Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Blog Week 30 - O for Opportunity

'Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor' says a character in Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods but that has not always been true among Quakers!

In their journals and letters Quaker ministers often refer to their vocal ministry in meeting for worship as 'an opportunity' which they have faithfully taken advantage of. Such a meeting could be for other Quakers only or might be specially arranged in order to speak to 'the world's people.' For example Catherine Phillips visited Bath in 1750 and while there says ‘I was concerned to appoint a meeting for the strangers in town (it being the season for drinking the waters) to which some of them came, and it was a memorable opportunity, the power of truth being exalted to the reducing of their light and airy spirits, to some degree of solidity.'

Opportunities might also arise when Quakers gathered together in each others' homes. This might be done formally, when travelling ministers took on the task of visiting every Quaker family in a particular area, speaking to them individually, as couples or as whole family groups. Some ministers undertook hundreds of these visits in their travels. Informal opportunities might also occur during a social visit, often after a meal had been shared. Catherine Phillips was travelling to Yearly Meeting in Penrith in 1757 when ‘In our way we called upon that truly honourable mother in Israel, Grace Chambers, who was very ancient and had been long indisposed, with whom we were favoured with a refreshing opportunity.'

Sometimes an opportunity might arise between just two people. Ruth Follows tells the story of one of these which seemed unusual to her only because of its setting. In1783, travelling to Coalbrookdale with her friend Rebecca Reynolds, she says, ' In our travel on first-day, though much shaken with the rough and uneven road, we had a remarkably favoured opportunity, which in silence and testimony held more than two hours, and as such a season in a stage coach is not common, I thought fit to mention it.'  

These are just a few examples of Quaker 'opportunities' from the past, but do we experience anything like them today? I have known a group of Friends sitting together at a social gathering drop into a worshipful silence and I know that such 'opportunities' often happen during visits to sick or isolated Friends. Perhaps we might look upon our talks with visitors to our meeting houses, to exhibitions like the Quaker Tapestry or to events during Quaker Week as 'opportunities' too. Maybe our modern name for 'opportunity' could be another O in the Quaker alphabet - outreach?

As the quotation from Sondheim with which I began implies, opportunity has to be recognised and acted upon before it is lost for ever, and acting on it takes practice.  


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