Friends commence worship in silence. It is better to experience this than to listen to or read a description of it.
Worship is the process of listening for the word of God. It works best in a group setting. When a Friend hears a clear message, meant for the group, then he or she will stand up and convey it to all. Friends speak about being impelled by a powerful force to stand up and speak. This is a force that must not be resisted: it is a right and indeed a duty to speak. Sometimes, more than one Friend sitting in a Meeting for Worship will receive a similar message; and one spoken message will be followed by another. A Friend who speaks should not aim at a polished performance, or a long one, but, relying on the inspiration of the spiritual force, should use simple words, straight from the heart.
A Meeting for Worship may remain silent throughout – this is acceptable. (But Friends may wish to share the fruits of their contemplation, subsequently.)
Friends say that each human being has to take responsibility for what he or she believes and how he or she acts. Reference is often made to the “spiritual journey”. (During this journey, change can occur.) This means that each Friend must speak for him- or herself, and choose his or her own words.
Words have limitations; they are subject to misunderstanding; although they can aid communication, they can also hinder it. Friends look behind the words – to the spirit behind the words. We have no creed.
Some leaders promote a doctrine (religious or political), at the expense of the welfare of their fellow human beings: those who resist are punished. For Friends, people come before doctrine. It is wrong to persecute anybody because the beliefs they hold are “wrong”.
Although each Friend must speak for him- or herself, a characteristic of Friends is that they are in constant communication with one another – exchanging experiences and ideas. This how an ethos is sustained; this is how spiritual unity is maintained.
Friends are open to new “light” from wherever it comes. In other words, they are open to change, in accordance with new insights. Changes can happen as society changes. This is not a matter of following society, only, but also leading it. Friends are interested in positive social change.
Belief leads to action; and action reinforces or modifies belief. But an intermediary process needs to be inserted between the two: namely, discernment. Friends make an effort, as a group, to discern the way forward before engaging in action. If ever Friends are not in unity, then they wait until the way forward is revealed to them. (We do not resolve disagreements through voting.) There may be delay, but once clarity is attained, then the required action is pursued whole-heartedly.
To me, all life is sacred. Life and nature are so valuable that they must not be depreciated or wasted. Friends promote peace rather than warlike conflict, social justice rather than inequality, simplicity rather than luxury, earning and deserving rather than gambling, moderation rather than excessive drinking or smoking, sustaining our world rather than over-exploitation of resources and pollution.
Many Friends are vegetarians because of their respect for animals and also the cost to the environment of farming animals for meat.
Friends believe that all people are equal – equal in the eyes of God. All are priests; all can communicate directly with God; there are no paid clergy. Therefore, for example, women are equal with men; and the equal status is recognised in our writings. A second consequence is that any Friend can be asked to serve in a capacity (for a time-limited period), eg as clerk, overseer, elder, treasurer, committee member.
Friends’ ways take time to learn about and to understand: they have to be experienced rather than studied as an academic subject; they make demands upon one’s time and energy. Some people (even followers of other faith traditions) choose to share their spiritual journey with Friends, as fellow travellers; they are welcome.
What effects has membership of the Society had for me? I have attended about three thousand Meetings for Worship, in various places, in my time; and Meeting for Worship has become an integral part of my life (if I cannot attend, I miss it). I have been asked to serve in numerous capacities, and I have found all these experiences rewarding. I have been served and helped too, especially when in some personal difficulty, and for this I remain grateful. The constant dialogue among us – especially about their experiences and what they have learnt – is stimulating and deepens our faith.
I appreciate both the freedom of the individual that is part of our ethos; but I also respect accept the discipline that my membership of the Society requires. This freedom, within a discipline has proved to be the right way for me on my spiritual journey through life.
David R Harries