Quakers are world-famous for our love of quiet worship. Nearly every article or online source you’ll find refers to our long history of worshiping in silence.
I never read the articles and books before I became a Friend. I stumbled into Quaker worship when my college room mate invited me to visit Mt. Toby Friends Meeting. My first-year room mate was an inveterate explorer of different religious traditions – he was into every kind of spirituality and mystical experience he could find. He’d been to an unprogrammed meeting the week before and asked me to come and keep him company.
For me, Quaker meeting was like coming home to a place I’d never known was home before. I fit effortlessly into the silence, as though I was putting on a well-worn, comfortable shoe. I was surprised when the hour was over and everyone started shaking hands.
When I started looking through the books in the meeting library, I found this quotation from Robert Barclay:
“. . .when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people I felt a secret power among them which touched my heart. . .” (Apology, XI, Section 7)
For almost 10 years I attended and was a member of unprogrammed Friends meetings. I went to Earlham School of Religion for 3 years because I had questions I wanted answered, books I wanted to read, and skills I wanted to learn.
But like most unprogrammed Friends, I had no idea that there was another branch of the Quaker family – or that those “other” Friends actually made up the majority of the Quaker world.
I wound up being a Quaker pastor – something I never imagined doing – more because of my love for visiting and helping people than because I wanted to preach. I also felt that most unprogrammed meetings neglect the rich tradition of Scripture, do a pretty poor job of sharing their story, and tend not to have very good educational programming.
I also found out that not everyone likes extended periods of quiet worship. I still find that surprising – quiet prayer feeds my heart so deeply, and I find the sheer noise of most contemporary Protestant worship almost unhinging. But not everyone is built that way.
This week, a friend sent me an article about an experiment that many people would literally rather give themselves electric shocks than sit in silence. (NOTE: the point of the study is actually that many men would rather jolt themselves than sit quietly – women apparently have more tolerance for silence.)
West Richmond Friends, the meeting where I work and worship, is a “crossroads” meeting – we have folks from both the programmed and unprogrammed branches of the Quaker family, as well as refugees from other traditions and people with no previous religious background. We usually have 2 or 3 hymns, a children’s message, a Scripture reading, a very short sermon, and 15-25 minutes of quiet, called “open worship” in our meeting.
In an effort to keep everyone satisfied, we also have a full hour of unprogrammed worship several times a year (usually on the last Sunday of any month when there are 5 Sundays).
It’s clear that some people in our meeting deal with silence more easily than others. Even on a “normal” Sunday, some Friends start to squirm and wiggle after only 5 minutes of quiet, and looks of glazed-eye, near-death boredom set in after 10 or 15 minutes (I’m usually on the facing bench and can observe these things). Other people in the meeting tell me they’re “just starting to settle in” after 20 minutes, and complain if anything cuts into or shortens the “open worship” time.
In my 30+ years of work as a Quaker pastor, the most consistent and persistent issue which comes up in committees, evaluations, and surveys is this tension between Friends who love and value the silence, and Friends who are completely satisfied with 50%-90% less quiet time. (At West Richmond, our attendance typically drops about 40% on completely unprogrammed Sundays.)
This isn’t just an issue for programmed and semi-programmed meetings. When I worked in New York Yearly Meeting, and a Friend there once told me that he had attended his unprogrammed meeting faithfully for more than 40 years without having any kind of “spiritual experience” like the ones his fellow worshipers described. He told me that he came to Friends, and stayed with Friends, because he deeply appreciated Quakers’ stance on various social and political issues, which gave him an outlet for the kind of witness and action which was the center of his life.
I don’t know how to deal with this difference. Whatever winds your watch, I guess. Whatever floats your boat. For me, silent prayer is great, and I can never get enough of it. (When I go on retreat, I often spend several days with the Trappist monks, who have been practicing silent prayer for the last 1,000 years or so.)
Other Quakers (not all of them programmed Friends) seem to have a much lower appetite for silence. An earlier generation called them “fast Friends” because they were ready to end the quiet time much more quickly. I don’t think they’re wrong, or unspiritual. I don’t think it’s a matter of education, or acclimatization, or appreciation for silence. These Friends are equally wonderful, love God, and are devoted to serving their fellow human beings. They’re not “second class Quakers” in any sense.
A large part of my ministry has been spent building bridges between Friends who want more quiet worship, and Friends who are happy with much less. I feel at home and at ease in both groups, and I’m sensitive to the different theologies which each group tends to hold dear, which flow from their different ways of worship.
I’m still convinced that we belong to each other as Friends, that it’s not just our name and our common roots which keep us together. I wish we could stop hacking at each other, denying each other, and anathematizing each other, and simply realize that not everyone is the same – but that God calls us together, even though we’re different.
What do you think?