Westminster away weekend (part 1)

Dear Vernon,

It was the Westminster Meeting away weekend from Friday through Saturday. We had it at the Guy Chester Centre in Muswell Hill. It’s far enough outside of central London for us to consider it to be ‘away’ from Westminster Meeting, but close enough for us to get to easily.

We met up on Friday night and the first thing I noticed was that the Centre had table-football. ‘I’ll definitely play on that’, I thought to myself at the time. Of course, I didn’t, but it is no great loss. I’m not very good at that game. I spent a year and a half living a couple of hundred yards away from Kick, a bar in Shoreditch that specialises in table-football, a while back and never once made it in their to play.

I had dinner at the Centre on Friday night. It was pretty dire, but then I’ve never been to a Christian residential centre where the food is any good – I think that they make it bad so that you concentrate on other things. Or, they make the food bad so that you feel self-righteous, like I do about it now and maybe its good for the soul in a round about way. The only good food is at Woodbrooke, the Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham. I went to High Leigh Christian conference centre in Hertfordshire earlier this year and the food wasn’t great. What was most odd about High Leigh was that they had a licensed bar and there were all these Baptists drinking beer, wine and spirits on their church retreats. They also had a manager whose name was Calamity Butler, but she was very friendly and helpful, so the name didn’t fit.

Friday night was taken up with introductions and ice breaker games. I’m used to these sorts of things with people of similar age to me – playing them with people aged about 20-85 turns out not to be any less fun! You learn little things about different people and it brings alive the worshipping community in ways that you might not expect.

Hopefully I’ll write soon about some more of the weekend.

Jez

Dear Vernon

Dear Vernon,

Today, I was reading an article that had been submitted to the Friend. In it, the contributor writes about how he had been looking forward to spending his retirement with his wife. He had hoped for at least a decade or maybe two of time spent together. Now she has been told that she has less than 12 months to live.

I thought of you as I read and how, on the telephone the other day, you told me that you can’t come to Meeting so much any more. I enjoyed our conversation and was inspired by our discussion. So here I am now, writing after Meeting for Worship tonight.

Westminster Quaker Meeting’s Wednesday night Meeting for Worship has been going for quite a long time now, you told me. Earlier today a Friend, who I met at an afternoon tea, asked me if there were still Bible studies and discussion groups at Westminster’s Wednesday nights. I told him that there weren’t those as such, but there is a vibrant Meeting, often with 35 to 45 people worshipping together. There is a book group, a couple of writers’ groups and a monthly worship sharing session. That last group meets on the last Wednesday of the month, so tonight. This month the sharing is about whether there need only be one religion. Last month, it was about what we do because we are Quakers.

July’s topic for the worship sharing dominated the Meeting for Worship tonight. The first ministry came about fifteen minutes after the official start of the Meeting (6:15pm), but it had started several minutes before that. By the first ministry, there were about 40 people worshipping together. I had sat in the far corner, near the cupboard, so I could rest my head on my hand to my side if I felt myself falling asleep. As it was, that was an unnecessary precaution tonight.

So the first ministry was about what we do as Quakers. What do we do as Quakers that is different than if we were not Quakers? It can be a hard question to answer, because it can be hard to relate to a separate time when we knew nothing of the Religious Society of Friends. Some might not have done anything differently. Do we act because of being Quaker, or do our actions bring us to be Quakers? And once we are Quaker, what then?

The second ministry came from a woman sitting at the far side of the room to me. A woman followed on from the first ministry and related to how she and another Friend had had a similar conversation recently. What stood out for me most was that this woman said that her conversation was with another Young Friend. As in Britain the Young Friends movement is those aged 18 to early 30s that is quite specific, but don’t we all think of ourselves as young in some absolute or relative ways? Anyway, the ministry also raised the question: ‘what do we do because we are human?’ Some other salient points were made, but I forget them now.

The first ministry had been around 6:30pm (I have a good friend who never looks at the clock during Meeting for Worship, but for me, it is like the television on in the corner of the pub – my eyes are always drawn to it) and it turned out that there were another 7 to come before we shook hands and finished the Meeting just after 7pm.

The third ministry came from a man in a blue shirt. He ministered about a meeting he had been in where the topic of Quakers had come up. Someone else in the room had said that it is not uncommon to see someone do good works, be a really great person and then later find out that they are a Quaker and it all falls into place. I don’t think that there’s any chance of anyone thinking of me like that! The ministry was fairly long by our Meeting’s standards but the chap made a point that stayed with me. He had given something up because he was a Quaker. Whenever he thought of that thing, usually by a moment where he expected to see it, he remembered that the process of giving up had been because he is a Quaker. A physical or practical reminder of his faith.

Fourth was a Friend who has a special place in my heart because of the wide variety of his ministry and the range of great religious and spiritual assets that he brings to life in his ministry. Over the past three years, as I have worshipped at Westminster and spent time in fellowship, hearing ministry or just chatting I have learned of little snippets of his life that have given me a lot of respect for his path. Well, our ministry, as we are the Meeting, the worshippers and Friends. He laid down a challenge to us, about how we might react in challenging circumstances. If our family is threatened, or we are hungry or fearful, we will still act according to that deep source within us? On the spot, would we pull out that helpful Quaker book Advices & Queries, or do we go inside ourselves for the answer?

Some space.

And then another Quaker is on her feet. She recalls an incident in her life when a man presumed that he could see through her when she told him that she is a Quaker. But his presumption was inaccurate. Our Friend explained that in the last ten years she had put her faith in the light and did not always know what would come up. Sometimes it is unnerving living this way, but she has never been let down by it.

Next a man ministers about something that is being teased out of him in two ways. In a gentle way by the spirit, not by people taking the Mick. One was about what the light has challenged him about and the other was how others have challenged and encouraged him. I think.

The seventh minister shared information about the work of the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva, in an environment where most people won’t know who or what Quakers are, but respect them for their work. We learned about how some economic issues are so complex that it can difficult to work out what is right and wrong.

Eighth, and finally, we were reminded that we’re not all good, we don’t all find it easy to put our faith in the light and that life, faith and practice can be tough. There were quotes from a poet who I didn’t know and don’t remember (but it had come up in a Meeting for Worship at Speakers Corner, Hyde Park previously) and another from Julian of Norwich. The gentle voice and my looking at the floor rather than the speaker meant that I didn’t quite catch the end.

Silence lingered even as we shook hands, shared greetings and smiled and caught each others’ eyes across the room.

What do I do different because I’m a Quaker? I go to Meeting for Worship, for a start. A superficial and cheap point, but being Quaker means that I go to Meeting for Worship and I take the worship out with me at the end of the Meeting. The fourth ministry, that challenges us about how we react in situations reminds me that Quaker faith has never been just about going to a Meeting house for an hour a week or something. Letting your life speak, like the example in the third ministry is a way that many Quakers are recognised.

I know that there are many ways that I do not let my life speak. At least one of those we discussed when we spoke the other night, but there are others, not least the smoking that I took up again in March and am resolving to let go from tonight. I am beginning to work a positive commitment towards a cleaner bill of health. That is my renewed starting point for how I want to do differently because I am a Quaker.

In friendship,

Jez

Father, Quaker, communicator, fundraiser and networker