Whether you are a one-time visitor, a new inquirer, or a regular attender here at Lancaster Friends Meeting, we want to welcome you to our community, and help you to get to know us better.
The Quakers (or Friends) have a long and venerable history as a religious community. Unfortunately, that venerable history can sometimes make it difficult for newcomers to find their way among us. We often do things a bit differently and use words in ways that are not obvious. It is not our intention to be opaque; on the contrary, it is our desire to be an open and welcoming community. This handbook is offered in a spirit of hospitality, and in the sincere hope that it will help you come to know us, even as we get to know you.
In what follows, we will address some of the more frequently asked questions about Friends. The first section deals with basic Quaker beliefs and vocabulary, and the second section addresses some practical aspects of our community.
Where and when did Quakerism originate?
Many books have been written about the origins and history of Quakers, but very briefly: Friends arose in mid-17th century England, in the in the midst of religious and political upheaval and civil war. The commonly accepted beginning is dated as 1652, when a young itinerant preacher named George Fox (1624-91) converted a group known as the Westmoreland Seekers. Over the next several years, the new movement grew exponentially and swept out of the north to all of England, but soon attracted the attention of authorities. Over the next thirty years, Friends were persecuted and imprisoned in large numbers, with hundreds dying in harsh prison conditions. Their public witness was crucial in the eventual passage of the Toleration Act (1689), guaranteeing religious minorities the right of public worship.
As early as 1654, Friends began to emigrate to the New World and were a political force in several colonies. In 1681, Quaker William Penn was granted an expanse of land along the Delaware River by the King Charles II (in payment of a debt owed to Penn’s father). Penn’s “Holy Experiment” was an early beacon of religious tolerance, political rights, and (at least in the early years) just relationship with Native Americans.
What are the basic beliefs of Quakers?
Friends have found that our experience of the Divine cannot be fully captured in words, doctrines, and dogmas, so we have no formal creed or statement of belief. Consequently, there can be a wide range of beliefs among Friends, and a diversity of language in how those beliefs are expressed. Most Friends, however, would agree to the following three points as central to who we are and what we believe.
Our most basic affirmation is that God can and must be experienced inwardly by each of us as individuals, and not just through the mediation of priest, sacrament, or creed. We have many names for this inward experience of God: the Light, Spirit, the Inward Teacher, the Seed, the Light of Christ, the Word written in our hearts, and most simply, Truth. It is this immediate, direct relationship with the divine which ultimately gives our lives meaning, purpose, and wholeness.
Second, we believe that such an experience should have an effect on the way we live our lives in the world. This gives Friends a fervent desire to live out or fully embody the Truth of this transforming relationship with God, through action in the world. This is most clearly seen in the Quaker testimonies (see below).
Third, Friends share a recognition that we need one another in this sacred endeavor, and so there is a commitment to form and sustain the kind of spiritual community that is necessary to live such a life of faith and integrity. We believe that God calls us together into community, for it is only in community that we can learn God’s lessons of love, faithfulness, humility, service, and forgiveness.
Friends often summarize these beliefs by the simple affirmation that there is (in the words of George Fox) “that of God in everyone.” By this we mean that all humans without exception have deep within themselves a capacity for a direct experience of the Divine; that this experience is transforming; and that we can appeal to this capacity in others as the basis of our unity.
Are we "Quakers" or "Friends?"
From the earliest years of Quakerism in England, we have referred to ourselves as “Friends of Truth”, or more commonly, just Friends (taken from Jesus’ words in John 15, “I have called you friends”). Quaker was originally a derogatory nickname. According to George Fox, the name was first applied to the group when Fox advised a magistrate to “tremble at the word of the Lord.” Friends themselves were often said to tremble or quake in the fervor of their religious worship. At any rate, the nickname stuck, and nowadays, we use Quakers and Friends interchangeably. Our official name is “The Religious Society of Friends”, but the outside world is more likely to know us simply as Quakers.
Are we a "church" or a "meeting?"
In other denominations, our local group might be called a parish, congregation, or local church. However, for the first generation of Quakers, “church” referred not to a building, but rather to the worldwide community of believers. Therefore, we call the building we worship in a “meetinghouse” rather than a church. By extension, the group of people who gather here in this building is known as “the meeting”, so we often use meeting to refer to ourselves as a community of people. To confuse the matter even more, we also speak of our weekly worship service as meeting (more fully, “meeting for worship”). So a Friends Meeting is a community of people who find Quaker Meeting (our weekly silent worship, see below) to be central to their lives together. In common usage, we tend not to use the word church to refer either to the meetinghouse building, ourselves as a community, or our worship service.
