When people ask how my husband and I became Quakers, I sometimes reply, “We missed the bus to the Episcopal Church!” I go on to explain, “Then we realized we could take a later bus and still make it to the Quaker meeting we’d thought about visiting, and the rest…”
That missed-bus experience in Seattle took place thirty-six years ago, and ever since then, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) has been our spiritual home. In the early days of attending meeting (the term Quakers use instead of church, synagogue, or mosque), I read and talked to people to understand the faith. Often I was directed to the Journal of George Fox, the Englishman most often identified as the founder of Quakerism. His journal dates back to the 1650s, and I struggled with the language and unfamiliar historical and cultural context.
One thing I’ve learned about George Fox is that he was a fervent seeker. He resisted the Church of England’s dogma and reliance on priests as intermediaries (along with many other things he objected to in the Church). A profound moment for him was when he encountered the Divine directly, out of the silence. What he came to trust was his lived experience. “This I know experimentally,” he said. Today we might use the term experientially, and Quakerism is viewed as an experiential theology.
Recently, I experienced the Divine experientially when I visited the “cradle of Quakerism” in the county of Cumbria, Northwest England. My initial reason for planning this, my first trip to the UK, was to attend the annual conference of QUIP – Quakers Uniting in Publications. This international group of Quakers who write and/or publish meets annually, alternating between the UK and the US. The theme of “Writing at the Edge,” and the setting of Glenthorne Conference Centre in the Lake District, were irresistible—for me and the 30 or so others who came from not only the UK and the US but also Belgium, Bolivia, Sweden, Russia, and Germany.
Following the conference, I stayed in the area for a few more days to tour “1652 Country,” led by QUIP friends, Gil and Chris Skidmore. The region’s name was given by Friends to describe the part of England, and the year, that Quakers first drew together. My knowledge of British history is shaky, but with the help of Gil and Chris and the book, The Cradle of Quakerism: Exploring Quaker Roots in North West England, I deepened my understanding of the time and its role in the emergence of Quakerism.
As I sat on hard, wooden benches in stone meeting houses, I imagined people worshipping there hundreds of years ago, never knowing if soldiers would arrive to arrest them for these illegal gatherings. I walked among tombstones in Quaker burial grounds, created because Quakers weren’t allowed to be interred in Church of England cemeteries.
(You can learn more about Quaker Burial Grounds in this QuakerSpeak video.)
At Swarthmoor Hall, the home of early Quaker leader Margaret Fell and a meeting place for George Fox, I worshipped in the same room Friends have met in since the 1650s.
I hiked Firbank Fell, the site now memorialized as another place Fox preached in 1652.
And, at Brigflatts Meeting House, built in 1677 at the height of Quaker persecution, I stood in the “preaching box” from which Fox reportedly spoke.
Less than a week later, I was in London, worshipping with contemporary Quakers—1100 of them—at Friends House. The occasion was the annual gathering of Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM), the charitable organization which supports and works on behalf of all Quakers in Britain. Yearly Meeting is also an event—a time when Quakers in Britain (and around the world) come together to worship, make decisions and spend time as a community. I was one of several visitors to BYM from the US; others travelled from Australia, Bolivia, Norway, France, Africa, Russia, and Sweden.
Throughout my travels, I had a deep sense of being among Friends—and friends. Whether serving up porridge (oatmeal) at breakfast, looking for the car park, trying to decide on which pudding (dessert) to have, or understanding the difference between crisps (potato chips) and chips (French fries), I found much in common with others who follow this same spiritual path of Quakerism.
I remain grateful that there was a bus that dropped us at University Friends Meeting all those years ago. And I’m equally appreciative of the buses and trains that took me the places I wanted to go in the UK; I’m not yet comfortable driving on the left side of the road—and those roundabouts!