Worship: “The Gathered Meeting” Revisited

Worship and Ministry

The following is excerpted from the PYM pamphlet, Worship: “The Gathered Meeting” Revisited. The pamphlet is a printing of the talk given by Tom Gates at PYM’s Annual Sessions, July 27, 2006. An earlier version of the talk was given at a Deepening and Strengthening (now called Meeting Enrichment Services).

Listen, then, to the opening lines of Thomas Kelly’s “The Gathered Meeting”:

In the practice of group worship on the basis of silence come special times when the electric hush and solemnity and depth of power steals over the worshippers. A blanket of divine covering comes over the room, a stillness that can be felt is over all, and the worshipers are gathered into a unity and synthesis of life which is amazing indeed. A quickening presence pervades us… and awakens us in depths that had before been slumbering. The Burning Bush has been kindled in our midst, and we stand together on holy ground. [1]

I hope these words resonate within you, reminding you of what is of central importance to us as a community of faith, and inspiring you to seek again for the experience he so eloquently describes. But if you are like me, the words may also raise questions, even doubts. Do we in fact live up to these high ideals? Why does it seem that we so seldom experience a truly gathered meeting? And some of us may even ask, have I ever really had this experience? Do I know it experimentally, or is it just a bit of quaint Quaker lore, part of the Quaker museum, and no longer relevant to us today?

Kelly’s words may crystallize for us a certain ambivalence. On the one hand, those of us who are active in our meeting communities tend to have a high regard, even reverence, for our peculiar way of silent or waiting worship; we treasure it highly. On the other hand, we have to admit that our meetings for worship do not always live up to our high expectations. Despite, or even because of, holding them in such high regard, we are sometimes disappointed. On a practical level, we often have occasion to wish that worship was somehow “better”.

Our meeting communities [may] become places where Friends not only experience this gathered condition, but also come to expect it, to name it, and to feel a certain reverence for it. So we turn now to section iii of [Thomas] Kelly’s essay, The Gathered Meeting [1], where he takes up the question of the conditions that favor a gathered meeting. He cautions us to do this with great humility, because in fact some of this is out of our control, which is why it is by and large something that we can only approach indirectly- “We seek at best to discern merely favoring conditions and releasing stimuli, not the full control of the event” (p. 12).

The first condition he names is this: “that there must be kindled hearts when the meeting begins” (p. 13). Kindled hearts. In the old days, when our meetinghouses were heated by wood stoves, someone had die responsibility of coming early on First Day and building the fire. If the meetinghouse and the stove had not been used since the previous week, then the embers were cold and the fire had to be built from scratch. But if the meetinghouse was used on a daily basis, then the banked coals from the day before would still be glowing and warm, and a few pieces of kindling wood placed on the coals would bring the fire quickly back to life again. In our meetings for worship, the presence of kindled hearts is like those warm coals, waiting to burst into flame. Kelly says that “the spiritual devotion of [just] a few persons… is needed to kindle the rest… Where this inward work of upholding prayer is wholly absent, I am not sure that a gathered meeting is at all likely to follow” (p. 13). He then goes on to say, as explicitly as he can, “This means a preceding preparation for worship… Worship in a meetinghouse with one’s friends should be only a special period in a life of worship that underlies all one’s daily affairs” (p. 14). In short, the preparation that is necessary is that we learn to lead “lives of worship”.

The importance of this preparation for worship has been emphasized by nearly every Quaker writer who has written on this subject. Fifty years ago, Howard Brinton wrote that “this is not a conscious and deliberate preparation for a specific time and place, but a general preparation of life and character.” Or, as is sometimes said, we prepare the minister, not the ministry. Brinton goes on to say that “A daily period of prayer, worship, and meditation furnishes food for the nourishment of spiritual life. So also does regular reading of devotional literature…” [2]

Lloyd Lee Wilson describes the consequences for the meeting for worship when we come to worship either prepared, or unprepared:

The practice of corporate waiting worship requires individual preparation on the part of each worshiper. The Friend who has not prepared for corporate worship brings correspondingly less silence with him/her, and the worship is correspondingly less robust. The prepared worshiper, on the other hand, comes to meeting for worship having already shared his/her “routine” issues with God in times of personal prayer and worship rather than saving them up for First Day morning, so that the corporate worship is not a cacophony of personal problems, but a quiet group expectancy, a waiting for the Presence of God to become manifest…[3]

Elizabeth Watson puts it even more succinctly, “We bring to meeting on First Day our collectedness or our scatteredness, and we help or hinder the meeting accordingly.” [4] So a gathered meeting to some extent may depend on the degree of “gatheredness” that each individual is able to bring to it.

