Why silence is golden inside a Quaker meeting house

By Craig Beardsworth

Featured in Capital #85
Subscribe to get
the real thing here.

After a dalliance with Quakerism in his late teens, several decades later Craig Beardsworth visits the Quaker meeting house in Wellington, to investigate what it was that had attracted him.

A kowhai and a silver birch flank the brick path leading to the main Quaker meeting house in Moncrieff Street: a meeting of European and New Zealand flora where a European tradition has inserted itself into the neighbourhood. Up the path lies a single-storey Georgian revival building designed by William Gray Young. At its deep-red front doors I meet Heather Roberts – a Quaker born and raised, who is reluctantly raising her profile to meet me to discuss the religious practice of the Friends.

The building, completed in 1929, is one of four in the enclave at the end of the Mount Victoria cul-de-sac. Inside, the architecture is typical Gray Young – chest-high wood panelling, large multi-paned windows, exposed wooden beams, white plastered walls. It’s warm, inviting, peaceful. The main meeting room at the end of a short wide hallway contains chairs surrounding a table with a single blue hydrangea in a glass vase – a simple point of focus for the two dozen people who meet here weekly.

Quakers have been in Aotearoa since the first European settlement ships arrived. Thomas and Jane Mason were passengers on the New Zealand Company ship Olympus when it sailed into the harbour in 1841. Settling in Taita and holding regular meetings in their home, they are considered founding Wellington Quakers. By the 1920s a permanent meeting house had been built in Moncrieff Street, and ninety years later, the campus now also includes a small rentable hall, and several flats.

The Religious Society of Friends has its origins in mid-17th century Lancashire.

“Friends” is a word that keeps cropping up in our conversation, signalling the non-hierarchical philosophy of Quakers. The language and trappings of the traditional Christian church are eschewed – there are no parishioners but rather “friends”, no worship or services, but rather “meetings”. The Bible is not often referred to during meetings, inspirational readings being taken from sources such as Martin Luther King, Ghandi, and Quaker founder George Fox. The idea of clergy or leading public worship conflicts with their belief in a silent, individual spiritual pursuit – everyone in charge of their own growth. No leaders allowed or aloud.

This philosophy stems from an epiphany George Fox had after failing to find solace in traditional priest-led worship. Sitting alone in contemplation one day he became aware of “God’s presence” within himself, and in turn felt strength, hope, and understanding.

He spoke of his experience to other seekers and the movement was formed. Friends began to gather and sit in silence – the internal search precluding the need for the external preacher or leader. Heather explains that 370 years later, “The silent tradition is common, but is not the only strand of Quaker worship. The American and African quakers have more structure to meetings, and a more evangelical approach.” New Zealand meetings, however, are conducted around the idea of quiet reflection in a circle.

“Meetings begin when a designated person gives a reading or reflection, and end when that same person waves or catches our attention. The person changes every week.” During the hour in between, there might be musings, a song, a quotation to mull over – but largely silence. Heather says that this silence has influenced the way she interacts with people in general. “Quaker worship has made me a good listener, to see between the words. It has taught me patience, looking for and finding that of God in others and waiting for the right moment.”

The lack of formal leadership does not affect spiritual meetings, but Heather admits that from a practical perspective business decisions can take longer: “Consensus is always sought and issues talked through – everyone who wants to can voice an opinion”. On very rare occasions Heather has seen friends step back from voting on a decision they don’t agree with – “It’s an abstention, acknowledging the majority will carry, and not wanting to be a negative presence”. It is a natural result of the consistently pacifist stance for which Quakers are noted.

Their pacifism has flown the Quaker flag outside the Russian Embassy in Karori over recent weeks, in quiet protest on behalf of peace and reason. Many Quakers were conscientious objectors during the World Wars, joining non-combatant corps in roles such as stretcher-bearer. Their dedication to equality and living in harmony with each other and the earth has often put them ahead of the zeitgeist – advocating the abolition of slavery in America, and early adopters of earth stewardship principles. “Our numbers are small but we have a voice – we want our message to be heard,” says Heather.

Those numbers are estimated to be about 1,000 spread across Aotearoa. The Quaker website lists 32 meeting venues, but Heather points out many of them are very small gatherings in people’s houses, just like that held by Thomas and Jane Mason in 1841.

Heather grew up in Hobart, Tasmania, where there was a large group of Quakers – enough to populate a Friends’ school and to support regular community activities. With a small and dispersed population, New Zealand Quakers can muster two annual gatherings. “The Yearly Meeting is to discuss business. The Summer Gathering is much more social, to bring people together to have fun and fellowship.”

As with all religious groups, Quaker meetings have been impacted by the covid pandemic and consequent limitations on in-person worship, Zoom offering the only practical alternative. As silence is such an important part of Quaker practice, I ask Heather how online video meeting has worked.

“At first you feel foolish, as your screen is full of other silent people, but you get used to it and it can be very moving.” Heather reveals there have been Zoom meetings with Quakers in Ukraine – sitting in digital silence with compatriots on the other side of the world has proved to be immensely powerful. “There is solidarity in silence.”


Sign up to our newsletter