“In worship, we enter with reverence into communion with
God, surrendering our whole being to Him and to His purpose.
Worship becomes sacramental as we receive the spirit of the
living Christ in our midst, and offer ourselves to His service.
Come with heart and mind prepared. Pray silently as you gather
together that you may all be drawn into the spirit of adoration
and communion in which fellowship with one another becomes real.
Yield yourselves and all your outward concerns to God’s guidance,
that you may find the evil weakening in you and the good raised
(From the Quaker Advices)
The basis for Friends’ worship is silence. Whether you attend
a Meeting for Worship (which is how Quakers speak of their weekly
Meeting not as a service), a wedding, or a memorial service the
worship is rooted in silence. This may be a baffling, intriguing
or disconcerting experience for people not used to Friends’ worship.
I remember the bewilderment of some of my pupils once when they
discovered that people really chose to sit in silence for an hour.
(And, it must be added, their disbelief that I was capable of
actually doing so!) I also recall the very loud whisper of a lady
to her neighbour attending her first Meeting for Worship held
once in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, “When does it
start?” A Friend had explained what happened at a Quaker Meeting
prior to worship beginning but this lady could not believe that
after ten minutes we were still in silence.
I remember finding my first Meeting a very strange experience
indeed. I spent the entire hour concentrating on a persistent
runny nose and a rumbling tummy (the latter making me wish that
I had foregone the pleasure of a Sunday ‘lie-in’ in favour of
breakfast!) My experience of silence as a child had not been conducive
to appreciating silent worship. When my sister and I had been
sparring we were often made to sit opposite each other for what
seemed like an interminable length of time. As a regular worshipper
at Anglican Eucharist services I missed the hymn singing, having
a priest to focus my eyes on during the service, the movement
of standing up and sitting down, the sermon, the communion — the
whole variety of the service.
Some people on the other hand, speak of ‘coming home’ when they
attend their first Meeting for Worship and feeling instantly at
home in the silence. We are, of course, all different and our
experiences are not all the same. What I write here, therefore,
is my personal account. I do not claim to speak for all Friends
or those who worship with them. As Gerald Priestland writes at
the beginning of his booklet Coming Home:
“Since Quakers have no test of faith, or Creed, each of
us can only speak for himself. No one person speaks for the
Society, we have no Pope, no Archbishop, no President or Moderator”.
Also, Quakers have always held to the fact that we must — and
can — only speak from our first-hand experience. In the words
of George Fox, the founder of Quakerism,
“You will say, Christ saith this and the apostles say this,
but what canst thou say?”
The room used for Meeting for Worship could be in a Meeting House
(Quakers call their buildings this, reserving the word ‘church’
for the people), someone’s home or a hired room such as in a Y.M.C.A.
building. Wherever it is, it will be plain and lacking in any
of the things that you might expect to find in a church building.
There is, for example, no font or altar because Quakers have no
sacraments. There are no statues, crosses or any symbols.
In the centre of the room there is usually a table on which will
be found some flowers and a Bible, also two Quaker books: one
entitled Church Government and the other Christian faith and practice
in the experience of the Society of Friends. The chairs or benches
will be arranged in a circle or square. This arrangement emphasizes
that all who come to Meetings are responsible for the worship
be they a Friend, an Attender (that is someone who has been attending
Meetings for some time but who has not applied for membership)
and a person who is coming for the first time.
The Meeting for Worship begins as soon as the first person has
sat down in silence. The first part of Meeting is concerned with
‘centring down’. Someone has likened this to the peeling off the
layers of an onion — each layer representing wordly concerns and
worries. (Did I leave the oven on too high? Did I remember to
post that letter? I forgot to leave a note for . . .). Sometimes
people may find it difficult to shed their outer concerns and
to centre their whole being on worshipping God. Some may be able
to ‘centre down’ to read a Bible passage, think of one or two
of the Quaker Advices and Queries or focus on a saying of Jesus.
Many people find their posture and the position of their hands
can help them to achieve internal stillness. I find I am less
easily distracted if I fold my hands in my lap. Eventually each
worshipper comes down to the centre of their being and is able
to meet with each other at a deep level — and with God. When this
happens, Quakers speak of the Meeting being ‘gathered’.
