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Inside a Semi-Programmed Quaker Meeting for Worship

Pastor Ashley Wilcox invites us to listen in to a recent service at New Garden Friends Meeting — a “semi-programmed” Quaker meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina — and she shares how her message connects with the season of loss and change that her meeting has experienced.

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Download the transcript and discussion questions.

Discussion questions:

  1. In this episode, Ashley talks about physically quaking because she was so nervous when she first started speaking in Quaker Meeting. What helps you to overcome nervousness or fear when you feel called to speak in a Meeting? If you haven’t spoken yet, what is holding you back?
  2. What aspects of Proverbs 9:1-6 and Ashley’s message on the passage most resonate with you? Why? 

Ashley Wilcox  

Good morning, Friends and welcome to worship at New Garden Friends Meeting. We’re so glad you’re here. You are welcome. If you are here in the meeting room, you’re welcome if you are joining us online or on Facebook Live, and we have an additional group that is joining us today and that is the Friends who listened to Thee Quaker podcast

Various  

Thee Quaker Podcast: story, spirit, sound.

Jon Watts  

I’m Jon Watts.

Georgia Sparling  

I’m Georgia Sparling. 

Jon Watts  

Hi, Georgia. 

Georgia Sparling  

Hi, Jon. I produced the last two episodes. And you’re gonna do this one, right?

Jon Watts  

I’m gonna do this one. Yeah, man. So the stories of the Grimke sisters and the one about Zachary Moon. They were so good. Georgia, you’re, you’re on a roll.

Georgia Sparling  

I mean, I feel like those stories. I don’t know they were they felt like easy pickings because they were just so rich and full. Just yeah amazing stories of like faithfulness and courage. And also, I’m pretty sure Zack Moon needs his own his own podcast because he had so many good things to say. 

Jon Watts  

That’s fair. 

Georgia Sparling  

So it’s your episode today? What are we going to be hearing about?

Jon Watts  

Okay, well, a few weeks ago, we did an episode on Quaker Meeting for Worship.

Georgia Sparling  

And you played some tape from my first Quaker meeting and also essays on worship for members of your meeting.

Jon Watts  

Yeah, so we want to do this experiment where we try and bring authentic Quaker worship experiences to our listeners. So that episode was our first experiment. It was called Quaker Meeting for Worship. And it’s a reflection on preparation and practice of three Friends who attend central Philadelphia monthly meeting, which is entirely unprogrammed.

Georgia Sparling  

And yeah, that’s a very specific type of worship that I think is a foreign concept to a lot of people.

Jon Watts  

Yeah, I I’ve heard from many listeners that that episode opened a window into what can be kind of an opaque practice, which is, you know, this sitting in silence for an hour that we do.

Georgia Sparling  

Right? Yeah, it’s easy to sit there in silence and have no idea what’s going on in other people’s minds. And like, What is everyone else doing right now? What am I supposed to be thinking about? That kind of stuff?

Jon Watts  

Right? I’ve heard people say that they walked into a meeting and sat down and looked around, like, who forgot their lines? are like, when does this thing start? So anyway, that’s an unprogrammed meeting. So today, I’d like to change it up a little bit and take you inside of a really different kind of Quaker meeting. Okay. So this meeting, new garden Friends Meeting is right across the street from where I went to college in North Carolina. And it has a pastor. I think, you know, her actually.

Georgia Sparling  

Yeah, Ashley Wilcox. I interviewed her when I visited that meeting in the spring. And we heard from her on our first episode about what Quakerism looks like today.

Jon Watts  

Yeah, that’s right. Ashley is the interim pastor at New Garden Meeting. And today I’ve asked her whether her meeting might let us sit in on one of their Sunday Meetings for Worship.

Georgia Sparling  

Yeah, it was a really different experience from Central Philly’s meeting. And when I attended yeah, I was kind of wondering about the history of the New Garden Meeting and how they came to this approach for program worship.

Jon Watts  

Yeah, it’s a it’s a really interesting story. And before we jump into their worship, I actually want to start with a conversation that I had with Ashley about the meeting.

Ashley Wilcox  

So my name is Ashley Wilcox, and I am the interim pastor of New Garden Friends Meeting. So New Garden Friends Meeting was established in 1754. It’s a beautiful campus, we have a lot of really big trees and grass. The meetinghouse itself, the main part of it was built in the mid 20th century. And then the meeting room was added in 1988. And the part that people come into is all one level, which is really helpful. For people who have disabilities or trouble walking. It’s very accessible, which I appreciate. So you would probably walk into the meeting room and there are benches facing each other on all sides. There’s a facing bench in the front. And so I usually sit up there and members of our ministry and counsel sit up there, and anyone who’s giving a message that day have prepared message.

