Meeting Reading Groups
By Charles H. Martin (San Francisco Monthly Meeting)
During the first Gulf War (1991) the San Francisco Meeting of the Religious Society Friends experienced an influx of new attenders. The meeting had over the years had various Quaker study groups oriented towards reading. In an effort to explain the principles of Friends to these newcomers the meeting instituted a weekly evening adult religious discussion group modeled on the Quakerism 101 course that had traditionally been offered to newcomers. As time passed and the war wound down and the new attenders became assimilated into the meeting the group continued to meet. The group’s emphasis changed from specifically explaining the basics of Quakerism to new attenders to becoming, along with the Sunday morning Bible study, the main means of continuing adult religious education for the meeting.
The vehicle chosen to help focus the discussions on specific subjects was to read aloud from texts by or about Quakers and Quaker ideals, and to use the readings to encourage discussion among the participants on the ideas presented. The format developed for the reading group was simple; to gather at 7:00 p.m. over a simple potluck dinner and upon finishing dinner to then read aloud from a pre-selected text. The time over dinner is used for fellowship, the regular attenders catch up on the events in their lives, the meeting, and the world, and newer attenders often use this time to ask questions concerning the faith and practice of Friends. In our group it was decided not to require reading before the meeting, the idea being to lessen the “burden” on the attenders. After finishing the meal the next hour is used to read aloud to one another. Our readings are used as an avenue to explore both individual spiritual values and the corporate values held by Friends. The group is not treated as a class or study course.
The readings begin with the first reader starting from the point where the prior weeks reading had ended. When the first reader decides he or she has read enough, the reader stops and asks the person sitting on either side to continue, when that person has finished reading the person next to them picks up where the reading had stopped. If a person does not want to read they pass to the next person. During the reading if an individual has a question or observation about a particular passage they can ask the reader to stop, make their point, and then the reader takes up where they had left off. Sometimes a question or observation will begin a discussion among the group. There have been occasions where the group has completed less that a single page in an evening because of the time spent in discussion.
In keeping with Quaker practice the gathering begins with silent worship before dinner, before the reading, and at the end of the evening. The reading sessions are held in a worshipful and respectful manner, being mindful of the varying levels of education and spiritual experience of the participants. When a person has a question or observation the other group members are to consider the comments respectfully in silence. When a person speaks any responses to that speaker are to be held until the person has finished. When responding it is to be in a loving and gentle manner, even if there is a basic disagreement between the participants. If the discussion becomes disagreeable, acrimonious, or wanders off the course of the subject being studied it is expected that the more seasoned Friends will intervene with a gentle reminder of the way the gathering is to be conducted. On occasion the reaction to a passage being read or to the discussion taking place will bring the group into a deeply gathered place and we will find ourselves sitting immersed in the divine presence.
Participation in the group varies from as few as three or four persons some evenings up to a dozen or more on other occasions. The group meets weekly excepting for national holidays or when most of the participants are away, such as when they attend Pacific Yearly Meeting. Attendance also varies from week to week depending on the text being read, the time of year, other events taking place within the meeting, and outside obligations of the participants. Over the years the makeup of the group has changed as people have joined and then left. Because we meet on weeknights this limits the participation by some of the people in the meeting, especially those with, pre-school or school age children. The core group of people has remained fairly constant for a number of years.
I first began attending the Thursday night reading group in 1997 shortly after I began attending the San Francisco Meeting. The group provided a place where I could engage in serious discussion about spiritual matters. It helped me to come to an understanding about things that happened during meeting for worship. It helped me to investigate the meaning of Quaker faith and practice, and the early history of the Religious Society of Friends. On occasion I have experienced great insight to and connection with the Lord. Attending the group helped me develop some of the strongest friendships that I have in our meeting and brought me into an active participation in the life of the meeting.
In anticipation of writing this article I asked Bruce Folsom, the longtime facilitator of the group, for a list of texts read by the group. Bruce apologized for only having records going back to 1996. Over the past seven years we have read all or part of 27 different texts. I have attached the list at the end of this article. They have varied from articles from periodicals, portions of anthologies, Pendle Hill pamphlets, to complete books. We have covered the Quaker classics such as the journals of George Fox and John Woolman, Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion, and Robert Barclay’s Apology, in the new edition published by Quaker Heritage Press. We have also read many contemporary Quaker writers such as John Punshon, Doug Gwyn, Wilmer Cooper, Sheila Keane, and Patricia Loring.
The group selects the books to be read by considering various selections brought forth by the participating members. We tend to alternate between contemporary and historic writings. If your meeting is considering starting a reading group you might consider focusing on the Pendle Hill pamphlet series. The books are well written, they cover a variety of subjects, they can be read quickly, and are inexpensive.
When possible we prefer to read works published by Quaker presses. Last year we read the wonderful book Resistance and Obedience to God: Memoirs of David Ferris (1707–1779) published by Quaker Press of FGC. The editor of this book credits her Quaker reading group as inspiring its publication.
Bibliography 1996–2003, in Reverse Reading Order
Roots Run Deep
Open For Transformation
Blessing Love, A Widows Story