Is there a Quaker liturgy?

Is there a Quaker liturgy?

We got a listener request asking “is there a Quaker liturgy?” Well, yes and no.

No, we don’t do the Liturgy of the Word followed by the Liturgy of the Eucharist, with a set of readings in the first part determined by the Lectionary. For that reason, and the fact that we don’t follow a strict calendar divided into periods of ordinary time, Lent, Advent, Christmas, etc. we’re usually described as “non-Liturgical.”

Yes, we do have an order to what we do.

The majority of Quakers use programmed worship, since the majority are in FUM or Evangelical branches. So, they have a definite order, such as: music, then sermon, then waiting worship, then announcements, as Mackenzie encountered at West Hills Friends Church. Or they might put announcements and prayer requests somewhere in the middle like at Camas Friends Church.

But even unprogrammed Quakers have some idea what’s going to happen. A Conservative Friend once told Mackenzie “you liberals are way more programmed than you think.” As evidence of that, here’s what Mackenzie put on her meeting’s website when she redid it this year:

What to expect on Sundays

At 10am on Sundays, we settle down to listen deeply for the “still, small voice” of the Divine in our midst. At some point, someone will probably stand and share a message they’ve received.

About 20 minutes in, the kids head out for their religious education classes, and any latecomers waiting in the lobby come in.

We do this for about an hour, then we share our joys (prayers of thanks) and concerns (prayer requests) with the community.

If you arrive a little early, you’ll find us calling out favorite songs from our song book and having a sing-a-long. Please join in!

Ok, yeah, we do know the general outline of what’s going to happen, even if we don’t know exactly what’ll be said at any given point. So, is there a Quaker liturgy? Yeah… but it’s a liturgy that leaves a lot of room for the Spirit.

Micah adds that Conservative Friends tend to read an advice shortly before the handshaking that signals the end (or “rise”) of meeting.

See also: Pink Dandelion’s The Liturgies of Quakerism


Mackenzie: Welcome to Quaker Faith and Podcast where we will explore traditional Quaker beliefs, and the variety of Quaker beliefs found today.
Welcome back to Quaker Faith and Podcast. We are your hosts, Mackenzie and Micah, and we had a listener request to talk about liturgy. This was from an Episcopalian, I think? Maybe we should define what liturgy would mean to an Episcopalian before we go into us.Micah: Sure. I’m sure it would mean something slightly different for an Episcopalian too, or a Catholic. But you, with your Catholic background, probably have a pretty good idea of what a Catholic would expect out of a liturgy.Mackenzie: Right. Growing up, for me as an ex-Catholic, when you go to a mass, which is what they call service, or what we’d call meeting, they have the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist. The liturgy of the Word is a series of readings from the Old Testament, the Psalms, and the New Testament interspersed with some music, possibly a recitation of a creed.

The liturgy of the Eucharist is all the stuff that surrounds doing the physical communion, offering up the bread and wine, the blessing, and the distribution of that. There are more songs interspersed in there, too. But there’s a set pattern of “These are all the steps we’re going to take” in a basically set ritual in order to correctly worship God.

Which things they read are determined by what they call the lectionary, which has a three-year cycle of, on the first Sunday of the year, you’re going to read this piece from, I don’t know, I’m making things up … from Hebrews … or wait, no. The first reading is going to be from Old Testament. From Esther, then you’ll have Psalm 23, and then like Acts … I don’t know.
Micah: 87.

Mackenzie: There’s not that many. 22. And generally, Quakers do not have something that is that formalized.Micah: My family currently goes to a Church of the Brethren congregation here in DC, Washington City Church of the Brethren. At the Church of the Brethren that we go to, there’s also a liturgy. It’s way more low-key than what you would get in a Roman Catholic, or even an Episcopalian church. The same thing pretty much happens every Sunday. We show up, we sing a few … there’s sort of intro music with someone usually singing, or playing guitar, or something like that. Then we-

Mackenzie: A guitar!

