Quakers can, and sometimes do, meet for worship just about anywhere; in keeping with the words of Jesus, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
Most Quaker communities, though, are likely to come together for worship at a meetinghouse. There are a number of differences between a meetinghouse and a church, but perhaps one of the most meaningful is that a meetinghouse does not have an altar. In older meetinghouses, you might see the benches at one end of the room raised slightly, because that was where the meeting’s elders sat, but today everyone usually sits on the same level, with no Friend placed above another. (Some Quaker meetings with a more explicitly Christian orientation might call themselves a “Friends Church,” but they’re basically meetinghouses.)
At least once a week, the members of that meeting will gather for silent worship.
What happens in silent worship?
A Quaker meeting is a simple gathering. Because Friends believe that Spirit may reveal itself to anyone, we don’t have priests dispensing grace to a congregation of followers; instead, everyone arrives at the meetinghouse as equals, and seating is usually arranged so everyone faces each other in a square or a circle. Then, in what’s known as an unprogrammed meeting—because anyone could be the instrument through which God (or Spirit, if you prefer) chooses to give a message—everyone sits in silence, usually for an hour, and waits to see if a message comes.
Not everyone will feel led to share a message at any given meeting; some days, nobody gets the spiritual or metaphorical tap on the shoulder. People often wonder how they will know if it happens to them—one person might experience a leading as a thought that won’t go away, no matter how much they try to set it aside; another person might encounter Spirit as a voice only they can hear; still another might be contemplating a page of sacred writing and have a sentence seize their attention. It’s no hyperbole to say there at least as many ways for Friends to hear from Spirit as there are Friends, and virtually no two messages are alike.
Why is it so important to share Spirit’s messages aloud with other Friends? Well, the simplest reason is that being chosen as the vehicle for the message doesn’t necessarily mean that you were the only intended recipient of the message. Sometimes, the message might not be meant for you, might not even seem relevant to you at all, but it will be exactly what another Friend in the room needed to hear at that moment.
You may have noticed the term “unprogrammed meeting” above, which implies the existence of programmed meetings. In a programmed meeting, one or more members of the Friends community may serve in a pastoral role by leading everyone in song or prayer or sharing a reading from Scripture. (Programmed meetings tend to take place in intensely Christian Quaker communities, and are increasingly the norm in Quaker communities outside the United Kingdom and North America.) Such activities, however, only take up a portion of the meeting—the rest of the time is still devoted to listening for a divine prompting in the communion of expectant silence.
Further Reading from Friends Journal
“Our Gift of Silent Worship,” Ruth Lofgren
“Wait and Watch: Meeting for Worship as Spiritual Practice,” John Andrew Gallery
“The Meaning of Silent Worship,” Mariellen O. Gilpin
“The Importance of Noise During Silent Worship,” Ben Handy