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?
Absolutely.And thankyou for having the courage to raise this.ReplyDelete
I have occasionally experienced this life and depth in worship with other traditions, where I've thought, "Hold on a moment, we have got to EXACTLY the same place as a gathered Meeting for Worship!". I'm interested to see Gerald's description, as the words that came to me when I experienced this in an Orthodox service were "rich, dark, velvety".
If, as Quakers, we have given up all the liturgical preliminaries for arriving in this space, then it's vital that our daily lives become the preparation instead.
This has been my experience too, especially in services which use the Taize liturgy, which includes an intense period of silent prayer, but also at times in Buddhist groups. I like your suggestion that our daily lives can be the 'liturgical' (which literally means 'work of the people' apparently) preparation for worship.Delete
In Friendship, Craig
I read that Isaac Pennington quote in meeting last week. It's funny that you bring it up because I've been contemplating this very thing; the idea of worship. What is it that we worship? What is the glue that holds our worship together? For some in our meeting it feels like a laundry list of grievances and 'what annoyed me this week' kinds of ministry. An elder had to keep someone from rambling about petty things another week. Following worship an attender asked me if he could speak and I said that anyone may speak who feels a strong desire to do so and has felt that sense that they must share with the meeting for the meeting's general good. I don't think many go through this vetting process for their own ministry sometimes. We above all need SELF discipline; a hard thing for some of us to practice. Thank you for this!ReplyDelete
That sounds difficult - it's good that you are able to share the Quaker understanding of ministry with new attenders in this way. I've found that it is often harder to discuss this with more established Friends who already think that they know what it is all about.Delete
Thanks for this,
Thanks Craig. I particularly like your comment about A&Q 12 being used as a prop for our own desire for conflict avoidance. I remember experiencing a gathered Meeting in Ealing around seven years ago. I've had powerful experiences of worship since then at YFGM, Woodbrooke and Leaveners events, but nothing in Meeting for Worship. I agree that our expectations of MfW are generally very low, which is to the detriment of everyone!ReplyDelete
Thanks for this Mark. I wonder how widespread this is, and whether it is principally a matter of getting 'lucky' with the condition of one's own meeting. Perhaps I need to attend a more varied range of meetings, to find out how different they are.Delete
Expectations are a subtle yet powerful force. If enough people expect that our Meeting for Worship will be gathered on a weekly basis then it think it is more likely to be. Conversely the same could be true that the more of us who expect that our Meeting won't be gathered the more likely it is that it won't be. It is up to all of us to arrive at Meeting ready and willing to do the work required paradoxically to 'Give over thine own willing' every time, every time having faith that anything can happen. Certainly for me my experience of whether a Meeting is gathered or not is greatly dependent on the work I put in.ReplyDelete
Yes, point taken about the need for us all to 'put the work in' to make a gathered meeting possible.
I find gatherings that observe the silence do far more than the practicing of ritual and ideology, that somehow in the compassion lay the understanding, that we come from different places to meet together to embrace the holy spirit, and when we leave it maybe we have touched a sense in each others faith that helps us to rejoice in the spirit of life and death as we have heard the calling to walk in our path that comes closer to observing humanity and it's many wonders and miracles.
Since you are raising topics on the quality of Quaker Faith, I may comment that my Quaker family has prompted me to ask these two questions that ring almost in reverse which are, am I not my Brothers Keeper, and I am not my Brothers Keeper. One question that evolves in meetings is if the Quakers are open to a diversity of faiths and backgrounds, can it be said that every time a group is held to worship in silence they are observing their faith in accordance with the values of the Friends Meetings for Worship, within the Religious Society of Friends. I ask this question not to be exclusive, but to give rise to the personal struggles each individual Quaker has with their own faith. My struggles recently have been with letting go or quite frankly breaking connections with my biological family to insure the possibility of a long term relationship with my significant other and partner. My wife and I worship one God who is Adonai. I believe my faith is deeply felt within the Quaker community. My partner says I am her intention in worship and practice. My point or question then is if the religious society of Friends is inclusive rather than exclusive, is it possible to be faithful having been mislead by our own misgivings. That is do we feel so much greater than thou that we can walk freely into any service and expect the group to accommodate, and invite us in simply based on our own merit and virtue. As circumstances would have it, my struggle with faith is with those who seem to have no other calling other than the release of grief by those who are subject to faith but question that of others.
Thank you for your responses. I don't think I understand your situation well enough to offer any helpful comments, but I wish you well in your struggle with faith.
Often in Meeting for Worship I struggle to move to a deeper sense of renewing, failing to move beyond a place of grief, anxiety and pain. Being unable to do this has at times made MfW a difficult place to be. Sometimes I feel strong enough to be in that place and at other times I don't. I do feel like my activism is rooted in a few experiences in MFW where I have felt transformed, heard a deeper call and it is this experience that enables me to live the life I am called to lead, illustrative of what I have discovered in worship.ReplyDelete
This is a beautiful description of the place of living worship, and points to the reality that underlies the often-assumed division into 'activist' and 'spiritual' Friends. When our action in the world arises from our experience of worship there is no division between spirituality and activism.
Your blog entry had beencopied to the FaceBook page of our Illinois Yearly Meeting (USA), and is being appreciated there.ReplyDelete
Here are my remarks which I had posted, from "this side of the pond" :
David Finke 10:35pm Oct 3
Even though it has a distinctly British flavor and expression, it does speak to my own condition in a way that resonates. I've been thinking a lot about the Penington quote that's somewhere near the end of this blog, and was trying to recite it to a Friend in a small worship service, where there was some anxiety as to whether we were bringing the proper approach to Quaker worship.
