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How I Read the Bible

Irene Ni Mhaille

A Dublin Monthly Meeting Seminar on February 20, 2006.

I have to admit that I didn’t really begin to read the Bible seriously until I arrived in West Africa, as a missionary, at the age of 30. Bible stories did not nourish my early childhood, as a Roman Catholic. Yet, the Bible, as something sacred, was always in the background of my consciousness from an early age. Certain facts about it were drilled into us in secondary school – that every part of it was inspired by the Holy Ghost, that therefore it was inerrant, and that the right to interpret it belonged to the Hierarchy. But this was somewhat off-putting and intimidating and since I wasn’t allowed to interpret it, it remained remote and irrelevant during my growing up, formative years.

When I decided to become a missionary in Africa at the age of 21, the daily reading of the Divine Office was part of my life. The Divine Office was Bible-centred but was chanted in Latin, five times a day. We covered the 150 psalms of the Bible each week. This chant had a beauty of its own and as I got to know the meaning of some of the psalms, I found them spiritually up-lifting and they provided a welcome respite in the midst of a busy working day. But because The Divine Office was chanted, not recited or simply read, and because it was in Latin, it remained remote and somewhat on a higher level to ordinary daily life, for me, so the temptation to enter into any kind of personal dialogue with the text was zero. I couldn’t really call that, reading the Bible.

But that was about to come. Nigeria where I worked first, as a missionary, was a British colony and the educational system was British. “O” Level Scripture formed part of the curriculum in Second level schools. As well as teaching her own subjects, each teacher had to take one religion class. I suddenly found myself in a crisis situation . Before I understood the Bible myself, I had to start teaching it! The idea was that I was supposed to present the text and use a Commentary to explain it. But any teacher knows that there is much more to teaching than taking hold of words on paper. It is particularly difficult to teach the Bible in a trans-cultural setting and if the students are intelligent and curious as many Nigerians are, the task is full of landmines. Meeting that challenge was the single biggest influence on how I read the Bible today.

Africa taught me, very quickly, and in a very stark way, that the Bible is basically a non-Western book. that favours imagery over facts. Through the insights of African clergy, laypeople and the students I taught, I began to understand that the spiritual message of Scripture is expressed in story and in symbol and can’t be taken literally. There is nothing trivial about this – quite the reverse. Since we don’t have human language to express inner reality and to talk to each other about the presence of, and the struggle with, the divine, deep in our own hearts, we must turn to images and stories. The Bible is a treasure house of these images of uprootedness, wandering, exile, and of arrival, new birth, yeast of risen life. These images echo our own spiritual yearnings and remind us all, young and old, that we are on a very special journey and that our destiny lies ahead. In this symbolic world , I became aware of the closeness of Old and New Testaments and of the way in which the images, symbols and stories of the Old, echo, resound, reverberate within the Old and are re-interpreted and re-echo throughout the New.

Stories, unlike literal facts, can be opened up into millions of meanings that enrich each other without any conflict as we each interpret them differently. This seemed to be the opposite to what I was taught in my childhood, when a literal, single, clear, inerrant meaning was given to much of the Bible. My conflict with the religion of my birth was starting! I was beginning to grow up spiritually and to realise that I could own my own thoughts about what the Bible might mean! A dangerous revelation for a Roman Catholic in the early 60s! This led me into a whole re-construction of the received doctrines of my youth. I had to ask myself, what does the Bible mean when it says that Jesus is “the son of God “or that “Jesus rose from the dead?” Through these questions, I was led gradually to find the human Jesus, the Jew, a man who with the help of the Hebrew Scriptures, came to understood the full meaning of living by God’s Spirit and who showed me that there is no greater goal for any human being.

Then, The Second Vatican Council took place, in the Catholic Church, in themid 60s and this allowed for a new openness towards Scripture and to accepting a lot of the critical studies of Scripture that were undertaken over several previous decades by Scripture scholars. However in 1967, the Civil War started in Nigeria and all missionary teachers had to leave. It was 10 years before I got back again.

The 10 years out of Nigeria gave me an opportunity to study what the Scripture scholars were saying. Just as I had found the human Jesus in Africa, now I was to find out, through the insights of Scripture scholars, what a human document the Bible was. As a result of historical criticism, we know now that both Old and New Testament have undergone a history of human transmission. Our previous understanding rested on historical misconceptions. Not only is the transmission of the text more complicated than we thought, but like the Kingdom of God ,as described by Jesus in the parable of the wheat and cockle, the Bible harbours evil as well as good. It must be read critically and with discernment, like everything else in life. Far from destroying my Faith in the Bible, I felt that this led me into a far more convincing way of understanding it and vindicated much that I had learnt in Nigeria, about a non-literal reading. For Quakers who always practiced a spiritual reading of Scripture, the impact of modern scholarship was less important but for Catholics, it questioned the whole authority structure of Biblical interpretation. I am now convinced that if we make false claims for the Bible, to-day, we do the Bible itself the greatest disservice.

The present debate about homosexuality is a case in point. Some Christians condemn homosexuality today on Biblical grounds while ignoring present day understanding of sexual orientation. The Book of Leviticus, for example, condemns homosexuality and it also says we should stone adulterers to death. Further, it says that women (but says nothing of men) who enter marriage in a non-virginal state should be stoned to death. But why if we no longer take Scripture literally about stoning adulterers to death, do some Christians concentrate on homosexuality for this literal interpretation of the Word of God? The answer to this question is, I believe, that the issue is not about homosexuality, as such, but is rather about how we read the Bible. Some continue to find ready-made, literal truths therein. But, surely the whole Hebrew/Christian religion, in its prophetic strain, is a gradual progression in understanding that the inner law of love replaces the law that is written on tablets of stone? Thus Jesus words about the woman taken in adultery and his similar words to the crowds, “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” (Luke 12;57). We, women, moreover, have put up with a patriarchal assessment of what is right and wrong for centuries, in the name of Biblical truth so we can hardly be expected to turn to the Bible today for a readymade solution to our moral problems!

And so is the issue of peace in relation to the Bible an ambiguous claim. The Bible has some of the most up-lifting passages about peace : it is also the originator of religious hate. We cannot, it seems to me, reclaim the one without the other. In the Old Testament, the Hebrews called on God to curse their Canaanite pagan neighbours : There are several passages in the New Testament, notably in the Gospels of Matthew and John, in the Book of Revelation and Acts of Apostles, that have set in train an anti-Jewish polemic. I feel that if we become aware of Christian hatred of Jews in our own Christian tradition, then we can understand how any religion demonises another in its search for identity and how difficult is the way of peace. Without condoning recent Muslim violence in relation to cartoons of Muhammad, I can begin to understand it a little if I try to see it, in the context of the wider picture of religious violence of the past against Muslims, in which we Christians have, shamefully, been a part. Good and evil, like the wheat and cockle of the Gospel parable, grow together. This, for me, is the context of understanding peace as a constant struggle.

Finally, when I retired and settled in Ireland I found myself back in an authoritarian Church and I didn’t fit. Since I joined the Quaker community, I feel an extraordinary openness to The Spirit, that not only allows me to continue my spiritual journey, but challenges me to deepen it. I don’t find this an easy journey but it is really worthwhile. I am constantly amazed to find that George Fox who lived before the beginning of modern scriptural scholarship, was so much part of its insights. From what I have read so far of George Fox, he understood the Biblical notion of The Word of God as not just a word on paper but a living, creative, communication between Divine and Human. He called it “the light of Christ within”. The structures for worship that he set up in the 17th century, allow me ,today, to be faithful to new insights about the Bible, to listen and be enriched by the individual insights of those around me while at the same time living in the real world of modern Ireland and for that I am so grateful.

The stranger who lives within thy gates – IYM 09

A PDF of this lecture is available for download here.

Public Address given by John Dunston at Ireland Yearly Meeting
22 July 2009

Friends, Good evening, and thank you for that warm welcome.

What a privilege it is to be here. Yet at the same time, I could have good reason to feel something of an intruder at Ireland Yearly Meeting. For it is likely that everyone here is a Quaker, or if not everyone, then almost. Yet I am not a Quaker (though I believe I count as an Attender in England). Indeed, I’m Jewish, and deeply touched to have been invited to give this Public Lecture.

Anyone not familiar with the notion of Friendship among Quakers might be forgiven for thinking that just now, I am myself the stranger within thy gates. But all my experience of living and working amongst Friends over nearly twenty years has led me to the conclusion that Quakers, rather like Jews in fact, have a particular understanding of what it means to be the stranger, the other, and that as a result, they have an instinct for overcoming “otherness”. The concept of the stranger, among Quakers, becomes itself strange and almost unknown.

I want to thank especially our Friend Alan Pim, Clerk of Ireland Yearly Meeting, whom I had the great good fortune to meet in April 1990. Only one week earlier, I had started work as Head of Sibford, another of the Quaker schools in England, and it raised a few Quakerly eyebrows when within days I was off to Ireland for the biannual Conference of Heads and Deputies of Quaker Schools, held that year at Waterford. Alan and Sue very kindly put me up, the warmth and affection of their welcome immediately dispelling any anxiety I might have had, as a green, young Head, of being a stranger within their gates. I certainly never thought that one day I would be Head of Alan’s alma mater (you probably know that after some years at Newtown School, he came to Leighton Park in 1954). Alan of course made a most distinguished contribution to Leighton Park through his quiet, authoritative leadership; he was also, it seems, extremely agreeable company. Some things never change.

It is a privilege for me to address you this evening. There was an era when real contact between Jews and Christians only arose if it was time for another pogrom as the Crusades swept through Germany on their way to the Holy Land; later in the Middle Ages, the infamous disputations on the relative merits of Judaism and Christianity were destined only ever to have one outcome; much later still, Quakers themselves were repeatedly imprisoned for their heretical interpretation of the Christian message. I could go on, but I need not. For the very act of inviting the Jewish Head of a Quaker School to address Yearly Meeting exemplifies the openness and tolerance that characterise the Society. So I thank you for the opportunity to be with you today, and to share some reflections from what you might call an outsider on the inside, reflections on what Judaism and Quakerism have to offer a world which has still not learned how to love the stranger in its midst. And towards the end, I will introduce you to Nathan.

I had the good fortune to be spending much of the spring term this year in Oxford on sabbatical. So, having only been back at school for a matter of weeks, it seems right to begin with one brief tale out of school. Some of you will know of the Catholic boarding school which had a splendid refectory. Each day the boys would queue up for their lunch, occasionally trying to sneak an extra portion of chips or ice cream from under the nose of the caterers. One day, the large bowl of apples was adorned with a notice from one of the monks, which said simply: One apple only per pupil. Remember – God is watching. A little further along the counter was a huge basket of Danish pastries, into which one enterprising pupil had clearly stuck a corresponding notice: Take as many as you want. God’s watching the apples.