One further bit of confusing terminology: our local Quaker community is sometimes called a Monthly Meeting (we worship every week, but our meetings for business occur once a month; see below). We also belong to Caln Quarterly Meeting (the eleven monthly meetings in a roughly 50 mile radius, which meet together four times a year) and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (the 105 monthly meetings which gather annually in Philadelphia).
Where is the minister?
Perhaps one of the most distinctive things about a Quaker Meeting is the absence of any official clergy. Instead, we hold that we are all ministers of one sort or another: some by the spoken word, but others by deeds of service, or by silent prayer and listening. It is often said that Friends have not abolished the ministry, but the laity; we are the logical extension of Martin Luther’s “priesthood of all believers.” Without a pastor, typical pastoral functions are performed by individuals and various committees. We also designate someone to serve as clerk (a volunteer position, typically rotating every 3 or 4 years) who tends to various practical aspects of our life together.
Are Quakers Christians?
This turns out to be a complicated question. There are many possible answers; here is one. After several years of futile searching among the various denominations, George Fox had a pivotal experience of the Inward Christ (“…then, Oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition”). Fox believed that his discovery represented “primitive Christianity revived,” yet his experience caused him to lead people out of the established churches of the day, into a new fellowship. Those churches in turn viewed Quakerism as a dangerous heresy, and fiercely persecuted Quakers for the first 30 years of their existence. So from our origins, Friends have had an ambivalent relationship to the larger Christian church. Throughout our history, this inherent tension has played out in many ways, and was partly behind the Quaker schisms and separations of the 1800’s.
Today, the clear majority of Friends worldwide see themselves as Christians, firmly rooted in Scripture and the wider Church tradition. Various Friends organizations have membership in the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches (albeit, sometimes uneasily). And yet there are certainly many Friends (especially concentrated in Britain and the Eastern U.S.) who would describe themselves as other than Christian, out of a conviction that the essence of Quakerism is something universal, transcending the specifics of any one religion.
On this issue, there is a wide spectrum of belief and language within Lancaster Meeting. Perhaps what we do agree on is that words and labels are secondary; it is the reality of spiritual experience which is primary. Many would agree with contemporary Friend Paul Lacey: “To be a Quaker is not simply to subscribe to certain doctrines about Jesus; and not just to follow the teachings of Jesus … To be a Quaker is to have met the Inward Christ.”
What is "unprogrammed workship?"
The Quaker way of worship is distinctive, and what most often strikes first-time attenders is what is absent: no priest or minister, no liturgy or program of worship, and no outward sacraments (and no collection plate!). Since our beginnings, Friends have sought to strip away all that is non-essential, all that might potentially place a barrier between us and God. We have no priest or minister, because we believe that all may minister. We observe no outward sacraments, because we believe that all life is sacramental, and that being together in God’s presence is our communion and our baptism. We have no liturgy or predetermined order of worship, because we believe that the essence of worship is to be open to the promptings of the Spirit.
This stripping away has been called a “spirituality of subtraction”, and was given classic expression in an early epistle of George Fox: “Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts, and then thou wilt feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord God, whereby thou wilt receive his strength and power from whence comes life …”
Although we sometimes describe our worship as silent, it is probably better described as waiting worship, based on a reverent sense of expectant waiting, in the faith that God is already present in our lives, if we but make room to listen. When we assemble for worship, typically there is an extended period of silence, as we each “center down” in our own way, seeking to still our minds and open our hearts. At some point, it is common for one or more Friends to be moved by the Spirit to offer spoken ministry out of their own experience: a brief and spiritual reflection, story, encouragement, song, or prayer. Each message is accepted into the silence, and contributes to the uniqueness of that particular Meeting for Worship. The Meeting ends (usually after about an hour) when a designated person shakes hands with the person next to them, at which point we all likewise greet our neighbors.
What do we mean by "the Testimonies?"
