Saturday, November 30, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Blog Week 48 - X for Xmas

I know that I'm cheating for X here and that Xmas isn't even really a word, but it's almost December and I wanted to write about Quakers and Christmas as well as my own rather ambivalent attitude to the festive season.

Quakers' rejection of Christmas celebrations has always been part of their testimony regarding times and seasons, which states that all days are equally holy and that particular times for celebration should not be seen as 'special'. In this they were not alone but part of the particular time and place from which they sprang. When Quakerism first emerged in the 1650s in England Parliament itself had banned the celebration of Christmas as 'a popish festival with no biblical justification' and this very unpopular law remained in force from 1647 to 1659. In America the Puritans of New England carried on where the British Puritans left off and outlawed the celebration of Christmas in Boston from 1659 to 1681.

Friends continued to ignore Christmas, opening their shops and continuing their schooling throughout, until well into the 19th century. Over time however the testimony regarding times and seasons weakened.  The problem with making no difference between days is that the element of celebration, which might equally happen every day, in practice tends to be lost and we long for excuses to celebrate with our families and communities. In the UK too the nature of the Religious Society of Friends has changed radically with most members now coming in by convincement as adults rather than being brought up in Quaker families so that we have learned different Christmas traditions and wish to continue at least some of them. Many Quaker meetings now organise some sort of programmed meeting involving all ages in carols, seasonal readings and plays. Some also have a meeting for worship on the day that the world calls Christmas.

There are elements of Christmas celebration which I was brought up with and which I would miss if Friends went right back to their puritan roots. I enjoy the celebration with family, sharing food and giving and receiving cards and gifts. I love decorating the house with a tree and lights and looking at the decorations in the places around me. These things bring back my childhood excitement and wonder and they mean Christmas to me. I do not have to spend a lot of money or to take part in the rampant materialism which I would label Xmas, but I refuse to feel guilty about what I do.  Oh yes and I also count down the days with an advent calendar - very unquakerly!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Blog Week 47 - X for eXtinct

Some people think that Quakers have died out already - usually those who confuse us with Shakers - while others worry that if numbers continue to decline we will soon be extinct.

This is far from a new worry. In the 1750s, towards the end of his life, Samuel Bownas wrote to his friend and fellow-minister James Wilson, 'The Church seems very barren of young ministers to what it was in our youth, nor is there but very little convincement to what was then.' This cry has been repeated in different forms down the centuries.

In the 19th century John Stephenson Rowntree's 1859 prize-winning essay examined the reasons for decline at that time, including restrictive practices such as expelling people who married non-Quakers, and his conclusions did bring about some change. There was a feeling too that Quakers in the 19th century were prepared to rest on the laurels of their reputation rather than looking for new converts. An article of 1880 in an American journal describes a Society of Friends in Britain in such a position, although the amount of influence it had in central government might seem enviable to present-day eyes!

During the 20th century the face of the Society of Friends in Britain changed irrevocably. No longer were there generations of Quaker families and a few members coming in by convincement. Now the position is reversed with most members joining as adults and few children continuing as Quakers when they grow up.

In 2009 The Friends Quarterly instigated another essay competition to look at the possible future of Quakerism. The judges' report set out their objectives and findings and the text of the entries can still be read online. There are also all kinds of outreach activities - not only during the annual Quaker week - that aim to spread knowledge of the Religious Society of Friends more widely and to increase numbers.

Has this made any difference to our fears about extinction? Probably not if numbers are the only things we look at. Counting members is clearcut, but counting attenders is a much more difficult exercise. The meaning of the word shifts so that some counted as attenders one year may not be noted as such at another time.

Perhaps extinction is not a subject that we ought to think about at all. Perhaps it is better to concentrate instead on faith, on living our lives as Friends and on showing a positive face to the world - but not too positive as that would be less than truthful!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Blog Week 46 - W for Mary Waterhouse

Mary Waterhouse, 1871, by Samuel Lawrence

Mary Bevan (1805-1880) was the eldest child and only daughter of Paul and Rebecca (Capper) Bevan of Tottenham. Her mother died in 1817 leaving Mary, aged 12, and five young sons. In time Mary took over the role of housekeeper to her father and brothers, greatly assisted by three of her maternal aunts, Katharine Backhouse, Mary Mounsey and Sarah Harris. Mary was described as ‘of good height, graceful in figure, with perfect features and beautiful profile’ although she had a cast in her left eye (which this portrait disguises).

