The joy of reciprocity

by | Nov 20, 2022 | Seeds eNewsletter

The track leading to Colthouse Meeting

VISITING AMONG FRIENDS RECENTLY felt like oxygen to me, after COVID lock-downs and the forced cancelation of earlier travel plans. With Sophie’s hospitality of lunch and driving guidance (see below), and the welcomes we received at meetings, I’ve been thinking about the tradition of inter-visitation. For those of us who travel in the ministry, it is a delight to be hosted and welcomed. For those who provide hospitality, or who welcome visiting worshipers, it’s also a delight. Giving, receiving, giving, receiving — it’s a joyful, reciprocal cycle.

Last month I traveled with two Friends from the USA through mid-Wales and the northwest of England, to seek out places associated with 17th and 18th century Quakers, and to meet present-day Friends. I wish I could take you with us on the journey, but for now, you will only be able to read about it. However, you might want to get out a map to follow along.

On our first day, we drove from Manchester Airport southwest to Dolobran, near Pontrobert, in Powys (formerly Montgomeryshire), mid-Wales. We left the city, suburbs and highways for ever-narrowing country roads, signs in the Welsh language and faltering cell phone signals. Our first destination was Meifod, where, thanks to the recommendation of the South Wales-based host of Good News Associate Emily Provance, we were to meet Sophie Meade, of Dolobran Meeting. Sophie met us in the center of the village and led us up a narrow steep lane to her farmhouse, where she fed us lunch from her garden, before leading us down more lanes, then a farm track, and ultimately across fields, to Dolobran meetinghouse, the oldest in Wales. This small meetinghouse was built in 1701 on the instructions of Quaker convert Charles Lloyd, a member of the family that founded Lloyd’s Bank, still flourishing in the UK.

Field Leading to Dolobran Meetinghouse

Field Leading to Dolobran Meetinghouse

Sophie’s vehicle was four-wheel drive and quite high off the ground. My rental car was a low-slung Citroën. I took it slowly, and, fortunately, I didn’t scrape the muffler or tailpipe, or get bogged down in mud. We sat in the small brick building and listened to the birds. The building had served as a place of worship until 1828, when it became a barn. A member of the Lloyd family bought it back fifty years ago to give to Friends, and it was restored to become an active meetinghouse again. Sophie led us back through the fields to a road and pointed us in the right direction for our night’s accommodation. We had spent more hours there than I had anticipated, but it was an unforgettable afternoon.
Field Leading to Dolobran Meetinghouse

Dolobran Meetinghouse and Cottage

The origins of Quakerism in Wales go back to 1653 when George Fox was at Swarthmoor Hall, home of Judge Thomas Fell and Margaret Fell, which had become the center of the movement. George Fox and Richard Farnsworth had journeyed north through Yorkshire, Lancashire and Westmorland the spring of the previous year, being hosted, at times, by sympathetic dissenters. Two members of a Puritan congregation in North Wales visited him, and Siôn ap Siôn (John ap John) became a Quaker evangelist and Fox’s traveling companion and interpreter on his travels there.

The movement grew rapidly in Wales and, like their English counterparts, converts suffered persecution and imprisonment. Once William Penn had established the Welsh Tract in Pennsylvania in 1684, many moved to the Philadelphia area and named their new communities after the counties, towns or farms they had left behind, such as Bala, Berwyn, Bryn Mawr, Cynwyd, Gwynedd, Haverford, Merion, Montgomery and Radnor. Such was the scale of migration to North America that meetings began to close, and, by 1715, and for each decade thereafter, more Quaker deaths than births were recorded in Wales.

After we left Wales, we were able to spend two Sundays in northwest England. There are many choices of meetings to attend in that part of the world, and my preference was to visit small, rural ones. On the first Sunday we visited Colthouse, near Hawkshead. Like Dolobran, it is also up a farm track, but thankfully with no fields to negotiate. There was, however, a trailer load of sheep. After I had backed through the farmyard to park by the meetinghouse, the farmer came out and asked me to return to the bottom of the hill, as he was planning to move a load of sheep, and he didn’t want to scratch my car.

In 1658, local Quakers had bought a small field from one of their number, George Braithwaite, of Town End Farm, Colthouse, to use as a burial ground. Because it continued to be illegal to meet for worship, for thirty years Friends would gather behind the high stone wall of the burial ground on cold, damp stones that had been constructed to stick out of the wall. Finally, they were able to build their meetinghouse, up beyond the farmyard. A small number of faithful Friends keep the meeting going. The farm is still called Town End.

Yealand Meetinghouse

Yealand Meetinghouse

On the following Sunday we worshiped at Yealand Meeting, in Yealand Conyers, just north of Lancaster. It says 1692 on the porch, but the meetinghouse itself could be a little older. There were between 20 and 30 in worship, including those joining by Zoom. There was an Owl in the center of the room — not a real bird, but a microphone that swivels to pick up voices in the room, assisting participants on Zoom to hear more clearly. The insertion of a robot into a 17th century building was a little disconcerting, but I was glad that the meeting had embraced technology to include those worshiping from a distance.

At both Colthouse and Yealand we were greeted warmly with tea and cookies and a real sense of gratitude for our visit. In both places we heard concerns about aging congregations (in an area that attracts retired people) and of fears that, in a few years, there will be no-one to take up responsibilities of Quaker work. Visiting, worshiping with, and listening to local Friends is important. Friends have been visiting each other’s communities since 1652. Long may it continue.

Margaret Fraser is a GOOD NEWS Associate and a member of Ireland Yearly Meeting