Bill Taber, in his “Four Doors to Meeting for Worship”, speaks at length about the importance of preparation for meeting for worship through the week (which he calls “the door before”), and explicitly links it to the gathered meeting:

It is almost axiomatic that once we become serious about the spiritual journey, about seeking God, we discover, sooner or later, that the once-a-week worship hour on Sunday is not enough to feed us, and so we discover the importance of the Door Before… It is no accident that daily “retirement” (a time of reading the Bible and inspirational writings, personal prayer, reflection and worship) has been frequently recommended throughout Quaker history… A person who has already experienced times of spiritual nourishment during the week will require less time to let go of the rhythms and preoccupations of normal life and can therefore enter more quickly and easily into full attention to the living Presence… If the Sunday morning meeting for worship is our only haven of peace and quiet during the week, the luxury of that silent, private space can become so precious that we may even resent spoken ministry—especially if that ministry seems inappropriate to us—so that we may feel unfulfilled and frustrated when the meeting is over. On the other hand, people who have gone through the Door Before, week after week, find it easier to stay in touch with the living Source which can renew and guide them, even in the midst of distractions… When even just a few meeting attenders have regularly gone through the Door Before, the entire meeting tends to settle more easily into the deep and living quiet which Friends have long called a “gathered” meeting.” [5]

This used to be easier for Quakers. There was a time when most Quakers grew up in Quaker homes, in relatively small, tight-knit communities, and when Quakerism was learned by a kind of osmosis. Listen to Rufus Jones’ classic description of the Quaker home of his childhood, in the mid-19th century rural Maine:

… I was not “christened” in a church, but I was sprinkled from morning till night with the dew of religion. We never ate a meal which did not begin with a hush of thanksgiving; we never began ‘ a day without a “family gathering” at which mother read a chapter of the Bible, after which there would follow a weighty silence… Someone would bow and talk with God so simply and quietly that He never seemed far away… [God] always heard easily and seemed to be there with us in the living silence. My first steps in religion were thus acted. It was a religion we did together. Almost nothing was said in the way of instructing me… In these simple ways my religious disposition was being unconsciously formed and the roots of my faith in unseen realities were reaching down far below my crude and childish surface thinking. [6]

Things are no longer that easy; we no longer learn this daily spirituality by childhood example. In the 21st century, if we as Friends hope to ever recapture this tradition of daily spirituality, we will need to teach one another with conscious intention. But it can be done: let me share with you just two examples from my own Meeting’s experience.

The first was quite simple. Several years ago, we were going through a time when meeting for worship seemed noticeably unsettled, for a variety of reasons. In response, Worship and Ministry undertook a commitment that at least some of us would be present in worship, starting about 15 minutes before the appointed 10 o’clock hour. Thus, when people began to enter the worship room at 10, they found a core of people already deep in worship, providing, we hoped, that critical mass of “kindled hearts”. Over time, we noted that people no longer lingered in conversation just outside the door. Latecomers entered a still and centered meeting, so they knew that they were not only late by the clock, but that they were missing something eventful; and as a consequence, tardiness decreased in frequency. More importantly, our worship seemed to gradually grow deeper and more settled, less distracted. Even now, several years later, a few minutes before 10 o’clock you will find five or ten Friends in worship, preparing to welcome fellow worshipers into a hushed and sacred space as they arrive. Kindled hearts.

