Mystery Worshipper: Isla White
Church: Quaker Meeting House
Location: Shaftesbury, Dorset, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 30 April 2017, 10:30am
Looks like an ordinary house from the outside with a beautiful front garden. Originally the coach house of Castle Hill House, the Quakers acquired it in 1977. Renovations were done in 2003. There is a large foyer with a well stocked, and apparently well used, library. The meeting house is available to hire.
They have contacts with a school in the developing world. They hold a meeting each Sunday, with a separate children's meeting on the second and fourth Sundays of the month. There is also a midweek meeting with lunch on the second Tuesday of each month. They support the programme known as "toilet twinning," by which funds are given for the construction of a hygienic toilet in an underdeveloped country, and a commemorative plaque to that effect is mounted in one's own toilet.
Shaftesbury is a town about 20 miles west of Salisbury. Nearby are the ruins of Shaftesbury Abbey, one of the richest religious establishments in the country before being destroyed in the Dissolution in 1539. It was built by King Alfred in around 888 and was the first religious house solely for women. Adjacent to the abbey is Gold Hill, made famous in an advert for the popular Hovis bread, known for its high wheat germ content. The advert, directed in 1973 by Ridley Scott six years before the release of his blockbuster Alien, featured a delivery boy pushing his bike up the incredibly steep cobbled hill, then freewheeling down to the strains of the second movement of Antonin Dvorak's Ninth Symphony ("From the New World").
Five unidentified people spoke.
What was the name of the service?Meeting for Worship.
How full was the building?
Almost full. There were about 40 chairs arranged in a square around a central table.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A gentleman standing at the door shook my hand and indicated the facilities. Lots of people were chatting in the foyer. At different times several came up and asked me questions. At the end of the meeting everyone shook hands with those sitting nearby.
Was your pew comfortable?
Individual padded chairs.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Within the meeting room there was silence, although several people entered after the nominal start time. Before the service, a lady offered to give me a brochure about attending a Quaker meeting for the first time but she couldn't find a copy! So she told me instead that everything they believed was based purely on one's own personal experience, that everybody's belief was equally valid and nobody ever commented on or questioned what was said.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
None. I was told that the meeting started when the first person sat down. There were already half a dozen seated before 10.30 (the time advertised as the start). Shortly after 10.30 a man said, "I am reading from 'Advices and Queries' [chapter 1 of Quaker Faith & Practice, Fifth Edition] number 12: 'When you are preoccupied and distracted in meeting, let wayward and disturbing thoughts give way quietly to your awareness of God's presence among us and in the world...'"
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The man who spoke read from the aforementioned work, a copy of which was also on the centre table. During part of the meeting, a woman was reading to herself what looked like a devotional book.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Five people spoke, each after a long period of silence, none for more than a minute. Not possible to rate or summarise what each said.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The room had clear windows so I could see out into the garden. The aroma of cherry blossoms was blowing in a gentle breeze, and there were lovely flowers in a vase on the centre table.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Their website states: "The Religious Society of Friends is rooted in Christianity and has always found inspiration in the life and teachings of Jesus." But I saw no Bible in the meeting room. One man quoted Isaiah 30:15 ("In quietness and trust shall be your strength") but apparently had no idea where it came from, as he said that perhaps somebody would identify it for him afterwards. Neither the Bible nor Jesus were named just references to "the light."
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
People were very friendly and encouraged me to meet three other visitors who were having a school reunion. They were talking with a regular attendee who had also gone to the same school as had I.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Proper cups and regular biscuits not Hovis, though, I don't think.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – I felt comfortable with the silence but not with the lack of biblical (or any) teaching or accountability.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The need for biblical knowledge, instruction and accountability.