Dealing with silence

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?


5 Responses to “Dealing with silence”

  1. 1 Mic & Sandy Jackson July 4, 2014 at 11:12 am

    Thanks for this note, Josh. As a Christian who has worshipped with those of many different denominations, I eventually settled on Quakers because, as you said, “I find the sheer noise of most contemporary Protestant worship almost unhinging.” It is only in the quiet times that I have any chance of worship and communion. I realize that most do not share my perspective. Mic

  2. 2 Howard July 4, 2014 at 2:46 pm

    I’d be interested in an article by you, Joshua, on how we might bridge our worship style differences in order to have communion together. Your experiences would be helpful.

    Especially, between liberal Friends (which I am a part of) and Evangelical Friends, this has been difficult. Most liberal Friends can not seem to tolerate any type of sermon, and most Evangelical Friends seem to not tolerate any amount of silent worship. We have two liberal Quaker meetings in my area and one Evangelical Friends church. It has been difficult to bring the two branches together – for those of us who have tried. I’ve wondered if the divide is just too wide to bridge.

    Your experience at West Richmond likely mirrors what I’ve been told by others: The “old-timey” Quaker worship style practiced by Conservative and liberal Friends is just too difficult of a spiritual path for the majority of people. Yet, if it weren’t for this worship style, many people would have no where satisfying to worship. So, I don’t know what the answer is.

    Thanks for bringing this dilemma to light.

  3. 3 Colin South July 4, 2014 at 2:54 pm

    Thanks is interesting. Kathy and I worshipped at First Freinds and West Richmond occasionally for almost three years. As Birtish Friends,although Kathy is American, we fitted in well, we felt. We enjoyed the semi programmed worship. In my childhood I was brought up a Methodist and Kathy an American Presbyterian, so hymn singing was welcome and a genuine expression of worship for us both. We even sang in the choir and great fun it was too. On the other hand, we never really experienced the slient meeting that we had come to love and depend upon in the UK. The short period of shared ministry or quiet worship after the address was no substitute and more like an extermporaneous prayer meeting than a quiet acceptance of the healing presence of Love and Compassion among us. That healing presence of Love and Compassion in extended (three quarters of an hour or more) worship in stillness (not silence necessarily) often brings ministry. Ministry in the slience strangely enough can be ministry to each other in the silence just by upholding and cherishing each other or can bring vocal ministry as you arre brought to your feet to voice what is laid on your heart out of the slience…and this grave respoinsibility to articulate what God would have you share in your time together is what is meant by sacred and by communion and epiphany and crucifixion and salvation and Love. It is always a strange and unique experience for me, just being in a sitll meeting..sometimes wishing I was elsewhere but realising that the disicpline of wiating expectanlty leads you towards spiritual growth and discernment given time and patience.. So can you weigh one experience of formal worship against another of quiet worship and meditation…not at all. They are very different for me but both have a richness and a diversity which I cherish. I am British Friend and very much at home here but relish the occasioin of formal worship when given the opportunity.

  4. 4 Palma Richardson July 5, 2014 at 9:34 am

    Thanks Josh for your sharings on all things Quaker. I too am comfortable in both genres. I welcome anything less than a full cacophony of sound for my hour of worship and sometimes less is more.

  5. 5 Dorothy Grannell July 5, 2014 at 1:04 pm

    I saw the same research done with college students and it came as a shock to me – because even though I was raised in a religious tradition that did not seek silence or meditation, I have always hungered for it and have enjoyed quite time with my thoughts.

    One of the exciting things that came from the FWCC World Conference and the two consultations held in Bolivia and El Salvador this year was the hunger to learn about silent worship among evangelical programmed Friends and their unwillingness to close worship when experiencing the silence. I agree that we have much to learn from each other in all of our Quaker branches and most of all we must learn to listen to each other and to love each other.

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All of the posts on this blog are my own personal opinion. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the members and attenders of the meeting where I belong or any organization of Friends. For more information, click on the "About Me" tab above.



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