Quakers set to leave Sawley Meeting House after 200 years

PUBLISHED: 00:00 26 May 2016

Meeting House and Wardens Cottage

Meeting House and Wardens Cottage

Archant

The Quakers are leaving one of their most historic Meeting Houses. They spoke to Mairead Mahon.

Stephen Lee with Oscar the dog, Wendy Hampton and Ben DandelionStephen Lee with Oscar the dog, Wendy Hampton and Ben Dandelion

There’s a notice board in the Quaker Meeting house in Sawley that is carved with the words ‘Quakers’ Notes’. It’s a play on words reflecting the fact that when some people think about the faith, the first image that pops into their heads is a box of the porridge.

‘The joke is that the man on that porridge box isn’t even a Quaker, he’s actually a Puritan,’ laughs Ben Dandelion, an elder of the Meeting and a Professor of Quaker Studies at two universities.

Therein lies the problem, though. Not everyone knows what the Quakers are all about and it’s something members of the Sawley Meeting are addressing by making a momentous decision. They are selling their Meeting House and moving to Clitheroe, where their work with programmes such as The Food Bank and the Anti-Fracking campaign can have a higher profile.

It wasn’t a decision that was taken lightly, as the Meeting House at Sawley is the only one in the world that has a fantastic, clear view of Pendle Hill where in 1652 George Fox had the vision that would lead him to found the Quaker movement. The Meeting House has existed since 1777, built on land given by a Quaker farmer. The interior has many details that help to tell the story of the faith through architecture. The first thing that strikes the visitor is its simplicity – it reflects a faith where meetings are generally held in silence. There is no minister and everyone from the youngest or newest is on a par with the oldest or most experienced.

Interior of the Meeting HouseInterior of the Meeting House

It is a fairly large space, containing the original pitch pine woodwork with raised benches at one end to accommodate the elders. At the other end is a loft, known as the Women’s Business Meeting, with a pair of wonderful working shutters. It harks back to another era.

‘Women don’t have a special area any more – everyone is equal in Quakerism and the women’s room was only ever used to allow them to get used to being heard in this way. Many would have been nervous about speaking out in the past. Nor do the elders sit in those high backed chairs, thank goodness. In the past, many a poor back would have been glad to have been relieved from occupying them,’ laughs Ben.

What is still used is an original collection point, complete with its discreet, small wooden door and the much larger door to the side of it: The Coffin Door. It’s through here that a coffin is carried into the Meeting Room. Quakers were once buried in the garden.

Over the years, alterations have been carried out – a garden office and kitchen have been added, but things have still not been as practical as they might for a faith that wants to be in the heart of a community.

‘We are remote here and we had often thought about the practicality of it,’ says Wendy Hampton, who is the clerk of the meeting and who is married to Ben. ‘It is difficult for some people to get to, there is limited parking. It isn’t the most comfortable place to sit and it can be very cold.’

It was this that last point that led Ben to raise the matter of moving. ‘I had just written out some cheques – one to help refugees, another for some books and one for the electricity bill. It seemed an awful lot to spend on a domestic bill when there are so many other things to spend it on.’

After many meetings it was decided that the time was right to leave. ‘Everyone thought about what was best for The Meeting. It wasn’t an easy decision – many people have sentimental memories associated with the building. Wendy and I were married here, for example. But a Meeting House is only a tool of The Meeting: our faith is involved with areas such as social justice and peace. We are a part of the community so we need to be where people are and where we can be seen,’ explains Ben.

The Sawley Quakers already hold a mid-week Meeting in Clitheroe and this is where they hope to move. As there has been a lot of interest in buying the house and its adjoining cottage, that will probably be sooner rather than later. Almost all the people who have come to view are keen to use it as a family home and, as the building is listed, items of historical importance such as the raised benches and 18th century book cupboard will be safe.

But won’t other Quakers who come from all over the world to Sawley be disappointed? Stephen Lee, who is the overseer for pastoral care, replies: ‘Of course not. The building is really not important – the area is important to our history but there are seven meeting houses in this area.

‘They will still be able to climb Pendle and hold meetings on top of the hill. We all like climbing the hill, although, as George Fox himself said, “the top isn’t gained without much ado”.’

Oscar, Stephen’s dog, who is welcome at meetings as long as he is well behaved, doesn’t find much ado in getting to the top and will still enjoy his regular trips up there. Meanwhile, other Quaker houses with similar issues will wait to see how the move goes through before following the Sawley example.

Sawley will always be an important part of the Quakers’ past but this move might just be a significant part of their future.

Fox tale

Quakers are officially the The Society of Friends. The origin of the word “quaker” is a little uncertain but it is thought to be a derogatory term referring to the day George Fox told a magistrate he should be ‘quaking before the Lord.’ Eventually, this particular branch of Protestantism spread from Lancashire across the world.

Latest from the Lancashire Life