What I’m really thinking: The Subject of Fieldwork

I’m at my place of worship on a Sunday, with my husband and the boys, and I have my scruffy cloth bag with assorted papers and some gluten-free biscuits and the magazine I’m supposed to pass on to somebody. I’m greeting people and sorting out an evening meeting for next week and checking that somebody turned up to take the children’s class (so that I don’t have to) and catching up on a bit of the news before the meeting starts. And out of the corner of my eye I spot you, looking at the leaflets, and recognise you as a student; and I wonder whether you might possibly be here for your fieldwork assignment. You might, of course, be here just because you felt like coming along.

I don’t mind, in fact, which it is. People come here for all sorts of reasons. It’s a public event. By holding public worship we invite people to show up for any and all reasons. I’ve been in Quaker meetings when people have come with the clear intention of telling all their troubles to a captive audience. Or to preach a prepared sermon to convince us of the error of our way of worship. Or to make some new friends in a city where they didn’t know anybody, because they misunderstood “Religious Society of Friends” (sort of). Quaker meetings have, at various times in history, been attended by official spies or informers; I don’t think we’re considered worth infiltrating at the moment, but you never know. And I’m sure some of us regulars, some of the time, come because it’s better than trying to entertain the kids all morning, or because it’s the only place we can be sure of catching a particular person we need to speak to, or because we said we would. The reason that brought you here might determine everything that happens, or it might not.

So you’ve come to observe, and you’ve thought a bit in advance about participating and observing and how they interrelate. I remember a friend at university telling me he might come to a Quaker meeting sometime out of curiosity, “but only as an observer”. I found it hard to explain that the main thing he would have to do in order to be an observer, viz. sit in this place for an hour and pay close attention, was not very different from what I would be doing as a participant.

We do not put on a show (not that anybody else does). We all, more or less, turn up and see what happens. Insofar as there’s a “behind the scenes”, a background to the meeting for worship, you – as a one-off visitor or observer – get to join in with that as well (it’s mostly the conversations over tea and coffee afterwards). The key difference is that you haven’t been before, and you’re going to go away and think systematically about what happened. So what you see and learn on this one visit might teach us a lot about ourselves on all sorts of levels, if you shared it with us; and sometimes you do.

I admit that I do find myself, in Meeting, wondering (even worrying) what impression each piece of ministry will give you, what sort of group of people you’ll think you’ve walked into. Whether you’ll hear these as the official line, as “what Quakers believe”; what assumptions you’ll make about what religion ought to look like, what frameworks you’ll put us into, and whether we’ll fit them. And whether you could even take seriously the audacious claim on which the process rests, that God changes things in real time. (We are really not putting on a show).

I doubt you will even consider that claim. But I guess I’m hoping you’ll gain, as you sit there and observe, some sense of what this is like from the inside. And I’m assuming that the “sense of what this is like from the inside” would entail a felt response, a response that encounters the process at a level other than the intellectual; you’ll have an “emotional” reaction (even if it’s boredom or fear or repulsion), or, it seems to me, you won’t really have been here.

And that leads me to think: by coming here as some kind of outsider, you’re asking us whether this space, the space of meeting for worship, has an outside. I’d say: if it does have an outside, that just shows you that it’s much smaller than the space it relates to, the space it draws us into. But I’d be happy for you to take that comment of mine as another interesting piece of material for your fieldwork report.

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