Quaker worship, as I mentioned above, is based in silence. However,
Meeting for Worship is seldom totally silent. It is likely that
there will be three or four (though this number could be smaller
or greater) spoken contributions (called ministry). This ministry
could take the form of a reading from the Bible or the two Quaker
books mentioned above as being found on the central table. It
could be vocal prayer or a sharing of experience. Sometimes ministry
is a line or verse from a hymn (though it is quite rare for someone
to minister in song). Quaker Advices and Queries are often read
(though only one or two at a time!) and the Elders who look after
the spiritual nature of the Meeting for Worship will see this
is done through a certain interval of time.
Anyone, whether Friend, Attender or visitor may minister in Meeting.
The criteria is that the person ministering must feel led by the
Spirit to do so. The ministry must come out of the silent worship.
How does one know that one is led to minister? This must be a
personal decision for each individual. However, many people feel
as if they are being forced on their feet (people usually stand
to minister). Often individuals try to stay seated, wishing not
to minister, but if one truly feels led then one must remain faithful
to the Spirit.
“If the call to speak comes, do not let the sense of your
own unworthiness, or the fear of being unable to find the right
words, prevent you from being obedient to the leading of the
Spirit. Ask wisdom of God that you may be sure of your guidance
and be enabled humbly to discern and impart something of His
glory and truth. Pray that your ministry may rise from the place
of deep experience, and that you may be restrained from unnecessary
and superficial words”.
(From the Quaker Advices)
The hesitancy that many will feel when being asked to minister
often comes through in the nervousness with which the words are
sometimes uttered. The early nicknames ‘Quakers’ may have been
given to Friends from the fact that they ‘quaked’ when they stood
to minister. Sometimes, the ministry one is led to give reveals
something about oneself that one would rather keep hidden, even
from one’s Friends. It may be that the size of the Meeting or
simply that there may be many people one does not know may be
daunting — as was my feeling at a wedding where I was led to minister.
It is the experience of Friends that the ministry given in Meeting
will often guide one, maybe in the sense of answering a difficulty
one is offering up. The ministry, as Friends will say, often ‘speaks
to me’. I remember once taking a friend to her first Meeting.
After worship she took me on one side and said a particular Friend
had ministered for her almost implying that I had spoken beforehand
to that Friend about her circumstances (which I had not done).
It would be amazing, unbelievable were not this worship and was
not God in our midst.
It may be that sometimes Meetings are not ‘gathered’. It also
has to be admitted that on occasions Friends may feel that some
ministry has been given that is not in response to a leading of
the Spirit. It may seem that someone has stood to utter words
or to quote something they had intended to say before the Meeting
commenced. On these occasions the ministry may seem not to spring
from the silence but rather to jar with it. At such times part
of our Advices on worship remind us to:
“Receive the ministry of others in a tender and understanding
spirit and avoid hurtful criticism. As servants of the same
Lord, with diversities of gifts, receive and give faithfully
in the service of truth, remembering that ministry which to
one may seem to have little value, to another may be a direct
word from God”.
Some ministry will never be spoken. The individual has to decide
whether they have ben given a personal message or one they are
being asked to share vocally.
“It would ... be a great mistake were it to be assumed
that only in the spoken word is God’s message given to the worshipper.
In the silence the faithful listener may catch the accents of
a Voice within and become vividly aware of a demand which has
absolute authority, a demand to which ‘one’ must be obedient
or betray something deep within ‘oneself’ which has, for ‘one’,
become the voice of God Himself”
Edgar G. Dunstan (1956) p235 Christian Faith
All ministry, whether silent or spoken, becomes a part of the
worship and, in a way that is difficult to describe, is shared.
Quakers do not have any form of Communion in the sharing of bread
and wine. To Friends all of life is sacramental, and this is why
there are no sacraments in Quaker worship. The sharing of every
meal has a sacramental quality for Friends. Here is a description
of the communion friends experience in worship:
“In silence, without rite or symbol, we have known the
Spirit of Christ so convincingly present in our quiet meetings
that His grace dispels our unfaithfulness, our unwillingness,
our fears and sets our hearts aflame with the joy of adoration.
We have thus felt the power of the Spirit renewing and recreating
our love and friendship for all our fellows. This is our Eucharist
and our Communion”
Yearly Meeting 1928 241 Christian Faith & Practice
Meeting for Worship is above all corporate worship. It is not
about us as individuals praying or reading — it is about us coming
together to worship God.
