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The Meeting for Worship
The meeting for worship is the heart of every Friends' Meeting. It is based on faith that men and women can enter into direct communion with God.
In the excitement of their discovery that Christ was alive and had "come to teach His people Himself," early Friends gathered for worship fully expecting the Spirit to be present, and out of their hushed expectancy they entered into a fellowship with God that changed their lives. In the course of such worship came new revelations of Truth and a force that drove Friends out into the world to spread the news and to serve humanity.
Friends in New England try in their meetings for worship to capture the same spirit, a sense of God's presence in the midst, and to be open to new revelation. Some New England Friends gather in silent waiting upon God without designated leadership 'r program. Some are led in worship by a pastor whose function is to encourage and cultivate the ministry of each individual. In either case, for the meeting to be successful, all must share and respond.
Preparation for worship is essential. Preparation is a continual process of prayer, of reading the Bible and other religious literature, of learning from human experiences, and of daily practicing the presence of God. Some come on Sunday morning expecting t0 receive God's revelation with no previous effort on their part. I or the cup to overflow on Sunday, however, it must be filled up .Ill through the week. Early Friends came to worship with their cup overflowing, and it was then that the power was given to go out and to share the Truth that had come to them.
In the unprogrammed meeting, as the worship proceeds, out of communion with God a message may come to one of the worshipping individuals. Sometimes the message is purely personal; at other times it seems to belong to the meeting. The worshipper is then under divine compulsion to share it with fellow seekers, t0 contribute to the vocal service of the meeting, however haltingly.
In the meetings with pastoral leadership, the pastor may prepare a message and an order of service during the week, but the pastor is only a worshipper among worshippers, and the life of the pastoral worship depends on the response of the group. Ideally the prepared message arises not just from the pastor's own spiritual resources, but from the worship of the group.
Not all meetings, whether pastoral or based on silence, achieve a high level. Yet God does break through the crust of apathy, of worldly preoccupations or lack of preparation. We are humble learners in the school of Christ, and our weaknesses and failures should not deter us. When a meeting for worship gathers in active expectancy of God's presence with complete openness of heart and mind, the power to change lives will arise.
In That Which is Eternal
Friends, meet together and know one another in that which is eternal, which was before the world was.
—George Fox: "Epistle 149" (1657), in Works, vol. 7, 1831, p. 141.
The First That Enters
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 a spirit, and in the spirit is he worshipped. In such a meeting there will be an unwillingness to part asunder, being ready to say in yourselves, it is good to be here: and this is the end of all words and writings to bring people to the eternal living Word.
—Letter of Alexander Parker to Friends, dated 14.xi.1659 (i.e., Jan. 1660). Abram Rawlinson Barclay, ed.: Letters, etc., of early Friends, 1841, pp. 365-6.
And so I find it well to come
For deeper rest to this still room,
For here the habit of the soul
Feels less the outer world's control;
The strength of mutual purpose pleads
More earnestly our common needs;
And from the silence multiplied
By these still forms on either side,
The world that time and sense have known
Falls off and leaves us God alone.
—John Greenleaf Whittier, "The meeting."
Waiting Upon the Lord
When you come to your meetings what do you do? Do you then gather together bodily only, and kindle a fire, compassing yourselves about with the sparks of your own kindling, and so please yourselves, and walk in the "Light of your own fire and the sparks which you have kindled?" Or rather, do you sit down in True Silence, resting from your own Will and Workings, and waiting upon the Lord, fixed with your minds in that Light wherewith Christ has enlightened you, until the Lord breathes life in you, refresheth you, and prepares you that you may offer unto him a pure and spiritual sacrifice?
—William Penn: Works, ed. Joseph Besse, 1726, vol. 1, p. 219. "A tender visitation," published 1677. Spelling and punctuation modernized.
Inward Condition of the Soul
As there is no true prostration of heart before Him without submission, no one can worship, in the true sense of the word, whose intentions and plans are consciously out of line with the Lord's will. If God is everywhere, and equally near to us at all times, and if the essence of spiritual worship consists in our inward attitude before Him, then nothing however it may stimulate worship in its outward form is worship apart from this inward condition of soul. There is no form or ceremony that can by itself be an act of worship; neither can there be such a thing as worship by proxy.
