Part I. Living Our Faith

3. Meetings for Worship

Meeting for Worship is the heart and the core of Quakerism. Monthly Meetings within Baltimore Yearly Meeting practice unprogrammed worship. Our worship is based

Friends approach the Meeting for Worship with faith that God speaks to us directly, revealing Divine Will. God’s message may come in the silence or in spoken words. The Divine manifests itself to individuals in different ways. In order to be in touch with the consciousness of the presence of God in worship, the individual brings the discipline and experience of seeking the Light through such practices as daily meditation and prayer, as well as study of the Bible and other spiritually inspired writings. Each individual’s contribution of centering, presence, and relationship with the Divine joins with that of others to create corporate worship. In Quaker Meeting for Worship, there is this integration of the spirituality of the individual with that of the corporate. Thus, the spirit of God embraces and envelops the corporate body in the Meeting for Worship. On occasions when a complete unity of integration occurs, the phenomenon is called a “gathered meeting.” The experience of a gathered Meeting is always dynamic.

While prayer is central to the experience of many Friends in Meeting for Worship, each Friend brings to the gathering a unique understanding of what that means. In many a silent Meeting you might hear a request to hold an individual, a group, or a situation “in the Light,” whether in a time of trouble or a time for celebration. As for prayer, each Friend has a personal understanding of the meaning of that phrase.

Simply drawing the worshipful attention of all who are gathered in that Meeting for Worship to a single individual or a single situation can be a powerful motion. Attention is the first requirement of Love; attention is the prerequisite for deep listening. Among many others, Douglas Steere eloquently addressed this:

For when we hold up the life of another before God, when we expose it to God’s love, when we pray for the quickening of its inner health, for the power to throw off a destructive habit, for the restoration of its relationship with others, for its strength to resist temptation, for its courage to continue against sharp opposition - only then do we sense what it means to share in God’s work, in His concern, only then do the walls which separate us go down and we sense that we are at bottom all knit together in a great and intimate family (The Inner Springs of Prayer).

Friends in the several branches have varying forms of worship, and unprogrammed Meetings also have elements of accepted practice. Friends try to avoid the dependence on ritual and outward sacraments in order to prevent stultification. The simplicity of Friends’ worship results from an emphasis on the reality of the inward experience. Direct communion with God, the experience of the Spirit, is the core of Quaker spirituality and worship.

Vocal Ministry

Quaker faith and practice is based upon the experiential understanding that both individuals and the meeting community can experience direct relationship and communication with God. In the unprogrammed Quaker tradition, as practiced by Baltimore Yearly Meeting, there are no professional clergy or other persons designated to speak during the Meeting for Worship. Rather, all are understood to commune directly with God and share in what the Bible refers to as “the priesthood of all believers.”

Friends gather for Meeting for Worship to wait together in openness to discern and experience the movement and voice of the Spirit within their midst. The felt leading to give an oral message during the otherwise silent Meeting for Worship is known as vocal ministry. Vocal ministry demonstrates our Quaker understanding, experience, and conviction that the Spirit not only speaks to all, and that all may choose to hear the Spirit speak to them within their heart, but that the Spirit may or may not also choose to speak through one or more persons attending the Meeting for Worship.

Vocal ministry is not based on a desire or inclination to speak, but on the persistent sense that one is being compelled to rise and allow the Spirit to use their heart and mind to speak aloud. Vocal ministry, then, is not a person’s own thoughts and words, but those of the Spirit giving itself a voice through the speaker. For this reason no Friend should come to Meeting for Worship with either the intention to speak or not to speak.

Sometimes a message is not ripe yet, or comes clearly but is meant only for the person receiving it, not for the group. If you have to decide whether it is right to speak, consider that it isn’t. If your words are important the Meeting will find them anyway.

Receive vocal ministry of others in a tender spirit. Reach for the deep meaning within the message, recognizing that even if it is not God’s word for you, it may be for others.

