Hybrid Worship and Quaker Values

Ever since the Quakers broke from the Church of England in the mid-seventeenth century, they have gathered for Silent Worship in plain rooms – ones usually bare of any religious art or symbols. This tradition has served Quakers well, as most Quaker Meetings still prefer simple rooms with few distractions.

But in 2020, Quakers around the world responded to the pandemic closings by retreating to Zoom, seeking that quiet, communal worship space in a virtual environment. Zoom worship didn’t work for everyone, and seemed like second-best to many of us, but over time we discovered some advantages: everyone could hear each other when messages were shared; we got glimpses into each others’ homes; far-flung attenders who could rarely travel to in-person worship showed up more often; and those who were sick or frail or just too tired could easily attend. We also found that the fellowship we shared after worship, all of us together in the Zoom, was more communal and richer than the usual pattern of splitting into separate conversations during coffee hour in the Meeting House.

With the pandemic waning, the question before us is what to do when we reopen. Do we go back to the seventeenth-century model of in-person worship, or do we find a way to meld the new with the old: virtual + in-person?

Such a blend of approaches – often called Hybrid Worship – was the topic of a recent Quaker workshop on the Future of Worship. The gathering was held on Zoom and drew folks from all over the west, including Honolulu and Mexico City. As Quakers will, we started with silence, to ground us in the spiritual seriousness of our task. After that, I thought we would leap into a debate about technical devices and approaches, but instead the leaders called on us to start with our Quaker values. “Don’t skip of the question of why with a headlong rush into how,” one of the leaders said. And this is part of what I love about Quakers:  every decision starts with discernment.

For those in the workshop, the testimonies of Equality, Simplicity, Community and Unity with Nature all seemed useful guides. Our Quaker testimony of Equality – that there is that of God in everyone, including those from widely different stations and life experiences – pointed us to the importance of making worship available to all, including those who were disabled or elderly, or who lived too far away (a major concern out here in the west). Many Meetings said they had picked up new attenders via Zoom during the pandemic, including folks who lived far away and might not be able to get to in-person worship on a regular basis. No one wanted to cut those people out by dropping a Zoom option once in-person worship resumed.

Others focused on the Unity with Nature testimony, saying that anything that reduced the energy cost of traveling to worship would ultimately be better for the climate, another strong reason to continue to offer a Zoom option.

When it came to the Community testimony, however, it was clear that many Meetings longed to resume in-person worship because they had missed the powerful presence of others in a gathered Meeting. They also looked forward to the social aspects of Quaker Meetings – the coffee hour or potluck or spiritual discussions that usually met in the Meeting House. To meet the needs of their entire Meeting community, it seemed clear to most at the workshop that they needed to offer both options.

For Reno Meeting, the pandemic has both expanded our scope (pulling in attenders from Minden, Truckee and Quincy, California,) and changed our self-image. As the only Quaker Monthly Meeting in Nevada, there is no reason we cannot offer our worship to anyone in the state (or the Sierras) looking for Silent Worship, which will mean a Zoom option. At the same time, however, we recognize the sweetness of in-person gatherings, and want to encourage our members and attenders to come to the Meeting House when they can. To that end, we plan to start with a Hybrid Worship experiment:  we will offer a Zoom option along with in-person worship on first and third Sundays.  On other Sundays, including our 4th Sunday potluck day, we will hope most folks attend in-person if they can.

We’re not sure exactly how this will all work. When the workshop turned to the question of electronic devices to share screen images and sounds to the virtual attenders, the Simplicity testimony floated overhead, urging us all to make our technical solutions as seamless and unobtrusive as possible. We agreed we didn’t want it to look like we were worshipping a microphone sitting in the middle of the Meeting House, and others pointed out that many attenders were concerned about privacy and didn’t necessarily want their images shared virtually during Meeting. As I said, all this will be a big experiment, and I’m sure we will get better at it as we go along.  For now, though, Reno Friends Meeting is committed to doing what it can to offer Silent Worship both in-person and online. We will listen tenderly to everyone’s needs as we re-imagine what Worship can be and remain open to continuing revelation.

Wendy Swallow, Blog Editor, Reno Friends Meeting