The meeting for worship is the heart of the Religious Society of Friends. It draws us together in the enlightening and empowering presence of God, sending us forth with renewed vision and commitment.
Our word “worship” has its roots in the concept of “worth-ship.” Worship is our response to what we feel to be of ultimate importance. Our expression of that feeling of ultimate worthship may take many forms. Worship is always possible, alone or in company, in silence, in music or speech, in stillness or in dance. It is never confined to place or time or form.
When Friends worship, we reach out from the depths of our being to God, the giver of life and of the world around us. Our worship is the search for communion with God and the offering of ourselves—body and soul—for the doing of God’s will. The sense of worship can be experienced in the awe we feel in the silence of a meeting for worship or in the awareness of our profound connectedness to nature and its power. In worship we know repentance and forgiveness in the acknowledgment of God as the ultimate source of our being, and the serenity of accepting God’s will.
In worship we discover direction for our lives and the uses of our resources. Leadings are often made clearer by reference to the life and teachings of Jesus and by the transforming power of the Inner Light. From worship there comes a fresh understanding of the two great commandments: to love “your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27).
Careful listening to the Inward Teacher can lead to fresh openings: an inpouring of love, insight, and interdependence. True listening can also bring the worshiper to new and sometimes troubling perceptions, including clear leadings that may be a source of pain and anxiety; yet it can also bring such wholeness of heart that hard tasks can become a source of joy. Even when we worship torn with our own pain or that of another, it is in worship that we discover new strength for what faces us in our everyday lives.
Each experience of worship is different. There is no right way to prepare for spiritual communion, no set practice to follow when worship grows from expectant waiting in the Spirit. Vital worship depends far more on a deeply felt longing for God than upon any particular practice. “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7)
The Meeting for Worship
Friends find it useful to come to meeting with hearts and minds prepared for worship by daily prayer, meditation, and study, especially of the Bible and of the experience of others. We deepen thereby our awareness of the wonder of God and of God’s love, and acquire the words with which to understand and to express that awareness. Many also find help through thoughtful reflection and listening to the Inward Teacher in the course of daily life and service.
As Friends arrive for meeting, such preparation helps us set aside our preoccupation with ourselves and our affairs and so settle into worship in a manner described by Alexander Parker in 1660:
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 spirit and in the spirit he is worshiped.
Worship in meeting may thus begin with stilling the mind and body, letting go of tensions and everyday worries, feeling the encompassing presence of others, and opening oneself to the Spirit. It may include meditation, reflection on a remembered passage from the Bible or other devotional literature, silent prayer, thanksgiving, praise of God, consideration of one’s actions, remorse, request for forgiveness, or search for direction. Even in times of spiritual emptiness, Friends find it useful to be present in worship.
Worshiping together strengthens the members of the worshiping community and deepens the act of worship itself. Such communal worship is like a living organism whose individual but interdependent members are essential to one another and to the life of the greater whole. It is like the luminous unity and individual fulfillment that arise when musicians, responding to the music before them, offer up their separate gifts in concert. Friends sometimes use Paul’s image and speak of the meeting for worship as a body whose head is Christ (I Cor. 12:27). The gifts and participation of each member are important in maintaining and enriching the spiritual life of the meeting for worship.
There is a renewal of spirit when we turn away from worldly matters to rediscover inward serenity. Friends know from experience the validity of Jesus’ promise that “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). Often we realize our hopes for a heightened sense of the presence of God through the cumulative power of group worship, communicated in silent as well as vocal ministry. When we experience such a profound and evident sense of oneness with God and with one another, we speak of a “gathered” or “covered” meeting for worship.
Communion and Communication
Direct communion with God constitutes the essential life of the meeting for worship. Into its living stillness may come leadings and fresh insights that are purely personal, not meant to be shared. At other times they are meant for the Meeting at large to hear.
When a leading is to be shared, the worshiper feels a compelling inward call to vocal ministry. The very name “Quaker” is by tradition derived from the evident quaking of early Friends witnessing under the power of the Spirit. Though ministry is seldom accompanied by such outward signs, some still feel the inward quaking. Vocal ministry may take many forms, as prayer, praise of God, song, teaching, witnessing, or sharing. These messages may center upon a single, vital theme; often apparently unrelated leadings are later discovered to have an underlying unity. Such ministry and prayer may answer the unrecognized or unvoiced needs of other seekers.
When someone accepts the call of the Spirit to speak, fellow worshipers are likewise called to listen with openness of minds and hearts. Diffident and tender spirits should feel the Meeting community’s loving encouragement to give voice, even if haltingly, to the message that may be struggling to be born within them. Friends whose thought has been long developing and whose learning and experience are profound serve the meeting best when they, like all others, wait patiently for the prompting of the Inward Teacher. Anyone moved to speak following another should first allow others to absorb and respond inwardly to what has already been said.
Friends should not put obstacles in the way of the call, whether by deciding in advance to speak or not to speak, or by feeling a duty to speak to provide some balance between silence and the spoken word. Even if not a word is spoken, meetings for worship can be profoundly nurturing.
Hindrances to Worship
All present should remember that spiritual opportunities entail responsibilities as well, including attention to the time of assembling and consideration for those already settled. Speaking carried on in a spirit of debate or lecturing or discussion is destructive to the life of the meeting for worship and of the meeting community. It is rarely helpful to answer or rebut what has been said previously. Friends moved to vigorous support of causes need to find brief and sensitive ways to voice their insights. Similar sensitivity should be practiced by those who bring material to be posted or shared during worship. Any who habitually settle into silent reading or sit in inattentive idleness cut themselves off from their fellow worshipers and from the pervasive reach of the Spirit. If hindrances to worship occur within a meeting for worship, members of Worship and Ministry or others as appropriate should move quickly and in love to provide counsel.
Friends gather for worship in quiet waiting upon God. We come together out of our care for one another and out of our shared hunger to know God, to follow the leading of the Spirit, to feel with clarity our shortcomings and the reality of forgiveness, to give voice to our anguish, faith, praise, joy, and thanksgiving. At the close of the meeting for worship, we shake hands in acknowledgment of our commitment to one another and to God, and go forth with renewed trust in the power and reality of God’s grace and love.