The Final Word?

I got into an interesting discussion today with a gentleman after our meeting for worship about unprogrammed Quakers. He said he had heard “Silent” worship described by someone (a non-Quaker) as similar to a séance and wondered if the practice really is non-Christian. I think it’s a fair question. With so many interpretations of what the word “Quaker” means, and what authentic Quaker worship looks like, it seems like a question that needs to be taken seriously. My reply to him was that there are a few misunderstandings taking place. One is that it was never meant to be “silent” worship. While it is based in the practice of silence it’s never meant to remain there. The point is rooted in the belief that God can and does speak to everyone (in a variety of ways of course) and desires that the whole body of believers truly have a voice. That we are to be listening, waiting for God to speak to anyone present is to keep the meeting moving forward. If an entire meeting was silent that should give great cause for concern. Is God no longer speaking? Has God run out of things to teach his people? And with early Friends there was a strong emphasis on ministers (not paid clergy), people who were known to be led to minister and teach the Scriptures. So you could expect there to be different levels of participation from the entire community.

But as history shows, if the community isn’t rooted in discipleship, the study of Scripture and the apprenticing of leaders it can move from a participatory practice to a passive one, from an “open” worship to a silent one. The man then asked me if that meant there were deep rifts in the Quaker church around this issue. My response was simply, yes. I briefly explained how the pastoral system got its start (partly due to a concern for some of the issues in the above chapter, but more as a result of revivalism) and how while there are rifts there are a lot of people trying to heal the wounds between parties. One way to heal those rifts is to try and have each group learn a little from the other. One of the things that pastoral (or programmed) Quakers can and should learn from the unprogrammed meetings is that God should always be allow to have the final word in the group, not the pastor. Or put another way, the pastor’s word is not to be taken as God’s final word on any given topic, but rather weighed in the balance of an entire community of discernment.  This of course can play out in a myriad of ways but the basic frame is by making sure that there is more than one voice allowed in the service, more than one idea represented, and that there is time to listen in silence and respond. We try and practice that with open worship (usually after the sermon) as well as having different people have roles in the service and often allowing for discussion during the teaching. This isn’t the only way, or necessarily the best way, but it’s one way to practice making sure that it isn’t just the same person week after week getting the final say.

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Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

5 thoughts on “The Final Word?”

  1. Of course you could have told the fellow that that from a hardcore Quaker perspective, a standard-issue protestant service isn’t Christian. It’s just someone standing up in front trying to cover their lack of direct instructions from Christ with a lot of erudition and book learning.

    Saying that, I’ve sat through plenty of “messages” in unprogrammed worship that I’m fairly confident had no divine source. Unprogrammed Friends are just as likely to fill the silence with “smart me” talk. Even unprogrammed meetings that are explicitly Christian can fall into this trap.

    An essential piece to Quaker/Christian ministry is a belief that the Spirit of Christ is actually here in our lives and here in this church or meetinghouse ready to give us instruction. I think it was Woolman who was reported to have said he came to meeting not prepared to speak and not prepared to stay silent.

    As a minister, do you check to see whether you are clear to give a sermon (no matter how smart or well-prepared). Are you ready to throw it out or stop if Christ instructs? Are ready to just settle into the confusion of unknowingness if that’s what you’re called to do? I was surprised that early Friends minister Samuel Bownas (who essentially wrote the book on the subject) said it was okay to recycle sermons (my description) if they were still led in the moment. There’s no replacing that real discernment with process, whether pastoral or unprogrammed.

    We liberal Friends think so much of ourselves but the workshops I’ve led have been pretty cut-and-dried cases of paid ministry. I make up an agenda, select readings, do the “get to know you” games. But sometimes it just falls apart. There we are, going diligently through the agenda when that sense of gathered-ness descends over the group. Usually it’s been someone else who’s named it. My immediate response is to think to myself “hey, I’m leading this workshop!, what are you doing?!, we have an agenda!” A split moment later I realize what’s happening, go “Uh-oh, it’s happening!” and say a prayer of thankfulness as the Lord takes over. You can’t force it to happen but when it does it’s the most beautiful thing in the world–and the most Christian, as we are there in knowingness of His presence amongst us.

    1. Thanks for the comment Martin. You’re queries are helpful:

      “As a minister, do you check to see whether you are clear to give a sermon (no matter how smart or well-prepared). Are you ready to throw it out or stop if Christ instructs? Are ready to just settle into the confusion of unknowingness if that’s what you’re called to do?”

      The answer is no and yes. I want to check, I want to be ready, sometimes I am and sometimes I am not. It seems to very week to week, and Sunday to Sunday. I have thrown things out, I have adapted, and one Sunday recently I had decided 10 min before the service to not preach at all because I felt led in another direction but the clerk of our elders, who I discussed it with, encouraged me to press on with what was planned and trust that that was the right thing for the moment. Looking back, I think she was right in that instance but I was ready and willing.

      But this doesn’t mean that I am always attentive and always listening the best I can. This doesn’t mean that I don’t also rely on books, and ideas, that may or may not be — at that moment — what God has led me to do. It’s a back and forth struggle, much like Paul in Romans 7. It’s something I’m working on, and I hope to be truly fluent in the Quaker tradition in this way someday, but for now I only get glimpses.

      Of course – the side note is to say that I also think that God can work as much in the planning as in the non-planning. And that for me to be listening is a practice for all week, not just during worship on Sunday. If I am listening all week, to the text, the the Spirit, and to our community, then I think we can expect that Sunday will most of the time follow from what we heard the six days before. And I find this even more challenging because I might do really well listening on Wed and Friday and Sunday, but really be off the rest of the week. It’s a (or I’m a) work in progress to say the least!

  2. That is really interesting that you received that question about the similarities between a seance and expectant meeting for worship. I’ve actually been working on just that question since I’m so very interested in the fact that it was a group of Friends in Upstate New York (with close ties to Lucretia Mott) who originated modern Spiritualism. I do not see that the similarities rest in the silence of the worship nearly so much as in the expectation and the assumption that in the worshipful/expectant context when one speaks truly, one does not speak from ego. Another strong early connection is that both the Spiritualists and Friends from which they largely emerged emphasized the equality of the human soul and encouraged the leadership abilities of women. I think, perhaps, a misunderstanding of those early Spiritualists may make Friends wary of attributing too much credence to these spiritual connections but they do, in fact, exist and they led to rather profound social changes in the United States.

  3. I think maybe I always like discussions of where ministry comes from. *smile*

    I appreciated this post, and agree with you that there is more than silence going on in unprogrammed worship, Wess. Certainly, the silence is not, in and of itself, the goal, and there is (or ought to be) much more going on than individual meditation. (I always have trouble making it plain to people who are not Quaker the ways that unprogrammed worship isn’t the same as Buddhist meditation, and it’s more than vocal ministry! There’s that aspect of gathering that individual meditation completely leaves out, and which individualistic moderns may miss even when it’s there.)

    But, powerful and important as vocal ministry often has been in my experience, I have to disagree with you that ” If an entire meeting was silent that should give great cause for concern.” I have known times where God was very clearly present, and a meeting both gathered and deep, and which passed without vocal ministry. Now, I would not say that the worship was deep because it was silent, but it is plain to me that God can work in our hearts without words at times, as well as with them when that is what is needed.

    The main thing is that it is not silence that is the goal, but listening together to discern God’s will, and opening ourselves as fully as we can for communion with Her presence.

    Well. That’s the view from this back bench, anyway.

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