Many rooms are quiet at 10:30 on a Sunday morning in a university town. A hush falls over St Andrews from around 3am, disturbed only by the grating calls of seagulls and over-eager golfers. But down Hope Street, a different kind of silence is to be found, where St Andrews’ community of Quakers meet to share in an hour of reflection and worship.
Quakerism is a faith without rules and without limits. Instead, the Quakers subscribe to an ethos encouraging peace, tolerance and respect for all. Some identify as Christians, others as atheists, but many fall somewhere in between, believing we can and do have personal experience of God, howsoever we conceive of such a being.
It is this experience of God, as well as the support from the community (indeed, ‘Quaker’ is colloquialism for a member of the Religious Society of Friends, and fellow members may be referred to as Friends) that guides Quakers in ethical and spiritual questions in their lives.
Attending a Quaker meeting is so unlike other religious services that it is easier to explain by describing what does not happen than what does. Firstly, there is no priest. George Fox founded Quakerism after developing reservations about the reliance of seventeenth-century Christianity on the clergy. He chafed at the belief that preachers were responsible for the spiritual lives of their parishes, whilst laymen had a duty to listen and learn from the preachers. Instead, the Quakers emphasise the importance of a personal experience of God, whom they believe can be found in all people. The closest that a Quaker community has to a leader is the role of a clerk, who deals with the administrative elements of the meeting, but it is a central Quaker tenet that everyone who worships is of equal importance.
Secondly, although some Quaker meetings have a set structure, even including sermons, most Quaker meetings have neither preaching nor hymns nor set prayer. To an onlooker it may appear that a meeting consists of no more than sitting together in silence. However, Dudley Foster, a local member of the St Andrews community of Quakers, explains that although “occasionally you have a meeting that’s silent all the time” more often people are moved to speak. In fact, it is because “you speak when you’re moved by the Spirit… [that one can- not] expect it to happen immediately.” When it does happen, someone may stand to read a passage they have found helpful or to share an experience they have had or to offer some reflections on what has been said, all of which are referred to as “ministry.”
Although one person’s ministry may follow and build on another, the meetings are neither discussions nor debates. Instead, Quakers are encouraged to reflect upon ministry, particularly if it does not immediately resonate with them, and to try to see beyond the words to the motivations and experiences behind what has been said. It is this trust and respect that fills the silence and allows Quakers to share in often profound moments.
Mr Foster recalls that during his first experience of a Quaker meeting, one man stood up and spoke about “trying to imagine what it was like to go in for the first time into a Quaker House” and went on to describe almost exactly what it had felt like for him.
Just as with many religions, many Quakers will have been brought up in the community. In St Andrews, a separate children’s meeting is held at the same time as the main meeting, and they join the adults for the last 10 to 15 minutes of their meeting. However, Mr Foster insists that you get the sense that “all the children who come, come because they want to come.” He says: “The Quakers are respectful to little children,” which is in concert with their treatment of adults.
Nonetheless, it is not unusual for Friends to find about Quakerism much later in life. This is particularly interesting considering that the Quakers have no interest in trying to persuade others to convert and that conversion is not necessary to attend the meetings or to take part in the community as all are welcome. Marissa Wallin, a fourth- year philosophy student, first got involved with the Quakers in the autumn of 2014, following conversations about theology with the Reverend Dr Donald MacEwan, the Chaplain to the University. She explains that she had been “struggling to find a church in St Andrews that suited [her].” Mr Foster tells a similar story. He was taken to an Anglican Church by his mother as a child, but did not find a denomination that suited his theological views until much later in his life. Eventually, he began to realise that “maybe the people who have got all the things I have liked and none of the things I don’t like are the Quakers.”
But what can we learn from a religion with no rules to live by, particularly one that most students may not even have known existed in St Andrews? Mr Foster argues that Quakerism serves an important purpose for its adherents, emphasizing “how you behave rather than rules.”
Growing up in Darlington, a town with such strong links to Quakerism that their football club is termed ‘The Quakers,’ Mr Foster went to a Quaker primary school and says: “though I didn’t know much about the worship, all the things I did know were positive.” He also remembers having a particularly good teacher who would tell students that it is “not always the best idea to tell you the answer” but that it is “better to get you to find the answer yourself,” a philosophy that aligns with key Quaker values.
Also central to Quakerism is a belief in tolerance and respect for others. “What I most like about Quaker views is their emphasis on tolerance,” says Ms. Wallins. “They endorse the idea that there are many paths to God and do not judge anyone for the particular path that leads them to God. Instead, “the community is strengthened by its willingness to support all in their individual faith journeys.”
Furthermore, Quakers believe that their faith should be expressed through action, as is attested by their social work. The Religious Society of Friends has spoken out in favour of topics as varied as economic justice, same-sex marriage and sustainability and against nuclear warfare. Even if one may not come to the same conclusions as Quakers on these issues, it is hard not to recognize their integrity as a group and devotion to maintaining a respectful attitude towards difference of opinion. To this end, one of their beliefs is a recognition that we are all fallible.
This respect can also be seen in the running of Quaker communities. Mr Foster likens the decision procedure to the Japanese notion of Nemawashi, which emphasises the importance of reaching a consensus by involving everyone in the discussion. He claims that the benefit of this system is that it focuses the discussion on “the search for something that they can agree on.” While he admits that this “slower, more consultative process of making decisions [may be] frustrating,” the reward is that most often “the decision sticks.”
Currently, there is no firm established link between the Quakers in St Andrews and the student body, although all students are very welcome to attend meetings and to get involved. Their tolerance and friendliness is only compounded by their openness to other belief systems. Recently, the St Andrews Quakers organised an outing to the Kirkcaldy mosque open day to learn more about Islam and different experiences of God.
Perhaps the most famous belief held by many Quakers is their pacifism, which was notable particularly during the World Wars. Many Quakers chose to be conscientious objectors when drafted and numerous Quaker initiatives were launched during fighting, including the provision humanitarian relief. For example, the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) was set up in 1914 and assisted those displaced by the war.
Mr Foster specifically mentioned his cousin’s husband who had been a conscientious objector during World War II. At the outbreak of war, he had been a student at Cambridge very interested in theology and later became an Anglican preacher. However, it was not until when he was 70 that he started attending Quaker meetings and talked of having finally having “found his spiritual home.”
The end of a meeting is signalled by the shaking of hands, a gesture of both peace and friendship. After notices, many of the Friends stay on for tea or coffee and the Meeting House becomes anything but silent as discussions of the ministry take place alongside offers of support for those who may have spoken about personal difficulties during the meeting and general chit-chat. The quiet is gone from the streets of St Andrews too; it is lunchtime and students and tourists alike are surfacing to have breakfast.
Further information on Quakerism can be found at www.quakerscotland.org or alternatively all are welcome to attend meetings at 10:30 on Sunday at 2 Howard Place.