Quaker Quest

What exactly is Quaker Quest? This question arose time and time again at the FGC Gathering, where it was making its first appearance among North American Friends. In fact, the participants in the Quaker Quest workshop challenged themselves to one-minute answers to this question, in the pattern of the one-minute replies to questions about the Quaker way that we had been practicing. It was a good discipline in clear thinking and plain speaking, and the appropriate length to answer a casual query in the lunch line!
What Quaker Quest is can be answered fairly easily. But why Quaker Quest exists is in many ways the more interesting question, and one that goes more deeply into the issues of spiritual revitalization on which the movement is based.

Why Quaker Quest?

So, why Quaker Quest? In the Religious Society our numbers are falling, our members aging, and in many meetings Friends are feeling a need for spiritual renewal and a fresh welling of the Spirit. We believe that this is why Quaker Quest has met such an enthusiastic reception throughout Britain, and now elsewhere in the Quaker world.

Quaker Quest is based, firstly, on our strongly held belief that we in the liberal Quaker tradition have a valuable gift to share; and secondly, that there are a great number of people who would benefit from it—both those actively seeking a religious home and those who are perhaps unaware that they are seeking at all. We believe that we’ve found a way of sharing this gift that enriches both the seeker and those of us who are engaged in the sharing.

Quaker Quest presents our Quaker message as being “simple, radical and contemporary.” It is simple in our practice of worship, our theology, and, in theory at least, in our organization and business methods. It is radical in its theology, in its assertion that we can all have a direct experience of the Divine, and that in our meetings for worship there can be a mystical communal experience of God.

But it is perhaps the contemporary aspect that we should most stress. We offer a way forward for those many people who are aware of the nudgings of the Divine but who, in the 21st century, are simply unable to accept the trappings of creed, theology, and ritual that have accrued to Christianity over the centuries. We can say to these people: “Come, join with us in seeking an understanding of the promptings of love and truth in our hearts. Find your own way of expressing it; grow along with us.”

But it is only by finding words that we can issue this invitation to strangers; we need language, simple and clear, to communicate our faith experience with non-Quakers. Of course we can and should “let our lives speak,” but this can only happen for those with whom we or our work comes into contact. Our lives can’t speak to all those who have never met a Quaker or never heard of Quakers or who, if they have, associate them with oatmeal and funny hats.

And we believe that every one of us has the potential to express his or her experience of the Divine. Traditionally, many unprogrammed Friends have managed to avoid finding words to communicate our faith. The combination of silent worship and lack of creeds (and perhaps apathy?) has in many cases left us tongue-tied. When driven into a corner and forced to speak, we have a habit of expressing Quakerism in negatives: we have no creeds, no hired clergy, no outward sacraments, no liturgy, etc.

But these are all very positive aspects of our faith, and surely we should express them as such. Why not say that the absence of creeds allows each individual to express his or her experience of the Divine in a way that is meaningful to him or her? And not having to subscribe to the mythology of Jesus’ life leaves us free to concentrate on his message, and then try to live by it. We should stress that we are all clergy, that all life is sacramental, and that silent worship leaves room for the Spirit to speak to us directly.

What is Quaker Quest?

In short, Quaker Quest is perhaps the longest-running Friends outreach movement in modern times, having occurred weekly in London since January 2002. It began there then as a celebration of 350 years of Quakerism, and we felt very ambitious indeed in attempting a yearlong series of weekly sessions open to the general public. At the monthly meeting where the idea was presented, wise heads shook in cautionary gloom: we shouldn’t attempt that which we were unlikely to be able to sustain. A whole year? How would we ever manage?

Well, we opened our doors, in Friends House in central London, with great trepidation in January 2002. Would anyone come? Why would they come? Would they want to hear what we had to say? What would they be seeking after? Well, they did in fact come, and kept coming the following weeks and months, so much so that when our core group of 12 London Friends met towards the end of the year to lay the project down, we discovered that we couldn’t. We found ourselves unable to stop “publishing our truth” to the many seekers who had come to us; we felt truly called to continue for another year, and then another, and another.

We realized that we had discovered a method of holding public meetings that really worked. We continued to refine the method by responding to the needs of the seekers who came to us, and then revising our sessions in our monthly core group meetings. Here are what we have learned are the essential elements of a Quaker Quest:

