Yesterday (August 22), I worshipped with the Olympia Friends Meeting, a group of Quakers in Washington.  Every gathering of Quakers is called a “Meeting” (or so it seems).  Quakers have regional Quarterly Meetings, and monthly Meetings for Business, and each week a Meeting for Worship.  In fact, this congregation isn’t even called a “Congregation;” it’s called a “Meeting.”

The Meeting for Worship was very different from worship services I have experienced in my tradition, the United Church of Christ.  In the UCC, we have a very active worship services that are filled with words and singing.  Quaker Meeting for Worship is filled with silence (at least this Meeting for Worship was filled with silence – I learned that there are also Meetings with worship that is “programmed” and Meetings with worship that is filled with music).

We gathered around 10:00 – some came earlier; some were “late,” but that didn’t seem to matter.  The worship space consisted of about 70 chairs in rows around the center of the room, facing each other.  There were probably 30 people there when I arrived just a couple minutes before 10:00, all sitting quietly.  Some had their eyes closed; some were looking around.  I took a seat in the third row, which was also the back row, and quieted myself.

Interior of Olympia Friends Meeting house

No one said, “Okay, everybody, we’re worshiping now.”  People just entered the space to worship and held the quietness.  It wasn’t long before my eyes were shut in prayer.  I wasn’t praying anything in particular; I was just practicing being in the presence of God.  About 20 minutes later (I’m guessing; I didn’t have a watch with me), I heard a wrestling and opened my eyes.  The six youth who were in the worship space got up quietly with the Sunday School teachers for their class.  I shut my eyes and re-centered myself.

Some time later (I have no idea when) a man stood up and shared very briefly about an encounter he had had with a neighbor and how it moved him to, again, deeply appreciate being a Friend (Quakers are formally known as the Religious Society of Friends).  A moment later, another man shared, though I could not hear him.  And the community settled back into the quiet.

Eventually the youth returned from their class and it wasn’t long until a man sitting a few seats down from me announced that he was calling the worship to a close.  He then invited everyone to introduce herself/himself, to make any announcements, or to share anything that was “left over” (I think those were his words) from worship.

As we went around the room, people shared the typical church announcements and some made comments about what was going on for them.  I was fascinated by how what the man shared resonated for many people (it was nice to hear why he was so grateful to be a Friend, but otherwise it wasn’t very interesting to me).  One person made a comment, something like, “I had this thought, but it didn’t rise to the level of a message.”  An interesting distinction, I said to myself, between a ‘thought’ and a ‘message.’ A thought, it seems, is for yourself; a message is for the community and is to be shared aloud.

After everyone had introduced himself/herself, we were invited back into some silence, and then we all briefly held hands.

You will notice in this description that there was no pastor present.  This Meeting doesn’t have a pastor (it’s my understanding that most Meetings, at least most non-programmed meetings, do not have pastors).  Instead, everyone in the congregation is a minister, and people minister to each other.

Quakers are known for their strong peace stand, often being activists for non-violence and almost universally being conscientious objectors during a draft.  I am struck by the contrast between these people sitting together in silence on Sunday and these same people standing vocally for peace and justice on the capital steps during the week.  I can’t help but wonder if that weekly practice of silence and listening gives them the strength to be vocal in ways that challenge societies status quo in favor of what Jesus called the Empire of God.*

Quakers are also known for their consensus decision-making style.  This is a difficult process, consensus decision-making.  It requires everyone to listen carefully to each other and I’m sure the practice of listening for the Spirit of God with each other each week is extremely helpful in making this possible.  In fact, I was a little inaccurate at the beginning of this essay.  The Olympia Friends Meeting does not have a monthly Meeting for Business.  They have a monthly Meeting for Worship for Business.  They do their business in the context of worship.

I think the UCC could learn something here.  What if we were to see our business meetings as acts of worship?  What if the central focus of our business was the praise and glorification of God?  Would that change how we decide things?  Would that change how we listen to each other in the deciding?

My congregation is in the process of deciding if they will merge with a neighboring Disciples of Christ congregation.  It is my fervent hope that they will make this major business decision worshipfully.

*Jesus actually called it something else because he didn’t speak English.  The traditional translation is the Kingdom of God, but I prefer the Empire of God because he was contrasting it with the Empire of Rome.