Meeting House Innovative? | Visual Arts and Creativity in Quakerism

Recently I had a great talk with a woman from Essex, and she goes to a Quaker meeting that’s doing some really cool stuff. I asked her about her meeting and she told me that there are about 35 people there and they have unprogrammed worship every week. But the majority of the people don’t actually attend the Sunday worship service, instead they go to each other’s homes for various creative gatherings.

Building Community Away From Established Spaces

IMG_3033.JPG She explained that they do reflective readings on George Fox’s writings, as well as on other topics, and early Quaker authors. She said they do this as a separate meeting in people’s homes where it can be more personal. Meeting away from the established worship spaces can make it a little more conducive to create community among people. Sometimes these meetings are more like guide meditations, where the silence is broken up by quotes, and people guide the prayers. Other times there is a mixture of reading various writings about selected topics. Then they will discuss their impressions and experiences based on those readings.

I was pretty excited about this because it seems really different, from the “mainstream” Quakerism over here. I told her that my impression, which is still very limited, is that unprogrammed meetings don’t venture off into stuff like that very much, the forms have become rather sacred. But what she explained, sounded almost emerging church-ish because of the meeting in homes, focus on community, guided meditations and dialogue around topics and texts (Versus one person teaching or complete silence), not to mention a focus on creativity. They also do poetry readings, and music nights where they all bring music to play or put in the CD player and talk about why those songs were had an impact on them, the spiritual implications, etc. They also eat bagged lunches together during the week as a way to gather and get to know one another.

One of the important factors here is that they aren’t messing with the worship service that happens on Sunday, and because of this anything goes. Whatever falls outside the sacred space our churches create is often not considered church or worship. This giving us the freedom to be creative with the forms we employ to worship God, and I’ve personally found that it’s often outside the set apart times when I experience the God the most. I think this is true for others as well.

Is Innovative Still a Bad Word? How About Creative?

I talked to her about an experience with a group of Quakers where I asked if they knew of any meetings doing anything artsy, creative or “innovative?” The answer was a pretty clear negative. I talked about how the culture has radically changed in the past 30 years, and how we are now much more of an image-based visual culture. This is partly because the arts have made a major comeback, and are now in the center of cultural change. I’ve often wondered if very static (in terms of form) and anti-visual faith can “speak” to people these days, the way it used to, and told my friend how I was really excited to hear about her meeting and what they’re doing.

427180158 8B32B68Ccf She agreed with what I said and said she’d like to encourage bringing more visual art to one of these gatherings and find ways to reflect spiritually on actual physical art. We also talked about ways they could use their meeting house as more of a community center – find ways to make more use of it for people who wouldn’t normally come. She said they rarely go there, Sunday mornings is one of the few times, and the rest of the time they’re meeting in homes, eating together and doing other things. So what creative ways could the meeting house be used for? Should they continue to keep it at all?

I’m really excited to here about what this meeting is doing, and from what this woman said this isn’t the only unprogrammed meeting do this kind of stuff. Since I talked with her, I’ve become aware of some other meetings in the United Kingdom that are doing similar things. There are also meetings in the U.S. doing some really neat stuff, using films as discussion points, etc. I am curious who else out there is doing this kind of stuff – not just Quaker meetings but Mennonites, Brethren, Catholics, etc? Is there a move away from the “sacred spaces” into more open, more communal areas, where we’re more free to experiment with the forms? Is it true that there are more people want a visceral experience in worship than in prior generations?

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Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.