This chapter considers five customary forms of worship used
by Friends. To focus on form is to focus on the outward, but in fact these
practices were developed to make the largest space possible for the inward.
They work against our habits of mind and our pleasure in external stimulation.
They work to surrender initiative to the Spirit. Sitting with several people in
a designated place for an hour or so will not produce a meeting for worship,
but in Friends’ experience, gathering together, waiting quietly, and listening
for that “still small voice” is an essential part our life together in the
Light. Any form can be empty of Presence, and the Presence can fill any form it
wishes. Friends in Intermountain Yearly Meeting worship without a program
to open the individual and the community to God’s immediate and creative
Friends’ practices and processes rest on social and
understandings of human nature: the individual always stands simultaneously in
relation to the Spirit and to others, and it is through the Spirit that we are
most intimately related to our fellow human beings. Remembered and looked for,
the Spirit can gather us and lift us into creative unity.
Friends have applied the term worship to several
practices in which Friends, singly or together, try to stand in the Presence.
This chapter considers the meeting for worship, worship by individuals, worship
in the home, the meeting for worship for business, and worship sharing. For
many Friends, service is a form of worship as well, especially when a concern
has been laid upon them. Although service is an intrinsic part of Friends’
practice, nevertheless this chapter looks at those forms of worship in which we
step aside from our daily lives and focus ourselves inward.
In 1676, Robert Barclay wrote, “True and acceptable
worship of God stems from the inward and unmediated moving and drawing of his
own Spirit. It is not limited by places, times, or persons.” Later, he adds,
We have certain times and places in which we diligently
meet together to wait upon God. . . . We consider it necessary for the people
of God to meet together as long as they are clothed in this tabernacle. We
concur with our persons, as well as our spirits, in believing that the
maintenance of a joint and visible fellowship, the bearing of an outward testimony
for God, and the sight of the faces of one another are necessary. When these
are accompanied by inward love and unity of spirit, they tend greatly to
encourage and refresh the faithful.
Friends try to find a way to live in constant awareness of
the “moving and drawing” of the Spirit. Each form considered in this chapter
represents a possibility for a meeting of spirit, body, context, and purpose.
Each practice has its own way of opening participants to a sense of the “inward
and unmediated” Presence. Each practice requires of its participants a certain
kind of attention, a certain decorum, and a certain
Meeting for Worship: Listening and
Silence is the bowl in which ministry is served.
Leslie Stephens, 2005
Friends find the center of their life together in the
meeting for worship.
Although Friends worship any time the Spirit moves them
to, they set aside specific times and places to gather for worship as a
community. Meeting for worship is a public act. “Bearing an outward testimony
for God” has not always been legal, but Friends have never held meeting for
worship in secret. All present may participate fully, as the breath of God
blows where God wills. Even when Friends disowned people, the disowned were not excluded from
Meeting for worship begins the moment
someone—anyone—begins to “center down.” Gradually the silence enfolds all
present in communion with the Spirit and each other. In the silence, we journey
into that inward stillness where even our thoughts are gone, and we wait. Some
Friends, responding to the movement of the Spirit, may be led to speak out of
the silence. The meeting ends when someone, usually preselected,
determines that the meeting has ended and greets his or her neighbors by
shaking hands. In our busy times, this generally happens about one hour after
the start of the meeting for worship, although
those who are sensitive to the movement of the Spirit do more than simply check
the clock when bringing the meeting to its official end.
In Silence …
The earliest Friends waited because they believed that the
only worship that counted was worship that God actively inspired—the inward and
unmediated moving and drawing of God’s own Spirit of which Barclay speaks.
Although Friends today understand that there is merit in different forms of
worship, our unprogrammed
practice teaches us to be open and vulnerable in the face of the Spirit.
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, 1938 
Friends have never regarded [worship] as an individual activity.
People who regard Friends Meetings as opportunities for meditation have failed
to appreciate this corporate aspect. The waiting and listening are activities
in which everybody is engaged and produce spoken ministry which helps to
articulate the common guidance which the Holy Spirit is believed to give the
group as a whole. So the waiting and listening is corporate also. This is why
Friends emphasize the ‘ministry of silence’ and the importance of coming to
meeting regularly and with heart and mind prepared.
John Punshon, 1987 
In the stillness of the meeting, the Spirit brings us
messages. Sometimes these messages are for us alone; sometimes they are meant
to be spoken. A spoken message may be meant for the community. It may be intended to reach the heart of a single person. It may be
the seed for further ministry, or it may stand alone.
