The following is taken from “An Introduction to the Religious Society of Friends”
Written by Laurence Barber, a member of Yarmouth Preparatory Meeting.
What goes on in Meetings for Worship?
Religious worship can be defined in many ways and takes many forms. Worship to Friends is a way of communication with God, however God may be defined. In it the worshiper shares with God the joys and concerns of the world, and in turn somehow receives from God guidance and support in dealing with the world and with one’s self.
Friends have always felt that this communication can be facilitated by a combination of silent thought and group communion. Hence when the Quakers we are describing enter a meeting for worship they sit in silent expectation waiting on the Lord". The result is guided by the Holy Spirit and cannot be preprogrammed, so there is no ritual or planned service, no hymns or liturgy and no priestly leadership. Instead each individual as part of the group must be guided by the Spirit to form inwardly his or her own mode of worship.
Why the silence?
Sitting in silence is unusual for most people. It produces a tension, which one feels somehow needs to be broken. But when one becomes accustomed to it, a period of silence can be a kind of relaxation in a busy and noisy world. At the same time it can be an opportunity for active reaching out, to think, to consider what really is important. Few of us seem to find occasion to stop in our busy days and really try to communicate directly with God in a two-way relationship. The silence of a Quaker meeting is an opportunity and incentive to do this.
Then why not just sit in silence at home?
There is more to a group of people who meet together searching for God’s love and truth than merely a collection of individuals. The earliest Quakers felt that Jesus was present in their meetings. In the modern more skeptical day we might not express it that way. But there is a certainty that in a Meeting of sincere worshipers something greater than all of them is created. Part of this is produced by the companionship of other seekers; often it is stimulated by the occasional spoken messages; mystically it is still a consciousness of the presence of God.
What do people think about during Meeting?
Ideally every one attending a Quaker Meeting for Worship (or any other religious service) should be able to concentrate completely on God, think high-minded thoughts, and receive inspiration. Some Friends have always felt this should be done through seeking in their silent worship to shut off or rise above individual thoughts and reach an emptiness open to the speaking of God. As one of the early Quaker writers put it, "When the soul comes to this silence and as it were brought to nothingness as to her own workings, then the devil is shut out."
For most of us, however, worship involves processes of thought, and these are not always as open to God as we might wish. We tend to carry into the period of worship all the baggage of worldly interests and worries. Especially in the early part of the meeting, as people assemble and the group "settles down", one is still likely to think about mundane matters such as pending problems, duties for the week ahead, or the happenings of the day.
Gradually, and often by an effort of will, you usually are able to put such matters into a deeper or broader perspective and to consider some of their fundamentals rather than incidentals. Or you may be able to leave these worldly concerns completely aside and move to think about some particular aspect of what one’s relationship to God or humans should be. This may be encouraged or guided, as we shall notice, by the words which some one in the meeting may feel moved to speak.
Finally, in the most productive worship, your thinking may move toward ways to apply that which has been under consideration, what your duties are in doing this, and how God is leading and supporting you in what should be done.
Much of the effectiveness of applying one’s thinking in the ways which I have just described depends on the mood of the individual and even of the group as a whole. There are times when we simply cannot rid our thinking of personal worries or momentary events and transcend them to thoughts on a more religious level. Friends recognize that on such occasions the results of a meeting for worship may not seem very valuable or satisfactory. Yet they feel that the effort to worship and even the quietness of meditation usually is beneficial, and that more often than realized at the moment a seemingly less-than-ideal period of worship may in the long run have given something of eventual value.
Why do people sometimes speak?
Even though Friends feel that silence is a basic help to worship, they believe that at times one can be "moved" by God to communicate something helpful to the other worshipers. In fact they become rather bothered if meeting after meeting goes by in total silence.
What one is moved to say may take many forms, drawing from prayers, from the Bible or other inspirational writings, from poems, from deep concerns of the day, from personal happenings, from current time marks such as New Year’s or Easter. Ideally, the speaking is brief, perhaps merely a few sentences. It is not a sermon, but merely a communicating of what one feels God-inspired to share with the others.
It is expected that after some one speaks there should again be silence for a few minutes, as the worshipers ponder the implications and applications of what has been said. This may lead to further speaking as the original concept is expanded or molded, but not to debating or argument. Some in the group may feel that a message has spoken to their condition"; others may not. Often worshipers discover that the words which are spoken express what they themselves have been thinking, or guide them to new and better directions.
But those who speak in Meeting for Worship supposedly do so because they feel they have to, not just because an intriguing thought has crossed their minds. And when some one speaks from that deep motivation it does not seem to break into the silence. Instead what is said tends to enhance the silent worship, making it more fruitful to all present.
How do You know when a Meeting for Worship ends?
After about an hour some designated Friend will shake hands with those next to him or her, and this is repeated by the others present. The clerk then welcomes visitors, who are encouraged to introduce themselves. Announcements are made of coming events of interest and of any personal occasions such as sickness or travel. Often the meeting for worship is followed by a brief fellowship period with refreshments.
Although a Meeting for Worship usually lasts for approximately one hour, that duration may vary at times. If some one has been moved to speak near the end of the hour, the time may be extended to allow every one to absorb what has been said. Conversely, if it seems that fruitful meditation has ended early, and if children (or even adults) begin to squirm in non-worshipful fashion, it may seem best to "break meeting" early. As in so many other matters among Friends, there are habits but no fixed rules.