Quaker Worship

[This text is from Chapter 2 of Faith & Practice, the book that provides guidance for Friends in New England Yearly Meeting.]

In worship we have our neighbors to right and left, before and behind, yet the Eternal Presence is over all and beneath all. Worship does not consist in achieving a mental state of concentrated isolation from one’s fellows. But in the depth of common worship it is as if we found our separate lives were all one life, within whom we live and move and have our being.  (Thomas Kelly, 1941)

Any willing person may come into communion with the Divine without special ritual, at any time, in any place, under any external circumstance. All that is required is desire, humility, and a willingness to wait for the Teacher who is beyond time to come and teach in the present moment. The heart of the life of the Religious Society of Friends is the communal meeting for worship. It is here that we have the opportunity to experience the Sacred Presence in a way that draws us into community and informs our lives, both as individuals and as a religious body. Vital worship depends far more on a deeply felt longing for God than on any particular practice. 

Worship in most meetings in New England is unprogrammed; one gathering may be completely silent, while in another, vocal ministry may arise from the silence. Some meetings in New England shape and prepare part of their worship and may employ a pastor to further this experience. Regardless of form, all persons participate actively in the meeting for worship. 

Our worship does not always reach the same depth, yet God does break through our worldly preoccupations or lack of preparation. We continue as spiritual seekers to learn together. Our weaknesses and failures should not deter us. When a meeting gathers for worship in active expectancy of God’s presence with openness and humility of heart and mind, the power to change lives can arise. 

Early Friends discovered that if they gathered for worship “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24), God’s transforming power would be poured out upon them (Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2). They shared George Fox’s experience that “there is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.” They testified to their experience that Christ had come to teach His people Himself, and could and did work through anyone without regard to age, gender, social class, literacy, or formal theological training. 

Early Friends experienced God’s presence as an inward Light that searched their hearts, broke them open, and left them, in Margaret Fell’s words, “naked and bare before the Lord God, from whom you cannot hide yourselves.” That same Light transformed them into changed people, its power overcoming all that was contrary to itself. These Friends testified that Jesus’ promise to plant a new life in the soul and abide there to give it light, to feed it with the bread of life and the living water, and to lead it into all truth was a living reality to be known and experienced by every true believer. 

Friends today attempt to yield to that of God within and around us, to reach toward the infinite in whatever way we experience it. In our meetings there are those who know it as Jesus Christ, those who feel the transforming power of the Inner Light, and those for whom it is beyond all names. 

It is through the cumulative power of our worship that we most often realize our hopes for a heightened sense of the presence of God, which brings us profound joy. On occasion we experience such a deep oneness in the Eternal Presence that we speak of a “gathered” or “covered” meeting for worship. 

If we strive to live in constant awareness of God’s presence and guidance, if we seek unity with the Life that fills all creation, then we will come to meeting for worship prepared. If we make worship, prayer, and openness to God’s leadings a part of our daily lives, then we will come to worship ready to take our part in the ministry, both silent and spoken, and to receive what the meeting offers. 

Those gathering for unprogrammed meeting settle into silence as they enter the room. This silence may continue without any spoken words, or someone may feel called by the Spirit to offer ministry. After such ministry, the meeting returns to prayerful silence in which Friends may absorb and reflect on the message. The meeting ends when a designated Friend shakes hands with a neighbor. 

Those gathering for programmed meeting may sing; engage in vocal prayer; hear readings from the Bible, Faith and Practice, and other devotional literature; listen to a prepared message; and have a period of open (unprogrammed) worship. Each of these elements is offered as part of the process of centering and gathering together and any of them may be the means by which the heart is opened to the sacred presence. Most programmed meetings employ a pastor who, in consultation with Ministry and Counsel, plays a major role in the structure of the program. The pastor is usually the one offering the prepared message. However, everyone present is expected and encouraged to take an active part in responding to the Spirit. 

The sense of a larger presence which we seek in worship is available to all, regardless of age. Children stay through the whole period of worship in some meetings; in others they participate for a short time at either the end or the beginning. Some programmed meetings include a message or story designed for the children. Some meetings hold intergenerational or family worship on a regular or occasional basis. By these arrangements we hope to nurture our children in Quaker worship and to know them as fellow worshippers. 

The inner guide of all Friends meetings is the Divine Spirit. We come to meeting with a willingness both to listen deeply to the ministry of others and to offer vocal ministry if urged by this Spirit. 

Deep attentive listening is itself ministry. In shared silence we may be as centered and gathered as when vocal ministry has been offered. Whatever the form of our worship, we are all called upon to participate actively and to take responsibility for its quality. 