Some Friends are led to speak frequently, and others only rarely; yet the timid or brief message of one who seldom speaks may be as moving and helpful as that of a more practiced speaker. The most satisfactory vocal ministry arises out of a leading that is felt in the silence so strongly that it cannot be ignored. It should be delivered with as few words as possible, yet as many as necessary. Vocal prayer offered on behalf of the gathered meeting can also bring us into closer harmony with God. Even if not a word is spoken, the Meeting for Worship can be profoundly nurturing.

Meeting for Business

[Meeting for business is] about looking for Truth as a body, rather than about our individual senses of truth. We need to enter worshipfully into our meetings for business. We need to wrestle with the issues, to share our glimpses of the Truth as we see it, and then we need to let go and listen deeply until all those glimpses give us a sense of the Truth as a whole. This takes time, patience, and surrender.

Michael Wajda, Expectant Listening: Finding God’s Thread of Guidance, p. 22>

Meeting for Business, sometimes called a Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business, is central to the practice of Friends in discerning God’s will for the Meeting.

A Meeting for Business that is well grounded in worship will feel very different from the type of secular process in which individuals are arguing in order to ensure their view prevails. Friends approach decisions in Meeting for Business in a spirit of searching and listening rather than a determination to be heard as an individual voice. In each decision, we are seeking to discern the will of God for us as a community. This causes us to listen to each other as we do in Meeting for Worship, knowing that each of us may be given some of the light that will help us see our way forward. We further believe that as Truth emerges we will have substantial unity in recognizing it, for Truth is undivided and that of God within each person responds to its presence.

Meetings for Business are held in a spirit of worship. When needed, the Meeting should always be able to return to silent worship in order to release distractions and open more fully to divine direction. This does not mean that Business Meetings must be overly solemn or devoid of humor. It also does not mean that every item that comes up for review is addressed in the same way. While some business that comes before the Meeting may require prayerful searching, there are also times in the Business Meeting where the task is simply to hear a report lovingly and attentively. It is well to remember that we are called to be faithful in small, routine things as well as large ones. Regardless of the perceived importance of each business item, we strive to remain open to the leadings of the Spirit and to experience its gifts of trust, humility, compassion, and courage.

Both speaking and listening should be marked by respect for others, with speakers saying only what they know to be worth others’ hearing, and with listeners seeking the Light as it is revealed through others. An openness of spirit is crucial, especially when differing views are being expressed. The Clerk should make sure that all points of view are clearly stated so that the Meeting may have all it needs to arrive at a right decision. Words and spirit should be offered in loving helpfulness as we seek the right way together, not as a position dogmatically asserted and adamantly held. Although an individual Friend has the designated role of Clerk, each of us shares the responsibility for maintaining a Spirit-led gathering, for the wise use of time, and for a steadfast search for truth.

Major items of business to be submitted to the Meeting should be prepared as carefully as possible by a Meeting committee or by preparatory work on the part of the Clerk so that pertinent facts and records of previous Meeting actions will be available to facilitate the discussion. Members not involved in the preparatory work should trust and value the work of preparation. Care should be taken to avoid reworking business brought to the Meeting in a way that belittles the work already done.

Unity and Sense of the Meeting

When the Clerk senses that there is general unity in the Meeting on a matter that requires a decision, the Clerk states what appears to be the Sense of the Meeting. The Sense of the Meeting may be defined as a collective understanding of God’s will emerging from a Meeting for Worship With a Concern for Business, gathered and explained by the Clerk for the approval of the Meeting. If the members approve, a minute expressing the Sense of the Meeting is immediately written. Especially in matters that are particularly important or complex, it is best for the Meeting to compose, and request approval of, a minute before passing to other business.

Unity is not synonymous with consensus. Consensus is a widely used and valuable secular process characterized by a search for general agreement largely through rational discussion and compromise. The Quaker Meeting for Business depends on a religious process characterized by listening for and trusting in God. Both unity and consensus result in a course of action agreed to by all of the participants, but the Sense of the Meeting relies consciously on the Spirit.

