(Too) Silent Worship and Whithered Meetings

One of the things I liked about my old Quak­er job is that I occa­sion­al­ly had a moment in between all of the staff meet­ings (and meet­ings about staff meet­ings, and meet­ings about meet­ings about staff meet­ings, I kid you not) to take inter­est­ing calls and emails from Friends want­i­ng to talk about the state of Friends in their area: how to start a wor­ship group if no Friends exist­ed, how to revi­tal­ize a local Meet­ing, how to work through some grow­ing pains or cul­tur­al con­flicts. I’ve thought about repli­cat­ing that on the blog, and halfway through respond­ing to one of tonight’s emails I real­ized I was prac­ti­cal­ly writ­ing a blog post. So here it is. Please feel free to add your own respons­es to this Friend in the comments.

Dear Mar­tin
I have read that Meet­ings that are
silent for long peri­ods of time often with­er away. But I can’t remem­ber where I
read that, or if the obser­va­tion has facts to back it up. Do you know of any
source where I can look this up?

Dear CC,
can’t think of any spe­cif­ic source for that obser­va­tion. It is
some­times used as an argu­ment against wait­ing wor­ship, a pre­lude to the
intro­duc­tion of some sort of pro­gram­ming. While it’s true that too much
silence can be a warn­ing sign, I sus­pect that Meet­ings that talk too
much are prob­a­bly also just as like­ly to with­er away (at least to
Inward Christ that often seems to speak in whis­pers). I think the
deter­min­ing fac­tor is less deci­bel lev­el but atten­tion to the workings
of the Holy Spirit. 

One of the main roles of min­istry is to teach. Anoth­er is to remind
us to keep turn­ing to God. Anoth­er is to remind us that we live by
high­er stan­dards than the default required by the sec­u­lar world in
which we live. If the Friends com­mu­ni­ty is ful­fill­ing these functions
through some oth­er chan­nel than min­istry in meet­ing for wor­ship then
the Meeting’s prob­a­bly healthy even if it is quiet. 

Unfor­tu­nate­ly there are plen­ty of Meet­ings are too silent on all
fronts. This means that the young and the new­com­ers will have a hard
time get­ting brought into the spir­i­tu­al life of Friends. Once upon a
time the Meet­ing annu­al­ly reviewed the state of its min­istry as part of
its queries to Quar­ter­ly and Year­ly Meet­ings, which gave neighboring
Friends oppor­tu­ni­ties to pro­vide assis­tance, advise or even ministers.
The prac­tice of writ­ten answers to queries have been dropped by most
Friends but the pos­si­bil­i­ty of appeal­ing to oth­er Quak­er bod­ies is
still a def­i­nite possibility.
Your Friend, Martin

  • Our Meet­ing is often silent. We’re a small Meet­ing — our num­bers don’t usu­al­ly reach dou­ble fig­ures. But we’ve kept going for more than fif­teen years and the Meet­ing for Wor­ship is cen­tral to our activ­i­ties. Some peo­ple pre­fer busier Meet­ings with lots of min­istry. There are two rea­sons for that: they may wish to get more involved or they may wish to be rel­a­tive­ly incon­spic­u­ous. But oth­er peo­ple enjoy com­ing to our small Meet­ing and val­ue the silence as much as any min­istry that occurs. Not all min­istry is spo­ken and there is much more to the silence of a gath­ered Meet­ing than a mere absence of words.
    We do have an exis­tence beyond Meet­ing for Wor­ship as can be seen from our blog http://​bee​ston​quak​ers​.blogspot​.com
    P.S. I found this post through fol­low­ing quak­erquak­er on Twitter.

  • Dou­glas Steere in his Pen­dle Hill pam­phlet “On Speak­ing Out Of The Silence” makes the same observation:

    I might begin by con­fess­ing that there are some per­sons who attend a Friends’ meet­ing for wor­ship with the hope that there will be no vocal min­istry at all. They pre­fer the silence, and resent mes­sages of vocal min­istry as intru­sions. I sup­pose that in a cer­tain sense all of us have these moments when we would rather not be disturbed.

      But the actu­al truth of the mat­ter is that meet­ings that have turned com­plete­ly silent almost inevitably with­er away. Some­thing is miss­ing in the cor­po­rate rela­tion­ship. This does not mean that an occa­sion­al com­plete­ly silent meet­ing may not be one in which great things have hap­pened with­in the hearts of those who attend­ed. But the prac­ti­cal expe­ri­ence of the Soci­ety of Friends, his­tor­i­cal­ly, knows the fate of a meet­ing that is habit­u­al­ly mute. 

