Quaker meetings are based on silence and stillness, and they are communal – you can’t hold a Quaker meeting on your own.
If you want to experience this for yourself, the best thing to do is to find your nearest Quaker group. They may meet in a Quaker meeting house designed for the purpose, or in a venue rented from another organisation. You’ll find a list in the Find a Meeting page of the Quakers in Britain website.
You may prefer an online meeting – details of the ones organised by the Quakers at Woodbrooke Study Centre are here.
If you visit a Quaker meeting house, you will find a room set out with chairs in a circle or a square, so that everyone can see everyone else; or if your meeting is online, you will see a gallery of faces on your screen; and there is also now an increasing number of ‘hybrid’ meetings that combine the two.
No one is in charge of a Quaker meeting. There is no leader, no preacher. No one will question your experience and no one will tell you how to interpret it, because – as you may already have seen in Introducing Quakers – this is an experience-based faith. We Quakers only believe what we have experienced for ourselves.
The meeting starts when the first person takes their place. No one says anything as they go into the meeting, because silence is at the heart of this spiritual practice. Silence helps people to prepare for being still. And as silence turns gradually into stillness, the participants may find themselves rising above the confusions and perplexities of their lives into a clearer, calmer, more fertile spiritual atmosphere.
There is another aid to the stillness in Quaker meetings, which, ironically, is speech. It can happen that a person feels moved to speak. This isn’t always easy to do, and it is usually the result of a sudden realisation that we have no choice but to say what is in our heart. These spoken contributions can be made by anyone They are always unprepared and can contribute to a deepening of the communal stillness.
Sitting together in this way becomes a time for peace, reflection and guidance - an antidote to our busy lives. And as we sit in the slowly enveloping stillness, we may discover that we are able to see our lives in a fresh light. We may have new understandings and find ourselves able to take decisions we had avoided before.
For some people, this is almost a mystical experience. They find it possible, as they sit in a Quaker meeting, to reach a mental tranquillity that is beyond thought. This phenomenon is unlikely to happen every time and it can take some practice, but it is by no means rare and it can lead the person to feel they are undergoing a kind of spiritual transformation. The first Quakers nearly four hundred years ago believed that they were able to have a direct relationship with God. There are many today who share that view.
I discovered the way into the interior side of my life, at the deep centre of which I knew that I was not alone, but was held by a love that passes all understanding.
- George Gorman, 1973
But equally, a large number of Quakers today don’t share the religious impulse at the heart of that response and shun the supernatural. There are many Quaker atheists, for example, from every possible background. For them, Quaker meetings offer a somewhat different experience that is no less valid and just as rewarding. For these Quakers, their time in the stillness of Quaker meetings offers perspective, guidance and a way forward, but without the mystical element that they find unrealistic and uncomfortable.
True silence ... is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.
- William Penn, 1699
Between these two broad points of view there are as many nuances and variations of perception and belief as there are Quakers. Because we don’t have a creed, we have no difficulty accepting the experiences and opinions of others. We can disagree, and we often do. Nobody minds.
It is important to be clear that not every Quaker meeting is an earth-shaking experience. Some can be frustratingly mundane. But the good ones are unforgettable. And no two Quaker meetings are alike. They are always spontaneous, always unpredictable, often surprising.
Like any spiritual practice, the Quaker ‘meeting for worship’, as it is usually called, gets easier the more you do it. Some people experience its greatest riches the first time they try, others find it takes a little longer.