Part Four of a lecture series entitled:
Quakerism - its Origin, Development, Testimonies and Activities
written and presented to the Plainfield, NJ Friends' Adult Class on May 24, 1970
by Curt Regen
This, the last presentation, deals with Quaker worship and Quaker business procedure. In the previous talks some relation of the local scene to the past has been shown, and this is again possible. However, Plainfield Meeting has some relation to Robert Barclay who is frequently quoted when referring to worship in the manner of Friends, particularly when discussing this with people who are experiencing the traditional Friends worship far the first few times. To some of us materialists the name Barclay rings familiarly in our ears - this being one of the world's largest banks with a branch office in New York City, of course. You guessed it all right: Robert Barclay was an outstanding banker 300 years ago; he was a relative and close friend of James II, and as such originally a Roman Catholic. He became one of the three most eminent of Fox' followers; about another you have heard previously, namely, William Penn, son of Admiral Penn; the third one was Isaac Penington, son of a one-time Lord Mayor of London.
As a banker, Robert Barclay, a Scotsman, was one of the Quakers who bought from Lord Carteret the Province of East Jersey in 1682, and though its first Governor for life, he was an absentee governor. You will remember from the first talk that his deputy governor, also a Quaker, came to Amboy and there set up in his home a Meeting far Worship which is considered the forerunner of the present Plainfield Meeting where we are gathered. Robert Barclay, a man of outstanding education, upon becoming a Quaker in 1667, wrote during 1674 and 1675 in Latin, what is now known as his "Apology" and what was originally entitled "Theses Theologicae" addressed "To the Clergy of what sort soever, unto whose hands these may come; but more particularly to the Doctors, Professors, and Students of Divinity". With all this explanation about this co-proprietor and governor of East Jersey where we are living. I come finally to the quotation about one of his first experiences among the Quakers. He wrote: "When I came into the silent assemblies of God's people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up." I wonder whether any of the present generation have the same feeling upon attending their first Quaker Meeting for Worship. During the past 300 years the forms and content of worship in the manner of Friends have changed considerably, a change which seems to have accelerated in the last 20 to 30 years.
The stranger, likely to be shy, should be advised to "came right into the Meeting - don't stay at the fringes unless you must"; this is meant physically as well as spiritually, for it is helpful to leave seats near the back and at the ends of rows to late-comers, thus at so assuring a physical proximity of all attenders. And to be right in the Meeting would avoid being an onlooker rather than a participant. All of us have experienced that nobody specially chosen will start the Meeting or conduct it. It is in our hands, everyone present shares the responsibility for worship and shares its blessing. Ordinarily it will take some time to get settled comfortably, to be relaxed, and to begin gradually the transition from the bustle of the outside world to the quiet of the Meeting - not to be mindful of trains roaring on the tracks alongside, nor of the boom of motorcycles or sports cars on the street, little by little we become less aware of noise and more aware of silence. Yet it is natural that the silence may use us, turn us away from worship, bringing our mind to the foreground, as to what we have to do or what we forgot to do, household chores, business problems, etc. To avoid such intrusion of worldly thoughts, right preparation for worship is justified. If we have our radio or television blaring at us Sunday morning during dressing or breakfast, and if we read the newspaper before going to Meeting, our minds may be subjected to influences that do not create a worshipful mood within us. In an exaggerated way, one could say that preparation for Meeting begins at the close of the last Meeting! Quakerism is a daily religion, not just a Sunday morning experience.
There are some Friends who think that any previous preparation for Meeting indicates a lack of faith in the power of the Holy Spirit. The barren coldness of some gatherings may be due to the fact that Friends have come to worship from habit, but are unprepared for our particular spiritual exercise. The traditional Quaker form of worship seems to be one of the most spiritually difficult within Christianity. Therefore, Meetings for Worship after the manner of Friends vary considerably in content, cultural level and religious quality and experience. Often they are attended by quite small numbers; large gatherings have been found difficult at times. The complete freedom of utterance for all, old and young, men and women, knowledgeable and uninstructed in Quaker ways, leads some people to think that a Quaker Meeting is an open platform to give forth their philosophy or political ideals. It is said that the first edition of a well-known book on forming personality and developing speaking techniques suggested that the student may go to a Quaker Meeting House where open forums are held!