  • I would sug­gest to “CC” that the issue is not what hap­pens to meet­ings that are silent for “long peri­ods”; the issue is what has hap­pened to an indi­vid­ual — her/him, you, me, any­body — who is silent that long.
    Why the long silence? Has there been noth­ing in her or his spir­i­tu­al life, yours or mine, that has had enough con­tent to be worth sharing?
    Per­haps, if there has not been any­thing in our own lives worth shar­ing, the rea­son could be that we have not been turn­ing con­tin­u­al­ly to God to con­sult about what we’re going through. We have not been ask­ing, and that’s why we haven’t received.
    If a seek­er comes to a meet­ing, and no one there has any­thing to speak out of her or his per­son­al expe­ri­ence, the seek­er may con­clude that there is just not much life in the meet­ing, and go on in search of a more vital spir­i­tu­al­i­ty else­where. That is indeed a part of the rea­son why some meet­ings with­er away.
    Peter wrote in his first pas­toral let­ter: “…Always be ready to give a defense to every­one who asks you a rea­son for the hope that is in you, with meek­ness and fear; hav­ing a good con­science.…” This is the apostle’s own advice to be always ready to speak in min­istry. It’s the pre­cur­sor to Fox’s own chal­lenge, “What canst thou say?
    The respon­si­bil­i­ty to keep the life in our meet­ings is not “the meeting’s” but ours — CC’s, yours, and mine.

  • I think that part of the con­cern about Meet­ings that are silent for too long is that we can­not ade­quate­ly con­vey our faith by say­ing noth­ing. And if any sort of “min­is­te­r­i­al after­thought” is shared, then a new­com­er or atten­der may inter­pret that as a sig­nal that vocal min­istry occurs out­side of wait­ing worship.
    At one of the meet­ings for wor­ship that I attend reg­u­lar­ly, there has been a cus­tom that towards the end of the hour, the Friend who clos­es wor­ship invites wor­shipers to share what is still on their hearts “that may not have risen to the lev­el of vocal ministry.”
    When there was a chance for that par­tic­u­lar group, along with M&C mem­bers, to eval­u­ate how well that for­mat was work­ing – it had been used when the wor­ship had far few­er atten­ders – there was a fair­ly strong sense of the meet­ing that it was work­ing well and was bear­ing fruit.
    I recall that one Friend in par­tic­u­lar com­ment­ed that it helped (her? him?) under­stand that there was a dif­fer­ence between being led to speak and sim­ply offer­ing up a mes­sage because maybe it was a good idea or wor­thy thought.
    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

  • Bri­an Drayton

    The ear­li­est claim I am aware of, made on the basis of a his­tor­i­cal study, was by John Stephen­son Rown­tree, in his essay Quak­erism Past and Present, which was one of the major foun­da­tions for the “Quak­er renais­sance” in Britain in the 1800s. His claim was based on an exten­sive study of mem­ber­ship sta­tis­tics and meet­ing doc­u­ments from the pre­ceed­ing cen­turies; it was bol­stered, I believe, by A.R. Barclay’s Inner life of the Com­mon­wealth, which came out soon after Rowntree’s essay. He was writ­ing at a time of con­tro­ver­sy in the YM, when there were extreme state­ments for and against the val­ue of vocal min­istry (one Friend was record­ed to have said, “The only thing the min­istry requires among us is uni­ver­sal sup­pres­sion,” or words to that effect, I am quot­ing from memory.
    Rown­tree was writ­ing to call the Soci­ety of Friends to renew­al on var­i­ous fronts, among them a renew­al of the min­istry, includ­ing the trav­el­ling min­istry. While he was the­o­log­i­cal­ly pret­ty evan­gel­i­cal, he was deeply read in ear­ly Quak­erism, espe­cial­ly Fox (his essay, “MIcah’s Moth­er” on the Wilkinson-Story sep­a­ra­tion, is a very sol­id med­i­ta­tion and study on the ten­sions at play dur­ing the estab­lish­ment of “gospel order” by Fox and oth­ers), and thor­ough­ly com­mit­ted to the free min­istry — so although some peo­ple have used the idea that too-long-silent meet­ings with­er to jus­ti­fy the pas­toral sys­tem, that is not how Rown­tree and his younger allies thought at all. (thouth there were a few British Friends who thought maybe the pas­toral sys­tem should be tried– this sto­ry is a com­plex one.) When his nephew, John Wil­helm Rown­tree, and his con­tem­po­raries, like E. Grubb, W.C. Braith­waite, JW Gra­ham, A.N. Brayshaw and oth­ers came along, a main goal of their lib­er­al­is­ing work in the YM was the ecnourage­ment of an intel­lec­tu­al­ly and eth­i­cal­ly engaged, more dar­ing and effec­tive Chris­t­ian min­istry among unpro­grammed Friends.
    For more about the con­text for this con­ver­sa­tion, I rec­om­mend JS Rown­tree “Gospel min­istry in the Soci­ety of Friends, ” “The Work and main­te­nance of Gospel min­istry,” and JW Rown­tree, “The prob­lem of a free min­istry” and “the present posi­tion of reli­gious thought in the Soci­ety of Friends,” among oth­er papers from that era. Rufus Jones has a lot to say about the impor­tance of a vital min­istry, and the weak­ness­es that result from a weak­ened min­istry, in his Lat­er Peri­ods of Quak­erism, and some of his writ­ings from the Amer­i­can Quak­er days.

