An Unprogrammed Friend Experiences Programmed Worship

This past week I took a five-day visit to the Pacific Northwest. Though I was there to play tourist and visit family, I also wanted to examine a very different worship style than the unprogrammed silent worship where I learned to be a Friend and how I worship to this day. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, and what I experienced was certainly different enough.

The Worship style was very different from one hour of silence broken periodically by vocal ministry. It reminded me somewhat of the Methodist service of my childhood. Most of the music was provided by a choir. No hymnals. No responsive reading. No Apostles Creed. Not even a passage of Scripture, though Bibles were provided at each pew. As a Methodist, I was used to standing up and sitting down quite regularly. This Quaker church where I spent time relied heavily on their choir, and in one or two very rehearsed and ornate songs. For the most part, I stayed seated, as did everyone else.

The only nod to unprogrammed worship was a period of silence fifteen to twenty minutes long. No one really seemed to know what to do with it. I will say for myself that it takes a minimum of fifteen to twenty minutes to center adequately and provide clear vocal ministry in unprogrammed worship. I didn't know what to do with it, either, anymore than they did. Passing a microphone around from person to person seemed odd and clunky. In any case, it passed quickly.

The congregation sang two hymns alone, included in the order of service, and I listened to the concluding sermon of the minister. It lasted barely five minutes. In a different religious tradition, I was used to twenty minute sermons or even a little longer. I found I missed lengthier talk, much as I prefer chatty Meetings with multiple speakers. In meeting up following Worship with one of the long-term members, she indicated that she wished the sermon would go longer, too, and considered it a lacking of the current pastor.

The Church was apparently having money troubles. I figured this out during the passing of the collection plate (remember that?), where my $20 polite donation won me a robust and hearty pat on the back. It was also sadly dying, due to the fact that there were no children present and membership numbered no more than 40 at a space that could have easily accommodated three times that. The church had been removed from its previous Yearly Meeting and had a year to decide its next move. Northwest Yearly Meeting (NWYM) has recently split and regrettably opted for schism, much like North Carolina, and the church is now debating which faction to embrace.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I did know an influential member of the church who gave me the full background and history. I'm not going to share church gossip in this forum, but I will say only that the gathering is in very bad straits. A group of old guard members is convinced that only it will save the church from itself, regain its children, and grow its membership. Based on what I have been told and observed at an admittedly minimal level, I think the gesture is heavy-handed and bound to fail.

Once again I learn that churches and Meetings are comprised of flawed people. We tend to forget that, or perhaps we willfully forget it, denying reality for the most favored interpretation of the house of worship in which we'd like to believe and take part in. That's the lesson that speaks to me most profoundly about this troubled church which is in part due to a dysfunctional yearly meeting, as well. Quakers have split so many times and in so many ways. This was just another example.

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Comment by James C Schultz on 9th mo. 4, 2017 at 10:38am

Unfortunately you don't have to go to a programmed meeting to find flawed people who think they know best how to save a meeting.  Abandoning Quaker Process and the Source of that process apparently comes too easily.

Comment by Keith Saylor on 9th mo. 4, 2017 at 11:47am

James, Are you willing to delineate or lay out the "Quaker Process?" Furthermore what is the "Source" of that process?

For the sake of openness, fairness, and clarity, here is what has prompted these questions. It is discovered to me that the process itself of identification with a Process will, by its very nature, nurture disunity and manifests the mutability of the churchly or Meetingly way. The very act of participating in a particular Process is an abandonment of the "Source" and is the cause of disunity and the withering of Process and the way of Meeting, whether unprogrammed or programmed, Monthly, Quarterly, or Yearly. Identification with and participation in the Process and churchly way is the problem in itself and is flawed. This identification with process and participation in it is a flawed way. Now, I recognize that participation in this process is needful for many many people. We just have to be honest about it. The process itself is flawed and unsustainable in that it distracts from the source and will by its very nature result in fraction. This is why many founding and early Quakers who had been led out of identification with outward churchly Processes would not follow George Fox and those who supported him, back into the establishment of outward institutional forms and processes.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 9th mo. 4, 2017 at 6:10pm

I think what James meant was not any specific set of procedures other than the basic basic understandings that in doing Quaker Meeting business

1) We won't actually damage each other in the course of having our own way (I mean "deciding what's best") and

2) We'll agree, at least in principle, that some other course than what's clearly (to us) the only possible choice may turn out to be God's will, and better than our initial conclusion.