Micah: Then we’ll usually sing … we’ll have like intros, and welcome, then we’ll usually sing a few hymns. We’ll have an offering where they’ll pass the plate, and we’ll pray. Then we’ll have joys and concerns time, and then sing a few more songs, then have a Scripture, usually multiple Scripture readings that are going to be preached on. Then the preacher preaches a sermon, and there’s a benediction, then we close.
Oh, and I almost forgot. A formalized part of that liturgy is, actually sort of meet and greet. Greet your neighbor is a part of it. Everyone gets out of their pews and walks around and talks to everybody, passing the peace, and-

Mackenzie: Right. And for Catholics, when you pass the peace, you’re not supposed to get out of your spot. You shake hands with only people that you can reach, very staid. When I’ve been to Episcopalian churches, they walk around for like five minutes.

Micah: Oh, yeah. That’s how it is at the Church of the Brethren. You also see this in-

Mackenzie: Oh, we should define benediction because I-

Micah: It’s like a closing prayer. It’s a blessing.

Mackenzie: There we go.

Micah: It’s a blessing. My wife Faith recently told me I did it wrong because when I preach at the Church of the Brethren, the preacher typically does the benediction, and so I do the benediction afterwards. I always just pray. I pray for us as a congregation, and apparently Faith told me I’m doing it wrong. I should be blessing the congregation and sending the congregation in some way. I was like, “It’s good enough.”

Mackenzie: Oh, yeah. In a Catholic church, they would say, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

Micah: Yeah. Yeah. So this is actually not so different. What we experience in that Church of the Brethren congregation is really not very different than what goes on in most Quaker churches. Just like most Quaker churches in North America, and certainly in the world.

Mackenzie: I should note that he’s specifying churches versus meetings.

Micah: Well, I’m not actually.

Mackenzie: Really?

Micah: The majority of Quaker congregations in the United States have a service that looks pretty similar to what I just described with the Church of the Brethren. The main difference being that in probably the majority of that majority, there is a designated period of waiting worship during the service. It’s a part of the liturgy. That’s pretty typical.

The real weirdos and outliers within program Quakers, who have something that looks really, really different from the Church of the Brethren, or the Roman Catholic Church, or the Episcopalians, and basically I’m going to describe what I’ve experienced as a typical on-program Quaker worship in the non-conservative Quaker world. Again, conservative Quakers are a very, very tiny and particular group of Quakers in three different yearly meetings, that are typically Christ-centered and unprogrammed.

Apart from that, my experience in the general, unprogrammed Quaker world is that you’ll show up at the building. There may be some people hanging around, having coffee and chatting in a lobby or some place like that. Then some people may already … even early, some people may already be in the worship space in silence.

Then everyone will gather, more or less punctually, everyone will gather in the appointed space. For approximately an hour, in most places it’s approximately an hour, people will sit in the room in silence, and if anyone is moved to speak, they can stand up and speak, and deliver a message. At the end of that time, there’s typically someone who … they’re called different things different places, but someone who’s appointed to do so will stand up and give a welcome, and welcome people to the meeting sort of as a way of closing it.

Typically, at that point, there will be announcements.

Mackenzie: Oh, this is all after you do the passing peace, though.

Micah: Oh, right. Yep. Almost forgot. Yes, that’s right. When meeting closes, people shake hands, or hold hands in some places.
Then at the end, after the announcements, there’s typically a meet and greet afterwards where people talk to one another, and maybe have some more coffee. Sometimes there will be different activities afterwards. I think that’s a pretty typical liturgy in the unprogrammed Quaker universe.

The question that I think our Episcopalian listener had was, do Quakers have a liturgy. If you asked most Quakers, asked your random American Quaker, do Quakers have a liturgy? They’d be like, “Well no, of course not.” But of course, we do. It sort of depends how you define liturgy, but I think as we define it, it’s essentially … for those of you, like Mackenzie and I, are computer geeks, it’s basically an algorithm.
Liturgy is an algorithm, an algorithm is like a recipe. It’s a set of instructions that are followed in a sequence, and you get a predictable result from predictable inputs. So liturgy is an algorithm in that same way where we all sort of know what’s going to happen. Now, within … with an algorithm, the only variable in question about the output you’re going to get, is the input.

