Tag Archives: God

M is for Meeting for Worship

The other Sunday I was sitting in Meeting; there were some spoken contributions and after about the third, it felt like a discussion group. I was considering standing and saying this and reminding Friends that this was a Meeting for Worship.

And then I stopped myself, because that term has always been a bit of a problem to me.

The question arises: who or what do we worship? Or what is it exactly we are doing there for an hour or so, mostly in silence?

The problem with words

I was brought up in German Yearly Meeting and in German the word for Meeting for Worship is ‘Andacht’. This is also true for some other European languages (see Sue Glover Frykmann’s post on the subject).

So is there a real difference between these two terms? Well, yes, there is.

Andacht can be translated into English in many different ways; in a German etymological analysis, it suggests that it can be a ‘religious deepening or immersion’ or a prayer service. It has the word ‘Denken’ (thinking) at its root and implies ‘paying attention’, commitment, and dedication.

Worship, in contrast, require an object. In the online etymology dictionary, you find that as early as 1300, the word suggests: “reverence paid to a supernatural or divine being”, as indicated in Wikipedia: honour shown to an object.[1]

And therein lies the problem for me. If I don’t have a concept of a personal God (which I don’t) then who or what is the object that I pay reverence to in Meeting for Worship?

In a setting where I think of this as ‘Andacht’ that question doesn’t arise.

Is thinking allowed?

The other issue is the question of ‘thinking’. The word Andacht as mentioned above, implies that it does have something to do with thinking; a contemplative kind of thinking, granted, but somehow the brain is allowed to be involved.

In Meeting for Worship, this doesn’t necessarily come into the definition. Indeed, I have said myself, on occasion, and have heard it said, that I worry every time someone starts spoken ministry with the words: ‘I’ve been thinking…’

So I began asking myself why thinking isn’t somehow part of the picture. Some of us will say with utter conviction (me among them) that ‘God has no hands but ours’ but what about brains? Surely, our brains – complex and amazing as they are – are part of our make-up and part of the gifts we bring to this life. And so, why should we leave them at the door of the Meeting House?


A school friend (from my Quaker School days) who converted to Mormonism after being brought up in an eighth generation Quaker family said to me when I asked him why he had converted: It’s simple: the Quakers have all the questions, the Mormons have all the answers.

Ever since, I have felt that it is important sometimes to come up with some answers, even if that has to be with the proviso that these are my answers and not answers which would be necessarily embraced by all Quakers (as all Quakers embracing any specific answer is almost inconceivable).

So here is my attempt at an answer to the question: what is it that I do in Meeting for Worship (and I tend to prefer to call it ‘Quaker Meeting’).

Because I don’t have a concept of a personal God, there is no question that I feel that in Quaker Meeting I would be showing reverence to an object. But because of the concept of ‘that of God in everyone’ I do have an idea that there is something out there and in us that connects us. You might imagine it maybe like the air we breathe; I’m inclined to add sunshine, but that would make the concept a little rose-tinted, because sunshine is nice. So let’s leave it with the air.

And so this image came to me: when we dry our laundry outside, in the wind and, yes, the sunshine, it does it good. It makes it fresher. It refreshes it in a way that a tumble drier or even a rack in the back bedroom can’t do.

So maybe, engaging in the process of Quaker Meeting is like being refreshed by the wind and the weather and the air we all breath; being aware of the fact that this is something that we have in common; that this is something that we can’t buy more of, or be deprived of by those with more power and more money.

It is an experience of essential, existential equality.

But it’s also about allowing the damp, the cobwebs, the staleness, the old, well-worn stuff to be blown about a bit and rearranged.

Does thinking come into it?

Well, actually, no. Because if we think we are driving the process; and if we want to experience the being blown about a bit, then we need to stop trying to drive the process. But what can happen – at least to me – is that at some point the process triggers something that leads to thought. And that’s ok.







[1] From Bosworth and Toller, Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, “weorþscipe

A is for ‘Answering that of God in everyone’

This is listed first in the index of well-loved phrases in ‘Quaker Faith and Practice’; not only because it starts with ‘A’, but rightly so as it is one of the things Quakers – at least in my experience – most often say when asked about what Quakerism is about.
Indeed, in my time working for a Quaker organisation for 10 years, I had occasion to interview many dozens of young people for paid internships; the question: what about Quakerism is important to you was part of every single one of these interviews. And most of the candidates, whether practising Quakers or not, listed this as one of the most important aspects of Quakerism for them.
But what do we actually mean by this phrase?
First, of course, it is important to note that where there are 4 Quakers there will be 5 answers to this question (you can multiply this up to any number you choose); and many will answer the question with further questions: what to you mean by God? What to you mean by ‘answering’? What, in fact, do you mean by everyone?
And so it is incredibly easy to spend the few minutes you have in conversation with someone who is mildly interested in Quakers and Quakerism (or in being Quaker) in recitation of rhetorical questions and saying what Quakers aren’t, rather than actually getting somewhere in terms of answering any of them.
Now why is that so? My own perception is that because Quakers worship in a manner that is based on silence, it’s easy not to address these questions collectively and therefore it becomes more difficult to do so; because by saying what we actually think/believe in this context is risky; it’s putting your head above the parapet.
I have just written 6 paragraphs and nearly 300 words demonstrating this general failing. And of course, that is the only reason I have done so: to show what happens.
There is, thus, no further hiding from the question.
Let’s start by what I mean by God; there are some Quakers who have a concept of God, which in my perception is quite traditional and rests in the Bible; it is a personal God with whom (not the personal pronoun) one can engage in a sort of conversation (prayer?). There is the expectation of an answer. And there are some Quakers who would describe themselves as non-theist. Having looked at the website of non-theist Quakers I can’t find any good definition of the term.
I stand somewhere between these two poles, though given the fact that it’s quite difficult to ascertain where these two poles are, it’s quite difficult to be sure where ‘somewhere between them’ might be. I do believe there is something beyond humans in the universe/world that connects us (and other parts of the living world) in some way. I believe this is a force for good rather than evil. And I believe that each of us is able to connect to this in some way if we are prepared to pay attention to it.
So to me, ‘that of God in everyone’ is the capacity of everyone to connect to this something. I am quite sure that this cannot be boxed into an idea of a ‘being’ with superhuman (or more generally, very human) qualities and characteristics.
I also believe that paying attention to this and trying to see it manifested in other people is what is meant by ‘answering to’ in the quote above. It is about seeing the best in people; about encouraging the best in them, and about ensuring (insofar as is possible given the world we live in) that there is peace and justice. Only when there is peace and justice will it be possible for everyone to be attentive to this something rather than paying attention on how to get their own back or how to make more money than the next guy or how to simply survive.
This may not be an elegant definition of what I understand this phrase to mean; it may also not be an approximation of what George Fox (who is credited with coming up with the phrase) meant by it. But we are, of course, fortunate in also believing in continuing revelation; that means we don’t have to be bound by what either the Bible or George Fox says as the last word. But that’s for another post; I can’t decide whether that will come under ‘c’ or ‘r’.