—Richard H. Thomas: The objects of public worship, Yorkshire 1905 committee leaflet.
Ideal of Pastoral Worship
The Quaker method is extremely simple. No intermediary, ritual, or ceremony is required. Words are not essential. God does not need to be brought near for "Closer is He than breathing and 'nearer than hands and feet." It is the human mind and heart that need to be adjusted and made conscious of His presence. And as the sincere worshipper waits in silent meditation, or voices prayer or praise, he experiences this fresh sense of God, and with it a renewal of spiritual strength in communion with God and with his fellow worshippers.
In such a setting the whole meeting becomes a listening post for divine intimations and revelations. Vocal prayer gathers up the aspirations and needs of all the group. Hymns and spiritual songs, sung with the spirit and with the understanding, are not only appropriate but become the normal and helpful expression of faith, hope, and love toward God and in praise of Christ, the Savior of mankind. And the minister speaks with freedom and power; his message, whether conceived in previous meditation and prayer or given by the immediate operation of the Spirit on his mind, will be fresh, illuminating, and uplifting. He will be able to draw on the resources of past experience and study as well as to interpret helpfully the present manifestations of God's will and word.
—North Carolina Y. M.: Faith and practice, 1962, p. 27
We Can Find God
We can find God when we are out on the hills or alone in the quiet of our own rooms or listening to great music. But we need to find Him too in the world of men, and for some of us this may be more difficult. The vision we have seen is to be brought back into daily life among people who are difficult to get on with as well as those who are easy. Because we are not separate and apart, we need to worship together as well as alone. We are all part of the great family of God and we cannot fully be ourselves without the help of other people. Jesus spoke of himself as the vine and of us as the branches and God as the vinegrower. Each branch is small and may look insignificant, but each is part of the vine, and is essential to the whole and has its meaning as part of the whole. The larger life surrounds and explains and glorifies all our small individual parts. We are essential to God and He and our fellow men are essential to us. We need the help of other souls who are striving upward, too, and who help us forward by the unseen threads that bind us together. One helps another with or without words and sometimes in our Meeting for Worship we shall know the experience of a thought that has come to us, being voiced by someone else and carried further than we could carry it. This seems strange and wonderful, but it is part of the great unseen life in which we are all linked together.
—Ruth M. Fawell: Worship and our Quaker meeting, 1957, p. 3.
Deeper Than Words
A Friends' meeting, however silent, is at the very lowest a witness that worship is something other and deeper than words, and that it is to the unseen and eternal things that we desire to give the first place in our lives. And when the meeting, whether silent or not, is awake, and looking upwards, there is much more in it than this. In the united stillness of the truly "gathered" meeting there is a power known only by experience, and mysterious even when most familiar. There are perhaps few things which more readily flow "from vessel to vessel" than quietness. The presence of fellow-worshippers in some gently penetrating manner reveals to the spirit something of the nearness of the Divine Presence. "Where two or three are gathered together in His name" have we not again and again felt that the promise was fulfilled and that the Master Himself was indeed "in the midst of us?" And it is out of the depths of this stillness that there do arise al times spoken words which, springing from the very source of prayer, have something of the power of prayer something of its quickening and melting and purifying effect. Such words as these have at least as much power as silence to gather into stillness.
—Caroline E. Stephen: Light arising, 1908, pp. 68-9.
God Was There
The following is the testimony of an American Protestant minister attending Friends' meeting in Cambridge, England.
We had the great privilege of sharing in silent worship there for two years, in what is one of the most dynamic of Christian fellowships. There was no question in our minds as we left that house of prayer and meditation each week that something real had happened, that we had found God directly, immediately, experientially, corporately. We could feel the presence of spirit as definitely as we could feel the temperature. To be sure, it fluctuated. The meetings were not on the same level.
There would be "highs" and "lows." That variation, however, did not deny it rather confirmed our consciousness that here was a reality more than just the sum total of our individual and pooled insights, however limited it might be by those. God was there, where two or three were gathered together. We anticipated each coming Sunday with the same eagerness, and the same expectation of reality, with which a father in a distant city anticipates his week-end at home with his family.
