From Edmund Burke, Quaker Chaplain:
Recently I’ve heard someone describe the prolonged silence of a Quaker meeting as ‘a silence waiting to be broken’!
And it is part of the Quaker tradition that anyone in the meeting, young or old, female or male, is free to ‘minister’ –to pray aloud, read from the Bible, offer some reflections, even to sing– if they feel themselves ‘prompted by the Spirit’ to do so. Without such prompting, they are asked simply to wait, and to worship, in silence, silence and speech counting equally as parts of a ‘meeting for worship’. But prepared ministry based on book-learning, however eloquent or profound, has never been encouraged.
According to a Quaker anecdote, ‘But what canst thou say’ was the gentle challenge from an old Quaker lady to a young man expounding what the prophets or apostles long ago had said.
Yet such Quaker practice can in effect be traced back to the promises of Jesus to His disciples as He neared the end of His own ministry:
“The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name will teach you everything” (John 14:26) and, a little later, “when the Spirit comes, who reveals the truth about God, He will lead you into all the truth” (John 16:13).
If so, it is understandable why openness to the Spirit, and willingness to wait upon the Spirit, should be regarded as sufficient conditions for ministry.
But why is it important to share the silence? In a society where ‘two or three gathered together’ are expected to make conversation, and twenty or thirty to have a speaker, to sit down together in silence must seem odd – and disconcerting to anyone who enters unforewarned. But, as a Quaker wrote recently, such meeting is itself an act of communion, a sharing not only of the silence, but of the faith underlying it.
On a practical level, it provides the discipline of a fixed time and place. Even more importantly, to speak one’s insight into the sober silence of a meeting is to offer it to be considered, refined, supplemented, by the insights of others. No individual has a monopoly of the Spirit or of truth; and while all amendment is given in gentle Quakerly fashion, no-one is allowed to forget that other salutary saying from the New Testament, that in this life we know and prophesy only ‘in part’ (1 Cor. 13:9).