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Features > Pastimes >

Word from Wormingford

Ronald Blythe sits in the stillness of a Meeting House

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THE drought has vanished, and the wheat on the dipping field doesn’t look half bad. It has taken its normal midsummer blue-green colour, and has what scripture calls “fatness”. Immense clouds sail over it, plus a snowy glider or two. Sudden showers, hot sunshine, movement — too much of the latter, in our parish of Mount Bures, where badgers threaten the “motte” of a castle with their own building plans. But the countryside, after being static and swamped, is drying out and on the go.

Friends in the double sense have been showing me the new extension to the Meeting House at Bury St Edmunds. That captured quietness! Quakerism is a world apart, and also a world within a world, making its presence felt.

The architect of the restoration was required to create “an outward expression of our Quaker values to peace, truth, integrity, simplicity, equality, community, and steward­ship of the earth and its resources”. How does one line up all this on paper? How is quietness “housed”? In many ways, of course, but here in a famously principled way.

I step inside, and am met with Georgian separateness and with 21st-century inclusion. The joining rooms are tall and still, pale and severe. The old seating is rectangu­lar, the new circular. The Suffolk light pours in. Outside, there is a fine garden, and, say the Friends who are my friends, “a chip shop and a sex shop”.

And a cathedral. And an altar where they drew up Magna Carta. And a wall where I propped my bike when I was a teenager. And these wandering skies, which, in his mys­terious way, God makes big with mercy so as to break with blessings on our heads.

“Do Quakers sing at Meeting?”

“Yes, if the spirit says so.”

“Read a poem?”

“Read a poem.”

I often read about James Parnell, the Quaker boy they murdered in Colchester. He is one of my heroes. “Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,” is what I used to say when I thought of him, so slight, so vulner­able, so intelligent. So promising. He made me think of the promising legions of the young gassed by the Nazis. To destroy the promising, how it breaks the heart, whether a wild creature or a human being. And yet it is done.

Quakerism brings one face to face with unarguable truths. It is unambiguous. It has no creeds or sacraments, but what it calls “testi­monies”. These testimonies rose out of what they believe were God’s intentions for us. They do not im­pose them on anyone but they them­selves live by them. They meet in silence, but they are allowed to break the silence with something worth saying. Or singing. “Elected silence, sing to me,” wrote the teenaged Gerard Manley Hopkins. And it did — and how!

In the old half of the eating House, I sat on the men’s half of the bench, facing the gallery, the modern chairs, the echoing past, the Venetian window, the cumulative silence of the ages, trying not to think of words.

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