One hour in Quaker Meeting can be a long time if one has no resources within - one should not come with an empty mind. There is a Query asking: "Do you faithfully come to our Meetings for Worship, with heart and mind prepared?" But that does not mean that one prepares a message which one plans to give that morning, or brings a news clipping along to be read, whether or not it fits the particular exercise before the Meeting. In other words, the sermon must not be prepared, but the person who ministers must be prepared and that will differ greatly according to the temperament and activities of the individual. It is just as well to be ready for silent or vocal ministry. But one thing is certain: one should never go to Meeting for Worship determined either to speak or not to speak. One may carry a particular message in one's mind until such time as one feels the right prompting has come. For the scientifically-minded or those of us who seek psychological reasons for the peculiar worship in the manner of Friends, let me quote from a chapter of an English book headed "Exaltation of Intellectual Powers":
"The process of thinking consists in holding the mind still and allowing thoughts to arise into it from the depths. ... If the mind is not kept in the correct state, it will wander to all kinds of irrelevant matters. Inspiration does not come from effort; on the contrary, it comes often when least expected, and especially when the mind is at ease. Inspiration is nothing more than the sudden awareness ... of the silent voice within "
Thus speaks the scientist, Thomas Kelly, the Quaker mystic of this century, called it "from the depths of the soul", and the Psalmist centuries ago phrased the well-known words: "Be still, and know that I am God."
Originally the ministry in a Friends Meeting was prophetic in nature. Nowadays it is more a teaching or an informative ministry; it seems that almost any subject can be mentioned at Meeting for Worship. How far ministry in Meeting for Worship should include reference to daily affairs and events is a question that cannot be easily decided. It is perhaps a matter of proportion. A good guide may be: "Is mention of this political or social issue worshipful or just an expression of my personal opinions and principles?" We may speak of world problems, if these are seen in the light of religion. Anything that comes from the heart seems proper and acceptable, as Friends draw no fixed line between the secular and the sacred. But let us not be so detailed and lengthy that nothing seems left to be said - a brief message giving direction for corporate search is preferable to one exhausting the theme and - perhaps turning off the listeners! It is also better not to be pessimistic and negative, but rather optimistic and positive. The affirmative is so much stronger and more desirable. The controlling factor in ministry is not the substance, but the spirit of the message. And in these times we must apply our religious convictions and testimonies also toward a ministry that is devoted to possible solutions of social and world problems; a kind of ministry that strives to bring men into union with God and one another.
The Meeting for Worship is a venture of faith. The successful use of Friends traditional way of worship depends first on the practice of communion in silence, an expectant silence in which the worshipers wait on God or listen to the Spirit Within, and on the emergence from this silent communion, of a responsible ministry. The non-Friend who attends the first few times may gain the impression that a Friends Meeting offers nothing but empty silence, and the whole idea may at first be repellent. Nevertheless, it is certain that many a stranger has found rest and comfort and healing of soul in the quiet of a Friends Meeting for Worship. It is equally certain that many who have turned away unsatisfied from liturgical forms of worship and official ministries have found in the Meeting of Friends freedom of spiritual exercise.
Rufus Jones in his book entitled "The Spiritual Message of the Religious Society of Friends" wrote: "A Meeting ought to be like the rising waters in a lock which enables the ship to go out for its journey on a higher level." This Quaker ideal of worship is at times achieved; and when it is, there develops a deep sense of unity among the worshipers. If the first person to give a message does so in responsiveness to the Spirit Within, then the torch is often passed around so that the original theme is developed, perhaps reviewed from different angles, and thus brought into the heart of the Meeting. But this does not mean that messages come one after the other in rapid succession. There should be a due interval between them, a living silence in which the worshipers can reflect upon the thought presented. And if a certain theme has developed, it is wise to hold back a message if it seems unconnected with what has gone before. Likewise, when the desire arises to speak at the end of the worship hour, one should consider whether this additional ministry is going to edify the Meeting.
Sometimes a Meeting for Worship has been beautifully drawn together near the end of the time, and in such a case we should be very chary of adding to what has been said. Another time when a message should be held back is if it is contentious and in argument with a previous message. Meeting for Worship is not the place for argument nor for correcting mistakes. On the other hand, ministry can go astray, and a wise and loving message can sometimes guide the Meeting back to a path from which worshipers have been led astray by thoughtless and verbose ministry. Meeting for Worship is not the place for airing one's grievances or chastising for omissions, although this mistake sometimes occurs. A common Quaker phrase is "to speak to one's condition". There may be a message that one Friend considers as not profitable, while another may feel that what has been said is just what was needed; we may have to learn to pass over the words that do not speak to our condition, and should not follow the temptation to give an answer which may lead the worship period to become a discussion or a debate. In many Meetings the ministry is too intellectual in tone, lacking simple and direct expressions. The phrasing of a message is of least importance; if one is really moved to share something, let it be said, however imperfect the sentences turn out to be. Rufus Jones, known for his learned yet often humorous ministry, upon delivering a rather highbrow message, heard a woman Friend exclaim: "Lord, thou hast said to feed thy sheep, but not thy giraffes! "
In order to cherish the blessings of traditional Friends worship, one has to attend many Meetings. Do we fully realize the beauty and preciousness of silence? Do we take too much for granted the freedom of the Quaker way of worship? John Greenleaf Whittier, the Quaker poet, left us these moving lines:
A Friends Meeting for Worship can be exciting - it is an adventure; one never knows what will happen! Let me end with a little anecdote: A stranger attended his first Friends Meeting; there was a long silence which puzzled him. He turned to the person next to him, inquiring, "When does the service begin?" The answer was: "When the Meeting ends." Perhaps the stranger remained puzzled, but it should be explained what was implied in the previous talk, that service is the outward form of worship. Jesus put before people the idea of the Kingdom of God and challenged them to carry out what he said. Merely to believe in Christ will not transform the world; each one of us must help to bring the Kingdom nearer to earth.And so, I find it well to come
For deeper rest to this still room,
For here the habit of the soul
Feels less the outer world's control;
The strength of mutual purpose pleads
More earnestly our common needs;
And fran the silence multiplied
By these still forms on either side,
The world that time and sense have known
Falls off and leaves us God alone.
