I didn’t want to join the committee. As a “released Friend,” my role is to follow the leadings of my music ministry out in the world, freed from responsibility for the business of Multnomah Monthly Meeting. But I have found myself reckoning lately with a firehose of Spirit blasting a message through me that has nothing to do with songs or cello. In September 2021, this message came out in an epistle, which was published October 30 in Western Friend’s weekly email newsletter. This epistle, “Returning to the Body,” arose from my experience serving on Multnomah’s ad-hoc committee concerned with the question of how to worship in this age of pandemic. [See: https://westernfriend.org/returning-body]
My epistle observed that in-person corporate worship offers something that is not possible to experience online. When we interject computers into corporate worship (making it “hybrid” or “blended”), we undermine the quality of worship for those physically present while offering those online an experience that pretends to be corporate worship but is not. When we try to worship with a screen in our midst, beaming the images of distant Friends into the room, we are less present to the particular movement of Spirit that is occurring among the group that is physically gathered. Friends online cannot fully participate in this ineffable happening. By trying to provide Friends at a distance with a feeling of being included in something they can’t possibly access this way, we sacrifice the power and efficacy of Friends’ most potent means of seeking God’s guidance: embodied corporate worship.
I see this as a dangerously misguided use of technology, springing from a broader denial of the holiness of our creature selves and an overemphasis on the intellect. We were already suffering from these conditions before the pandemic hit, both in our religious society and in white supremacist culture more generally. We have largely lost touch with the wisdom of our bodies and their connections to the rest of the Living World, begetting a profoundly sick civilization that is currently crumbling into civil unrest and climate catastrophe. Quaker worship can bring us back into our bodies, can connect us with Spirit’s call to collective liberation. When we dedicate ourselves to this practice together, the holy guidance that emerges, when faithfully followed, can dismantle racism, transform patriarchy, and halt climate change. Corporate worship is the ground from which miracles spring, and in this time of mass extinction and looming civil war, it is miracles we need.
I have continued to be in conversation with many Friends since my epistle was published. I’d like to discuss some of the responses I’ve heard, as well as my own growing insights.
One of the most significant objections I’ve heard about my article concerns access to Quaker meeting. Many Friends believe that if we fail to broadcast our meetings for worship over the internet, we will be excluding Friends with physical disabilities. I am sensitive to the myriad ways that people with disabilities are denied access, undervalued, and made invisible. However, If I had physical limitations that prevented me from attending worship, and if my meeting proudly offered virtual access as the only solution, I would be devastated. I’m not saying access doesn’t matter. Quite the opposite. I’m saying that offering only virtual access to worship is not good enough. I think that we can find the creativity and commitment to provide in-person worship opportunities for the vast majority of Friends – including those who need extra safety precautions, help with transportation, or who need worship brought to them. There are so many things we haven’t tried yet because technology is the obvious easy answer, and its seductiveness has kept us from seeing its damaging impacts. If we are trying to make sure Friends with disabilities have access to corporate worship, hybrid meetings will fail them.
We need to uphold the importance of embodied corporate worship as the primary practice of Friends. We ought to resort to virtual worship only when there is no other option, and we should clearly differentiate these approaches as different spiritual practices. We will certainly continue depending on the internet to connect with Friends who must live in strict isolation. I advocate giving online spiritual practices their own names, like Linked Worship or Linked Prayer, names that don’t imply the practices are the same as what we do in person together. As nonbinary and trans Friends will tell you, and as Friends of Color know, the language we use creates the culture we live in and reinforces our beliefs. Words are important.
Some conversations about my epistle explored our beliefs about the metaphysical possibilities of hybrid worship. When I consider being present with other people across distances, I know we don’t all need to be in the same location to tap into our Oneness. I even think we can sense specific other beings across distances. However, my impression is that these practices take much time and intention to develop, and they can be easily disrupted by technology. Moreover, none of these observations detract from my experience that something uniquely transformative and powerful can happen when we worship in physical presence with each other. This practice of corporate, waiting worship is the great gift that Quakers carry for the world.
In still other conversations about my epistle, I heard Friends celebrating the growing numbers of attenders in their meetings, made possible by the easy access provided by the internet. I feel disturbed by the prospect of an influx of new Friends who have never experienced actual waiting worship in the physical presence of other Friends. I worry about the ways this might impact the depth of our worship, the clarity of our discernment, and the faithfulness of our actions. We don’t serve these new Friends well if we fail to acknowledge to them what they are missing. Masses of people turning to the Religious Society of Friends in their search for meaning sounds great. But when they come, let us offer them the most nourishing feast we can, not a picture of a banquet beamed from a satellite. Let us invite them to drink deeply from the holy well that lives at the center of our gathered presence.
The stakes here are high. We are a people who understand that Spirit is alive among us and speaking to us in every moment. We know that if we gather together and listen, we will sense a whisper (sometimes a shout) from The Holy through us, and by that, we will know which direction to walk, which tasks to put our hands to, which words to speak. We know that we each have divine work to do and that if we help each other listen for Spirit’s call, we will be led.
I am convinced that embodied corporate worship is the most powerful practice that Friends can bring to the world’s struggle for collective liberation. In this crucial moment, as we face ecological and social collapse – climate chaos, deforestation, social media addictions, greed run rampant, the violence of poverty, racism, misogyny, transphobia; I’m talking about all of it – we, and the newcomers joining us, need to embrace our most potent miracle-working tradition: in-person corporate worship.
If we allow ourselves to be charmed by the easy solution of hybrid worship, which makes us think we can be together separately, which divides our attention and focus, which disrupts and confuses the ineffable experience of embodied worship, the result will be suffering and death for many more beings. The stakes really are that high. In this age of mass extinction and the dying of the Living World, we cannot rely on anything less than the most powerful practice we have for discerning where Spirit is calling us to act.
Perhaps we have been at our computers in isolation for so long that we don’t completely remember the transcendent mystery of waiting worship in the presence of other Friends. Perhaps we have forgotten what is possible. Perhaps some of us never even knew.
I do appreciate that virtual connections have helped us through some hard times, but we are in danger of weaving emergency measures into the very fabric of our faith, with insufficient consideration for how they might alter what we are doing together.
We must take care not to water down, mediate, or disrupt God’s communication with any Friend. We are already trying to make our way forward while hampered by immeasurable impediments: our deep conditioning in the culture of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism; our compounded traumas of separation from the land and from intact cultures; the havoc that has been wreaked on our hearts, spirits, and nervous systems by this pandemic. We must listen through all of this for the resonating of Holy Presence among us. We must listen in simple stillness, right here, together.
Quakers know how to do this: gather by twos and threes, tens and twenties, in homes and fields and prisons. We know how to let the mystery of Spirit move through the corporate body we are. ~~~
Cellist and folksinger Anna Fritz is a released Friend with a music ministry under the care of Multnomah Monthly Meeting (NPYM). Her usual work involves bringing her Spirit-gifted songs to meetings, concert halls, protests, and prisons in the West. In pandemic times, she is continuing her attempts to follow holy guidance by writing, composing, and doing mutual aid work. You can support her ministry though her Patreon page: https://www.patreon.com/annafritz .