by Sheila Hancock (from a radio interview, not written for Nayler)
After I had cancer myself, I began to feel a lack of a spiritual element in my life… I went to a meeting of the Society of Friends – a Quaker meeting. I went for a weekend – they have weekend retreats. Instantly it was right for me. They’ve got a wonderful history – they’ve always believed in total equality. They’re pacifists, which I am. They’re activists – they’ve always been a bit anarchic. And they’ve been at the forefront of many changes for good in the world. They’re at the base of a lot of very good things that we have. They were the founders of honest trading. At the Quakers one of the things we aim for is honesty and equality and peace. Their history with women is amazing. One of the founders was Margaret Fell. People mostly hear about George Fox but alongside him was Margaret Fell who was every bit a founder of the religion. Women have always been totally equal right from the very beginning. I can’t be bothered with a religion where they’re not, quite honestly. It was just right for me and the people are very varied.
I go to a meeting and I’m just me, one of the Friends, and we sit in silence – there’s no man in a skirt preaching at you. There’s nobody in charge and it is run as a society. There are guidelines – we’ve got a book called Advice & Queries, which I love because it’s the idea that we give you advice, you needn’t take it. We ask some questions, we don’t really know the answers.
Q: there is room for doubt?
Absolutely! There’s constant room for change. I think the Quakers will be the first people to have religious ceremonies for gay people. Gay people are very welcome as Friends already. We have ceremonies for them but we can’t have an actual thing but we are fighting for that.
And they’ve been at the forefront of mental reform, prison reform. The pacifism that they have is very active. In almost every warfront there are Quakers trying to negotiate, there are Quakers trying to bring people together, secretly, behind the scenes.
Q: God is love and God is in all of us.
There is that of God in everyone. Some Quakers won’t even call people mister and missus, they’re so keen on equality. That’s my belief – that everyone has something God-like in them. If something goes wrong, then evil can happen. They’re not evil, but evil can happen and I’ve proved this time and time again in things that I’ve been involved with. Children, for example, who have been regarded as a menace to society and have indeed been quite dangerous but with one-to-one care and love and help they can transform.
Quakers never give up on people.
And the other thing I like is the social work that Quakers do is very often with the least attractive members of society, the people that other charities forget. For instance there’s been a very big mentoring scheme for paedophiles coming out of prison. Things like that – they take on the people that most of us revile, can’t bear and don’t want to help.
And I just like them very much – I like my fellow Friends.
Q: the meetings are in silence in a more congested world…
It’s an especially good discipline for me because I talk and talk and talk and I’m argumentative and I like a debate and everything but this is where the Quaker thing comes in. If you can’t stop yourself then you are allowed to minister. You’re allowed to stand up and say something simply. Then you sit down and there has to be another long silence and someone else can follow suit if they feel they have something. But usually what I want to say, if I analyse it, is trivial and stupid. Though I don’t speak hardly ever in meeting but I just listen and sometimes somebody will say something that absolutely what we Quakers say ‘speaks to my condition’. You go there with something troubling you and miraculously somebody will stand up and say something and you think ‘Oh. Wow. Yes.’ It’s almost like a message.
It’s not like meditation. It’s a giving out. You can feel the wonderful unity of spirit. When 9/11 happened I was on my way to chair a conference about prison for young people and I arrived and we thought ‘what are we going to do’ because it was obviously a catastrophic situation and one thought ‘oh my God there’s going to be a war immediately or something dreadful’. And I remember saying the best thing we can do is sit in silence – there were a lot of Quakers there. And it was so healing in this mayhem – your mind was in a ferment and the whole world was churning. There was this marvellous peace and feeling of unity in people who were feeling very frightened.
Sheila Hancock was talking to Clare Balding on BBC Radio 2’s Good Morning with Clare Balding.