21 October 2021

A great people to be gathered?

Bunhill Fields Friends Meetinghouse (narrow building on right)

Our four weeks in London -- our first international trip in the COVID-19 era -- have just come to an end. Our priority was to spend time with our son, and to get to know his new habitat better. Thanks to London's amazing public transit system, almost everything we wanted to see and do was within half an hour or less from the one or more of the three nearby underground stations or from the bus stop two minutes away from his apartment.

Equally convenient was the nearest Friends meeting, Bunhill Fields, which was a pleasant walk of less than half an hour. Appropriately, most of that walk consisted of the full length of Worship Street. (Toward the end of that stretch you'll find the corner of Worship and Tabernacle streets.)

There were attractive diversions along the way -- and I'm not talking about the bingo parlor on Worship Street. The first quarter-mile or so of the route went right through the Petticoat Lane Market, which takes over the streets of our son's neighborhood every Sunday since about 1650. It's mobbed with bargain hunters going through every sort of clothing, footwear, cosmetics, fabrics, souvenirs of all kinds. Equally diverting are the many languages we heard, most of which I wasn't able to identify. Prices seemed a small fraction of what we saw in stores.

Full of these vivid impressions of good-natured selling, buying, general hustle and bustle among a virtual United Nations on legs, we would arrive at Bunhill Fields Meeting. The meetinghouse and its own tiny plaza bounded by a low wall perfect for sitting in worship, weather permitting, occupied a corner of Quaker Gardens, with a children's playground and a walking path which are in active use at all daylight hours, including worship time. I couldn't help wondering what the people passing by thought about us as we sat in our square circle, worshipping in full view of passers-by. I'm sure many already understood that this was our church, but did any of them feel a tug to find out more?

I had assumed that, during our weeks in London, we might find ourselves in different meetings on different Sundays. For example, I was hoping to visit Westminster Friends on St. Martin's Lane, where I attended worship as a brand new Quaker back in 1975, in my brief stay in London on my way to the Soviet Union. However, the warm welcome we received at Bunhill Fields, and the prayerful atmosphere of that place, settled it for me: that was going to be my Quaker home away from home.

Britain Yearly Meeting's Web site classifies Bunhill Fields Meeting as "small," which is true. The first Sunday we were two out of six in attendance. On our last Sunday, there were eleven in attendance, but several others were visitors like us. The size didn't faze us -- these kinds of numbers were familiar to us from Moscow Friends Meeting. But it did cause me to think once again about a more general question: why are we so few?

Bunhill Fields, for example, is located in a densely populated area. It is right next to an apartment complex called Quaker Court, and another, bearing the familiar name Braithwaite. (I don't know whether Braithwaite House is connected with that well-known Quaker family.) But it doesn't seem that the people who live one or two minutes' walk from the meeting are choosing it as their place of worship. Judging by the warmth of the meeting's welcome to us, two unknowns coming in off the street with no prior warning, this is not because this little congregation is private or standoffish or afraid of newcomers. Nor is there anything secret about the place or its purpose. Most churches I know would love to have the quality of signage that they have -- including the big sign right on the street. It also appears on most reasonably detailed maps of the city, including online maps.

I'm sure that I'm not alone in asking questions like this, and it's not the first time I've chewed on it on this blog. It's just that this hospitable little meeting in a crowded corner of the city vividly demonstrated the very qualities of a congregation that seem to me to be badly needed in our challenging times.

Here are four brief observations -- please comment, if you feel led.

1. In some places, Friends have drifted into a weird sort of low-key exceptionalism. Most effective marketing begins with the audience and its needs, or with God and God's promises, but Friends seem to be compelled to start with us -- how wonderfully subtle our spirituality is, how undemanding we are doctrinally, how advanced we are politically. (This is my impression of Britain Yearly Meeting in particular, so British Friends, please set me straight!) In contrast, some of the other London churches we saw directly addressed people's need to be in God's presence. "Start your morning with God," or words to that effect, said a banner at the front of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, followed by information on a worship opportunity on weekday mornings.

2. That focus on our lack of theological content (which is dishonest on some level) also cuts off a huge part of our potential market. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, it marginalizes people who already know they hunger for God or are already intensely aware of God, but who are seeking for a trustworthy community that honors this knowledge. Maybe I feel this bias more immediately than some because that is exactly the situation I was in when I found Friends. I wanted everything that Christian religion promised, but without the religion industry, without the elaborate trappings, without theatricality, without hierarchies and celebrities and power plays. This is what I found for myself, and I hope against hope that we're not drifting away from the ability to provide that access to Christian experience.

(I know that the things my youthful mind dismissed as theatrics and trappings are deeply meaningful to millions of people, but those people are, in many cases, already taken care of. They've made their own peace with the eternal contents-vs-packaging questions, and I'm less judgmental about that, I hope, than I used to be! If our apparent "Quakerly" rejection of what is precious to others is only for the sake of our own special trivialities and our own comfort, rather than an equal or increased passion to hear and do what God wants us to do in our time and place, that's just vanity.)

3. Quakers who live in skeptical cultures (contemporary England, for example) sometimes seem to become hyper-sensitive to skeptics and lose their teaching voice. On the other hand, Quakers who live in societies with a higher proportion of active Christians are likely to reflect that influence -- and not always with due discernment. Rather than live in self-congratulatory isolation from each other, these Friends need to learn from each other and pray for each other, so that neither group would simply pander to the culture around them, but learn how to be prophets and evangelists rooted in the universal and everlasting Gospel. Where have you experienced this sort of mutual encouragement?

4. In the first formative period of the Quaker movement, George Fox reported that when he climbed Pendle Hill, ... "there atop of the hill I was moved to sound the day of the Lord; and the Lord let me see atop of the hill in what places he had a great people to be gathered." Have we forgotten to ask God where there is now a great people to be gathered in God's power? Have we lost the expectation that such people exist, and that many of them may be very different from the Quakers you and I know best? Do we choose leaders who will keep us safe from such questions?

Related: Are Quakers marginal? part one, part two.

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