There’s a lot in chapter 14 which might be worth dwelling on, but reading through it I’ve found two themes I have strong reactions to – and I’m pretty sure I won’t be alone in that. One is the question about money, and how much we should give to support the work of Quaker organisations. The other is about property, and especially about owning meeting houses. I’d like to explore them both a little in this post.
Money and giving
I remember a Yearly Meeting a few years ago when how, why and what we give to the yearly meeting was a key issue. (Footnote about a technical use of capital letters: Yearly Meeting is the event; the yearly meeting is the community.) I think people had done their best to stress that money is not the only thing we give, but I was in a deeply insecure place both emotionally and financially – and physically tired, and spiritually open in a way that big Quaker worship for business meetings can create – and I sat through session after session in floods of tears. I am a failure, I have nothing to give, I should be doing so much more and I can’t.
Only a year or two later, I was much better off, and when I got a letter from the treasurers at my local meeting asking me to consider donating, I was delighted to simply log into my online banking system and send them some money. At that time, I was also serving on Meeting for Sufferings, and was aware of firstly, exactly how much per member the Religious Society of Friends requires to function, and secondly, much work we actually get done for that relatively modest sum. Being able to give, generously within the limits of my income, felt good.
Having money and being able to donate it should never – I hope this can be taken as read, but sometimes it’s as well to check – be a prerequisite for belonging to the Quaker community. However, that requires those who do have money to give at a higher rate than strictly necessary in order to support those who can’t. Like service on a committee, it’s not required, but it is one of the ways in which we can feel bonded to the community. I became even more aware of that when I moved meeting and didn’t get a ‘please consider donating’ letter. I felt minimized and patronised that meeting for many reasons, but that compound it.
Reading chapter 14 this month has coincided neatly for me with some opportunities at work to talk about meeting houses and Quaker property. I want to pick out some positions I’ve heard people put forward, and explore how I both relate to them all, and worry about them all. (Insert here: joke about typical philosophers.)
We shouldn’t own meeting houses, they tie us down. A meeting house – especially one which is old, or difficult to rent, or expensive to run – can feel like a burden to meeting. There certainly are cases where the meeting is better off without a property. That said, I haven’t noticed meetings who rent space in which to worship being, for example, powerhouses of outreach work or raising vast sums of money for something else, which people who outline this position sometimes imply will happen.
Our meeting house is special because it’s old, beautiful, or associated with a famous historical Quaker. All of that can be true, but it’s not clear to me that this automatically means we should either hold onto it or keep worshipping in it. For some meetings, a useful building and a happy community coincide with one of these things, and I don’t see anything wrong with enjoying that – but I’d be worried if we were holding onto buildings we didn’t like or couldn’t use well for these sorts of reasons. It needs to be held in creative tension with the previous approach.
Our meeting house becomes special because we worship it, perhaps have done so for a long time. This is the one I struggle with most. I think I do know what people mean here: I have had the experience of entering a meeting house (or a stone circle, or a cathedral, etc.) and feeling the sensation of worshipfulness, specialness, magic. Even when there’s nobody there. Even when it’s fallen out of use. The metaphysics of the claim bothers me, though. Is this a psychological thing? (Does it happen to people who don’t know what this building is for? Is it something I imagine, especially when I project it onto a stone circle?) Is it like the energy-signature theory of ghosts, assuming that a kind of prayerfulness is absorbed into the stonework? (Brickwork? Grass? Plastic?) I worry about whether people think this means it’s better to worship in one place than another – in theory, I think all places should be equally sacred, although of course it’s easier to enter a worshipful frame of mind in some circumstances.
Meeting houses are very valuable, and they need to be looked after well. But because we also need to change them and let them go sometimes, I don’t want to be too attached to the specialness of any particular place. It’s the community, and the way that we are able to meet God together by simply listening, which is really the special thing.
I want to end by noting that chapter 14 also contains one of the passages I refer to most often from the whole book, 14:34. It’s not because I need to know about gravestones, but because this paragraph so economically exemplifies how we move from principle to practice.