Discernment and Obedience in Quaker
Worship and Decision Making

by Krista Barnard

As a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), I regularly face the challenge of discerning and obeying the promptings of the Spirit. The form of our communal worship and of our meetings for making community decisions reflects our conviction that together we can know God’s will for us, and that our task is to carry out our understanding of this will.

In Quaker meetings for worship, we gather initially in silence. No one is scheduled to speak, and God may use any one of us as a messenger. Our ideal is to speak only when we feel divinely led to do so. We wait and listen together, seeking divine guidance or inspiration from the Light, the Living Christ, the Lord. While a time of worship may be completely silent, during a typical hour of worship in San Francisco one to six people stand at various points to give vocal ministry, with periods of silence between the speakers. One person appointed in advance senses when the period of worship is complete and closes the meeting by shaking hands with the people in neighboring seats.

Every week in worship, Quakers must practice perceiving and doing God’s will. Such discernment and obedience are difficult, and in 24 years of participating in this process I have experienced mistakes and growth, frustration and accomplishment. The initial requirement of such a process is recognizing the source of my internal urges or, as one Quaker puts it, distinguishing between God’s will and the craving for chocolate.

Early in my attendance at meeting, during a meeting for worship, I heard a mother speak about her concern that her child’s physical education class required fencing, an art of war. I felt a strong response, having hated fencing when I had had to do it in high school, and later in the meeting I rose to speak. I don’t remember my words, but they certainly were not vocal ministry, and I contributed to the meeting’s going astray in its worship that day. I spoke when I was not led to do so and, through my error, began to learn how to make a distinction between that which is truly Spirit-led and that which is merely emotionally compelling.

Some years after that, I made an error in the opposite direction: not speaking when I was led to do so. I was traveling, visiting a small meeting for worship hundreds of miles from home, and was moved to read and comment on a passage from 1 Peter about our being living stones comprising a spiritual house. I did not want to disturb the silence, however, by hauling my backpack from under my chair, unzipping the pack, extracting and unzipping my Bible case, then flipping pages to find the passage. There were fewer than a dozen of us in the small circle of chairs, and most were strangers to me. I resisted the prompting to speak, even as the entire hour passed in silence. The person in charge of sensing when the worship is complete allowed it to linger on past an hour. He even asked after ending the worship if there were any messages that needed to be spoken that had not been spoken during the worship. At that point we were all holding hands, and I did not want to shake loose the hands of my two neighbors, then retrieve the Bible in order to read the passage. After leaving the meetinghouse, I was very disturbed. After we recognize God’s will, our task is to obey it, and I had failed to do so.

Setting aside our resistance to God’s will and acting as commanded can bring about surprising results. On a recent Sunday after the U.S. invasion of Iraq began, I arrived at the meetinghouse without my reading glasses. I zipped up the Bible and put it away in my backpack, thinking that I could not be called upon to do the impossible. A tiny voice in the back of my mind whispered, “So you think,” but I ignored it. During worship, I was led to read passages from Psalms 120 and 121, including the verse about speaking for peace while living among people who favor war. I also sensed that I should shift the voice of Psalm 121 as I read, changing “I” and “you” to “we.” Not wanting to again experience the grief of disobedience in vocal ministry, I did unzip my backpack, unzip the Bible case, and flip the pages. Then, amazingly, I read the words, including the pronoun changes, without my glasses.

As in our worship, Quakers seek God’s will at each gathering where we meet to discuss issues or make decisions. At such meetings we start with a period of silent worship, and, as we work through the agenda, we return to a period of silence if needed to refocus our attention on the Divine. We do not vote but seek unity: the perception by the group as a whole of God’s will for us. While this ideal can seem absurd at times (does God really care whether or not we include a light well in the remodel plan for our building?), it can be miraculous at others.

Several years ago I served on the committee revising the book of Faith and Practice for Pacific Yearly Meeting (PYM), an organization of Quaker congregations in this region. We were writing the section of the book called “advices and queries,” statements we make and questions we ask ourselves about how we ought to live, grounded in our comprehension of continuing revelation of God’s commandments to us about our actions in the world. The committee circulated its draft, and a substantial percentage of the responses from people throughout PYM focused on a single query. The question posed to each member of the community was whether he or she limited sexual expression to committed relationships. The responses to inclusion of such a question ranged from objections to the plural “s” of “relationships”—reflecting a belief that sex should be limited to one marriage only in a lifetime—to objections that the community would suggest any limitations on a member’s sexual expression with other consenting adults. We struggled with the feedback and for a time decided there was no unity in the Quaker community on the issue. We removed the topic from a subsequent draft of our work.

Later, a committee member who was also a parent of a teenager objected to our silence. We tried again, writing something that reignited similarly varied responses. At the next meeting, the solution emerged when we paused in our discussion for a period of silent worship. There was something we clearly could and should ask: whether members’ sexual practices were consistent with their spiritual beliefs. It was far better than silence on the topic, it was not something we had cobbled together from compromises among the varied opinions, it was not an option we had considered before, and it was the right question to ask.

While the Yearly Meeting does write a book of Faith and Practice, most decisions are made at the level of the local congregation, called a monthly meeting. In my 17 years in San Francisco Monthly Meeting, the most difficult and protracted process of decision making concerned our move from one building to another. Until the early 1990s, San Francisco Friends were meeting in a large brick house purchased 30 years earlier. We treasured many memories of our lives in that building and loved the view of the Golden Gate Bridge out the window, but the masonry was unsafe in the event of an earthquake, and the entry was a formidable flight of steps with a heavy door at the top. Many people could not get into the building at all. Another Quaker organization had already left because of the accessibility problems, and we were alone in a building too large for our needs. We had investigated but not undertaken the unnervingly expensive process of remodeling, and yet we resisted selling the building we loved.

At one point in our years-long process we received a glimpse of the possibilities and a clear reminder of whom we were leaving out of our community. For some weeks after the 1989 earthquake, we met at the Stonestown YMCA because the damage to our building had made it unsafe until repairs could be made. Astonishingly, on the very first Sunday after the earthquake, a man in a wheelchair joined us for worship. Gradually, painfully, through a period that one member called our wandering through the wilderness after having glimpsed the promised land, we came to fully know that God’s will for us was to leave our space, despite our connections to it, and to move to another, and we became at last willing to obey. We did not want to and did not know how we would accomplish the process, but we knew that that is what God required of us. On one decision after another, we finally came to unity. We found a new building and raised the capital needed to add an elevator and make other changes there. Our meetinghouse is now downtown rather than in an intimidatingly wealthy neighborhood. It is near BART, is wheelchair-accessible, and is seismically much safer. The community has grown both numerically and spiritually since we completed the move, and the participants in meeting for worship include several whose limited mobility would have precluded their access to our previous location.

In my years as a Quaker, I have seen some of the fruits when we succeed in “offer[ing] ourselves, body, mind and soul for the doing of God's will” (as stated in Faith and Practice, 1985).

I cherish the opportunities I have had to grow closer to God and to other people who are also seeking to walk with God.

Krista Barnard is a member of San Francisco Meeting (65 9th Street, 415-431-7440). She has served in various roles among Quakers and is presently the clerk of the Ministry and Oversight Committee of San Francisco Friends Meeting. During childhood, she attended St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco.

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