While all Friends are called to listen deeply during worship, some are particularly able to center and ground not only themselves but the meeting as a whole. This spiritual work is done quietly and may appear to go unnoticed, but it is a vital part of deepening the worship experience for all. 

Many Friends have developed criteria for knowing when they are called to offer vocal ministry during meeting for worship. The challenge is to discern whether the message is truly from Spirit or arises from their own intellect or emotion. If the message is from Spirit, the next step is to discern whether it is intended for the meeting as a whole, for another individual at a later time, or for themselves. In the end, faithful ministry requires being neither too bold nor too timid. 

Friends’ history describes again and again how the spirit of gathered worship propelled Friends to live out their faith in the world. 

[Worship] is a preparation for another aspect of life, which lies beyond it. We are organized for action. Our moments of wonder and joy, our experience of invading energy, must not end in emotional thrill; they must be translated into deed and life.  (New England Yearly Meeting 1930)

In some meetings there are designated people holding the meeting in prayer during worship. They are said to have “care of the meeting.” They settle into worship early, hold the Center consciously during worship, prayerfully anchor those who are ministering vocally, spiritually gather up the whole body of the worshipping community, and discern when it is time to close worship. 

Advices on Worship

  1. Come to meeting for worship with hearts and minds prepared by daily communion with God, ready and willing to be faithful to whatever part the Spirit may call you to take. This may be vocal ministry or prayer, singing, silent worship, or prayerfully upholding the worshipping community. The Spirit may call anyone present to vocal ministry, regardless of training or experience. Be obedient and faithful in using the spiritual gifts given to you. 
  2. Come regularly to meeting for worship even when you are feeling depressed, tired, busy, anxious, angry, or spiritually dry. You are as beloved of God and as valued by your spiritual community when you feel empty as when you feel full. Have the courage to open yourself to what the Spirit may offer. 
  3. When you are preoccupied or distracted in meeting, do not become anxious or agitated, but gently bring your focus back to the Center, over and over again if necessary. If a thought keeps returning, the “distraction” may be a signal for work you need to do. 
  4. When you feel prompted to offer ministry in open worship, wait long enough to feel a sustained quickening of life in you, but do not hold back from fear of your own unworthiness or difficulty in expressing yourself. A few broken phrases centered in the Spirit may be more faithful than an eloquent speech. 
  5. Speak with your own voice, using terms true to your experience. Offer the message you are given in simplicity and sincerity, dispensing with preamble, apology, or justification. 
  6. When offering vocal ministry, speak in a clear voice. Standing may help you focus on the message; it will also help you to be heard. 
  7. When offering sung ministry, engage in the same discernment process as for spoken ministry. Join in such ministry offered by another worshipper only when you feel the Spirit’s prompting. 
  8. Remember that each person is a unique individual with a particular background and life experience, and that messages offered in meeting will reflect this variety. Part of worshipping together is listening with an open spirit. A period of silence following each message allows everyone to hold that message and its speaker in love. Hearing truth as others understand it is a way of deepening your own faith.
  9. Be open to the variety of forms in which Friends worship. Broaden your understanding and appreciation of worship as practiced in the worldwide Quaker family. 

Queries on Worship

Although Queries may often be answered with a simple affirmative or negative, it is vital to ask corollary questions, such as “why,” “how,” or “when.” A qualified answer arising from introspection is more meaningful and constructive than an uncritical “yes” or “no.”   (North Carolina Yearly Meeting [Conservative] 1983)

Queries for Individuals

  1. Do I practice spiritual disciplines during the week to prepare my heart, mind, and spirit for corporate worship? 
  2. Am I faithful and punctual in attendance at meeting for worship? 
  3. What are my particular spiritual gifts and do I exercise them in meeting for worship? 
  4. Has my understanding of worship and its possibilities deepened over time and nurtured my spiritual growth? 
  5. Am I open to spiritual transformation in others and in myself? 
  6. Do I open myself to listen to those whose spiritual experience is expressed in terms different from the ones I understand and am comfortable with? 
  7. What have I discovered in meeting for worship, and does it inform my life? 

Queries for the Meeting Community

  1. What are the signs of vitality and immediacy of the Divine Presence in our meetings for worship? 
  2. What gifts do different Friends bring to worship? 
  3. Do we nurture spiritual gifts and show appreciation when they are exercised? 
  4. Are we aware of those among us who rarely speak in worship, but whose presence grounds the meeting? 
  5. Are we open to ministry expressed in a variety of religious terms? 
  6. How well and how deeply do we listen to one another? 
  7. Do we recognize ministry as faithful even when it makes us uncomfortable? 
  8. Do we nurture our children in Quaker worship and know them as fellow worshippers? 
  9. Do our corporate and personal worship practices enrich each other? 
  10. Does our worship lead us into faithful action? 

