You’ve gathered together in silence at Speakers’ Corner? Give me a moment to work that one out.
For a few years, Quakers from Westminster meeting and other meetings in London have been holding a once-a-month open-air Meeting for Worship at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we sometimes get odd reactions – as the quote above from one passer-by last Sunday points out, holding a silent meeting at a place more usually associated with noisy vocal debate and promotion of ideas is out of the ordinary even for somewhere known for attracting odd-balls.
So why do we do it?
One reason is the experience of holding a gathered, still Meeting for Worship amid the noise and busyness, not just of the Speakers but also from passers-by, people enjoying the park, the traffic round Marble Arch – in short, the city. And this is, perhaps, a unique experience. We normally hold our Quaker Meetings for Worship indoors, with the walls of our meeting houses blotting out this busyness and creating quiet space for us. By holding an open-air meeting in such an unpromising-seeming spot, we are reminded that we don’t set aside special places for Meeting for Worship, and that we can create a quiet, worshipful space in even the most unlikely of places. And many Friends who attend these meetings say that they find the meeting to be very deep and gathered, in spite of (or maybe because of) the unusual setting.
But this isn’t the only reason.
Our open-air Meetings for Worship were conceived of as a form of Quaker outreach, and this is probably a key reason why the Friends who attend do so. Many Quakers find outreach difficult – we don’t proselytise or evangelise, we don’t try to convert people to Quakerism – and for many of us, Quaker outreach consists of putting some posters up outside the meeting house and hoping to attract some interest. By holding an open-air Meeting for Worship in such a busy spot, we are taking what we have and showing it to people – not forcing it on anyone, but visibly saying “we’re here if you’re interested”.
The location of the open-air meeting is also important to the outreach element of it. The style of religion commonly seen at Speakers’ Corner is dogmatic, shouty, forceful religion; a form of religious belief which says it has the Truth, which says “we’re right, everyone else is wrong”, which puts itself in conflict with anyone who believes something different. By bringing Quakerism into the mix, we do more than just offer another religion – we are offering a different concept of what religion is. While so many at Speakers’ Corner claim to have the One True Faith and consider anyone who disagrees (or asserts a slightly different One True Faith) to be wrong, we instead present a religion of seekers which accepts and welcomes a diversity of belief, which looks for that of God in everyone, which says reminds us to “think it possible that you may be mistaken”.
So, back to the comment from our passer-by on Sunday: “You’ve gathered together in silence at Speakers’ Corner?” (He was reading from a sign one Friend was holding up, by the way.) Yes, we do, and for what I hope are good reasons. I don’t know whether we’ve introduced anyone new to Quakerism, but whether or not we have, I think we’ve had a positive impact.