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.