Quakers and applause

A couple of years ago our meeting hired a new choir director, a recent college graduate who did his best with our oddly-assorted group of Quaker singers (3 sopranos, 4 altos, 1 tenor and 1 bass). He also agreed to sing a solo once a month to liven up our music at worship.

The first time he sang, at the end of the piece he bowed very slightly and then waited, expecting some kind of response from the meeting. Being traditional Quakers, they bowed their heads in silence, which led into the unprogrammed or open worship time we have every week.

The choir director came to me afterward and asked if there was something wrong with what he did – why didn’t anyone applaud or say something? He was clearly hurt and anxious about whether he was about to be fired. People had come up to him and thanked him after meeting, but for him, the lack of response in the moment was very discombobulating.

I tried to explain the difference between performance and worship, but he was still very upset. We talked it over at the next choir practice and at Ministry and Counsel, and several people said that they had always been puzzled about our not applauding. We decided that it would be all right if people wanted to clap for musical solos or for the choir – we already clap for announcements about birthdays or happy events like a wedding announcement or the return of someone who has recovered from a serious illness.

It made me reflect that there is some part of the Quaker ethos which makes us reluctant to thank or congratulate each other openly, to acknowledge achievements or mark the milestones in each others’ lives. In Quaker communities, there seems to be a feeling that applauding will make the applaudee feel stuck-up, or that we’re honoring the individual rather than honoring God.

I have come across several accounts of prayer in meetings in the 1700’s and early 1800’s. Allen Jay describes the scene: “The stillness was sometimes broken by vocal prayer, during which the congregation rose, pulled off their hats, and turned their backs to the one who was engaged in vocal prayer. We were also expected to bow our heads, and, when he was through, to sit down with as little noise as possible.” (Autobiography of Allen Jay, 2010 edition, pp. 8-9) As a Quaker pastor, I’m certainly glad we have given up that practice! I’m not sure I could handle that every week.

I’ve been in several Quaker gatherings where someone has started to applaud, only to be severely eldered along the lines of “Quakers don’t do that!” In some settings, particularly at FGC, Friends have created an alternative “silent applause” (waving hands at shoulder height) which has always seemed a little contrived and cute to me.

Over the years I’ve picked up a similar reluctance by Quakers to highlight peoples’ achievements or recognize milestones in their lives or careers, to thank leaders for their service, or even to thank them for their hard work. I doubt that most Friends could identify Luke 17:10, but we seem to have taken it into practice – “When you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless servants; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

Or there may be a sort of understated snobbery in our lack of response – “We knew you would do the right thing, because that’s the sort of people we are.”

We sometimes unbend so far as to ask for a minute of thanks to be added to the minutes of a meeting – usually it’s done at the last minute and is worded as briefly as possible. The only time we really cut loose with our appreciation is in the memorial minutes which are published in Friends Journal and Quaker Life, when a eulogy can go on for pages.

By contrast, when I’ve been a part of African-American congregations, they’ve bent over backwards to acknowledge and applaud the smallest achievements, the littlest steps forward. It’s as though they know how difficult life is, how many barriers people face, that it’s the church’s responsibility to shelter and encourage every flicker of light and faith. The same kind of atmosphere is often found in 12-step meetings, where every achievement gets applauded.

I understand the risks of adulation, and I’ve been in groups where leaders bask in appreciation and people who do the scut work go unthanked. Quakers have instinctively shied away from showing our appreciation in public – but I think we take it too far. A little spontaneous applause now and then doesn’t hurt, and we could learn from the culture of appreciation which African-American churches and 12-step groups have built.

Say amen, somebody?


7 Responses to “Quakers and applause”

  1. 1 David Shiner February 4, 2020 at 12:42 pm

    Very interesting and thought-provoking, Josh. I can well understand how the incident with the choir master would have led you to reconsider this practice. Still, the practice has always seemed rightly ordered to me. In my experience, unprogrammed meetings are rife with personal messages, ones that don’t seem to recognize that true vocal ministry comes from God. Thanking Friends for their messages, also a common practice, exacerbates the “ego” problem. Refraining from applause after sharing God’s gifts seems like one of the few tangible ways we can, and do, refrain from what amounts to exaltation of the individual, rather than the gift-giver. You rightly mention this concern in your post, but I believe it deserves more weight than you seem to.

  2. 2 Daniel Wilcox February 4, 2020 at 1:12 pm

    I think the key is what you already mentioned. The difference from living in the presence of God–spiritual communion versus a performance (similar to secular ones).
    Maybe one solution is to do special numbers, solos, etc. in the part of the service that does announcements.
    And avoid clapping during open communion?

    But it’s a tough area. Sometimes Quakers, especially more traditional ones are still too influenced by the quietist era in the 19th century.

  3. 3 KEITH Kendall February 4, 2020 at 1:50 pm

    Thanks, Josh, for sharing your interesting thoughts on a “Sticky Wicket”! I have often wished the group had not applauded when I thought the music or message was done in a spirit of worship, not a performance.

  4. 4 Tom Smith February 4, 2020 at 4:01 pm

    The on aspect that I am not sure has been addressed is the “refusal” i worship to allow someone else “put words in our mouths.”That was one of the early reasons for not repeating creeds or singing songs. There have been times in situations when I did not want to be drawn into an expression when the greatest response I could give was to “sink” deeper into the “mood” set by the “worshipful presentation.” However, I felt that to not “join in” could be misread by those around me as “disapproval” when in fact my personal feeling was strong approval of something that led me “deeper.”

  5. 5 Janette Carson February 4, 2020 at 5:02 pm

    Amen! (Applause)

  6. 6 Sarada Gray December 21, 2020 at 5:08 am

    Amen, OM and congratulations! Some very interesting thoughts here and I think I do recognise some of it in my Meeting. Not having been a Quaker very long, things can sometimes be very baffling

  1. 1 There’s a Block in my Blog – Sarada Gray Trackback on December 21, 2020 at 5:11 am

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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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