  • I seem to remem­ber some­thing John Pun­shon wrote — prob­a­bly in Encounter with Silence — about 19th cen­tu­ry meet­ings going for weeks and months at a time with no vocal min­istry. He might have been refer­ring to Rowntree’s essay.
    I am not sure if Pun­shon ascribed a rea­son for this. My own sense is that it had to do with an over­ly strict appli­ca­tion of Elias Hicks’ sus­pi­cion of self-centered min­istry, min­istry dri­ven by what we would call the ego rather than by the Liv­ing God. The “how do we know the dif­fer­ence” is the peren­ni­al prob­lem of Quak­er min­istry, I think.
    Unless a meet­ing has adopt­ed an ide­o­log­i­cal never-ever-under-any-circumstances-say-ANYTHING-in-meeting-that-isn’t-100%-for-certain-from-God, I think Marshall’s diag­no­sis is pret­ty accurate.
    I would add to it only that I do think there’s a cor­po­rate dimen­sion that sup­press­es min­istry as well. When mem­bers of a meet­ing as a whole don’t know each oth­er very well, or where they know each oth­er too well and have unre­solved con­flicts or dis­uni­ty, that, too, can con­tribute to a dry­ing up (or dilu­tion) of vocal min­istry. Silence then becomes the com­mon denom­i­na­tor, but it is the dead slience of fear­ful appre­hen­sion rather than the vital­i­ty of rev­er­en­tial awe and expectation.
    In my expe­ri­ence, when a meet­ing is active in its oth­er min­istries — pas­toral care of mem­bers, reli­gious edu­ca­tion, evan­ge­lism and out­reach, engage­ment in and ser­vice to the larg­er soci­ety, etc. — vocal min­istry kind of takes care of itself.

  • “CC” via Martin

    I just got back to NY from a trip to IL., hav­ing been on the road for the past week and a half and not read­ing e-mail or blogs.
    I was kind of sur­prised and immense­ly grate­ful for the respons­es to my ques­tion about silent meet­ings. If I need­ed to be con­vinced that Quak­er Blogs Rule, I was cer­tain­ly con­vinced by what I read. In the old days it would have tak­en eons to gath­er the infor­ma­tion pro­vid­ed by those learned Friends. Chances are I would have giv­en up some­where along the way, so I would like to thank each and every one of them for his/her con­tri­bu­tion. I plan to fol­low up and read Rowntree’s essays if I can find them in print. I do have a copy of Punshon’s Encoun­ters with Silence and Dou­glas Steere’s On Speak­ing Out of the Silence, so will start there.
    I’m sor­ry to be com­mu­ni­cat­ing with you this way but I couldn’t decid­ed which ID(?) cat­e­go­ry to use; I’m not par­tic­u­lar­ly into anonymity.….……I“m known as Cousin Claire in AVP cir­cles here in NY state, so you could iden­ti­fy me that way if you would be so kind as to for­ward this to those who took the time and thought to answer my ques­tion about silent meetings.