That seems to me to sum up admirably the theme of Yearly Meeting this year, or at least to reflect the qualities of the quotation from Galatians on the cover of the programme:  The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Those boys were clearly interested not only in the fruit of the spirit, but in more material fruit as well; they loved their food, took joy in securing extra portions of it, found peace in not being discovered, and gave the monks the opportunity to have their patience tried; their own generosity caused them to share extra pastries with their friends rather than leave them behind, to be perhaps thrown away; in this way, they showed both their faithfulness to the idea of not wasting the earth’s resources, and their self-control in keeping a straight face until back in the dormitory. Gentleness was harder to reconcile, until I realised that it was followed by and, the two words together being clearly a coded anagram of the monks’ desperate prayer to the Almighty on a Friday afternoon at the end of a tough Year 9 RE lesson: Send ten angels.


That anecdote takes me quite neatly to the substance of this address. I want to reflect on what education means to me as a Jew, and how Judaism responds to the concept of the stranger in our midst, and to the education of the young (but not only of the young), which has always been a spiritual endeavour of prime importance for Jews. No matter how harsh, or how unremittingly abject, were the material circumstances in which Jews were often forced to live, it was obligatory for the community to provide a school. It is as if the very faith of the Jews has been somehow inextricably bound up with education. In the central prayer of Judaism, the Shema, Moses himself requires of the Israelites that (you)

teach these things diligently to your children, speaking of them when you sit at home and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise up (Deuteronomy 6:7).

Education is indeed the very basis of any free society. We should not forget that before the invention of the alphabet, knowledge – and with it, power – were closely concentrated among those at the top of the hierarchical tree. One’s status and position in society were largely determined at birth. But once the alphabet had arrived, a system of using only twenty to thirty letters or characters, the concept of writing became available to all. With it came the spread of power, and dignity, and equality. It became much more credible then to claim that everyone was created in God’s image. And if that really was the case, where better to develop that understanding among the young than, ultimately, in a school?

Let me share a little of my family background with you. It may help you to understand why for me the concept of the stranger in thy midst is both permanent and constantly shifting in its definition.

How prophetic is that verse from Psalm 137: How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? Throughout their long history, the Jews have found themselves repeatedly having to pick up the thread of their lives after expulsion from one home or another. Each time, and in every age, they have returned to this question, which has become symbolic not just of their music and worship, but indeed of their daily living and very survival.

The late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries were witness to an unprecedented increase in the number of refugees seeking to escape persecution and worse by fleeing to other parts of the world. This, in turn, created more widespread challenges among the already domiciled populations as well: the challenges of how to welcome the newcomers and then to live alongside them.

I am reminded of the story of the Viennese Jew who, in 1939, entered a travel agent’s office and said, “I want to buy a steamship ticket.” “Where to?” the clerk asks. “Let me look at your globe, please.” The Jew starts examining the globe. Every time he suggests a country, the clerk raises an objection. “This one requires a visa……… This one isn’t admitting any more Jews ……… The waiting list for that one is ten years……..” Finally, the Jew looks up. “Pardon me, but do you have another globe?”

The Jewish historical experience has a real resonance for this new era in our human relationships. From it, wider lessons may be learned: about the relationship between what we commonly call church and state, and more particularly, and with special relevance for young people in schools, how that experience may be drawn upon to help generate a tolerant, constructive and mutually beneficial approach to “the other”. How we deal with “the other”, the stranger, is likely to be a determining factor in the very future and survival of our world.

The Jews are a people who, for thousands of years, have been seen as “the other”. Yet the world continues to be shaped by their prophetic calls for human freedom, their unique mission, and their unflinching commitment to the one-ness of God and to the moral code deriving from that. The Jews have a particular responsibility, not only to survive (already one of the most baffling achievements of any people in history), but to keep alive that vision for the sake of the world. And a big part of that vision is not only the ideal of peace, but the recognition that education of the young is the prerequisite for achieving it. It is, as we know, through education that we come to understand the benefits of co-operation rather than conflict, of working together to achieve a common goal and a mutual respect. We need prophets as well as pragmatists.

You will all be familiar with that visionary passage in Isaiah: The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them…… (Ch.11) Three points about that short quotation: one is that it’s a fine ideal, inspirational and good, but it hasn’t happened yet, and, given the century we have lived through, is unlikely to any time soon. (Though you probably know the story of the zoo keeper who was able, with great satisfaction, to show visitors a cage in which a lion and a lamb were living peacefully together. “How do you manage that?” the visitors regularly asked. “Easy,” replied the keeper. “We just put a new lamb in every day.”)

The second point is that a few verses later, Isaiah continues: They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. “The knowledge of the Lord” – the essential requirement for the age of peace, and a recognition that such knowledge may take many forms, if it is to cover the earth.

And thirdly, the prophetic vision needs a practical programme of action to he realised. As I pointed out at the start, look how far we have already come, but here’s a passage from the Talmud, the rabbinic commentary on the Torah, which takes forward the ideal of peace in a devastatingly simple way: For the sake of the ways of peace, the poor of the heathens should be supported as we support the poor of Israel, the sick of the heathens should be visited as we visit the sick of Israel, and the dead of the heathens should be buried as we bury the dead of Israel. Our responsibility is to the world.

I was born a Jew, and despite a not unusual drifting into a smug scepticism while at university, I remain a Jew. I belong to the progressive Reform tradition which began in the German-speaking lands of the eighteenth century, and represent the first generation of my family to be born in England for some time. My parents fled there from Austria as refugees (they knew better than anyone what it was to be suddenly labelled as “the other”) after Hitler’s Anschluss in 1938.

Research into the family’s history has so far stretched back some nineteen generations to Rabbi Eleasar, who lived around 1450 in the German town of Neuss on the banks of the Rhine, writing poetry and lamentations on the destruction of the Temple. It is not impossible that a mere five generations before Rabbi Eleasar, his ancestors (and mine) had been among the Jewish community of England when they were all expelled by Edward I in 1290. (The Jews were not allowed back into England for just over 350 years, arriving in 1656. What a coincidence that this milestone in Anglo-Jewish history should have occurred at exactly the moment that Quakerism was emerging. In fact, it’s probably not a coincidence at all, but that would be the subject of another lecture.) I take particular pleasure in knowing that Eleasar’s grandson Jakob was the schoolmaster in the Jewish ghetto – the Judengasse – in Frankfurt early in the sixteenth century. For five and a half centuries after Jakob lived in Frankfurt, my family could have been found moving around in central Europe for reasons that are, sadly, all too familiar, settling by turns in areas we have come to know as Bohemia, Moravia, Transylvania, Romania, the Holy Roman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, and even some of the little states and principalities that, less than 140 years ago, were for the first time to become an entity known as Germany.

That catalogue of national and imperial labels is a reminder of the transience of political reality and the fragility of national identity. It also begs questions: when does the stranger in our midst stop being the stranger? How long does it take? How many other strangers have to arrive before the indigenous locals stop being regarded as strangers? How much of that perception is down to the passing of time, or to integration and assimilation, or to primitive prejudice?

I grew up in a home that felt European. I heard German spoken by my parents and by their friends. I learned directly what it meant for them all to have made their life in a new country, and how they tackled the eternal dilemma of the refugee, balancing the need to integrate and feel part of the new host community, with the desire not to lose the bearings provided by their own upbringing, values and culture. And even more acutely, what to convey to the next generation, so that it might be able to avoid the label of “stranger”?

When the Jews began to settle in Babylon after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, they had a major decision to make. Would they establish a new home for themselves in this new land, learn the language, and immerse themselves in its society? Or would they regard their time as a temporary sojourn, of indeterminate length, and build a fence around their lives and activities in order to retain the familiar customs and language of their homeland? Which language and culture would reflect their main identity: Chaldean, or Hebrew? In the end, of course, both options were adopted by different groups.

The dilemma, however, is instructive. It has resonance among other groups which have found themselves in a parallel predicament, and with whose diasporas we are familiar today (Chinese, Indian, and Armenian, for example). The Jewish experience is instructive on two counts in particular: the length of time during which they have repeatedly witnessed to this dilemma and had to address it – around 2,500 years – and their unique sense of mission which derives, directly, from the exhortation of Jeremiah to

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (29:7)

This meant that the Jews in a strange land had a duty to live in and for that land, to serve it and to contribute to the well-being of those who had now become their neighbours. They needed, also, to have something to say and sufficient numbers through whom to say it, much as the Quakers did in Pennsylvania in more recent history.

The Jews had to cope with complete dislocation when the Temple was destroyed, but used the opportunity to create one of the greatest innovations in all religious history: the synagogue, an institution where what had previously been considered the essentials of communication with God – priests, altar, Temple hierarchy, animal sacrifice – were found to be, after all, dispensable, rooted in another era that was now gone. The very word “synagogue”, deriving from Greek, or “Beth haKnesset” in Hebrew, simply means “house of assembly”, or meeting house – hardly an unfamiliar term among Quakers, and that, too, is no coincidence. They created a new way of living a Jewish life in a strange land, a way of retaining their dignity and their witness, as the land came to feel first less strange and, in time, their own. In Babylon they established a great centre of learning, whose academies and institutions were to have a profound influence on the subsequent development of Jewish thought and on its ethical contribution to the world.

In his visionary book “The Home We Build Together” (required reading, I would suggest, for all those engaged in the education of the young or in the attempt to create a more peaceful world where no-one can feel any longer a stranger in the midst of others), the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, recounts an experiment carried out in 1954 by Muzafer Sherif, known as “The Robbers’ Cave”. It relates to two groups of boys brought to a summer camp in Oklahoma. Neither group knew the other, but spent the first week separately on team building exercises. After that, they came together through competitions, in which each team either won or lost: this generated much animosity, name-calling and the like, and the two groups even objected to having meals together. The next stage involved shared watching of films and joint social events, designed to break down the barriers: in the event, these became even more obstructive, and the aggression continued. Finally, a number of problems were put to the groups that threatened each group equally, for example a blocked water supply system, which they worked together to repair, or finding the money to hire future films once camp funds had run out. In each case, the two groups worked together, and celebrated together once they had overcome the problem together.

