Words, words, words

Words, words, words.

4th May 2023

How helpful words are, and how frustrating!

The first time I heard the word 'Quaker' was from a Friend who had, ironically, been brought up as one but then converted to Catholicism. Still, something in the way he said the word stayed with me, a tiny seed.

Years later, something came to a complete standstill in me when I read the words 'There is That of God in Everyone' in an ad in a national newspaper (back in the hands-on world before cyberspace was a thing).

Wow, I thought. That phrase echoed around inside me and wouldn't leave me alone until I had written off for an information pack from Friends House – somewhat hesitantly, because at the time I was barely out of my atheist phase and actual 'religion' was not something I was looking for.

And so the booklet and leaflets arrived, and I when I had read it all, I could only think to myself: Well, I'm clearly a Quaker. Who knew? 

Unfortunately, at the time I had neither car nor driving license and lived in the middle of rural Scotland. Can you be a Quaker without ever going to meetings? I wasn't too sure, but thought on balance yes: it's surely all about what you think, values you subscribe to, actions you believe in, isn't it?

Turns out not really. I came to understand that as soon as I had the opportunity to go to my nearest meeting, experienced the communal silence, felt the shared inner quiet, heard the stumbling words that were 'ministry' and affected me deeply.

A quarter of a century down the line, and we Quakers continue to do the outer and inner stillness in each other's presence (sometimes an online presence), the waiting for that quivery feeling that tells you to share what has come to you from some place beyond your normal-self.

But with so much in our culture having changed in those decades, increasingly we also worry about the words we use. Worship? God? Spirituality? Ministry? The inner light, The Light we 'hold' someone in? Do they sit well in the modern world? Or should we consider changing our language to speak to all those 'natural Quakers' – as I once was – in order to spark that initial curiosity? How, exactly?

What would be the 'right' words now, in a society so much more complex and varied? We wrangle with that. Once the newcomer has stuck their head through the open door, it's easy enough: they hear us using a great wealth of expressions, all accepted, all understood to come from someone's own private understanding-place. And meaning, probably (probably!), something roughly equivalent one to the other. 

But the Friend to be, the passing enquirer, the merely curious...what words will stop them in their tracks, as I was once touched by a phrase?

How to capture the essence of us – well, of anything –  in mere words?

Angela Arnold – Oswestry Quaker Meeting and North Wales Area Meeting