Circle of Linked Arms
(The text below was taken from "Silence and Speech for those new to meeting for worship" by Richard Allen, published January 1998 by Friends House, London.)
It is best to arrive in an unhurried way somewhat before the stated time of the meeting, and not talk too much outside, but go in and sit down in silence. The meeting actually begins when the first person enters the meeting room.
When you are seated, it helps to try and relax in mind and body. If you know a relaxation technique, feel free to use it. Otherwise, most of us find it sufficient simply to sit upright with legs uncrossed and hands held loosely in the lap, close our eyes and breath deeply a few times.
There are no set rules about what to do next. A generally quiet and receptive attitude is far more important than any beliefs or doctrines or religious background.
If pressed to say what they are actually doing in a Meeting for Worship, many Quakers would probably say they are waiting - waiting in their utmost heart for the touch of something beyond their everyday selves. Some would call it 'listening to the quiet voice of God' - without trying to define that word. Others would use more abstract terms; just 'listening' (though no voice is heard), or 'looking inward' (though no vision can be seen), or 'pure attention' (though nothing specific is attended to). The word 'inward' tends to recur as one gropes for explanations.
Notwithstanding the variety of strange and paradoxical phrases which they may use about their meetings, however, most Quakers would agree that you can only enter fully into the silence if you can quiet the busy, anxious, thinking part of your mind and become not merely outwardly but inwardly silent. In this troubled life that state is not always easy to come by, but when it is attained, even in a small degree, it opens the way into the shared silence of the meeting.
Sometimes this 'centring down' happens easily, almost of itself, but often it requires a conscious effort.
Admittedly there are times when no methods of centring down seem to work. The meeting seems cold and lifeless; or quite often, trivial and irrelevant thoughts dash around in your mind like flies - feeling sore about a tiff with somebody, planning what to do next week, or wondering whether you have turned off the oven - whatever it is comes demanding your attention. But don't worry about these distractions, we all experience them. Just put them gently aside, return to the gate by which you set out on the inward journey and start again. If that doesn't work, still don't be discouraged; if you do no more that start again and again the hour will not have been wasted.
Whatever your particular path, and whatever obstacles you may encounter, you ultimately come to an inward place where all images and thoughts and words, however lovely or sublime, fall away and your inner being becomes quiet and peaceful. the silence deepens to a stillness, and as you wait in fellowship with the others you enter a state, not only of peace, but of inspiration. We each respond in our own way, but our responses are drawn together into a unity. It is out of that 'gathered' unity, at a depth beyond thought or feeling, that spoken ministry arises.
In some deeply gathered meetings nothing is spoken at all - those present seem to feel that the silence is ministry enough for them; but, more often than not, one or more people will rise and speak. Speaking is an equally important part of the meeting.
As to just how ministry arises, no precise account is possible. Many Friends who speak say that quite often, when they have centred down, a thought or feeling presents itself to them. It sits there, so to speak, and seems important. if that happens, you ask yourself whether it is a contribution to be shared with the meeting, or just a bright idea, or a subject for debate, or something just for yourself. If you feel sure that it is something to be offered you ask yourself whether you are called to offer it then. You ponder over this for a time. Meanwhile someone else may speak on a different theme, or - and this is by no means uncommon - someone may make the very contribution you have in mind, and perhaps do so more effectively. If in the end you don't speak on a particular occasion, there is no need to be discouraged; if your contribution is valid, the opportunity to give it will return some day in one form or another.
If you feel moved to contribute after others have spoken, our experience is that it is well to leave a fair time, and ask yourself whether you will be carrying further what has been already said. It is practically never right to spring up immediately. Admittedly, some self-discipline is required if something excites or upsets you. The ministry of others may not be always helpful to us; but we try to receive it in a loving spirit; for, surprising as it may seem, ministry which is unhelpful to one person may bring comfort and strength to others.
One almost invariable convention is that no person speaks more than once in a meeting though even this is not an absolutely cast-iron rule.