"A Quaker's View" first appeared in 1990, as a column in the WHF newsletter. Articles from that column are now available online (though some have been lost).

Nothing here is meant to be the last word in Quaker Orthodoxy. It is, after all, "A Quaker's View."

Worship & Emotion


Hello Friends and friends of Friends! I am your host, Pendle Hill. In this column, I'd like to take a Quaker's View of speaking in worship.

In particular, this column begins with an observation. Namely, when people speak in meeting, they frequently experience a surge of emotion that surprises them. I'd like to explore the source of that unexpected passion.

Being nudged to speak in meeting has an emotional component for almost everyone. For some of us, speaking before a group of people in any context is frightening. Add to that a sense of God's presence stirring us to action and we are faced with a very imposing prospect, indeed!

Fear of speaking has lead more than one Friend to quip, "I know my leading is genuine when my dread of not speaking becomes greater than my dread of speaking." To some degree, the rather mundane phenomenon of "stage fright" may contribute to heightened emotions on the part of the speaker.

However, I am convinced that there is more to this emotional surge than a simple case of stage fright.

Consider other scenarios where stage fright becomes a factor.

Piano recitals and job interviews and a dozen other facets of life can produce feelings of stage fright. Even the everyday act of leaving a message on someone's answering machine can make some of us uncomfortable. While these activities are likely to produce a certain amount of anxiety, we would be very surprised if they caused a well-adjusted adult to blink back tears.

In the context of worship, however, tears are relatively familiar.

Furthermore, even people who speak in meeting on a fairly regular basis can find themselves surprised by a surge of emotion. This is not merely to say that habitual speakers can become emotional. I am saying that these people are sometimes surprised by the emotions they feel.

Of course, even Friends well-known for their vocal ministry may suffer from stage fright each time they feel called to speak. But after a while, that feeling of stage fright should become a familiar one. The fact that regular speakers can be surprised by the intensity of their emotions demonstrates that something other than stage fright is at work.

In fact, even people who have crafted their words in advance will, on occasion, say, "I did not expect this to be so emotional for me." How could they be surprised? The theme is known to them in advance. The words are known to them in advance. Presumably, they know in advance what is or is not likely to provoke an emotional response on their part.

Yet, in the last month or so, I've heard at least three Friends interrupt their remarks to say, "I did not expect this to be so emotional for me." In truth, I have felt this way myself.

Remember, the early Friends were known as "Quakers" -- at least in part -- because their experience of worship was so emotionally intense that it left them trembling.

So why should those who speak in meeting experience such a strong surge of emotions?

To some degree, I think the gathered meeting is reflective. To use an analogy, think of the way your flashlight uses a reflective surface to intensify and direct the "raw" light that emerges from the bulb. Spoken in the context of a meeting for worship, our Light is made to shine brighter than we ourselves can predict.

Our words become deeper than we had anticipated, and therefore we feel them more deeply.

As precedent for this rather outrageous claim, I can only point to Robert Barclay, who said, "And as many candles lighted, and put in one place, do greatly augment the light, and make it more to shine forth, so when many are gathered together into the same life, there is more of the glory of God..."

The "augmented light" of a gathered meeting gives our vocal ministry more power than we could give it ourselves. And therefore, we are sometimes surprised by the weight of what we ourselves are saying.

Our words become deeper than we had anticipated, and therefore we feel them more deeply.

Here are some questions to consider:

1. Many Friends are understandably wary of emotional manipulation. Tears and "warm fuzzes" are no substitute for a genuine experience of God's presence. This preamble leads to two questions: How do we guard against emotional manipulation? How do we prevent our concerns about emotional manipulation from shutting down genuine emotional experiences in worship?

2. The focus here has been on speaking in meeting. Do other aspects of worship have a strong emotional content?

3. Have you experienced the "augmenting, reflective" effect of a gathered meeting? What was it like?