Friends have always affirmed that our beliefs and our experience of God count for little unless they have real consequences for the way we live our lives. We strive for an integrity and congruence between what we believe and how we live. This attitude has led over the years to our Quaker testimonies, which are actions or lifestyles that “testify” or witness to the Truth of God’s transforming presence in our lives. As George Fox exhorted us, “Let your lives speak.”
The best known of these is the peace testimony. For over three centuries it has been our consistent affirmation that our understanding of God is not compatible with violence and war. Although there is ample New Testament and early Christian support for this belief, for Quakers the peace testimony is based primarily on what we can say from our own spiritual experience. Over the years, the peace testimony has been lived out in different ways by different Friends: conscientious objection to military service, relief work to alleviate the suffering caused by war, refusal to pay war taxes, advocacy of disarmament, and work to promote the social conditions that lead to peace.
Quakers also commonly speak of the testimonies of simplicity (that a single-minded focus on the things of God frees us from excessive anxiety and concern with material security); of equality (that we are all spiritually equal before God); community (that we are not isolated individuals, but meant to live as “members one of another”); and integrity (that we have a single standard of truth, and that our actions must be in accord with our beliefs). There is no official list of Quaker testimonies, and their exact manifestation will change with each generation, as we listen more deeply for God’s unfolding truth. For example, in recent years, stewardship of our natural environment has emerged as a contemporary expression of our traditional testimonies of peace, harmony, and simplicity.
What is a "convinced Friend?"
On one level, a convinced Friend is simply one who has become a Quaker as a matter of adult choice, having come to Quakers from some other spiritual tradition (or no tradition). This is in contrast to a birthright Friend, someone who was born into a Quaker family and has grown up within Quakerism. The great majority of members and attenders of Lancaster Meeting are in this sense convinced Friends who have come from other traditions.
Early Friends spoke of their coming to Quakerism as being “convinced of Truth”. This is not so much an intellectual assent to some doctrine, but a deep conviction, based in experience, that God is present in our lives, and moves us to certain actions and to a way of life congruent with God’s purposes. In this sense, we would hope that all Quakers (whether birthright or not) are “convinced”. In our post-modern world, Friends no longer hold that the Quaker way is the only way to God, but we do hold that the Quaker way is a valid spiritual path with an integrity and internal consistency of its own.
What are the queries?
Queries are corporately-written questions meant to stimulate self-reflection and examination, often used in a group setting. Queries are not meant to have a yes or no answer, or even necessarily a correct answer, but rather to be a vehicle for self-examination. When we speak of “The Queries”, we specifically mean the series of twelve questions on various aspects of our spiritual and community life which have been officially adopted by Philadelphia Meeting (most other Yearly Meetings have similar queries). It is our practice in Lancaster Meeting to read a portion of that month’s query during Meeting for Worship on the second Sunday of each month, and then to spend some time during the Meeting for Business sharing thoughts about that query.
Are all Quaker Meetings like this one?
No; Quaker meetings vary in terms of size (Lancaster is bigger than average), demographics, and local traditions. Some Meetings are small and meet in rented space; others meet in 300-year old Meetinghouses. However, all Friends share the same history, basic beliefs, and testimonies (see above).
Lancaster Meeting belongs to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM), an association of 105 local Quaker Meetings in the greater Philadelphia region. All meetings within PYM are unprogrammed and without a pastor, and would worship in a manner recognizably similar to Lancaster’s. However, in other areas of the country (especially the Midwest and far west) and around the world (e.g., Kenya, Guatemala, Bolivia), Quaker Meetings often have pastors and have programmed worship (with a pre-arranged order of hymns, readings, and sermon, but usually also with some silent worship). These programmed Meetings sometimes refer to themselves as a “Friends Church”. The reasons for this divergence are complicated and rooted in 19th century history.
How do I become more involved in Lancaster Meeting?
For most people, initial involvement comes through attendance at Meeting for Worship. However, after a variable period of time (weeks to months to years, depending on the individual), those who feel an affinity for our way of doing things will want to become more involved in the life of the community. Although Meeting for Worship is central to who we are, by itself attendance at worship may leave gaps in a newcomer’s understanding of Quakerism.
There are many ways to become more involved, get to know people better, learn more about Quakerism, and contribute to the community. No one could possibly participate in all of these; initially you will want to chose one or two and see what works for you. What follows are simply suggestions.
