The Beauty of Silence

I had been wondering where I would go to church for the last Sunday of my sabbatical, knowing that there wouldn’t be another opportunity for a long time once I get back to St Nicholas.

I thought about it for a long time.  One church I wanted to visit was not having a service, I couldn’t find the time of the service for another, and so on.  I was stuck, and needed to decide.  Then Bev said, “Have you thought about the Quakers ?”  That was it!  Of course.  With their stand on peace, and their history of protest and social action, it had to the the Quakers.

So at 10.20 am yesterday, I was sitting outside the Hull Quaker Meeting House.  I was warmly welcomed and shown into the meeting room, and because it was my first time, I had been given some pamphlets to help me understand a little about Quaker worship.  There was no beginning to the meeting as such.  No words of welcome or explanation, but that was fine.  A characteristic of Quaker worship is silence and waiting, which is exactly what we had.  A few late comers meant that we didn’t enter a real silence for about 15 minutes, but then there was (for me anyway) a beautiful silence for about 30 minutes.

During this time, I thought back over the last few weeks; I tried to remember (with some success) the events of the early chapters of Mark’s Gospel; I prayed for my family, and for the people I had met in America; I listened for God in the silence.

At 11.15, someone stood up.  He paused for a few moments, seeming to choose his words, and then spoke briefly about one of the articles of the book ‘Quaker Faith and Practice’:   Article 2.55 Remember that to every one is given a share of responsibility for the meeting for worship, whether that service be in silence or through the spoken word. Do not assume that vocal ministry is never to be your part. 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.

You can find the full version of Quaker Faith and Practice here:

He spoke for a few minutes and then sat down.  Then someone else stood, waited a few moments, and also spoke for maybe 3 or 4 minutes and sat down.

And then, without any difficulty, we went back into silence for the last 10 minutes of the meeting.

The whole experience reminded me in many ways of my formative experiences of church in Open Brethren Assemblies.  Like Quaker worship, our Sunday morning meeting was based on an understanding that worship was to be guided by the Holy Spirit.  For that to happen, there must be a degree of silence and waiting, and into the silence, God would lead different people to share a scripture, a hymn, a prayer, or a reflection.  In both traditions, there is no leader of the worship apart from the Holy Spirit.  

There are some similarities: Brethren, like Quakers, tend to avoid set prayers and creeds, and both are led by a group of ‘Elders’.  But there are also huge differences: Brethren are typically very conservative and narrow in their theology, whilst Quakers accommodate a very wide spectrum of beliefs.  The main act of worship in the Brethren is ‘The Lord’s Supper’ (Communion), whereas Quakers emphasise the experience of the presence of God in us, without the need for outwards symbols.

Although there is no link between Open Brethren and the Quakers, some of the earliest Brethren were originally Quakers and there was a Quaker influence on the distinctive character of Brethren worship meetings.

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