What challenges and opportunities have arisen for Quaker meetings and communities over the past pandemic year? What have Quakers in Britain learned from the experience?
These were the questions we asked each other in a 90-minute session, joined by around 100 Quaker representatives as geographically distant as north east Scotland and England's south west. Titled 'How the Truth prospers in our meetings', it took place at the first Meeting for Sufferings of 2021 and formed part of a day of worship, business and fellowship.
This all happened online, via Zoom, in a way we could not have envisaged a year ago. The session was a chance to reflect more on this new reality we find ourselves in – and to look to what the future might hold.
Ways of worship
Friends can be relied upon for diversity of experience and views, and we soon learned how worship, which is central to our lives as Quakers, has adapted into a variety of forms in the past 12 months.
Sunday worship moved swiftly online, which has made for many new opportunities. It's meant that people can return to previous Quaker meetings they left behind after a home move, and join with family members and old Friends. Quakers for whom accessibility is difficult, meaning that attendance in person is not possible, can also log on easily.
Intervisitation, or attending several different Quaker meetings, has become a realistic option which has been enriching for both meetings and individuals. 'Blended' meetings which mix both online and in-person gatherings are an ongoing experiment. Some children's groups have thrived online
We also heard about other ways of worship that have arisen, including not attending online but instead holding the stillness at home at the same time as others elsewhere. Small house groups have continued – taking account of Covid regulations – and meetings have happened outside.
Nevertheless, we welcomed the partial lifting of restrictions in the summer, as we felt nothing can replace face-to-face meetings. We feel the loss of them keenly, but accept that virtual meetings are the best we can hope for at this time.
Future developments will need to be guided by a key question: what makes us feel part of a gathered, or deeply spiritually connected, meeting?
Community and support
Meeting online has also made for new ways to offer community and support. Randomly allocating participants to small 'breakout rooms' after online worship has given many people an opportunity to connect with others in the meeting that they may not know well.
These groups offer a chance to engage with people in more meaningful ways and for longer than the typical quick 'hello' over a cup of tea. Additionally, many meetings have increased the number of social groups that meet online, and some members have kept in touch by telephone.
But as much as virtual meetings can welcome and include, they can also exclude. There are some who thrive on personal interaction, but who for a variety of reasons do not log on. One Friend commented on the great gulf that has opened in her local meeting – some people have simply disappeared.
Excessive 'screen-time' was cited as one reason: school-age children and adults working from home spend many hours in front of a screen and do not always wish to go on doing this in their downtime.
How we continue to spread the word about Quakerism and grow our communities during a time when Quaker meetings have perhaps become less visible to the outside world was a concern for some. It would be very easy to concentrate on looking after our present communities and to fail to look outwards.
However, Quaker Quest in London is still continuing online and some meetings reported new members joining during the lockdown.
So, how might our meetings be in the future? Is what we have lost gone forever, and how much does that matter? There are no easy answers, but in our session we felt it important to both look for positives and listen to hesitations, taking Friends' doubts seriously.
It was clear that we cannot turn back the technological clock but must grapple with the new reality and find the best and most inclusive solutions, while holding fast to something I believe that as Quakers we all prize: “the amazing fact of Quaker worship" (Quaker faith & practice 2.03).