Approaches to Quaker Worship

Report on a Woodbrooke course held December 2013

This course attracted me because it offered opportunities to experience a variety of ways of worshipping within the Quaker tradition, and with specific emphasis on including people of all ages and abilities. I have two Quaker roles to which this is relevant. As co-clerk of Quaker Disability Equality Group (QDEG) I am very aware of the difficulties that a Sunday morning silent meeting for worship can pose for Friends with varying disabilities. As one of the children’s workers in Bury St Edmunds LM, I have an increasing concern about how we truly include our few children rather than just offering them a parallel experience.

We started with the basics: What do we need for worship? The answers from the three small groups in which we discussed this question had a lot of common ground, for example:

  • A simple structure -someone to welcome, shaking hands to end.
  • Physical comfort – a warm room, comfortable seats, a hearing loop.
  • The relationship between people – gathering together, respect, trust, acceptance, listening.
  • The spiritual dimension – openness to Spirit, a common purpose.

Using the boundaries game to consider ‘What is/ is not worship?’, proved trickier. Some cards were easy to put in the centre: silence, speaking from personal experience, reading from the Bible. Some seemed clearly outside: saying ‘I disagree…’, speaking immediately after ministry. Others were harder to agree on, or seemed on the edge: prepared ministry, a pop song, writing.

I particularly enjoyed two of the activities used for considering how we enter worship. To help with ‘centring down’ a jar with sand and water in was shaken up. We then watched as the sand settled and the water cleared. I found this very helpful. I could physically feel myself sinking down and relaxing into that state of readiness for worship.

We were asked: ‘How do I connect with others in meeting?’ We each had a pre-cut sunflower shape and were asked to colour the centre with a wax crayon while we reflected. We then folded the petals in. In a worship sharing exercise we were invited to place our flowers in a bowl of water and speak what we wanted to share of our thoughts. The flower petals opened gently in the water as we did this. This was a lovely way of focussing individually and together.

After all this preparation we were ready to experience five different varieties of Quaker worship:

  • A programmed meeting on the theme ‘The Unity of Creation’
  • ‘Godly Play’ – the parable of the Good Samaritan
  • All-age worship on the theme ‘Fear’
  • Messy Meeting on the theme ‘Journeys’
  • An hour’s silent, unprogrammed meeting

The programmed meeting was the most challenging for me. A prepared sequence of hymns, prayers and readings was familiar from my childhood attendance at a Baptist church, but unlike any ‘Quaker’ experience I have had before. I found it less jarring than I expected – perhaps because the theme, ‘Unity of Creation’, was one I felt comfortable with and I knew and liked the hymns. But I found it rushed. I would have appreciated pauses between the parts like we have between ministry, and the silent part towards the end seemed very short. (This may have been partly the time limits of the course.) However, I could imagine a group of Friends planning a programmed meeting for worship on a theme (perhaps one of the testimonies or Advices & Queries). I think this could lead to deeper silent worship.

‘Godly Play’ is a way of telling faith-based stories that is used in other churches too. The storyteller sits or kneels on the floor and uses simple props to enact the story – ours was the parable of The Good Samaritan. There is no eye contact with the audience. Then the group is invited to reflect on the story using statements such as ‘I wondered…’ or ‘I noticed…’. This led to a very deep period of sharing, with reflection on themes such as power, fear, compassion, even drawing parallels with issues of bullying in schools. Then paper and paint was available to express our responses creatively. Although ‘Godly Play’ is designed for children, there is no sense in which it is ‘childish’. It enabled an openness to Spirit and one another on a very deep level.

For the all-age worship on ‘Fear’, the story ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ was read in a more traditional way, pausing to show the pictures from the book, as well as an extract from ‘Mister God, this is Anna’. We were then shown how to make a simple ‘worry doll’ from paper and wool, with fabric to make clothes. Again, this time of creative play was held in a spirit of worship as we all quietly made our doll, and reflected personally on the readings. We ended by coming together as a group and placing our dolls on the central table. Spoken sharing of our experience was optional.

To introduce ‘Messy Meeting’ there were a number of readings on the theme of ‘Journeys’. We were given three questions: What’s your most memorable journey? How does your life “speak”? What helps you “walk cheerfully”? We discussed these in pairs while playing with plasticine. I enjoyed making a representation of travelling on the sleeper train to Scotland and it was a pleasant way to spend an evening and get to know someone, but I did not find it so deep. Maybe we were all just a bit tired from so much worshipping!

Our silent, unprogrammed meeting for worship on Sunday morning was a shining example of the difference it makes to come ‘with heart and mind prepared’. There was that quality both of silence and spoken ministry that springs from a gathered meeting. The nourishment of the previous day bore rich fruit.

We spent time reflecting on our experiences both individually and in groups. I felt very at ease with the ‘craft’ activities since I have experienced a similar approach on Appleseed courses. I also believe that story telling is a powerful way to explore universal themes. I have experienced this on Woodbrooke courses on Jung in which we listened to and enacted myths and fairy tales. Both these creative approaches can lead to deep spiritual insight.

I felt that the course helped my understanding of Quaker worship. Really we have quite an elaborate, highly structured (if largely invisible) ritual which is designed to maximise the potential for each Friend to find the ‘secret garden’ within – the Inner Light/Teacher/God – whatever metaphor you use. We tend to think of silence as all important, but perhaps it would be better to see it as one of several elements: being prepared; joining together as a group; centring down/stillness; Openness to Spirit; deep listening; coming alongside one another with respect, trust and equality. To reach a depth and quality of worship and ministry we need nourishment which these varied approaches can offer. Also we need to acknowledge the differences between people, and ensure that there is sufficient variety in our meetings to meet everyone’s needs.

As a group we passed feedback to Quaker Life: one size does not fit all; there is room for ‘spicing the soup’!

As a children’s worker in my LM, I feel these approaches offer rich opportunities and resources for drawing families with children more closely into the life of meeting. As member of QDEG, I feel these varieties would help to meet the needs of Friends with both visible and invisible disabilities.