Sunday, March 29, 2009


I've been thinking a lot about Quaker rituals lately. I know the theory is that Quakers don't have rituals, but I don't really believe that. I started thinking about this about a month ago when a Friend asked whether I followed any rituals. I answered, "Well, I go to meeting every week. That seems like a ritual to me."

I think we sometimes forget how much we follow an unwritten code until someone comes and disrupts our silence.

We had a difficult meeting for worship this morning. An enthusiastic seeker came to visit and challenged the order of the meeting. We sat in silence for about 20 minutes and a Friend gave a message. Immediately after she sat down, the seeker asked whether he could talk. A Friend asked him to wait for the Spirit to lead.

A few minutes later, the seeker gave his message. A little while later, another Friend had a message. As she finished, the seeker rose to speak again and Friends asked him to stop. The seeker was upset and said that he didn't understand the rules.

Someone who was new to Friends recently asked me whether I ever felt like saying something in meeting just to get things going. I said I did not, but I realized today that the times I want to say something without being led are the times of deep discomfort in meeting. I want to stand and speak to soothe things over, but I know I should not.

After meeting, one of the Friends who had asked the seeker not to speak apologized to the meeting. She said that she had eldered out of a place of fear instead of waiting for the Spirit to guide her and she asked for our help in waiting for the Spirit to lead.

All of this is much easier in theory than in practice. For me, the heart of worship is spending time in the presence of God and waiting for the Spirit to move. But I also value the hour of silence in my week and find myself getting annoyed and impatient when others interrupt the silence with messages that seem more like random thoughts and ideas than true leadings.

At those times, I do my best to hold the speaker in prayer and to listen as deeply as I can. God speaks through the most unlikely sources and I can get so caught up in my own judgment that I miss the message.

It is also important for me to remember the reason for our rituals and testimonies. We listen in silence for the voice of God, but we don't worship silence. We pray for the peace of God, but we don't worship peace. We come together as a community to hold one another in the light of God because it is too difficult for us to do this alone.

We are all learning together. My hope is that while we continue to learn, we will be able to hold each other as tenderly as we would like to be held.


  1. Thanks for sharing this, Ashley. My meeting is going through something similar--though completely different--and I'm not at liberty to give the details at this time. I'll just say it has to do with spoken and unspoken norms and expectations about how we are (or aren't) supposed to be in community with one another.

    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

  2. It was a memorable morning at Ottawa Meeting back in the 1970's--a visitor from a local synagogue spoke two or maybe even three times with a message about (if I remember correctly) Amnesty International. I can't say whether or not she knew about the "rule" concerning speaking only once, but when she spoke again, she cited the precedent of Abraham in Genesis, chapter 18, speaking repeatedly to God on behalf of innocent Sodomites: "...ashes and dust that I am, may I be so bold as to speak yet again?"

  3. We're all such creatures of habit. At the Friends General Conference Gathering there was a clear pattern that if you do something one year, it's an interesting experiment; if you do the next year it becomes a regular event; if you do it three times it's a sacrosanct part of liberal Quakerism and a violation of rights to even consider not doing it every year forward. We seem to want rules to keep the unexpected from happening but what's the need of such fear? Sure, people will come into our meetings and not be speaking out of Christ's power but the problem isn't the form but the source and by focusing on the former we get meetings where people sound and talk and give messages like Friends but have forgotten why we gather together in the first place.

  4. I think there is a difference between rituals and customs; although perhaps one might think of them as on some kind of continuum. A Meeting for Worship has its customs, so do family gatherings, eating in a restaurant, etc.

    I wonder if a suggestion to newcomers that they take a few meetings to get a feel for what's going on would be appropriate? When someone first enters into any kind of new activity it takes a while to get the rhythm and shape of the activity. This is true of completely ordinary activities. An example: if one joins some kind of gardening society, it takes a few meetings to understand what the order of business is, how information is presented, etc. Or if someone joins a book club, each club has a certain way of going about their discussions and one needs to just take a while to get a feel for it.

    Unprogrammed Quaker Meetings are unusual and easy to misinterpret for someone who has no experience with them. That is why I think a simple suggestion to newcomers about just being attentive and getting used to the Meeting over a period of time might be helpful in avoiding the kind of awkwardness described.



  5. Quaker scholar Pink Dandelion, based at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham (UK)in his An Introduction to Quakerism (Cambridge University Press 2007) makes no bones about calling both programmed and unprogrammed meetings "liturgies". And he and all who have said something to the same effect here have a point.

    And yet, and there not a real difference between shutting up outwardly and inwardly to wait upon the Divine, and putting on a show for ourselves and the Divine, however beautiful and inspiring such a show may be?

    There is indeed a procedure in what we do, but surely there is a certain difference between a procedure and a real ritual? A meeting for worship is essentially a form of group contemplative prayer, and although it does have its procedural rules, just as any organised group activity must have, and indeed as any kind of individual meditative discipline has, what we are doing is different from the putting-on-a-show type of ritual which the word "ritual" normally denotes. Is it not?

    In Friendship,

    Bradius Maurus

  6. You write with great honesty and clarity, and I really like that. Your phrase about holding one another in the Light as a community has gone into my quotations notebook!

  7. Bradius Maurus, why do you assume that other religions' rituals are merely "putting on a show" - that there is nothing genuine going on in the individuals and the community during the ritual, just as there is with Quakers sitting in silence?

  8. Martin Kelley wrote: "Sure, people will come into our meetings and not be speaking out of Christ's power but the problem isn't the form but the source and by focusing on the former we get meetings where people sound and talk and give messages like Friends but have forgotten why we gather together in the first place."

    Yes, hallelujah! The freshness and power of keeping our minds and hearts on the loving present God who is our source and trusting that the rest will follow, that's what keeps me amongst Quakers.

  9. My Anonymous respodent seems to feel that I am attacking other religions by saying that ritual is "putting on a show". Any performing artist would be rather offended, I think, by an assumption that putting on a show is a valueless activity! And I especially mentioned that a ritual could be beautiful and inspiring.

    On the other hand, the existence of unprogrammed worship in Quakerism is not an accident. We have traditionally found ritual suspect, and that is not because it is evil per se, but because it can so easily draw attention to itself in such a way that the inner grace it is intended to elicit or support is forgotten or assumed when in fact it may be absent. I think it is important for Friends to testify to this insight which is so important in our tradition.

    That having been said, of course there are some rituals in various religions which do alter the state of one's consciousness in a way that perhaps is conducive to some real spiritual purposes. I myself took part in an interfaith event a few days ago in which some Wiccans celebrated the Spring Equinox at sunrise. It was in a beautiful place in a forested glade right by the local river. Immediately after the invocation of the Goddess I unexpectedly felt a divine presence, quite unlooked for.

    Despite this, I feel that the Quaker way of silence in worship offers a more transformative
    form of spiritual experience. A Buddhist FaceBook friend a few hours ago by coincidence posted something very relevant that I would like to share with everyone, a short passage from Eckhart Tolle's "Stillness Speaks": "To meet everything & everyone through stillness instead of mental noise is the greatest gift you can offer to the universe." Does not our unprogrammed meeting for worship train us in the direction of being able to do this? And would any real ritual be able to do so as effectively?

    In Friendship,

    Bradius Maurus


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