If the Quaker Way has something unique to offer the world, perhaps it is the experience of a gathered meeting for worship. This was described in memorable words in last year's Swarthmore Lecture:
'Unless we are extremely unfortunate in our journey through the Society of Friends we all know when we have experienced a gathered meeting: a meeting where the silence is as soft as velvet, as deep as a still pool; a silence where words emerge, only to deepen and enrich that rich silence, and where Presence is as palpable and soft as the skin of a peach; where the membrane separating this moment in time and eternity is filament-fine.'
(Gerald Hewitson, Journey into Life )
This experience of gathered worship is the living power of the Quaker Way, with an amazing capacity to heal, renew and transform our lives. This is what will make our communities alive; awakening our children to the possibilities of spiritual experience and demonstrating to new attenders that there is something real to discover in our meetings
Given the wonderful possibilities of Quaker worship, I often wonder why we have such low expectations of some of our meetings. In some meetings gathered worship is a rare occurrence, because the disciplines that enable and sustain it are not being practised.
It is easy to have the form of a Quaker meeting without the reality. On the surface, a group of people sitting in a circle, perhaps with someone occasionally standing up to speak, looks like Quaker worship. But an authentic meeting for worship is much more demanding than it appears; it requires the whole group of worshippers to faithfully practise the disciplines of listening and speaking.
The discipline of listening in worship is a wholehearted attention to our experience. This often begins with the thoughts, feelings and images that surface in our consciousness. Beneath these we gradually become aware of subtler movements of the soul; perhaps a sense of longing, anxiety or sadness that we usually manage to ignore. Deeper still, we may come to the place of renewing, peaceful silence described by Gerald Hewitson as the 'still pool' of gathered worship. In that place, we become receptive to the 'promptings of love and truth' that may arise to teach us, and that might require us to offer spoken ministry. In this place of gathered worship we become open to a wordless encounter with a source of life and power, healing or illumination – a sense of 'Presence' beyond thoughts and concepts.
Some fortunate people find this process of becoming still and receptive relatively easy on their own. For the rest of us, whose minds struggle against the stillness and continually wander into thoughts and daydreams, the disciplined attentiveness of our fellow worshippers is invaluable. The 18th century Quaker Isaac Penington described this process of mutual strengthening in worship as 'like an heap of fresh and living coals, warming one another, insomuch as a great strength, freshness, and vigour of life flows into all.' (A brief account concerning silent meetings, 1761)
The discipline of speaking in meeting for worship means discerning whether our intention to offer spoken ministry is a response to a specific leading of the Spirit. It asks us to relinquish the natural urge to speak from the needs of the ego – to claim attention, to rebut or to persuade. We have to learn to speak only when our message arises from the deeper place of responsiveness to spiritual reality. When we minister from this place, our simplest words have a special power to draw others into awareness, to encourage, to console or to challenge.
Worship is a movement of the whole being towards a spiritual reality that is ultimately mysterious. It requires the commitment of our whole selves - mind, heart, body and will, to something beyond our rational categories, greater than our own values, thoughts and preferences. It is easy to keep ourselves at the centre, making worship into another activity of the conscious mind. The disciplines of worship require us to let go of our thinking, analysing and need to be in control.
Where the disciplines of listening and speaking are not practised, the meeting for worship can no longer function. Although the outward form may appear similar, such a meeting has become something else. It may turn into a debating or co-counselling group, or a quiet time to think our own thoughts. In these meetings, spoken ministry tends toward political discussion, reciting uplifting quotes or summaries of radio and TV programmes. Such ministry is rarely experienced as contributing to the depth of worship. Instead, Friends tend to tolerate each others' messages in a spirit of generous non-judgement, rather than embracing them as words with the power to speak to our hearts.
The fact that it is difficult even to name this departure from our Quaker disciplines without seeming judgemental is a symptom of our struggle to engage in honest conversation about our most central practices. It seems that the authenticity of spoken ministry can never be mentioned without a well-meaning Friend quoting from Advices & Queries 12, 'Receive the vocal ministry of others in a tender and creative spirit. Reach for the meaning deep within it, recognising that even if it is not God's word for you, it may be so for others.' This is essential guidance, and I try to follow it in meeting, but it is only a part of the discipline of Quaker worship. It should not be an excuse to ignore the many other passages that emphasise the self-discipline required for genuine ministry, (especially Quaker faith &practice 2.55 to 2.70).
Elders have a particular responsibility for reminding Friends of the disciplines involved in Quaker worship. In practice, elders' willingness to do this is severely undermined by many Friends' insistence that worship and ministry are purely subjective and not subject to community standards. For many years we have tried to avoid conflict within our meetings by evading mutual accountability for the quality of our worship. We have not expected new Friends and attenders to learn the disciplines of Quaker worship. Instead we have encouraged each other to re-interpret the practice of worship wherever it conflicts with our own preferences and assumptions.
The disciplines of the Quaker Way have often been downplayed in the name of inclusivity - justified by the supposed preferences of potential enquirers. There is a widespread assumption that new attenders are looking for a content-free 'space' which will not demand anything from them. But there are very many people who are seeking a greater depth of spiritual encounter to guide and ground their lives. These are the potential Quakers who may not return after their first experience of an undisciplined and lifeless meeting for worship.
A gathered meeting need not be a rare and memorable 'one-off'. Practised with self-discipline and self-surrender Quaker worship can be a reliable vehicle for encounter with spiritual reality, for enlarging our awareness of our grounding, interconnectedness and calling. There are some meetings, where the disciplines of worship are being practised faithfully, where gathered worship is their 'normal' experience each week. If we are not in one of these meetings, perhaps it is up to us to improve the quality of our meeting for worship. We can put more effort into teaching and threshing our understandings of worship. We can support more active and courageous eldering, and we can encourage in each other a commitment to personal spiritual practice beyond an hour on a Sunday morning.
Weekly meeting for worship cannot support the whole weight of our spiritual lives on its own. If our daily life is so hectic and overstretched that we come to meeting with minds filled with jangling thoughts all clamouring for attention, we will miss the possibility of gathered worship. This is a struggle for many in a society that constantly pushes us into overwork, over-stimulation and over-consumption. If we truly want to open ourselves to the possibilities of worship, we also need to make regular space in our daily lives for stillness and reflection, “to set aside times of quiet for openness to the Holy Spirit … to find the inward source of our strength”. (Advices & Queries 3)
If a Quaker community is to exist as something beyond a social club for like-minded people, it needs to be rooted in an authentic experience of worship. A gathered Quaker meeting has the power to heal, transform, embolden, to make us more sensitive and more aware. It is the life-giving sap that is needed for vital, outward-looking communities. One of the greatest qualities of the Quaker way of worship is its utter simplicity. It needs no special building, no specially qualified clergy or guru, no holy objects or texts. It is open to everyone on a basis of complete equality, without distinction of gender, sexuality, or background. Quaker worship does not require special techniques or great natural ability, but it does demand our self-discipline and self-surrender:
'Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.'
(Isaac Penington, 1661)
I would be grateful to hear about your experience of meeting for worship. Do you recognise this description of a 'gathered meeting'? and how does your meeting community teach and practise the disciplines of Quaker worship?