Programmed meetings represent the Orthodox strand of Quakerism that can help our yearly meetings in a number of ways.
In the beginning of Quakerism, George Fox and the first Friends gathered in their meetinghouses or sometimes outdoors or in jails in silence. They were excited with the discovery that Christ was alive and had “come to teach his people himself.” They gathered for worship, fully expecting God’s spirit to be present. Out of their hushed expectancy, they entered into a fellowship with God which changed their lives. One of my favorite quotes is from Robert Barclay, who after visiting a meeting wrote:
When I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it, I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up.
One Kenyan Friend, when visiting our unprogrammed meeting in New Hampshire (Weare–Henniker Meeting), found she could feel the presence of God in a way that was deeper and more powerful than she’d experienced before. When I have offered a few minutes of this type of silent worship during an ecumenical service, people from other Protestant groups have thanked me. Allowing time for the messages and words of music or messages shared earlier in their service to sink in, they could see what God wanted each to learn. When Quakerism started, it was a time of quieting down enough to listen to God: to see what God wanted each person to do. However, early Friends didn’t just sit in silence for an hour. They would listen to God for up to three hours, and then they would go out into the markets and even into other churches and preach, as they felt led by God. They followed both unprogrammed and programmed worship. Today, each branch of Friends has maintained one part of Quakerism and often forgotten the other parts, and sometimes one branch will even wonder how others can call themselves Friends if they have a type of service different from one’s own local meeting.
As pastoral meetings die out and are replaced by new mixtures, many of the practices and beliefs of Friends are being challenged, and are in danger of being lost. We need both strands to be viable. It is not having pastors per se that is so important, as the strand of Quakerism they represent and maintain.
Coming from New England, Weare–Henniker Meeting still contains some elements of all four branches of Friends. The reunion of New England Yearly Meeting (NEYM) included mostly Orthodox meetings with a small number of Conservative Friends and a couple of independent university-based meetings. The NEYM reunion was not a uniting of Hicksite and Orthodox like in Philadelphia, New York, or Baltimore. NEYM didn’t even join Friends General Conference (FGC) until the 1960s, but gradually it has become more and more distant from its roots and more FGC-oriented. Many Friends don’t even know that it has any pastoral meetings and are appalled to hear there are such.
As pastoral meetings die out and are replaced by new mixtures (often due to lack of support from other Friends), many of the practices and beliefs of Friends are being challenged, and are in danger of being lost. Friends need both strands to be viable. It is not having pastors per se that is so important, as the strand of Quakerism they represent and maintain. I see the values of the programmed meetings lead to the following:
- Strength in prayer (including audible vocal prayer)
- Biblical literacy (e.g., adult Bible studies)
- Members encouraged to follow God’s callings (supporting those who are called to mission work as well as service work)
- Tithing (as a way of thanking God for all our many blessings)
- Christian-based theology (a blessing to other Christian Friends who feel isolated in their local unprogrammed meetings)
The programmed meeting at Semuto Evangelical Friends Church in Uganda starts its service with three very large drums, and people gather, dance, and sing with joy as they greet one another. Once in a group I was with, a woman stood and asked the group to join her in singing “Still my body, calm my soul, calm my spirit and make me whole.” It calmed us all down, and we were ready to listen to the pastor. In another programmed worship in Indiana, music was played and the sermon given on the loudest setting of the microphone; my ears ached so much I could not hear what words they were saying. In another meeting in Kenya, they did not have a choir, so they let a group of young Friends sing a new song they had just learned from their youth camp the week before. They had prepared a program of vocal prayers, hymns, choruses, and a sermon, but instead of choosing who would do each part of the program, they let any two people pray; they allowed the Spirit to choose which of the people who had come to the service were led to share. I have enjoyed visiting the three Swahili-speaking Friends churches in Quebec. They are made up of mostly Congolese refugees who have settled in Canada. The first thing the refugees do when they finally get a place to live—after fleeing the civil war and spending years in refugee camps—is start a church so they can thank God for a place to live. Other programmed meetings follow a program very similar to other Protestant churches. There is a lot of diversity, just as there is diversity among unprogrammed Friends.
I have found that many unprogrammed Friends understand silent worship but are reluctant to encourage others to come to their meetings, let alone consider any outreach or evangelism. Some begin to worship silence. (I have visited one meeting in New England where they never expect or encourage anyone to say anything during the meeting for worship.) Some of us worship our simple meetinghouses. This can be seen when visiting, and instead of being told about the worship, the first thing Friends do for visitors is show off the meetinghouse, both the well-maintained historical buildings as well as the newly built that are ecologically certified as green buildings. Others have forgotten our roots and encourage freedom to believe anything from any source except Christianity (often due to experiences in other churches where Christians were abusive). Some seem to be more of a society of Friends than a Religious Society of Friends. I wonder whether George Fox or Elizabeth Hooten (the first Quaker woman minister who often traveled with Fox on missionary journeys) would be welcomed in all of our meetings.
At the same time, I have experienced a number of programmed meetings where they do great preaching and teaching but often forget to take time to listen to God. Some of the newer programmed, more Evangelical meetings have started to copy other churches or televised types of services with very loud music (mostly choruses rather than hymns) and loud prayers. Recently in Rwanda, the government banned Muslim and Christian (including Quaker) congregations that make too much noise, unless they have built soundproof walls for their houses of worship.
I hope Friends will take time to listen to God and go out and preach Good News, which can be in actions, not just words. I learned from programmed Friends that we took the name Friends from John 15:14, where Jesus said: “You are my friends, if you do whatsoever I command you.“
Let’s all be Friends.
1 thought on “Learning from Programmed Friends”
Thank you, Friend Marian, for lifting up the strength of our Quaker diversity and inviting us all to consider how we might deepen our faith by being more open to the plurality of practice available to us.
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