Worship in the religious society of friends [Quakers]

“In worship, we enter with reverence into communion with God, surrendering our whole being to Him and to His purpose. Worship becomes sacramental as we receive the spirit of the living Christ in our midst, and offer ourselves to His service. Come with heart and mind prepared. Pray silently as you gather together that you may all be drawn into the spirit of adoration and communion in which fellowship with one another becomes real. Yield yourselves and all your outward concerns to God’s guidance, that you may find the evil weakening in you and the good raised up”.

(From the Quaker Advices)

The basis for Friends’ worship is silence. Whether you attend a Meeting for Worship (which is how Quakers speak of their weekly Meeting not as a service), a wedding, or a memorial service the worship is rooted in silence. This may be a baffling, intriguing or disconcerting experience for people not used to Friends’ worship. I remember the bewilderment of some of my pupils once when they discovered that people really chose to sit in silence for an hour. (And, it must be added, their disbelief that I was capable of actually doing so!) I also recall the very loud whisper of a lady to her neighbour attending her first Meeting for Worship held once in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, “When does it start?” A Friend had explained what happened at a Quaker Meeting prior to worship beginning but this lady could not believe that after ten minutes we were still in silence.

I remember finding my first Meeting a very strange experience indeed. I spent the entire hour concentrating on a persistent runny nose and a rumbling tummy (the latter making me wish that I had foregone the pleasure of a Sunday ‘lie-in’ in favour of breakfast!) My experience of silence as a child had not been conducive to appreciating silent worship. When my sister and I had been sparring we were often made to sit opposite each other for what seemed like an interminable length of time. As a regular worshipper at Anglican Eucharist services I missed the hymn singing, having a priest to focus my eyes on during the service, the movement of standing up and sitting down, the sermon, the communion — the whole variety of the service.

Some people on the other hand, speak of ‘coming home’ when they attend their first Meeting for Worship and feeling instantly at home in the silence. We are, of course, all different and our experiences are not all the same. What I write here, therefore, is my personal account. I do not claim to speak for all Friends or those who worship with them. As Gerald Priestland writes at the beginning of his booklet Coming Home:

“Since Quakers have no test of faith, or Creed, each of us can only speak for himself. No one person speaks for the Society, we have no Pope, no Archbishop, no President or Moderator”.

Also, Quakers have always held to the fact that we must — and can — only speak from our first-hand experience. In the words of George Fox, the founder of Quakerism,

“You will say, Christ saith this and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say?”

The room used for Meeting for Worship could be in a Meeting House (Quakers call their buildings this, reserving the word ‘church’ for the people), someone’s home or a hired room such as in a Y.M.C.A. building. Wherever it is, it will be plain and lacking in any of the things that you might expect to find in a church building. There is, for example, no font or altar because Quakers have no sacraments. There are no statues, crosses or any symbols.

In the centre of the room there is usually a table on which will be found some flowers and a Bible, also two Quaker books: one entitled Church Government and the other Christian faith and practice in the experience of the Society of Friends. The chairs or benches will be arranged in a circle or square. This arrangement emphasizes that all who come to Meetings are responsible for the worship be they a Friend, an Attender (that is someone who has been attending Meetings for some time but who has not applied for membership) and a person who is coming for the first time.

The Meeting for Worship begins as soon as the first person has sat down in silence. The first part of Meeting is concerned with ‘centring down’. Someone has likened this to the peeling off the layers of an onion — each layer representing wordly concerns and worries. (Did I leave the oven on too high? Did I remember to post that letter? I forgot to leave a note for . . .). Sometimes people may find it difficult to shed their outer concerns and to centre their whole being on worshipping God. Some may be able to ‘centre down’ to read a Bible passage, think of one or two of the Quaker Advices and Queries or focus on a saying of Jesus. Many people find their posture and the position of their hands can help them to achieve internal stillness. I find I am less easily distracted if I fold my hands in my lap. Eventually each worshipper comes down to the centre of their being and is able to meet with each other at a deep level — and with God. When this happens, Quakers speak of the Meeting being ‘gathered’.

