Unprogrammed worship is the kind of worship practised by most Quakers in Britain and the rest of Europe and in many parts of North America (and a little of Africa) and other places such as Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand, and is often mistakenly called ‘silent worship’. To a newcomer, an unprogrammed meeting may indeed seem ‘silent’ but in reality it is an experience of intense listening. This silence is not a passive, reflective, meditative, individual silence such as you might get at a retreat or in a meditation circle – it is not generally considered to be an opportunity for private meditation or to catch up on one’s reading – but an active silence of a community gathered together in expectation; the silence is every bit as exuberant as a group of young adults in a standard modern church singing worship songs to the accompaniment of a rock band. We gather to strengthen each other and to wait. The word of God, Christ, Holy Spirit, Inward Teacher, or whatever we each like to call it is there among us and speaks to us by its spirit, in our hearts and in our minds.
Sometimes nobody says anything, but we are nonetheless together refreshed and washed clean by the fountain of living waters (to continue the imagery from the gospel according to John). Sometimes one Friend may deliver an inspiring message. Sometimes several Friends in turn will be thinking of something but not quite be able to work out how to start or end it, only to find the ministry given whilst they’re thinking about it provides the perfect introduction – or the following ministry concludes their thoughts in a way they couldn’t do themselves; though it should always be remembered that meeting for worship isn’t a discussion group, and idle chit-chat or debating across the floor is best left for another occasion. Sometimes Friends speak directly what comes to them to say in their own words, sometimes quoting from the words of others, be it the Bible, Quaker Faith and Practice, or anything else is which is right for that particular moment. Sometimes a Friend will feel compelled to speak something which seems to make little sense to most of the meeting, only to learn later that it was a divine answer to someone else’s need.
Sometimes nothing seems to happen at all, and many find their minds more preoccupied with their forthcoming lunch. Sometimes, but comparatively rarely, there occurs what Quakers call a gathered meeting; this is a meeting where the ‘feeling’, the ‘atmosphere’ is quite electric, where the tension is such that people feel on the edge of their seats, in which the unity of thought within the meeting is such that people can feel it without a word needing to be said, and all come out afterwards in agreement that they have just taken part in something exceptionally special. It is an experience which can’t be properly described unless one has felt it yourself – and then when you do experience it, you finally understand what everybody else has been talking about all this time!
In meeting for worship anybody may speak ‘as they feel moved to’; there is no hierarchy which says who is allowed to speak and who isn’t, and it is part of the Quaker insight to understand that whether you are the most recent person to join the meeting or you are the oldest member of the meeting able to trace your Quaker ancestry back several generations you are no more or less likely to be inspired to give valuable ministry than the person sitting next to you. In former times in Britain there was a practice of ‘recording’ the names of Friends who it was noticed did have a particular gift for spoken ministry (and these people would sit in the raised section by the wall in the meeting room, in what was known as the ministers’ gallery), but still ministry was not restricted to them, and this practise of recording ministers was ended a long time ago. Each person present affects the depth of the worship we reach as a group, in which there is no human leader and no planned programme – where we are all learners, trying to live as active disciples of whatever we each understand ourselves as following.
The meeting for worship is closed by the shaking of hands initiated by people previously appointed to do so, usually the two Elders, and other Friends present confirm the end of meeting similarly. Although meeting for worship is normally set to last for a described period of time, usually an hour, it does not have to – it is part of the Elders’ responsibility not to look at the clock and end meeting at 11:30 on the dot, but to be listening extra carefully to the silence, to indeed discern whether meeting has really ended before the allotted time or if actually has more minutes to go before it is truly time to end. Usually Elders are mindful of peoples’ temporal needs as well as their spiritual needs, and will end meeting at around the time expected – though there are occasions, particularly at residential events or gatherings, where is the space to let the worship fully run its course, and participants often feel that a meeting for worship in such circumstances lasting much longer than the usual hour rather than dragging on actually does result in that rare sense of gatheredness described above.
The number of people present in meeting doesn’t usually objectively affect how ‘good’ a meeting it is, but often people have subjective ideas as to whether they prefer to worship in a small local meeting of fewer than 20 or a larger meeting of over 50 people. Many Quakers do agree though than there is something very powerful when at a national or international Quaker gathering of many hundreds of people are joined in worship together – especially when those many hundreds are united in sharing the discipline of knowing when what they might have to say is for the whole meeting to hear or just for themselves, and are fully ‘grounded’ in letting the silence speak for itself.
Can it go wrong? Of course – human beings aren’t perfect, and it is always possible for challenging individuals to come to a meeting either once or over the course of a number of weeks to disrupt the worship in some way, either deliberately because they have a political or religious agenda to further, or involuntarily because they have emotional or other difficulties which need the attention of experienced professionals to help with. In these situations it is part of the role of Elders to work with the individual to find the solution to their needs, either during the meeting or after it, sometimes firmly but always sensitively. The worship may be temporarily disrupted on that occasion, but Quakers consider no lasting harm can come to people from being exposed to such disruption and it is a small price to pay for the understanding that God can and does use any member of the meeting at any time to help the meeting grow – and indeed, those who do sometimes shatter the comfortable predictability of a silent meeting can themselves offer new light for the group to consider.
Sometimes the spoken ministry given might seem… a little less deep, or ‘worthy’, or ‘grounded’ than other times – Quakers have some unkind put-down phrases for this kind of ministry, such daffodil ministry (a phrase coined by the famous musical cartoonist Gerald Hoffnung) which often talks about how lovely the daffodils as the speaker was walking to meeting were and how they remind them of God’s beauty, or Radio Four ministry bringing Friends attention to an item they heard on Radio Four this morning (which could have been about an article in the Guardian); but again, it is considered no harm is done by this kind of ministry.
Quakers do not only hold meeting for worship purely for the sake of worshipping in the generally understood sense of ‘paying tribute’ to the Higher Power, but we also hold meeting for worship in order to make decisions, seek advice, act out our organisational business meetings, and conduct our ‘rites of passage’ such as marriages or deaths. Where Quakers differ on theology, we unite in the way we do our business, using what we call the Quaker Business Method in a Meeting for Worship for Business.