Sheffield Quaker Meeting House
You don't have to believe in God to be a Quaker, and they hold their Meetings for Worship in almost total silence. We ask a Sheffield Quaker to tell us about Quaker faith and practice.
Quakers are also known as the Religious Society of Friends - which was founded in the 17th century in Britain. The man credited with having a major role in the founding of it is George Fox.
Sheffield Quaker Meeting House
Quakers were a group who emerged within Christianity, but unlike many other Christian sects they don't take a dogmatic approach, they don't have a hierarchical structure, and they don't tend to creeds.
The Quaker Meeting House in Sheffield is on St James Street just down the road from the Cathedral, but it's not immediately obvious as a place of worship. On first appearances it could be offices or a community centre. It doesn't look like a church - but this is because it's not a church. In fact, you don't actually have to believe in God to be a Quaker.
Gordon Ferguson formally became a Friend (a member of the Religious Society of Friends) in 1997, but he started going to Quaker Meetings for Worship at Sheffield Meeting House in 1989. He explains to us about Quaker faith and practice...
Gordon Ferguson, a Sheffield Quaker
What do Quakers believe?
Gordon: "Quakers believe that it's not belief that is important, but experience; what you might call the Spirit, or God, in your life and in the life of a Meeting for Worship. Any individual religious beliefs you might have are secondary to that."
A leaflet entitled First Time at a Quaker Meeting is handed to people who are visiting a Meeting House. It reads:
"Each of us brings our own life experience to meeting. Some of us will have a profound sense of awe and wonder because they know God is present; others will be far less certain. They may only ready to hold an awareness that their experiences in life point beyond themselves to a greater whole. Some will thankfully accept God's inexhaustible love shown in Jesus, the promise of forgiveness and the setting aside of past failure; others will know their direction as a seeking to be open towards people in the spirit of love and trust."
George Fox preaches in a tavern, c.1650 (PA Image)
So you don't necessarily have to believe in God to be a Quaker?
Gordon: "No, I know of at least one person who is an atheist, or perhaps a better term to use is non-theist, because again we're not dogmatic.
"But no, you don't need to believe in God to be a Quaker. Many Quakers follow Buddhist teachings and Buddhist paths anyway.
And many Quakers are pacifists as well?
Gordon: "Yes, pacifism (or what we call 'the peace testimony') has been a major part of Quaker witness right from the start.
"But again, you don't need to be a pacifist; and I'm not a pacifist, but I'm very, very aware of the need for peace and the need for people learning not to be violent towards one another."
Inside Sheffield Quaker Meeting House
Quakers have had close associations with movements like the Abolition of Slavery, Nuclear Disarmament and anti-war protests.
So overall it's about accepting anybody, in any way, whatever they believe?
"Yes - you go through life learning to accept one another as they are, and growing and learning together."
Quakers in Sheffield
The current Quaker Meeting House on St James Street in Sheffield was built in 1989. The original Meeting House gave its name to the road it was based on (Meetinghouse Lane) but this was bombed in the Second World War and its replacement was built nearby on Hartshead Square.
Gordon Ferguson, a Sheffield Quaker
Are there any particular Sheffield-Quaker connections?
Gordon: "Not like there are in York, but the son of a Quaker, Benjamin Huntsman, invented crucible steel. Quakerism in Sheffield is much like in other northern cities (apart from York which has particularly strong Quaker connections). Sheffield Central Quaker Meeting House is attended by about 70-80 people on Sundays, plus children. There's another Meeting House in Nether Edge, and then others in Barnsley and Balby (Doncaster).
What happens in an actual Meeting for Worship?
Gordon: "It's based on 'silent worship' - it's an expectant waiting, you are expecting something to happen in the silence, you give yourself up into the silence and open yourself - not just your mind but your whole body. If you have anything weighty, or concerns, then you dwell on those and open those up and leave them behind in the meeting as well."
If someone feels moved to say something during the silence, they do. It's usually a thought or observation, a little story, a reading etc.
Do people nearly always say something during a Meeting, or can you go for a whole hour without anyone speaking?
Gordon: "In our meeting in Sheffield where there are about 70 or 80 people, it's not often that you get a whole hour in silence. But people are very aware that the silence is important and that it's useful not to speak too much and to leave plenty of time for it to sink in when somebody speaks."
Sheffield Meeting House
What if someone said something that another person didn't agree with or didn't like? How would they deal with that?
Gordon: "We have very good advice about that: you don't know where that person's coming from - you might not know them very well, or you might not know them at all. You might not know what concerns or things they've got on their mind, you might hear it differently, it might not be for you...
"So it's very important amongst Quakers that we allow for this diversity that everybody's different."
How does a Meeting finish?
Gordon: "These days, because people are too busy, we tend to have fixed times. On a formal Sunday Meeting at the end of the appointed time, two people will just shake hands and then everybody will turn to their neighbours and welcome one another."
After the Meeting ends there are announcements, then tea or coffee afterwards during which time people chat to one another.
Little children must find it hard to sit still in silence for thirty minutes or an hour. What happens to them?
Gordon: "We have a separate Children's Meeting in a separate room. They spend most of the Sunday morning hour in that. But they join us at the end for 10 minutes, and because they are children associated with Quakers they get used to this - they're brought up into it.
Painting of Quakers
"The children coming in for the last 10 minutes can be quite a powerful part of the meeting for worship."
What happens at Quaker weddings and Quaker funerals?
Gordon: "They go ahead in exactly the same way; they're Meetings for Worship. Every meeting we have, even our business meetings, are all Meetings for Worship and we enter into them in the same way.
"At a wedding or a funeral there'll probably be - there WILL be - lots of people there who are not familiar with it so there tends to be lots of introduction. And because you're celebrating (either a marriage or somebody's life) then there's often of course a lot more to say. But it is still a Meeting for Worship."
For more information about Quakerism or to find your nearest meeting, visit the website on the right of the page.
last updated: 28/10/2008 at 12:18