People who give vocal ministry seldom know the precise
purpose of their message—they only know they must speak. Conversation among
Friends about vocal ministry often turns quickly to the signs one follows in
making a decision about speaking and to the inadequacy of any signs to confer
certainty. In the first years, Quakers “trembled before the Lord,” and many
still tremble today. Some feel a specific kind of anxiety, a jab in the ribs.
Others know it is time to speak when the message arrives with perfect calmness.
For some, there is an analytical cast to their final decision, whereas others
say, “If I have to ask, the message isn’t for sharing.” Waiting is often
involved; if the meeting ends before the right moment comes, perhaps the
message was not meant to be given. The message may come again and again with
greater insistence each time. Some Friends have bottled up the urge to speak
only to have someone else in the meeting give the same message.
As the message is spoken, the experience continues. One’s
voice may change. The body may feel different. Friends have stood up to speak
having no idea what they were meant to say. Others have begun with a carefully
worked out plan and ended with words coming from somewhere else. Sometimes the
command also comes to stop. Ministers often speak of the sense of peace that
descends on them when they feel their ministry has been given according to the
Spirit. They also speak of the discomfort that comes when they have outrun
Sometimes ministers hear from others that they were touched by the words they
spoke; it is well to remember then that the ministry was the Spirit’s—not
Vocal ministry requires practice. Recognizing the signs
is a matter of discernment. According to Patricia Loring, “Discernment is
the faculty we use to distinguish the true movement of the Spirit to speak in
meeting for worship from the wholly human urge to share, to instruct, or to
straighten people out.”
Be ready to be flexible! Writing of his own growth as a minister, Lloyd Lee
recalled a time when he moved from being a rock in meeting (“Here I am, Lord,
but you are going to have to blow me away before I speak today”) to trusting
God and his own relationship with the Spirit enough to become something like a
fruit tree (“My Master has planted me in good soil, pruned me, and sent the sun
and rain in order than I might bear fruit—here it is”).
After someone speaks, the meeting returns to silence,
waiting for further movement of the Spirit. Without the active support of
prayerful silence, speech in meeting is disconnected from the Spirit and not
rooted in the community.
Inappropriate ministry is another topic that comes up in
conversation among Friends about vocal ministry. Each Friend seems to have his
or her own example, so we remind ourselves that the Spirit does not always tell
us what we want to hear, speak to us in pleasing tones, use correct grammar, or
speak through people we like. As John Punshon says,
. . . we have to train
ourselves to overcome our personal likes and dislikes and treat everything said
in meeting with uniform seriousness and consideration. That is part of Friends’
spiritual discipline and cannot be compromised with. It is not at all easy, but
it is unavoidable. We need time and calmness to reflect on what we have heard.
Only when we have taken it into ourselves shall we be in a position to decide
whether or not it is from God.
Children in meeting for worship bring special joys
and distractions. Within Intermountain Yearly Meeting, there are various ways
of fostering their participation. The most common approach splits the
children’s time between attendance in meeting for worship and a children’s
program of religious education: some meetings start with the children present
in meeting whereas others bring the children in towards the end of meeting.
However it is arranged, participation in meeting for worship is just as
important for children as it is for adults.
Meeting for worship can be a time for healing. It must
be a place of safety, a place where one can grow and take chances and where
everyone’s life is nurtured, for the Spirit is not always a comfortable
companion. The Light brings risks and challenges as well as balm for the soul.
It is not for nothing that the first Friends spoke of being convicted before
they were convinced. Although it is the special charge of the Committee on
Ministry (variously named Ministry and Oversight, Ministry and Counsel,
Worship and Ministry, and so on) to foster, support, and provide guidance
for those who speak in meeting for worship, the care and responsibility for the
health of the meeting belongs to the whole community. One cannot learn to walk
if laughter and scorn follows any misplaced step.
Worship by Individuals: Seeking
Depth and Knowledge
The history of Friends is not a history of people who waited
for First Day to arrive before waiting on God. Stories of the sudden experience
of the Divine fill the literature of mysticism and of Quaker lives. Stories of
life-long seeking can be found there, as well.
A spiritual practice is a vital part of our lives. When the only experience we have of
silence comes in meeting for worship, our individual needs can so dominate our
awareness that we are prevented from being part of the community as we worship.
