What does it mean to be a living, loving community in a time of social distancing and lockdown? Last Sunday, most Quaker meeting houses in Britain were closed. For the first time in centuries, Quaker meetings had again gone underground.
Unlike in the persecuted early days of Quakerism, though, this time it was voluntary: a generous act of love to the community around us. By not meeting face-to-face, we play our part in protecting the most vulnerable in our community.
Despite the banning of public meetings for worship, early Quakers found ways to meet, to keep faith, to wait together for divine guidance, and to build a robust community with a strong sense of social purpose. We can do the same today.
The early signs are good. Last Sunday, even as our meeting houses closed, many Friends paused prayerfully in their homes, knowing that others in their meeting community were doing likewise. Hundreds of others began to gather for worship online, using tools like Zoom and Skype. There were even online children's meetings, bringing together our young in fellowship. How the Friends of the late 17th century would have envied the tools we have at our disposal today!
In Our Faith in the Future, Meeting for Sufferings' vision for happier times, Friends set out their aspiration for a future where "Meeting for Worship is the bedrock of living as a Quaker". So it's not surprising that when things get tough, Friends reach out for opportunities to worship together, even when physically apart. Who knows what promptings may arise in us as a result, guiding us through these strange times? Our mode of worship, rooted as it is in silence, lends itself to our present situation.
It turns out that online meetings for worship can meet a spiritual need in us. In his recent blog, Tim Gee writes of his first time at an online meeting: "The Spirit, it would appear, does not seem overly concerned about whether we gather in person or online."
"Our shared experience of waiting for God's guidance in our meetings for worship and for church affairs, together with careful listening and gentleness of heart, forms the basis on which we can live out a life of love with and for each other and for those outside our community."- Quaker faith and practice 10.03
There have also been heart-warming stories from meetings who found that attendance at Sunday meeting went up, not down, and that people who had drifted away from meeting felt welcomed back by being able to join online. One meeting was even joined by a Friend who had moved away and had thought she would never be able to meet with them again.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if our meetings grew during this time, both in numbers and in strength, and we rekindled in ourselves the imperative of meeting together in silent waiting. Turning 'social distancing' into a new spiritual encounter.
We need to be careful not to turn only inward at this time, though, too. It's been encouraging to see Covid-19 mutual aid groups building bridges across communities and providing support for the vulnerable and self-isolating. The work of charities like Quaker Social Action is more important than ever.
The world around us is needy, and our witness matters. The climate emergency has not, and will not, go away. The world's default recourse to violence, militarism and war still requires our loving challenge. And the current crisis will only serve to exacerbate the inequalities and injustices which are such a threat to peace. Where there is power, let us speak truth to it in love, remain vigilant, and offer our alternative vision of the peaceable kingdom.
The challenges of being a living, loving community at this time are real, however. How can we make sure we are in touch with all those who are connected with our meetings? How do we support them through the current time of crisis? How can we continue to nurture the spiritual lives of everyone in our meetings, from youngest to oldest? How can we continue to bear witness in our lives to the inner truth that's revealed to us in our worship?
These, and others, are the questions we will have to learn to answer in the coming weeks. Truly a time to live adventurously.