Chapter III The Meeting For Worship
Quakerism: a view from the back benches continued
Copyright 1966 The Back Benches
THE MEETING FOR WORSHIP
Is Thee Worshiping More and Enjoying it Less?
We are convinced that the experience of worship is central to our lives as Quakers and to the continued vitality of the Religious Society of Friends. For each, worship should be the whole of life. The “meetings for worship,” those times when Friends gather formally to worship together, should be seen in the context of a larger whole. And Friends should not limit such meetings to 11:00 a.m. on Sundays at a meeting house, but should accept all occasions which arise to worship together.
The meeting for worship is a corporate activity which, at its best, results in a spiritual experience for those attending. We feel a need for a definition in modern terms of the aim of the meeting for worship to speak to current generations. The aim must be common to the worshipping group, but it must be expressed in forms meaningful to the various views of Friends. And we must be cautious of words, for they are crude reflections of the reality we seek.
Friends believe that something will happen when we gather and, expecting or hoping, fall into silence. We recognize the happening when it occurs and the prophetic ministry which sometimes results. But our articulation of explanations of these things which we recognize must be secondary to the experience. We need freedom of expression, but should exercise that freedom with discipline.
Our meetings are “unprogrammed”. However, they should not be formless. We all have tendencies to fall away from the light into mechanical routine, into observance of ritual. When this occurs and form comes from without, we should be willing to make mechanical changes, to carry the pattern of outward action, so that a frozen style of “Sunday morning thinking” is shattered. To centerdown, one should approach worship as a new experience each time.
We recommend a relaxed and informal attitude to the outward trappings. It may be hard to arrive at meeting in tolerance of mind when trying to look too nice or to correct each fault one’s children may display.
The ills of meetings for worship are simple to catalog: dead silence, excessive silence which regards outer disturbances as offenses against holiness, obsessive and excessive vocal ministry; debates; long and rambling speeches; entertainments; quotes; clippings; too detailed family history or person anecdotes; purloined “nice ideas”; speakers frequent and swift upon their predecessors.
The cures are almost as easy to articulate: (1) individual preparation for meeting through silence, study and prayer so that one enters meeting “strong and stilled and loving,” (2) education of ourselves and the meeting in the purpose, methods and history of Friends worship so all share a knowledge of the goal, recognize the “ministry of listening” and, if moved to speak, avoid recognized pitfalls of ministry, (3) discipline of self to act on our knowledge of proper methods, to hold distractions and distracters in love, to restrain light, frivolous or bitter reactions to events outside our own silence, and (4) discipline of the group by consensus through appointed Friends who consider, at length and at a distance, the needs of the meeting and all the Friends therein and who are able to guide, admonish and encourage Friends in the best ways to improve the meeting for worship.
We are aware of much concern in the Society about vocal ministry. We suggest that more explicit action be taken to guide would-be ministers. All members might be asked to meet to discuss criteria for speaking in meeting. Brevity, clarity and directness should be encouraged. Constant challenges to accept a point of view or a concern may be directed to a more appropriate place for expression and action. Methods of testing leadings, of quenching and waiting can be taught. It can be stressed that the purpose of the meeting is not psychiatric therapy. Appropriate messages will come more readily when Friends are intent of expressions of truth, rather than of ourselves, on expression worthy of the presence we invoke, rather than of the world around us. The leading to speak should cause a personal crisis; the proper response, a sense of comfort. Let us beware of overreaching and of resignation. Let us be aware that the meeting for worship is not our own personal affair.
We suggest that Friends consider the times of the meetings. It may be that mid-week meetings for worship will strengthen the meeting. A period prior to meetings for worship when Friends gather in silence and reverence to do useful manual work may be better preparation than discussion groups or intellectual study. Discussion and intellectual stimulation seem more appropriate after worship. Appointed periods of silence in which all Friends are asked to consider a prearranged subject are a useful supplement to the usual worship. To fit such programs in to the usual time, it might be scheduled: 9:00 a.m. - 1o:00 a.m. group preparation for worship; 10:00 a.m. - 11:00 a.m., Meeting for Worship, 11:00 a.m - 12:00 noon, discussion or programmed meeting. Such changes might help us to utilize more efficiently our resources. We also suggest adopting a general policy not to break the meeting for worship until at least ten minutes after the last message has been delivered.
It is evident to us that improvement in our meetings for worship is indissolubly linked to solution of the other problems currently confronting the Society of Friends; each Sunday morning meeting for worship will influence and will reflect our attitudes towards and actions in the other areas discussed in this paper.
We worship together because the sum is greater than the parts, because the confluence of many experiences is one experience for all, because worship is work and many together working to one end make the task easier for each, and because the example and advice of others at our side help to dampen our excesses and raise our sometime depressions. When we truly worship together we grow to love one another and as we love, we are drawn into deeper communion.
We feel that the goal is worth the cost of gaining it.
(to be continued)