Mystery Worshipper: Cool Dude
Church: Stoke Newington Quaker Meeting
Location: Hackney, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 19 June 2022, 5:00pm
They meet in the hall of St Mary’s Church, a towering Victorian Gothic structure and a recent rebuild. The hall is not large compared with the church, but is fresh, modern, attractive, and indirectly lit from above by windows in the folding form of the ceiling. It also has a notably clear, gentle acoustic, which served us well.
St Mary’s occasionally rents out its hall, and every so often the Quaker meeting heads for Clissold Park opposite and hopes for good weather – a return to the earliest days of Quaker tradition, when open air meetings were common. The Stoke Newington Quaker meeting is one of three dozen dotted across London and its immediate satellite towns.
Stoke Newington is an inner city suburb that has been the subject of considerable gentrification in recent decades. Church Street near the hall where this meeting took place has become synonymous with the kind of fashionable restaurants and shops that have displaced older businesses. But like any London suburb, it is more mixed in terms of wealth and diverse in ethnic make-up than the headlines suggest, and there is considerable poverty alongside wealth.
As Quakers have no priesthood and a preference for the flattest possible hierarchy in their organisation, the cast was simply those of us present. We were mixed in age, dress and ethnic origins, a fragment of the local area.
What was the name of the service?Meeting for Worship.
How full was the building?
There were about a dozen adults – and (until they left us) five children. This made for a large-ish circle in the room, not too large to be impersonal or too small to make visitors self-conscious. The children left with two adults after ten minutes or so for their own meeting in the next door room.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was noticed as a newcomer the moment I walked in, and welcomed by three people who introduced themselves, greeted me, and offer a cup of tea. I had arrived about ten minutes before the advertised start and, since it was late, afternoon tea was (in England) the appropriate gesture. They asked me if I had been to a Quaker meeting before. I had been to three or four, so perhaps didn’t get the explanation that might have followed had I been a total newcomer. The welcome was excellent, not too pushy, and focussed on what I expected. Oh, and the lavatories were pointed out to me should I need them.
Was your pew comfortable?
We sat on pressed steel chairs with stainless steel legs. At first sight they looked unwelcoming, but not a bit of it. They gave great support to the lower back while having just enough spring to make sitting upright for an extended period a comfortable pleasure. Everyone has a favourite shape of chair and this was close to my personal optimum.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Some food preparations were being made in the adjacent kitchen and there was some quiet conviviality as regulars stood around and quietly chatted. The children were livelier.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
An announcement a few minutes before the advertised start-time explained that the children would leave us for their own meeting in the garden. If they listened carefully, she said, they might hear birdsong. At which point, bang on cue, a raucous car alarm nearby went off, to the general amusement. For the meeting proper there were no opening words. People understood it was time to sit and the meeting fell into silence with minimum fuss. If there was a signal from the elder, it was so subtle I missed it.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Nobody used any book, but there were copies of the sturdy volume Quaker Faith and Practice and the much thinner Advices & Queries laid out in the centre in a circle for us to use (bending down to pick them up from the floor might have been challenging for me). At this meeting the books remained un-read. There were a few copies of The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark for the children.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
It was a warm summer afternoon, so the doors to the outside were left open. Accordion music from a street performer occasionally drifted in, giving the atmosphere of a 1950s film set in Paris. After the car alarm went off a second time. somebody closed the external doors and both sounds were banished, leaving us in peace.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Quaker meeting for worship is quite unlike anything else I have attended with the sole exception of a Buddhist meditation retreat. Silence is everything and silence is golden. Communal silence is especially powerful in ways I find it difficult to explain, or even understand. But the silence of a group is more than the sum of its parts – it is something else. Whilst I have in the past heard remarkable and moving testimony at Quaker meetings, the silence was more than enough. There are, I think, many different ways to participate in the peace that results. Some involve active thought; others are more removed from the room and meditative; others focussed and prayerful. After about an hour, someone announced that the meeting was closed; and instead of the usual Quaker custom of everyone shaking hands, we all made open handed gestures of blessing. I presume this is a safe version of the handshake developed for the Covid pandemic.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Quaker meetings don’t have sermons. They do welcome spontaneous, unscripted testimony by those present, but there was none on his particular day, just pure collective silence.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The depth of concentration that a collective silence releases.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Wondering if I could settle with the car alarm and accordion in the background – until they were both dealt with.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After the meeting was closed but while we were still seated in the circle, one member described dealing with guilt (in his case at not appreciating his parents sufficiently). This felt as though it was technically outside the meeting but also part of it, as we went around the circle to greet each other and offer comments. The children showed us the drawings they had made. I was able to thank the meeting for their warm welcome. I chatted to somebody next to me who it turned out was attending her first Quaker meeting.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
A regular member invited me to a shared meal in the room with those present. I had to decline, as I was due elsewhere shortly afterwards, but the invitation was an extension of the warm welcome. Whether it embraced the coffee bean I cannot say, but at six o’clock in the evening, perhaps not.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 — I won’t go to the outdoor meeting the following week, as sitting on the ground in the park is likely to cause me bad backache. But I promised myself to return. My typical engagement with religious worship is a wordy package of liturgy, hymns, readings and preaching. Perhaps all those who usually use wordy worship should try a Quaker meeting once (especially clergy who go on too long).
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
In this particular meeting there wasn’t a great deal spoken that was explicitly Christian. But the welcome, behaviour and attitudes were wholly Christian. ‘Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.’
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The simple, genuine and immediate welcome.