Sheffield’s Quakers have been worshipping in silence, at least twice weekly, for more than four centuries, and this year they celebrate two decades in their ‘new’ premises in the city centre. The Star’s Rachael Clegg discovered more about a fascinating faith.
TWENTY people sit around a cluster of tables, eating soup and bread.
A plate of cake is handed round, tea and coffee are poured, and the atmosphere is convivial.
There’s nothing remarkable about any of it until, suddenly, at the clinking of a glass, the room falls suddenly into silence. All heads face downwards and not a word is uttered.
It’s a strange sight to behold - as if, out of nowhere, everyone has been sedated into silence and stillness.
This is grace at the weekly lunchtime meeting of the Sheffield Quakers.
Lunch is followed by a ‘meeting’ - the Quaker equivalent of a church service - for which all members retreat to the library for worship.
But to Quakers, also known as the Religious Society of Friends, worship is not about facing the altar, or even following a liturgy.
The Quaker service has no structure and is led by no-one. People sit in a circle, in silence, for up to an hour.
At the Quaker Meeting House on James Street this lunchtime the members - all 20 of them - sit in complete silence, most of them with their eyes closed.
There is no sound, apart from the occasional rustling of fabric and faint voices drifting in from the city centre streets outside.
The atmosphere is intimate, as if something special is being shared. And, strangely, the time passes incredibly quickly.
“We call this a sort of group meditation,” says Gordon Ferguson after worship.
The 56-year-old from Hunters Bar has been coming to these meetings for 22 years. “It took me years to really get comfortable with an hour of silence but there are meditation workshops people can go to too,” he says.
Silence is key to Quaker meetings - they believe silence makes them more receptive to God - although occasionally members do speak, spontaneously, as and when the spirit takes them. At the end of the meeting, Quakers hold hands with their immediate neighbours, an act which marks the end of the silence.
Quakers are individualistic in their own faith too, as well as in their style of worship.
“Nobody tells you what to think as a Quaker or what you are supposed to do in life,” says Gordon.
“There is no hierarchy. We have elders and they are nominated on a three-year basis but there are no paid officials. The services are about equal participation, which is why we sit in a circle.”
The basis of being a Quaker is, as Gordon puts it, “finding out for yourself”. It’s no modern fad. Quakers have been congregating in Sheffield for more than four centuries - as long ago as the establishment of the Quaker movement itself, which was started in the mid 17th-century by George Fox, a radical religious man from Leicestershire.
Fox believed God could be experienced directly, through personal relationships, not necessarily through strict doctrines or liturgy.
He was born in 1624 and by the time of his death in 1691 he had 50,000 followers.
He believed God existed in ‘every person’ but it was this idea that proved most controversial, as it went against the class, wealth, race and gender discrimination that existed at the time.
As such, the Quaker movement has a strong egalitarian basis - and explains why the chairs for meetings are always laid out in a circle or a square, to avoid any hierarchical implications.
And while Fox’s following was growing nationally, the Quaker movement started to take hold in South Yorkshire.
Soon there were Quaker meetings in Woodhouse, Balby and Tickhill, followed in 1669 by gatherings in Upperthorpe and central Sheffield.
The original Sheffield Quaker Meeting House was near Hartshead Square, now Meeting House Lane, where an orchard was bought to serve as a burial ground.
The site no longer exists and Quakers from Sheffield are now typically cremated at Abbey Lane crematorium, though an original burial ground at Stannington still exists and is under the care of Bradfield Council.