A little history
The mid-17th century was a time of considerable political, religious and social upheaval against the backdrop of the Civil War in England. There was much dissention from the position taken by the established church which itself swung between the catholic and protestant forms. Numerous groups formed to express their religious views and it was around 1652 that the young George Fox became a focus for some of these. During his teens Fox had formed the conviction that 'the common man' could have direct access to god and that priests were not essential to act as intermediaries. He also believed that all men are equal, that none should defer to another and this of course made him and his followers very unpopular with those who saw themselves as having authority over others. This led to a great deal of persecution and both George Fox and many of his followers were often imprisoned. It was also during this time that they became known by the nickname, 'Quakers', a name by which the Religious Society of Friends is commonly known today.
Towards the end of the century legislation was passed which gave a degree of tolerance and religious freedom. Through the energetic travelling of Fox the message was spread far and wide across the country as well as across the Atlantic. The Friends, as they were becoming known, were organising themselves into local meetings and groups of meetings which meet monthly, quarterly or annually.
During the 18th century some consolidation took place. Particular codes of speech were abandoned, involvement in politics and social reform became a part of the way of life. The Friends were the first organised group to take a strong stand against slavery and were among the earliest advocates of penal reform. Other Friends were involved in improvements in education and the formation of the anti-war Peace Society.
As well as social reform Friends were earning a reputation for fair dealing in business matters. By the beginning of the 19th century they were already household names in the fields of banking, railway development and of course the manufacture of chocolate. Quaker businessmen were known to be fair employers, a notable example being the building of Bourneville Village by George Cadbury for the workers in his chocolate factory.
Quakers have carried forward into the 20th and now the 21st centuries these principles and ideals. Around the world Quakers are involved in peacemaking, social and political reform and conservation.
So what does it mean to be a Quaker?
What do Quakers believe?
• Quaker belief is rooted in Christianity. Many Quakers find inspiration in the Bible and are also open to new light from other sources including the writings of other religions.
• At the heart of Quaker belief is the idea that there is that of god in all. We hold that there is an 'inner light' which inspires and guides us in our lives. Most Quakers would agree that our Quakerism is as much a way of life as a religion.
• Within a Quaker Meeting there may be many different philosophies and beliefs. We listen to the views of others and respect those points of view even if we cannot take them for our own. We consider that no one faith or philosophy has a monopoly on truth.
• The book, 'Quaker Faith and Practice' is central to Quaker thought. It is made up of Quaker writings throughout the history of Quakerism, from the mid-17th century to very recent times. Through these writings we seek to express the breadth of Quaker belief and thought. The book also describes the structure of the Society in Britain and contains helpful information on aspects of Quaker practice.
What happens in a Quaker Meeting?
Quaker meeting houses can be in large modern buildings, rented rooms, buildings of Quaker historical significance among many others. At the heart of Quaker practice is the Meeting for Worship, usually held on a Sunday and often on a day during the week also. In Britain and some other parts of the world we gather in silence, often meeting 'in the round' to emphasize our equality.
Those more accustomed to Anglican or non-conformist churches will notice that in a Quaker meeting there is no priest, pastor or other leader. This stems from our belief that all have access to the divine without need for any intermediary. It is in the silence that we wait attentively for the prompting of the spirit. Whilst it is not easy to put into words, most Quakers would describe a 'gathered Meeting' where the depth of spiritual awareness in the meeting room is almost tangible. There is a feeling of common purpose and shared experience. Many would suggest that the silence is not an empty space but rather that it is live and vibrant.
It is out of this active silence that spoken ministry can, and often does, arise. Anyone in the meeting can, if he or she feels inspired, make a spoken contribution. Ministry is not constrained by set forms but tends, most usually, to be fairly brief — just a few minutes — and may arise from a personal experience, an insight gained from individual study, an interaction with others or many other sources. The important feature is that spoken ministry is a response to the prompting of the spirit, immediate and compelling, and not a planned or contrived 'speech'. Spoken ministry may articulate the feeling of the meeting and we can see that the ministry of silence assumes an importance equal to that of the spoken word.
It is quite usual for a Meeting for Worship to continue for about one hour and the meeting concludes when the clerk, an elder or perhaps some other 'seasoned' member, shakes hands with people nearby. Others in the meeting then shake hands with those around them and the meeting itself is ended. There will often be some announcements to be made and many meetings will then retire to another room for refreshments.