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3047: Friargate Quaker Meeting, York, England
Friargate Quaker Meeting, York
Mystery Worshipper: Cool Dude.
The church: Friargate Quaker Meeting, York, England.
Denomination: Religious Society of Friends, Britain Yearly Meeting.
The building: A much altered 19th century complex amidst retail frontages of nearby streets. It has a welcoming and accessible ramp up from the pavement and a spacious foyer overlooking the street. The meeting room itself is spacious, with heavy beams and panelled dado. It must have originally looked rather like a billiards room in the mansion of a wealthy industrialist, but has been modernised with wall to wall beige carpet and light coloured walls and mostly modern furnishings.
The church: Quakerism has survived well in York, with four Quaker meetings in various locations– which seems a lot for a smallish city. The Friargate Meeting are (according to their website) especially keen to welcome visitors. They have informational leaflets available and also maintain a library. Activities are provided for children in separate rooms. Anyone can visit their quiet room during the week for rest or meditation. Meetings are held on Wednesday in addition to Sunday; the Wednesday meeting is preceded by lunch (bring a sandwich).
The neighbourhood: Central York is orientated to retail and tourism. Road traffic is heavy and not well managed, and the pavements in summer are crammed with visitors. Friargate, where the Quakers have their meeting house, is a short street, which in spite of its central location is a bit of a backwater.
The cast: No names were given either at the meeting or on their website.
The date & time: Sunday, 17 July 2016, 10.30am.

What was the name of the service?
Meeting for Worship.

How full was the building?
There were about 60 people present so it looked full. It might have seated another 20.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Two greeters provided a friendly welcome and, since I walk with a limp, opened the door for me. After a short chat I was given a welcome envelope for newcomers and, without asking, was told where the WCs were and how to make my way through to the meeting room itself.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was a modern upholstered stackable chair of the sort they have in conference rooms – and comfortable. A few of the original Quaker style benches remained, presumably contemporary with the meeting room, and arranged around the walls. Since several people opted to sit on these, they must be more comfortable than they looked.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The pre-service atmosphere was almost indistinguishable from the atmosphere of the meeting itself. Though there was lively chat and conviviality in the foyer, when people walked into the meeting room they fell comfortably silent.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
There was no discernible signal, but at 10.30 – presumably timed by the huge clock on one wall – the silence deepened and one was aware that worship had commenced.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Quaker Faith and Practice and a Bible were on a small centre table. There were also a dozen or more copies of Quaker Faith and Practice placed randomly around the room, conspicuous by their red covers. During the silence, one member of the meeting took the copy from the table and read it privately. Another was used by one of the speakers.

What musical instruments were played?
None.

Did anything distract you?
On the table beside the Bible and Quaker Faith and Practice was a dish of boiled sweets (assorted hard candies) – it took me a while to realise that these were for the use of anyone who caught a frog in their throat and didn't want to disrupt the meeting with a coughing attack.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I can see why those used to more structured worship find it it difficult to use the word "worship" to describe Quaker meetings. This was only my second experience of Quaker worship, but it strongly reminded me of a Buddhist mediation group I used to attend: mostly silent and with words of careful meaning used sparingly.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon; just three short testimonies from those assembled.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
One of the speakers celebrated the authors of Towards A Quaker View of Sex that had been published in 1963. Another more or less followed up on this with thoughts about the importance of knowing ourselves as part of knowing creation. A third was about the importance of hospitality, a group from the meeting having been together on a visit.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The collective silence was very powerful. Heaven all the way, except for ...

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
... a fidgeting child who was clearly fretful that a roomful of adults were falling silent around it. The parents soon quietly took the child out to the children's crêche, but for a moment I though we were in for an hour listening to the child's rebellion and quite understandable frustration that it was in a grown-up space it didn't fully understand.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No chance to look lost. After the meeting proper came to a close with handshaking throughout the room, there were business notices and visitors were invited to identify themselves if they wished. I did so and thanked the meeting for its welcome.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Over coffee, several people came up to me and chatted. It was most convivial.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – If I lived in York I would.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It certainly made me feel refreshed, alive, welcomed as a stranger, centred, and at one point moved. There was no explicitly Christian aspect to the worship, but if I imagine a world populated by kindly liberal Christians, it would be a bit like this meeting.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
the collective silence.
 
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