Spiritual nurture of the Meeting
Meeting for Worship is central to our life as Friends. Regardless of how often and where we hold Meeting, there are ways to help it be a good experience for participants -- new attenders and long-time members.
What follows is an excerpt from Cheerfully over the World, A handbook for isolated Friends
Worship is our response to an awareness of God. We can worship alone, but when we join with others in expectant waiting we may discover a deeper sense of God’s presence. We seek a gathered stillness in our meeting for worship so that all may feel the power of God’s love drawing us together and leading us. (Britain YM, Advices and Queries 8)
Meetings for worship are central to the activities of the Religious Society of Friends it is in worship that our communal life is best experienced. The corporate contemplative and worshipful process of meeting together on the basis of silence can excite a sense of being with the divinity in sacramental stillness. Friends are a worldwide community and so the format for our worship varies from culture to culture with different emphases and different degrees of programming. Despite the variety, most of us would probably unite around the following:
Meeting for worship is the heart: the powerhouse, the source of inspiration. It is based on a mystical concept where there is seeking by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain union with the Deity and apprehension of truth beyond the understanding. It requires a heart open to the Inner Light and a quiet and humble mind: ordinary people finding a sense of peace, strength and sharing. The unique nature of each Meeting may be regarded as an act of faith in personal relationships and an experiment in religious search. (from George Gorman, Introducing Quakers, p.29)
In the silence, I may simple go over what needs to be done for the week, or focus on concerns for friends, or worry through a problem. In the silent worship, space is there to hold these all up to God. Other times I am drawn into a sense of awareness of Presence, a place of comfort, or instruction, or prayer or awe. (Margery Post Abbott, in Philadelphia YM Faith and Practice)
Meeting for worship in the early days of the Quaker movement followed an unprogrammed format, often with long sermons by charismatic leaders interspersed with silent periods of waiting on the Lord. During the periods of evangelical revival during the late 1800s, many Friends’ groups in North America found revitalization in adopting a service which broke the silence with vocal prayer, hymns, scripture reading, personal testimony and a sermon from a pastor. It was this format which Quaker missionaries took with them to East and Central Africa, Asia and other parts of the Americas. In those countries, local traditions have been added as well.
Convinced that all places are sacred, Friends do not need to worship in specially consecrated buildings. If a meetinghouse or church is not available, they may share a venue with another religious organization, hire a hall or meet in a private home. The main criteria are regular availability and a peaceful, quiet setting which is conducive to worship. The numbers who gather for worship can vary. In Delhi, one Friend kept faith, meeting alone with God in silence each Sunday for several years in a room in the YMCA. Occasionally, a few people responded to his advertisement and he welcomed them to join him.
Anyone may attend Friends’ worship and newcomers should be made to feel welcome. To clarify the style of worship being practised, we can make available small leaflets describing our worship. It is important to distinguish between worship of the living God and group therapy. Confusion about this has led some to misuse the quiet, attentive group to air personal problems. Some meetings arrange a time to share personal joys and sorrows toward the end of the worship hour. This is particularly useful if the time of worship has become burdened with this kind of sharing. If there are programmed elements in the worship service, their purpose and timing should be explained so that all may know what to expect.
The physical setting is also important: decorations and furniture should be kept simple. For unprogrammed worship, the chairs or benches are usually arranged in a circle or square to enhance the feeling of equality and to encourage participation. There may be simple items set on a central table such as a Bible, a book of Christian Discipline or Quaker Faith & Practice, flowers or on special occasions, a lighted candle. For programmed worship, there is usually a platform where those whose turn it is to lead the worship can be easily seen and heard. Worship begins when people begin to gather in silence and participants join the stream of worship in growing unity.
Although Meeting for worship is usually held on a Sunday morning, worship can be arranged at any time. For the community of Friends, however, it is important to observe the discipline of gathering to worship at a regular time convenient to all. Meetings usually last about one hour. Children are invited to attend but, as some may find it difficult to keep still for the duration of the service, might be engaged in their own more structured worship or learning activities for part of the time set aside for Meeting.
Friends are a community spread across vast distances and so appointing a time for worship when others are known to be worshipping as well can bring a sense of comfort. This was done effectively in the Middle East when Friends in Ramallah, West Bank and in Brummana, Lebanon, were prevented by borders from joining with each other physically, and so at an appointed hour worshipped together in spirit. Although scattered in many parts of India, members of the General Conference of Friends in India join in worship at 9:30 pm. Friends worldwide have also been encouraged to meet at a certain hour, local time wherever they are, to pray together for issues of particular concern, such as Friends in South Africa and for peace among the people of Kosovo during the unrest and violence in those places. As this booklet goes to press, Friends are invited to focus on and pray for peace each Sunday evening at 7:00 pm.
Hearts and minds prepared
Do you try to set aside times of quiet for openness to the Holy Spirit?... Take time to learn about other people’s experiences of the Light. Remember the importance of the Bible, the writings of Friends and all writing which reveal the ways of God. (Britain YM, Advices and Queries 3, 5)
Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts, and then thou wilt feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord God, whereby thou wilt receive his strength and power from whence life comes. (Geroge Fox, Journal, p.346)
Worship and preparation for it require attention more than once a week. Particularly for those who attend unprogrammed meetings for worship, special care and discipline to prepare are advised so as to make best use of the time of corporate worship. This may include regular times of centering, the reading of various inspirational works and reflecting on the Advices and Queries, those useful Quaker aids for examination of our own daily lives. At other times, the appreciation of the beauty of nature or meeting with (writing to) a like-minded spiritual companion are what is called for. Especially for those who find sleep difficult, prayer and reading at night might be useful preparation for worship, for centering the spirit and letting loose the cares of the day. With these habits in place, less time may be required to become fully centered and attentive to the living Presence as one settles in to meeting for worship.