As we deepen our connection to the Spirit through individual practice of
spiritual disciplines, our participation in the meeting for worship also
deepens. The experience of Friends suggests that the form of the discipline is
less important than the fact of it: there is no single path to follow. The
movement of the Spirit has not been limited to a flow into Europe out of the Middle East; nor are our exercises limited to those found
in that religious history. As in everything else, the Light guides us to a
Worship in the Home: Nurturing
From its inception, the Religious Society of Friends has waited
for the Spirit in community and maintained that its highest experience is the
experience of the Spirit uniting the whole community. Worship in the home
affirms the sense of family, which finds its wholeness in and through the
Spirit. In these busy times, when even First Day mornings can seem
overscheduled, worship in the home provides an opportunity for quiet intimacy
under the care of the Spirit.
In the past, Friends’ families worshiped together in the
home on a regular basis, and this practice is continued in many households
today. This tends to be the most programmed of the various forms of worship
covered in this chapter, in part because it provides training for children
through adult example. Religious passages may be
read and hymns may be sung, providing seeds for centered worship. However the
worship begins, it ends with a time of silence and ministry, providing a safe
place for children to experience the movement of the Spirit and to share their
Meeting for Worship for
Friends, keep your meetings in the power of God, and in
his wisdom (by which all things were made) and in the love of God, that by that
ye may order all to his glory. And when Friends have finished their business,
sit down and continue awhile quietly and wait upon the Lord to feel him. And go
not beyond the Power, but keep in the Power by which God Almighty may be felt
George Fox, 1658 
Discussions of Friends’ processes often get twisted up in “nots,” and the meeting for business is no exception: we do
not vote, we do not debate, we do not follow
parliamentary procedures, and so on. How much harder is it to speak positively!
The meeting for business is a meeting for discernment. At the meeting for
business, the community gathers under the guidance of the Spirit, attempting to
make decisions in unity.
All of the curiosities of Friends’ practice stem from
this: the community is led by the Spirit, and the Spirit works through the
whole community. Imagine a knotty issue as a complicated work of
three-dimensional art. What is obvious at first glance to one person is not at
all evident to someone else. So gradually we walk around it, different ones of
us bringing aspects of the work to the attention of the community, and as we
do, we come to a fuller understanding. We undertake the walk together, we
consider each aspect together, and as our understanding grows, so does our
ability to work together for a solution. The Light shines from all directions.
Our knowledgeable Guide whispers in our ear, pointing out new vantages. We
become closer, more of a community, more able to put our guidance into action
In Intermountain Yearly Meeting, Friends generally do not
quibble over questions of voice and vote: members and attenders are equally
welcome to participate in business meetings. Business is conducted by and
entrusted to those who are present at the business meeting. Although it would
not be fair to schedule discussion of an issue when a person known to be
especially interested in the problem is out of town, objecting to a discussion
based on what one thinks someone who is not present might say is problematic.
guidance of the Spirit . . .
Listening for the Light in each person’s words and waiting
for guidance makes the business meeting an act of worship. Only when Friends
are aware that they are functioning in the Divine Presence does the Quaker
method achieve its goals. Thus, it is important that each business meeting
begin in the stillness of worship so that its character will pervade the
transaction of business. As a reminder, many Friends prefer to call this
meeting the “meeting for worship for business.”
An agenda does not preclude guidance: what is openness in
worship can be lack of focus in business. The agenda is prepared by the clerk
beforehand in consultation with the various meeting committees where they
exist, but issues and concerns may be raised in various ways. A committee may
bring a report, with or without a recommendation for action. If there is a
recommendation, it often takes the form of a proposed minute. Individuals may
bring concerns as well. Although it is best to approach the clerk ahead of time
and ask for an item to be included on the agenda, an issue may be brought
directly to the meeting. It is always helpful to be able to explain to the
meeting the kind of action that is being requested and the background for it,
including options that were considered and discarded. After a concern is
presented, the meeting holds the concern in the Light.
Some people don’t believe it’s
the truth until they hear it coming out of their own mouths.
Pat Sheldon, overheard after an especially long business
Speaking in the meeting for business is ministry just as
much as it is in meeting for worship. Among Friends, speaking begins with
listening. Before speaking, we ask ourselves if the point has already been
addressed. Does our point carry the meeting forward? Are we aware of any
undercurrents? (One may joke about God’s lack of concern for the color of the
meetinghouse door, but if color is a source of dissension, then God surely is
interested.) Have we been listening? When one is heard the first time one
speaks, one does not feel the need to go over the same ground.
As a matter of etiquette, speakers wait to be recognized
and address their remarks to the clerk or presenter. Sometimes the pauses
between speakers become so short that a reminder from the clerk or a request
from the floor for silence may be necessary. When silence is broken again,
Friends take care as they proceed that the concerns voiced before the silence
have been heard. Periods of silence throughout the meeting help assure a sense
of the presence of the Spirit and aid the clerk in gathering the sense of the
decisions in unity.