In any of these liturgies, whether it’s Roman Catholic, whether it’s Brethren, whether it’s pastoral Quaker worship, whether it’s unprogrammed Quaker worship, there are inputs that determine how, within the parameters of the steps, whether it’s the opening prayer, the greeting, the silent worship, the sermon, whatever it is, with all these steps in the liturgy, the inputs determine what is actually going to happen.
Unprogrammed Quaker worship invests a lot in the discernment of each individual in how the Holy Spirit’s leading them in that very long period of silent worship. But there’s an expectation, I think, in all liturgies, from the highest church to the lowest church, so to speak, from the Roman Catholic to the Quaker, that the primary input should be the Holy Spirit, and the obedience of every individual to the Holy Spirit.
So you’re expecting that Jesus is going to show up in the Eucharist, right? At a Roman Catholic service. You’re expecting, you’re praying, and you’re hoping, and you’re expecting that when I show up to preach on Sunday morning at the Brethren church, that I’m going to allow the Holy Spirit to direct me in my preparation of my sermon, and direct me in delivering that sermon.

You’re hoping and praying that the people who are gathered together in silence, in the hour of silent worship, are going to be coming with hearts and minds prepared, and opening themselves in the moment how the Holy Spirit wants to direct and guide them. To deliver a message, or to not deliver a message.
So really, what a liturgy is, in this conception of it, is a series of preplanned spaces and activities in which we hope, and want to invite the Holy Spirit, to work. But we typically know what those steps are going to be.

Mackenzie: Okay. As you were talking, this reminded me of, on a lot of church websites, you’ll have … they’ll have a page that’s called What to Expect, where they’re trying to explain what … like when you show up, we’re going to sing for a bit, there’s going to be talking, there’s an offering. If it’s your first time here, we’re not expecting you to put anything in the basket or whatever, et cetera.

I know on my meeting’s website, I put a What to Expect section on the visitors page. It’s like, “Okay, if you show up before 10, we will be singing, and that’s just somebody calling a number out of a hymnal, and hopefully whoever’s sitting at the piano knows how to play it, and we’ll sing it, and call out some other number, whatever your favorite song is out of the book. Until 10, and then we’ll settle into silence.”

And then explain what the whole thing is with the silence. Then say, “We’ll shake hands, or somebody sitting at the front will ask about joys and concerns, so this is where you give your prayers of thanksgiving, and your prayers for help. Then we shake hands, and we have announcements, and then, potluck.” Sometimes I joke that … I do not do so on the website, I don’t think … but sometimes I joke that potluck is the bread-breaking that goes with communion at other churches.

Micah: No, I mean, this is sort of tangential, but I think there’s a very strong argument to be made that the early churches, like the very early churches, like the first few decades of the church, that what is now called the Eucharist, was in fact a potluck. So that’s just sort of … maybe we even discussed that in previous episodes about communion.

Mackenzie: We might of. So you said with the exception of conservative friends, you were speaking about before, and I know that talking to conservative friends, I had one of them say that, “You liberal friends are a lot more programmed than you think you are.” And thinking about what I just listed off for what to expect coming to my meeting, yeah. At least we have a designated period for singing.

Micah: You’ve got the hymns.

Mackenzie: Yeah, we have a designated period for singing. That’s been going on for like 15 years. Apparently, I was just told recently that there was debate about whether we should or shouldn’t, and then a new person showed up and was like, “I like singing, and I can play piano. Let’s just do this.” And we’re, “Okay.” So we’ve had singing every Sunday since.

Micah: Anecdotally, I don’t have any data, but just based on my anecdotal observation, I think that has been growing in the last couple decades, of unprogrammings having a designated time for singing.

Mackenzie: Right, and/or having meetings for singing where it’ll be like, we’ll spend the whole Saturday doing different singing styles throughout the day just because, singing is fun, and we like it.

Micah: And, as Dr. Seuss says, “Fun is good.”

Mackenzie: I know traditionally, the time when worship starts would have been once somebody walks in the room and starts worshiping. Okay, worship has begun. Anybody who comes in after, sit down and join them. Whereas, I’d say with a lot of liberal Quakers now, liberal unprogrammed Quakers now, they’re actually be a welcome at the beginning.

