Today I went to my first "programmed" Quaker Meeting for Worship, at the Berkeley Friends Church.
There are many strains of Quakerism, only some fraction of which I am familiar with. One of the largest divisions among Quakers are between the "programmed" and "unprogrammed" Meetings for Worship.
"Programmed" for Quakers refers to the kind of structure employed during the Meeting for Worship. For many who are from more traditional Christian traditions, a "programmed" Meeting for Worship will have many of the elements you are familiar with: hymn-singing, readings from the Bible and a sermon.
In contrast, an "unprogrammed" Meeting for Worship has none of those elements. They are essentially an hour (or more) of silence, broken only by "vocal ministry" — typically short prayers, queries, observations, or other forms of expression that the speaker believes is inspired or originates from the divine.
As a Quaker who has only attended "unprogrammed" Meetings, the idea of sermon, hymn-singing and Bible readings has always seemed unappealing and off-putting. For me, the ideal Worship is one hour of nearly complete silence, punctuated by a handful of vocal ministry.
And then there's all the Jesus talk. I'm more of what we call a Light-centric rather than a Christocentric Quaker. That is, I don't see the Bible or the Gospels as being the center of my religion, but only a part of a larger spiritual landscape. Other Quakers, particularly Programmed Quakers, place Jesus Christ and the Bible at the center of their faith.
So I didn't really know how I would react to the programmed Meeting at the Berkeley Friends Church this morning.
The Quaker Church is a lovely, 1960s era building in North Berkeley. It looks vaguely "church-y" without many outward symbols, icons or statuary. There's a small cross next to the main sign. Otherwise, a fairly nondescript building.
The Meetingroom has pews that could seat maybe a couple of hundred worshippers. About 20 people were in attendance when I was there, spread out around the room.
The Meeting began with a short prayer from a "presider" speaking from the pulpit. Then we sang a hymn ("God of Grace and God of Glory"), which I mumbled through. This was followed by about 10 minutes of "praises and petitions" during which anyone could mention either a request for prayer or give thanks.
Afterwards, a couple of verses from the Gospels was read out by the Pastor Brian Young, who then proceeded to give a sermon on the subject of "The Kingdom of God." I must confess that my mind wandered during the sermon, which is pretty common for me in most church services. It's what I find least appealing about most churches. That said, he spoke plainly and humbly, without any preachiness or condemnation.
Finally we closed for another long period of silence, perhaps 15 minutes or more, that felt very deep and gathered to me. And then , a little over an hour later, the Meeting was finished. We retired to the common room for refreshments and conversation.
Overall, I thought it was a pleasant, inoffensive experience. While I don't get much out of the hymn singing or having a planned sermon, I can see how others might appreciate those things. And I really enjoyed the silent worship periods.
Most importantly, it felt like I was among my people. We adhere to the same testimonies of peace, simplicity, and truth. We seek to do good in the world and to be kind to each other. And we appreciate the value of expectant silence.
While I don't think I will make a home at the Berkeley Friends Church, or any other Programmed Meeting, I will happily visit and participate in the future.
The Berkeley Friends Church is at 1600 Sacramento Street, Berkeley, CA 94702. Meeting for Worship services start at 11am every Sunday. See their website for more info.
More about Programmed Quaker Worship at this link.