Sunday, June 23, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Blog Week 25 - M for Meeting Houses

Come-to-Good in Cornwall with stable at side
Meeting for worship does not require a meeting house but the buildings in which Quakers gather together do reflect something of what Quaker community means and has meant over the centuries.

In Britain Yearly Meeting one of the most striking things about Quaker meeting houses is their variety. Some meetings do not have their own building but gather instead in members' houses or in hired rooms. This may be a decision reached because of lack of numbers, local circumstances or as a witness to simplicity. After all, when Quakerism began this was the way in which local meetings started out.

Manchester Mount Street

The earliest meeting houses, from the 17th and early 18th centuries,
Slough - a modern meeting house
look like houses of the period, even if they were in fact purpose-built. A little later they may take on more of the appearance of a chapel and in the expansiveness of the 19th century sometimes become quite grand. There have been relatively few purpose-built meeting houses in the 20th century but there are some notable exceptions. In modern times Friends have often adapted buildings erected for other purposes - as a house, a shop or even a masonic hall!

Wimbledon - once a house

Barnstaple - once a shop
The new meeting house in Newcastle - once a Masonic hall!

Wallingford 'stand'
Inside these different buildings there will be a meeting room and the way in which this is set out also says something about Quakers both past and present.
Slough meeting room
From the 17th to the beginning of the 20th century a meeting room had a 'stand' at one end where the ministers and, sometimes in lower seats, the elders and overseers sat. They faced the rest of the meeting who were sitting in rows of benches with men on one side and women on the other. In modern times these distinctions melted away and chairs and benches are now usually arranged in a circle with only a table, often containing flowers and perhaps copies of Quaker Faith and Practice and the Bible, as a focus. In modern meeting houses this modern practice is quite natural but in older rooms it can feel as though one is 'camping out' in the middle of somewhere originally arranged quite differently. Certainly in Reading the circular arrangement makes the acoustic quite difficult although I have found that a speaker can be heard quite clearly from the redundant ministers' 'stand'!
Reading meeting room - camping out!

Skipton meeting room
I have just moved from a large 19th century meeting house and a large meeting in Reading to a smaller 17th century meeting house and a small to medium size meeting in Skipton. The architecture of both can be inspiring in different ways but in the end for me the power of meeting for worship comes from a community of people gathering together and that can happen wherever I am.
If you want to get a fuller impression of the variety of meeting houses in the British Isles may I recommend John Hall's photostream of Quaker Meeting Houses on Flickr from which all the illustrations for this post are taken.

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