[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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- Do I practice spiritual disciplines during the week to prepare my heart, mind, and spirit for corporate worship?
- Am I faithful and punctual in attendance at meeting for worship?
- What are my particular spiritual gifts and do I exercise them in meeting for worship?
- Has my understanding of worship and its possibilities deepened over time and nurtured my spiritual growth?
- Am I open to spiritual transformation in others and in myself?
- 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?
- What have I discovered in meeting for worship, and does it inform my life?
Queries for the Meeting Community
- What are the signs of vitality and immediacy of the Divine Presence in our meetings for worship?
- What gifts do different Friends bring to worship?
- Do we nurture spiritual gifts and show appreciation when they are exercised?
- Are we aware of those among us who rarely speak in worship, but whose presence grounds the meeting?
- Are we open to ministry expressed in a variety of religious terms?
- How well and how deeply do we listen to one another?
- Do we recognize ministry as faithful even when it makes us uncomfortable?
- Do we nurture our children in Quaker worship and know them as fellow worshippers?
- Do our corporate and personal worship practices enrich each other?
- Does our worship lead us into faithful action?
Extracts on Worship
Worship as experienced corporately
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
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)
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)
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)
Rhythms of worship
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)
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
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)
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)