A brief reflection by meeting member, Glenn Morison.
Gorman, George H. The Amazing Fact of Quaker Worship, London: Quaker Books. 1973
George Gorman was born in 1916 and passed away in 1982. He became a Quaker as a teenager and one of the most respected Quaker writers of his century. The book is the publication of his Swarthmore Lecture Series in 1973. There are no definitive Quaker statements but this book would be as close to that as it is possible to come.
The intriguing title is explained as referring to the “fact” that something so simple as a group of people sitting quietly in a circle has proven to be something amazing for so many people over such a long time.
The book is both descriptive and prescriptive, although the style is very gentle offering suggestions and invitations rather than rules or constraints.
The book also weaves history, current practice and reflection in way than you are never far from each source of understanding. It is both very practical including such details as what you can expect people to wear but hardly pedantic as it takes on such questions such as devoting an entire chapter to the question, “Who or What Do We Worship?”
The book doesn’t so much present a thesis as it does provide an in depth description and collection of ideas about what Quaker Worship is, where it has come from and where it might be going. He is not making a case. He is making an invitation to explore its value.
The word worship if offered in a very broad sense that applies even to a “secular” activity such as art appreciation. Worship is “when we purposely put ourselves in a position of paying particular attention to those things in life that have the greatest meaning for us.” (p.31)
While silence is the imperative beginning of Quaker worship, it is very clear that “silence, like meditation, is never an end in itself.” (p.41) There is also a sense that while there is often no or only a few spoken words that Quaker worship is a community activity. Gorman uses the term “the growing life of the meeting” to name the complexity that leads Quaker Worship to always be understood as greater than the sum of its parts.
The absence of doctrine shows itself in the chapter devoted to “Who or What We Worship” as such questions are usually answered by doctrine. As the basic notion is that the Spirit speaks to each of us, “experience” (p. 59, 151) is raised to a much more central position than any church would normally do. There is both a centrality of Christ and a named problem with any “God” language. Gorman describes “God” as both “wholly other” and “mysteriously present.” (p. 59) I believe it is fair to surmise that Quakers do not equate interpreting experience with solving contradiction.
Within this broad framework, there is a broad selection of advice on a wide variety of topics including, but not limited to, the interconnectedness of daily life and weekly worship, prayer within silence, passion and patience.
The final thrust I wish to point to is the notion of “vocal ministry.” (p. 99ff) There is a distinct break with the common experience of the Christian Church where teaching is most often left to the educated and ordained. Quakers do not ordain and believe that anyone can be called to vocal ministry. Meetings vary.
The book is abundantly clear and orderly and would be of value to someone who had never attended and perhaps who never intends to attend Quaker worship. It describes and explains very well.
It is even more valuable for someone still sensing their way into regular Quaker worship.
It both serves as a handy “Frequently Asked Questions” resource and a testimony to the “Amazing Fact” that is being described.
At 150 pages it is both amenable yet thorough enough to stand on its own and dense enough to be returned to again and again.
It is pamphlet, textbook and lexicon all in one!
It is not an outsider’s disinterested view. It is exactly the opposite. It is a Quaker sharing his excitement about and experience inviting others to enter the same. Gorman neither hides nor apologizes for his agenda.
I first read this book about five years ago and I wonder if even in those few years, within our meeting if not the wider Quaker community, if the impact of universalistic and non-theistic Quakers has made the word “worship” more foreign and therefore less helpful.
Reading this book helps me understand and place in context what I do every Sunday morning from 11am until noon. I greatly enjoy the conversation with the small community and often do not leave until an hour later, but this book focuses on the first hour.
For me to “offer” Quaker Worship in a setting would feel odd yet it would not be unheard of for me to be asked to lead “Centering Prayer” in a variety of setting and it may well be that I can offer “Quaker Style” worship sessions in good faith.
I also read the book as being somewhat “medicinal” as it speaks of the traps that can undermine us making the best use of the time we spend worshipping and offering disciplines to bring to our response.
By far, the strength of the book and what gives its value is that it provided yet another gentle entry into the mystical realm. There appears to be a consistent message that mystical experiences cannot be sought out or even pursued. This does not mean we ought not to crave them nor does it prevent us from opening ourselves to mystical experiences with intention. As such moments are to be understood as gifts, they cannot be created but only received. Whether I look at a classical writing such as The Dark Night of The Soul or listen to the inspired words spoken in any context, the idea that mystical experiences are gifts is always at the heart of the teaching. Gorman echoes this notion in almost every word of his book and again I realize that in my life I have created a (false?) humility about my being unable to create this experience and extended it so far that I ceased to be any real expectation of mystical experience. Preparation and expectation (p. 73, 152) are at the core of the Quaker experience and I am constantly encouraged to usher them into a more central place of my own!
As this grows in me, I can only trust it will have an “infectious” presence in my ministry and those I work with. I love this quote and seek to live by it – “the mystic’s experience is not knowledge but rather a vision.” (p. 93) I would rephrase it to say that “a mystical experience is a mystical experience and is not meant to be reduced to a concept.”
 The problem being that most God language distracts us from the challenge of the seeming absence of God. (p. 52)
 My travels would indicate that Winnipeg is very much on the “quiet extreme” of the spectrurn.