Jenny Turton, Victoria Regional Meeting
I came to Quakers as a refugee from “mainstream” Christian churches. I had been questioning my faith and the worship within the churches I attended for some years prior to this, feeling increasingly disconnected and hypocritical in attending when I found myself disagreeing with many of the basic tenets of the Nicene creed such as the divinity of Jesus, virgin birth, necessity of Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection. I found myself increasingly unable to say the creed, sing the hymns and repeat the prayers during church services. I was also worried that I would be branded a “non-believer”, and so I stopped attending church. Despite this disconnection, I felt the need for a spiritual home: a place of belonging where I didn’t have to pretend to believe something that I no longer did.
I started attending Quakers in 2001, first in Melbourne and a year later in the small Geelong Worshipping Group when we moved there. I was initially drawn to Quakers by the fact that they didn’t have a creed, which enabled an acceptance of diversity in belief, and also by the strong history of commitment to social justice. I can’t claim to have found the silent worship easy, but I persisted in attending as it felt to be a place that could become a spiritual home. Initially I was so grateful to feel a sense of acceptance that I didn’t feel the need to understand more about the origins of Quakerism; on how this unique belief and practice came about and survived to the present day. I found it challenging to explain to friends, family and acquaintances what Quakers were when my involvement came up in conversations, and found I focused more on what Quakers were not (no creed, no church, no minister, no hymns) rather than what they were. Over time I found myself wanting to understand Quakerism more, but it was difficult to know how well questions would be welcomed in a religious practice based on silence. It seemed that one was supposed to absorb Quakerism by osmosis. I also found that because Quakerism was such an individual response to God, any statement of faith or practice by Friends was prefaced by “I can’t speak for other Quakers, but for me …….”.
I started the Quaker Basics course twice over these early years with different partners, but didn’t finish either time because of the difficulty in meeting up with differences in geographic location, having young children, and the general busyness of life. In 2014 I took on the role of Children and Junior Young Friend Coordinator for AYM, which was a wonderful opportunity to connect with Friends of all ages from all over Australia, to attend my first Yearly Meeting, and to travel to larger meetings than my own small worshipping group. In discussions about resources for young people and how to support their inclusion at the heart of the Quaker community, I started to question what was critical to Australian Quaker faith and practice, how much we should draw on the Bible and “traditional” Christianity, and how much was a matter of individual interpretation. In discussions with Junior Young Friends in Hobart, one JYF asked “But what is it we are supposed to be worshipping?”, which led to a lively discussion about our individual beliefs and how diverse these are within the Quaker community, with the whole spectrum from Christocentric through Universalist to Nontheistic.
The timing of Helen Bayes’ first Quakerism 101 course at Silver Wattle Quaker Centre in 2014 was perfect for me. I enjoyed these rich few days of sharing, questioning and learning with other Friends from around Australia, although at the first session I didn’t think we were going to be able to move beyond discussing what we meant by the term “God”. We could only move on after agreeing to disagree and respect one another’s differing beliefs, looking beyond the words used. I gained such a greater insight from this course, that by the end of it I realised that Quakers was indeed my spiritual home, and I wondered why I hadn’t thought membership to be important previously. I decided that I needed to make the commitment to myself and the Quaker community in becoming a member, and wrote my membership application at Silver Wattle.
In my research for opportunities for young Australian Quakers I discovered the 1652 pilgrimages in England for teenagers. I contacted Swarthmoor Hall, where the pilgrimages were based, to ask if there were opportunities for organised pilgrimages for adults. When I was informed that the next one was planned for August 2016 I felt led to participate in this pilgrimage. I decided that it I was going all that way then I should try to fit in as much as I could, including a course at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham, walking Hadrian’s Wall, catching up with a long-time friend in Manchester, and having an aardvark encounter at Chester Zoo! When I checked with Woodbrooke about the courses available over the time I was planning to attend the pilgrimage, one really captured my interest, entitled Talking About God. I felt that this was a perfect follow on from my explorations about how we talk about and define God to ourselves and to others, in order to make sense of the diversity of belief amongst Quakers and to try to better understand my own belief.