I know at Friends Meeting of Washington, they have at 10:30, somebody stands and reads off a piece of paper explaining what waiting worship is. That way, any newcomers aren’t sitting there going, “I don’t know what’s going on.”

Oh, that just reminded me of a joke. You know which joke I mean?

Micah: No, when does the service end … when does the service begin?

Mackenzie: When the worship ends.

Micah: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. With regard to conservative Quakers, again a very tiny group of people, the real difference I have seen, at least one particular piece of the liturgy that exists in a lot of conservative meetings, that doesn’t typically exist other places, which is that typically, an advice is read. Typically, an advice is read at the end of a meeting for worship, and that’s how you know the meeting for worship’s about to end. Before what some people call passing the peace, the shaking of hands. The closing of the meeting.

A designated person will stand up and read an advice, and it will be considered for another maybe 30 seconds before the meeting’s closed.

Mackenzie: Which, closing the meeting is also called the rise of the meeting, so if you come across … if you are not a Quaker, and you are thinking about going to a meeting, and you come across some Quaker website where they have way too much Quaker-ese, and it says, “At the rise of meeting, we will …” they mean, when we stand up at the end.

Micah: Right. Yeah, it really is kind of amazing how much, I guess how human Quakers are, and that just all these human beings, we have set up our own schedules, and agendas, and algorithms to organize our time together, and to make it make sense to us. Because think about it, without a liturgy, without a predictable order of worship, that is generally true, even if sometimes we allow the Holy Spirit to mix it up because [inaudible 00:15:33] want to do.

Without a general order of worship, without a general order of activities, we’d all be confused, and it would be chaos. We wouldn’t know what’s happening. Sometimes that’s fun, but most of the time, it’s really not fun. It’s really not productive.

Mackenzie: Actually, I want to go back to the part where you said usually an hour spent in silence. Well, silent-ish. There’s generally some talking, too. Because I’ve heard it said that Quaker meeting gets an hour shorter every hundred years.

Micah: Well, it can’t get an hour shorter anymore.

Mackenzie: Yeah, without us dying out.

Micah: Yep.

Mackenzie: It used to be that you would have meetings for worship that were like three hours long, and that’s like, sometimes you go to some Baptist churches now, or if you go to a synagogue, those are all morning long.

Micah: So in the early Quaker movement, meetings were often like six hours long, like real, real long. There wasn’t one set time period. I was just reading instructions for encouragement for elders. Elders, the meaning of it was people who were spiritually mature, and were basically in charge of the local congregation among Quakers. In this advice, or this encouragement to the elders, they were saying, “You elders should get together once or twice a week and just like, worship together three or four hours.”

It was really pretty typical because these things go real long, and it was also typical for these things to involve, like these public meetings where maybe it’s going for six hours, right? On a Sunday. A large portion of this would be sermons. You would have people stand up … people typically, again, it was fairly predictable. You would typically have some people give very short sermons, like maybe only like 15 or 20 minute sermons towards the beginning. Then you might get a longer sermon, maybe 45 minute sermon. Then someone would get up and sort of be the main speaker, would get up and give like an hour and a half long sermon.

Mackenzie: [inaudible 00:17:45] runs like an hour and half.

Micah: Yeah, actually there are records available because there was a point in history, and I’m forgetting when exactly this was. It might have been 1700s, where reporters would actually attend.

Mackenzie: That was around the Hicksite Orthodox Schism in the early 1800s.

Micah: There you go. So there was a time period in maybe the 1800s, maybe the late 1700s, where reporters would actually attend meetings for worship, and they would make notes about what was preached on, about how long things went. We actually have data about this.

Mackenzie: Well, there’s actually … there were short-hand stenographers going to meetings. In 1830, there was published a book that’s called The Quaker Sermons of … it’s like The Quaker Sermons of Elias Hicks and Others, or something like that. It’s on Google Books. I can post a link to it. It includes the full text of about a dozen sermons. Actually, one of the ones that’s in there is from 1688. So the stenographers showing up was not-

Micah: Continuous.

