Last week someone handed me a Christmas card whilst almost apologetically commenting that he didn’t know whether ‘your lot’ do Christmas but ‘here you go anyway’. My lot being Quakers. Well, yes and no…
It’s true that just as Quaker meetings in the don’t normally involve symbols or set prayers, they also generally don’t feature the marking of any festivals or saints days. Today this is justified by appeals to our ‘testimony’ of simplicity; but its origins lie in the rebellious nature of the Quaker movement in the context of the religious turbulence of 17th century England. One of many ‘diy’ congregational societies formed at the time, its members sought a means of exploring their faith away from the authoritarian oversight of ministers and the trappings and layers of church traditions. In doing so, groups like the Quakers saw themselves as ‘friends of the truth’ and set about forming an understanding of Christianity drawn from what they read in scripture enlightened by their own insights. When it came to the question of festivals and Christmas, seeing no basis for the annual celebration of Jesus’ birth on a particular day in winter, they simply abandoned the idea as a religious prospect.
So this sense of detachment from the significance of particular times and seasons is written into the DNA of Quaker worship and, for many Quakers over the years, interpreted strictly in their daily life as well. But it would be incorrect to characterise contemporary Quakers as puritan, and I’ve certainly never met any who are immune to the Christmas spirit, or the comings and goings of times and seasons throughout the year. Far from it: we might not decorate our Meeting Houses but you might find a ‘programmed’ Meeting for Worship here and there where the odd carol is sung, mince pies are enjoyed afterwards and yes, Christmas cards exchanged.
So what is the deal with Quakers and Christmas (and Easter, and any other national holidays)? I can’t speak for every Quaker but the way I see it is this. Festivals are a way for us all to unwind, celebrate each other, pause for breath, look back on our achievements and any number of other good and socially necessary things. It just so happens that our major winter festival got wound up with the celebration of the nativity and became a time when the church focusses on Jesus’ birth; and the fact that this still permeates the secular celebration of Christmas is testament to the power of the story at its heart.
I see no reason to turn away from the telling and retelling of that story at this time of year; but to be conscious of the distance between the way in which it is commonly told and the likely facts of its origins or the implications of its message. It doesn’t matter when Jesus was born. It does matter that the narratives we have in the gospels have him born into an ordinary family of no status or wealth, outsiders far from home, with the birth being announced first to shepherds – workers doing one of the least respectable jobs available at the time. It matters that the next people to notice were foreign travellers, looking for meaning in cultures beyond their own and seeking the common ground between those cultures. The inference is clear: what follows in the life of this remarkable human is a message for all people of whatever rank or background. Whether we’re interested in that message and what we make of it is up to us – and our conclusions are for life, not just for Christmas.
On four Sunday afternoons from mid-September to late October this year, Airton Friends will be hosting a series of moving and informative events exploring the lives both of people experiencing slavery and those who worked towards it abolition, sometimes in spectacular fashion. However, whilst abolition may have been a great historic achievement, it’s work is far from finished, as we will hear from speakers later in the series.
The events begin on September 17th with a performance by Leeds Heritage Corner (http://heritagecornerleeds.wixsite.com/heritage-corner) of Meet the Crafts – a two handed play based on the biographical work Running a Thousand Miles to Freedom by escaped slave William Craft, published in 1860 by William Tweedie of London. This harrowing story charts the flight of William and Ellen from slavery in the southern US, passage across the Atlantic and their reception in this country. 150 years after publication, the written narrative, available online at http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/craft/craft.html, is as gripping as any contemporary adventure, all the more intense through its being the real story of a man and woman struggling for freedom. Meet the Crafts brings this story back to life as well as giving voice to other transatlantic voices of the time.
On October 1st, we explore the life of Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) in a dramatised reading by Arthur Pritchard and Mike Casey of Plain Quakers Theatre Projects (PQTP). In Nine Parts a Quaker – Unfinished Business, the duo ask ‘If slavery was abolished in the nineteenth century, why are more than 20 million people enslaved today?’ The title refers to the fact that Clarkson was a sympathiser to Quaker values but was not himself a Quaker – an apt reminder that movements for change are most effective as coalitions rather than as single interest groups. Follow PQTP on twitter @PlainQuakers.
