Anyone looking in through the glass from outside would think we were just having a coffee break, while working on a Sunday. We talked about politics, heard a first person account of the civil demonstrations against planned cuts in child services. Someone brought up the issue of expected redundancies at the museums and I wondered whether it would have been preferable to charge entrance fees for adults instead. The majority did not seem to agree with me. I was having my first meeting with the Quakers of Birmingham, otherwise known as the Society of Friends. They are a religious organisation, founded in the 1630s and infamous for being non-conformists. But I am getting ahead of myself.
In the middle of the healthy debates, an elderly lady asked me if I had attended a Friend’s meeting before. I said, “No”. Truth is, I had attempted to find their meeting place the previous week but had a difficult time locating them and arrived just in time for coffee. I decided not to partake then. Their meeting rooms are tucked discretely into the middle of Bull Street, at Birmingham’s commercial centre. The premises, without any signage, are better known for hosting seminars and business meetings. Inside, the decor was stylish in a minimalist, business like fashion.
The elderly lady asked how I heard of them. I told her of a handbill I had received in my post graduate student induction pack. But once again, the truth is a bit more complicated. Many years prior, I read Charles Colson’s Born Again. The lasting impression that book made on me was that President Nixon was a Quaker. Later, I found out, President Hoover was also a Quaker. They were arguable the two most unpopular US presidents before George.W.Bush. Both of them demonstrated placid sedateness in the midst of the worst public storms and they credited their faith for the fortitude to stay calm. I was intrigued; what made these guys tick?
I got a clue when I joined them for worship last Sunday. It was devoid of any ceremony; we sat for an hour in easy silence. Quakers believe God is an inner light that should speak to us as we wait on it. Sitting in meditative silence, they waited to hear. I was informed that sometimes, someone who was inspired will speak up but that did not happen on my watch. It was a refreshing silence, so humbling to listen in prayer for a change. The challenge was, of course, not in abstaining from speaking but in quieting the mind. Anyone who has taking part in meditation would know that thoughts seem to wait for one to be calm before intruding. But I can imagine a habit of silent meditations being useful in dealing with worries. After the silent service, there were some brief announcements, and then we had coffee together.
A first time visitor would like to ask Quakers when their service starts. They like to say it is immediately after worship stops. Quakers have been conscientious objectors throughout their existence and made history as a result. They founded Pennsylvania to escape persecution. They were pioneers in the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements.They still campaign against the death sentence. Perhaps, in the UK, much is made of their past because today they have shrunk in size, numbering 25000. The meeting I attended had only eleven members in attendance, excluding myself. The other thing I was made to realize is that English Quakers have an inclusive, flexible and unwritten theology that now includes atheist Quakers. What struck me most about them was what was absent; loud prayers, direct exhortations.I left feeling I had spent a Sunday morning rather well and thinking, I could do this again. And that was one more item off my “Things to Do before I Die List”.