Unity is possible because the Light of
Truth shines in some measure in every human heart. Friends come to a
meeting for business expecting that the Spirit will lead the assembled body to
unity. The commitment to search for unity depends upon mutual trust, implies a
willingness to labor and to submit to the leadings of the Spirit, and grows as
members become better acquainted with one another.
When Friends make a decision . . . they are seeking the
will of God in a particular matter. They have found the most reliable
guide to that will to be the sense of the meeting.
The most important duty of the clerk is to judge the sense
of the meeting. This may be in the form of a minute, or it may be to wait and
consider the concern at another time. The clerk must remain neutral, listening
to all, aware of those who are hesitant, sometimes checking the long-winded,
and ready to remind Friends to speak out of the silence.
The most important duty of Friends attending meeting for
business is to seek Divine guidance while exercising self-discipline and
self-control. Friends are urged to be mutually forbearing and concerned for the
good of the meeting as a whole, rather than to press a personal preference.
Time is allowed for deliberate and prayerful consideration of the matter at
hand. Everyone must want to reach a decision and be open to new understanding.
When the Light finds its voice, it can be helpful to the clerk that Friends say
quietly, “That Friend speaks my mind.” (On the other hand, when spoken early in
a discussion, the sentence may bear the character of voting.)
The sense of the meeting . . . can only arise out of a
membership which has given itself over to seeking the will of God and has
prepared itself spiritually for the search. It may be that some present have
not yet come to that condition of seeking. It may be that some have come seeking
that their own will be done—sometimes for excellent reasons. It may be that
they come with a leading from God which is quite true for themselves
but not a leading for the meeting as a whole.
The sense of the meeting is not always unanimous. It is
possible for an individual to recognize that the meeting is ready to go forward
with a decision even though he or she is not. At this point, Friends have a
number of ways of proceeding. First, if one feels deeply that the decision is
not in the Light, one has an obligation to say so, “standing in the way” of the
decision and thereby preventing the meeting from going forward. (On very rare
occasions, meetings have decided that an objector was being willfully
obstructive, and proceeded anyway. This, too, is a decision of the meeting and
is so unusual that mention of it is made in the minute.) Second, one may accept
the meeting’s conclusion in the place of one’s own—often the meeting leads us
beyond ourselves. In some cases, one may “stand aside” from a decision,
allowing the meeting to go forward while reserving judgment. Meetings should be
slow to accept this action on the part of an individual, preferring to achieve
unity rather than to go forward without the whole community. This is especially
true if several people choose to stand aside—then perhaps the sense of the
meeting has been misread. Third, Friends who don’t want to stand in the way of
their community have been known to stay away from a business meeting when they
believe a decision would be made that they could not accept. Friends should be
very careful about taking this step because it deprives the meeting of their
participation and deprives them of an opportunity to have their perceptions
There is power in unity. Decisions made through a process
leading to unity carry the conviction and commitment of the whole community. We
risk losing this power if we aim simply for efficiency. When we avoid conflict,
when we get along by going along, we lose the ability to work whole-heartedly
together. When a meeting tries to force an issue and lets
itself get away with it, it runs beyond its Guide. Friends do not make
decisions according to the will of the majority nor are Friends’ decisions
blocked by the will of the minority. The Religious Society of Friends is led by
Worship Sharing: Building
Community in a Fragmented World
In today’s world, in which people are mobile and divided by
distance and circumstance, the unconscious familiarity with one another that
underlies communities that have shared lives for generations is for the most
part long gone. Worship sharing takes us intentionally beyond appearances
and prejudices and often leads to profound connections between participants.
When we join in with open minds and hearts, worship sharing can be as gathered
as any meeting for worship.
Worship sharing is a small-group exercise. Eight
members is a good number. With fewer than six present, individuals may feel too
exposed; with more than ten, the process can become cumbersome. The composition
of worship sharing groups differs depending on their purpose. There is usually
a facilitator, and often there are queries to consider. (When worship sharing
takes place in a larger gathering, the context and purpose of the gathering may
be sufficient to provide a focus. Worship sharing is confidential—what is said
within the group stays within the group and may not be repeated elsewhere
without the specific permission of the original speaker. In many cases, due to
the nature of the sharing, permission should be obtained from the whole group.
The facilitator reviews with the participants the
characteristics of the worship- sharing format
and may read one or more queries. After settling into silence, participants
Participants may speak as they are moved, or sometimes,
depending on who is present, the participants may be asked to speak in turn.