Comment by James C Schultz on 9th mo. 4, 2017 at 7:37pm

My first experience with what I am told is the Quaker Process occurred outside the Quaker Community in 1978.  I was providing legal counsel to a small committee of a covenant community within the Catholic Charismatic Renewal.  They wanted to air a movie they had made about the Catholic Charismatic Renewal on TV and had to make a decision on picking an air date.  In my personal opinion they did not have enough time to take care of the legalities involved before the date they were considering.    We all expressed our opinions on the pros and cons of making a commitment to the date in question and then the leaders led us in prayer and we waited to hear from the Spirit.  During this time of quiet I sensed that we should go ahead and others had the same sense.  They booked the time slot and I was able to get the legal work completed and everything went well.

As I understand the Quaker Process we put aside our own agenda and reasoning and wait on the light or Holy Spirit to speak to us.  If everyone in the meeting is honestly seeking the light and not their own agenda there should be a result that speaks to everyone's spirit.  The problem I find is that many don't believe the light or Holy Spirit actually speaks to us or they are unable to get past their own biases, acknowledged or not. 

Comment by Forrest Curo on 9th mo. 5, 2017 at 12:20am

And yes, as James says:

3) We'll ask and be prepared to receive God's answer.

The fact that this is possible, and in fact often occurs, is the only explanation I can imagine for why we could ever expect to settle contentious issues in such a way.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 9th mo. 5, 2017 at 12:45am

What God provides is not going to necessarily be an ideal answer for all time; you're going to get the best course that this particular group at this particular time will be able to agree upon and live with.

When personal prejudices are running so intensely that a group will not be able to agree with or live with any conceivable decision -- then they might attempt to practice this method, but the best decision they could accept might be to separate.

Should people hold their personal beliefs that strongly? The bare fact is, people do. Ideally, we should be open to further enlightenment (even if we believe we've already got it.) Getting people to truly realize that there might be a better way to see the matter? -- That's a miracle.

Comment by James C Schultz on 9th mo. 5, 2017 at 7:50am

I agree with Forest that what comes from the silence is the best way forward.  My experience is that for those seeking the best way forward they actually experience a true sense that they have found it. 

Comment by Forrest Curo on 9th mo. 5, 2017 at 10:34am

I've been thinking re "What keeps a Meeting, church, etc from being able to use that best way forward?"

Some of us really do have a stronger belief in our current set of ideas than our ability to conceive of God having any better ideas available.This is true even for people who insist that "of course we believe in God."

I find it strange that one person I knew -- a Meeting Clerk with a particularly strong confidence that Quaker Process did work -- insisted to the end of her life that she just couldn't find anything she would call "God".

Since I'd noticed that the results of this best way forward for us merely-humans tended to be far short of ideal, I couldn't understand the methodolatry for it that secular Friends often express; as an object of devotion it seemed to be an totally inadequate substitute for God -- the only rational basis for trusting it in the first place.

But then mental consistency is a rare trait among humans (and probably over-rated!)

As for me, I think whut I think, by gum!!!

I have noticed, however, two situations in which I am most certain: when I am right, and when I am wrong.

Comment by James C Schultz on 9th mo. 5, 2017 at 11:51am

I think the benefit of Quaker Process is the communal goal of having everyone listening for that still small voice instead of just one, whether you call him or her a Pope, Bishop or Pastor, and then again communally discerning the commonality of each individual's interpretation of what they heard that still small voice say.  Too many of us don't trust the God we believe in or the faithfulness of our fellow members.

Comment by Keith Saylor on 9th mo. 5, 2017 at 12:45pm

Hello James,

Thank you for sharing your personal experience. It helped me better grasp your witness. I would like to engage you further.

In light of your words, would I be accurate, and represent you correctly, that your reference to “… flawed people who think they no best how to save a meeting. Abandoning Quaker Process and the Source of the process apparently comes too easily.”, is a pointing out that people who (not just Quakers) do not participate in the Quaker process are flawed and thus are not in a relationship with the Source? If so, how do you judge whether a person has abandoned the Source? Who sits in judgment? How valuable or necessary is participation in the process? Is the process as valuable as the Source? Can a person be of a different conscience that does not value the process and participate in and have a relationship with the Source? Is it possible that some people are come out of the Quaker Process as a result of the direct impulse of the Source itself?


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