In 1825 at the age of 20 Mary began to write a spiritual journal. In it she recorded among other things her thoughts, prayers and anxieties, her precarious state of health and family matters. From it we learn that when young Mary refused several suitors and had feelings for one man which were not returned. Eventually in 1829, with the encouragement of her father who knew and did business with the family, she married Alfred Waterhouse (1798-1873) of Liverpool. He came from a large family of 6 girls and 8 boys, children of Nicholas Waterhouse, the founder of a very successful cotton broking business which most of his sons joined.

Oakfield, Aigburgh in 1848
Alfred built a house for his family at Aigburth, Liverpool, taking particular care with laying out the garden and trees. They stayed there, adding extensions as the family grew, until 1849. They had seven children who survived infancy - four sons and three daughters. 

Mary's journal tells of the growth of her family and also of her spiritual struggles. In Liverpool meeting the prosperous young woman was sometimes reprimanded for not dressing plainly enough and as a young mother had qualms herself as this extract from 1831 makes clear - At meeting yesterday for the first time since my confinement:- the beginning of it, I felt uncomfortable – being in a cloak – the colour of which I feared might offend some who would not wear such a one - & might be occasion of offence in others, who might like to imitate it. How much better to endeavour to keep to what could take the attention of none, though I did not feel condemnation on account of the colour with regard to myself, it not being one I preferred, or exactly what I intended to buy. – But of this, enough, - except that if it still occasion me uneasiness it will be better to sacrifice the cloak.

Mary and Alfred Waterhouse c 1872
Mary also struggled for many years against expressing her gift for the ministry, perhaps in part because of her fear of offending her husband, as this passage from 1836 shows - I had another distressing meeting, believing a few words were called for from me, even on my knees, & not obeying. My remorse was great, which my countenance no doubt bespoke, one of my sisters whom I saw some little time afterwards affectionately enquiring what ailed me:- I found no liberty to tell her, nor have I to mention the subject to any-one except that that evening, or before we rose the next morning, I thought it best to tell my precious husband part of what I suffered. The communication met with the reception I could not but expect from him – kindness but no sympathy, & I believe I promised to struggle against all feeling of the kind as long as I could. Alfred felt, and other weighty Friends often told him, that he should be the minister but in the end this did not happen and instead Mary was recorded a minister in 1842. 
Sneyd Park 1854
Alfred Waterhouse retired from business in 1847, when he was nearly 50, and having ambitions to become a farmer, looked around for a place in the country. In April 1849 the family removed permanently from Liverpool to Redland Hall, a house near Bristol, and thence in April 1850 to Sneyd Park, an imposing but damp and rather inconvenient residence in the same area where they remained for five years. As the boys were growing up they then moved to London, to 11 Cumberland Terrace next to Regents Park, so that they could attend University College School  and university.

Whiteknights House from the East
Finally in December 1858 Mary and Alfred Waterhouse moved to Reading where Alfred had purchased part of the Whiteknights estate. A new house called Whiteknights was designed and built for them by their architect son Alfred which they moved into in November 1859 and remained in for the rest of their lives. (This is now occupied by adminstrative staff of the University of Reading which eventually took over the Whiteknights site) Throughout her life Mary remained a member of the Society of Friends but her husband and children became increasingly estranged.

Alfred Waterhouse Junior
In 1864 her five youngest children were baptised into the Church of England and in 1877 Alfred junior and his family followed them.  Mary’s reaction was very like that of Elizabeth Fry – happy if she felt they were truly ‘following Christ’. Mary felt that, especially given her position as a minister, she had to stay faithful to the Society in which she had been brought up – I must stay with those who stay.

Mary was increasingly involved with her family, writing copious letters, visiting them and receiving visits, especially after Alfred junior, who had become a very successful architect (perhaps his most famous building being the Natural History Museum) built Fox Hill House, also on the Whiteknights estate, for his family in 1868. Alfred senior died while walking in his garden in 1873. After some years as a widow, cared for by her unmarried daughter Maria, Mary died in 1880 and was buried at the Meeting House in Reading.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Blog Week 45 - W for Weighty Friends

Another piece of Quaker jargon that I feel really ambivalent about is the term 'Weighty Friend'. The Quaker Jargon Buster defines a Weighty Friend, with tongue firmly in cheek, as 'one who is influential (i.e: their opinion carries weight) within the Society (while remaining consistent with our testimony on equality, of course).' 