Quaker worship, as I mentioned above, is based in silence. However, Meeting for Worship is seldom totally silent. It is likely that there will be three or four (though this number could be smaller or greater) spoken contributions (called ministry). This ministry could take the form of a reading from the Bible or the two Quaker books mentioned above as being found on the central table. It could be vocal prayer or a sharing of experience. Sometimes ministry is a line or verse from a hymn (though it is quite rare for someone to minister in song). Quaker Advices and Queries are often read (though only one or two at a time!) and the Elders who look after the spiritual nature of the Meeting for Worship will see this is done through a certain interval of time.

Anyone, whether Friend, Attender or visitor may minister in Meeting. The criteria is that the person ministering must feel led by the Spirit to do so. The ministry must come out of the silent worship. How does one know that one is led to minister? This must be a personal decision for each individual. However, many people feel as if they are being forced on their feet (people usually stand to minister). Often individuals try to stay seated, wishing not to minister, but if one truly feels led then one must remain faithful to the Spirit.

“If the call to speak comes, do not let the sense of your own unworthiness, or the fear of being unable to find the right words, prevent you from being obedient to the leading of the Spirit. Ask wisdom of God that you may be sure of your guidance and be enabled humbly to discern and impart something of His glory and truth. Pray that your ministry may rise from the place of deep experience, and that you may be restrained from unnecessary and superficial words”.

(From the Quaker Advices)

The hesitancy that many will feel when being asked to minister often comes through in the nervousness with which the words are sometimes uttered. The early nicknames ‘Quakers’ may have been given to Friends from the fact that they ‘quaked’ when they stood to minister. Sometimes, the ministry one is led to give reveals something about oneself that one would rather keep hidden, even from one’s Friends. It may be that the size of the Meeting or simply that there may be many people one does not know may be daunting — as was my feeling at a wedding where I was led to minister.

It is the experience of Friends that the ministry given in Meeting will often guide one, maybe in the sense of answering a difficulty one is offering up. The ministry, as Friends will say, often ‘speaks to me’. I remember once taking a friend to her first Meeting. After worship she took me on one side and said a particular Friend had ministered for her almost implying that I had spoken beforehand to that Friend about her circumstances (which I had not done). It would be amazing, unbelievable were not this worship and was not God in our midst.

It may be that sometimes Meetings are not ‘gathered’. It also has to be admitted that on occasions Friends may feel that some ministry has been given that is not in response to a leading of the Spirit. It may seem that someone has stood to utter words or to quote something they had intended to say before the Meeting commenced. On these occasions the ministry may seem not to spring from the silence but rather to jar with it. At such times part of our Advices on worship remind us to:

“Receive the ministry of others in a tender and understanding spirit and avoid hurtful criticism. As servants of the same Lord, with diversities of gifts, receive and give faithfully in the service of truth, remembering that ministry which to one may seem to have little value, to another may be a direct word from God”.

Some ministry will never be spoken. The individual has to decide whether they have ben given a personal message or one they are being asked to share vocally.

“It would ... be a great mistake were it to be assumed that only in the spoken word is God’s message given to the worshipper. In the silence the faithful listener may catch the accents of a Voice within and become vividly aware of a demand which has absolute authority, a demand to which ‘one’ must be obedient or betray something deep within ‘oneself’ which has, for ‘one’, become the voice of God Himself”

Edgar G. Dunstan (1956) p235 Christian Faith and Practice

All ministry, whether silent or spoken, becomes a part of the worship and, in a way that is difficult to describe, is shared.

Quakers do not have any form of Communion in the sharing of bread and wine. To Friends all of life is sacramental, and this is why there are no sacraments in Quaker worship. The sharing of every meal has a sacramental quality for Friends. Here is a description of the communion friends experience in worship:

“In silence, without rite or symbol, we have known the Spirit of Christ so convincingly present in our quiet meetings that His grace dispels our unfaithfulness, our unwillingness, our fears and sets our hearts aflame with the joy of adoration. We have thus felt the power of the Spirit renewing and recreating our love and friendship for all our fellows. This is our Eucharist and our Communion”

Yearly Meeting 1928 241 Christian Faith & Practice


Meeting for Worship is above all corporate worship. It is not about us as individuals praying or reading — it is about us coming together to worship God.