Those who are not present at a particular Meeting do not have the opportunity to sense the gentle movements of the Spirit, nor to have their own opinions softened by the love within the gathered body. We must trust that those who were present rightly sensed God’s will and that the minutes written in the moment accurately reflect that sense.

When Friends are not in Unity

Friends often find themselves most challenged when matters before them call forth strongly held but incompatible responses. Members should exercise forbearance in discussion and should seek divine guidance, realizing that Truth will often transcend the understanding of any single individual. When the judgment of the Meeting tends away from a member’s view, that Friend should consider whether to stand aside or, by standing in the way, to prevent the unity required for the Meeting’s action.

When the Meeting cannot unite upon a minute, no action is taken on the matter, which may be postponed for further consideration. Any previous action or policy of the Meeting in the same area stands in the absence of a specific Meeting decision to change it. Friends are reminded that failure to act is also a form of judgment and are urged to consider seriously whether they are led to stand opposed to a view that has clearly received the assent of most Friends in the Meeting.

At the same time Friends are mindful of the many occasions when the leading of one or a few people has proven to be the way of Truth. When action cannot proceed because of a lack of unity, the Meeting may find it useful to appoint a special committee to labor with all concerned for a resolution of the impasse. None should remain silent in the belief that the conclusion is foregone, or that an insight apparently counter to that of the body of the Meeting will be divisive.

Friends who feel they cannot agree with what they perceive to be the weight of the Meeting are advised not to yield to the temptation to absent themselves from the Meeting for Business in order to spare both themselves and the Meeting. Such an absence implies a lack of faith in the Meeting’s access to divine guidance and its ability to find unity. Seasoned Friends who have labored with others to come to unity may “stand in the way” of a decision and prevent further action. A Friend who has genuine reservations but does not feel called to stand in the way may instead stand aside and allow the Meeting to move forward.

The search for the course of action that will help the Meeting find unity —or the resolution of the problems caused by disunity itself—rests with the entire community.

Questions for a Meeting in Conflict

When disagreement on an issue threatens to divide a Meeting, it may be helpful for the Meeting and each Friend to consider the following questions:

  • Have all Friends taken care to fully examine, in a loving and prayerful spirit, the perspective of those with whom they disagree?
  • Have all Friends truly tried to leave behind their personal desires so they can be led by the Spirit?
  • Do Friends recognize the spiritual values that underlie members’ perspectives?
  • Have Friends considered whether God’s will for them as individuals may differ from God’s will for the Meeting?
  • Do those in conflict regularly reaffirm, in voice and attitude, the love they feel for one another?

Moving Forward in Unity

In situations in which Friends’ insights and values lead them in different directions, Friends have found helpful several ways of moving forward in unity:

  • The Meeting may move to a deeper spiritual searching and sharing, often entering into periods of silent worship.
  • The Meeting may wait or proceed with other business while a small representative ad hoc committee withdraws, in the hope that they can bring forward a minute or course of action that will lead to unity.
  • The Meeting may reschedule the matter for another time, encouraging members to continue their search for the right action in the interim, whether in solitary prayer and meditation or in small informal groups.
  • Friends may feel led to withdraw their objections, being unwilling to stand in the way of the Meeting. Those Friends may feel released from the burden of their concern, having laid it on the conscience of the Meeting. Or they may stand aside while maintaining their objections, asking that their names and the grounds of their objections be minuted.
  • Friends who stand aside are affirming their continuing spiritual unity with the Meeting. As others proceed with the action on which they feel fully clear, they are required to keep the concerns expressed firmly in mind.

Each of these avenues expresses trust in divine guidance and a commitment to remaining in unity in the Spirit.

