For a year and a half I had been working for Quakers in Britain, in a project seeking out and sharing ways Quakers can have simpler meetings. I'd found myself asking, "Wouldn't video conferencing save travel time, reduce carbon and include more people?" and, "Can't the spirit move when we are gathered while not physically together?"
Struck by just how much effort goes into our meeting houses, I'd cheekily ask: "Are we really called to be The Religious Society of Community Centres and Historic Buildings?!" That got a good laugh. I was actually being serious. And I'd been working with people exploring questions like "could our meetings work together in new combinations and across area meeting boundaries?"
Things seemed to be moving rather slowly. "That's just how Quakers are," I was told.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic. Suddenly Quakers across Britain put worship top and centre in their priorities. We started holding worship with no technology, or online with video connections – without buildings and stretching across boundaries!
A gathered meeting
Normally in a Quaker meeting for worship, people are welcomed at the door and individuals gather together in a room. In the stillness we listen, opening our hearts and lives to new insights and guidance. After the meeting people often stay on for a chat and a cuppa.
Quite a few meetings are now gathering individually at home at a set time, and worshipping at a distance in a group with no technology. Some are reflecting on a passage from Advices & queries chosen in advance. People have spoken of using their normal process for centring down into silence, thinking in turn about each of the worshippers in their 'circle'.
Some meetings connect afterwards: one uses a telephone conference call; another has 'Afterword online'; while one has a 'Zoom Meeting for Biscuits'!
There's a meeting where people minister during worship by email. Another connects with WhatsApp messages during worship. Very 2020, isn't it?
Online meetings for worship
Lots of local meetings have established their own online worship, with simple video-conferencing programs – often Zoom. Having a practice session first has really helped. Some area meetings have an online meeting for worship for anyone in the area. Woodbrooke is running eleven online meetings during the week. Many people shared that they are having more people at worship now, and others are connecting up with meetings they used to attend. Newcomers are attending for the first time online.
One meeting uses a combination: online and non-tech at the same time, with specific elders upholding each group during the combined worship.
Quite a few online meetings have several people joining in with ordinary telephones. Phone calls have also been invaluable in helping people take their first steps with unfamiliar technology.
Including young people
Many online meetings now hold their children's meetings in adjacent 'break-out rooms' in the same Zoom call (like another room in a meeting house). Some are setting up safe online spaces for young people to network across an area, or joining the new weekly national young people's events online.
At first, with so many people learning to use video connections, the period when people arrive for online worship could be quite noisy, with facilitators or 'virtual doorkeepers' greeting and explaining. This is now beginning to quieten down.
After meeting, some use a series of break-out rooms where three or four people can chat, to catch up with each other and make new connections. Having a break-out room available to talk with newcomers is also useful.
Opening the way
Many meetings have been considering how to avoid 'locking the door' of their worship space with a password, deliberately keeping access open. There is encouraging advice on ways to keep online worship open to the public, while still protecting from 'Zoombombing', in the online worship advice on the Woodbrooke website, along with detailed help for using Zoom the first time, and advice on setting up online worship.
Quite a few meetings are holding worship more often, at different times in the week, and hope to continue these when things 'get back to normal'. Others are trying midweek meetings focused on a particular theme, like change or loss, or organising online reading groups. A daily epilogue online has sprung up across several area meetings, and young adults are gathering once a week.
So in this crisis, Quakers all over Britain are trying new and imaginative ways to 'keep the meeting'. As one Friend put it: "It's odd, you wouldn't think silent worship online would work but it does. I find them very good, the feeling of gathering together is still powerful." Others are finding the spirit moving when "connected while not connected". Another reflected "Why do we bother with buildings?"
It appears Quakers are not so slow moving, after all.