I've just returned from Woodbrooke, where I was fortunate to spend some time as a 'Friend in Residence'. This involved everything from carrying luggage and shifting furniture, through locking up at night and opening up in the morning, to welcoming Friends to Meeting for Worship in the morning and Epilogue at the end of the day, and a lot else besides. I got to know several of the management team who have been responsible for moving Woodbrooke into its new form, in which it is not only a center for meetings and courses for Friends and a home for visiting Quaker scholars, but also a base for outreach, a venue for conferences, a hostel for students and even a bed-and-breakfast for tourists. Before the memories fade, I thought I'd try to set down some of my thoughts and experiences.
I last visited Woodbrooke over fifteen years ago, for a long weekend course. At that time it provided both accommodation and teaching for various full-time Quaker studies courses, as well as welcoming Friends for weekend courses and meetings. The teaching and admin staff and the long-term resident students formed a sort of Quaker intentional community, and carried out a significant amount of the cooking, serving, laundry etc. The atmosphere as experienced by a visitor was a cross between a university hall of residence and a sprawling country house full of an extended family and a miscellany of guests, with the family dividing its time between trying to make the guests feel welcome, and getting on with running the house and taking care of business.
Today a lot has changed. There are no full-time courses, the resident students are mostly just studying at Birmingham University and there is a full-time professional administration and facilities staff, providing excellent food and a clean and well-run environment. The proportion of Quakers among the staff and long-term residents is lower, and the atmosphere is much more of a country house hotel in the conference business.
In his PhD thesis A Sociological Analysis of the Theology of Quakers, Ben Pink Dandelion, who is tutor in Postgraduate Quaker Studies at Woodbrooke today, discusses the narrowing of 'Quaker-time' from its historical scope of virtually all of Friends' lives, to the few hours a week Friends spend at the Meeting house today. The special thing about Woodbrooke, which it shares with Yearly Meeting, is that within its precincts Quaker-time is once again expanded to fill the whole day. Friends arriving for the first time often struggle to express the difference they sense, of an environment in which not only the pace but also the style of what we've come to accept as 'normal' life do not hold sway. Here it is still just possible, with good will, to experience a bit of the inspired optimism of 17th century Friends, that it would in fact be possible to bring in the Kingdom of God there and then. I at least find it easier to 'be good' at Woodbrooke -- to live a saner life, without raising my voice or losing my temper, with my focus more on others and less on myself.
Friends in Residence are a crucial component of the Woodbrooke mix. They are often the first person a visitor meets, and perhaps the only person other than those involved in their course or meeting that they may interact with very much. Friends in Residence's jobs are prosaic, centering around providing basic 'hotel services' outside of weekday business hours. But their role is much more fundamental. It is to manifest Quakerism in action, to be, dare I say it, patterns and examples. Because they are in residence for weeks or months, they are comfortable and know their way around, unlike the short-term visitor who usually only gets to that state just before they leave. This in turn gives them a platform on which to build a presence which comforts and reassures the visitors, being visibly available for information or assistance, or just conversation.
Woodbrooke is not a Preparative Meeting, and Friends in Residence are not its Elders or its Overseers, although their role resembles those a bit. The focus is on service, with the accompanying need for humility. The opportunity is there for worship, reading and study, along with conversation, which may range from spiritual to intellectual to personal, and conversation in particular is part of the overall pattern of service, but none of this is what Friends in Residence are really there for. Contemporary Quakerism is above all about what we do as Friends, not what we believe, and the fundamental job of Friends in Residence, at once very easy and terribly daunting, is to walk that walk, to visibly be Friends, to do as Friends should do, quietly, without fuss, but unmistakably. I was challenged, and in the end uplifted, by my effort to fulfil this role.
There can be only one conclusion, which I hope is evident by now: Go to Woodbrooke! Go for a course, go for a visit, go to serve as a Friend in Residence. You will find your understanding of what it means to be a Friend deepened, and your ability to witness to our particular vision strengthened.
Information about Woodbrooke courses can be found at Woodbrooke's web site (
http://www.woodbrooke.org.uk/). For information about volunteering as a Friend in Residence, contact Rachael Milling (
firstname.lastname@example.org), the FiR coordinator.