Monday, September 3, 2012

Ritual outline for Meeting for Worship

There is an arc to the ritual in unprogrammed Quaker Meeting for Worship. 

It's plain to me.  And it's something I can't help seeing, with my background and training -- in my undergraduate and graduate studies; in my spiritual and religious work; as a Friend; as a Priestess & Witch.

I've written and talked about this in Meeting for Worship some before, including in "'Four Doors to Meeting for Worship' from a Quaker Witch's Perspective" ( 

But I've been thinking about it a lot again lately.  

* * * * *

Here's the ritual outline for how Meeting for Worship went in one of the Meetings where I was active for several years:

Outline for Meeting for Worship at [Blank] Friends Meeting: 
  • Gather
  • Meeting for Worship begins when first person starts to worship, usually a few minutes before 11:00 am
  • 11:10, doors close; latecomers are not admitted until children leave
  • There might or might not be vocal ministry
  • At 11:20, an appointed person signals that it's time for the children to leave; the children leave worship and latecomers enter worship
  • There might or might not be vocal ministry 
  • At 11:50, the appointed person stands and explains Joys and Sorrows
  • Joys and Sorrows
  • At app. 12:00, the appointed person shakes hands with the person next to them; shaking of hands continues
  • The appointed person stands, makes some routine/regular/repeated announcements about the Meeting; welcomes newcomers and visitors and asks them and those who have not been there for a while to stand and introduce themselves; makes additional announcements and passes out printed announcements; requests donations; other Friends may ask to make other announcements; eventually, appointed person declares we are done and invites everyone to social hour / coffee, tea, snacks
  • Room is cleaned up

That looks like a ritual outline to my experienced eye.  A pretty simple ritual outline, but a ritual outline. 

How does this look in other Meetings, or in general?

Well, as with all ritual, there are things we need to do ahead of time, and there's what happens during the event itself. 

Ahead of time:
  • Make sure the chairs and/or benches are set up the right way / the way we like them / the way approved by the appropriate committee (Worship and Ministry, Ministry and Counsel, Elders & Overseers, etc) -- whether in a circle, in rows, in squares
  • Put small tables between some of the chairs
  • Put the central table in place
  • Make sure the guest book is in its place, that it has a pen, and that the light is on over the guest book, etc.
  • Put books and literature on facing benches or central table, some on smaller tables: Faith and Practice, Advices and Queries, different versions of Hebrew and Christian scriptures, hymnals, printed announcements, the monthly newsletter, other announcements, etc.
  • Put bowls for contributions on central table or envelopes for contributions on facing benches or appropriate places
  • Put carafe of water and empty glasses on central table (or appropriate places)
  • Put flowers on central table (or appropriate places)
  • Turn on loop hearing system
  • Decide who closes Meeting
  • Decide who speaks at rise of Meeting
  • Decide who has care of Meeting (which member/s of Worship & Ministry or Ministry & Counsel, Elders & Overseers, etc., are expected to be present)
  • If there's a special collection, decide who will talk about it
  • If children are present for the first part of worship, decide who determines when it's time for them to leave
  • Decide who will clean up room; if it's a rented/hired space, who puts chairs back, etc.
  • Determine who is responsible for social hour -- coffee / tea / snacks / etc. -- providing these, serving these, cleaning up afterwards, etc.
  • Decide who closes the doors to latecomers and who opens them again

Some of these don't apply to every Quaker Meeting; there are other things I haven't listed here that could also be included. 

During Meeting for Worship: 
  • Gather
  • Greeters / doorkeepers greet people at the door(s), makes sure newcomers know where to go, especially newcomers with children
  • Meeting for Worship begins when first person starts to worship 
  • Those who have official roles take their places -- care of Meeting / Elders & Overseers / members of Worship & Ministry or Ministry & Counsel, person closing Meeting, person handling announcements, etc.
  • There might or might not be vocal ministry
  • Greeters / doorkeepers / appointed person(s) close doors to keep latecomers from entering
  • If children are present for the first part of worship, children leave after X minutes
  • Latecomers enter; if not when children leave, greeters / doorkeepers / appointed person(s) open doors at pre-arranged time for latecomers
  • There might or might not be vocal ministry
  • If children come into worship later, or leave and return, children enter worship after Y minutes
  • There might or might not be vocal ministry
  • If Joys and Sorrows, Joys and Sorrows
  • Shaking of hands by appointed person at appointed time
  • Appointed person welcomes everyone and speaks about the Meeting in general, including requesting donations; also asks visitors, newcomers, and those returning after absences to introduce themselves
  • In some Meetings, all present introduce themselves
  • The children may share what they did during First Day School / Children's Meeting
  • Appointed person makes announcements; there may be additional announcements from the floor
  • If there is a special collection, a different appointed person speaks about that organization and requests money
  • There may be a reading from Advices & Queries
  • There may be a brief resumption of silent worship
  • Appointed person "releases" the meeting
  • Room is cleaned up

Again, some of these don't apply to every Quaker Meeting, and there are other things I haven't listed here that could also be included.

