The Communion of Saints is not a term which comes readily to a Quaker's tongue. But an encounter with two Friends – one living and one three centuries dead - has prompted me to look past the difficulty of these words in search of their true meaning.
We had passed a long weekend walking the Cumbrian fells and our last day was spent in the Howgills – those striking uplands which make the stretch of the M6 between Kendal and Shap so memorable and unique.
The Cross Keys pub - a temperance inn - stands at the foot of Cautley Spout on the road between Sedbergh and Kirkby Stephen. This is the heart of '1652 country' – those parts of Cumbria, Westmorland and North Yorkshire where Quakerism has such deep roots. Nearby are Brigg Flatts Meeting House and Firbank Fell where George Fox preached to a gathering of thousands and “convinced many”. I should not therefore, have been surprised to discover that the Cross Keys was kept by a 'vociferous Quaker', Alan Clowes.
Alan greeted me after the manner of Friends and we were soon in easy and delightful conversation. But I was a bit startled when he told me that “Dorothy Benson stays with us”.
Dorothy was one of the “valiant sixty”, a group of ordinary men and women, farmers, tradesmen and shopkeepers, also known as the “first publishers of the truth” - itinerant preachers who spread the ideas of Friends throughout England, Europe and the New World in the latter half of the 17th century. These early exponents of radical religion and civil disobedience frequently ran foul of the authorities and suffered for it. Dorothy was no exception. She was imprisoned for arguing with a cleric of the Established Church during a service and gave birth to her son Immanuel while in jail. She died soon after her release and as was the custom amongst Friends at that time, was buried, not in consecrated ground, but in garden of the family home – the house which was to become the Cross Keys Inn.
When the inn was extended in the 18th century, part of the garden was built over and Dorothy's grave lies under the modern dining area. In the idiom of the area, Alan told me that visitors often ask if Dorothy “comes around”. “Nay, she doesn't” he said. “She's at peace.” (And amongst Friends.)
The wholly unlooked for experience of such a warm meeting with a another Quaker and of knowing that an extraordinarily brave exponent of our faith was resting beneath us, was a deeply moving reminder of the Quakerly admonition “seek to know one another in the things which are eternal.” And as we talked the afternoon away, I had a growing sense of a continuum of belief and practice which runs from Dorothy Benson's time to our own.
The project which Alan Clowes and his wife Chris run in South Africa, creating jobs, skills and sustainable opportunities in an area of great deprivation, is part of a connectivity and love which cannot be changed by death or by time and which is upheld by the witness of those who have preceded us. If that is the Communion of Saints, then sign me up.
More about Alan and Chris Clowes' project here http://www.thandifriends.org.uk