Totnes: Experimental premises for a growing meeting

Totnes Friends had outgrown their small meeting house. They decided to take action and after much deliberation, embarked upon a unique experiment which suited the needs of the meeting.

A mosaic in light brown colours includes the words peace, justice, equality and simplicity.
Peace, equality, simplicity, and truth mosaic, photo credit: Bristol Peace Garden

In 2016, Quakers in Totnes held a meeting for business which began to explore how to support the future life of the meeting. The meeting house premises were small and in a side street in the town, owned by Devon Area Meeting. Friends looked at alternative premises for meeting and began to explore unconventional options.

Holding a business meeting in September 2016, it was clear that there needed to be action about the meeting house.

A 'Premises Options Working Group' was formed. It had the remit: 'to discern a way forward re: making any change'.

The business meeting agreed that a major step like altering their current meeting house, or moving to new premises required a greater unity of purpose. To solve this, Friends formed an enlarged working group to explore some facts and figures about:

  • costs of renting bigger premises,
  • hiring other suitable places,
  • income from renting out the Meeting house,
  • cost and feasibility of internal alterations to the building,
  • likely cost of buying a suitable new larger building,
  • contributions possible from Area Meeting,
  • making small changes and any other relevant information that it found.

  • This information was compiled in a 'briefing pack'. The pack allowed Friends to bring their findings to the threshing meeting. The meeting was planned for the next year.

    Friends had a long time to consider the options of the briefing pack.

    Options that were available included:

  • Altering their current meeting house
  • Rent other premises
  • Buy other premises
  • Use the homes of Friends
  • Hold two meetings on a Sunday
  • Nine months after the business meeting, a visioning meeting was held. The results of a “worship sharing" were transcribed, printed and given to Friends as they left the meeting.

    That same week a threshing meeting was held. The threshing meeting included a 'world café' session. Friends walked between the tables (one for each “option" hosted by one of the POWG). Comments were gathered on the tables and displayed on post-its.

    Friends were able to have their voices heard in these meetings. Considerable time and energy was put into the preparation.

    The unexpected outcome of these meetings was to hold a six month experiment. It was decided to hold meeting for worship in a nearby community hall. The Meeting House would be kept open for lettings and smaller Quaker events.

    The meeting is currently exploring the next stage of discernment. They have circulated an online form to Friends. The purpose of the survey is to gather impressions of the experience of meeting in the hired venue.

    Quakers in Totnes have taken time to consider how they can best support the future of their meeting. Their journey has been unconventional but it has been led by the needs of the meeting.

    There were many ways in which Friends in Totnes were empowered to take action which worked for them:

  • The property group kept the Meeting well informed at all stages. They produced a very thorough document in good time for Friends to read before meetings. Meetings were arranged to include as many people as possible
  • The property group was authorised to spend money on architect's fees. These fees regarded the feasibility and cost of adapting the Meeting House. They worked in conjunction with an experienced Trustee.
  • The property group consulted with Elders. They brought a suggested format for the Threshing Meeting to a special Business Meeting so all Friends were involved in the discernment of how it would be held.
  • The Meeting House had been purchased in relatively recent history and the question of overcrowding had surfaced often. A determined sense of “grasping the nettle" helped the meeting move forwards.
  • An experienced Friend summarised previous thinking in order to reduce “re-inventing the wheel".
  • AM Friends facilitated the meetings so all local Friends could fully participate.
  • Threshing meetings can help many Quaker meetings identify important concerns. Such meetings can help to involve the whole meeting and prepare it for decisions which must eventually be taken in the regular meeting for church affairs. Guidance about threshing meetings can be found in Quaker faith & practice 3.26.

    If your meeting wishes to begin this journey there are many places you can consult:

    If you would like to know more about the specific project undertaken in Totnes, please contact Pip Harris.