Speaking in Silent Worship

Quakers are known for gathering to worship in silence, and yet they also gather to hear the many voices of God. Instead of a prepared sermon or liturgy, Quakers worship through “vocal ministry,” messages offered out of the silence by those who feel moved to speak.

Many Quaker Meetings have just a few messages during Silent Worship, and some Meetings go week after week without any vocal ministry. When I first started attending Quaker Meeting, I mostly listened as others shared messages that were usually thoughtful and eloquent. Sometimes they started with personal anecdotes, sometimes with musings on a theme. Occasionally they included a quote from the Bible or some other spiritual text. Many messages, whether brief or extended, bloomed into something universal and important. I wasn’t sure how they did it, but I loved the moving narratives that bubbled up in the Meeting.

During those early years, I sometimes felt a message stirring in my heart, but I wasn’t sure if I should share it. There were guidelines: only speak if you can’t stay seated; only speak if the message is intended for someone other than yourself; refrain from political or non-spiritual comments; don’t lecture or use worship for a personal announcement. It could be bewildering.

And yet, at the same time, I sensed that there was value in sharing if I had something genuine and deeply felt. Deciding whether to share a message can be difficult, but if everyone is too circumspect, then the Meeting goes quiet and loses the wonderful mystery of vocal ministry.

In a recent spiritual discussion on Speaking in Worship, Reno Friends offered advice:

  • Share more about how we are human rather than how we are perfect;
  • Think of messages from others as gifts – even if we don’t recognize the source or the language used, there may be something in it that speaks to us;
  • Experienced Quakers can set an example by sharing their ministry;
  • Aim for the universal rather than the personal.

Our guidebook Faith & Practice tells us this: “Do not assume that vocal ministry is never to be your part. Faithfulness and sincerity in speaking, even very briefly, may open the way to fuller ministry from others. When prompted to speak, wait patiently to know that the leading and the time are right, but do not let a sense of your own unworthiness hold you back. Pray that your ministry may arise from deep experience, and trust that words will be given to you. Try to speak audibly and distinctly, and with sensitivity to the needs of others. Beware of speaking predictably or too often, and of making additions towards the end of a meeting when it was well left before.”

We all have wisdom and questions and soul to share with the Meeting. The power of vocal ministry lies in its variety and heartfulness. May we all continue to speak out of the silence, and to one another.

By Wendy Swallow, Blog Editor, Reno Friends Meeting

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.