“People who have entered the room as individuals sooner or later become aware that they are encountering others present at a level deeper than normal conscious communication. While they remain fully themselves they also become, in a real sense, one group, a communion of people bonded together in spirit”

George Gorman Pl0 The Amazing Fact of Quaker Worship

Meeting for Worship lasts about an hour. The end of the Meeting is signalled by two Elders shaking hands. In many Meetings everyone present will then shake hands with their neighbours. There will usually be a time of notices and sharing news — and in many Meetings a cup of coffee.

Children, in general, come in to Meeting for fifteen minutes, either at the beginning or at the end. Which part of Meeting they should come in to is a perennial question amongst Friends. The last fifteen minutes of Meeting enables them to come in to a gathered Meeting and to experience worship on a deep level. However, the practicalities of getting all the children in children’s classes, especially where there are a lot of children, generally mean that the children are present at the first part of Meeting.

Meeting for Worship is very important, nay central, in the lives of Friends and individual Quakers will go to great pains not to avoid missing the hour of worship on Sunday.

The best way to see what Meeting for Worship is like is to go to one. It would be preferable to try to go to at least two Meetings for Worship rather than just one so as to get a truer ‘feel’ of the worship. I think it may also be helpful to attend a smaller Meeting and perhaps, if possible, to try to visit two Meetings. People from other Christian denominations and other religious traditions — and no religious traditions — are welcome to come once or as often as they want. We do not claim that it is the only way to worship but it is the way in which we find God’s presence made real to us and we are delighted when others want to share it.

Finally, I want to share some thoughts about how possible it is to let children/young people in school learn about Friends worship. Schools can, of course, visit Meeting Houses and children can see for themselves what there isn’t inside and what the lack of ‘furniture’ tells one about the type of worship found there. I have found that on occasions children may fall naturally quiet in a room used for Quaker worship — more, I suspect, out of surprise than anything (though they may be outraged at finding children’s swings in the Meeting House garden cum burial ground!) I commend to readers Lynne Schofield’s article in the British Journal of Religious Education on using silence with a class. I too have tried this — like her not particularly as a planned activity. It was after watching 3Z rampaging across the adjourning garage forecourt before coming to me for the last lesson of the day. I was particularly aware of my frailty as a human being. When two members of the group arrived on the verge of a fight precipitated further by one lad making what could be seen as a severely blasphemous remark about a wall display of ‘Images of Jesus’, I decided in desperation to try five-ten minutes of silence. We re-arranged the chairs in a circle and I explained that we would sit in silence and listen. The group readily acquiesced. What I hoped, to be honest, would at least be a breathing space for me to regain my self-control before the lesson proper, turned out to be a deep experience for the group. We shared our feelings afterwards and those who wanted spoke of what they had heard. Everyone regarded what we had done as ‘a game’ — and it was often requested after that lesson. The members of the group were unused to silence and it was a novel experience to them. It has to be said that as it involved no reading or writing it was, to some extent, regarded as not being ‘work’. Being asked to clear your mind of everything could even be seen as a ‘skive’. “What if I drop off to sleep?” asked the lad whose remark had occasioned some anger on entering the room. “Then go to sleep” as my answer was perhaps unexpected.

It was not, I have admitted, a planned activity. I. would not call it worship. But it did provide the healing power which Friends — and others — find in silence.


The Religious Society of Friends of London Yearly meeting are using a document entitled Questions and Counsel as a possible replacement for Advices and Queries. This came out in January 1988 and will be used for a trial period of two to three years.


  • Christian Faith and Practice in the experience of the Society of Friends, London Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, 1960
  • Church Government, London yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, 1968. (The “Advices and Queries” can be found in here or they can be obtained in a separate booklet. Questions and Counsels is a booklet).
  • The Amazing Fact of Quaker Worship, George H. Gorman, QHS 1973, ISBN 0 85245 100 8.
  • Coming Home, Gerald Priestland, OHS 1981, ISBN 0 85245 167 9.
  • Can we do that candle thing again? pp 84—86, Lynne Schofield, BJRE, Spring 1983.

Mpst of these books and others and leaflets on various aspects of Quakerism can be obtained from: The Bookshop, Friends House, Euston Road, London NW1 2BJ.

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