On entering the Meeting House what I found was warmth and welcome. The Friends are not unique in that but I've been to enough churches to know that what you meet with on entering varies widely.
There is a church near here that I went to about a dozen times, including a full teaching day. In all that time only three people spoke to me. One was the priest. The other two were visitors to Newcastle and were asking me questions about the church. At a church in Crawley that I went to quite a few times when visiting my parents the welcome was similarly cold. But it's Holy Mass - and you go for the liturgy, for God, but often not for the community. Nobody spoke to me at all. Until eventually someone did chase after me and talk - but only so they could accuse me of stealing their coat. I actually wrote to the priest in charge of that church and let him know about how unwelcoming the place was and received a very woolly answer about how it didn't really matter and how in a relatively large Catholic parish it wasn't right to expect any welcome.
In other churches the welcome has been warm and embracing and cold shoulders have been replaced with warm smiles. Our local Anglican church was like that, as was another relatively large Catholic parish in the area, and the local MCC is very good at welcoming people - many visitors feel from the beginning that they've been welcomed into the arms of a loving family.
On Sunday I encountered another welcome - smiles, hello, introductions, "there's lots of information there if you want it". Someone gave me a little tour of the building - it really is rather nice -and several mentioned that there was lunch after the meeting. "Please stay and chat and eat" - but not in a threatening "We want to recruit you" kind of way.
The actual meeting hall is a large room upstairs. You can sense the quiet as you enter. The chairs are arranged in a circle - lots of comfy seats and some old church pews which I guess came from the old meeting house in Jesmond. But that's just a guess. And in the centre a simple table with a few books. One was "Quaker Faith and Practice" but I didn't get nosey and check the others! I watched and the people entered, moving from the noise and conversation of the hall and stairs into the silence of the room.
A question arises: What on earth do you do in a Quaker meeting? They have leaflets about that that give a lot of helpful advice because it's actually pretty hard for a modern westerner to sit in quiet for an hour without drifting away a hundred times and being really impatient to get back to the noise. We're so used to noise - the street, the TV or radio, music, talking, or even the very real internal noise of reading a book. Mostly in our society silence is not for embracing but for breaking. And there is a rather wonderful little booklet, "Advices and Queries" - which is actually chapter one of Faith and Practice. But I wasn't handed these until after the meeting.
So the question remained. Having been used to vocal prayers and hymns and standing, sitting and kneeling at set times and so on a meeting of quiet with no liturgy can be difficult. As for me it was a chance to ponder some of the events that led to me being there, combined with quiet mantra. There are no rules. I predict that each person in that room was doing something different to suit their own way, yet all were seeking the divine, encounter with the divine, growth, calm, beauty, and the unifying bond centred on love. Most churches have the unity of words. The Quakers have the unity of quiet.
Yes, I'd been told the previous week had been entirely silent. Sunday's meeting was not. I'm told that it was positively raucous and noisy for Quakers. Over the course of the hour, half a dozen people got up and spoke with a common theme. Without giving details, they spoke about memory, the loss of memory, the dismay that can bring, the peace that can still be found, and the all reaching love of God or love in God that is with us.
It was good. Thoughts of memory have been with me quite prominently. Not just in sorting out my own memories in the last year. My dad is ill. I don't want to give details of that but he has a form of dementia and the onset and progress have been rapid. I worry about him. I worry far more about my mum who has to deal with everything every day. And I know I can't do a lot, at least now, as they are hundreds of miles away. Every day my mother tries to find good and actively seeks it but it's damn hard work for her and every day brings pain too. So to hear others talk of memory loss, whether through age or illness, was worthwhile.
There are children at the Friends Meeting House. They spent most of the time downstairs doing things - they were already doing them when I entered the building - but come in for the last 10 minutes of the quiet. Then the notices are given - just like any other church - and the children show off what they've been doing. Some had been making things on a basic proggy rug maker. Some had been making toy skateboards for some display or other. And one boy made a necklace. That's not like other churches. In most churches the children have been "taught" about some Bible story or other, come in with a picture, get asked questions by the "teacher", don't know the answers, and the "teacher" answers for them!
