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The Gathered Meeting

Stanford Searl
On Relevance (March 2021)
Inward Light

I began my spiritual journey toward “the gathered meeting” when my wife and I visited her youngest son in Durham, North Carolina, in January, 2018. While there, we attended Durham Friends Meeting one Sunday when maybe a hundred adults and thirty-five children were present. The meeting felt settled and centered. Early in the hour, someone offered a message about how important it is for Friends to follow the Light and be gathered, and about how important it is for Friends to take those two practices out into the world. The message was matter-of-fact, stated in words that were simple and direct. Several more messages followed, all of them tagging along with the first. I could feel that people trusted one another. I could feel that something huge was happening.

At the rise of worship, the Clerk reflected that the meeting had been a “covered” or “gathered” one. This, too, was stated in direct and simple terms. This felt reassuring, and in fact, all the messages that day seemed to come from people who felt assured, who felt all was well. Both their demeanor and their words expressed a sense of being together in a gathered community that expected to take its gathered experience out into the world together.

Thus began my leading to serve as a Carroll Research Scholar at Pendle Hill Quaker Study Center, where the focus of my studies has been “the gathered meeting.” However, months before applying for the scholarship, I asked a friend I had met through professional circles, Max Carter, to help me understand my experience in Durham Meeting. Max is a Quaker academic, and he advised me to look at the Faith and Practice of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative) He also explained that Durham Meeting was founded in the 1930s by a Friend who was the Head of Duke Divinity School, that there are several strong families of elders in Durham Meeting, and that those families have been in the meeting for generations.

It gradually became clear to me that my initial experience with Durham Friends touched me deeply because it touched an unresolved tension deep within my heart and soul, between my dominant-culture upbringing and my newer Quaker identity. In part, that gathered meeting for worship became an implicit challenge to my intense individualism, with its emphasis on assertiveness, ego, and competition. I quickly developed a compelling interest in what “the gathered meeting” means and a corresponding interest in what other Friends have to say about it. My personal spiritual journey became interconnected with my academic work, both challenging me to enter more fully into the corporate, communal dimensions of my Quaker identity.

After attending Durham Friends Meeting several more times, and after interviewing half-a-dozen members of that meeting for my research project, I came to realize that my first experience of a wonderfully gathered meeting there was not necessarily the norm. Yet, as I read the Faith and Practice used by Durham Friends, as Max had recommended, I was amazed how well my connection with Durham Friends had pointed me in the right direction. After the book refers to “group worship” as a form of “communion,” the Faith and Practice makes this statement, which has lodged in my heart: “The soul now knows that the deepest longing of every individual is the common will of all.”

It took me months to decide to apply to Pendle Hill. I prayed about it alone and during small-group Quaker events that I attended or led. I also happened to be writing poems at that time about Mary Dyer and the three men who became Quaker martyrs in Colonial Massachusetts in the mid-17th century; so, I was listening to the prophetic utterances of those early Friends as well. Finally, I continued to sing and feel and believe the end of the second verse of “Holy Spirit, Truth Divine” (I still do), both in Santa Monica worship and in my personal devotional exercises: “Perish self in thy pure fire.” I readily feel the song and its words pulsate within my body, leading me out of my small-town Vermont ego and its thick discontents and into becoming an instrument ready for the Divine Spirit to use.

That was my process of discernment – an organic, intuitive process, originating from my heart and soul and mind. For months, I resisted this calling. Then at last, I felt myself yielding to the power and force of the Inner Teacher. Thanks be to the Holy Spirit, Love Divine, for allowing me to be a servant of the living God. I entered my academic program in the manner of following a leading. My research project, also, seems to me less like a research project per se and more like a leading.

My study of the gathered meeting is not a typical qualitative research project. Rather, it’s an exploratory, spirit-led series of openings into deep listening to other Quakers – some of them conservative North Carolina Friends and some, Friends from elsewhere. It’s the exploratory listening that matters the most, the devotional listening.

In addition to a series of interviews, my study also draws directly from earlier writings about the gathered meeting and its meanings, including Worship: “The Gathered Meeting” Revisited by Thomas Gates, and older studies, such as Michael Sheeran’s Beyond Majority Rule and works by Thomas Kelly and Howard Brinton. Both Gates and Sheeran argue for shifting the conversation about the gathered meeting from an individualistic framework (What do I need? What do I want get out of it?) to an emphasis on community (What can I bring that the community needs?). Brinton describes the gathered meeting as “a Quaker distinctive.” In his Friends for 300 Years, he writes: “Quakerism represents a form of group mysticism which has persisted longer than any other instance in literate times. . . The central fact of such a religion is the uniting power of the divine Spirit integrating the group as an organic whole.”

Along with this view of the gathered meeting as essential to the communal aspect of Quakerism, questions arose in my mind about what Friends are actually doing in silent worship together. These questions turned into my lines of inquiry: Does it make a difference that Friends worship in community, all together? What’s at stake here for the future of the Religious Society of Friends? What’s the potential here for deepening and extending worship and its meanings? Finally, what preparations can Friends make to foster experiences of the gathered meeting?

Not surprisingly, other Quaker writers have responded to questions like these already, concerning the dynamics of the immediate experience of gathered Quaker worship. For example, in the 1994 Michener Lecture by William and Frances Taber, Building the Life of the Meeting, Bill Taber explains, “Let us imagine for a moment that the experience of truly gathered worship is like being in a stream of expanded and clarified consciousness, which has always been present and available to us across all human history. We can re-enter that refreshing, healing stream as often as we remember it and allow ourselves to be drawn into it.” He goes on: “[We] experience our mystical unity as one body composed of many different people. . . [Our] intense individualism is softened, but we do not become dull copies of one another – instead, with the decrease of individualism can come a rich increase in the unique individuality of each person. Then, as we no longer need to defend the turf of our own ego, we can turn our attention to what the Spirit wants to do in and though out meeting.”