I think my main uneasiness with the term stems from that problem of equality. Of course I have known weighty friends, whose spiritual depth and experience gives weight to their words, and I have turned to some of them for wisdom and advice, but I do not see them as being 'better' than I am. I am more comfortable with the term 'Experienced Friends' as this is more plainly descriptive of someone who knows more and has done more than I have and whose thoughts are worth listening to for that reason.

My problem with the term comes to the fore whenever Weighty Friends are deferred to as authorities in any matter, either locally or centrally. All of us have a right to be listened to, even if the discernment of the meeting does not in the end agree with us. Deferring to the opinions of Weighty Friends is even worse when their 'weight' comes from belonging to a Quaker family, going to a Quaker school or even having been a Young Friend in the past!

For myself, I may answer to the name of Experienced Friend in some contexts but never to Weighty Friend. In fact I believe that if anyone sees themselves as a Weighty Friend (except in the context of a joking reference to avoirdupois) then they are certainly not one!

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Blog Week 44 - V for Joan Vokins and the Vale of the White Horse

Jane and Joan Bunce were born in Charney Bassett (then in Berkshire) in the 1630s, the daughters of a yeoman farmer. Both were pious women, much influenced by the religious turmoil of their times and looking for a faith they could commit themselves to.

In the 1660s both women married and both became Quakers. Jane's husband, Oliver Sansom, was convinced before their wedding and they became Friends together. Joan on the other hand had been married to Richard Vokins of West Challow for some time before her convincement and she did not rest until she had brought her husband and children with her into the Quaker fold.

The White Horse at Uffington
The area where they lived, the Vale of the White Horse (named for the prehistoric figure on the downs above Uffington), became a thriving centre for Quakerism despite continuing persecution. Oliver Sansom was imprisoned many times and his wife's administrative skills kept both his drapery business and the Quaker meeting going during his absence. Joan Vokins's gifts lay in a more prophetic direction and she took care of the spiritual needs of Friends, both keeping them up to the mark and encouraging them.

This was the period of the Wilkinson-Story separation when John Wilkinson and John Story spoke out against the formation of women's meetings and in favour of meeting safely behind closed doors rather than publicly. The Vale of the White Horse was much troubled by this Quaker heresy and Joan Vokins spoke out strongly against it. On one occasion she even turned back from a foreign missionary journey in order to make sure that her home meeting did not give way to persuasion from local supporters of Wilkinson and Story.

Although she was the mother of six children and had far from robust health Joan Vokins travelled in the ministry far and frequently.In 1680 she sailed to America, arriving in New York in May. She visited Long Island, Rhode Island, Boston, East and West Jersey and Pennsylvania. Hoping to return to England she went back to New York to find a passage but found herself suddenly called to visit Barbados. As she tells it, on the way to Barbados 'the Lord put it into my heart to visit Friends in the leeward islands' and the boat was driven there against the captain's will. Trying again to go to Barbados she felt another call to visit Nevis and the boat duly changed direction of its own volition! When eventually Joan reached Barbados she found many Quakers who had been transported from England and she held meetings for them sometimes two or three times a day.

Charney Manor, Charney Bassett
Joan returned to England, landing in Dover in June 1681 and spending some time preaching in Kent before returning home. She continued to travel extensively, encouraging persecuted Friends, but when the prisons opened and Quakers were freed in 1686 Joan went to Ireland. Here, though very weak, she went up and down the country for a full year. In 1690 she attended Yearly Meeting in London and having been refreshed by meeting with Friends turned back towards home. This time though her weakness overcame her and she died 'having finished her course and kept the faith' while staying in Reading in 1690. In 1691 Joan's brother-in-law Oliver Sansom published her autobiography and letters under the title God's Mighty Power Magnified: As Manifested and Revealed in His Faithful Handmaid Joan Vokins.

Quakerism still flourishes in the Vale of the White Horse and Joan is remembered in her home village at Charney Manor, now a Quaker retreat centre, where a room is named after her.