THE silence is piling up around me. It’s like being back in a university tutorial when no one has read the text. I feel compelled to speak, but I don’t know the answer. My head spins; the silence thickens.
After the meeting, I explain how I felt to the woman sitting next to me. “But there are no answers, dear,” is all she says.
That was too much — or too little — for me at the time. It was ten years ago, and I had gone to my first proper Quaker meeting. It was not what I had expected from the small understanding of Quaker worship gleaned from attending my grandparents’ funerals.
On both those occasions, hundreds of people had sat in a round, smiling at each other, and I thought how wonderful it was that everyone got a turn to say something nice about the deceased. The contributions flowed, and I felt washed in the wit and wisdom of adults.
It was a shock to discover that, in normal Quaker worship, it’s not uncommon for there to be no words spoken — or “ministry”, as it is called — for an hour.
Now a practising Anglican and soon-to-be ordinand (my father left the Society behind: too much time as a child spent sitting in Meetings reading picture books about famine, he said), I often sneak in at the back of Quaker meetings — looking for something in my past, perhaps, and not really knowing whether I am allowed to be there.
So it has been affirming to find that “Quanglicans”, as they are colloquially known — people who hold to both Quaker and Anglican traditions — are not such a rare breed: there are many committed Anglicans who have been formally welcomed into British Quaker membership (the UK movement is quite different from some of the other, more Evangelical expressions around the world, many of which still sing and sermon-make).
PERHAPS the best-known Quanglican is Terry Waite, formerly the Archbishop of Canterbury’s envoy, who was held hostage in Lebanon for five years. He finds a natural affinity between his two chosen churches: “They have in common that sincerity of intent — the attempt to live out in a complex world what the Christian faith is all about.
”I had always been drawn to the Quakers and their uniqueness, but, as a younger man, I found it difficult to be silent. I was brought up in an Anglican context — I was a chorister, and I have greatly valued the way I unconsciously absorbed the words of the psalms and the Book of Common Prayer, so that when I was in captivity I could fall back on these words. I had them stored in my mind. There’s a lot to be said for being brought up in a way that gives you this structure and discipline.
”But, when I came back, I began to find some Anglican services too noisy — the bands and the bugles — and I sought something more contemplative and respectful of individual freedom. Now, I try to find a balance between the two.”
EVEN more reassuring were the testimonies of those who spoke of the compatibility of Quaker practice with ordained Anglican ministry.
Canon Paul Oestreicher, a former Director of International Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral, tells the story of “coming out” about his Quakerism to his Anglican colleagues: “I saw Archbishop Runcie on quite another matter, and I told him at the end of our meeting that I’d become an official member of the Friends. He just smiled broadly, put his hands on my head, and said: ‘You’ve got my blessing, but don’t tell anyone.’
”But when Ronnie Bowlby [Bishop of Southwark at the time] heard about it, he said something subtly different. He said, ‘Paul, I wish other clergy would have such freedom of spirit to cross the boundaries we’ve created in church history — and you can quote me, because this is a jolly good thing.’
”I heard a story about William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury in the ’40s. He received a letter of resignation from a priest who was a staunch pacifist during World War Two, but who was serving in a very militaristic village, and found himself constantly at odds with his parishioners.
”Temple simply replied: ‘Thank you. I’m not a pacifist myself, but the pacifist witness within the Church of England is extremely important; so I do not accept your resignation. I advise you to join the Society of Friends, who will give you the support you need.’
”So, yes, I’ve had nothing but support from the official Church of England. Because Anglicanism, at its best, is liberal in the best sense of the word — it encourages experimentation, and going to the edges. But some Quakers, over the years, have had difficulty with my position, because we are a small society, and a few want to keep it exclusive and don’t necessarily even want it to grow. But that’s understandable when you think about how Quakers were persecuted by the Established Church.”
IN 1870, John Clark (the grandfather of Cyrus and James Clark, who founded Clarks Shoes) was reprimanded for proposing to an Anglican, who lived in the village of Greinton near by. “If thee marry this giddy girl of Greinton,” the Quaker Elders warned, “thee will bring thy father’s grey hairs down in sorrow to the grave!”
But this mistrust of the Anglican in their midst is no longer the official Quaker position. The Secretary for the Quaker Committee for Christian and Interfaith Relations, Marigold Bentley, explains: “Quakers have no creed, and we accept that the Spirit expresses itself in different ways. That said, there is a Quaker discipline; and peace lies at the core of our religious experience. There is an expectation that joining us as a faith community requires an open-minded approach, based on learning and listening, leading to action.”
This sense of welcome and acceptance has been the experience of the Revd Chris Mayo, a Scottish Episcopalian priest working in the Northern Highlands, who is also an active member of the Quakers. “Since Quakers are non-dogmatic, the tools of wider spiritual traditions are transparently open to its members if they are helpful — each member is encouraged to search for what works for them.
”Inter-spiritual approaches are not perceived as threatening to the Quaker tradition, but can actively help one grow in it. That’s not to say that I can’t as an Anglican, but as a Quaker it is more readily and openly accepted as faithful to our call to grow into Christ.”
