After studying everyone in the Quaker circle, I close my eyes again. This must be the “open worship” portion of the service I’ve read about where each person is engaged in his or her own private communication with God. If that’s what this is, I want to do it right.
I imagine my scalp retracting like the roof on an observatory, receptive to messages from God. I see patterns dancing against my eyelids, but no thunderbolts of insight. At 30 minutes, I open my eyes and look around the room again. Will there be a sermon? If so, who will give it? George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, said each person is illuminated with the “divine light of Christ” so any person might be a group facilitator. I close my eyes and try opening the roof again. After 45 minutes, my eyes pop open. Is this the Quaker group? Forget passion, I’m worried these people have slipped into comas. I stare at each of them, willing their eyes to open. At the hour mark, I feel a rush of relief when Ma Kettle comes alive and says, “Does anyone have anything to add?”
Over tea and Fig Newtons, I chat with Ma Kettle. She has a wide smile, rosy cheeks, and several prominent whiskers. She explains that some “Friends,” as Quakers sometimes call themselves, incorporate more traditional elements into their services like sermons and hymns, but that at the core of all Quaker gatherings is the open worship in which each person becomes a conduit for divine wisdom. If an individual feels moved to speak at the end of worship, he or she is invited to do so. Some may interpret a fellow worshipper’s words as messages from God.
In its day, George Fox’s suggestion that a person converse directly with God may have seemed particularly impassioned. It has since been eclipsed by denominations whose worship style makes the Friends seem subdued.
After Fox’s death in 1691, the idea that worship could be a stirring experience must have stayed buzzing in the ether because a generation later his fellow Brit, John Wesley, the father of Methodism, was weaving it into his own thinking. As a student at Oxford, Wesley developed a systematic approach to living a religious life. He created guidelines based on his own “methodical” schedule of daily Bible reading, prayer, and communion with fellow Christians. At the heart of his format was the “Holiness Club,” a small group whose members met regularly to encourage one another’s study, spiritual questioning, and attendance of Church of England services. After years of developing and preaching this small-group structure, he sensed a gaping shortcoming: it was devoid of passionate devotion. Not long after, he was imploring listeners to embrace faith with an unparalleled vitality—and insisting that this fervor can even be proof of God’s continuing work in a person.
From an outsider’s perspective, I can see how the combining of these two styles of worship—one orderly and the other spontaneous—made for an odd marriage. Methodism spread like wildfire throughout the United States, due in large part to the efforts of itinerant preachers. As it became more established (and some might say “staid”) those who gravitated to the expressive side began to feel dissatisfied. Thus, the “Holiness Movement” was born and, with it, Pentecostal denominations whose members wanted to engage in the more demonstrative displays they say arise when the Holy Spirit moves a person. These are not flights of fancy, they believe, but an essential part of the ongoing process of becoming a more evolved Christian. The centerpiece for many who practice this style of worship is the act of “speaking in tongues.”
If my exploration of religion were a board game such as Candy Land, this next series of churches might be a strange little offshoot from the main course—a forest that might bear the marker “Holiness Hill.” Is it dark and scary? Or enchanted? I’m not sure, but it’s a safe bet that the trees will talk.