Stay after Meeting for Worship, for refreshments and an opportunity to socialize. Come to Meeting for Business (see below). Come to Quaker Talk (a discussion group of contemporary issues) or Quaker Bible Study (both at 9 a.m. Sunday morning). Participate in one of our committees (see below). Come to forum (after Meeting for Worship, 11:30 in the Meeting Room, first, fourth, and fifth Sundays). Join us for potluck lunch (even if you didn’t bring food) the third Sunday of the month (except July and August), and use the opportunity to get to know one or two Friends better. Come to a Saturday work day. Participate in one of the evening groups: Spiritual Oasis (a support group for seekers, every Monday evening), Science and Spirituality discussion group, Book discussion, Healing Racism Working Group. Details of all these can be found in the Meeting Newsletter, published monthly.
An especially good way to find your way into the meeting and connect to people on a deeper level is to join one of the “small groups” that tend to form and reform in October, and meet for several months. In recent years these have been centered around topics of spiritual formation in the Quaker tradition, but the exact format changes from year to year. Also, keep your ears open for special events geared especially to newcomers: Quakerism 101, Inquirer’s Brunch.
Finally, the best way to learn about Quakerism is to get to know Quakers. We aspire to be hospitable and helpful to newcomers, but if we don’t live up to that aspiration, don’t hesitate to speak to the greeter (the person at the door before Meeting for Worship), the “Quaker Q” person (the person in the library after meeting, designated to be available to respond to questions from newcomers), or any person on the Worship and Ministry committee.
What about children?
We treasure the Meeting’s children and young people, and we welcome new families with children. However, we also recognize the reality that silent unprogrammed worship is not always appealing to children.We have an active “First Day School” program for children from preschool through high school. This is comparable to Sunday School that you might find in other denominations. (Early Quakers objected to the common names of days of the week and months of the year, because they are named after pagan gods, so they spoke of first day, second day, third day, instead of Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, etc. Although this usage has largely disappeared, vestiges remain in special terms like “First Day School”. )
Children come to the beginning of Meeting for Worship and sit with a responsible adult. We are very tolerant of the occasional fidgeting of young children, and find that most children quickly gain an appreciation for the silence, at least in small doses. At about 20 minutes into the hour, the adult First Day School teachers will lead the children out of the worship room, and to the classrooms. From September through early June, First Day School is divided into several classes based on school grade (preschool, K-2, 3-5, middle school, high school), while during the summer there is one activity for all ages. For the youngest children (usually up to age 3) nursery care is available for the entire hour of Meeting for Worship. There is also childcare for all ages during the hour after Meeting for Worship (to allow parents to attend forum or Meeting for Business), but children must be signed in by a parent.
Currently, there is no children’s program or childcare at the 8 a.m. Meeting for Worship, so the above applies only to 10 a.m. worship. If you have questions about the children’s program, or the curriculum of First Day School, please ask to speak to a member of the First Day School Committee.
What is meant by "Meeting for Business?"
Once a month, Friends assemble to conduct business and reach any necessary decisions affecting the community. We consider this exercise to be an essential part of our lives together as Quakers. We meet together not to advance our own agenda, nor with predetermined positions on different issues, but instead to listen attentively to the Spirit of Truth, which may speak to us through any individual. It is essential that Meeting for Business be conducted in a spirit of worship, which is why we sometimes refer to it as “Meeting for Worship with attention to business”. In reaching decisions, we do not look for compromise among competing factions, nor secular forms of consensus (which are often built on the lowest common denominator of different competing positions). Rather, we seek to be led by God’s Spirit into a state of spiritual unity. We do not take votes (which tend to leave disgruntled minorities) but instead the clerk will test the sense of unity by asking if all approve of the proposed action. If any express disapproval, they must then be heard. Patience is essential to this process: particularly difficult issues may require months of patient listening before a “sense of the meeting” begins to emerge.
In a typical Meeting for Business, we might hear minutes from the previous meeting, give consideration to the query for that month, hear reports form various committees, and deal with a number of routine matters. However, not infrequently there are important decisions to be made, and on our better days, the discussion and discerning around these issues can represent the best of a Quaker Meeting.
Meeting for Business is held the second Sunday of each month, starting at 11:30 and usually lasting to 1:00 or 1:30. Newcomers and non-members are welcome and encouraged to attend, as this is one of the best ways to learn more about how our community works.
