Quakers are pretty quiet, right? And when a group of Quakers sit together, usually in a circle, silently waiting for inspiration, it’s common for them to sense a presence in the midst of them; the feeling of a spirit moving among and between them which guides and inspires them, and lights their path.
Sometimes the inspiration is so strong that someone is moved to speak and share an insight with the others assembled. Other times, the quiet of the worship settles like a blanket over everyone there, and sends them forth renewed and transformed to face the day ahead. This experience, which can be a visceral, edge-of-your seat silence, has been at the heart of what it means to be a Quaker for nearly four centuries.
So when a pandemic hits, and face-to-face meetings in circles aren’t possible, you’d think Quakers might have to put things on hold for a while. In fact, it turns out that Quakers’ simple form of worship translates well to the virtual world. All over the country, Quaker meetings have taken themselves onto Zoom and other online platforms, and carried on worshipping together, experiencing that stillness, and finding comfort in one another’s virtual presence through unusually trying times.
Ah, but it’s not the same. Yes, it’s not. Whilst for some, the hum of the laptop, or the ping of the mobile phone notification has been a distraction and the very idea has seemed daunting, for others, the technology has been a tool for inclusion, or a simple extension of the digital world which is now their natural habitat for work and leisure. True, some have preferred to opt out of the technology, choosing to share in the stillness at home, knowing others are doing the same elsewhere. But for many of those unable to get to a Quaker meeting house in person, online worship has made it possible to be part of their faith community for the first time in years. Quaker communities have rediscovered people who had drifted away, or found themselves excluded by distance, illness or disability. And new people have found Quakers, too, after experiencing that gathered stillness for the first time online. Who’d have thought it?
But being a Quaker is not just about worshipping together in silence. Under the inspiration of that guiding spirit, Quakers are impelled to work for peace and justice. Every year, from across Britain a huge gathering of Quakers of all ages come together, at which they worship together and seek guidance on the work the community is called to in the world. That can be something outward, like work on climate justice, or training communities in nonviolence, or campaigning for the legal recognition of the same-sex marriages Quakers wanted to conduct, or more inward, exploring what it means to be a Quaker today, or challenging the lack of diversity in their own community.
Yearly Meeting Gathering
This year, 2000 Quakers of all ages had been expected to descend on a university campus in August for their Yearly Meeting Gathering, transforming it briefly into a community with a common purpose: to listen to divine guidance, thereby to change the world. How can these two things happen in this time of “social-distancing”?
With a face-to-face gathering quickly ruled out, creative ways had to be found for the Quaker community to come together to do its work. There would have been huge Quaker meetings for worship, all-age activities, workshops on a range of burning issues, children and young people’s programmes and business sessions where Quakers scrutinise the work of their national organisation and give guidance on its activities. Since the cancellation of the in-person event, most of this has moved online. Nearly 1000 Quakers have participated in peace and social justice webinars and workshops; 80 have followed a five-week anti-racism training programme; online youth groups have sprung up, as have sessions for the adults supporting them; and a week-long programme of virtual events for children and young people filled the slot in the school holidays left by the cancellation, exploring key themes and offering age-appropriate opportunities to experience Quaker worship.
The decision-making sessions themselves have moved to the autumn, when a 1000-strong community will meet online to deal with some essential matters. And most importantly, that session will provide a time when the Quaker community can come together from across Britain, via their computers, mobile phones, tablets, landlines and laptops, to worship together. There may be challenges, practical and technical, and sadly our children and young people won’t, this time, be able to be with us. But Quakers are looking forward to the event, hoping again to sense that presence in the midst.
Paul Parker is recording clerk for Quakers in Britain