So, yes, we have ritual.

One question is, are we honest about it?

* * * * *

Friends (Quakers) like to say we don't have ritual.

Before I ever started attending Meeting for Worship regularly, I had a fair amount of experience as a Priestess & Witch analyzing spiritual and religious ritual, as well as some experience and undergraduate training with cultural ritual, too.  And as I spent more time in unprogrammed Meeting for Worship, it became pretty obvious to me that Quakers have ritual, without calling it that.

September 11, 2001, further convinced me of this.  That week, my Meeting, like many others, hosted Meetings for Worship outside our regular Sunday, or First Day, worship.  Suddenly, just how much ritual was involved each week became clearer to me.

Because the usual people from the usual committee were not always available, other people, who were less practiced, had to set up for Meeting for Worship, had to "run" Meeting for Worship, had to end it, had to herd people out at the end, etc.

Because we have no clergy / we're all clergy, and because we believe we all know how to do this, no one made plans ahead of time for who was responsible for worship -- and those of us from the Meeting who showed up found it hard going when we arrived.  Where were the guest book and pen?  The bibles and hymnals and copies of Faith and Practice for the facing benches?  Should we have informational pamphlets available?  Which ones?  Where are they stored?  Since we had so many people from the community, should someone introduce and explain Meeting for Worship at the beginning?  Who would close Meeting?  Did anyone have "care of Meeting," the particular task of holding the Meeting for Worship in the Light and helping to center it?  Should someone speak at the end after the shaking of hands?  What would they say?  (What did the usual people say?  Where was the script they used -- ?)

We muddled through.  It was stressful.

It was illuminating.

A few years later, I gained further academic experience analyzing ritual in religious and spiritual contexts.  From a religious studies point of view, from a ritual studies point of view, yes, Quakers have ritual.

It's very simple ritual.  But it's there. 


Alyss said...

I attend a programmed Quaker meeting, though one with strong ties to our unprogrammed Quaker heritage. The rituals involved in our weekly Meeting for Worship are a bit more evident than in the few unprogrammed meetings I've been to, and they are held dearly. I noticed it especially this weekend, when our pastor was out at a conference. Elders and other members of the community ran the meeting, and it went exceptionally smoothly... but what amused me is how many of the words used by the other members of the leadership team were EXACTLY the words our pastor uses each week. He has built in ritual words to our order of service and they are so comforting and appropriate that they are used even when he is not present. They get the job done, and it helps us know exactly what is happening and what is coming next :) And that ritual... that consistency and symbolic pathway from one element to the next, allows us to enter into worship and fellowship easily... the real reason we gather.

I remember a conversation with a weighty Quaker a few years ago over this idea of outward forms. He was concerned about how do we pass on to our children the convictions of our faith if we believe that the outward forms are not the important part. I agreed that they are not the most important part, but my experience as a pagan and my knowledge of child development shows me that for children, the doing IS the important part. We have outward forms, and we need to respect them for what they are. They are tools that help us do the inward work of worship and tools that help us tell other people about the experiences we have that are beyond words. Yes, to an adult who has experienced the light of christ/the inward teacher/the holy spirit, the outward forms are less important than the actual experience - but the ritual surrounding that experience is a very useful thing worth honoring and respecting.

Morgan said...

" And that ritual... that consistency and symbolic pathway from one element to the next, allows us to enter into worship and fellowship easily... the real reason we gather."


"...but my experience as a pagan and my knowledge of child development shows me that for children, the doing IS the important part."

For many adults, too!

I don't worry too much about it -- if we teach well enough what the meaning behind the doing is, kids / teens / adults learn how to express the meaning in ways that work for them. If I teach the meaning through one way of doing, and the person I'm teaching gains fluency that way, then they have the freedom when they reach that developmental point (or just that point of mastery) that they can find / choose / develop another doing-way that works for them, that is a good way for them to express the meaning. Maybe a better way, for them.

And yet, as Friends, at least as unprogrammed Friends, we often worry SO MUCH about outward forms. Truly, I think my friends who are unprogrammed Friends expend as much, if not more, time and energy on this as my friends who are Pagans.

And it's the Pagans who are thought to be obsessed by outward forms...

(...but, in all honesty, often have much better training and experience at seeing the truths behind them. Hmmm.)