Extracts on Worship

Worship as experienced corporately

2.01  As iron sharpeneth iron, the seeing of the faces one of another when both are inwardly gathered into the life, giveth occasion for the life secretly to rise and pass from vessel to vessel. As many candles lighted and put in one place do greatly augment the light and make it more to shine forth, so when many are gathered together into the same life there is more of the glory of God, and His power appears to the refreshment of each individual, for that he partakes not only of the light and life raised in himself but in all the rest. (Robert Barclay 1692)
2.02  The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net, and His heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land. We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in; and the Lord appeared daily to us, to our astonishment, amazement and great admiration, insomuch that we often said one unto another, with great joy of heart: ‘What, is the Kingdom of God come to be with men? And will He take up His tabernacle among the sons of men, as He did of old? Shall we, that were reckoned as the outcasts of Israel, have this honour of glory communicated amongst us, which were but men of small parts and of little abilities, in respect of many others, as amongst men?’ (Francis Howgill 1672)
2.03  Retreat

This silence is an ocean, and we stand 
Like doubtful children on its mighty brink. 
It’s cold to inquiring toes, smooth dark as ink,
Horizon-bare, bounded by no known land. Yet 
dare we take our Father by the hand 
And wade chin-deep—it’s warmer than we think; 
Yield wholly to its power—we do not sink, 
In liquid arms it lifts us from the strand. 
And then with clumsy strokes, we learn to swim 
In this new-found, enfolding element, 
And when we shoreward turn, the time full spent, 
The dust of earth is washed from every limb. 
So if death be as buoyant, and as sweet, 
We shall not fear the abyss beneath our feet.

(Kenneth E. Boulding 1975)

Worship as experienced by individuals

2.04  On one never-to-be-forgotten Sunday morning, I found myself one of a small company of silent worshippers, who were content to sit down together without words, that each one might feel after and draw near to the Divine Presence, unhindered at least, if not helped, by any human utterance. Utterance I knew was free, should the words be given; and before the meeting was over, a sentence or two were uttered in great simplicity by an old and apparently untaught man, rising in his place amongst the rest of us. I did not pay much attention to the words he spoke, and I have no recollection of their import. My whole soul was filled with the unutterable peace of the undisturbed opportunity for communion with God, with the sense that at last I had found a place where I might, without the faintest suspicion of insincerity, join with others in simply seeking His presence. To sit down in silence could at least pledge me to nothing; it might open to me (as it did that morning) the very gate of heaven. (Caroline Stephen 1890)
2.05  One day, being under a strong exercise of spirit, I stood up and said some words in a meeting; but not keeping close to the Divine opening, I said more than was required of me. Being soon sensible of my error, I was afflicted in mind some weeks without any light or comfort, even to that degree that I could not take satisfaction in anything. I remembered God, and was troubled, and in the depths of my distress he had pity on me, and sent the Comforter. I then felt forgiveness for my offense; my mind became calm and quiet, and I was truly thankful to my gracious Redeemer for his mercies. 

About six weeks after this, feeling the spring of Divine love opened, and a concern to speak, I said a few words in a meeting, in which I found peace. Being thus humbled and disciplined under the cross, my understanding became more strengthened to distinguish the pure spirit which inwardly moves upon the heart, and which taught me to wait in silence sometimes many weeks together, until I felt that rise which prepares the creature to stand like a trumpet, through which the Lord speaks to his flock. 

All the faithful are not called to public ministry; but whoever are, are called to minister of that which they have tasted and handled spiritually. The outward modes of worship are various; but whenever any are true ministers of Jesus Christ, it is from the operation of his Spirit upon their hearts, first purifying them, and thus giving them a just sense of the conditions of others. This truth was early fixed in my mind and I was taught to watch the pure opening, and to take heed lest, while I was standing to speak, my own will should get uppermost.  (John Woolman 1774)

2.06  First-Day Thoughts
In calm and cool and silence, once again 
I find my old accustomed place among 
My brethren, where, perchance, no human tongue 
Shall utter words; where never hymn is sung, 
Nor deep-toned organ blown, nor censer swung,
Nor dim light falling through the pictured pane! 
There, syllabled by silence, let me hear 
The still small voice which reached the prophet’s ear; 
Read in my heart a still diviner law 
Than Israel’s leader on his tablets saw!
There let me strive with each besetting sin, 
Recall my wandering fancies, and restrain 
The sore disquiet of a restless brain; 
And, as the path of duty is made plain, 
May grace be given that I may walk therein, 
Not like the hireling, for his selfish gain, 
With backward glances and reluctant tread,
Making a merit of his coward dread, 
But, cheerful, in the light around me thrown, 
Walking as one to pleasant service led;
Doing God’s will as if it were my own, 
Yet trusting not in mine, but in His strength alone! 