Of course, such outcomes have been identified in other sources and experiments too. It may not surprise a gathering like this, particularly of those engaged in the search to find the good – that of God – in everyone. But the study very honestly recognises that, although our natural inclination to reject, criticise, vilify, exclude, and eventually demonise “the other” seems to be an inescapable part of human nature, it can be overcome.

It can be overcome not by fine words and lofty ideals alone, though they certainly help, but by action together, by working on a common project that will be of benefit to both. In modern parlance, it’s a no-brainer, and we need to keep repeating this message which lies at the heart of all true religion and which is the outcome of all true education.

Let us think for a moment of what happened only a few months ago in London. The leaders of the G20 nations, including the most powerful men and women on the planet, were gathering at their summit for the team photograph, before spending the rest of the day saving the world for the next generation and future generations. We can only wish them success and God’s guidance in that endeavour. In schools, our lives are spent with the young, who will have to inherit the financial disaster we are already bequeathing them. As if they didn’t have enough to cope with in their childhood in various parts of the world: over a hundred million children have no schooling at all; by the middle of the next decade, universal primary education will still not be available in around a third of the countries of the world; in Somalia less than one child in five of primary age goes to school; the nine countries with the poorest record of primary schooling have less than three quarters of children attending, and they are all in Africa; fourteen of the fifteen countries with the highest rates of infant mortality (all over one hundred per thousand live births) are in Africa, and the other is Afghanistan; life expectancy is below age 50 in nineteen countries, of which eighteen are in Africa, and the other is Afghanistan. Isn’t it time we recognised even here the stranger in our midst?

Listen to the stories of Ben Okafor, a former child soldier from Nigeria, in order to begin to understand a little more about what lies in store for some children, even today. He has worked with all the Quaker schools in England, sensing the common purpose in trying to create a world in which children themselves are no longer the victims of “otherhood”.

How instantly this slur on our human race and human dignity could be alleviated by only a fraction of the millions, billions and trillions that have been instantly found by the G20 to prop up – as they had to – the world’s financial system in order to rescue its economic system. It is, just, possible that out of the current crisis may come a better understanding of our mutual interdependence, and not before time. You here, in this gathering of Quakers, in a country that has suffered from more than its fair share of “otherhood” and persecution, are the ones who, above all, can help the young to rise above their differences, and to discover the astonishing gifts that our world could offer, drawing spiritual strength even from adversity.

When my father had arrived in England as a young man, with little but the clothes he stood up in, he was interned, along with hundreds of other Jewish refugees from Austria and Germany,– as an enemy alien – on the Isle of Man. It’s hard to imagine how they must have felt. He was to lose his parents and his sister and much of his family in the camps of the Holocaust, and found himself in England, in that country of refuge, behind barbed wire himself. Some despaired. But most did not. In that camp was born the Amadeus String Quartet, and indeed a university was established by those writers and academics, musicians and philosophers, scientists and mathematicians, who had escaped Nazi-occupied Europe. With scarcely pencil or paper between them, they ran a programme of over forty lectures a week, reflecting a real triumph of the spirit. One of these great men told a parable that shows how limited can be our understanding of what could be in store for us. It’s recounted in a book by his son, Ben Zander, where we hear of four young men at the bedside of their father, who is dying. The father manages to convey to them that a vast treasure is buried out in their fields, but not exactly where, despite their pleas. Straight after his death, the sons are out, digging away deeply and energetically from one end of the estate to the other – to no avail. They find nothing. The next season, however, the farm yields the best harvest it has ever done.

Isn’t it wonderful how, in the most surprising circumstances, little miracles can occur? Of course, they’re not great miracles, the sort that established religions love to bandy around like credentials of spiritual respectability; they’re the little miracles that the young in our schools often surprise us with. Certainly that’s true within the silence and ministry of Quaker worship.


And what do Quaker schools have to say about the stranger in our midst? Indeed, what does it mean when a school calls itself Quaker? We all know the importance of signs and symbols. Most religions have a generous helping of such things, aids to worship perhaps, or to communicating with God, or to expressing the inexpressible. That, I suppose, is already one area where Jews and Quakers would understand each other particularly well, since their places of worship – the synagogue and the meeting house – are invariably devoid of any form of representation of the divine.

You won’t be surprised to learn that many people, on coming to see Leighton Park, or any of the other Quaker schools, for the first time, wonder what it’s all about. They’re normally familiar with the cereals which, of course, have nothing to do with Quakers, but everything to do with the fact that the Quaker “brand” was regarded as a good or unique selling point. There must be many Irish examples of this, but within England, the biscuits of Huntley and Palmer (from Leighton Park’s town of Reading), the chocolate of the Cadbury’s and the Fry’s, the shoes of the Clark family and the mustard made by Reckitt and Colman, the table water biscuits from Carr’s and the matches of Bryant and May (which until not so long ago, I believe, included the words The Quaker Match Company on each box) – all these represented something different from the norm. These were reliable products, not made by the exploitation of human labour and not unreasonably priced. They came from companies that treated their workers well, unusually so in the industrial climate of the nineteenth century particularly. Their economic success did not go unnoticed.

There exist many earlier examples of how Quakers, strangers living within the gates of establishment society, had been perceived, and not always positively. James Walvin, in his fascinating study of the material success and moral underpinning of Quaker businesses, quotes a late seventeenth century rival who wrote bitterly that Quakers had Grip’d Mammon as hard as any of their Neighbours; and now call Riches a Gift and a Blessing from God. Yet true it is that many of the values that lay at the heart of those great Quaker businesses have now been accepted as good business practice worldwide. The language used may be different, but the understanding of what is fundamentally important is not – it may be rare to find a multi-national referring to that of God in their workforce, but it would be no less rare to find one that did not value its employees as its most vital resource. How gratifying to find that the practices of the strangers have now become the customs of the majority. We should all take heart from that.

Quaker schools, too, dared to go where education had not gone before. In their adventurous early approach to the curriculum, and more recently in their ability to welcome all young people as equals, whatever their background, lie two of the distinguishing features that enable the spirituality and tolerance of young people to be developed for the benefit of everyone, and for communities to be created in which there are, quite simply, no strangers. Many of those features jump out as negatives initially: aspects of educational provision or religious provision that you might readily expect to find in a school, but won’t in a Quaker school, such as military training (an all-too common feature of many English public schools), a strongly hierarchical structure, a regular framework of liturgy or even a chapel or a chaplain. It would be too easy, but wrong, to equate the absence of those elements with somehow a denial of something essential for the educational or physical wellbeing of the pupils, but the evidence exists to show that it’s actually the reverse. Quakers have always been very good at questioning the accepted line, the received wisdom, and at asking “Why?” or even more saliently, “Why not?”, questions which have driven astonishing achievements in social reform over the years. I will refer to a third challenging question, “So what?”, later on.

Let me put this into context. What on earth were Quakers up to when they began their radical re-interpretation of Christianity and the Truth it represented in the middle of the seventeenth century? Just think how far we have come, since the days of the English Revolution that gave birth to Quakerism. That was a time, if ever there was one, when dire consequences were attached to being a stranger, a member of the wrong tribe, the other, whether Royalist in the face of supporters of the Commonwealth, or vice versa, or indeed a Catholic or a Protestant in the wrong company. How brave, how far-sighted, were those groups which sprang up at the time, small, religious groups, visionary and sectarian, of whom the Quakers are the great survivors. Yet they could not reconcile what they saw as the teachings of Jesus with the contemporary practice of the established Church or indeed of any of the Church hierarchies. Professed faith and actual practice did not match. Violence and Christianity did not, to their mind, sit comfortably together. One remark of George Fox remains as apposite today as it was then. In the vernacular of the time: Christ saith this, and the apostles say this – but what canst thou say? It is this focus on the individual’s response to God that seems almost to transcend the clay-footed development of dogmatic, institutionalised religion, but which at the same time ensured that Quakers would always be seen as outsiders. At considerable personal risk, they stood up for the truth, for a truth they perceived as submerged beneath the waves of hatred and violence that engulfed the land. And that truth has been expressed by Quakers consistently over the centuries, drawing the attention of mankind to our common heritage with a profound humility and a readiness to accept – or at least to hear openly – the views and insights of those with whom one disagrees, whether in large things or small. Duncan Wood, a pupil and teacher at Leighton Park School, expressed it well in the 1960s: National, racial and religious differences, he wrote, have not destroyed our common humanity but they have given it different faces which may tempt us to forget that all things that really matter, life and death, birth, love, joy and sorrow, poetry and prayer, are common to us all. In the end, there is no better starting point for the salvation and healing of the world, or “Tikkun Olam”, as Jewish tradition would put it in Hebrew, and the genuine welcoming of the stranger within our gates.

Of all those groups from the time of the English Civil War, it is only really the Quakers who have survived to our day. One reason may well be the persecution which they suffered continuously. As we know, there’s nothing like a bit of persecution to help a minority thrive and survive. Yet Quakers never lost their self-esteem, recognising that we need to show ourselves a degree of love, because until we can do that, what chance have we of loving our neighbour? Here again there’s a point of contact with Jewish teaching, since that great commandment that we should love our neighbour as ourselves appears first in Leviticus 19:18, in scriptures with which Jesus would have been very familiar as a practising Pharisaic Jew. He would also have known the even more poignant exhortation in the Old Testament, later in the same chapter of Leviticus: The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt – a reminder of the epic journey from slavery to freedom that has inspired humanity for three and a half millennia.

(By the way, did you know the three reasons that prove Jesus was Jewish? Well, by the time he was thirty, he was still unmarried and living with his mother; he went into his father’s business; and his mother thought he was God.)

Let me come now to the elements of Quakerism that I see as fundamental to its witness and to its vision of inclusiveness, the antidote to rejection of the stranger, and which all have a daily, almost tangible impact on the schools which espouse Quaker values: worship, non-violence and social reform.

The heart of Quakerism is of course our coming together for worship: meeting for worship is where we start, and where we stop. We start there, because we come together in silence, in the presence of God, not with a shopping list of prayers and requests for an already pretty busy deity, but with an open heart and mind, ready to listen for what God may be requiring of us. It’s surprising how often ministry can trigger a whole chain of thoughts and even other ministry, from pupils of so many backgrounds. What George Gorman called the amazing fact of Quaker worship, becomes a reality among hundreds of young people each week, of whom only a tiny proportion might be from Quaker families.