In Martha Paxon Grundy’s article “The Individual and the Meeting,” Quaker Religious Thought (January 2002), she presents a simple, resonant summary: “Part of our tradition includes the necessity for individuals to learn to submit willingly to the Greater Wisdom as expressed in the gathered meeting. The individual Friend submits to the discernment of the group when it has come together with hearts and minds humble and open to God, and while gathered in worship, experiences unity in God’s presence.”

According to Tom Gates, there are multiple ways to create or expect a gathered meeting; some of these ways are indirect. They include a subtle approach to vocal ministry, recognizing its potential to become a cluster of messages, thematically connected. They include vocal prayer, singing, and related practices, which can enhance the connective aspects of the group experience. Gates emphasizes that worship requires each individual to exercise spiritual discipline and engage in personal reflection in order to quiet the ego’s need to be accepted – whether in vocal ministry or otherwise.

In his presentation Holy Surrender (2006), Lloyd Lee Wilson uses the metaphor of the cross to explain the dynamics of gathered worship: “Corporate worship is the embodiment of the union of love of God and love of neighbor – the vertical and horizontal arms of the cross. Corporate worship builds up our love for God and for one another, and that love deepens and intensifies worship. Here we learn how to love God and one another, and here we practice what we have learned.” In his book Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order (2002), Wilson also explains, “Waiting worship is an act of corporate listening to God. It is a corporate contemplative prayer; a prayer without words or images. As practiced by Conservative Friends, worship is a simple opening of one’s entire self to God in the midst of the faith community, acknowledging the awesome and wonderful reality of who one is and who God is; it is giving one’s entire self to God and waiting to receive whatever God may offer.”

My plan for my research was to draw upon the works of these authors when I summarized what I learned through my conversational interviews. I planned to remain open to considering those interviews through a “universalist” framework of terms (Grundy, for example) as well as through a “Gospel Order” framework (Wilson, for example). I planned to explore and investigate the various layers of ambiguity about the gathered meeting that are expressed by different communities of Friends, to remain open to broad reflections from a variety of traditions, and to follow the conversations wherever they would lead.

I completed fifty-five interviews, talking with both Pastoral and non-Pastoral Quakers, asking them to explain their experiences of the gathered meeting. I was surprised by the most prominent theme to emerge from the interviews: Friends insisted that, for a meeting to experience gathered worship, it is critical for individuals to bring intentional spiritual practices into the mix, especially prayerfully centered practices. I felt surprised, even a little stunned. My reading had led me to assume that the gathered meeting simply happens – or not – by Divine Will or Grace or Serendipity. I drew this understanding from, for example, Thomas Kelly’s The Eternal Promise, Steve Davison’s The Gathered Meeting (Pendle Hill Pamphlet #444), and Tom Gates’s Worship: “The Gathered Meeting” Revisited (Arch Street Lecture 2006). I felt jolted from my assumptions, jolted in mind and body and soul, when so many Friends urged me to consider that prayerful preparation matters – hugely – in creating the unified, loving, and harmonious group gestalt of the gathered meeting. Actually, the musician in me was delighted because, once again, here was evidence that practicing matters.

I felt transported as I listened to Friends describe the importance of prayerful preparation for worship. For example, here are words from a Philadelphia Quaker, describing her commitment to preparatory prayer and singing: “I think the music somehow opens our heart and that gets into . . . that direct line to God. And I feel like when we pray, we are much more likely to say, `I pray this,’ or ‘I ask for your prayers for such.’ . . . [It took me] two or three years in my life [until] I was actually using the discipline of it. Being led to give a piece of ministry, I would ask, ‘Is this a prayer? And if it is, to what aspect of the Divine am I praying . . .?’ And I would try to deliver [my vocal ministry] as a prayer to that aspect of Divine, as opposed to ‘a message.’ And I found that it was incredible. It was much more powerful ministry, more powerful for other people. And then I started to listen to the prayers that were within other people’s ministry . . .”

This Friend went on to tell me how she and others Quakers formed a prayer group in their meeting, which met for years and felt dynamic and wondrous at times. “We did a laying on of hands; we did art; we did washing of feet; we did praying over each other; someone wrote a Quaker liturgy; we did, do you know, prayers of the cosmos. It’s the Lord’s Prayer translated back into Aramaic and then translated back into English. And so, we did the Lord’s Prayer; we did a sacred circle dancing; . . . one day, we did just `help’ and `thank you’ for, like, thirty minutes. And this is my interpretation: [If] we don’t have prayer in our meeting, [it’s] because we don’t have prayer in our meeting.”

As I mentioned earlier, in my personal devotional work to bring my body and soul under the influence of the Spirit, I often find myself singing inwardly the second verse of “Holy Spirit, Truth Divine,” a hymn from the 1860s:

Holy Spirit, Love divine!
Glow within this heart of mine
Kindle every high desire,
Perish self in thy pure fire.

I have used this hymn for many years as a personal approach for settling. Now, I am grateful to have heard testimonies from dozens of Friends, who have shown me that my private devotional practice might be helping to foster experiences of gathered meetings among the Friends I love.  ~~~

Stanford J. Searl is the author of several books of poetry, including Homage to the Lady with the Dirty Feet and Other Vermont Poems, Mary Dyer’s Hymn and Other Quaker Poems, and Songs for Diana. He is a member of Santa Monica Monthly Meeting (PacYM).

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