(John Greenleaf Whittier 1852)

2.07  The first thing that I do is close my eyes and then still my body in order to get it as far out of the way as I can. Then I still my mind and let it open to God in silent prayer, for the meeting, as we understand it, is the meeting place of the worshipper with God. I thank God inwardly for this occasion, for the week’s happenings, for what I have learned at God’s hand, for my family, and the work there is to do. I often pause to enjoy this presence. Under God’s gaze I search the week and feel the piercing twinge of remorse that comes at this, and this, and this. I ask forgiveness for my faithlessness and ask for strength to meet this matter when it arises again. There have been times when I had to re-weave a part of my life under this auspice. 
I hold up persons before God in intercession, loving and seeing them under God’s eyes, longing for God’s healing and redeeming power to course through their lives. I hold up certain social situations, certain projects. At such a time I often see things that I may do in company with or that are related to this person or to this situation. I hold up the persons in the meeting and their needs, as I know them, to God. (Douglas V. Steere)
2.08  As I silence myself I become more sensitive to the sounds around me, and I do not block them out. The songs of the birds, the rustle of the wind, children in the playground, the roar of an airplane overhead are all taken into my worship. I regulate my breathing as taught me by my Zen friends, and through this exercise I feel the flow of life within me from my toes right through my whole body. I think of myself like the tree planted by the “rivers of water …” in Psalm 1, sucking up God’s gift of life and being restored. Sometimes I come to meeting for worship tired and weary, and I hear the words of Jesus, “Come unto me, all that labour and are weary, and I will give you rest.” And having laid down my burden, I feel refreshed both physically and spiritually. This leads me on to whole-hearted adoration and thanksgiving for all God’s blessings. … My heart overflows with a desire to give Him something in return. I have nothing to give but my own being, and I offer Him my thoughts, words, and actions of each day, and whisper, “Please take me as I am.” (Tayeko Yamanouchi 1979–1980)

Rhythms of worship

2.09  In Friends’ meetings also, from the fact that everyone is free to speak, one hears harmonies and correspondences between very various utterances such as are scarcely to be met with elsewhere. It is sometimes as part-singing compared with unison. The free admission of the ministry of women, of course, greatly enriches this harmony. I have often wondered whether some of the motherly counsels I have listened to in our meeting would not reach some hearts that might be closed to the masculine preacher. (Caroline Emelia Stephen 1995)
2.10  [Consider] that we Friends are not a family, but a musical band, a symphony orchestra we would like to think, in which all the instruments and voices are important to produce the harmony which allows the central melody to flow, the theme of it all. At times it would be a hushed, quiet performance, pianissimo, at others there are chances for solos, and other times it would be necessary to find those moments which are appropriate to enter and not cause a disturbance, to know how to enter at the exact moment, and we have opportunities to move in crescendo to arrive at a climax with the participation of everyone, and really make other people feel the music. 

But there are two essential things in all this: first to study the music and understand what the composer meant, since after all we are only the interpreters, not the authors; and second to always pay attention to Who is conducting. The first Friends never claimed to be the composers, still less the conductors. (Loida E. Fernandez G. 1994)

Entering worship

2.11  The first that enters into the place of your meeting … turn in thy mind to the light, and wait upon God singly, as if none were present but the Lord; and here thou art strong. Then the next that comes in, let them in simplicity of heart sit down and turn in to the same light, and wait in the Spirit; and so all the rest coming in, in the fear of the Lord, sit down in pure stillness and silence of all flesh, and wait in the light. Those who are brought to a pure still waiting upon God in the Spirit are come nearer to the Lord than words are; for God is spirit and in the spirit He is worshipped. (Alexander Parker 1660)
2.12  In silence which is active, the Inner Light begins to glow—a tiny spark. For the flame to be kindled and to grow, subtle argument and the clamour of our emotions must be stilled. It is by an attention full of love that we enable the Inner Light to blaze and illuminate our dwelling and to make of our whole being a source from which this Light may shine out. 

