What happens in a Meeting for Worship?
Our worship practice is based on silence: a silence of expectancy in which we seek to come nearer to God and each other as we share the stillness of the Meeting. Participants are not expected to say or do anything other than join in this silent seeking. We sit in a circle. There are no set hymns, prayers, recitations, readings or other liturgy. There is no minister in charge. Do not be concerned if the silence seems strange at first. We rarely experience group silence in everyday life so it is not unusual to be distracted by outside noise or roving thoughts.
Is Quaker worship the same as silent meditation, as practised, for example, in Yoga or Zen Buddhism? Yes and no, see this video discussion for more perspective: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fx90l4jN4-0.
During worship, anyone who feels a deep inner prompting to do so may give ‘vocal ministry’: a brief message, reflection or prayer. Such ministry seeks to enrich the gathered worship. If something is said that does not seem to make sense, we try to reach behind the words to the Spirit which inspired them. We prefer to allow some silence after each vocal ministry in order to have time for reflection. No two Quaker Meetings are the same. Some people may experience a profound sense of awe or an awareness of the presence of God. Others may have a less certain sense of an indefinable spiritual dimension.
After about an hour, we all join hands to signal the ‘rise’ (end) of Meeting. We close with sharing of joys and concerns, welcoming of visitors and newcomers, and announcements, followed by a time of fellowship, usually with tea and light refreshments served.
Back to top
What do Quakers believe?
Quakers do not share a fixed set of beliefs. Our unity is based on a shared practice of worship, not on everybody believing the same thing. There is no need to be in unity with Quakers on every issue in order to be part of our meetings.
There is a great diversity within Quaker meetings on how we think of God, and we use different kinds of language to describe religious experience. Some Quakers have a conception of God that is similar to the Protestant Christian impulse from which we arose, and these folks would use similar language. Others are happy to use God-centred language, but would conceive of God in very different terms to the traditional Christian trinity. Some identify themselves as agnostics, or humanists, or non-theists and describe their experiences in ways that avoid the use of the word God entirely. Some use feminist language. Quaker faith is built on experience and Quakers generally hold that it is the spiritual experience which is central to Quaker worship, and not the use of a particular form of words (whether that be ‘God’ or anything else).
Despite this range of beliefs, we are unified by our commitment to Quaker process and our method of worship, which itself presupposes certain working assumptions:
- That there is, within us and among us, a Divine Presence (however we may conceive of and name it) that is bigger, deeper, more powerful, more complete and more timeless than our individual egos.
- That this Divine Presence is directly accessible to everyone who seeks it.
Quakers therefore say, ‘There is that of God in everyone.’ We often refer to this sense of Divine Presence as ‘the Light’. Some of our spiritual insights, which we call our ‘Testimonies’, spring from this deep experience and have been reaffirmed by successive generations of Quakers. These Testimonies include:
- Peace (or Non-violence)
- Integrity (or Truth)
- Sustainability (or Stewardship)
One consequence of our Testimony to Equality, for instance, is that we welcome people from all races and backgrounds, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered persons. We have a fundamental commitment to equality and inclusion. We affirm the love of God for all people. You can find out more about Quaker beliefs and way of life by reading pieces from our Faith and Practice.
Back to top
How do Quaker Meetings make decisions?
Once a month (or somewhat less frequently in Edmonton’s case), the Meeting holds a ‘meeting for worship for business’, generally after the rise of our regular Meeting for Worship, facilitated by a clerk. Anyone who is part of the Meeting may attend and participate. Decisions are made without voting. Instead, the participants may each speak to the matter (preferably only once) and listen to one another, deeply and lovingly, for a sense of spiritual unity. This process is not a debate. Formally, there are similarities to ‘consensus decision-making’, but the underlying attitude is somewhat different. We are not trying to ‘reach consensus’: rather we seek to discern what the Holy Spirit — that sacred Wisdom deep within us and among us — is leading us to do. Sometimes we go into the Meeting thinking our options are either ‘position A’ or ‘position B’, but this discernment leads us to realize that there is another option altogether, superior to both A and B, which we can all unite behind. When the clerk recognizes that unity has been reached, this is called the ‘sense of the Meeting’. If those present agree with the clerk’s expression of that sense, then the decision is recorded in the minutes. We are officially called ‘Religious Society of Friends, Edmonton Monthly Meeting’ because of our monthly business meetings, though we meet for worship every First Day (Sunday).
