Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Blog Week 43 - V for Visiting

Over thirty years ago I applied for membership of the Religious Society of Friends, or rather of Reading Monthly Meeting. I was visited by two Friends, both women and older than myself, one from my own meeting and one from another in the area. I knew what to expect from the process and was not intimidated by it or by them. It did not feel at all like an examination, with hoops that I was expected to jump through, but instead was a pleasant evening during which we shared our spiritual journeys. They reported on the visit to the Monthly Meeting and the upshot was that I was accepted into membership.The visit itself gave me a special link with these two Friends who acted in a way like spiritual godparents for this newly-convinced Quaker.

In later years I have taken part in several visits to applying members and have gained several spiritual 'godchildren' myself. Even when the visit has been difficult - and on at least one occasion that was definitely the case - I have still retained a special interest in the future progress of the people I visited. At first the report was compiled by the visitors without reference to the person visited but nowadays it is usually seen and approved by them before being put before the Area Meeting.

At present Britain Yearly Meeting is experiencing a dip in membership which some fear may prove terminal (although I would point out that we have been here several times before over the last four centuries). Is it the prospect of being visited that puts people off? Some people feel that anyone who applies should be accepted without any further enquiry and others are sure that there is really no difference between a long-time attender and a member. For myself I would be sad to lose this way of sharing our spiritual autobiography with others when there are so few other places which give us the opportunity to do it and to deepen our knowledge of one another in 'the things which are eternal'.

An application for membership can be a valuable rite of passage, a commitment to the next stage of our journey and it would be a pity to do away with that, even though it may not be right for everyone and other arrangements can be made by different meetings. Rather than worrying about the age of our membership, or about numbers at all, we should perhaps find more ways in which Friends can listen to one another and speak their own truth in an accepting setting. For me I know that being visited and visiting others in turn has been a really valuable part of my Quaker life.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Blog Week 42 - U for 'Unknown, unhonoured and unsung'

This quotation from an almost forgotten poem by a little-known Californian poet, Samuel John Alexander, who garnered one favourable review from the New York Times in 1912 before vanishing into obscurity, sums up my reason for researching, writing and sharing the history of Quakers and others.

I never cease to be amazed at how little most Friends know about the history of the Quaker movement or of the faithful lives of our foremothers and forefathers. A few names will be familiar - George Fox, Margaret Fell, John Woolman, Elizabeth Fry - but what of the less well known? I have gained immeasurably from reading the writings, published and unpublished, of earlier Friends, from listening to these voices from the past, and I want to share that experience with others.

I know that some Friends today think that Quaker history is irrelevant to how we live our lives now but this is very far from the truth in my experience. If we can understand the shifts in emphasis over time, the differences in tradition and how they have developed, then we will be better equipped to face the difficulties of our own time. Do we worry about becoming an aged Society with no appeal to the young? - Friends in the 17th, 18th, 19th and even 20th centuries did too. Can their explorations and solutions help us now?

Our Quaker faith is based on faithfulness - to God, to our Inward Teacher, to our leadings and our testimonies - and it can help us in our struggles to hear stories of what has gone before. As Alice Hayes put it in 1723 'Truly I have thought that if I had met with the like Account of any that had gone through such exercise, it would have been some Help to me.'

Over the years, with varying levels of success, I have tried to encourage Friends to share their spiritual autobiographies as a help to others. I have also published the writings of earlier Quakers and written about their lives in many different places including this blog. All this is because I do not want these people, who I think of as my friends, to remain 'unknown, unhonoured and unsung' and also because I am convinced that they have much to say which can be a Help to us today.


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Blog Week 41 - U for Unquakerly

I have a problem with the word 'unquakerly'. It derives from the word 'quakerly' or 'quakerlike' - looking or behaving like a Quaker - but what does a Quaker look like today and how does a Quaker behave? Does it hark back to Whittier's 'Quaker of the olden time' and is 'being quakerly' the same for everyone?

