A Friends meeting house is a place of worship for the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). George Fox, founder of the Society, spoke contemptuously of churches as "steeple houses" and Friends were convinced that there was no necessity for special buildings for worship. The idea of a steeple grew up as a political compromise between a church and the local merchants, where legally the church had to be the tallest building in town, so the local merchants built a tall, thin and mostly useless tower on the church.
Early Friends met for worship in people's homes or even in the open air. However sheer growth in numbers made it necessary to create specific meeting houses, generally without steeples. Some were adapted from existing structures, but most were purpose-built. Briggflatts Meeting House is an example of the latter. The hallmark of a meeting house is extreme simplicity and the absence of any liturgical symbols.
A meeting house will usually consist of: a large meeting room, smaller rooms for committees, children's classes, etc., a kitchen and toilets.
The meeting room itself is a place for Friends to withdraw from the world. The windows are set sufficiently high that worshippers will not be distracted by the activities of the world's people outside, or in some cases they provide a view into the meeting house garden.
The seating was originally long, hard and wooden. While earlier Friends had no ministers, numbers of meetings had a distinct front to the meeting room. The long bench that would be where a Protestant church's lectern would sit is known as the facing bench. The single long bench behind the facing bench is known as the back bench. Traditionally, elders of the meeting would sit on the facing bench and back bench. The back bench might be elevated six inches for better visibility.
In front of the facing and back benches, meeting benches were often laid out in a square, with several benches facing the center from the other three directions. Other meetings simply had numbers of benches 180 degrees toward the facing bench, with aisles left between benches, in a more traditional church layout. Some meetings had benches arranged in a perfect square with no apparent facing bench.
A few meetings grew quite large, large enough that the meeting rooms were built to amplify speakers speaking from any point in the meeting room. Some very large meetings feature multiple rows of benches on risers, the better for everyone to see and hear every other person.
Meeting rooms generally have little ornamentation, no crosses, and no stained glass windows. Unprogrammed meeting benches typically have no holding racks for hymnals.
Many ancient Friends' meeting rooms were designed to separate down the middle into men's and women's separate meetings for business. Movable boards were often used to temporarily divide the meeting room into two equal rooms. This physical separation was performed for at least a century to keep men from dominating the women's meeting for business. Often, these meetinghouses had two separate and equal doors, one door into each half of the meetinghouse.
Today the furniture layout in a meeting room is usually separate chairs. A preferred modern layout is a circle, square or rectangle of one or two rows of chairs facing inwards to an empty area in the middle. Friends will generally choose a single circle where everyone can be seen, unless there are too many Friends to form a single circle. A few meetinghouses have tried octagon formations of benches to simulate circles.
A few modern meetinghouses still feature wood floors for maximum speech amplification of various speakers. Most use carpeting to hush the random banging around of children's feet when they enter and leave. Almost all have doors to contain hall noise -- Friends can be hypersensitive to noises, more so than most denominations.
In general, Friends have a reasonable awareness of wheelchair access design. Many meetings are poor and many meetinghouses are centuries old and historic, so call ahead of time for accommodation to particular disability needs.
Numbers of modern meetinghouses have invested in sound systems to help Friends with hearing problems. Large business meetings in auditoriums typically have one or more portable microphones passed by microphone runners to speakers. Sound is sometimes broadcast on radio frequencies to personal earphone sets worn by hard-of-hearing Friends. Such sound systems can also be used in bilingual situations, or translating Friends can whisper into a visiting Friend's ear.
In response to a small epidemic of chemical sensitivity, numbers of modern meetinghouses have been built to strict petrochemical solvent-free standards. A number of meetinghouses have set aside fragrance-free zones near windows or have scheduled fragrance-free meetings.
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