That is the miracle. It remains for me as Head a constant challenge: how to convey the experience of four hundred young people, teenagers, from a score of nationalities and more than a handful of religions, including also a significant and healthy number of doubters and out and out atheists, all ready to contribute to the silence of the meeting by their own silence, and, perhaps even more remarkable, to listen with empathy and openness to the very personal testimony that often characterises ministry from their peers. No giggling, no shuffling and shifting, no provocative counter-ministry: just the proof of the good in young people that can be released when, for all their different religious, racial, national, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds and idiosyncrasies, which in other environments might be the cause of mirth and mockery, they are simply accepted as an indispensable part of a community of equals. No strangers within our gates here: we’re either all strangers, or none of us is. It redefines what a school might be. As The Good Schools Guide wrote recently of one of the Quaker schools (though it could, I think, have been written of any of them): More schools would do well to follow (this) model…. We found it one of the most distinctive schools we’d visited and came away with a renewed sense of hope for the future.

The Quaker imperative of responding to “that of God” in everyone creates an environment of tolerance, honesty and integrity that makes for a distinctive type of school community, one in which, from the outset, it is accepted that God may be sought in ways other than our own, ways whose insights might even have something valuable to teach us. And the worship of God, based on silent listening and waiting, is a spiritual experience that draws together those of many different faiths, and offers a non-material place of peace and a refuge to those who deny a faith and to those who feel they cannot yet know if they have a faith or not, a not uncommon position for the young to take.

Moving now to non-violence and peace, we all know that they can be rather like motherhood and apple pie. Who would admit to being against them? It’s rather like the constant drive in our schools to “raise standards”. I’ve yet to come across a local authority or to hear from the government that they are working hard to lower standards. But for Quakers, peace is something much more fundamental than an absence of war. Far from retreating into a disingenuous utopia, they have found ways to use their energies to alleviate suffering, without taking one side and thereby rejecting the other.

Up in the hills above Belfast, directly overlooking the urban border between the Catholic and Protestant enclaves of the city, stands a little house, quite isolated, known simply as Quaker Cottage. Here, Quakers ran a crèche for mothers and toddlers from both sides of the divide, whose men folk would be spending their days or nights as paramilitaries. While the fathers did what real men do, the mothers – Catholic and Protestant – met and talked in the cottage on the hillside. And their little children played together with “the other”, too. It was a small but significant gesture, a reflection of the Quaker peace testimony in action.

When I visited Quaker Cottage and saw these toddlers, I was reminded of the story of the starfish, which I’m sure you all know. Walking along the sea shore, which was covered in marooned starfish, a man came across a woman who was bending down to throw them, one by one, back into the sea. “This beach must have thousands upon thousands of starfish on it,” he said to her. “What difference can it possibly make if you save that tiny number?” She smiled at him, picked up another and tossed it into the sea. “It’ll make a difference to that one.”

But how do we translate such high ideals into a school context? We all know how much schools generally pride themselves on their “good discipline”, when what they really mean is tight control. Real discipline, for children or for adults, but best learned of course as a child, comes from within. It is only through self-discipline that true tolerance of the other can be achieved. Here is a passage by John Reader, former Head of Great Ayton School: The Quaker emphasis in education probably lies in non-violence, in participation and in caring. Not only to run the school without violence, but to produce young people who will feel a concern to reduce the level of violence in the world. Not to impose the aims of the school on the pupils, but to lead them to their own acceptance of these aims, to a share, however, small, in its running and a pleasure in its successes, to find that of God in every pupil.

Finding that of God in every pupil, and then, even more importantly, responding to it, is the challenge which, when met, enables a school to dispense with some of those trappings which might be thought essential to the smooth maintenance of order and discipline, replacing them with the trust which is so often denied to young people, and which enables the very concept of the stranger to disappear. If it can vanish from a school community, then there is yet hope that it can, one day, disappear from the wider world.

Now, social reform. Does anyone here know who is on the back of our current English £5 banknote? You may already know that it’s Elizabeth Fry. She was a brave woman, going into women’s prisons, which were at the time unimaginably awful, to read the Bible to the women and to teach them to read for themselves. You’ll see if you look closely that there is a picture of just that happening, not only to the women prisoners, but to their children as well, who, it seems, regularly had to accompany their mothers to jail if there was nowhere else for them to go. Elizabeth Fry led the cause of prison reform. Her work is not yet done, but derived directly from the Quaker testimony to equality, equality of worth of every human being before God, whatever state they were in, and however they might have lost direction in their lives. That natural humanity shines through. It’s the sort of vision that young people rightly have. They want to make a difference. They have no hesitation in telling the adults what’s wrong with the world they’re going to inherit, and they want to do something about it. They don’t see the differences between people that adults see. How much we could learn from them about welcoming the stranger.

Two years ago, we marked in England the 200th anniversary of the Bill that was supposed to abolish the slave trade. It is – for obvious, establishment, reasons – little known that nine out of the twelve members of the Committee leading the movement were Quakers. We know all too well that slavery has not yet been abolished throughout the world. There is much work to be done. The recent visit of President Obama to the coastal slave stations in Ghana could yet represent a turning point in the world’s understanding of our human interdependence. Not for nothing have he and his wife made it possible for their daughters to have a Quaker education.

A Quaker education: I’ve tried to give an indication of what it can mean and how it can help young people see the stranger not as the other but as a friend. Remember, though, that in most Quaker schools perhaps no more than 5% of pupils are in fact from Quaker backgrounds. All of us involved in Quaker education find ourselves trying to listen, to explore ways of resolving conflict peacefully, to be unremittingly hopeful in creating community in our schools and in the wider world, and in welcoming “the other”.

Let me share with you, to end this part of my reflections, the insight of Caroline Graveson on what the school curriculum should include:

I may reach God through Keats, you by Beethoven, and a third through Einstein. Should not education to the Christian mean just this – enlarging and cultivating the country of God; and the subjects on any school timetable be thought of as avenues to an increasingly fuller life in God?

“The country of God…..An increasingly fuller life in God”: Caroline Graveson sums it up admirably, for the urge to religious belief must be one of the strongest of all human urges, one that has withstood the test of the most ruthlessly atheistic of dictatorships, as well as the ferocious efforts of those who have sought, and continue to seek, to subvert the innate goodness of the deistic concept. The terrible suffering inflicted by those of one faith on those of another, and even by those of different branches of the same faith on each other, has hardly helped mankind to perceive the truth. The fuller life in God has the capacity to incorporate many interpretations, reflecting the story so well told by Gerald Priestland of the climbers on the mountain, on several faces of it, who, only when reaching the summit, discover each other at the same time as they discover that the view from the top is the same, whichever route they chose to get there. In our increasingly fractured society today, where just now Moslems, particularly, are on the receiving end of so much suspicion and hatred, and demonised even as they dwell peacefully among us, we would do well to remind ourselves of the notion of the country of God. For if God is to mean anything, we must recognise that those whom we perceive to be the stranger are also made in His image. What human arrogance it is, to imagine that we can define the image of God. This may just be the age in which we can find the humility to challenge that centuries-old assumption.

I once had a set of prospective parents visiting the school. Towards the end of our meeting, they clearly had one unspoken question which they were diffident, even embarrassed, about asking. In the end, they did. “Look,” said the mother, “It’s like this. I’m Protestant……” “And I’m a Catholic,” interrupted the father. “Is that going to be a problem here?” Where else should their son go, I replied, with a Protestant mother and a Catholic father, but to a Quaker school with a Jewish Headmaster?


Now, earlier this year, I found something in the press which seemed to have a certain resonance for this particular gathering. It was the haunting advert for one of the world’s great wristwatches, which claims that you never actually own [this particular watch], you merely take care of it for the next generation. And that’s surely it. This is what it’s all about. What we’re all engaged in is not just preserving lifeless technology, but handing on to the next generation our spiritual understanding of the world and its people in good health, having perhaps contributed a little to its earthly development. When I asked the question “So what?” earlier on, this is what I am referring to. What difference does it all make, in the end?

One answer was provided for me just a few weeks ago by one of our parents, a Ugandan mother working at the United Nations in Vienna, married to an Austrian. On a recent visit to the UK, she was subjected to the sort of lengthy and searching questions at passport control to which she has had to become accustomed. As it went on, she found herself telling the customs officer all about the Quaker education her son was receiving, and about the unexpectedly natural affection and respect with which he was treated by everyone. The man behind the desk had vaguely heard of Quakers and had thought that they were generally good people. The interview may not have been shortened as a result of the conversation, but he certainly learned far more than he had expected when he saw just another African face in the queue. So what? That’s what. It was a genuine starfish moment.

Let me come now to Nathan, who answers the question perfectly. This is not the Nathan made famous in the anthem by Handel, where the prophet plays second fiddle to Zadok the Priest; but another Nathan, who became quite well-known during the Enlightenment in Germany, but whose time is, I think, yet to come.

Nathan? Or, as he is better known, Nathan the Wise. Nathan der Weise. He is the eponymous character in the eighteenth century play by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.

Lessing was born in 1729, and was already a well-known critic and dramatist when he met and became a close friend of the great Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, grandfather of the composer Felix, whose bicentenary we celebrate this year. Lessing is one of the best-known representatives of the Enlightenment. He was a brilliant scholar, a formidable debater, and a tireless campaigner against prejudice. He had written his play, The Jews, in 1749, before he met Mendelssohn, describing it as the outcome of serious reflection on the shameful oppression endured by a nation which, I should have thought, a Christian cannot contemplate without a kind of reverence. It had been written in the ambivalent climate of Frederick the Great’s “Charter Decreed for the Jews of Prussia” of 1750, which promised the Jews closer cultural, economic and political ties with the state and, for the first time, the status of actual subjects, but at the same time revealed considerable contempt and distaste for them, as well as a desire to limit the competition they might afford to the Prussian Christian business community.

What was startling and original about Lessing’s The Jews was the sympathetic portrayal of the Jewish main character, known as the Traveller (whose Jewish identity is, however, not known for most of the play). He rescues the Baron from highway robbers who are initially assumed to be damned Jews but who turn out to be employees of the Baron himself. The Baron offers the Traveller his daughter’s hand in marriage, but the Traveller has to refuse, explaining I am a Jew. He also turns down an alternative financial reward offered. By the end, the Baron is embarrassed by his earlier slights against Jews in general: Oh, how commendable the Jews would be, he exclaims with inadvertent irony, if they were all like you! to which the Traveller gently replies: And how worthy of love the Christians, if they all possessed your qualities. The Traveller also states that he asks nothing more than that in future the Baron should reach less harsh and generalising judgements about his people (and by extension, to our modern sensibilities, about anyone regarded as “the other”, the stranger in their midst).