It was with great anticipation that I flew to Manchester in early August, travelling to Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre the day after I arrived. Despite the jetlag, I immersed myself in the experience of being at Woodbrooke, meeting Quakers from around the world, enjoying the beauty of the grounds, walking the labyrinth, exploring the artwork around the centre (I particularly enjoyed the Quaker meeting sculpture by Peter Peri, which is depicted on the cover of Quaker by Convincement by Geoffrey Hubbard), and enjoying the nutritious and plentiful food. The Talking About God course ran over three days and was led by Rhiannon Grant and Janet Scott, a tremendous team that facilitated learning from listening, worship, reflection, and small group discussion. Sessions included “Tradition and source” (the origins of monotheism), “Branching out” (learning from other religions), “Imagining God” and “God and story”. There was a strong connection to others on the course based on the fact that we were all Friends (from England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Australia and America), and all questioning how we talk about God. During the first session we were invited to say something about ourselves that others might not know by looking at us. I was astounded when Cath from Scotland indicated that her first time at Quaker Meeting for Worship was in Lusaka, Zambia. When it was my turn I indicated that I had also attended Meeting for Worship in Lusaka. On talking afterwards we discovered that her brother had been in the same class at school as my husband!
A few of the interesting thoughts and learnings I came away with from the course were:
- Should we use nouns, verbs or adverbs when talking about God? Should it be more about what is done than about what is?
- There are 3 levels of talking about God. The lowest level is cultural (symbols and metaphors), the middle level is tradition (connection to community) and the highest level is spiritual (this includes silence, as there is nothing you can say about God that is adequate).
- Muslims have 99 beautiful names for God.
- In thinking about God language, we could respond to the question “Would I use this word for God?” with “Yes”, “Sometimes”, “No, I don’t know it”, or “No I don’t like it”.
- Smart has defined seven dimensions of religion: mythological, doctrinal, material, ethical, cultural, social and experiential. The experiential is at the heart of the framework formed by the other six dimensions.
- Practice (going to Meeting for Worship) is at the heart of being a Quaker.
- I realised that I feel most comfortable thinking and talking about God in universalist terms, as the light within us and all living beings.
- I have no problems with using the term “God”, although I know that many Quakers do.
- This course reassured me that it is OK to struggle with our belief and how we articulate it.
Whilst the Woodbrooke course was extremely rewarding in terms of being part of a Quaker community and learning through sharing, the pilgrimage was unique in that it drew on the physical locations that early Quakers inhabited. This 5-day pilgrimage entitled In Fox’s Footsteps was held at Swarthmoor Hall in Ulverstone which had been Margaret Fell’s home after she married Thomas Fell. Although not all of the furniture in the house was the original furniture, it was all from the mid-17th century in the style that would have occupied the Fell home, and some of the items were personally owned by George Fox (including his 1 ton “travel bed” and the chest in which he kept his belongings shortly before he died in London), Margaret Fell and other early Quakers. The pilgrimage was enthusiastically led by Jenny Foot and her dog Cathra, both of whom had led many of these pilgrimages previously. It was very atmospheric to be sleeping in a room in this house and to be able to explore the hall and the grounds, and particularly to have Meeting for Worship in the room that George Fox and Margaret Fell and many other Quakers worshipped in. Swarthmoor Hall was our base, from which we travelled out to the surrounding countryside to see the historical and more modern sites of relevance to Quakers. There were 10 other Friends in the group, including Janet Duke from Melbourne.
Our exploration started at Pendle Hill, the significant landmark that George Fox climbed in May 1652 from which he saw a great people to be gathered. We were to have met Ben Pink Dandelion at the original Sawley Meeting House, but Sawley Friends had just made the difficult decision to sell the meeting house and relocate to nearly Clitheroe where the meeting house could be better utilised by the local community and have better outreach, so we met him and his daughter Florence at the village hall instead. Ben is a very inspiring speaker about Quakerism, and it was particularly significant for me to meet him given that his Swarthmoor Lecture was the focus of the VRM gathering in 2015 and we connected to him via Skype to discuss our responses to his lecture. Pendle Hill is a long hill that rises above the surrounding land. It was a memorable (and steep!) experience to climb the hill, survey the surrounds as Fox would have (although we couldn’t see Morecambe Bay as he did), have a picnic and a short Meeting for Worship before descending to the bottom. We stopped off for a tea break at Settle Meeting House, where the warden Alison gave us an overview of the history of the meeting house.
On the next day we departed for Brigflatts Meeting House, where we had the history of the meeting house and surrounding area explained to us by the warden, and had the opportunity for Meeting for worship. This meeting house dates to 1652 and it was extremely special to worship where so many local Quakers had for so many years. I had a profound sense of peace and stillness during this worship, together with the question “But what canst THOU say?” based on George Fox’s words: “You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?”. Down the lane from the Meeting House is the home that belonged to Richard Robinson, one of the prominent Seekers, where Fox stayed whilst in the area. An amusing anecdote is that after sitting up late talking with Fox, Robinson became alarmed that he appeared a bit scruffy and may have planned to rob the house, and so he locked Fox in his bedroom overnight.
