How do Quakers worship?
It has been said that it is much easier to explain what Quakers (or more properly the Religious Society of Friends) don't have, and don't do, than to explain what we do have and what we actually do in our Meetings for Worship. Friends do not, for example, need a special building in which to worship. Any buildings we do have will be very simple. 'Meeting Houses', as we term them, are not sacred buildings and may sometimes be used for a number of different purposes during the week. The architecture will certainly not be elaborate; but although simple, it may be very beautiful. There will be no altar, no lectern, no stained glass windows, no baptismal font, no organ.
If the Meeting House is old, the seating will most likely be benches, but smaller and more homely than church pews. They will probably be arranged in a hollow square so that people are facing inwards towards one another. In a newer Meeting House the seating will probably be chairs, and these will be arranged in a circle. In newer Meeting Houses there are frequently large windows allowing beautiful views of the world without, the hills, the bush, or perhaps a garden. Usually, in the middle of the circle of benches or chairs there will be a table. On it, there will most likely be a vase of flowers together with two or three books perhaps the Bible, probably Quaker faith and practice, perhaps another little book called Advices and queries, or possibly a recently published Australian book, this we can say. There will be no minister or priest, no set service, no sung hymns and no prescribed prayers.
A Quaker Meeting takes place with no one leading it. No one is responsible for what happens and in what order and yet, paradoxically, everyone is responsible. Friends have sometimes said that we have abolished the priesthood. More correctly, as was recently pointed out, what has really happened is that we have abolished the laity thus we are all equally responsible. The Meeting begins when the first person arrives and silently seats him or herself in the circle. Gradually he or she will be joined by others as more people arrive. The Meeting ends when Friends shake hands, or possibly join hands around the circle, usually after about an hour.
So how do Quakers worship? 'Hey, Elizabeth!' a fellow teacher accosted me on one occasion, knowing that I had some connection with the Society of Friends, 'Someone told me Quakers just sit around together in silence for an hour on Sundays and meditate. That can't be right can it?' It was an inopportune moment. I was rushing back to class at the time, a load of books on one arm and a half cold, half drunk cup of coffee in the other hand Taken aback I stammered lamely that his comment was basically correct but that I didn't think 'just sitting around in silence and meditating' quite explained the Meeting for Worship. Nowadays I would want to reply quite differently. I'd want to emphasise the word meet. Quakers meet together for an hour. 'Just sitting' could suggest drowsiness, deadness, a lack of participation. 'Meeting' to me, implies reaching out, interaction, maybe even seeking... searching. Yes, we do meet in silence but not lifeless silence. At its best, the silence of a Friends' Meeting for Worship could be described as a living silence. 'We must never forget,' writes George Gorman in his book, The amazing fact of Quaker worship, 'that silence, like meditation, is not an end in itself, but a means to an end'.
Friends believe that there is 'that of God in every person'. In our Meeting for Worship we are seeking that sense a unity with God within ourselves (or if you prefer a different term, a unity with the living Christ, the great Creator, the 'Other', the 'Inner Light'... there are many names for the same experience). Furthermore, we are seeking that unity not only in ourselves, but with the 'Inner Light'... the 'Other' in every person present. We seek it in silence, trying initially to 'centre down', to reach down for that still, silent place that is deep within ourselves. (It is out of that same place, incidentally, that magnificently creative ideas are born in the creative artist or creative thinker; it is from that same place of stillness that great courage also is called forth when required.).
I personally find something very illustrative, in attending a Meeting for Worship when a storm is raging outside the wind is battering the building, rattling the windows and doors; perhaps the rain is drumming on the roof, inside there is absolute stillness, absolute quiet; a deep silence that enfolds every person present. It seems to me a wonderful analogy for the storms that may sometimes batter us in life, for the invasive noise that (particularly in our present era) can surround us from waking till sleeping. Despite this, within every one of us there is a deep, still silent space to which we can individually withdraw. George Gorman, whom I quoted earlier, suggests something more... 'It is not to my mind too fanciful to suggest that, just as the psychosomatic complex of energies that constitutes a human being has, as its focus a quiet, still centre, so also there is a still, quiet centre deep in the life of the meeting. It is into this silent, spaceless, timeless dimension that everyone present is being drawn.'
It is out of this dimension that what we Quakers term 'ministry' comes. At some stage during the hour of Meeting it is probable that someone will speak, almost always briefly, usually from personal experience or from something read, or possibly observed during the week that has made a particular impression which has deepened during the Meeting and seems to need to be shared. Occasionally someone will read from the Bible, or perhaps other sacred writing, or from one of the books of Quaker Faith and Practice. It is possible that someone may quote a poem or a verse of a poem; someone may speak from some experience of the natural world. Very occasionally, someone may pray. It is quite probable that all the spoken ministry will follow along a particular theme, but this is not a previously chosen theme it is, rather, something that emerges in the course of the Meeting. That is one of the mysteries of a Quaker Meeting for Worship. One will frequently find that others have been thinking or pursuing the same path of thought as one has oneself. Many a person has spoken a sentence of two, and had another Friend say to her (or him) at the close of the Meeting, 'What you said was so exactly what was in my mind...' Sometimes it is not until near the end of the Meeting when another Friend may rise and tie together all that has been said, that one realises what the theme was, or even that there was a theme.
Douglas Steere in his Pendle Hill pamphlet, 'On speaking out of the silence', articulates the whole experience this way, 'I believe that it is the faith that there is something going on in our silent waiting, something beyond our surface minds' capacity to grasp; that there is a yearning communication that is continually operative; and, that a silent Meeting for Worship is a wonderful climate for communication to break through, and that when vocal ministry comes out of this ground of communication and articulates it for the needs of those gathered together; conditions for inward transformation and strengthening are optimum indeed.' This, then, is the experience of the Meeting for Worship.
I would like to finish this with the words of Charles Lamb, the English eighteenth century writer who was not a Friend, but who used on occasion to attend Friends' Meetings. He wrote this, 'when the spirit is sore fretted, even tired to sickness of the janglings and nonsense noises of the world, what a balm and solace it is to go and seat yourself for a quiet half hour upon some undisputed corner of a bench among the gentle Quakers... '. He goes on,
... although frequently the meeting is broken up without a word having been spoken the mind has been fed. You go away with a sermon not made with hands ... you have been bathed in silence.