  • Session topics that speak to the seekers’ condition. Seekers are eager to learn about Quaker spirituality; they are looking for a context in which to realize their own sense of the Divine. People tend not to be seeking a deeper understanding of Quaker history, or the intricacies of our business method. For example, after a few months, we realized that we would have to have an entire session on our understanding of God. It’s been a part of our program in London ever since.
  • Presentations that are simple, concise, and brief. There is always a panel of three presenters, all of whom speak from their own experience and from the heart. We are delivering ministry, not lectures. Having three allows a variety of approaches, and illustrates the diversity within the Quaker way—and our acceptance of diversity. No one is to speak for longer than six or seven minutes at a time. Finding a way to speak about the deepest aspects of our faith with clarity, openness, and sincerity in such a short time is not easy, but it concentrates the mind marvellously and is forceful in a way that can be lost in a longer discourse.
  • A repeating cycle of sessions.Repetition is vital. Quaker Quest takes place in a planned succession of regular weekly meetings in one meetinghouse. Repeating the sessions allows those who have missed one to catch it later and—very importantly—allows those presenting it to become better at it. Seekers become comfortable with coming into the meetinghouse, and they are reassured by meeting the same Friends regularly.
  • Advertising as widely as funding will allow. The program will be open to everyone, on the principle that anyone might be seeking. But people can only come if they know it’s happening. It is important to advertise widely and persistently. The methods to use will depend upon financial resources and locale. But don’t be tight! This is a good cause on which to spend money, a real investment in the future.
  • Listening to the seekers. We do this both in informal conversations before and after the session and in small discussion groups and a question-and-answer period within the session. We learn from them, they feel valued, and the evening becomes more of a conversation than a presentation. Long-term feedback from questers has led us to hone Quaker Quest, both in method and in content. We need to answer their needs, not tell them what we think they might need to know.
  • A meeting for worship. We always end with a half-hour one, and we’ve been amazed at how well received this has been by members of the general public, many of whom have come to an evening session with no knowledge whatsoever of Quakerism and no previous experience of worshiping in stillness. We have been privileged to hear very powerful ministry from these seemingly unlikely sources, and have been greatly enriched by it.
  • Stressing what we are today.We speak about ourselves as 21st-century Quakers, about what our faith means to us in our everyday lives, and why it is important to us. We avoid not only Quaker history, but also all Quaker jargon and all reference to our structures and organization. Those who are drawn to us will discover all this in time; it is not what they are seeking after in exploring a new religion. They want to know why we ourselves are Quakers, what it means to us, what we believe, and what we get out of meeting for worship.

In all, in London we’ve held over 250 sessions, with an average of 18 seekers every week. In 2003 the first cycle out of London was held in Bristol. May 2005 saw the establishment of Traveling Quaker Quest, a group of Friends teaching the method to meetings around Britain. In the autumn of 2007 we knew of about 30 Quaker Quests taking place in towns and cities in Britain. They are also beginning in Australia, South Africa and, we expect, in the United States and Canada.

Friends often ask how many people have joined the Religious Society of Friends or become attenders because of Quaker Quest. We don’t know. We don’t follow up our questers. To do so, we think, would be intrusive, and would also miss the point: our purpose is not to proselytize or convert, but rather to share our message.

We do, however, have anecdotal evidence of a strengthening of the Religious Society in numbers as well as the definite internal revitalisation we’ve all experienced. Some questers from our early sessions are now speakers at Quaker Quest. One is clerk of one of the London area meetings, and others are active in other meetings. Questers from London have been spotted elsewhere in the world, notably Australia and the United States.

Quaker Quest in the United States and Canada

Quaker Quest at the FGC Gathering last summer was very well received. The morning workshop over six days, which allowed time to go deeply into Quaker Quest and general outreach issues as well, reached a real spiritual depth. There were 12 participants, who quickly gathered to become a faithful, active, and inspiring group. They did a great job of enthusing lots of other people in the Gathering, and that was reflected in the numbers at the interest group sessions.

Sixty people turned up for the scheduled afternoon outreach event and 30 for a repeat session; we ran out of leaflets and other literature. In addition to the 100-plus people who were involved in the various Quaker Quest sessions, there were many more who took Quest literature, bought the 12 Quakers and . . . booklets, and engaged in informal conversations about outreach. In all, the number of North American Friends now in the know about the movement is in the hundreds, and many of them are very keen.

As far as I can see, the difference between the UK and North American scenes seems to be twofold: geographical spread over long distances in the United States and Canada; and the presence in many areas there of Evangelical Friends churches as well as unprogrammed meetings. The word Quaker has more meanings in the States than in Britain. But apart from these special conditions, I can see no reason for the Quaker Quest method not to go happily across “the pond.”

What’s on for the future? We expect to offer another Quaker Quest workshop at next year’s FGC Gathering, as well as, we hope, a chance for us all to hear from those who have already done—or have plans to do—their own Quest. We are trying to coordinate Quest in the U.S. through the FGC Advancement and Outreach Committee. Several members of that committee have training in running Quaker Quest workshops, which are by far the best way of preparing a meeting to offer a program. Elaine Crauderueff, their staff member, is ready to help meetings with information, advice, and workshop bookings, and she plans to keep track of what is going on where. Those who are interested, or perhaps already looking at the possibility of their own Quaker Quest, may contact her ator visit the new FGC websitefor updated information.

Those interested are also encouraged to look at the main (British) website http://www.quakerquest.org. It includes a lot of “how to” information, reports of Quests in cities and towns of all sizes and types, and a forum that invites a sharing of experience and tips.

And happy questing to you all. I have barely touched upon an aspect of doing a Quaker Quest that at first surprised and then delighted us: namely, the great spiritual rewards that come from articulating and sharing our faith. Over and over again, participating meetings and individuals remark on how they have felt renewed and refreshed, continuing on their faith journeys with new commitment and a strengthened sense of ministry.

Mary Jo Clogg

Mary Jo Clogg is a member of North West London Area Meeting, Britain Yearly Meeting. Formerly librarian of Woodbrooke Quaker Study Center, she is still an associate tutor, occasionally leading training events for elders and overseers. She has been a member of the Quaker Quest core group since its inception, and she serves on the Traveling Quaker Quest team.