The third event is part answer to the question posed by Nine Parts a Quaker. Returning to the present day, in Here and Now, we will hear short talks and engage in discussion about contemporary slavery with contributions from someone who has experienced the sharp end of trafficking and domestic servitude; a former chair of Anti-Slavery International Andrew Clark; Cristina Talens of the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation (University of Hull); and Sheila Mosley of Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network. Between them, these four speakers will shed light on the continued persistence of slavery both internationally and within the UK. Abolitionists faced the challenges of their time with courage and determination; facing present reality is the beginning of change – so if you can only make one event in this series, this is the one to attend.
In the final event of the series, on October 29th, we travel back three centuries to explore the life and times of abolitionist Benjamin Lay (1682-1759). Despite his small stature, he worked as a sailor, travelling to Barbados, where he was appalled by slavery. Arriving in Philadelphia – where many of his fellow Quakers owned slaves – he provoked and annoyed them with incessant and sometimes extravagant campaigning, eventually being disowned by the Quaker meeting. Yet his protests inspired subsequent Quaker abolitionists Anthony Benezet and John Woolman, helping to turn the movement wholesale against slavery. This story will be unfolded for us by historian Marcus Rediker of the University of Pittsburgh, with an illustrated talk based on his book The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist (Beacon Press/Verso, 2017).
We warmly invite you to join us at any or all of these events. Each begins at 3.30pm. Entrance will be free and a collection will be taken to cover costs, with the surplus donated to a relevant charity by Airton Friends Meeting.
Keep updated over the next few weeks by visiting this site, including our news page.
Simon Watkins and Laurel Phillipson, 17th July 2017.
It’s easy when encountering a place for the first time to imagine that everything there is as it has always been, even when you already know that the place concerned has only recently been changed and refreshed.
On my first visit to Airton Meeting House and Barn I was sold on the idea of living here as warden almost instantly as much by the attractive, tranquil and well-ordered nature of the complex as by the wonderful welcome of the people who interviewed me and the potential to grow the programme of events and activities on the site. I knew that both the Meeting House and the Barn had in recent years been refurbished and was impressed with the result but remained unaware of the depth of the transformation – particularly where the Barn was concerned – until some of the members of the Meeting showed me photographs of the interior prior to the alterations.
The images were a revelation. I was looking at pictures of tired, dishevelled rooms of a character with which anyone who frequents old church halls or Victorian community buildings up and down the country would be familiar. Looking at these photos, dank, musty aromas almost reach out of the images and the cold air seems to fill with footsteps and voices echoing off hard, dreary walls, floors and ceilings. In the old photos of the Barn, those ceilings appear low – too low to correspond with the comfortable spaces I’d first encountered – and contribute to a desultory atmosphere of unreconstructed gloom.
This was the first indication that the refurbishment had been more substantial than the refit and decorate that I had imagined – albeit a thorough one. After checking the location of the old photos and standing as close to the equivalent spot as possible, the real nature of the changes became clear. Walls had been removed, floors lowered, staircases re-oriented. None of the new fixtures and fittings stood in the same place as their predecessors, so that to effect the changes, the entire building had been rewired and re-plumbed.
In short, none of the former spaces seemed to map onto what I knew. ‘Before and after’ photos tell the story: dingy corners are replaced with light-filled rooms, care having been taken to ensure access to windows from all directions wherever possible; clutter is exchanged for simplicity and order, patchy surfaces of multiple dismal shades superseded by a simple palette of warm colours, cleanly applied.
A glance at the plans revealed how space had been gained by incorporating the former garage of the Nook (now the warden’s residence) and two rooms above it into the Barn – as would have originally have been the case, since the division between these distinct building structures always lay where the join is today.
These alterations must have involved extraordinary technical challenges and in my view the incredible transformation of the Barn, carried out by builder Colin Atkins under the direction of architect James Innerdale, is if anything more spectacular than the excellent refurbishment of the Meeting House. Taken together, the two projects represent an exceptional achievement on the part of a few committed individuals, Airton Meeting’s current clerk Laurel Phillipson and the late and much loved Kevin Berry being particularly instrumental. Their efforts – not least in raising the £300,000 required within the constraints of Quakers’ principled opposition to the use of lottery funding – ensured not only the buildings’ conservation and ongoing use but the continued presence of a living Quaker heritage in Airton, one of Quakerism’s oldest heartlands. May it be so for many years to come.