—Robert H. Beaven: In Him is life, 1946, pp. 175-6.
Prayer is a Great Power
Prayer offered in the right spirit is a great power and has a wonderfully unifying and quickening effect. The times of silent waiting in our meetings for worship are not intended only for the refreshment of the individual worshipper. If the silence be a living one, in which the worshippers seek to enter into each other's needs and to bear in their hearts the sufferings of the world without and the call to dedication in the service of the kingdom of God, silent prayer may naturally lead also to vocal prayer. The expression of prayer will not be of the nature of an address to the congregation, neither exhortation nor exposition of doctrine. If it is offered simply and humbly in fellowship with others and as a heart-felt cry of man's spirit to his Heavenly Helper, it is of the utmost value in building up our common religious life. If we meet as members of one family in the presence of our Father, we should not shrink unduly from this offering of love.
—London Y. M.: Christian faith and practice, 1960, no. 300.
Worship That is Creative
When it comes to the apparatus of worship that can renew men and women in attentive awareness to the living Listener, the classical Quaker practice of corporate silent waiting on God seems stark indeed to those who are used to the elaborate forms of a liturgical or even a free church service.
In laying them aside as Quakers do in their silent waiting worship, there is a responsibility whose magnitude it is scarcely possible to exaggerate that is placed squarely upon the Quaker worshipper himself. 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 to 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.
In the Quaker waiting silence, there is a freedom and an absence of externally guided order which is both baffling and deceptive to one on first acquaintance with it. Only slowly do the inner forms of discipline of this form of worship make themselves known. One thing, however, is clear. This type of free worship can only be creative in a company of people who are intimately aware of and intimately gathered round the living Listener who knows all yet cares, who shares, and whose expectation never wavers in its constancy. The dilemma which anyone seeking to explain Quaker worship faces is that only when this inner ordering has dropped into the background as we are swept up into the presence of the Listener himself can the real significance of the preparation become apparent.
—Douglas V. Steere: On listening to another (Swarthmore lecture), 1955, pp. 31, 33-6.
Not Alone in the Spoken Word
The gathered group depends utterly upon the Spirit of God for direction and leadership, and meets in the faith that that Spirit is available and can be known to all. He may be known in that "sound of gentle stillness" in which the ancient Hebrew prophet found him; in private and personal pressures and restraints which are significant for the individual worshipper and known to him alone; in vocal ministry which is initiated by the Spirit of God in the midst; in the spoken prayer, sometimes haltingly uttered and perhaps offered in deep misgiving, yet in the belief that he to whom the prayer is addressed has prompted it. In all the rhythm of our worship we seek to be guided by and sensitive to I he movement of God's Spirit in our own hearts within the gathered community. It would, however, be a great mistake were it to be assumed that only in the spoken word is God's message given to the worshipper. In the silence the faithful listener may catch the accents of a Voice within and become vividly aware of a demand which has absolute authority, a demand to which he must be obedient or betray something deep within him which has, for him, become the voice of God himself.
—Edgar G. Dunstan: Quakers and the religious quest (Swarthmore lecture), 1956, pp. 32-3.
Greatly Edified and Refreshed
Yea, though there be not a word spoken, yet is the true spiritual worship performed, and the body of Christ edified; yea, it may, and hath often fallen out among us, that divers meetings have passed without one word; and yet our souls have been greatly edified and refreshed, and our hearts wonderfully overcome with the secret sense of God's power and Spirit, which without words hath been ministered from one vessel to another.
—Robert Barclay: Apology, prop. 11, sect. 6, 1908 Phila. ed., p. 336.
Group Worship Differs from Private Devotion
Those who persevere in group worship know that it differs from private devotion as the music of an orchestra differs from the music of a single player.
—Beatrice Saxon Snell, A joint and visible fellowship, (Pendle Hill pamphlet no. 140), 1965, p. 10.
