Meeting the Spirit
- 1. Basic Quaker beliefs
- 2. Quaker meetings
- 3. Quaker testimonies
- 4. Quaker structures
- 5. World family of Friends
- 6. Life and development of small worship groups
- 7. Bibliography
2. Quaker Meetings
Meeting for worship
Quaker worship happens when two or more people feel the need to be still together and seek God’s presence. This can happen anywhere and anytime, but Friends usually refer to a ‘meeting for worship’ to indicate the meeting which takes place regularly at a meeting house or another fixed place. In attentive waiting together in silence, Friends can find peace of mind and a renewed sense of purpose for living and joy in wonder at God’s creation.
Silence is greatly valued by Friends. In removing pressure and hurry, it helps them to be aware of the inner and deeper meaning of their individual and corporate lives. It enables them to begin to accept themselves as they are and to find some release from fear, anxiety, emotional confusion and selfishness. This silence is more than an absence of sound: one can be aware of external sounds, such as a dog barking, a car passing, or a child calling. But these sounds are not distractions. They are absorbed, often unconsciously, as Friends try to be open to that of God within. An early Friend, Robert Barclay, described his experience during a meeting for worship as follows: “I found the evil in me weakening and the good raised up”.
The seating for a meeting for worship is usually arranged in a circle or a square to help people to be aware of one another, to be conscious of the fact that they are worshipping together. Those present settle quietly, and by corporately seeking God’s will, become open to one another. This may happen quickly, or it may take most of the meeting, usually an hour long.
The silence is different from that experienced in traditional, solitary meditation, which normally takes place deep inside oneself, as a devotional exercise for one’s own spiritual development. The listening and waiting in a meeting for worship is a shared experience in which worshippers seek to meet God.
Friends may worship entirely without words, but usually there will be some brief spoken contributions. This ‘ministry’ is intended to express aloud what is already present in the silence. Anyone may feel the call to speak, man, woman or child, Friend or first time visitor. There is a very wide variety of sources of spoken ministry and the acceptance of them is an important part of Quaker worship. Since the Religious Society of Friends is part of the Christian tradition, people may speak of the life and teachings of Jesus, use words from other sources, or refer to events in daily life. Friends try to receive positively what is said and to look for the underlying truth, regardless of the words in which it is expressed. If Friends are impelled to respond to vocal ministry, they should be very cautious and try to build positively on what has gone before.
Programmed meeting for worship
Friends in Europe usually gather in silence and expectant waiting, as just described. In other parts of the world there are also many congregations of Friends which follow a form of worship that is similar to that of Protestant and Evangelical churches generally. This form of worship developed in the United States during the 19th century, a time of revival and renewal in American Protestantism. As a result of mission and service work, it is also found in Africa, Latin America, India and Taiwan.
The order of these ‘services for worship’ is planned in advance and may include pastoral prayer, Bible reading, a sermon, hymn singing and choral/organ music. There may also be a significant open time of free worship based upon silent waiting, as among other and earlier Friends. In many cases this programmed or semi-programmed worship is led by a pastor, a minister who may be paid and may also be responsible for other pastoral services in the Friend’s group.
Meeting for business
A Quaker ‘meeting for business’ is also held in the context of worship. This may take place after a meeting for worship on a Sunday or at any other convenient time during the week. Besides members, attenders of the meeting may join in as well with the permission of the Clerk of the meeting.
The aim of a meeting for business is to seek the will of God. It is not a matter of bowing to the will of the majority, as Friends do not vote. It is an exercise of listening to God through what each person says. The Clerk has prepared an agenda and conducts the meeting, often with the help of an Assistant Clerk. The Clerk discerns ‘the sense of the meeting’. If the Clerk feels that an item has been thoroughly considered, he or she drafts and offers a ‘minute’ to the meeting. This will encapsulate what has gone before and record any decision that has been arrived at. The minute must receive the assent, spoken or tacit, of the meeting. If the Clerk is not able to discern a clear sense of the meeting, no decision will be taken, and no minute will be made except to record that the meeting is not ready to proceed.
Specially appointed meetings
For special occasions Friends can hold specially appointed meetings. Like other meetings for worship, a meeting on the occasion of a wedding, for example, begins in silence. A Friend will then stand to explain to newcomers and family guests the procedure which will follow. The bride and bridegroom stand when they feel ready, take each other by the hand and make a declaration to the meeting. After this, the meeting continues with a period of silence. Out of the silence vocal prayer or ministry may arise relating to the marrying Friends.
In a meeting for worship on the occasion of a funeral or in a later memorial meeting, Friends concentrate lovingly on the life of the late Friend. The meetings have no set form apart from the usual meeting. It may be held at a grave side, the crematorium, or at the usual meeting place. It is a service of thanksgiving for the grace of God displayed in the life of the departed, with thoughts of comfort and sympathy for those left behind.
A relatively new form of meeting is ‘worship sharing’, sometimes referred to as ‘creative listening’. German Friends choose the term ‘Gespräch aus der Stille’ (conversation out of the silence), which beautifully expresses how the worship sharing is ‘framed’ in silence. Worship sharing can be very useful for sharing personal experiences and thoughts on a specific theme. Normally the size of the group is about eight to twelve Friends. The facilitator of a worship sharing group usually asks the attenders to observe some general rules, such as: speak for a second time only after everyone has had a chance to speak once; speak from your own experience only; leave silence between speakers; everything said in the group is confidential to the group; do not comment directly on what others have said; listen with attention and do not lapse into discussion.
Meeting for clearness
A ‘meeting for clearness’ can be called to focus on a particular issue, to enable members of the meeting to become ‘clear’ about possible options and ways forward. They can be held, for example: to prepare a couple for a marriage under the care of the meeting; to ‘test’ a concern of the meeting; to make decisions about an application for membership; to seek guidance at times of change or difficulty. Meetings for clearness can also be of help and comfort to Friends who are confronted with difficult choices at turning points in their lives and to the dying.
Children and young people in the meeting
Children and young people are also important members of the meeting
However, many of them find it difficult to remain in the silence of the meeting for worship for the whole hour. If they attend it is usual for them to stay in the meeting for the first ten or fifteen minutes or to come in towards the end. During their absence they may be discussing Bible stories or Quaker traditions, using crafts, games or other activities to develop their own understanding and insights. The aim of the children’s or young people’s group is to give its members an awareness of being part of the community, a knowledge of its spiritual traditions, and of having a positive role in the larger community around them. Some older children prefer to stay in meeting with the adults and sometimes take part in vocal ministry themselves. At Young Friends’ gatherings there are often experiments with different forms of worship, including certain aspects of programmed worship and music.