What about Money?
Because we have no pastor of full-time staff, our monetary needs are relatively modest, at least compared to many churches. Nevertheless, it does take money to keep the meeting going. At Meeting for Business each December, we discuss and adopt the next year’s budget. About a third of our expenses go to the operation and upkeep of the Meetinghouse; about a third to meeting and committee activities and programs; and about a third to support the wider work of Quakers, through PYM and other organizations. The operating budget is raised entirely from contributions from members and attenders. We don’t pass a collection plate during worship, and we tend not to be very forward about asking people for money. Nevertheless, we do expect all members who are financially able to contribute their fair share toward the budgeted expenses. For attenders who might wish to contribute, there is a donation box on the table in the foyer outside of the Meeting Room (next to the guest book).
What are the committees and what do they do?
Much of the work and functioning of the meeting community takes place at the level of the committees, and joining a committee is a good way to meet people and become more active in the life of the community. Attenders (not just members) serve on meeting committees, and visitors are welcome to attend committee meetings. (The one exception about both attenders and visitors is Care and Counsel, which sometimes deals with confidential matters of pastoral care.) Starting in March or April of each year, the nominating committee will start to talk about committee appointments, so if you feel drawn to serve on a committee, feel free to discuss this with a member of the nominating committee. Appointments are generally for a term of two years.
Here is a partial list of some of our committees, with a parenthetical description of their work: Care and Counsel (pastoral care, membership), Comfort and Assistance (hospital visitation, meals, etc. when a member is sick or otherwise in need), Environmental Concerns (explores how Quaker testimonies might speak to environmental issues), Finance (the budget, allocating resources, raising money), First Day School (organizes the children’s program), Garden (upkeep of grounds and gardens), Library (tends to the meeting library), Outreach (makes our presence known to the wider community, and also welcomes newcomers), Peace and Social Concerns (works on issues of Peace and Justice, both locally and nationally), Social (organize various meeting social functions, including our monthly shared meal), and Worship and Ministry (promotes opportunities for worship and deepening the spiritual life of the community, including adult religious education).
How do I become a member?
Membership in Lancaster Meeting represents a mutual commitment of the member to the community, and the community to the member. There is no specific creed or doctrine that must be accepted, but prospective members should be in general agreement with Friends’ principles and beliefs, and should be comfortable that Quakerism is the path they choose to follow for their continuing spiritual growth. Individuals vary: some may feel ready to make a commitment to membership after as little as a year in the community, while others may come to membership only after many years of involvement. Occasionally, attenders may be active in the life of the Meeting for years or even decades without ever asking for membership. Commonly, those who do join say that membership feels like an outward recognition of an inward reality that they have long recognized.
The membership process is initiated by the prospective member writing a letter to the clerk of the meeting, stating his or her desire to become a member, and briefly explaining the history of their involvement with Friends and Lancaster Meeting (this does not need to be an elaborate or long epistle). Care and Counsel will then appoint a small “clearness committee” to meet with the prospective member, hear how Quakerism fits within his or her spiritual journey, and discern together whether such a step is “rightly ordered”. If the way seems open to membership, Care and Counsel will bring a recommendation forward to the Meeting for Business, which will hear the recommendation and then take final action the following month.
How can I find out more about Lancaster Friends Meeting and Quakerism?
If you find yourself drawn to our worship and our community, there are many resources for finding out more about Quakers. A good place to start is with Faith and Practice of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (1997), a 200+ page book that contains a brief account of our history, a description of current practice, a section of excerpts from Quaker writers past and present, the Queries, and a brief glossary. We make Faith and Practice available to attenders; see any member of Worship and Ministry for a copy.
The Meeting maintains a good basic library with many books on Quaker history, beliefs, and practice, as well as other topics of interest to Friends. Especially recommended as introductions to Quakerism are Friends for 300 Years by Howard Brinton and Portrait in Grey by John Punshon. Many Pendle Hill Pamphlets (about 30 pages each) are of interest to newcomers (e.g., The Testimony of Integrity, Four Doors to Meeting for Worship, Beyond Consensus, Members One of Another). Each week, a person designated as the “Quaker Q” is present in the library, to answer any questions you might have about Quakerism or our community, and to direct you to any reading material that may be helpful to you.