Back to top
Because of Quakers’ strong historical involvement in British and North American struggles for religious freedom, abolition of slavery, penal reform, equality for women, and conscientious objection to war over the last three centuries, some people think of Quakerism solely as an historical movement; though we’re still very much alive!
Quakerism began in England in the late 1640’s, in the aftermath of a Civil War — a time of great religious and social upheaval. In the poorer regions, the north and west of England, many people were disaffected with both the authoritarian high-church Anglicanism of King Charles I and the grim Puritanism of those who overthrew him. To these ‘Seekers’, a young man named George Fox came, preaching that people can have direct communion with God, without going through another human (a minister), an institution (the church), or a book (the Bible). Ordinary people can sit together anywhere, listening for the voice of God, seeking Truth based on their own direct experience. A movement sprang up in response to Fox’s preaching, calling themselves ‘Friends of the Truth’, but mockingly called ‘Quakers’ by others. Both names have stuck: today, we still use the terms ‘Friends’ and ‘Quakers’.
Authorities considered Quakers dangerous heretics. They imprisoned many, often under horrific conditions, and took their property. Some died in prison. Persecution only really abated in the 1700’s.
Quakers first came to Canada in 1656. In the 18th century, particularly after the War of Independence, some American Quakers settled in the Atlantic Provinces, as well as southern and south-eastern Ontario. More Friends came from Britain in the 19th century, and by the 1870s there were 7,000 Quakers in Canada, mostly in rural areas. Since 1945, Quakers have continued to come to Canada: in the 1960’s and 70’s we welcomed some Friends who left the United States over its involvement in Vietnam.
Canadian Quakers currently number a thousand or so. Quaker numbers have never been as high in Canada as in the Eastern US or Great Britain. The Edmonton Meeting currently has twenty-some active members, with typically a dozen of us present at any given Meeting for Worship. Nowadays most members are ‘convinced’ Friends (joined as adults), rather than ‘birthright’ Friends (born into Quaker families).
Back to top
How can I become a Quaker?
We certainly do not claim that Quakerism is the only valid spiritual path. But for us, it has proved to be a spiritual path of great richness, and it may be so for you as well. Are you drawn to our method of worship, and to our Testimonies? Do you feel ‘at home’ among us?
Coming to identify yourself as a Quaker, and adopting a Quaker way of life, is a process of ‘convincement’ that is between you and God. Approval by other Quakers is neither necessary nor sufficient. Sometimes this convincement manifests as a dramatic turning point in your life, sometimes it is a gradual transformation. Historically, Quakers described this convincement as an ‘inner baptism’: we do not practise any outward ceremony of baptism.
Becoming a member of a Quaker Meeting, on the other hand, is about more than your individual identity: it is about entering into a committed relationship with a body of people. This includes the responsibility of sharing in the religious life of Friends, and in the practical expression of our faith through our care for each other and service to the wider community. This step should not generally be taken until you have had ample opportunity to get to know the people of the Meeting and vice-versa, and to develop a working understanding of the Quaker faith and practice on which the Meeting is based. If and when you feel ready, an application for membership should be made in writing (email is acceptable) to the clerk of the Meeting. A committee is then struck, to meet with you and discern your preparedness for membership. This committee then reports back to the Meeting as a whole for a decision at the next business meeting. (For a more detailed description of this process, see ch. 3 of Canadian Yearly Meeting’s Organization and Procedure.)
Back to top
This text adapted from the webpages of Canadian Yearly Meeting.