One additional thought: any discussion of gathered meetings for worship would be incomplete without mentioning Michael Sheeran’s book Beyond Majority Rule, and especially Martin Kelley’s commentary on it. In my previous posts, the distinction between gathered and focused meetings seemed connected to one’s religious outlook, and thus related to the divide between Christ-centered and universalist Quakers that has bedeviled our faith for centuries. But as Sheeran and Kelley argue, the more fundamental divide in the liberal branch of Quakerism is between those who seek contact with the divine and those who don’t. Kelley in particular notes the particular historical context for this division:
The unstated condition behind the great Quaker reunifications of the mid-twentieth century was a taboo against talking about what we believe as a people. Quakerism became an individual mysticism coupled with a world-focused social activism – to talk about the area in between was to threaten the new unity.
It’s been about 15 years since that post was written, and that in-between area, a community life that nurtures and shapes both individual devotion and social concerns, still feels like the most underdeveloped part of Quakerdom. We would do well to pay more attention to it.
Reader Mary Linda writes concerning this post:
I would add that while my experience of gathered worship isn’t common–it doesn’t happen with frequency or regularity–it is also not that rare. […] Gathered worship isn’t contingent on everyone believing the same thing or sharing a common awareness or even expectation; it is really about everyone being open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, whatever they call it. I’ve even been in gathered worship during a business meeting with teenagers and at least one non-theist adult that was profound in its spiritual depth. It was possible because, in spite of our differences in understanding, we were all present to the work of Spirit and we trusted in that, even when we didn’t all understand what we were trusting in.
This is really insightful, and has made me rethink my original post. It is certainly true that the fact of people having their own perspectives doesn’t prevent their becoming gathered in worship. I suppose that the distinction between gathered and focused really comes down to what it means to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Do we expect that turning our attention, or rather our most inward selves, toward God will change us? Or do we think nothing special is going on and we can proceed normally?
Francis Howgill famously described the experience of the first Friends thus: “The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net…” For me, that image points to what I’m getting at: if you’re swept up in a net, you’re off balance; you don’t have the same certainty about yourself and your surroundings as you did before. Part of what it means to be gathered is that uncertainty, that trust in something even if you don’t fully understand it. A focused meeting, by contrast, may have the same seriousness of purpose, but is more settled in what it’s doing and what it expects—as if resisting the net being thrown over it.
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.