This is a good approach when the group has not met before and is unfamiliar
with worship sharing, or when there is a wide mix of ages. It is helpful to the
facilitator and the group if a person who wishes not to speak to a particular
Sharing is based on personal experience. Each
contribution is heard and is framed in silence. Having addressed a query, one
does not speak to it again until everyone has had a turn, and rarely then. This
process is intended to free participants from any need to consider a response
or plan a contribution while someone else speaks. When one speaks, one resists
the temptation to ask followup questions of a
previous speaker, contradict or debate a point, give advice, or practice one’s
diagnostic and therapeutic skills. Any of these might illuminate the previous
speaker’s sharing, but they allow the speaker to avoid sharing at all.
Although participants are mindful not to take more than
their share of time while speaking, when the worship-sharing session is on a
schedule it is important that the planners allot sufficient time to it. The
facilitator brings the group to a close when the appointed time has passed.
Closing the session may include handshakes, hugs, and further silence.
The Stillness at the Heart of Things
As we look at Friends’ worship practices, we often hear
characterizations akin to: “It is not a debate.” We are not trying to impose
our will or our ideas on the community. We work together because the Spirit
works in and through all of us. In all forms of worship, we open ourselves and
still ourselves so that the noise of our busyness does not overwhelm that other
voice we so long to hear. The Spirit unites us. We
live best when we live within that Spirit.
One definition of mysticism: “ . . . the belief in or
reliance on the possibility of spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible
to the intellect.” The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1993).
Robert Barclay, Barclay’s Apology in
Modern English, Dean Freiday, ed. (Newberg,
Oregon: The Barclay Press, 1991), p. 239.
Barclay, Apology, p. 243.
When Friends were viewed as a suspect cult, they began to “disown” the unFriendly behavior of people who might be seen as Quakers
by the outside community. Later, disownment became a tool of social control. It
is rarely used today.
Friends today are divided in their forms of worship. Some, including meetings
in Intermountain Yearly Meeting, practice the silent meeting. Other meetings
have pastors and follow a program when they worship—thus the distinction
between “programmed” or pastoral meetings and “unprogrammed” ones.
R. Kelly, The Eternal Promise, (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press,
1988), pp. 44-45, as quoted in Britain Yearly Meeting Faith and
John Punshon, Unpublished writing, 1987. Quoted in Britain Yearly
Meeting Faith and Practice, 2.37.
For instance, John Woolman wrote: “I went to meetings in an awful frame of
mind and endeavored to be inwardly acquainted with the language of the True
Shepherd. And 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, and, 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 take satisfaction in nothing. I remembered God
and was troubled, and in the depth of my distress he had pity upon me. I then felt
forgiveness for my offense, and my mind became calm and quiet, being truly
thankful to my gracious Redeemer for his mercies. And after this, feeling the
spring of divine love opened and a concern to speak, I said a few words in
meeting in which I found peace: this, I believe, was about six weeks from the
first time; and as I was thus humbled and disciplined under the cross, my
understanding became more strengthened to distinguish the language of 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.”
Journal, quoted in Pendle Hill Pamphlet #51, Worship, 1950,
republished electronically 2004, pp. 21–22.
As one story tells it, a Friend approached another after a meeting for worship
and said, “Thee preached a pretty sermon today,” to
which the other replied, “I know. The devil told me so as soon as I sat down.”
Patricia Loring, Spiritual Discernment: The Context and Goal of Clearness
Committees, (Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Pamphlet
#305, 1992), p. 3.
Lloyd Lee Wilson, Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, (Philadelphia , PA: Quaker
Press of FGC, 2002), p. 178.
Punshon, Encounter with Silence (Richmond, IN:
Friends United Press, 1987, p. 78.
Sources on individual practices include Listening Spirituality, vol. 1
by Patricia Loring and John Punshon’s Encounter with Silence.
George Fox, Epistle 162, 1658, as quoted by Howard Brinton in
Pendle Hill Pamphlet #65, Reaching Decisions: The Quaker Method (Wallingford,
PA, 1952), p. 12. The complete epistles can be found in The Works of George
Fox, Vols. VII & VIII (State College, PA: New Foundation Publication,
The George Fox Fund, Inc., 1990).
The principles and procedures that apply to meeting for business apply to
committee meetings and any other gatherings of Friends to seek a way forward.
Patricia Loring, Spiritual Responsibility in the Meeting for Business,
(Philadelphia: Quaker Press of FGC, 1993).
Loring, Spiritual Responsibility in the Meeting for Business.