Mackenzie: Yeah, it wasn’t entirely new, which also makes it kind of interesting with nowadays, where we’re like, “Oh, we can’t have recording. We can’t have you take it down. We can’t have a tape-recording. We can’t have video.” Generally, you don’t allow video, or even photography in a Quaker wedding.

Micah: Yeah, I still think that photography is inappropriate. However, I think a lot of people, including conservative Quakers, at least in one case … I guess maybe they’re thinking about it differently. I’m thinking about a case at North Carolina yearly meeting, conservative. I guess it wasn’t in a meeting for worship, per se. Like a capital M, Meeting for worship, but it was like in an evening plenary. The plenary, it was a sermon. It was an extemporaneous sermon, was recorded.

The sermon was by Carl Magruder for anyone who’s listening who might know who that is. He gave an extemporaneous sermon at North Carolina yearly meeting, and I’ve listened to it, and it was very good, and I’m glad they recorded it. I actually think it’s very, very good to record sermons. I actually audio-record my sermons when I deliver them at the Church of the Brethren. They’re available on my website when I posted them. I think it’s very good to record them. I would be uncomfortable with people taking photographs during, while I was preaching, or just any point in the worship service.

Irregardless of whether it’s Quaker, or Brethren, or anything, I think it’s inappropriate to take pictures during a meeting for worship. I think the difference for me is that, when you’re recording, it’s passive. You set the recorder, and then it’s just there. It’s recording. That’s it.
When you’re taking photographs … in fact, it might even be okay to video it. But wouldn’t be okay for me, is for someone to be walking around taking pictures.

Mackenzie: Because they’re not participating.

Micah: They’re not participating. It’s basically, it’s turning it into a spectacle. That’s for me, where I think the line is.

Mackenzie: That makes sense. And I think there’s also a huge difference between the kinds of sermons that we have these records of from the 1600s and 1800s, versus a lot of what you hear as messages during meeting, during waiting worship, not referring to … the sermons that you hear at program meetings are one thing, and I listened to a podcast from West Hills Friends Church. I like listening to their sermons.
What you hear during the waiting worship portion, or the open worship portion, and what you hear in the program meetings, and during unprogrammed meeting, these are very different from what you’ve got from these hundreds of years ago ones.

For one thing, the length, like you said. I remember reading about Job Scott going on for 45 minutes, and looking like a vessel ready to burst for want of a vent, as sweat pours off of him, and he’s like stripping off his tie, and his suit jacket, like his overcoat, and then his suit jacket, his tie, like unbuttoning his collar because he is just on fire.

You would never see that in a liberal Quaker worship now. It’s, you get up, you talk, generally quietly, slowly, with William Shatner-esque pauses for two to three minutes.

Micah: William Shatner-esque pauses. That’s actually a very apt description. And what Mackenzie’s describing, there are rules to how you are to speak in meeting for worship. You are never told what the rules are. As you participate in meeting for worship, you come to learn, that just exactly as Mackenzie described, there are rules for how you are to speak, and if you follow the rules, you are more likely to be taken seriously, and people are more likely to assume that God is actually speaking through you.

Mackenzie: Which is really annoying.

Micah: Yeah. It’s weird.

Mackenzie: I actually have like, shouted while speaking in meeting. And that was even with one that had a microphone. I was just yelling into the microphone.

Micah: I will say, while I think it can be very, very silly, there is something to it in the sense that the William Shatner-esque pauses she mentioned, when I speak in meeting for worship, and I speak out of the silence, as led by the Holy Spirit in that moment, I often have those pauses. It is acculturation, it is a cultural thing that I picked up from Quakers, but it is also functional in that I am literally waiting on the next word sometimes.

I literally will get halfway through a sentence, and not know what the second half is until I get there. It’s what I describe as being oracular ministry, in that I, to the best of my ability and discernment, am attempting to be an oracle of God. It is functional in that … it can be mimicked. It can be mimicked, and it can be abused. People can pretend to be inspired by following the form.
But the origin of the form is functional in that you can’t always just race ahead if you don’t know what God wants you to say yet.

Mackenzie: You can find us on the web at That’s quakerpodcast on Twitter, Facebook, or Patreon, and on iTunes.