“People who have entered the room as individuals sooner
or later become aware that they are encountering others present
at a level deeper than normal conscious communication. While
they remain fully themselves they also become, in a real sense,
one group, a communion of people bonded together in spirit”
George Gorman Pl0 The Amazing Fact of Quaker
Meeting for Worship lasts about an hour. The end of the Meeting
is signalled by two Elders shaking hands. In many Meetings everyone
present will then shake hands with their neighbours. There will
usually be a time of notices and sharing news — and in many Meetings
a cup of coffee.
Children, in general, come in to Meeting for fifteen minutes,
either at the beginning or at the end. Which part of Meeting they
should come in to is a perennial question amongst Friends. The
last fifteen minutes of Meeting enables them to come in to a gathered
Meeting and to experience worship on a deep level. However, the
practicalities of getting all the children in children’s classes,
especially where there are a lot of children, generally mean that
the children are present at the first part of Meeting.
Meeting for Worship is very important, nay central, in the lives
of Friends and individual Quakers will go to great pains not to
avoid missing the hour of worship on Sunday.
The best way to see what Meeting for Worship is like is to go
to one. It would be preferable to try to go to at least two Meetings
for Worship rather than just one so as to get a truer ‘feel’ of
the worship. I think it may also be helpful to attend a smaller
Meeting and perhaps, if possible, to try to visit two Meetings.
People from other Christian denominations and other religious
traditions — and no religious traditions — are welcome to come
once or as often as they want. We do not claim that it is the
only way to worship but it is the way in which we find God’s presence
made real to us and we are delighted when others want to share
Finally, I want to share some thoughts about how possible it
is to let children/young people in school learn about Friends
worship. Schools can, of course, visit Meeting Houses and children
can see for themselves what there isn’t inside and what the lack
of ‘furniture’ tells one about the type of worship found there.
I have found that on occasions children may fall naturally quiet
in a room used for Quaker worship — more, I suspect, out of surprise
than anything (though they may be outraged at finding children’s
swings in the Meeting House garden cum burial ground!) I commend
to readers Lynne Schofield’s article in the British Journal of
Religious Education on using silence with a class. I too have
tried this — like her not particularly as a planned activity.
It was after watching 3Z rampaging across the adjourning garage
forecourt before coming to me for the last lesson of the day.
I was particularly aware of my frailty as a human being. When
two members of the group arrived on the verge of a fight precipitated
further by one lad making what could be seen as a severely blasphemous
remark about a wall display of ‘Images of Jesus’, I decided in
desperation to try five-ten minutes of silence. We re-arranged
the chairs in a circle and I explained that we would sit in silence
and listen. The group readily acquiesced. What I hoped, to be
honest, would at least be a breathing space for me to regain my
self-control before the lesson proper, turned out to be a deep
experience for the group. We shared our feelings afterwards and
those who wanted spoke of what they had heard. Everyone regarded
what we had done as ‘a game’ — and it was often requested after
that lesson. The members of the group were unused to silence and
it was a novel experience to them. It has to be said that as it
involved no reading or writing it was, to some extent, regarded
as not being ‘work’. Being asked to clear your mind of everything
could even be seen as a ‘skive’. “What if I drop off to sleep?”
asked the lad whose remark had occasioned some anger on entering
the room. “Then go to sleep” as my answer was perhaps unexpected.
It was not, I have admitted, a planned activity. I. would not
call it worship. But it did provide the healing power which Friends
— and others — find in silence.
The Religious Society of Friends of London Yearly meeting are
using a document entitled Questions and Counsel as a possible
replacement for Advices and Queries. This came out in January
1988 and will be used for a trial period of two to three years.
- Christian Faith and Practice in the experience of the Society
of Friends, London Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of
- Church Government, London yearly Meeting of the Religious
Society of Friends, 1968. (The “Advices and Queries” can be
found in here or they can be obtained in a separate booklet.
Questions and Counsels is a booklet).
- The Amazing Fact of Quaker Worship, George H. Gorman, QHS
1973, ISBN 0 85245 100 8.
- Coming Home, Gerald Priestland, OHS 1981, ISBN 0 85245 167
- Can we do that candle thing again? pp 84—86, Lynne Schofield,
BJRE, Spring 1983.
Mpst of these books and others and leaflets on various aspects
of Quakerism can be obtained from: The Bookshop, Friends House,
Euston Road, London NW1 2BJ.