Fr Mayo has been keen to foster close relations between the Episcopalians and Quakers on his patch of East Sutherland and Tain; he has offered his small church in Brora to host a fortnightly Quaker meeting, which is attended by several Episcopalians; and some Quakers have shown interest in the informal, contemplative Episcopalian services held monthly at the Crask Inn, a remote pub and working croft on the single-track road between Lairg and Tongue.
IT IS observable, however, that the general direction of travel is towards the simple and contemplative: the flow is downstream, to Quakerism.
Beth Allen, brought up a Quaker but an Anglican for more than 40 years, and married to a vicar, describes how she has “come and gone between the two, depending on what’s been needed by both churches and by me”; but her local meeting in Bromley has felt like an inevitable resting place at this stage in life. “As I’ve got older, I’ve moved towards silence and contemplation, and I’m less worried about the detail. It’s a matter of temperament as well as conviction.”
Terry Waite also speaks of his experience in terms of an inexorable journey; of an education in a spiritual discipline that is not civically ingrained, like Anglicanism. “I’ve had to learn the constructive use of silence — because it has to be learnt; this is the difficulty if you haven’t been brought up with it. It doesn’t just drop from the air. I had always struggled with it, but then, I was in captivity for nearly five years, sitting facing the wall for all that time, and I came to terms with silence. I was able to take that inner journey, to become more deeply reconciled to myself.”
WHILE the contemplative tradition and silent worship are not completely alien to Anglicans, there are some crucial theological differences over the understanding of priesthood and sacramental worship which I expected some would find hard to reconcile. But even these potential breakpoints seem to be viewed by Quanglicans such as Fr Mayo as “a continuum” rather than as a source of tension.
”It’s just that the Quakers emphasise the priesthood of all,” he says. “The Quakers didn’t abolish the priesthood, they abolished the laity — so the phrase goes. But I guess my theology has also shifted and become more egalitarian. Now, in the eucharist, I see myself less hierarchically and more as a gatherer, an enabler.
”Similarly, Quakers are sacramental; but, rather than seeing it only in material acts, they understand that the whole of life is sacramental. If you go back five years, I certainly needed that liturgical element. Now I feel called to offer Quakers the opportunity to see how liturgical worship and formation can point us to the wider sacramentalism of creation itself.
”In some ways the sacraments — and especially the eucharist — have actually become more, not less, important to me. Whilst I don’t need them, they are, if you like, moments of mindful revelation into the Christlike character of God. They speak more fully to me for not being essential.”
FEW spoke of the need to compartmentalise their practices, or of going between plates for different nourishment, except for when it came to
the Quaker commitment to non-violence. Although pacifism is not compulsory for membership, the peace testimony is at the heart of Quaker identity.
For Canon Oestreicher, who was already a member of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, it is “one of the strongest possible reasons for being a Quaker. The rest of the Church needs to catch up with this. I deeply deplore the strong links between the Church of England and the military.”
Many Anglicans have been drawn by the Quaker belief that action is more important than doctrine, evident from the earliest anti-slavery campaigners to the radical improvements in workers’ rights under Quaker business families such as the Cadburys, through to current Quaker leadership in addressing the challenges of climate change. “I particularly want to transmit the Quaker idea that prayer life is expressed through our contact with society,” Fr Mayo said.
”I feel the Episcopal Church is sometimes lacking this intentional message of how our spirituality should be lived and outworked — which the Quakers do particularly through their testimony of peace, of course. At a national level, I am trying to influence this through my role as the convener of the Information and Communications Board, comparing the public profile of the Scottish Episcopal Church and that of the Quakers in terms of engagement in social issues.”
CANON OESTREICHER’s family fled to New Zealand from Germany during the Second World War: “We were enemy aliens as Germans, and, do you know, the only organisation that made a special point of welcoming and supporting us was the Quakers.” It is paradoxical, then, that it was his “left-wing socialism” that led him away from the Society for a period. “I found them too elitist at university, too difficult to access for regular people; and I wanted a people’s church.”
Beth Allen also celebrates the commitment to people that she finds at the core of the Church of England — the “enormous value in the Church’s commitment to ordinary people, to the parish; and, as a vicar’s wife, I have seen this from the ground up” — which she talks of in the same breath as the Quaker ideal of individual freedom and “us all being able to take part”.
INDEED, every anecdote, every testimony to Anglicanism seemed a flip-side of the same Quaker coin, and vice versa. I searched for dissonance — perhaps to justify my sense of having a secret Quaker life; or perhaps so that I could keep my local Quaker meeting as a place of rebellion when I’ve written one too many essays on church history — but I found only accounts of the naturalness of Quaker-Anglican relationships. Rather than divided hearts,
I discovered hearts elevated by a sense of belonging to the whole Christian Church and the Kingdom of God.
”It’s just two different ways of being a Christian,” Beth Allen concluded. “God is the same God, and God is bigger than any ideas we have about him or her.
”I recommend to you a quote from Samuel Taylor Coleridge: ‘People are mostly right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny.’ I was so pleased when I heard that, and I’ll never forget it.”