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The New Quaker Monasticism and Liturgy

This Ash Wednesday, a few friends and I got together to observe the beginning of Lent. We shared a meal, and then we read the lectionary scripture for the day and settled into waiting worship. After worship had broken, we walked together over to St. Mark’s Episcopal church to attend their service. For me, the Episcopal service was at once foreign and familiar.

Several years ago, while in seminary at Earlham School of Religion, I lived as part of a new monastic community called Renaissance House. We lived together in a big, dilapidated mansion in the once-prosperous Starr District of Richmond, Indiana. We hosted public dinners three times a week where all were invited, and which were frequented by the mentally ill, the very poor, college professors, entrepreneurs, drug addicts, seminary and college students, and neighborhood kids. We lived off the land, dumpster diving for food and foraging for wasted wood and fallen trees to heat the house. We prayed together as a community four times a day.

As we explored what it meant to be a worshipping community, we visited a nearby Roman Catholic monastic community, the Sisters of St. Francis, in Oldenburg, Indiana. One of the surprising things we learned was that we at Renaissance House did a lot more corporate prayer than the “real” monastics did. We gathered for worship before breakfast (Matins), at noon (Sext), before dinner (Vespers) and in the late evening before bed (Compline). We prayed liturgy out of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, we sang, and we read the Scriptures aloud.

Because I had come to Christianity in the Quaker tradition, this form of worship was new and somewhat strange for me. I did not know quite what to make of spoken liturgy, especially because the Friends tradition that I was being steeped in put a high value on extemporaneous, “Spirit-led” prayer and vocal ministry. To have our prayers “scripted” seemed questionable. Despite my reservations about the details of our worship, I felt very committed to the worshipping community at Renaissance House. I believed in our way of life as a Christian brotherhood. I believed that our ministry to the neighborhood and wider community was meaningful; that we were truly “being the Church” in that time and place.

My experience at St. Mark’s this Wednesday surprised me. First of all, it became clear to me that Renaissance House was an Episcopal-inspired new monastic community. Having the chance to participate in a more formal Episcopalian service, I saw how almost all of our practice at Renaissance House was based in that tradition. Second of all, and far more shocking to me, I realized that I missed the liturgy. I missed the corporate recitation of the Psalms. I missed the congregational call and response. I missed the corporate confession of past failure, and repentance from sin. I missed the discomfort of being asked to say things that I would not normally say.

Recognizing that spoken liturgy has meaning for me, I feel the need to reflect on how this relates to my distinctively Quaker interpretation of my faith. I know that the early Friends rejected precisely the form of worship that I am now finding compelling. And I feel like I understand why they did. When the Quaker movement was emerging in the middle of the 17th century, the Church of England (now known as Episcopalian in the United States) was an oppressive force that demanded submission to an array of priestly codes, and which made the Gospel something that had to be mediated through educated, humanly authorized clergy. I affirm the early Friends’ rejection of human-based authority and the idolatry of Scripture and ritual.

But the early Friends did not merely leave the “apostate” Church of England and take up a revised liturgy on their own. They did away with the liturgy, with pre-arranged congregational singing, Scripture-reading and prepared sermons. They insisted that for worship to be conducted “in Spirit and in Truth,” there could be no pre-arrangement. True worship was when God was waited upon and women and men preached out of a sense of immediate leading by the Holy Spirit. The liturgy was a dead letter imposed by the human mind, but the Spirit gave life.

I think that this may have been the right answer for the early Friends. This first generation of Quakers had been filled to the brim with ceremony, liturgy, singing and Scripture. From their earliest childhood, the tradition of the Church was inculcated in them. The liturgy was practically in their DNA! The early Friends already knew the Scriptures, the creeds and the hymns of the Church by heart before they broke away from the deadening ritual and hierarchy that fallen humans had employed to take the Gospel captive. The early Friends rejected the abuses of Scripture, music and liturgy – but they retained full knowledge and use of them as they gathered to wait on the Lord.

More recent generations of Friends have not been as fortunate. We have been raised without as rich a sense of the tradition of the Church: without a corporate knowledge of our hymns; and without a regular corporate confession of our faith, our recognition of sin, and repentance. Many of us have lost even a basic awareness of the Scriptures.

Given our present context and condition, I wonder whether some form of liturgy might not be a good thing for Friends. What is the balance between us waiting on Christ to lead us in every step and us taking initiative to respond to Christ’s call?  What would be a Quaker way of doing liturgy?