At the Friends House on Lowther Avenue, there’s no preacher, no prayer, and decidedly no violence. There are, however, plenty of Quakers listening patiently to their inner light.
On a Sunday morning at the Friends House in the Annex, 45 folks sat in a semicircle of chairs facing the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a lush garden—and waited. The Religious Society of Friends (better known as Quakers) doesn’t have a minister and doesn’t sing hymns. They simply sit for an hour, paying attention to what founder George Fox called their “inner light,” and if anyone is moved by this divinity within to speak, about anything at all, they stand up and do so.
Fox, who founded the sect amidst Christian corruption in mid-17th-century England, believed that Jesus was profoundly in touch with his inner light, but that everybody had an equal shot at achieving the same. For that reason, the Bible is just a book—albeit one transcribed from a very well-lit source—and the words spoken by any member on any given Sunday are just as important as The Word. Fox called this philosophy “continuing revelation.”
Fittingly for a proto-feminist sect that has given voice to women since its inception (Susan B. Anthony was a Quaker, as is Judi Dench), the two spontaneous speakers on this recent Sunday were both women. The second, PeaceWorks coordinator Lyn Adamson, runs a course in activist campaign strategy at the House and shared an anecdote about hosting the Journey for Earth walkers. From April until June, these five indigenous Canadians travelled on foot from various parts of the Prairies to Ottawa to raise awareness about environmental degradation caused by nuclear energy; they inspired Adamson to remind those gathered to respect all people and creatures equally.
“It isn’t a thought process. It comes from a deeper place,” Adamson explained later of her urge to speak. “I didn’t even know everything I was going to say before I stood, but I knew that if I had held it in, I would be pretty sad after.” She also sang a song the walkers had taught her, and a handful of the group hummed along once they caught onto the tune.
The Friends House, a three-storey neo-Georgian residence, was purchased in 1949 and receives funding from a trust established by Ted Rogers, Jr.’s great aunts. (Timothy Rogers, also from Junior’s line, was one of Ontario’s first Quakers when he arrived from Vermont in the early 1800s.) As well as hosting groups like the indigenous walkers, the Quakers who meet here are a first contact for those familiar with another of the sect’s founding principles: strict nonviolence. When deserters of war come to Canada, they often seek out the Quakers, and the group helps them access the legal advice, housing, and funds provided by the War Resisters Support Campaign. They’re not always successful. Last fall, Iraq War resister Kimberly Rivera was deported back to the States after six years in Canada. The mother of four was sentenced to 10 months in jail this April.
“Fox believed, and we believe, that there is something of God in every person,” explained Norman Taylor, who became a Quaker in the 1960s while challenging the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. “That’s why we’re pacifists from the start and won’t participate in war. We will do ambulance work or relieve suffering if we can, but we don’t take sides.”
That’s not to say that Quakers are afraid of conflict, which is evident during the sometimes-heated monthly business meetings. Members are encouraged to speak their minds fully on all administrative matters—it’s an extension of their worship style—and on this Sunday, there was a skirmish over dishes. “The classic Quaker joke is that it could take three hours to choose what hand towels to buy,” a member explained. The process, however, suits the idea of a leaderless sect and could be looked at as a sort of Occupy Spirit Street. Along with finding consensus about dish allocation (an important thing for a House that can host several events at once), they workshopped a letter to the National Energy Board on the dangerous reversal of an oil pipeline until all felt comfortable with its message.
While Quakers have a mandate for social action, speaking about their faith in public is not part of that. Some lament that this makes it hard to attract younger members. “There’s a resistance to proselytizing,” said Jaya Karsemeyer Bone, a 33-year-old schoolteacher whose parents were living at the House when she was born. “So few people know about it, and so few people have a sense of what a vital Quaker life can look like.” She’s doing her part, however: Her one-month-old daughter, Johanna, gurgled through her second worship that day.
Friends House, 60 Lowther Ave., torontoquakermeeting.org.