A New Meeting House in Devon: Ashburton Quaker Meeting
by Pip Harris
Ashburton (UK) Meeting
"Totnes" is a small market town in South West England, based at an important crossing point of the River Dart. Together with the nearby Dartington estate, it has an international reputation for its lively and diverse community. Not surprisingly the Quaker meeting has grown in the last forty years, and is large for the size of the town.
People came to Totnes to attend meeting for worship from a wide surrounding area. The geography of South Devon meant that there was a noticeable cluster of Friends living in and around the neighbouring town of Ashburton, about nine miles away.
The holding of a Quaker wedding in Ashburton, with the necessary meetings for worship held in the weeks preceding it, was the necessary stimulus for a small mid-week meeting to start. This took the form of a public “satellite meeting” of Totnes, using a tucked-away room of a local children’s nursery, with the tiny chairs part of an admittedly rather uncomfortable seating plan! The supportive presence of a Totnes elder living in Ashburton, known by townsfolk as "Quaker Mary," was important in building a sense of community.
Four years passed, and a disused chapel came up for sale in Ashburton. The chapel had been used as a wood store for over fifty years and was in a state of disrepair. Most importantly it seemed affordable. What started as a coffee-time "whim" and discussion quickly developed into a clear leading. Friends felt that the purchase of the chapel would allow a more obvious Quaker presence to be built in the town.
Fortuitous events supporting the planting
Some years previously a Friend had left a substantial legacy to Quakers, with a hope that they might buy a meetinghouse for another South Devon town, nearby Newton Abbot. Friends there had discerned that this wasn’t what they wished and fortuitously the monies were awaiting a decision as to an alternative use. Funds were sufficient to cover the costs of restoring the chapel in a very basic form. The area meeting approved the use of the funds to purchase the chapel for Friends in Ashburton, carry out basic renovations, and start plans for a full refurbishment.
Growing the vision for the building
The building was purchased and Friends started meeting in the shell of the building. But how would the space be developed? Ashburton Friends looked at three options: from a minimal approach to a complete remodelling. An architect sympathetic to Quaker values was chosen. He attended meetings for worship in order to better understand how the building would be used. The process wasn’t without its tensions, and area meeting Friends helped with this challenging discernment. A "threshing meeting" was held, to help inform the process. Friends also sought the views of the wider town community through a survey and open day. This information fed into the vision for the building.
An area meeting Friend with wide experience in sustainable buildings helped to talk through realistic options. This allowed Friends to balance the ideal with the budget and practical issues. The accepted plan took the form of the creation of "a building within a building," with a floor being added to the building. This created a flexible, two-story space which included a room for children to use as well as a more flexible hiring [rental] space. This structure allows for a lot of insulation which reduces heat loss. A gifted Friend with an engineering background was on hand to supervise the work, carried out by a talented team of local builders.
Growing the community
Through the use of flexible area meeting funds and good planning, Quakers have a visible presence in Ashburton. In the ten years since the building has been completed, there has been a pleasing increase in people coming to meeting for worship. Some have passed through as part of their spiritual exploration and journeying, and others have stayed and taken the step to become members.…There are now around 30 Friends (members and attenders) linked to the meeting. Usually 15 chairs are placed out on a Sunday. Attendance varies from single figures, to needing more chairs to be added to the circle.
One challenge for the meeting is the number of "experienced" Friends committed to a longer-term relationship with Quakers and the larger proportion of seekers who are beginning an exploration of what Quakers may, or may not, mean for them. A relatively inexperienced clerking team grew in confidence, supported by an experienced clerk. Recently the question of how the meeting fulfills its eldership and pastoral care has been challenging Friends and they are considering a new form of appointments.