The Basis of Holy Obedience
Worship, according to the ancient practice of the Religious Society of Friends, is entirely without any human direction or supervision. A group of devout persons come together and sit down quietly with no prearrangement, each seeking to have an immediate sense of divine leading and to know at first hand the presence of the Living Christ. It is not wholly accurate to say that such a Meeting is held on the basis of Silence; it is more accurate to say that it is held on the basis of "Holy Obedience." Those who enter such a Meeting can harm it in two specific ways: first, by an advanced determination to speak; and second, by advanced determination to keep silent. The only way in which a worshipper can help such a Meeting is by an advanced determination to try to be responsive in listening to the still small voice and doing whatever may be commanded.
—Statement prepared for a Friends' meeting attended by delegates to the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam, Holland, in 1948.
As Many Candles Lighted
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: Apology, prop. 11, sect. 17, 1908 Phila. ed., pp. 364-5.
The Body of Christ
Quakerism revived a doctrine, central in the experience of the early Christian church. This was the belief that the Spirit would be poured out upon the congregation ready to receive it. I his Spirit, or "that of God in every man," or Christ within, or the Seed of the Kingdom, or the Truth, or the Inward Light, or he Witness of God in all Consciences, to use some of the many names which the Quakers applied to the Divine Presence in the midst of the worshipping group, unites all the members into a single organic whole, the body of Christ. The individual experience of inward oneness with an invisible Reality is also an experience of the mystical union of individuals with one another.
—Howard H. Brinton: The society of Friends (Pendle Hill pamphlet, no. 48), 1949, pp. 3, 4.
What Friends Receive in Silence
Long experience shows that out of a living silence there may come precious openings of truth, and that words may be spoken to the condition of those present. When the spoken ministry is exercised under the leading of the divine Spirit, and not under the stress of a fixed engagement, it is felt that it is truly a response to a community need, and the spiritual level of the meeting is lifted to a higher plane. Comforted, supported, inspired, as the case may be, the worshipper does not take leave of God for a week; but inwardly assured of his loving presence, he goes out with a tendered conscience to meet the tasks ahead, strengthened in his purpose to live under divine guidance to the glory of his Master's name.
—William Wistar Comfort: Just among Friends the Quaker way of life, 1945, p. 28.
No Set Form of Worship
We find that Jesus Christ prescribes no set form of worship to his children. In the whole New Testament there is no order nor command given in this thing, but to follow the revelation of the Spirit, save only that general one of meeting together; a thing dearly owned and diligently practiced by us. True it is, mention is made of the duties of praying, preaching and singing; but what order or method should be kept in so doing there is not one word to be found; yea, these duties are always annexed to the assistance, leadings, and motions of God's spirit.
—Robert Barclay: Apology, prop. 11, sect. 10, 1908 Phila. ed., pp. 347-8.
Aware of a Deeper Life
Fox's whole method of worship was an outgrowth of his belief in and his experience of this close intimate inward relation between God and man. He thought of worship as mutual and reciprocal communion between the Human soul and God. The problem is never one of going somewhere to find a distant and hidden God. The problem rather is one of human preparation for meeting and communing with a God who is always near at hand but cannot be found and enjoyed until the soul is ready for such an exalted experience. It means, therefore, that the worshipper, if he is to enter into this great attainment, must cease his occupations with external affairs, his thoughts of house and farm and business, and centre down into those deeper levels of his being where he can feel the circulation of spiritual currents and have healing and refreshment and restoration and fortification flow in from beyond himself. This is not worship, but it is preparation for it, and there comes, with this awareness of the deeper Life, a palpitating sense of joy and wonder, and a surge of appreciation and adoration which form the heart of worship. It was in moments like that in the early Quaker meetings there came tremulous waves of emotion, which set the entire group into a state of quaking, from which the name of the movement was born.
—Rufus M. Jones: George Fox, seeker and Friend, 1930, pp. 73-4.
- 1985 Faith & Practice
- I: The Quaker Experience
- II: Faith Into Practice...
- III: Advices and Queries
- IV: Practice & Procedure
- Appendix 1: Relevant State Laws
- Appendix 2: Forms for Clerk
- Appendix 3: Marriage Procedure Forms