I came to the Quakers without knowing much about how Friends worship beyond the following: they meet in silence (not true!) on Sundays (not always!), have no leader (broadly true, depending on how you define 'leader') and sit in a circle (yes, this bit was true).
Through attending meetings for worship and experiencing the stillness myself, I have understood some things first-hand. Other things I have picked up from what others say about worshipping the Quaker way. Here is what I've learned.
The meeting begins
Anyone can take part in a Quaker meeting for worship. If the meeting is held indoors, a person will greet you at the door by shaking your hand and saying "welcome". Once inside the space, you can sit anywhere you want. There is no leader who sits or stands apart from the congregation. No seats are special or reserved, and the seating is arranged in a circle (if chairs) or a square (if benches). Facing each other across the space helps you connect with others and is a reminder that we all worship as equals.
The meeting starts as soon as the first person enters the room; people join quietly and take seats in silence. Gradually, people settle into the stillness together. Sometimes a table at the centre of the space serves as a focal point, and often holds flowers, a copy of the Bible, and a copy of Quaker faith & practice. This bright red book is a collection of spiritual insights and challenges gathered from 375 years of Quaker history.
Listening from the stillness
In the quiet, each person seeks a sense of connection. This is a connection with those around you, with your deepest self, and perhaps with God, which some Quakers call Spirit. Quakers have different understandings of what they mean by God. As this sense of connection grows stronger, you may begin to see yourself, the world and your relationships in a new way.
Ministry is what is on one's soul, and it can be in direct contradiction to what is on one's mind. It's what the Inner Light gently pushes you toward or suddenly dumps in your lap. It is rooted in the eternity, divinity, and selflessness of the Inner Light; not in the worldly, egoistic functions of the conscious mind.- Marrianne McMullen, 1987, Quaker faith & practice 2.66
From the stillness of worship, people sometimes feel moved by the spirit to stand and speak, or sometimes sing. Quakers refer to this as vocal ministry, and its hallmark is that it comes from deep within, or from God.
People sometimes pick up the Bible or Quaker faith & practice during worship, to read quietly, or to quote passages aloud. Michael Booth, who has been attending since his time at a Quaker school, says, "I generally try to arrive slightly early so that I can open the Bible at random and read something to try to centre down. I try to pray that those around me who need it are feeling supported and strengthened in their life."
Meeting for worship tends to last for an hour, and finishes when two Quakers who quietly hold the space during worship turn to shake hands. Everyone else then shakes hands with the people sitting next to them. After worship there are often welcomes and some general notices and news. Once these have finished, people usually stay on for a hot drink, a chat, and a biscuit.
An experience of the sacred
The experience of waiting and listening in the stillness of meeting for worship can be deeply profound and transformative. For others, the silence that typifies British Quakerism is difficult. I asked Chloe Scaling, a Quaker and trainee teacher, about her experiences.
"Before I first went to Quaker meeting, I knew that worship would be in silence for the most part, but anyone could contribute if they felt called to. As I'm quite a chatty person, my parents were really surprised that I was going to Quaker meeting and I still often find it difficult to sit still and quietly. I don't make much time for quiet in the rest of my life.
"To prepare myself for meeting for worship, I might walk to meeting without putting my headphones on and get used to the world being quieter. When I get into the meeting room, I like to find a seat where I can see out of the window, especially if there are trees outside. That bit of nature, seeing the green leaves sway in the wind, helps me to connect with the world, which I see as sacred.
"The days when I can settle in meeting I can get a clear sense of whatever message I need to hear that day. Some days I'll be thinking about something and my heart will start beating really fast – for me, that's when I know I need to stand and share it with the group. When I've said something in meeting like that, I've often had people thank me or say they were thinking the same thing and I find that really affirming. I think that's got to be the best part of going to meeting for me – knowing that what you said has helped someone else."
Meetings for worship are open to everyone. They often take place on Sundays in a Quaker meeting house, but can also be on weekday evenings, and in fact be held anywhere, at any time – wherever Friends are gathered. Sometimes, Quakers meet outside, simply to worship together in nature. And lots of Quaker meetings for worship happen at protests, as a way of demonstrating a faith-led commitment to peace and climate justice.
There are 475 Quaker meetings in Britain. If you are curious about experiencing Quaker worship at your local meeting house, you would be very welcome.