This is a honed version of the post I put up yesterday, and then took down.
I went to a memorial service in London on Saturday. The person whose life was celebrated was the erstwhile vicar of the church I attended in the 1980s, and that’s where the service was held. The order of service was prefaced by a short poem by Joyce Grenfell, which I have always loved. Good, I thought. The programme also suggested the possibility of spontaneous contributions and silent reflection. Good again, I thought, having attended a few Quaker memorial meetings, where time for reflection and spontaneous contribution is all there is. Barry and I have both agreed that when the time comes, we want funerals of this kind for ourselves and each other. They are extraordinarily moving and healing, in our experience.
I very much enjoyed belting out some classic hymns, listening to some more well-chosen poetry and some beautiful music, and to anecdotes about the dear departed. I am very glad I went. It was a joyful and thankful occasion, a fit tribute to a life fully lived, and to a priest and pastor who was a significant influence on my early adulthood. But I found it so busy. As it turned out, on Saturday, there was so much planned in the order of play that there was barely time for impromptu offerings; and if there was time for silent reflection, it was so brief that I missed it. To be fair, the dear departed was a larger-than-life and multi-faceted character: there was a lot to be said. And it was, several times over, for more than an hour and a half.
At the Quaker memorial meetings I have attended, despite quite lengthy silences, there has still been time for honest, heartfelt, poignant and sometimes funny contributions in an unhurried atmosphere. And all within an hour. Is this what has been called, “the amazing fact of Quaker worship”? The difference is that the words arise out of the silence. The silence is where we start from, and is not an optional extra which gets cut if we are running out of time. Even if (as happens at memorial meetings) not all those who speak are familiar with Quaker ways, the meeting is somehow held by the collective presence and practised discipline of those who regularly sit for an hour on a Sunday: an hour in which words (if they come) are both wrapped in silence and tempered by it. It is only rarely that I feel someone has spoken for too long in Meeting, even when I don’t feel the “ministry” speaks to me.
This is not the post I thought I was going to write. I have surprised myself. I may even have surprised myself into going to Meeting more regularly —