The Difference Between a Gathered Meeting and a Focused Meeting

An elder Friend once made this distinction:

From time to time, unprogrammed Quaker worship results in what’s called a gathered meeting, in which the presence of the Holy Spirit becomes especially palpable, lifting the worshippers out of their usual mindsets and perspectives. (Thomas Kelly’s essay on the gathered meeting remains the best description of what it is and why it is so important.) Gathered meetings are revered among Quakers, but are rare to the point that, it is said, almost no Quaker alive today could be said to have experienced one. I know I haven’t.

More frequently, to the extent that meetings for worship have any cohesion at all, they are focused meetings; that is, the worshippers are all paying attention to some spiritual principle, but each from their own perspectives. So for liberal Friends, a focused meeting might have Christians waiting upon the Lord; universalists seeking the Inner Light; pagans getting in touch with nature; Buddhists letting go of attachments; non-theists seeking a feeling of peace; etc. Even in meetings where there is more uniformity of theological opinion, there can be wide variation in how they are approaching worship or in what they imagine the object of worship to be. While this state of affairs is preferable to meetings in which Friends are disengaged or merely using them as a platform for their hobbyhorses, it nevertheless is a pale shadow of the gathered meeting as described by Kelly and other Quakers of past generations.

That said, I have experienced moments in worship when the usual boundaries between people melt a little bit and make room for forces besides our individual egos to act. At one recent meeting, for example, I had something on my mind, and another Friend rose and spoke on that very topic, albeit with different words. That kind of experience gestures toward the feeling of being gathered as earlier Quakers described it, but there’s a long road we would still have to walk to get there.

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