Let us now turn to the Meeting for Business. In the first talk mention was made that very early in the history of the Religious Society of Friends, so-called General Meetings were set up in addition to Meetings for Worship. These meetings, quasi-church government and later known as Meetings for Business, were not made up of men only, but women participated in the responsibilities, a bold step in the 17th century! The training which Quaker women received in these meetings as well as in the Meetings for Worship qualified them to become leaders. As referred to in the previous talk, it is not surprising that the two leaders in the women's emancipation movement, Lucretia Coffin Mott and Susan B, Anthony, had been Quakers.
Although quite some changes have occurred in carrying on the Business Meetings during the past 300 years, Friends methods remain unique. Ideally the Meetings for Business should be conducted in the spirit of worship, as the affairs of the Religious Society of Friends are considered an integral part of Friends religious profession. In place of decisions by a divisive majority vote, there is a friendly interchange of views and arrival at decision by common agreement. When a subject is before the Meeting, all who desire to express a judgment may do so; some times when there is a decided difference of opinion which is not readily reconciled, no action is taken, or the matter is held over. This method seems to permit a minority to control the decision, but we must remember that in all history we find that minorities have quite as often been right as majorities. What is called the "weight" of the Meeting is of greater measure than the number of Friends who speak to a certain subject. At times certain members have greater knowledge and experience in back of them which are not possessed by all. Their views are, therefore, of greater value to a Meeting than the opinions of the uninformed or less concerned members. An attempt is made to base decisions upon the most reasonable and helpful views expressed, rather than to resort to the common method of counting pros and cons. Things are talked over and agreed upon. The formality of parliamentary procedure would fit poorly into a general plan to move in unity of spirit - and this despite personal preferences which may be at variance with the final decision. Often a Friend will take issue with a proposal, but upon learning the opinions of others, will withdraw the objection raised. Part of the 16th Advice of the New York Yearly Meeting Discipline reads: "Those who speak in meetings for business are advised not ta be unduly persistent in advocacy or opposition, but, after having fully expressed their views, to recognize the generally expressed sense of the meeting."
Friends business method vests peculiar responsibility in the Clerk. He is not a presiding officer, but he is foremost a planner of business and a recording officer. The Clerk presents most of the business from his desk, yet there is always opportunity for the introduction of concerns from the body of the Meeting. The Business Meeting looks to a Clerk for leadership but not for direction; he must be neutral as he may have to record a decision of the Meeting whether it is in accord with his own judgment or not. In this respect he is a servant of the Meeting.
These procedures are the same whether the business is before a local Meeting, usually known as a Monthly Meeting because it meets every month, a regional Meeting known either as Quarterly or Half-Yearly Meeting depending on a three- or six-month interval, or the Yearly Meeting which meets annually and consists of Friends Meetings within a country, a state or any other geographical area within which local Meetings have voluntarily joined. One should not assume that the Yearly Meeting dictates to Quarterly or Monthly Meetings; it can give only guide lines approved by the attenders at large who are the members of the constituent Meetings. The organization of the Religious Society of Friends is opposite to the structure of a hierarchy in that the local Meeting and with it the individual member, gives authority of action to the superior Meetings, if one can call them that. Likewise, the Clerks of Regional or Annual Meetings are just members of the Society appointed for a limited time with the consent of the membership at large. In the opinion of some people, the practices and organization of the Religious Society of Friends are the most democratic in existence.but it must always be remembered that along with freedom must go responsibility.
The Religious Society of Friends, brought into being by people with love for freedom of religious thought, is now in the fourth century of its existence, because some people continue to believe that Christian qualities matter much more than Christian dogmas or hierarchical structures. As long as there are human beings willing to try to attain such qualities and willing to assume the burden and responsibility of a "do-it-yourself" religion. Quakerism will continue to be a beacon light to those seeking spiritual growth.
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Quakers in the World
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