The second example was Spiritual Formation. In 1999, twelve of us from Lancaster went through the first cycle of the PYM Spiritual Formation Program together. After the program ended, we continued to meet together and discuss readings on a regular basis for the next two years. With its willingness to regularly engage and discuss readings from our Quaker tradition, that small group came to have a “kindling” effect on our meetings for worship. The positive experience of the group in turn led us to plan and finally implement our own local adaptation of the Spiritual Formation Program. We completed this nine month program last June (2005), with almost 50 people participating. As you may know, one key component of the Spiritual Formation Program is the encouragement of a daily individual spiritual practice. There is no question in my mind that having that number of our members participate in this had a very noticeable and tangible effect on the quality of our meetings for worship. Kindled hearts.

A second condition that greatly favors the emergence of the gathered meeting is the extent to which the members of the community actually know one another. In the longer, unedited essay, Kelly quotes from one of Fox’s epistles: “But all Friends, mind that which is eternal, which gathers your hearts together up to the Lord, and lets ye see that ye are written in one another’s heart.” [7] How do we come to “know one another in that which is eternal”, to be “written in one another’s hearts”?

Unfortunately, this kind of intimate knowing does not seem to come just from worshiping with someone. It is quite possible to sit next to a person in meeting for worship week after week, for months and even years, and yet never come to know them on a personal level. In the close-knit Quaker communities of the past, this too might have happened by osmosis, but now we have to make a conscious effort.

Lloyd Lee Wilson says, “We want community, but we don’t invest our time in being community… We create space for community to happen by spending time with people, and we naturally want to spend time with the people in our community.” [8] Kenneth Boulding gives more specific advice:

If our Meetings for Worship grow dry, and our Meetings for Business contentious, is it not because we do not visit each other in our homes in the spirit of worship! If we meet only for a brief time on Sunday, how can we truly get to know and love one another? Let a few concerned people invite members of the meeting to their homes for a simple meal and a period of worship, of reading together, of sharing the food of the spirit, and see how the life of the meeting will spring up…[9]

In my own Meeting, this has been enormously important. We have gradually built a culture that is accepting and expecting of opportunities to meet together in small groups, and over the years these experiences have helped us to weave an intricate web of community. This year, it is “Friendly Eights”, g groups of approximately eight people who commit to meet together monthly for eight months: to share a meal together, share in one another’s lives, and then to discuss a short reading from the common syllabus that all seven groups use. This has been new for us this year, but the fact that 50 people participated indicates that there is a hunger for this kind of small-group experience.

There are many other, less formal ways that we build community. Meeting work days and potlucks play a role. Serving on clearness committees for one another can form lasting bonds among Friends. Also, we have made it a practice to take a few moments at the close of worship to give opportunity for Friends to lift up any joys and concerns before the community, and not infrequently this has led to intimate sharing that has strengthened our sense of community. Each meeting has to find what works for it, but often it will take a very conscious and deliberate (even if behind-the-scenes) effort to promote these bonds of community.

 

Read Tom Gates’ complete talk in the PYM pamphlet, Worship: “The Gathered Meeting” Revisited, available from QuakerBooks of FGC and from the PYM Library

 

REFERENCES

[1] Page numbers in parenthesis refer to the version of “The Gathered Meeting” that has been reprinted in pamphlet form by the Tract Association of Friends. Note that this is a slightly edited and shortened version of the original essay, which can be found in Thomas Kelly, “The Eternal Promise” (Friends United Meeting Press, 1977), pp. 72-89. When reference is made to the longer version, the exact reference will be footnoted.

[2] Howard Brinton, “Guide to Quaker Practice”, PHP # 20, pp. 16-17.

[3] Lloyd Lee Wilson, “Waiting Worship”, in Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, p. 36.

[4] Elizabeth Watson, “Worship that Comes from Silence in the General Conference Tradition”, quoted in Lloyd Lee Wilson, “Accountability and Vocal Ministry”, Journal of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative), Number 1, p. 9.

[5] William Taber, “Four Doors to Meeting for Worship” (PHP # 306), pp. 4-5.

[6] Rufus Jones, Finding the Trail of Life (1929), quoted in New England Yearly Meeting (neym) Faith and Practice (1986), p. 164.

[7] Kelly, in The Eternal Promise, p. 79.

[8] Lloyd Lee Wilson, “Gathered with One Accord”, in Wrestling with Our Faith Tradition, (Quaker Press, 2005), p. 134.

[9] Kenneth Boulding, “The Practice of the Love of God”, PHP #374, p. 23.