One of the things that makes me uncomfortable about the word 'unquakerly' is that it is always used as a criticism. The person using it assumes that they know what 'quakerly' is and what it is not. Over the years many different things have been called 'unquakerly' - violence, conflict or disagreement of any sort, anger - colourful clothes, make-up, jewellery - drinking, gambling - dancing, singing, learning to play an instrument - programmed worship, Quaker pastors - paying taxes, not paying taxes. The list is endless and endlessly contradictory.

Most Quakers try their best to follow their leadings, to be guided by their Inward Teacher and their community. This endeavour is helped by mutual encouragement, not by criticism and by being divided into 'quakerly' and 'unquakerly'. For me the use of the word 'unquakerly' about someone else is where our famous Quaker tolerance breaks down.

Of course each of us is aware of our own lapses and failings and we can use the word 'unquakerly' defensively against ourselves, jumping in to criticise ourselves before others can do it. But rather than being negative there is a debate to be had about those positive quakerly qualities that we have in common.
I have another blog dedicated to the crafty things I make and perhaps some of them are rather unquakerly. On the one hand I am recycling material and making things rather than buying them, but on the other hand my beading is very sparkly and over the top and I enjoy it so much! For myself I think that the word 'unquakerly' is a bit like the word 'feminist.' It makes me want to say "This is what an unquakerly Quaker looks like - let's explore what that means!"

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Blog Week 40 - T for Trust

For this post on Trust I have revisited something I wrote on my blog six years ago. I am a naturally anxious and fearful person and, as my children say, I can worry for England. I find it difficult to always follow the first of our Advices and Queries -
'Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.'

I have often gained strength from reading about the experience of others. While still at school the first spiritual autobiography I ever read was John Bunyan's Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners and I was much struck by it. One passage in particular spoke to me then and has continued to be an inspiration even if I don't always manage to act on it.

John Bunyan
Bunyan was also a fearful person, continually anxious that God might forsake him. Imprisoned for preaching his faith he thought that he might be hanged and imagined himself on the gallows, standing 'on the ladder, with the Rope about my neck'. He asked God for comfort but none came. Then Bunyan realised that he had to trust in the love of God without asking for any assurance in return -
'Wherefore thought I, the point being thus, I am for going on, and venturing my eternal state with Christ, whether I have comfort here or no; if God doth not come in, thought I, I will leap off the Ladder even blindfold into Eternitie, sink or swim, come heaven, come hell; Lord Jesus, if thou wilt catch me, do; if not, I will venture for thy Name.'

Sonia Johnson
I wrote that passage down in my commonplace book and many years later I added another passage which seems to be giving the same message about trust. Sonia Johnson's autobiography includes the story of a dream which a woman in Missouri told to her. The woman dreamed that she was standing on the top of a high building and that in order to get home she would have to jump off. Her longing for home was so great that she leapt. Sonia Johnson continues -
'As she began to fall, a rope appeared before her; she reached out, grabbed it, and swung way out over the street. At the end of its arc, she knew that if she didn't let go, she would swing back to where she had been before and not be any closer to home. So she let go. As she began to fall again, another rope appeared. Grabbing it she swung out to the end of its arc and let go again. Trusting herself, letting go, reaching out, swinging out over the abyss, trusting, letting go, reaching out, she found her way home.'

Hannah Whitall Smith
More recently I have added another passage of great common sense from the American writer Hannah Whitall Smith. 'Remember always that there are two things which are more utterly incompatible even than oil and water, and these two are trust and worry.' 

I haven't always managed to trust God and let go of fear but I am still trying and all these passages have helped me.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Blog Week 39 - T for Esther Maud Tuke

Silhouette of Esther Maud Tuke
Esther Maud was born in 1727 in Westscholes near Halifax, the eldest daughter of the five children of Timothy and Ann Maud. Esther's father was a respectable Friend who worked making plush (a kind of velvet) in Bingley. However his eldest son Joseph was a wastrel whose debts led to the financial ruin of his family. Joseph eventually disappeared to America but the third son, William, showed signs of the same profligate tendencies, and his father was so worried by this that his health broke down and he died in 1752 leaving the family penniless.

