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“The finances are in a mess, the Meeting House is a mess, it's ridiculous. You sitting here on your own. God knows who wandering in and out. It's not safe.” Thus spoke a reasonable man to an obstinate and visionary woman.
The woman in question was Margaret Kemp and the words are those of John Hughes, a character in Danusia Iwaszko's new play 'Still Small Voice'. It was my good fortune to see this play performed last week in the Meeting House in which it was set.
In 1952, Bury St Edmunds Quaker Meeting was in decline. Few Friends attended and the 18th century Meeting House was in a dilapidated state. Rain came in the through the roof, the plaster was damp, the window frames rotten and the burial ground overgrown.
Hughes, a trustee of the Ipswich and Diss Monthly Meeting (loosely the Quaker equivalent of a diocese) was the reasonable and realistic man of affairs charged with overseeing the 'laying down' of this apparently moribund Meeting. But Margaret Kemp, 77 years of age and almost blind, had other ideas.
She sat by herself in the Meeting House, worshipping alone and, as clerk, keeping the records of a Meeting which existed only on paper. Buckets to catch the rain which came through the roof surrounded her and sometimes she would work under an umbrella. But this remarkable woman had a conviction that the Meeting House “would be needed for the future”.
The character of Eddie – an odd job man traumatised by the war, and a chance visit from a drunken, slightly maudlin Irishman looking for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, both play their part in strengthening Margaret's faith in the value of the Meeting. These troubled men, in their different ways, find a source of peace in the decaying building and the quiet but vulnerable old woman who loves it so much. In combination with the young woman who wants to be married in the Meeting House, they are a pledge of the future in which Kemp has such a strong belief.
But the play is far more than a documentary account of Margaret Kemp's stubborn faith in the promptings of her 'still small voice'. Iwaszko, a Catholic, has gone to the common heart of the visionary experience. In a bold stroke which is central to the meaning of this extraordinary play, she introduces the ghost of Marjorie Kempe – a 15th century mystic who was abused and maligned in her own lifetime for aspiring beyond her role of wife, mother and home-keeper, for travelling to the Holy Land and seeking to converse with bishops and scholars. Her writings - “The Book of Marjorie Kempe” is one of the volumes which Margaret Kemp carries in her capacious bag, along with the more conventional spiritual literature of a mid-20th century Quaker.
Margaret's near namesake is presented as an earthy woman with a strong Norfolk accent. There is comedy as well as pathos in her frequent switches between loud expression of the “gift of tears” which she claims was given to her by the Holy Spirit, and practical advice to the increasingly distressed 20th century Quaker woman who also finds herself disdained by influential and 'right-thinking' men. Marjorie Kempe weaves their common sorrow, devotion and faith into a web of meaning and encouragement, remarking during one visitation “Count your blessings, Margaret. They used to burn strong women in my time”.
I am a member of the Meeting which was saved by Margaret Kemp. Today, it is the largest Meeting in the area and is described by Friends House as “vibrant”. It is at the heart of my spiritual life and provides a framework of love, companionship and inspiration to many people, both within and outside the Society of Friends. We have a great deal for which to thank Margaret Kemp and the eccentric mediaeval woman who was her inspiration.
On a wider stage, Iwaszko's play reminds me that being reasonable in the world's eyes does not always provide a reliable guide to the path of truth.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet