Recent Church and non-Church Encounters

I try to worship somewhere on Sundays whenever possible. Most often I go to an un-programmed Quaker meeting for mostly an hour of silent worship.

Three weeks ago I attended West Hills Friends Church in Portland, OR and two weeks ago I worshiped at Freedom Friends Church, a semi-programmed Quaker Church in Salem, OR co-pastored by Peggy Senger Parsons and Alivia Biko. On Sunday I worshiped at my local Friends Meeting in Hartford, CT.

Most people know little about Quakers (no we do not drive horse and buggies, and we do not get a cut from the Quaker Oats company). In the US we have Quaker meetings and Quaker churches. Most Quaker meetings in the US and UK do not have a pastor, and the worship is unprogrammed–we sit down, settle into silence and wait. Someone, anyone really, may speak out of the silence. Sometimes what someone says moves me and inspires me. Other times the message confuses or annoys me (especially those National Public Radio messages, which always start”The other day on NPR…)

Most Quaker churches are programmed or semi-programmed with pastors and a specific order of service. I have been to few of these, so I can’t say much more.

Theologically Quaker churches contain people who adhere to a more traditional view of Christianity while Quaker meetings lean towards a more liberal or universalist view. In fact, in Quaker meetings you may find people who do not identify as Christian at all but may be pagan or theist or atheist. Quaker churches may not always be safe places for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people while Quaker meetings usually seek to be open and affirming (and often but not always succeed).

I am a Christ-centered un-programmed Friend (and I would like a venti no-foam, de-caf, soy latte, please). I believe in Jesus and I prefer the silence. In many ways I surf between the two worlds of programmed and un-programmed Quakers–never completely home in either.

At Freedom Friends Church they started with a few songs, an opportunity to share joys then concerns, a prayer time and lastly a period of silence of about 30 minutes with a handful of messages rising from the congregation. They had no sermon.

More and more I believe that this sort of format works well for people new to Quakerism. In the old days people hung out more and spoke about what happened in worship and learned about faith and practice over a meal or while working on a project. But today most people blow into meeting and blow out with little opportunity to know what happens behind the veil of silence.

Personally I think that every un-programmed Friends meeting should have a semi-programmed meeting once every four months. This would be the meeting where one could invite friends who have expressed an interest in coming to meeting. About this I will have more to say at a later time.

On Christmas Eve I attended Catholic mass with my dad. I didn’t want him to go alone as my sister Maria was with her in-laws in Long Island and my sister Nardina and my brother Manuel live far away. So I attended mass–the LONGEST HOUR OF THE YEAR! Actually it ran for 55 minutes, but I swear it felt more like three hours.

Even though the priest told jokes and the choir sang some of my favorite Christmas songs (albeit in a key that most humans should not attempt) the whole affair dragged on forever. Now I know that some people get a lot out of Catholic mass, and that having grown up in that tradition, I do not experience it as an adult convert. But throughout the service, just when I began to really focus on God and listen, they interrupted me with another song or prayer or collection (two times!) or people shuffling down to the altar for Communion (I remained in my pew) or an Irish blessing as we left. How can anyone worship with all that racket going on?!?

Today in UmeĂĄ Sweden, where I reside until 17 January, I will meet with a small group of people interested in Quaker worship. They do not have a Quaker meeting here, just a few people who have begun to research Quakerism and connect with Quakers via the web and a retreat center near Stockholm.

They have met very few Quakers, so I feel a concern that they may get the wrong idea from me. I am still a baby Quaker. In the un-programmed Quaker meetings we do not have a concept of a Quaker missonary–that would be blasphemous or something. But here I am in Sweden about to meet with these folks as we share our faith and more importantly the experience of worshiping together. Hmmm, maybe I can start a new wave of vegan, comic, queer Quakerism…

This post has 15 Comments

  1. Anonymous on December 28, 2007 at 10:27 am

    I don’t mean to critiscise but surely you can’t have meant

    “Most Quaker meetings do not have a pastor, and the worship is unprogrammed”


    “Most Quaker churches are programmed or semi-programmed with pastors and a specific order of service”

    I’m pretty sure I know which you meant, but not all your readers will?

  2. Peterson Toscano on December 28, 2007 at 1:34 pm

    anonymous, perhaps the average person doesn’t understand the difference between a Quaker meeting house and Quaker church. That is the distinction that I am talking about. I have not been to Quaker services in Africa or South America, but I’m assuming that if they have a pastor, they call themselves a church and not a meeting.

  3. MartinK on December 28, 2007 at 2:50 pm

    Hi Peterson: were you there when we invited Peggy and Alivia to the FGC Gathering for an outreach session? Being ever the wise-guys they didn’t lecture us or present us with even a single powerpoint slide, but instead led a roomful of unprogrammed liberal Friends into worship in the style of Freedom Friends. Actually they did better than that, declaring the room to be a worship session of Freedom Friends. It was great. Very useful, very interesting, I think everyone got a lot out of it.

    I wouldn’t want every Quaker meeting or church to just blindly adopt their worship template (or any particular template) but it was good to see how worship and prayer can be done in a way that speaks to a very real congregation.

  4. seithman on December 28, 2007 at 3:27 pm

    This was a very interesting read. I have a friend who attended Quaker meetings for a while, so I was familiar with their unprogrammed nature. However, I had been left with the impression that this was standard for all Quakers. The idea of programmed and semi-programmed churches also being present in Quakerism is news to me. Thank you for expanding my horizons.

    I have to admit that after leaving my Baptist and pentacostal background for Paganism, I’ve grown to appreciate the liturgy of the Catholic mass more deeply. (Though I admit I don’t think I could connect with the symbolism, personally.)

  5. Lazygal on December 28, 2007 at 4:22 pm

    My experience at non-programmed meetings has been different than yours; people don’t just “blow in” and then “blow out” — they do hang around after, sometimes over a meal and sometimes just sharing fellowship. I’ve found this true in England and in America… but, as always, YMMV.

    It would be nice if the NPR (or NYTimes) messages would stop, though.

  6. Barry on December 28, 2007 at 4:28 pm

    I wonder what exactly YOU mean by a “traditional” view of Christianity. Many here in the USA have differing, often negative, views of Christianity. For me I see much of the modern churches in the USA as “church-ians” and many are not as much Christian in their very core essence. Sometimes when I am asked what church I “go to” I think two things: 1) All true Christians are the Church, so we can not go to a place to be “in” church, and 2) I want to shock them by telling them that I don’t go to church because I am Christian.

  7. Tania on December 28, 2007 at 6:16 pm

    Like you, I also went to Catholic Mass with my father (and his family) for Christmas. And I had much the same experience as you did: whenever I felt my center begin to gather, I was interrupted by singing, or the Priest talking, or Bible readings…

    But I did actually really enjoy the Homily, which sounded a lot like this blog entry. I think sometimes it’s good to go back to Mass, to remind me of where I came from, what I learned there, and why I left.

  8. Jonathan Holm on December 28, 2007 at 8:56 pm

    Hey Peterson!

    Thanks for the post. I attend an unprogrammed Quaker Meeting in Urbana, Illinois. I remember the silence of the first meeting I went to was stunning to me, but I was with a group of friends and we talked about it afterwards–so it ended up being a good thing!

    However, only one of my friends attends with me on a semi-regular basis, so often I don’t have someone with whom to digest the silence. I appreciate what you have recommended–a semi-programmed meeting once in a while. I think I may bring this idea up with the Clerk and see what she thinks.

    I guess I’m lucky that I have yet to hear an “NPR”-themed message (although I confess I do enjoy NPR quite a bit…)

    Enjoy your time in Scandinavia!


  9. Peterson Toscano on December 29, 2007 at 1:02 am

    Martin, I was not at that FGC, but I can only imagine. Those two are a force of nature.

    John, perhaps I will get to worship with you in Urbana in February 🙂

  10. Pomoprophet on December 29, 2007 at 2:09 am

    Peterson, thanks for the comment on my blog. As I told you this summer, after hearing your story, I have alot of respect for what you’ve gone through.


  11. GMC on December 30, 2007 at 12:08 am

    Just a short comment on a thread that no body has picked up on yet.

    As an unprogrammed, Christ centered Quaker, you are the missionary that is needed. With no pastor comes all the obligations that others hire done. Sometimes the job would be nicer just to hire someone to do it, but George Fox didn’t think very highly about hiring someone to do your job, as they would become hirelings, not personaly called by Christ to the job.

    Having said thatI am not looking to start a fight with any pastors, I am just saying that “way will open, if you take the first step”


  12. Anonymous on January 1, 2008 at 3:00 am

    I avoid Catholic mass with parents as much as possible, it gets my mother’s hopes up, that I will return to the one true church!

    John-check and see if your meeting has a ministry/elders committee of some sort. they should be able to match you up with a mentor to digest the silence with.

    As for semi-programmed. Well, maybe once in a rare while. Unprogrammed worship demands a level of spiritual responsiblity and maturity that is not encouraged by programming.


  13. Anonymous on January 1, 2008 at 6:02 pm

    Hi Peterson,
    Woodbrooke in Birmingham (england) is holding an AngloScandinavian weekend 3-6th July 08. Would your Swedish baby Quakers benefit from this? I stayed there recently and it was very comfortable with lots of good food. Regards
    Liz Collinson
    The website is

  14. Jude on January 3, 2008 at 2:40 am

    My favorite thing about the Quakers is that they call themselves and each other “Friends.” I think that is rocking. I love it. Love it!


  15. jez on January 10, 2008 at 3:01 pm

    Hey up Peterson,

    Isn’t it just that the blowing in and blowing out is one of the 17 tensions in unprogrammed meeting for worship?

    In my Meetings in London, there are some people who blow in this way, but it is such a problem always? If these people are getting what they need from the Meeting, then who are we to judge them for that?

    Sure, if some of those people stayed on, we could learn from each other, form more of a community etc.

    We’re all Friends of Truth, we have different ways of sharing it.



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