Thirty years later, another play by Lessing became known as a parable of tolerance and reason in the search for religious truth. Nathan der Weise, first published in 1779, brings together a Jew, a Christian and a Moslem whom we see clearly as representatives of their religions. The centre point of the plot is the story, told by the Jew Nathan to the Moslem Saladin, of the opal ring which had the power

To make the owner loved of God and man
If he but wore it in this faith and confidence.

The ring, also conferring leadership of the house and the family, was passed down from generation to generation, until it reached eventually a father who loved all his three sons equally and could not decide which one should inherit the ring. Secretly he has two exact replicas made. Each son receives one ring with his father’s blessing. After the father’s death, of course, each claims to have the true ring and to have inherited the father’s mantle.

But all in vain, explains Nathan, the veritable ring
Was not distinguishable –
Almost as indistinguishable as, to us,
Is now – the true religion.

Nathan goes on to explain to Saladin that unless each of the three brothers, by his love for the others and by his behaviour, could make himself indeed loved of God and man, then it was entirely possible that the original ring had in fact been lost, and that the father had had three replicas made. Splendid! cries Saladin. And we then hear Nathan’s final explanation: each son was to believe he had inherited the true ring, and should therefore treat the others with affection rather than prejudice:

Let each one strive
To gain the prize of proving by results
The virtue of his ring, and aid its powers
With gentleness and heartiest friendliness,
With benevolence and true devotedness to God.

Nathan becomes the spokesman for the true ideals for the Enlightenment (surely even more relevant today): tolerance, brotherhood, love of humanity, and, in religious terms, the understanding that all faiths come ultimately from one God. This, at a stroke, undermined the concept of the superiority of one religion over another, and with it any notion that any religion had the right to force itself on the adherents of another.

So I like to feel that we all here are walking in Nathan’s footsteps. Both Nathan and Saladin were outsiders, strangers, in the midst of the Christians, yet they were the first to perceive what Quakers take for granted. We all find ourselves in the position where we can re-interpret the Truth as we learn more about it. We should perhaps always keep in mind the words engraved in 1891 above the main gate to Harris Manchester College, Oxford, where last term I spent my sabbatical: To Truth, To Liberty, To Religion, three concepts that are the cornerstone of our humanity, and, if we choose to acknowledge it, the underlying basis for the acceptance of each other.

The title for this lecture is drawn from the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 16, at a point in the narrative where the Israelites are enjoined by God to keep the feast of tabernacles for seven days during their wandering in the desert on the way from slavery in Egypt, a journey which culminated in the giving of the Torah. Rejoice in your feast, you, and your son, and your daughter, and your servants, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are within your gates. The huts in which they slept were temporary and fragile constructions, reflecting the very precariousness of their existence. Yet even here, they are commanded to look after the vulnerable in society, which is at the heart of Judaism, and indeed of Quakerism too. As Konrad Braun wrote: Enormous is the amount of wrong in the world….Love, mercy and pity command us to do our best to right these wrongs, to oppose iniquity and to see more justice done to those who suffer from injustice.

Nathan would, I am sure, have felt in sympathy with this, and with St Benedict who stated, in his Little Rule for Beginners, that he wanted to establish a school for the Lord’s service. That, put so simply, is the way to nurture the spirituality of youth, to foster the idealism of the next generation, to care for the stranger within our gates,  and, in the words of Moses Mendelssohn himself, to leave the world a little better for our sojourn in it.

* * * * * * *

References and Sources:

Christian faith and practice in the experience of the Society of Friends, London 1960

The Economist, Pocket World in Figures, London, 2008

Hermann Levin Goldschmidt, trans. David Suchoff, The Legacy of German Jewry, New York, 2007

George H. Gorman, The Amazing Fact of Quaker Worship, London, 1973

The Holy Scriptures, Philadephia PA, 1976

Peter Jarman and Eva Tucker, eds., Patterns and Examples: Experiencing the Spirit of Other Faiths, York 2005

Paul A. Lacey, Growing into Goodness: Essays on Quaker Education, Wallingford PA, 1998

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, “Die Juden”, Saemmtliche Schriften, ed. K. Lachmann, trans. M. Gelber, Leipzig, 1853, quoted in Mendes-Flohr and Reinharz, 1980

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Nathan the Wise, trans. W.Jacks, Glasgow, 1894

Ralph Lucas, ed., The Good Schools Guide, London, 2009

Moses Mendelssohn, Jerusalem, trans. M. Samuels, London, 1838

Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz, eds., The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History, Oxford, 1980

John Reader, Of Schools and Schoolmasters: Some thoughts on the Quaker contribution to education, London, 1979

Jonathan Sacks, The Home We Build Together, London, 2007

James Walvin, The Quakers: Money and Morals, London, 1997, quoting The Snake in the Grass; or Satan Transformed into an Angel of Light, London, 1697

John Howard Yoder, For the nations: essays evangelical and public, Cambridge, 1997

Benjamin Zander, The Art of Possibility, Boston, 2000

Putting Faith in Action: Quaker Bolivia Link tour to South America

In 2006 Alan and Sue Pim travelled to Bolivia and Peru as part of the Quaker Bolivia Link Project team that visits Bolivia once every two or three years, to discuss the merits of projects that are proposed to the UK and USA Boards of QBL; and other responsibilities might include summarizing projects for the Boards, writing reports after visiting projects, working with the project database and discussing strategy and implementation.

This is their report:

Barbara Flynn, our leader was there to meet us as we flew into La Paz, the capital of Bolivia at 07.00 on a beautiful clear sunny morning. Seventeen of us had met in Miami to fly the last leg of our journey together, we had come from different parts of the US, England, Scotland, Germany, Spain and of course Ireland. La Paz (the airport) is well outside the city on a high, flat plateau at about 13,000ft. Surrounding us were the beautiful snow covered peaks of the Andes over 21,500ft. We sat quietly in a café at the airport to rest a while to begin to get used to the thin atmosphere (only 80% of normal oxygen levels here). To help with fighting the thin air we all had our first cup of “matte de coca”. The American government wants to stop the Bolivian people growing coca but it is part of the Bolivian culture and certainly a cup of coca tea is far less addictive than ordinary tea or coffee and is actually good for you.

Our luggage along with that of two of the Americans failed to turn up and we were travelling at the time when hand luggage was VERY restricted! I had believed the BA captain when he said there was no need to collect our luggage at Miami and check it in again, a process that has been insisted on by the Americans since 9/11. In some ways it was liberating not having luggage but it was rather miserable to have to wear the same clothes we had travelled in when we got up the next day! The luggage that had arrived was tied on top of the two minibuses that took us to Sorata, a picturesque town in a valley surrounded by the Andes.

Sorata is lower than La Paz and we stayed there a few days to get used to the altitude. While there we visited many Quaker Bolivian Link projects high up in the mountains. Mostly water projects bringing water from the melting snow along pipes to the villages. Some villages would just have taps; others would have showers and toilets as well as taps. There is a huge increase in the number of girls attending primary school when a village gets water, as it was the girls’ job to collect water. We also saw irrigation projects and agricultural projects.

Quaker Bolivian Link funds projects that the local communities have asked for. The community will have to do a feasibility study into their project and also be willing to help to do the work in carrying it out. QBL have a lot of requests for funding but they only fund those projects that will help to better the community. They employ four agricultural advisers who come from the local Indian Aymarian community and have been to university and are able to converse in Aymarian and Spanish. We were very impressed with them and their knowledge of agriculture and horticulture and the way they carried on their jobs. There was also a part time accountant who looked after the money end in Bolivia. It is very important to have these people with local knowledge overseeing the projects and visiting regularly to see that everything is working as it should.

To get to these projects we all piled into the back of an open truck, one or maybe two could fit in the cab beside the driver, but it was far more exciting standing up in the back, getting scared by the sheer drops on the sides of the road, as we wound our way upwards on tiny dirt roads as far as we could go. We then had to climb further up the mountain on tiny steep paths until we reached our destination, these walks would often be over an hour.

We would bring bread and fruit towards a shared lunch, luxury items as far as the villagers were concerned. These people were some of the poorest in Bolivia, which is the poorest country in South America. They produce over 600 different types of potatoes; even someone coming from Ireland was amazed at the different varieties! They also had cooked dishes with corn and quinoa with vegetables that were lovely.

While in Sorata we attended the dedication of the Internado (the hostel for children from these high up villages who are attending secondary school in Sorata, which we are so keen to raise money for). Alan and I arrived early and I helped with the food preparations cutting up lettuce and tomatoes. That was alright but then I had to cut onions very thinly and I wasn’t doing it thinly enough, I don’t understand Spanish but I knew that one of the boys from the internado was telling the house mother that I was doing a bad job! Finally the celebrations started; there were lots of speeches, all in Spanish, from local dignitaries and Quakers. Afterwards we had the usual shared lunch. That afternoon when we had free time some of us went with the manager of the hotel on a walk to some caves. The walk was meant to be downhill all the way but we found that a lot was definitely uphill! It was a lovely walk but when we got to the caves we found them pretty boring, not as good as the ones we have here.

On our last day in Sorata, a Sunday, we went to the Quaker church where we got our travelling minute signed and attended the programmed service for about an hour. We then had to leave for La Paz. While in Sorata we had a short Meeting for Worship each evening, which was very special, but it was harder to have it in the hotel in La Paz. When we were staying in a hotel beside Lake Titicaca we had arranged a circle of chairs for our Meeting and a family had sat down in our circle to play cards but we started our meeting despite the card playing. It was amazing how quickly they sensed something was going on and they quietly left us. It was a pity they couldn’t have stayed and worshiped with us.

On our way to La Paz we stopped at the home of one of our minibus drivers and we were all given food and matte de coca or soft drinks. Our minibus drivers were so good to us and looked after us very well, and drove so well over the awful roads. In La Paz we visited more projects. The best had to be the Gregorias project where we visited a group of wonderful ladies and bought some of their beautiful fine quality alpaca products which they had knitted or woven. They gave us an excellent lunch too! We went to a school for children who are mentally and physically challenged – the deaf and mute were there in the afternoon. We were impressed by the staff and the children who were so friendly and gave us big hugs when we left. The school was a catholic school but QBL had funded a booklet for parents of these children with helpful information about their various needs.

One day we set out in the two minibuses for the altiplano (La Paz was first built up there by the Spanish but was quickly abandoned and rebuilt in the valley). A huge flat area, thousands of square miles, very dry, bare, windswept place with few trees. The altitude here is about 13,000 feet, higher than The Alps; although it is in the Tropics it is cold, especially at night where there is a frost 200 nights a year. We went to visit water pumps and various plastic greenhouses which help the villagers to grow all sorts of vegetables which improves their diet especially the children’s, again we had a wonderful meal at a place where the women of the community had got together to organise the viability of their project, unfortunately we had just eaten and weren’t able to do the meal justice! We had spent the morning looking at some pre Inca ruins at Tiwanaka, which was fascinating. The place is a World Heritage Site.