On his death bed her father urged Esther to try to resolve the family's problems, and though often in despair she bravely took on this responsibility. Esther started a shop and her brother Timothy kept up his father's plushmaking business so that they could make ends meet. At this time Esther had offers of marriage but felt that she had to stay at home and help her family. She scraped together enough money to send William after his brother to America but although he prospered there he died soon after his return and his business failed. In 1763, however, the family moved to Bradford and their fortunes changed.

Esther again set up a shop and her brother Timothy qualified as an apothecary which improved his
prospects. In 1764 William Tuke, a Quaker tea merchant from York who had been a widower for four years and had five children, asked Esther to marry him. They wrote frank letters to each other telling of their past troubles and spiritual struggles and although Esther hesitated she came to feel that they would be able to understand and help one another. They were married in Bradford Meeting House in 1765 when Esther was 38 and William 32 years old.

William Tuke in old age
Esther moved into William's house in Castlegate, York, over the shop at the Coppergate end of the street. She was soon accepted by her step children, Henry, Sarah (later Grubb), William, John and Elizabeth who were aged ten, nine, seven, six and five when she married their father. It was notable that she did not treat them any differently from her own children, Samuel, who died young, Mabel and Ann. It is a testament to their affection for her that the two step children who had daughters, Henry and Elizabeth, named them Esther.

Her grandson Samuel also remembered her with affection. 'She was lively and spirited, and had a natural facetiousness which made young persons greatly enjoy her society. There was at the same time a dignity of mien and almost awfulness of character, when serious, which gave her an invincible influence over the minds of young persons.'

The family home was often opened in hospitality to visiting Friends. One visitor commented, 'They have, I fancy, no outward dependence but trade and economy; but their liberal notions are not to be described; for they and their possessions are wholly their friends.' When a weary John Woolman visited York in 1772 Esther and William's hospitality extended to finding him a quieter place to stay than their busy home in the centre of the city. When he fell ill with smallpox Esther and her daughter Sarah also shared the burden of nursing him until he died, an experience neither of them ever forgot.

Esther's gift for ministry was recognised when she was 34 and she thereafter travelled extensively in Ireland and throughout the British Isles. She often lamented what she saw as a departure from traditional Quaker testimonies and together with William was forthright in her criticisms. These views did not make either Esther or William popular in their own meeting or supported in their concerns by York Friends.

They were both concerned about Friend's education. Esther supported William when he became involved in the foundation of Ackworth and he helped her when, in 1784, she established a school at York for girls (later re-established as The Mount) and took on the voluntary superintendance of it herself. A house was taken for the school in Trinity Lane, within the city walls and William and Esther moved into it with their remaining, unmarried, family.

Also in 1784, when at Yearly Meeting the Women Friends petitioned, not for the first time, to have their own meeting officially recognised by the Mens Meeting, it was Esther Tuke who headed a deputation from the women including Martha Routh, Rebecca Jones and Catherine Payton Phillips. The story goes that 'the Clerk of the Yearly Meeting felt strongly inclined to address to her the regal enquiry of old, "What wilt thou Queen Esther, and what is thy request? It shall be given thee to the half of the kingdom" '. But in fact there was considerable doubt about whether the request would be granted and even when it was it seemed to Esther 'but the shadow of a woman's meeting' although she hoped for better in the future.

As Esther grew older she became more frail, although for a long time she continued to travel. William had a new venture to pursue in the foundation of The Retreat, a hospital for the mentally afflicted run for Friends by Friends, and Esther supported him as always. She could not take an active part but her brother Timothy was the institution's first superintendent. Esther experienced increasing difficulty in walking and was eventually unable to leave her room. Her last illness lasted only a week and she died, aged 67, attended by her daughter Mabel. William outlived her by nearly thirty years and died in 1822 when he was 89.

Esther's first words in ministry were only few, 'The just shall live by faith', but as the testimony to her states, 'From this beginning, apparently small, she was enabled to increase; and as she grew in years she was thought also to grow in faithfulness and dedication and truly attained to the state of a mother in Israel'.