For Quakers, worship (sometimes called meeting for worship) is at the heart of what it means to be a Quaker. It is the source of inspiration and the root of action in the world. It is also a shared experience that is probably different from what is normally associated with the word “worship”.
Rather than the hymns, set prayers, and sermons we might expect in other churches, Quaker worship begins as people come together in silence. It is a stillness that helps to settle those who are there, to calm thoughts and open hearts; it is a way to find inspiration and insight and to communicate directly with what some call God or the Divine. Worship is a way to connect profoundly with the deepest reality and with each other.
It is difficult to describe Quaker worship, and the best way to understand it is to experience it first-hand. For anyone visiting a Quaker meeting for the first time, here are some suggestions about how best to prepare and hopefully to get a sense of what is going on.
Practice being still
Quaker worship normally lasts for an hour, and an hour of silence and stillness can seem daunting. It is possible to feel anxious about it and so a little practice might be valuable. It is worthwhile in the days before visiting a Quaker meeting for worship to try to take a few minutes out of each day to be quiet and settled. Don’t struggle with it or try to solve problems, but simply use it as a time to get used to the quiet.
Plan to get there on time
Attending meeting for worship will be a much more fulfilling and rewarding experience if there hasn’t been a rush to get there. Whether travelling there alone or with others (and especially when taking children) plan to give plenty of time to both get ready and to get there. Arriving flustered or rushed means it can be much harder to settle down and make the most of the time.
When you arrive
Coming to meeting for worship gives a sense of stepping away from the busyness and stresses of day-to-day life; switching off mobile phones can really help this. Switched off is better than silent, to avoid being conscious of anyone trying to get in touch! It also avoids the risk of disturbing the peace of those around you.
When arriving at Glasgow Meeting House, someone will be at the door greeting everyone who arrives. For everyone coming for the first time there we have leaflets and other literature to read. These can be helpful as a way of focusing attention and settling down at the beginning of worship, but it is important to try to spend at least part of the time simply being still and open.
The worship space
In Glasgow Meeting House, the worship space is a loosely arranged circle of chairs. Quaker meetings do not have a hierarchy so there are no reserved or special seats, save for the doorkeeper and two elders.
On the backs of many chairs there are red books in holders. This book is called Quaker Faith and Practice and is a collection of writing and experience from and about Quakers from throughout our 350 year history.
The first pages of Quaker Faith and Practice are given over to Advices and Queries, and you may find this as a separate and much smaller book. This is a collection of prompts and questions that Quakers read regularly as both a challenge and an inspiration. It can be helpful to read a few paragraphs from this at the beginning of worship; again, it may help to settle and focus thoughts.
It is almost impossible to describe in words what is going on in a Quaker meeting for worship. Quakers will often use words like ‘gathered’, ‘expectant’, ‘waiting’, but these are only shorthand for an experience that really is beyond words. The following are just brief explanations about things that may happen and suggestions about how to use the time well.
Many find stillness and silence difficult. Even for people who regularly meditate or spend time in silence, there are often times when it is a struggle to focus, and the mind can wander to a recent argument or to what is for dinner. For anyone trying this for the first time, it is good not to strive or struggle. It is best to relax, settle down, and sit comfortably (back straight and feet flat on the ground is usually best). Focus on a particular thought or idea. Many Quakers talk about holding people or situations ‘in the Light’ and this can be a helpful image.
When thoughts start to run away in all directions (and they will) it is best not to chase after them but simply accept that it happens, let them go, and try to re-focus.
Be gentle with yourself and don’t expect it to be easy straight away.
Sometimes during worship, someone will stand and speak; in their speaking they will be giving words to something that is really beyond words. This is called ministry and, at its best, it results from a profound feeling of something of real importance and a sense of being called to share it with others. Their words will come from a deep place and might refer to a situation in the world that concerns them deeply or to a small, personal experience; they might share something they find difficult or offer an insight into what nourishes our spiritual life.
Sometimes this ministry will be helpful and even inspiring; sometimes other people will say something connected to it or springing from it; sometimes it won’t appear to mean very much at all. The best thing to do is listen to it and turn it over in your mind; if it helps, hold on to it; if not, let it go.
Sometimes no one speaks and the whole meeting for worship can be silent.
At the end
Meeting for worship finishes when two of the Quakers there shake hands and then others shake hands with those around them. It is usually followed by words of welcome and perhaps and opportunity to share news or thoughts. Most meetings then have notices about forthcoming events and news from people who aren’t able to be there.
Afterwards, over tea and coffee and biscuits, there is an opportunity to talk to others who are there, perhaps to ask about their experience or talk about things in worship that might have been difficult or puzzling. Don’t be afraid to ask.
Some people love Quaker worship from the first time they experience it; more often it takes much longer to get used to it and to learn to use the time well. For most people it is a learning experience and this can be both rewarding and difficult.