One day the whole of La Paz was blockaded by a transport strike so we couldn’t go to any projects instead we went shopping and sightseeing and got our shoes cleaned; the shoes looked great, almost new again! We had a wonderful meal in a vegetarian café, you could eat as much as you liked for next to nothing in our money. Even though there were heavily armed police around the main streets we never felt threatened by anyone.

We then said good-bye to La Paz and headed to Lake Titicaca, which we had seen in the distance on our way to and from Sorata. It was lovely to finally see this lake that we had first heard about so many years ago in Geography class! It was so beautiful and the colour always seemed to change from day to day. We met one of the boat builders who had been flown to Chad in Africa by Thor Heyerdahl to help build the Ra II. We had a posh lunch in a posh restaurant, very nice. We then left for the Amacari Medical Centre which Irish Friends helped fund. We felt proud when we saw the plaque with “amegos de irlanda” on it. We had to board a boat to cross the straits of Tiquina to the other side of the lake while our minibuses were hauled across on barges. We were very impressed by the centre which has made such a difference to the health of the local people who live in a very isolated part of Bolivia.

As Copacabana was blockaded we couldn’t stay there and had to spend two nights on the shores of Lake Titicaca. We tried to visit a project nearby which had funded the growing of alfalfa and better quality cattle but everybody was at a local rally where the president Evo was speaking. When we got back to the hotel we decided we’d go too! We must have been the only gringos in amongst thousands of locals. The speeches were over and there were various dances going on with wonderfully colourful costumes. Evo is a president of the people and we hope he survives but Bush doesn’t like him! We were glad to be there and see him, in the distance and wave to him when he left by helicopter.

The next day was an early start, as we had to go all the way around the southern coast of the lake to get to Peru, because of the blockade. We said a sad farewell to Barbara and met Malku our guide for Peru who is very knowledgeable about Inca ruins and has written many books on the subject. We visited many Inca and pre Inca sites culminating in Machu Picchu. We visited the floating islands on Lake Titicaca as well as going in a reed boat. We found Peru very touristy compared to Bolivia and we felt we were hustled by the locals to buy goods. On the other hand the roads, accommodation and food were better, but more expensive!

We have started Spanish lessons since coming home in the hope that we can go back to Bolivia and/or to other parts of South America.

Meditation: Duty to one’s self, one’s soul

Sarah Hardy Jackson, Monkstown Meeting: : talk at Ulster Quarterly Meeting, 23 September 2007

Sarah Hardy Jackson is a convinced Friend, a member of Dublin Monthly Meeting for over 30 years. She has served as clerk, overseer and elder of various meetings, including a period as Yearly Meeting recording clerk. This talk was given twice in different versions. Her thought developed over time and each version is specific to a different audience. The first version (Duty to Oneself) was given to Friends at Ulster Quarterly Meeting, held in Bessbrook Meeting House in September 2007. Here she could make reference to our queries and other shared experience as Quakers. Later she was asked to give the Meditation which forms part of the World Day of Prayer Service for Christians of all denominations, held in Monkstown Meeting House in March 2008. Her own experience during the intervening time, the reaction of the audience at Bessbrook, the content of the set part of the service, and the fact of being heard by a wider audience, combine to create a version that is both shorter and with a broader context.


The request to write something for Ulster Quarterly Meeting came in mid-March, a time when the world changed very fast for me.

My 84-year-old mother, resident in New York since 1950, had gone to live with a nephew in England the previous November. It was not a good decision for either of them, and the relationship was falling apart. By prearrangement, she was to visit me in April. Suddenly the nephew decided that enough was enough and he wanted her out of his house as soon as possible. With nowhere else to go, short of money and getting frail, my mother would be living with me by the end of May.

So my response to the request was that I was unsure of what the future would hold and thus of whether I could offer anything to Friends by September. But this was the second time Ulster Friends had asked me for a talk, and it seemed that I should not say NO forever to such kindness and faith.

It has been a busy time trying to re-establish life for my mother in a new place with new people. Not to mention that she’s an Englishwoman now living in Ireland! Through the generosity of so many people and agencies, she is living a semi-independent life in sheltered housing and seems healthy and as settled as one might hope for. Since May I have been treading the difficult line between trying to make everything right for her and remembering to value my own life, work and needs. Much of the time I was so caught up in duty that I lost love and soul. From that awareness of my own failings and an incident at a Ministry and Oversight meeting come the germ of this paper.

Duty and service to others

In June was my final M and O meeting before completing the current term as an elder. That seemed like a chance to reflect on what had been achieved in the previous three years, along with the hopes and wishes for what might have happened instead. I was glad my term was over, especially as it ended in the middle of the settling-in period for my mother, whose needs were frequent and often difficult to meet. The demands were onerous and I was close to exhaustion. It was hard to remember if I had given anything of myself to the Society as an elder over the years. Time and duty, yes; but how much of my real self had I contributed?

The previous Sunday at Monkstown meeting we had heard most of the General Christian Counsel, with all its prescriptions about behaviour, being a better F/friend, those impossible measures of ourselves. Then at M and O we heard the fifth Query. Usually I note the part about honesty and integrity, pat myself on the back as this is not a huge issue for me, and get on. But this time I was caught by the final sentence: “Do you seek to discern how much of your time, talents and resources you should devote to the service of others?” When that phrase has spoken to me before, I’ve thought I should do more, be a better child, parent, wife, citizen, Quaker. Give more, think of myself less, and be more dutiful. Here I was, exhausted, close to losing any sense of my self, my soul, or what was true and right for me. And Quaker writing seemed only to reinforce the demands. The weight on my shoulders felt heavier than ever.

At M and O we had some discussion, the usual one in Quaker committees, about how to get more people involved, why the young adults do not come among us and certainly not to business meetings, what is the future of the Society. We all know this discussion. We’ve heard it many times. By definition, if you’re here at Quarterly Meeting, you’re one of those who do give up time for this communal purpose. You sit on committees, bring the flowers, take the children’s meeting, and visit the sick and elderly. And maybe your hair too is greying and you have a sneaking niggle about how long you can go on doing all this and who will do it then.

Duty to the self

A light shone for me. We may just have this backwards. The Queries are all about tasks and hurdles to overcome. They can feel very negative. It is difficult to achieve all these duties about relationships with others. They are the actions, the results; but what about the core value from which service proceeds? What is it that Quakerism teaches above other paths to God? What canst thou say?

What about the relationship with our self? That of God, which we are exhorted to seek and to meet in everyone else, is also in our self and our soul. Perhaps God’s spirit does not call us to attend business meetings, teach Sunday school, or other outward tasks. What if our gift is quiet worship, or growing geraniums, or painting pictures, or dancing? Are these self-indulgent? And what does that really mean? If God did not want us to feed our soul, why would we have one? Why would we have needs and wants? Do we have to deny our self in order to follow God’s will?

From childhood society, and particularly religion, teaches us to deny ourselves and put others first. But that’s not what Jesus said. He told us to love God first and then to love others as our self. In Matthew 22:37-40, he says this in reply to a question about which is the greatest commandment.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

So we are commanded by Jesus, by God, to love our self. Of course there is a risk we might become selfish. But that is different from loving our self, our soul: for this is our true being, what God really wants of us and for us. Unless we do listen to that voice, we may never discover who we really are and what we are truly called to do.

How easy it is for duty and other people’s ideas and standards to become adopted as our own. It is natural for us to want to fit in with our family, culture, church or school. We may rebel a little as teenagers, but most of us eventually conform. Unless this outside standard is really true for us and our soul, at some stage this unthinking acquiescence will come adrift. We may lose heart, become depressed, burn out, give up, or drift away.

This is not to advocate free love and a world without standards. But there is a huge need in each person’s life to take time to find out what is really true at a spiritual level. And that can change over time. We may have to make this journey more than once. Perhaps every decade we need to revisit this. Who am I now? What is true for me now? That doesn’t mean that what was once true is now false; just that I have changed, and it no longer fits.

We must not fear change. It is part of us, part of all living things. And on the whole we change for the better. We mostly try to pare down the layers, to get to the kernel of eternal truth in us, to find what we are truly meant to be, to know, and to embody.

Change in the individual can seem like a threat to others. They like predictability. Oh Jean, she’ll always take the children’s meeting. Well Jean may have given all she has to that task. She may need to feed her own soul for a while. That may mean she sits quietly in meeting for worship for many months. Or maybe she needs to go walk in the mountains on a Sunday. The voice that calls her is the voice she needs to follow. Even if all the outside voices around her are complaint, talking of duty and responsibility, Jean must follow the inner call of her soul.

Real service can only come out of the inner truth. It is not a substitute for it. If service is done purely from duty or habit, while useful, it has nothing of joy or love. It does not come from the heart, from the soul.

There is brief reference in the second Query to making time for private retirement for meditation, prayer and thanksgiving. The General Christian Counsel talks of giving time to the consideration of your spiritual growth. But these phrases about the value of quiet as the centre of our life are drowned in reams of words about duties, tasks and action.

The gift of silent worship

At the FWCC triennial this summer, the question was whether the Society has a prophetic vision for today. I was not present there to hear the discussion, but I do know we must share the good news of our direct experience of God in the deep silence, with our own and other young people. I feel this so deeply, yet it did not move my children. Was this because when they were young I was always off at business meetings, moaning about the paperwork? Did I never share the deep joy and refreshment of my soul in a gathered meeting? To listen, to really listen to myself, to others, to God in the silence of the meeting: it’s hard to achieve, but when it happens I am refreshed and renewed. I am saved from bombardment by my own ideas and all the environmental noise. I hear the peace. I hear the truth. It’s rare and doesn’t happen every time. Often I mishear, speak ministry that doesn’t ring true. But sometimes, just sometimes, I do. And what a gift it is to hear that clear note. How do we share this understanding that all of us can experience God directly?The great gift of Quaker worship is that it provides, even insists on time for quiet reflection. The amount of quiet may depend on the quantity of ministry in our particular meeting. People use this time in many ways. I’ve heard some say apologetically that they use it to sort out the problems of their daily life. Why apologise for that? Yes, we all hope to praise, to hear God’s message, to do all sorts of higher activities in this time. But it has to start with a cleared mind. Nothing new can come in if we are preoccupied with duties and cares. Using the time to mentally housekeep and make those lists, that’s not such a bad thing to do. It would be sad if it were the only thing that ever happened to us during meeting for worship. Sixty minutes of that a week would be a bit dull. No room for joy there. But if it helps us to centre down, we should do it.

