey informed us of the U.K Quakers conduct of marriage and funerals, their approach being based upon sensitivity through feeling and outlined the various procedures involved.
Questions and answers
We were then split into small groups where one or two of the Quakers would try and answer any questions we had, no matter of their difficulty or diversity. Bernard and Margaret sat with my group and did their best to answer any questions we had. Neither was afraid to answer a question with “I don’t know”. As following no specific doctrine or scripture, they each held there own opinion, both holding different evaluations of evolution and god.
On a follow up visit to the Quaker Meeting House I took part in a regular Sunday “Silent Worship” attended by roughly 25 Quakers, mainly elderly but not entirely and including a fellow student studying for a PHD in “Transcendental Thought” The experience of my one hour group silent worship gave me further insight into the bonding and camaraderie within the U.K Quakers and their belief that the silence was a way to let the God within them out. The numerous Quakers I spoke with after the service all talked of feeling invigorated after the service; other feelings included strength, well being and love.
I found the U.K Quakers open minded, accepting, honest, truthful, young at heart, and human (admitting imperfections) with an abundance of optimism, energy and a sense of humour, the planet and global warming being of major issue. Our hosts had spent time and effort in preparing for our visit, in the talks, staffing, safety and finance. The U.K Quakers are open to persons of any colour, creed or religion. The fact that they all have different opinions of God, some actually not believing shows tolerance, imagination, balance and a willingness to learn from others. The fact that there was no religious objects or decoration in the Quaker house showing no preference for belief systems attached to any religions, letting every one feel at home.
U.K Quakerism is more popular within the elderly section of our society, a question I asked at during my revisit, perhaps appealing with ones spiritual and mind development, arriving in ones latter years, but all of this adding to its mysticism. The use of “Silent Worship” to discover the unknown, prod at the unknowable and provides for them a clarity of wisdom in their use of a spiritual approach to all matters. My final chat with Keith where he divulged his reading and collection of all the “Carlos Castaneda” books was mysticism in it’s self. One of the main elements I found in all the Quakers I spoke with was a bonding and camaraderie, fundamentally a solid support network between its society members.
The role of the student studying religion in today’s climate is a challenging one, as we evolve and change our religions change with us, a good example of this is taken from the visit to the Muslim centre, their new approach to science, an admittance that that there religion had stayed static, a problem which they were now addressing and trying to change. As individuals we comprehend religions in various ways, from different perspectives and on different levels. We have to take into account that our own beliefs and experiences have an effect on our view-point of others and their beliefs. With numerous sources of information available to us, books, journals, the internet, television, newspapers, films and word of mouth, how we to decipher what is unbiased, real and honest information from what is modern construction. We must also take into account the individualism of the practitioner, as individuals they may use the same religion in different ways.
Visiting religious communities gives the student a first hand opportunity to make individual observations and evaluations, it gives us a chance to discuss, question and evaluate from the practitioners perspective, on a ground level, by exploring what their religion means to them. This can only improve on our own understanding, whether we agree or not, whether we are shocked or drawn with what we encounter, it allows the student to re-evaluate our own pre-conceived ideas, feelings and thinking thus forming new opinions from our own direct experience. We live in a multi-cultural society, what is offensive to some may be in offensive to others. If we can take into account the perspective of the different religious practitioners we encounter within our study of religion, we the student gain an understanding and insight toward the beliefs and practices which form their individuality.