I kind of like that Quaker way of encouraging children's creativity. And I like it that the children were doing different things that the children wanted to do. It's as if the Friends have correctly interpreted a verse from the Bible that many churches get wrong. Proverbs 22:6, in most translations, says something like: "Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it." So often that's interpreted as showing the child what path to take (and there's only one right path) and force him or her to take it, using the rod when needed. Matthew Henry's Commentary, much loved by many reformed Christians says "Train children, not in the way they would go, that of their corrupt hearts, but in the way they should go; in which, if you love them, you would have them go. As soon as possible every child should be led to the knowledge of the Saviour."
Any Jew would freak out at that interpretation. And these days I freak out too. Which is a good thing. Of course, many Christians would freak out at it as well but I heard that verse in a sermon a couple of months ago with a commentary that was more extreme than Matthew Henry. Another translation is better: "Train a child in the way appropriate for him" for the Hebrew actually means to train a child according to his or her temperament. It's about encouraging the child to be themselves, to bring out the fullness of who that child is. It's not about forcing them into a tight mould that their parents like.
Of course, I'm making an instant judgement here based on a small group of children, on one day, in a public setting. I have no way of knowing what goes on elsewhere and whether they are encouraged and nurtured in the way that, for instance, Johann Christoph Arnold of the Bruderhof writes of in the one good book I read about children before our daughter was born.
The service was over. People filed out and the talking began again in earnest. I sat for a minute and pondered and resolved to return. And then I went to the loo. Don't worry - I won't be talking about going to the loo regularly. But this means something to me. Because I found myself, in the women's toilets chatting at some length with a few other women. I'd never met them before - and with my memory for names I don't know what they were called. Too many names that day - and I can generally only remember one new name a day! Anyway, I found it great to be in that women only environment, totally comfortable to be there, and chatting with women who were totally comfortable to have me there. It's not unobvious that I'm transgender - especially when I speak and it was so nice to be so obviously accepted as a woman in the women's place. Without question. Without discussion. Just with warmth. It's still under nine months since I completely came out to myself as transgender. To be able to do these things so quickly is wonderful.
And so to lunch. The Newcastle Friends have lunch together once a month (and breakfast regularly after an early morning meeting). It was just chance that I chose the lunch week rather than the tea and biscuit weeks. The Quakers believe in simplicity, so lunch isn't a seven course banquet. It's soup and bread, which is fine but often rather dull. But this was anything but dull. A choice of excellent vegetarian soups, served with a choice of 8 to 10 different breads, several types of cheese and choices of fruit. Altogether very satisfying.
And more conversation too. Especially with one woman. I won't give too many details though she's quite open about everything. She is transgender and likes some of the same spiritual writes as me. A fascinating talk about God (however we define the word) and about gender and about the treatment of people like us in churches. This woman has been a Quaker for many years and was part of that community right through transition so I can say with some certainty that this would be a totally safe place for me in terms of gender - it's not the only safe church but it's nice to know from the outset that there is safety and that I'm not going to be attacked in any way. In fact the Quakers were the first denomination of any size in the UK to campaign for gay rights. And they're rather good on trans issues. A transgender woman from near here wrote her PhD on the treatment of transgender people by churches - and the Quakers came out on top. I just found a newspaper article about her, published ten years ago. I won't link to it here - it's an awful mess of misgendering but does give hope, because it shows we've made progress in the last ten years.
Transgender people talk sometimes about passing - "do you pass as a woman?" - to which the correct answer is "I'm a woman and look like me so of course I pass as a woman no matter what anyone else says." It's a difficult subject that has caused some trans people to seek an ideal that they will never meet - and one which to be frank many cisgender women don't meet either. But honestly, this woman passed. I know I can be a bit thick about noticing these things but I didn't twig at all until we were talking and she talked about how she chose her name. It would be nice to reach that point where I am not obvious at all but remain happy to talk about gender issues, offer any help I can to anyone who needs it, and campaign for the rights of everyone regardless of gender, sex, or sexuality.
So I left the Meeting House. Glad to have visited. Glad to have got through an entire church service without finding much to "insult my soul". I'm sure the people there have quite widely differing views on God and the sacred. And that's a good thing.
I am determined to return again soon. But it won't be this Sunday. I'll be at the "Sunday Assembly" which calls itself a godless congregation. It'll be far closer to an Anglican service than the Quaker meeting was. There will be a service leader, a talk, songs and tea and cake afterwards. Typical Anglicanism really, just without Holy Communion.