Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Quaker Lady

Yesterday as part of "Doors Open," I looked around the Quaker Meeting House here in Newmarket--in continuous use since about 1805. A nice, soothing wooden building, classic Quaker carpentry, simple and unadorned with big planks.

The lady showing us around was interesting. I mentioned that I had toured the Sharon Temple, a few miles from here, founded by a group that had split off from the Newmarket Quakers. She said that group had probably followed a charismatic leader (David Willson) rather than following "the inner light," and that was why they had not lasted long after the leader's death. Probably true.

I had been struck by one detail: the Willson group had wanted music in a church service--something that the Quakers do not have. This lady said there is nothing stopping someone who is responding to the inner light from singing, any more than from speaking out, but it is considered wrong to plan something, bring instruments or music, etc. The Willson group, perhaps still imbued with Quaker thinking, tried to reach the point where no piece of music was played more than once--hence retaining the spontaneity and freshness, in the hope that music doesn't become routine, stale, forgettable, something one can day-dream through. I think Willson himself composed a lot of the music they used--a formidable job, producing new music every week, in some ways comparable to J.S. Bach.

The tour lady said she had once been an evangelical Christian, and she was a singer in those days, so she has certainly experienced services with a lot of music. But she said: the point of those services is to win converts, or cause someone to turn to Jesus. That is different from encouraging people to respond to their own inner light. I asked how often anyone sings at Quaker meeting, and she said not often. She said some people definitely miss it, and ask if music can at least be planned on occasion. Her answer: meeting is only one hour out of the week; you have the entire rest of the week for devotional music, if you wish to experience that.

Then without any prompting from me, she said: we don't believe in having one minister leading a service. Some people say we have eliminated the clergy, but we believe everyone is a minister. Perhaps it is lay people we have eliminated.

Incidentally, they seem to have resigned themselves to being called Quakers--although they probably don't like it.

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