  • I have been think­ing a lot about what hap­pens dur­ing the silence in meet­ings. A few months ago, I had a con­ver­sa­tion with anoth­er Young Adult Friend who, unlike me, grew up in a Friends Meet­ing. She said that she nev­er knew what her moth­er was doing dur­ing the meet­ing and final­ly, as an adult, she asked. Her moth­er respond­ed that she spent the whole time replay­ing the same Paul Simon song in her head. This struck me as fun­ny, but also sad.
    I think com­plete­ly silent meet­ings can be love­ly, but I agree that silence can make it dif­fi­cult to bring new­com­ers and young Friends into the meet­ing. A Friend at Uni­ver­si­ty Friends Meet­ing told me about how at a meet­ing retreat sev­er­al years ago the mem­bers focused on what hap­pened dur­ing the silence. The facil­i­ta­tor asked sev­er­al Friends with active vocal min­istries to come for­ward and describe what they expe­ri­enced when they felt called to vocal min­istry. Then the facil­i­ta­tor asked all of the peo­ple who were usu­al­ly qui­et what their expe­ri­ence was in meet­ing. My friend said that this con­ver­sa­tion real­ly improved the qual­i­ty of wor­ship at Uni­ver­si­ty Friends.
    I was mulling all of this over when it was time for me to write a paper for the Pacif­ic North­west Quak­er Women’s The­ol­o­gy Con­fer­ence, so I end­ed up writ­ing about what I expe­ri­ence in silence in meet­ing (it was loose­ly relat­ed to the theme). I lat­er used that paper as a jump­ing off point for my blog:
    I think that if meet­ings want to grow, we need to focus on what is hap­pen­ing in the meet­ing and why we are there. I don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly think these ques­tions need to be answered dur­ing wor­ship, but they are impor­tant to think about and dis­cuss at some point. Oth­er­wise, what are we going to tell seek­ers who wan­der in?

  • cath

    You have raised a few issues here that have been on my mind for a while now – but life has been too intense for me to com­ment until now.
    First, I crave silence in Meet­ing for Wor­ship but not at the expense of hear­ing what the Spir­it might have to say through the vocal min­istry of oth­ers. If a Meet­ing hap­pens to be com­plete­ly silent peri­od­i­cal­ly, that’s fine. But if silence becomes a bar­ri­er or a way to iso­late our­selves in Meet­ing, it may be time to open our­selves up a bit more.
    Now if every Meet­ing is full of peo­ple jump­ing up with­out much time between the last vocal min­istry (and I’ve seen this hap­pen far too often) the sense of “wait­ing prayer­ful­ly” seems to get lost.
    Meet­ing for Wor­ship is not indi­vid­ual med­i­ta­tion nor is it a debate group nor is it a gotta-say-something-every time affair.
    And we in our imper­fect state, some­times fall into habits.
    Please allow me to post a pet peeve: read­ing dur­ing Meet­ing for Wor­ship. I take respon­si­bil­i­ty for the fact that what seems to be out­side my sense of wor­ship may well be the vehi­cle for New Light for some­one else – but I would need some­one who engages in this prac­tice to help me under­stand how the Spir­it gets through when the mind is oth­er­wise engaged. When I see some­one sit­ting across from me read­ing a book, I won­der how we are engaged in cor­po­rate worship.
    Any­way, the best of all pos­si­ble worlds (a trul­ly Gath­ered Meet­ing) is a joy to be a part of. I trea­sure them when they occur and come away feel­ing spir­i­tu­al nourished.

  • Phil Antho­ny

    I’m mind­ed of a sto­ry that’s prob­a­bly apoc­ryphal, though I’ve heard it attrib­uted to three or four promi­nent Friends.
    A four-year-old came to meet­ing with his moth­er. After five or ten min­utes of sit­ting in the silence, he whis­pered — loud­ly enough that every­one could hear — “Why is every­body so quiet?”
    His moth­er shushed him embar­rass­ed­ly. Anoth­er cou­ple of min­utes passed. Then an elder­ly Friend rose and said: “The first mes­sage asks a good question.”
    I sup­pose it begs the ques­tion to speak of liv­ing silence and dead silence. But there’s a great dif­fer­ence between the two. I’ve sat in meet­ings where, to my sen­si­bil­i­ties, the silence was rich and deep, and if there was a mes­sage, it quick­ened every­one there. I’ve sat in oth­ers where both the silence and the mes­sages were dry as the bones in the Val­ley of Gehin­nom. I know which I’d go back to!
    Some years ago I agreed to put on a pro­gram con­cern­ing First-day School for teens at a neigh­bor­ing meet­ing. I brought along some of my own teens, fig­ur­ing that the meet­ing we were vis­it­ing hadn’t seen one for years and could prob­a­bly stand being reminded.
    On the way there, one of my com­pan­ions said, “Why don’t we say we’re going to speak out of the silence … let it con­tin­ue for about an hour … and then look up and ask, ‘Any questions?’”
    The young Friend’s eyes were glit­ter­ing with mis­chief. Her idea tempt­ed me, to be hon­est. But I allowed sad­ly as how I real­ly didn’t think they’d under­stand, while giv­ing thanks that I knew at least one per­son who’d got it.
     — Phil.