Memorial Meetings

Memorial Meetings offer an opportunity for both consolation and celebration. In the Meeting, the community can hold those who are most affected by the death in the Light, share their grief, and help them feel the loving presence of the Spirit upholding them in their loss. The Meeting is also a time to hold, appreciate, and celebrate the life of a unique human being. The deep worship and sharing that are possible support friends and family, affirm community bonds, and cherish the gift of the deceased person’s life among us.

Memorial Meetings are conducted as Meetings for Worship. It is helpful to appoint a Friend to explain Friends’ worship and what will occur during the Meeting soon after people have assembled. While Memorial Meetings have traditional elements discussed below, it is entirely appropriate and acceptable for family members to add elements to the Meeting that are meaningful to them, such as a particular poem or song.

Monthly Meetings may designate one or more persons who knew and cared about the individual to write a memorial minute. Their purpose is to appreciate and communicate the essence of the person. They are written in tenderness and may be enlivened by specific memories, sayings, talents, or stories that illuminate the life. Such minutes may be cherished by family members and become part of the Meeting’s archives. When the individual is active in Quarterly or in Baltimore Yearly Meeting, the minute may be forwarded to these Meetings as well.

The Memorial Minute is usually read aloud early in the Meeting. The majority of the remaining time is usually allotted to a Meeting for Worship, during which individuals rise as they feel moved to share messages.

For this and other called Meetings for Worship it may be helpful to consider the checklist of possible concerns included in the Appendix: “Called Meetings: Practical Considerations.”

Meetings for Marriage

Similar to a Memorial Meeting, a Quaker wedding is a called Meeting for Worship where Friends gather in silence to celebrate the love of God and the love of the community that surrounds and supports the couple. As in other Meetings for Worship, a wedding includes an opportunity for Spirit-led vocal ministry arising from the silence; deep listening to the Spirit that lies behind each message; and worshipful contemplation of divine guidance in each of our lives.

The section on Marriage and Divorce in Part III contains details regarding marriage in the manner of Friends, the role of the Clearness Committee, suggestions regarding the ceremony, the responsibilities of the Marriage Committee, and reflections on what it means to take a marriage under the care of the Meeting. Queries for the couple and for the Meeting are also suggested in that section.

Threshing Sessions

It is the practice of Friends when faced with issues that are difficult, complex and controversial to call a Meeting for Worship to address the particular concern. A threshing session with a focus on a single concern may be called to share factual information, ask questions, and provide an opportunity to express all the individual differences. It is good practice to state the concern in the form of a small number of queries.

Threshing sessions derive their name from the assumption that through them the chaff might be separated from the grain of truth, clearing the way for later action on the issue. No decision is to be made at Threshing Meetings. The goal is to progress towards greater agreement through repeated self-examination, listening to how the Spirit is leading others, and waiting upon the Light.

Those planning the Meeting should make an effort to ensure that Friends of all shades of opinion can attend; to the extent that Friends who hold a given view are absent, the usefulness of such a meeting will be impaired. The Clerk or moderator of a threshing session is responsible for ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to speak, drawing out the reticent and limiting contributions from too-ready talkers. The Clerk should urge people not to hold back from sharing whatever troubles them about the matter at hand.

Throughout the meeting, Friends should remain mindful of the need to hear and trust each other in a spirit of community and of the shared desire of meeting members to be led to right action. Although the threshing session is not a Meeting for Business and cannot decide what action will be taken, it may forward a recommendation to the Meeting for Business. A recorder should be appointed to take notes for future reference.

Other Called Meetings

Monthly Meetings may respond to many different situations with Meetings for Worship, vigils, or worship sharing. It is well for Meetings to consider in advance how they would reach members rapidly in the event of tragedy or loss, disasters, or stress within the community. At such times, drawing together in community to listen and share deeply can renew the Meeting’s strength and enable it to receive spiritual guidance.

August 2011

This text has yet to be approved by Baltimore Yearly Meeting. Your comments to the Faith and Practice Revision Committee would be appreciated.