Early Quakers likely would have been shaking their heads if they’d attended meeting with me last week. Some present-day Friends might find my meeting’s last-Sunday-of-the-month practice peculiar, too. That’s when, instead of an hour of unprogrammed worship, people of all ages in our group worship through song.
Singer and song-writer Peter Blood understands singing and worship. He and his partner, Annie Patterson, are active members of the Society of Friends who consider their performing and songleading to be a form of music ministry and social activism. They co-created Rise Up Singing, a spiral-bound collection of words, guitar chords, and sources to 1200 songs that reflect Quaker testimonies of peace, community, and equality.
Blood also knows the history of singing among Friends. He explained in a 2002 Friends Journal article that Quakers in the mid-19th century viewed instrumental and choral music as forms of frivolous "worldly" recreation that led them away from God. Fortunately, many Friends abandoned this belief by the beginning of the 20th century. Today, Quakerism is blessed with a rich variety of Quaker musicians such as Blood and Patterson. Their website lists many by name as well as by region and also links to those who have been interviewed on Mark Judkins Helpsmeet’s program “Song of the Soul” at Northern Spirit Radio.
Still, many Quakers in the unprogrammed (some call it the “liberal”) tradition remain ambivalent about singing during worship and are uncomfortable with the idea of group singing as worship. As Blood wrote in Friends Journal,
“Friends may acknowledge the possibility that an individual Friend may be
led by the Spirit to sing a song during Meeting for Worship—and feel moved
and uplifted when this breaks into the life of a meeting. Questions begin to be
raised when other Friends join in a song during Meeting. And probably most
un-programmed Friends would have real problems with calling out
hymn numbers—even spontaneously—during Meeting for Worship.”
Yet this is exactly what happens at my meeting on “Singing Sunday.” For several years now, we’ve reserved that day for a full hour of singing. Our “hymnal” is a photo-copied collection of favorite songs from a wide range of spiritual, social, and musical traditions, including a number from Rise Up Singing (we’re probably breaking copyright rules, but we always identify the source).
Recently, we modified our practice to include worship-sharing interwoven with song, similar to the style Blood and Patterson teach at workshops at Ben Lomond Quaker Center and Friends General Conference. After fifteen minutes of silence, we pass out our “hymnals” and encourage people to "offer up" to the group the name of a song that they feel led to request. We ask for a period of silence before and after the song when the requester and others present can reflect on and speak about what the song resonates within them.
Last week, we began our worship-sharing through song with a request for "Lean on Me" (by Bill Withers).
As we sang of pain and sorrow, problems, and heavy loads to carry, the lyrics spoke to the care and mutual support we find in our Quaker community.
Other requests included Simple Gifts, I Dreamed of Rain, Somos El Barco, Morning Has Broken, A Song of Peace, and a rousing rendition of George Fox. Friends’ sharing, sometimes accompanied by tears, spoke to the ways that Spirit can touch us through music.
Whenever I’m at Singing Sunday, my Lutheran heritage takes over, and I ask that we close with a doxology. The one in our meeting hymnal is different from what I sang as a child, though. The version we sing was a gift from Paul Tinkerhess who shared it one year at Friends General Conference:
Praise bogs from whom all waters flow.
Praise bugs above and frogs below.
Praise lily pads and all by luck
who thrive while seated in the muck.