From Brigflatts we travelled to Sedbergh Church, the site of one of Fox’s earliest ministries and disputations. He preached under a yew tree, and when challenged as to why he wasn’t in church, he responded that the church wasn’t a building. Then on to Firbank Fell, which is where Fox had a major preaching success: his preaching here can be considered the start of the Quaker movement. It was very atmospheric eating lunch under the outcrop termed “Fox’s pulpit”. We stopped off at the Kendall Tapestry Centre, which is part of the very large Kendall Meeting House. It was fantastic to see all of these wonderful tapestries side by side, depicting Quaker faith, practice and history. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a similar national home for our Australian Quaker tapestries!
The following day we visited Sunbrick Burial Ground where Margaret Fell and over 200 early Friends are buried, a small grassed enclosure without any grave stones, as these were considered unnecessary by early Quakers. We also travelled through beautiful purple-hued heather to Marsh Grange, Margaret Fell’s childhood home, overlooking the Duddon Estuary. This day was also a day of contemplating other faiths. We visited Conishead Priory, which was part of the Catholic church prior to the dissolution of the Catholic Church by King Henry VIII, and is now the grounds of the New Kadampa Buddhist Temple. We also passed the ruins of Furness Abbey, a significant Catholic site that fell into ruin following the dissolution. We also encountered a small stone circle at Birkrigg Common, which points to a much earlier faith. This made us realise that there have been many different faiths in this area where Quakerism developed, and highlights the important Quaker practice of supporting multifaith dialogue and activism. The man who greeted me at the Buddhist Temple stated that “All rivers lead to the sea” when talking about different Buddhist traditions, and this metaphor could also apply to different faiths. Whilst the sea for him was enlightenment, for me it would be God. We also travelled to the city of Barrow in Furness, which is a socially disadvantaged area, and home to one of the UK’s largest arms making plants. This was a prompt to question how our faith leads to outreach and action. The evening included Taizé singing at Swarthmoor Hall, which was a new experience for me.
On the final day we walked a short distance to Swarthmoor Meeting House, which Fox had built so that local friends could worship there in case Swarthmoor Hall was no longer available. The upstairs room had been a school room, and interestingly had a “raked” or sloped floor.
Some thoughts and learnings from this pilgrimage were:
- Quakerism didn’t develop in a vacuum. It formed at a time of tremendous upheaval and uncertainty during the civil wars, and was one of many alternative religious groups forming around this time. It developed in the north because this was an area rich in religious non-conformism.
- I realised that George Fox was a prophet, and I hadn’t before thought of prophets occurring after Old Testament times. He had a new vision of how we could have a direct relationship with God without intermediaries.
- I often use my head rather than my heart, but our faith is about our experience rather than thinking things through.
- Quakerism survived persecution in the 1660s because it had a strong base, largely due to the considerable organisational support of Margaret Fell.
- Ben Pink Dandelion indicated that Quakers have certainty in the following ways: 1. We still worship expecting direct encounter; 2. Silence and stillness is a practice that works well; 3. Our way of doing business works; 4. We live out our testimonies; and 5. We are certain of being uncertain, and don’t feel we have all the answers.
- This pilgrimage also brought home to me that Quakerism grew out of Christianity, and so we shouldn’t ignore our Christian roots.
- I was very moved by the strength of the early Quakers, who were prepared to suffer for their beliefs during a time of persecution.
- We are asked “What canst thou say?” It doesn’t matter what others think, believe and say, but what we do, and this is experiential.
It was fortunate timing that the online course Radical Spirituality. The Early History of the Quakers occurred shortly after I returned home, which furthered my thinking about Quaker history and theology. I have also found the following books to be enlightening reading following my travels:
- The world turned upside down by Christopher Hill
- The cradle of Quakerism: Exploring Quaker Roots in North West England by Arthur Kincaid
- In Fox’s Footsteps. A journey through three centuries by David and Anthea Boulton
- Rooted in Christianity. Open to New Light. Quaker Spiritual Diversity by Timothy Ashworth and Alex Wildwood
The following quote from TS Elliot’s poetry resonates with me regarding my faith journey:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
Perhaps I have come full circle to realising that I am no closer to knowing what I believe and what God is, but that is OK. Faith is after all a journey throughout life. The experience of connection with God is what is important. Participation in the courses at Woodbrooke and Swarthmoor Hall greatly enriched my spiritual practice and deepened my understanding of the historical origins of Quakerism and of being part of the worldwide Quaker family. I am grateful to VRM for providing some financial support towards participation in these courses.