Some people talk about meeting for worship as the place to recharge their batteries. That was true for me when I first went to Churchtown meeting, aged 26 with three small children. I would arrive each Sunday exhausted in every way. I left with a bit more calm, a lot more patience and energy. Of course by the following Saturday I was back at the bottom again. But each Sunday I learned a little more about the importance of taking time for myself.

For many attenders, that is all they want of meeting for worship: a place to be quiet and alone in the company of others. We old hands need to remember just how great is the gift of focussed silence. There are few quiet places left in the world, fewer still for people who know they have a spiritual need that so far has been unfulfilled.

It is hard to listen to one’s soul, the self. All the roles, tasks, activities, and other people’s needs seem so pressing. Caring for our soul can seem so much less important, certainly less urgent: something to be deferred. The state of the meeting house roof, a father’s ill health, the employee who is always late: these might seem vital. And so we neglect that which nourishes us.

The funny thing is that it doesn’t take much time to have a healthy soul. If we go for that daily walk, listen to that music that moves us, look at that sunset, stroke that cat – whatever it is that feeds us – something every day, we can be well. And we’ll also get huge energy for all the other outside tasks. But we need first to take time every day to be quietly alone with our self, our soul.

Service and love
Once we’ve been coming to meeting a while, we hear the queries, and we get asked to serve on a committee. For some people this is a natural progression as they start to be more in touch with their own soul. Service then can come from their inner truth. But it’s essential that we not drown each other with tasks. The Society of Friends is a do-it-yourself religion. We do need to take part, or most of us do. It’s important to recognise that this cannot be forced on people. It has to be something we embrace because it is right for us, not something required of us because it’s right for the meeting.

What if no one will serve on a committee, people ask. Then lay it down, I answer. I was on the Outreach Committee in Dublin for many years. A time came when we recognised that we had become just inreach. The same Friends came to every talk, all of them old Quaker hands. We had nothing new to say. So we laid ourselves down. When the need did arise, after several years, the elders took it on and are doing it more effectively than we did.

We must have faith that change will come and is not a threat. The way we’ve always done things is not the only way. Coercion of people to do tasks, to serve on committees, the banging of the Quaker gong on duty: these are not the right way for them or for the Society. If no one agreed to be a clerk, elder, overseer, committee member, would that be so terrible? Many things might not be done for a while. That meeting house roof really might leak. But something would happen. That old Quaker word, concern, comes in here. Someone would have a concern. Someone would act. Other people would respond and gather around to help or encourage.

We must trust. We must not get bogged down in organisational bureaucracy. Record keeping is important, but it can be hard to keep one’s heart, spirit and faith when focussed on that role. I’ve served in the central office and know what it’s like to be the one paid Quaker in Ireland. And there are Quakers all over the land in a similar state, so overwhelmed by committee work and dutiful service that they have almost lost touch with their soul, the inner spark which is God working in them. Let us not allow that to happen. Let us teach ourselves and our young people the essential value of the soul. Let us give it time and space and quiet to reflect. Our great gift is the meeting for worship. Regular attendance there can keep us in touch with God in a deeply personal way. And all the best things that we get from meeting for worship can be ours every day. We know how to centre down and listen to the still small voice. We must give ourselves, our souls, that gift every day. The service that comes then flows from love. In Paul’s words (1 Corinthians 13: 1-3, 13):

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing… And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Meeting for Worship – Adam Grennan

Discussion memoir contributed by Adam Grennan to an Outreach meeting at Monkstown Meeting House, Dublin on October 1 2008, as a contribuion to the ‘What do You Think?’ series.

Early Days
‘9/11′ is a date that no one will easily forget. What happened that day in 2001, seven years ago, is etched in the minds of people all over the world who through the pervasiveness of television saw the moment when the planes hit, over and over again. The tragic loss of life, countless heart-rending stories and the sheer barbaric nature of the act challenged the faith – not just of those directly involved – but of us all who believe we share a common God. So when, by coincidence, exactly one year later on the 11th of September 2002 I was accepted into the Religious Society of Friends the two events became forever entwined in my personal search for true meaning. Apart from the obvious distinction of good and evil there is another difference. The events of that day in 2001 catapulted the world into a new order over night. In contrast I had no Damascene like conversion. Mine is a journey which began many years ago in a place which will be familiar to countless Irish people.

My upbringing was typical of the time. I was baptised and raised in the Catholic church. The priest, standing at the baptismal font, refused to administer the sacrament until my father accepted that Adam was not a saints name and either change it or have it tempered by something more appropriate. So I became Adam Benedict in honour of the Saint who happened to be commemorated on that day. Years later my mother told me that I owed my Christian name – not to the story of creation – but to a crush she had on Adam Faith, a well known pop star in the fifties. To this day I wonder what the priest might have said had he known.

My formative years attending Catholic schools was not an unhappy one. I have many fond memories of both primary and secondary. I never experienced anything other than kindness from the De La Salle brothers. I do remember odd things about going to mass. Like my father disturbing the serenity by perpetually having to clear his throat – a symptom no doubt of an earlier encounter with TB. I remember too the enormous cross hanging above the central altar with Christ on both sides. I don’t recall any sermons but in those days there wasn’t much of a focus on involving children. My older siblings drifted away one by one. Oh they said they were attending mass but I knew otherwise. When it came to my turn to break away I rather naively went and told my father that I had attended my last sermon. I can still feel his anger and sense his outrage.

In ’79 riding on the wave of the Popes’ visit I returned to the Catholic faith but it didn’t last long. Although I married in the church I honestly say now that at that time I didn’t feel committed to the faith. I don’t intend to analyse that further, nor do I believe that the road I’m on is the only one. All I can say is that it seems to be right for me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My first encounter with the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers as we are also known, came in the form of a book, written by an American Friend, Robert Lawrence Smith. In the introduction he wrote: “Quakerism is a pragmatic faith that depends on inner experience, on habits of mind and feeling that comes from living rather than from reading yet, an incalculable part of what we know comes from familiarity with the lives of those who have come before us”. Quoting from Deuteronomy he reminded us that: “we all warm ourselves by fires we did not build and drink from wells we did not dig”.

Having stirred my curiosity, through the modern convenience of the Internet I found this Meeting House no more than two miles from where I lived. Crossing the threshold the following Sunday I began an experience which Patricia and I are attempting to describe to you this evening. Believe me this isn’t an easy task. The difficulty in trying to describe a Meeting for Worship is that very little happens, very little, that is, in terms of outward appearance. Yet, Meeting for Worship is the very heart of Quaker experience. It’s the place we seek spiritual renewal, a place where we can grow in community, the well-spring of our ministry and testimony and the basis of discernment in Meetings for Business.

To understand the historical origins of the Meeting for Worship it is first necessary to recall something of the life of George Fox, the founder of the Religious Society of Friends. He was born in 1624 at Fenny Drayton in Leicestershire. His father was a weaver and a church warden. His mother was well educated and came from a long list of martyrs. Young George was encouraged to understand his religious beliefs and to question what others believed. In doing so he witnessed much hypocrisy within the early established church. At the age of nineteen, he left home and began visiting and questioning those who were considered to be religious people but he found few answers to his spiritual searching. In 1647 during a period of deep despair and depression, George Fox records in his journal, that he heard a voice which said: ‘There is one, even Jesus Christ, that can speak to thy condition, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy’. This was only one of several ‘Openings’ that Fox had but it represented a turning point. From this moment on he knew that he could have a direct relationship with God. Fox now also came into contact with other groups who felt that here was the truth that they had been seeking. It was from these groups that Fox and other ‘Children of Light’ or ‘Friends in Truth’ as they called themselves at that time, took their Meeting for Worship.

In Quaker by Convincement, Geoffrey Hubbard’s seminal work on convinced Friends – that’s people such as Patricia and I who are not birthright Quakers but converts – he wrote that Robert Barclay, a contemporary of George Fox, said ‘…though there be not a word spoken, yet it is the true spiritual worship performed.’ The worship was so intense, the spiritual exercise so profound, that some shook and quivered under stress and earned for the Children of Light or Friends in Truth the nickname of the ‘Quakers’.

The Outward Appearance
Meeting for Worship, or just Meeting for short, can take place at any time in any place. All that is required is a room, some chairs and the promise of not being disturbed. Meetings in Ireland are typically held at 1030 or 1100 on Sunday mornings. Most Meetings, such as this one, have their own Meeting House but some, usually small Meetings – such as that in Galway – gather together in private houses. All Meetings are open to everyone who wishes to attend.

The room itself has chairs or benches organised in a square or circle two or three rows deep. There is a table in the centre, on which there is usually a vase of flowers. The decoration is calm and tranquil so there is nothing to distract the gathering.

As the time arrives people drift in and sit down. Friends usually sit in the same place week after week. The modern business practice of ‘Hot Desking’ hasn’t yet reached Friends Meeting Houses. As people sit the Meeting begins in total silence. Inevitably this silence is broken by one or two latecomers but within 5 to 10 minutes the Meeting has ‘centered down’. The Psalmist invites us to: “Be still and know I am God”. It’s in those first few moments, as the cares and worries of the day are let drop that Friends begin to experience the essence of a Meeting for Worship.

In some Meetings – like this one in Monkstown – a Friend will then stand and read a short passage from the Bible. The speaker and bible reading are prearranged. Friends mandate very little, so the person who is scheduled to speak, may decide not to read this passage and substitute it with another reading. They may also choose to supplement it with a second reading of spiritual content which has meaning to them and may come from any source. Entirely their choice.

Now beyond that initial set reading there is no program. The Meeting may continue in total silence or within a few minutes someone may stand and speak for a short time and then sit down again. That’s not premeditated in any way. The silence returns. Some minutes later another person might stand and speak, and so on it goes. The number of people who speak or Minister in Meeting can vary considerably.

The signal that the Meeting has ended is when two of the Elders – those whose main responsibility is to nurture the spiritual life of the meeting – simply shake hands, prompting other Friends and Attenders to do likewise. The Meeting is closed. The clerk reads any notices, visitors are welcomed and all comers retire to another room for a cup of tea or coffee and a welcome chat.

Children are equally important as adults in Meeting for Worship and, of course, are very welcome to attend. However, it is generally accepted that most young children wouldn’t sit through an hour long Meeting without becoming a bit restless and that there is also a need to provide some guidance and help towards understanding. So after the first 15 minutes has passed, one or two Friends will take the children out to another room to run Junior Meeting or, Sunday School until Meeting for Worship has ended.

