Quaking in My Boots...

I have spent the last four days at Friends House on Euston Road in Camden, London where the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain were holding their Yearly Meeting.

I've been attending my local meeting house in Sheffield for about two years now.

For those unfamiliar with who or what Quakers are, here's a fifty word description: For about four hundred years, Quakers have gathered together in silence to grow towards God / Spirit / their inner light and each other. While rooted in Christianity, there are now theist and non-theist Quakers from many backgrounds all expressing lives of peace, equality, simplicity and truth as best they can.

I've found it easy to make friends there with people who are open, sincere, genuinely interested and interesting.

So, before this weekend I was sold on the positive effect that hanging around with them was having on me - which has also led me to get involved with various events, groups and campaigns which promote positive change, social justice, sustainability and general good vibes in the world.

I've also got loads from the meetings themselves - they call them meetings for worship. It seems a bit of of a misnomer at first because there's no hymns and little praising of God involved - as mentioned, everyone has their own ideas about who or what God is or isn't - but really, it's a "worth-ship" meeting, which is where the word originally comes from. It doesn't matter that everyone has different ideas because everyone gathers in silence, settles down and relates to whatever it is that they find most worthy in their own experience. That might be a feeling, a principle or an idea like love or a god. Sometimes it's not easy for me and I feel I'm a long way off from that which I find worthy, but I always come away feeling loved, challenged or supported in deepening my relationship with those things I find to be worthy. In the meeting, people are encouraged to share anything which they feel is for everyone - and this is where the quaking comes in. Accustomed as I am to public speaking, a room full of quiet people could quite easily turn into an audience for the Paul Newman wisdom show if I allowed my ego to go unchecked, so discerning whether something I have to say is for everyone or just for me involves waiting for a kind of butterflies-all-over feeling. I'm sure it's different for everyone, but I basically let go of the desire to say something and if I find myself quaking and on my feet, I take that as the sign that I have something to say which is for everybody. I've been really surprised by some of the things I've said - it can be a kind of revelation - it seems that the discipline of waiting, the setting and the desire or love combines and works through us all so that something can be offered that wouldn't normally come from any one of us working alone - a kind of spiritual think-tank. Not sure if that makes sense but it might be recognised by anyone who has experienced the "flow" state where it feels like your best efforts are being led on and enhanced by an inspiration which is more skilful than your own abilities.

Anyway, the meetings are cool - like a wisdom / spirit jam session.

What was holding me back from joining was their decision making process. When a group gets bigger than around twenty people, it suddenly gets tricky to get an easy consensus (or anything done) without putting someone in charge or subordinating someone's wishes. Well there's about 20 000 Quakers in Britain and no-one is in charge! What they do have is a process that allows any member to initiate, voice concern over, even suggest a radical u-turn away from the direction of every decision. This process is conducted in a similar way to the worship meeting - everyone being asked to inquire deeply of themselves about the matter before them. They even call it meeting for worship for business. In this way, the collective wisdom of the group on a matter is sought. Slowly and thoroughly. It's that painstaking process which I was reticent about. Is it too slow? Would we get more done if we just put someone in charge? Well maybe, but depending on who is in charge, that process can lead very quickly to "I was only following orders..." and the horrors that happen when individuals refuse to act in accordance with their own conscience and follow the herd. This method promotes critical thinking, peer review, mutual respect, independent thought, thorough research, and even when a decision is taken that you oppose, it is recognised that you opposed it, you were encouraged to oppose it, not silenced and the decision was taken in light of the best information to hand for the highest possible good without personal agenda.

I had experienced this process or business method in practice at a local and area level, but I had to see this process working at the highest possible level of the organisation for myself to discern whether it is worth spending that kind of time making these kinds of decisions with these kinds of people. Having been allowed to take part in that process (even though I'm not a member yet, one of my suggestions was taken up) I can happily report that I have weighed the Quakers and their methods in the balance and have found them to be robust, transparent, healthy, useful, trustworthy, fair, effective, thorough, slow and worthy of my time.

I shall shortly be writing to the clerk of my local area meeting to apply for membership and commend the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain to all my friends and relations for their consideration.

Sincerely in friendship,
Paul Newman.

27th May 2012

Pic: Mosaic at Horfield Quaker Meeting House garden, Bristol.

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