Meeting for worship
A meeting for worship is a practice of the Religious Society of Friends (or "Quakers") in many ways comparable to a church service. These services have a wide variety of forms, creating a spectrum from typical Protestant liturgy (one extreme of programmed worship) to silent waiting for the Spirit (called unprogrammed worship).
A Meeting for Worship may start with a query; something to think about during Meeting. The query is most of the time based on one of the Quaker testimonies. Meeting will then sit in silence for varying amounts of time, but usually from twenty minutes to an hour and a half. If an attendee is provoked to share, they can stand up and speak their mind, usually but not always with regards to the query. Attendees are encouraged to speak once "the Spirit finds you", thus meaning one should only speak if the message is good for the community and beneficial to the meeting. A traditional Quaker belief is everyone has "that of God" inside, and everyone's inner light and spirit can be shown. At a few meetings, some people will stand up and sing songs or recite poetry.
Within the United Kingdom, the vast majority of Quaker worship is unprogrammed.
In the United States, Friends' worship is conducted in a variety of ways that form more of a continuum than a set number of possible formats or styles. Currently, there are Meetings that belong to and follow the traditions of specific branches of the Religious Society of Friends, and there are independent Friends' meetings, worship groups and churches.
Pastoral meetings, as the name implies, have a pastor or minister whose job is to lead worship and preach. These meetings may have choirs and patterns of liturgy, similar to Protestant church services.
Unprogrammed meetings also vary. Depending on the backgrounds and beliefs of members and attenders, there can be a difference in how Friends approach the meeting. Some emphasize the benefit of stillness and contemplation, while others emphasise listening. Of those that are concerned with listening, there are different understandings of to whom or to what Friends are listening. When the word "meeting" is used, as it is here, the reference is to a "monthly meeting" so called because meeting for business is held every month. This can be confusing because meeting for worship is held every week. However this is important in the structure of the Quaker faith. Meetings (monthly meetings) do not stand alone, but the vast majority of meetings belong to a "yearly meeting". Most yearly meetings have a book of, not quite doctrine, but an outline of belief, to which the monthly meetings that belong at least generally adhere to. For instance, most - but not all- meetings in New England belong to New England Yearly Meeting and subscribe to the Faith and Practice published by New England Yearly Meeting.
There are terms, Inner Light, Guide, Seed, or Spirit (or some variation) used by many Friends to explain the source of what they may say or reflect upon during meeting. These terms also have different shades of meaning depending upon the meeting's background. Conservative Friends consider Jesus to be that Seed or Guide. Others have a more general concept of something within each person that encourages the good.
In meeting for worship among Conservative Friends, someone speaks when that person feels that God has given them a message for others. After anyone speaks (or sings or recites a scripture passage), several minutes are allowed to pass before anyone else speaks, to allow the message to be considered carefully. Friends should not answer or argue during meeting for worship.
Among other types of Friends' meetings for worship, the explanation of the source of what is spoken depends upon the person speaking. Some may believe it is God who prompted them to speak. Some explain an inward prompt, but they may be unable to say precisely from where. Some explain that there is a collective spiritual wisdom that is speaking through them. These are just examples, not a comprehensive list.
At times unprogrammed meetings may wander from the generally accepted guidelines. If this is a problem in a specific meeting it may be raised with a member of the committee for Ministry and Worship.
Unprogrammed meetings may have a time after the end of the meeting for worship (called the rise of meeting) for Friends and attenders to speak about something that occurred to them during meeting, but may not have seemed like something to share during the meeting.
- What is Quaker Meeting for Worship? (Halifax, Canada Meeting's website)
- BBC Religion website: Quakers: Worship.
- Four Doors to Meeting for Worship by William P. Taber
- Welcome to Friends Meeting for Worship by Virginia Schurmann