I testified to my own sense of Liberation when finding Dear Isaac's guidance, to GIVE OVER, to let go, to stop striving, to feel the anxiety drop off and slip away... and relinquish trying "to know anything or be anything"... which covers a lot of our endeavors!
Sinking down, knowing that The Seed is there... not by our own creation or willing, but by God's Loving Grace, and it's planted deeper in our souls than breath itself: this is the Promise that Quaker Worship offers, and Life in the Spirit itself. God has planted that Principle, and will nourish and give it growth.
Thanks for posting this, and very glad you have found it useful.
How about looking sideways, at what happens around the silence? I mean, how people talk to each other, how they converse? I've begun speaking of Rich Conversations, of interactions where each is aspiring to be authentic while respecting the other. The point is, of course, the differences between us. How do I explore the difference between you and me in a way that I remain authentic to my own internal self and yet respect you and your truth? This phrase about 'authentic while respecting the other' was given to me by a friend, while we were hiking in the mountains. She followed it up by saying - "but you're opening a can of worms, because it's very difficult". I threw my hiking stick in the air and said "Whoopee", because it felt as if we'd got to the nub of the matter. Of course it's difficult. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it and there would be no trouble in the world. The important thing is to find the right question to address, and this seemed to be it. There are several reasons why this is so right. 1) The world desperately needs it, what with climate change and all, and we should be addressing big issues that the world needs - learning how to bridge difference is the heart of peace-making etc etc etc 2) It's so enjoyable - I learn more, grow more, find much more interest in the differences - it's personally enriching - it helps with the spiritual journey. 3) It's bang in the middle of Quaker concerns and practices. Let's explore that last point.ReplyDelete
Listening - my friend, the one in the mountains, said I should start with practising listening and gave me exercises to use. Every other advisor has recommended exactly the same. Quakerism speaks of 'expectant waiting', of opening ourselves to the promptings of love and truth, of listening in short. You speak of the disciplines of listening. Listening is at the heart of Quakerism as well as Rich Conversations. The better you are at one, the better you at the other.
Truth - we have a testimony, and much Quaker writing about it. Need I go on?
Speaking - Quakers are supposed to 'speak truth to power', you wrote of the discipline of speaking, 'let your aye be aye and your nay be nay' - Quakers are enjoined all over QF&P to speak out and to mind their speech.
Transformation - A&Q 1 does not tell us to wallow complacently in the promptings of Love and Truth but to take heed, which means being changed - Ben Pink D addresses this point (see above) so much better than me! - but at any rate, transformation through our encounter in the silence of the gathered Meeting is at the heart of Quakerism. And that's what Rich Conversations is all about, too. It's a dynamic matter, not a static one. It's about aspiration, about the direction of travel. We are 'to start just where we are at the moment and proceed at our own pace from there' (as it says in QF&P 2.06). Every rich conversation transforms us in a small or big way, because we deal with that difference and are changed by it. Transformation happens through encounter, sometimes in the silence where we people together face towards something not us, sometimes in listening and speaking where we people face each other. And this is another formulation of what is a Rich Conversation: one which leaves both sides of the conversation greater, having grown, as people, in the Light. A poor conversation is one which leaves either or both sides worse off. For me, this also feels somewhat like a difference between a non-violent interaction and a violent one and connects to our Peace Testimony, but you may find this far-fetched. However, notice one other thing: as well as my having grown because of my having to face and process the way you are different from me, you may have grown, too. As well as receiving, I have been giving. There is a generosity implicit in a Rich Conversation, and there is a responsibility on me to take due care with my gift.
This part of my comment should have been published first, but the blank-blank machine screwed up.
Many., many thanks for this blog entry. I've returned to it a few times, sent a link to a number of people, and find it gets better with re-reading. You articulate perceptions that I could not crystallise and get hold of for myself.
The reality of Quaker worship is so wonderful that it keeps me coming back. Because it is one of the key understandings of Quakerism that the inner reality is all and that the outer form is by-and-by, one feels specially let down when finding the form without authenticity beneath. I particularly worry for those who are attracted and try a Quaker Meeting, maybe via Quaker Quest or through friends, and initially find it compelling (because they touch that magic of which we speak) but over some months find also the 'amazing absence', the ill-discipline, the squashing that Mark Russ wrote of in his blog, the conflict avoidance that silently bans all truths that happen to be unpleasant (until they boil over and burst into acrimony); and so after a few months they wander away and are not heard of again; and Elders say complacently "Ah, well, our way did not speak to their condition:. In the last few months I've taken along to Meeting for Worship, separately, a 30-year old couple, a 50-something, and one in her sixties (my age, too). They each, separately, really seemed to find that it suited their condition. How long it will last, I don't know. I gave people's ages because I think age matters. There are many in their 20s and 30s who are seeking, and they deserve to have Quakerism made fully open for them, not kept from them. Too often the Quaker groups they walk into seem like an old people's club, fashioned to suit just the old people.
I'm grateful, therefore, for your call for the rekindling of authentic worship. With others that I've noticed, like Ben P. Dandelion's Swarthmore lecture calling for Transformation, and Mark Russ as I mentioned above; and probably others whom I haven't noticed yet; it feels as if there is a strengthening wind of change. Hopeful!
I think I am practising the discipline described and thus able to regularly offer ministry in my own meeting. However, I rarely experience the gathered meeting as described in this article. Indeed, its the first time I have seen a a reference anywhere to worship only working properly if the necessary "discipline" is practised.ReplyDelete
Where does one go to learn this discipline? If you put the word "Worship" into the course search box on the Woodbrooke site, you do not get a list of courses that look relevant. The best you get is one coming up this November entitled "The source from which we act: what's happening in worship?" It looks promising but how many of those new to Quakers are going to take themselves off to Woodbrooke to learn this?