‘Experiment with Light’ — a spiritual movement in British Quakerism

May 2, 2011 § 18 Comments

In The Quaker Condition: The Sociology of a Liberal Religion, edited by Pink Dandelion and Peter Collins, Helen Meads has a chapter on a spiritual movement among British Friends that I found intriguing and surprising (“’Experiment with Light’: Radical Spiritual Wing of British Quakerism”, pages 217-232). Surprising because I’d never heard of it, intriguing because I thought it might really appeal to a lot of American liberal Friends. Experiment with Light has a website, www.experiment-with-light.org.uk, and I offer links to some other resources below.

Experiment with Light is a structured format for experiencing the Light and for sharing that experience with others in small groups that Rex Ambler started in 1996. The process is based on Ambler’s analysis of early Friends’ writings, in which he felt he had identified common steps in their experience of the Light and specifically, on a meditation process described in one of George Fox’s early publications (1653; see book description below). ‘Experimenters’ meet in ‘Light Groups’ for forty minutes of guided meditation, the meditation consisting of six steps interspersed with periods of silence, usually guided by a tape or CD recording (there’s also an online streaming version), but sometimes read aloud. There seem to be several versions of meditations to choose from: Meditation on the individual, Meditation on the world, and two Fox-based versions. After the meditation, there follows a period of silence for personal reflection and then a period of sharing. As with worship sharing, participants keep the sharing of others confidential.

Meads says that many Experimenters report having quite profound and often life-changing experiences during these sessions, that, for many, it deepens their spiritual lives in an ongoing way, both in meeting for worship and in their daily practice. It also creates strong bonds between the participants in a Light Group, and a sense of wider community with participants in other Light Groups.

According to Meads, Experiment with Light has also generated some tension within meetings. Friends sometimes turn to these Light Groups because of frustration with the lack of spiritual depth in their meeting or their meeting for worship, an attitude that their Light Group experience often reinforces—or awakens, if they had not felt that way before. Most Light Groups have been organized outside the formal structures of their meetings and the strong sense of spiritual sharing within the Light Group seems also to sometimes reinforce a sense of distance from the meeting.

For their part, meetings sometimes have resisted or resented the formation of Light Groups and often do not understand the impulse to start such a group or what goes on in them. While sharing your experience within the Light Group is an integral part of the Experiment with Light process, Experimenters often find it difficult to share their experiences outside the Light Group and meet with difficulties when they do, so the Experimenters and their group can seem secretive and opaque to outsiders, according to Meads. Furthermore, non-Experimenters have sometimes felt an implicit criticism in the Experimenters’ enthusiasm for their Groups and their experience and in the Experimenters’ conviction that what they are doing and experiencing is true or core Quakerism. The movement has chosen not to become a Listed Informal Group of Britain Yearly Meeting and usually organizes outside the formal structures of local meetings (only two Light Groups have done so, out of roughly one hundred formed so far), so there’s no formal way for meetings to engage with their local Light Group and, often, no sense of responsibility for them.

As I said, I am surprised that I have not heard of this movement; I’m not sure whether I’m just less well-informed than I thought I was or that the lines of communication between British and American Friends are just less efficient than I thought. Also, I’m surprised that no Light Groups seem to have formed in the U.S., especially since the basic resources are easily available online. Finally, I wonder whether liberal American Quaker meetings will provide fertile soil for Experiment with Light, and if Light Groups migrate here, will this cause problems in the US as it has in the UK? Do any of my readers have first hand experience with Experiment with Light? I would like to better understand this movement and its impact on British Quakerism and on local meetings in BYM, and to know of its progress in the U.S., if any Light Groups have formed here already.

If you are interested in knowing more, here are some resources:

Experiment with Light website: http://www.experiment-with-light.org.uk/.

Books about Experiment with Light:

Seeing, Hearing, Knowing: reflections on Experiment with Light, John Lampen editor. Chapters on “the origins of Experiment with Light, the experiences of some Light Groups, reflections on questions and difficulties that have arisen, and chapters linking the practice to worship, prayer, discernment, the psychology of ‘Focusing’, political action, and possible future developments.” Available from the Quaker Center Bookshop in England, £ 7. Quotes are from the Quaker Center blurb on the book.

Light to live by: an exploration in Quaker spirituality, by Rex Ambler. An explication of Experiment with Light, describing Ambler’s personal story behind the work and discussing the specific source in a 1653 publication of George Fox where Ambler claims to have found a clearly described meditation process. This book is available from FGC bookstore ($11.00), where it’s listed as a “Bestseller”, along with a couple of other books by Ambler: http://www.quakerbooks.org/RexAmbler.

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