Refugees and social inequality top Lancaster Friends agenda

From left, Hugh Roberts, Oliver Brigham, 10, Martin Brigham, and Elizabeth Roberts outside the Friends Meeting House in Lancaster.

From left, Hugh Roberts, Oliver Brigham, 10, Martin Brigham, and Elizabeth Roberts outside the Friends Meeting House in Lancaster.

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“People say there’s a certain feeling about the building, it’s happy, peaceful, with so many different things going on - we’ve been celebrating that.”

For almost 350 years the Friends Meeting House has provided a place of worship and a community resource for the people of Lancaster.

The Friends Meeting Room circa July 1900.

The Friends Meeting Room circa July 1900.

From its roots as a Quaker worship site in 1677, the building in Meeting House Lane has provided schooling and meeting space for all cross-sections of society.

Quakers founded a school there in 1690 and it ran until 1968, before the independent George Fox School - named after the preacher that founded the movement in Lancaster - took over and ran for 20 years.

More recently, the building has become a hive of activity, with groups filling up the calendar with languages, fitness, social, University of the Third Age (U3A), music and arts classes all meeting in one of its seven available rooms throughout the week.

Clerk Elizabeth Roberts said that current local and national Quaker campaigns included supporting refugees and getting UK employers to adopt a “living wage” to improve social equality.

The Friends Meeting House in Lancaster.

The Friends Meeting House in Lancaster.

Elizabeth has been the clerk for six years, while her husband Hugh is archivist, press officer and member of the premises committee.

In this role he has spearheaded a drive to move to a low carbon building, which has recently seen the installation of 15 photovoltaic cells on the roof, sheep’s wool insulation, secondary glazing on the windows and a new heating system.

Elizabeth said: “We’re all volunteers and most of us have a job of some sort and it’s a rule that you only do a maximum of six years in one role to keep things moving along.

“As a church we don’t have a minister and it’s very much DIY, for examply there’s a committee for finance and a young people’s committee.”

Early Quakers called themselves “friends of the truth” and George Fox, who came to Lancaster from Leicestershire in 1652, preached that the formal rites of the church of his day had little to do with true religion.

The message found many converts but also aroused strong opposition, and he was stoned through the streets by a hostile mob until he found refuge in John Lawson’s house in St Leonardgate.

Quakers have been persecuted over the centuries, with some imprisoned in Lancaster Castle, however the Lancaster “meeting” has recently witnessed a revival, with 150 Friends in membership and many others attending Meetings for worship.

Elizabeth chairs the many business meetings, keeping minutes of the decisions.

“Because we’re a very big meeting, we’re trying to keep people in the picture, so everyone knows what’s going on,” she said.

“As a Meeting, we’ve got two concerns, one of which is the living wage, the proper living wage, not the government’s National Living Wage.

“We’re campaigning about that and trying to see that all Quaker organisations are living wage employers across the country.

“Here in Lancaster we’re heading that up nationally.

“Anne Morgan has done a fantastic job with it.

“There’s a huge inequality in the country.

“Within the Quaker organisation we try to ensure the ratio between the top wage and the bottom wage is four times, and we try to hold that up as an example. “We see this as very important in reducing poverty.

“We campaigned a lot in the city centre last winter.

“There are a few local firms that do pay it, and of course there are ones that just can’t afford to pay it.

“The other concern is refugees.

“We have members who are very active in the city, and volunteers that come from all sorts of different backgrounds.

“We hold English classes here, and we’re also involved in a new drop in centre, mostly for Syrian refugees.

“We have accommodation for 16 people, although I do think this will increase.

“We’re very actively involved in that.

“But ultimately we’re a religious society and at the centre of it all is worship on a Sunday.”

Hugh said that the Meeting worked closely with Lancaster based Global Link on a “world peace outlook”.

He said: “Recently we’ve been celebrating The Meeting House, and we held an event bringing together the people who use the building but don’t often come into contact with eachother.

“People say there’s a certain feel about the building, it’s happy, peaceful, with so many different things going on.”

Elizabeth added: “When the George Fox School closed down there were different ideas for the future of the building.

“One man believed it should be for the community, others wanted to sell it, or rent it out.

“We listened to that voice that said keep it for the community and here we are.”

Martin Brigham, Friend and member of the social committee said: “The event was nice for the different groups to come together and be here at the same time.

“We can’t let it out commercially, but we can rent it out to groups as long as it fits in with our values.

“We’re not a politicial organisation, but we do campaign on environmental issues and social justice.

“We have self help groups, for examply Alcohol and Narcotics Anonymous groups.

“Spaces like this are precious and more important to the community than ever.

“They’re talking about closing the community centre in Barton Road, because there’s not enough money to run it.

“We’re very keen on building the wider community as well as the Quaker community.”

In the wake of the UK’s vote to leave the EU last month, children who attend the Sunday School at the Friends Meeting House recently wrote letters to other Quaker Meetings across Europe.

Martin said: “We just thought it was important to say, ‘hello we’re still here and we still want to be friends’.

“Those kinds of activities are so important.”

For more information on the Quaker movement and the Friends Meeting House, visit www.lancsquakers.org.uk/lancaster.php.