What I have just described to you is the usual format of an unprogrammed Meeting for Worship in Ireland and for the most part in other countries too. However, some Meetings in America and Africa are quite different. These are programmed Meetings, which are often led by a pastor, include some hymns, bible readings and a sermon or talk. There also may or may not be a period of silent worship. We are part of a world Quaker community where diversity adds to the richness of our collective experience.

The Meetings, where the business affairs of Friends is done, are conducted as a continuance of the Meeting for Worship. They are often started with a short period of silence and are based on our belief in the presence of God and seeking divine guidance in all decisions made.

Now I’m conscious that the description you’ve just heard may sound sterile but this is just the outward appearance of what is happening. To fully understand the Meeting for Worship we must go deeper and understand something of the light that guides the Meeting.

In her book, Living the way, Quaker spirituality and community, Ursula Jane O’Shea states: Many early Friends were seeking at the time they heard George Fox preach. In Quaker terms they were not converted by his words but by the testimony of their own inward guide, who affirmed what they heard and led them to join the movement and transform their lives…

In Meeting we gather and wait patiently in silence, knowing that we are in the presence of God, and by our stillness making ourselves open to him so that we can know his will. Thus in spoken ministry we act as a channel for the guidance of God within us. Vocal ministry comes through us not from us. It is not an intellectual exercise.

When I joined Friends I had almost 20 years work experience in the IT industry behind me much of which included public speaking to groups of all sizes. Yet, this was poor preparation for what happened the first time I heard that ‘inner voice’ and was prompted to speak at Meeting. I was agitated and my heart was pounding so much I felt it must be disturbing Friends seated nearby and obvious to all. My paltry attempts to resist were brushed aside. At that moment I could no more suppress the feeling to rise than I could stop breathing. As I sat back down some minutes later I felt the gentle squeeze of a small hand in mine. The owner was Moira Gillespie, an elderly Quaker who was to become one of my dearest friends during my first years at Meeting. Moira to me embodied the essence of what it means to be a Quaker. Quite simply, she was love personified.

The contributions to a Meeting can sometimes develop from one Friend to another but there is no room for a debate, answering or contradicting one another. Of course, not everything that is spoken of deepens the spiritual value of the meeting. We are human after all. However, it can also be quite surprising when, from time to time, a Friends ministry speaks directly to another’s unspoken thoughts. On more than one occasion, someone has come to me after Meeting to tell me how what I had said reflected their own thoughts exactly or even helped them in some way. As Quakers we believe: ‘that there is that of God in everyone’ and are moved by the one divine spirit.

Marrianne McMullen, an English Friend, put it beautifully when she said: “Ministry is what is on one’s soul, and it can be in direct contradiction to what is on one’s mind. It’s what the inner light gently pushes you toward or suddenly dumps in your lap”.

Much of what I am about to say here in this final section I derive from Geoffrey Hubbard’s book Quakers by Convincement not just because his description is so eloquent but because it so closely resembles my own experience. He begins by taking the view of the agnostic whom he assumes is looking to understand the nature of man. In doing so our curious friend recognizes his own intellect. Although he can describe the structure of the brain or the physical attributes of the body there is something missing because this alone will not describe either you or me. We are something more.

At this stage let me stop for a moment and relate a personal memory. About 30 years ago, one Saturday evening, while I was still a college student in Dublin, I went to a house party somewhere in the midlands. I can’t be any more precise than that because it was quite normal then to tag along to any and every old bash. As students we were poor so the lure of free food and the odd drink or two was too good to pass up. Nor do I have any idea of either who or what we were celebrating. All I remember is that the house was rocking. Bodies lay strewn in every nook and cranny. As I wandered from room to room, looking for someone familiar I pulled up sharp. Through the melee I could see a face I recognized but not one I was expecting. For a fleeting moment I imagined that I was looking into a mirror for the image in front of me as closely resembled my own as could be humanly possible. What was even more bizarre was that this stranger shared my surname. Many people that night remarked how similar we were but no one was confused between us. Despite the eerie resemblance he was still himself and I was still me. There was something more.

From the moment one becomes aware of this ‘something more’ there is an urgent curiosity to discover more about it. It has something to do with individuality, with being me and not you. Hubbard argues, that if we continue to persist, with this examination, we pass through stage after stage of identifying and rejecting parts of our self which is not the essential self that we seek. The more we know about ourselves the less significant that knowledge seems.

Thankfully, we are offered an antidote to this condition. It is to be quiet, not just physically but mentally. If instead of using the mind, instead of thinking, instead of referring everything to the standards of the intellect, we suspend this continuous argument in our head and become still, then we have a whole new awareness. We are aware of a sense of unity with the whole of creation, aware of the every sense of being which has so far escaped us. Simply put, we have discovered the spirit which is in us.

The nature of the divine spirit is not in the working of the mind but in the motivation which direct the mind. It is personal in that each of us is a channel for it and can be aware of its power; and yet it is universal, in that the divine spirit in you is the same as the divine spirit in me.

You may be sitting there thinking that I haven’t proved anything. No one can prove this to anyone else, but you can prove it to yourself. We are asked to: “Be still and know I am God”. One way of attempting this is by joining in the silence of Quaker worship. There, all about you are engaged in the same effort, and God grows and strengthens in all.

One last story. Earlier I mentioned an old friend, Moira Gillespie. Moira was an artist and it showed. Her house was tastefully decorated by many beautiful paintings and sculptures and surrounded by a magnificent garden. Although when we first met, her speech was already beginning to fail she had an active mind and a vibrant personality. I spent many fine evenings in her company discussing our shared love of poetry and science. In a large bay window hung a prism through which the light often streamed throwing its spectrum of colours onto a nearby wall. That image I carry with me everywhere. To me it represents that no matter how diverse we are there is that divine spirit in each of us and as Quakers of old said: we can truly walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in everyone.

Adam Grennan, October 2, 2008.

Friends Trust (Eire) LTD

Valaura, Kimberley Road, Greystones, Co. Wicklow
The following letter was issued in November 2006 by Friends Trusts (Eire) Ltd. to all Preparative Meetings, Monthly Meetings and Quarterly Meetings in RoI with a copy to all bodies for whom Friends Trusts (Eire) Ltd. acts as Trustee. It was recently agreed to have this letter printed in The Friendly Word and published on the Quaker website to draw Friends attention to in particular the contents of paragraph 2.

Dear Friends

The Directors of Friends Trusts (Eire) Ltd. (FTE) agreed that a letter should be sent to all Meetings and to each body for which FTE hold property or investments to remind them of the role of FTE. FTE only acts as a Nominee and/or bare trustee. Responsibility for management of investments or real estate belonging to any Meeting, fund or committee rests with that body and its advisors. Please consider Chapter 18 from Organisation and Christian Discipline, Trusteeship of Property and Securities.

In its role as Trustee, FTE would like to remind you of the responsibilities undertaken by Friends who are appointed to manage funds and other assets on behalf of Meetings or committees. It is important to ensure that appropriate procedures and systems are in place to support and safeguard Friends who take on such roles, which can be onerous and challenging. Your bank should be able to advise on appropriate best practices. For example cheques should require two signatures, bank statements could be checked by more than one Friend, duties and responsibilities should be reviewed from time to time. Such practices are designed to protect officers and members by building in checks against inevitable human error or deliberate misuse. We should not be complacent in this area, we are aware that Friends in North Somerset and Wiltshire Monthly Meeting recently experienced the trauma of a betrayal of trust involving a substantial theft of funds.

FTE would also like to take this opportunity to remind Friends of the legal requirement to adhere to the Data Protection Acts 1988 and 2003. You may find it useful to obtain a copy of A Guide for Data Controllers which is available from the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner (Tel: 01 8748544) or can be downloaded from

Your friend

Susanna M. Murdoch, Secretary, FTE

Directors: D.B.R. Poole (Chairman), P.R. Jacob, W.F. Bell, E.G.B. Clibborn, J.G. Douglas, S.M. Murdoch, D.A. Pim, B.S. Pim,, B.S.W. Little, R.H. Johnson.

Secretary: S.M. Murdoch.
Charity Number: CHY4458
Registered in Dublin No 10092; Registered Office: Quaker House, Stocking Lane, Dublin 16.


Quakers – from the perspective of a ‘Convinced Friend’

Someone approaching the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) for the first time might wonder what to expect. What happens in the ‘Meeting House’? Can you just turn up? Are you expected to behave in a certain way? Who will you meet? All these questions and many more ran through my head when I entered the Quaker Meeting House in Monkstown for the first time one Sunday more than three years ago.

Monkstown Meeting House, Dublin
Monkstown Meeting House, Dublin

People began to gather in the foyer about ten to fifteen minutes before the start of the Meeting. There were lots of smiles, warm handshakes and a general air of friendliness. I was made feel very welcome, in a non-intrusive way. It seemed more like a family gathering rather than a religious meeting. (I now think it is probably best described as a ‘community of spirit’).

Gradually, people moved into the room where the Meeting for Worship was held. My first impression was of a very simple space. The old Quaker benches and chairs were arranged on all four sides facing each other. There was no altar. Nothing adorned the walls. In fact, the only decoration of any sort was a small table with a bowl of flowers in the centre of the room. As people were seated the Meeting began.

Meeting in Progress
Meeting in Progress

The method of worship seemed a little strange at first. All was quiet. After a few minutes silence a Friend read a short passage from the Bible and then resumed their seat. During the next hour Friends continued to worship mostly in silence. The stillness was occasionally broken when someone stood up to speak. Somehow what was said always seemed appropriate and often connected with my own thoughts. It appeared too as if the ‘vocal ministry’ of one Friend prompted others. The worship continued until at the end of the hour two Friends shook hands.

The children joined the adults for the first fifteen minutes of the Meeting after which they retired to another room where a supervised Junior Meeting took place. This consisted of a mixture of play, readings, craft work and much laughter.

Most meetings are followed by coffee and chat
Most meetings are followed by coffee and chat

Meeting lasted about an hour, and when it ended Friends, attenders (regulars at Meeting who have not joined the society) and casual visitors stayed on to have a cup of tea or coffee or simply to chat before heading off home.

About two years after attending my first Meeting for Worship in Monkstown I decided that I wanted to join the Religious Society of Friends. I still attend Monkstown today.

Note: Those who join Friends later in life are sometimes referred to as ‘convinced Friends’ because they made their own decision to join. A child born to parents who are both Quakers is automatically a member.