Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"Spontaneous Worship" and the Problem of Orthodoxy


I'm a graduate student
from the U.K. studying
'spontaneity in worship',
and I have some
questions about
Quakerism. . . . During your meetings I am aware that anyone who feels the Holy Spirit prompting them can speak. I wonder, how can Orthodoxy be maintained? Do situations arise where sentiments expressed are clearly not in line with, for example, biblical teaching? How is this dealt with, and are there leaders who have some sort of steering capacity?


Dear NL,

There are two levels at which I can respond to your question about "spontaneity in worship." One is why maintaining orthodoxy is not a huge problem for Friends. The second is what we do about it on the rare occasions when spoken ministry is considered inappropriate.

At the first level, Friends in the unprogrammed trandition are a noncredal religion. "Orthodoxy" of belief is not what we are about. Some religions define themselves primarily by a clear set of beliefs. If you are Roman Catholic, then you are supposed to believe the statements of the Apostles Creed, for example. But belief, per se, is not what makes a Quaker a Quaker. It's not that we don't have beliefs, but that we don't put them at the center of what we are. Our beliefs have to do with the idea that God is alive and present among us and continues to reveal godself to those who have ears to hear, and that seeking that personal encounter, following that continuing revelation, both individually and as a community, is central. So we are Friends because we participate faithfully in a community that supports and encourages (and yes, sometimes lovingly rebukes) one another in our efforts to know God here and now, and to be guided in daily life.

A British Quaker and sociologist, Ben P. Dandelion, has written much more eloquently than I can about the value of "uncertainty" to Friends in an article for the London Times. See: What Ben writes is an interpretation of how we approach our faith, but I believe it is a very good interpretation.

What about the second level of your question -- what do we do when spoken ministry is clearly inappropriate? I found myself balking at the word "spontaneous," not that it is inaccurate, but it is too easily understood as impulsive. At its best, our spoken ministry in worship is present tense, not prepared or intended in advance. But before we speak we are expected to test our discernment of that ministry, to confirm to the best of our imperfect abilities that it comes from a deeper Source than our own active thoughts or imaginations.

And since we assume that everyone who speaks is in the process of "maturing" in the ministry, we expect and are comfortable with a wide range of messages -- some articulate, some stumbling; some emerging from years of "seasoning," some raw and unrefined. We do not expect to be taught by, spiritually moved, or to agree with all the messages we hear, knowing that some may not have been inspired for our own needs but for others in the room. But we try to listen for any spark of truth that may serve us, even in messages we essentially disagree with.

Only rarely is does a person speak in a way that is truly a problem for the meeting. If it is simply a case of not understanding our approach to ministry, we can be very patient. Sometimes, in extreme such cases, there is a mental health problem involved, and a person becomes a regular disruption.

Every meeting has a way of taking responsibility for the quality of worship. In most meetings, that responsibility is assigned to a committee. In the U.S. we generally call it the "committee on worship and ministry," or "ministry and counsel." Members of this committee may spend time with a person, speak to them, encourage them in one way, gently steer them in another. Only rarely -- usually in mental health situations -- is a problem severe enough that members of the committee will actually interrupt a speaker or ask the person to come with them out of the room. I have seen this happen only a handful of times in my life.

I hope this answers your questions. Peace to you,

Chel Avery


  1. As someone new to Quaker meetings, I find this resonates well with what I have found--and, I very much appreciate your putting it into words. For me, the whole experience is amazing and welcome.

    Shirley S

  2. Hello all,
    Chel's response is a good representation of liberal unprogrammed Quakerism. I would just like to remind that other Friends (evangelical, and some Conservative unprogrammed) put more emphasis on corporate unity of faith and exercise more collective discipline in this area.

    -Tyler Hampton.

  3. A recent new attender, I also find the description a fair one. The willingness of those sharing their experiences in a spirit of humble searching is common in my Downingtown PA meeting. The community agreement to be searching and tentative and not set in dogma is the real nature of the living breathing world we a all a part of . We all benefit from the diverse places our spiritual paths are following through deep listening and appreciation that the Light in each of us leads us all as we are called. I find basic respect for the individual in the spirit outlined by Jesus living in our unprogrammed meeting.
    S. Britton

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