Words must be purified in a redemptive silence if they are to bear the message of peace. The right to speak is a call to the duty of listening. Speech has no meaning unless there are attentive minds and silent hearts. Silence is the welcoming acceptance of the other. The word born of silence must be received in silence.  (Pierre Lacout 1993)

The spirit of worship

2.13  And it’s especially to be observed that in the whole New Testament there is no order nor command given in this thing but to follow the revelations of the Spirit, save only that general, of meeting together: a thing dearly owned and diligently practised by us … (Robert Barclay 1692)
2.14  And this is the manner of their worship. They are to wait upon the Lord, to meet in the silence of the flesh, and to watch for the stirring of his life, and the breakings forth of his power amongst them. And in the breakings forth of that power they may pray, speak, exhort, rebuke, sing, or mourn, and so on, according as the spirit teaches, requires, and gives utterance. (Isaac Penington 1681)
2.15  Worship is what happens naturally when a created being is in the presence of its creator. It involves intimacy and it involves communication of truth. Worship can be solitary or gathered in a group. For two hundred years Quakers worshipped in expectant silence without music and with only occasional messages brought up from the silence by different members. Now Friends all over the world have many ways of worshipping. Music and even dance happens in worship. Pastors bring messages. But the common thread should be that worship is an activity and a time when the human and the Divine sit together and focus on their relationship. (Freedom Friends Church [Salem, OR] 2009)
2.16  Every person, male or female, is assumed, in this bold experiment, to possess spiritual capacity and, since God is Spirit, can come without mediation into direct living relation with Him. There are no “favorites,” no persons who have exclusive privileges and so can do the “sacred things” for others. Every person must be religious for himself or he will never have any of the fruits of religion. Life is essentially sacramental and many of the common things of daily life bring us to the consciousness of the real presence, so that, here again, there is felt to be no need for special sacrament or for a privileged mediator. Ministry is a very varied service … There are many types, many forms, many degrees of it. But like life itself, spiritual value will be determined largely by personal faith, qualities of character, dedication of spirit, sensitiveness to guidance and willingness to pay the cost of excellence. 

This venture of faith in the experiment of lay-religion is one of the most original, one of the boldest and one of the most crucial attempts that Quakerism has made.  (Rufus M. Jones 1936)

2.17  Here indeed is a service of worship that demands that every believer be his own priest. For in the Quaker meeting for worship, the member must still his body, still his mind, must attend to the presence of God, must thank and adore him for being what he is, must feel the incongruities in his own life that are out of keeping with such a presence, must long for their removal and for forgiveness, must be inwardly absolved, must become conscious of persons and situations in special need and draw them into this presence, must wait in utter stillness before God, and if some even deeper insight into his own condition should be discovered by him by any vocal ministry that may occur in the meeting, or by the unhurried stay in the presence of the Divine Listener, he must be ready to yield to what is required of him. (Douglas V. Steere 1955)
2.18  In a truly covered meeting an individual who speaks takes no credit to himself for the part he played in the unfolding of the worship… .  For the feeling of being a pliant instrument of the Divine Will characterizes true speaking “in the Life.” Under such a covering an individual emerges into vocal utterance, frequently without fear and trembling, and subsides without self-consciousness into silence when his part is played. For One who is greater than all individuals has become the meeting place of the group, and He becomes the leader and director of worship. With wonder one hears the next speaker, if there be more, take up another aspect of the theme of the meeting. No jealousy, no regrets that he didn’t think of saying that, but only gratitude that the angel has come and troubled the waters and that many are finding healing through the one Life. A gathered meeting is no place for the enhancement of private reputations, but for self-effacing pliancy and obedience to the whispers of the Leader. (Thomas Kelly 1996)
2.19  There are times of dryness in our individual lives, when meeting may seem difficult or even worthless. At such times one may be tempted not to go to meeting, but it may be better to go, prepared to offer as our contribution to the worship simply a sense of need. In such a meeting one may not at the time realise what one has gained, but one will nevertheless come away helped. (Berks & Oxon Quarterly Meeting Ministry & Extension Committee 1948)
2.20  Thanksgiving, confession, calming of fears, forgiveness, reproof, chastisement, awareness of our many blessings, instruction, exhortation, support, comfort, challenge, and openness to joy and truth are some aspects of worship we may meet. 

But there will be times for all of us when worship will not offer us comfort, uplift our spirits, or speak to our condition. At times we may feel distant from God and our fellow-worshippers; faith and perseverance are necessary to bring us through these dry spells. At other times the spoken ministry may be pointed, prophetic, or disturbing. Worship offers us the experience of the power of the Spirit, but that power is not tame, and our lessons from meeting are not always those we expect. (New York Yearly Meeting 2001)