Before quarantine, Nashville Friends Meeting would worship on Sunday mornings in a window-lit room with high ceilings, wooden beams and wooden floors. It’s easy to appreciate the simple space — just folding chairs and a couple of plants.
When worship begins, there’s more space — in the form of silence — for an hour. No sermon, no liturgy, no singing.
So as religious groups in Nashville adapt to social distancing, Quakers, also known as Friends, have gone online with this worship, silence included.
“If we had suggested this three months ago, people would’ve been like, ‘No, we can’t do things online. That’s not the way it’s done!’” says Friend Mary Linda McKinney, the organizer of the remote meetings. “But because we are in the world we’re in right now, it was absolutely a wonderful gift to have the technology to make the change.”
Many Quakers have “programmed” meetings for worship, which look more like a common church service, but Nashville Friends Meeting is part of an “unprogrammed” tradition. McKinney understands that silent worship can be mistaken for meditation, and she’s quick to adjust the comparison. Friends call this “expectant waiting.”
“Silence is a tool that we use to help us connect more closely to the holy,” McKinney says, “Meditation is a solitary activity, but meeting for worship is a time for us to connect together with the divine.”
Occasionally during worship, someone briefly breaks the silence with a message for the group. Before speaking, McKinney says a Friend goes through a whole discernment process.
“In my experience,” she says, “God is giving me something to share. That’s how I phrase it, but I’m a theist Friend. I do have a relationship with the divine.”
Nashville Friends Meeting is part of a branch of Quakerism that tends to be socially-focused, affirming of gender and sexual diversity, and theologically bordering on universalist, McKinney says. They don’t “deny Jesus or Christianity, but they embrace other things as well.”
She says she’s grateful to be able to worship remotely even though, as the tech facilitator, she’s had to put some of her own stillness aside for the sake of the group. God is still there, she says, but her engagement is different.
At a recent Nashville Friends Meeting for Worship on Zoom, 22 people were online. The screen shows the typical head-and-shoulder shots of attendees — all waiting expectantly.
Birds and wind chimes punctuate the silence. Cats and dogs make appearances. The screen shifts to feature someone new every time an ambient sound takes over. Sitting still, silent, many with eyes closed.
Until someone speaks.