Jon Watts  

Right? So a prepared message, so this is what I wanted to talk to about because in my home meeting of Central Philadelphia, this would be unusual. All of our messages are entirely spontaneous, though, of course, as we shared in a recent episode, the meeting recently did an experiment with mixing it up a little bit. But as a general rule, it’s an unprogrammed meeting. We have, we have no plan. We sit in silence until someone is moved to speak. So tell me about semi-programmed Quaker worship, what does that look like? I know that it involves, of course, a prepared portion of worship, and then there’s a waiting worship portion. Am I getting that right?

Ashley Wilcox  

That’s right. And so it can look different in different places. In New Garden, we have music, so we usually have a hymn, we’ll have a reading and announcements. And there’s usually special music, which might be the choir or a soloist, or a musician. And then there’s a prepared message, which I give three times a month. And then we have other people speak at other times. And out of that prepared message, I introduce the silence, usually with a few queries. And we usually have about half an hour of silence after that, where people can listen and speak. We usually have some messages during that time.

Jon Watts  

Wow, okay, got it. So, so half an hour of silence. I mean, that’s, that’s more than you might get in some unprogrammed meetings. Yeah.

Ashley Wilcox  

And I think people are very protective of that quiet. I’ve heard that from a lot of people. They don’t want to add more programming to cut into the silence, because really, that is our communion. That is our baptism. It’s our time to be present with the Holy Spirit.

Jon Watts  

Okay, great. So I think I’ve got it. Your meeting is quite a bit like mine, in that Quakers gather to sit and create space and wait on the spirit. Except that you guys start with a little music, and somebody tasked each week with starting the whole thing off. And that’s normally you Ashley, the pastor, but something that struck me about what you said was that it’s not always you. So what does that look like? Or, you know, what’s the advantage of spreading that task out some and having some other members of the meeting? Taking turns giving that opening message?

Ashley Wilcox  

Yeah. So the New Garden community is very theologically diverse, which I really appreciate. It is kind of unusual, I think in a semi-programmed or programmed meeting, those tend to be more on the Christian side. And it is, but there are also people who consider themselves non-theists or atheists who are Buddhist or Jewish. I personally am more in line with the Christian tradition, and I tend to give my messages from the Bible. But one of the reasons that I preach three times a month is so that we will hear different voices and I hope that people will speak in the language that is most comfortable for them and most familiar to them. 

Jon Watts  

Okay, so I’m going to ask you the same question that I asked members of my meeting in our episode on Quaker worship, which is, what does your preparation look like? If the goal of vocal ministry is to be as faithful as possible to what the Spirit is giving us in the moment? What does that look like when you’re preparing a message?

Ashley Wilcox  

That has really evolved for me. Over the years I’ve been doing public ministry among Friends, for about 15 years now. And when I first started out, I was pretty terrified of public speaking. Like was literally quaking a whole lot in a way that was pretty obvious to many people. And I think with experience and with practice, I don’t have that as much anymore, but I always try to be — wait until I feel a leading of the Spirit to speak. And to go in with the expectation that I may not have a message that day, even with all the preparation that I do, I may not give a message that day, or it may be a different message than the one that I’ve prepared. And I think that’s really important. And I love preaching at this point. It makes me really happy makes me feel good. I feel so present in the moment when I’m doing that. And I love being able to see people’s faces when I’m giving a message and seeing what lands with them. What is surprising. This is a meeting that really likes to laugh. And so I’m surprised what they find funny. And that is fun for me. And I will find myself going in different directions than I anticipated. I don’t write down any scripts for my messages, I write in bullet points, would you give me some more flexibility if I want to go in a different direction than I had planned.

Jon Watts  

Thanks so much for giving us a peek into your process. And welcoming us through the doors of New Garden Meeting. After the break, Ashley’s message.

Georgia Sparling  

Hi Naveed, thanks so much for talking with me today.

Naveed Moeed  

Hi, Georgia. Thank you so much for having me on.

Georgia Sparling  

Naveen is one of our board members. And I recently called him up and asked him this question: What do you think is the role or potential for Quakers engaging in 21st Century Media?

I love this question, Georgia. So one of the things that attracted me to Quakerism and one of the things that attracts many, many folks to Quakerism, especially in the UK, is that traditionally, Quakers don’t proselytize. We seek to attract by example. 

Naveed Moeed  

People will come to Quakerism if they are led to us in the journey because we understand inherently as Quakers that there are many paths to the light. So for me, Quakers engaging with 21st Century Media is interesting. I feel we have almost a specific and very unique task goal that we can achieve, and that is engaging with others where they are. And where people are at the moment, in the 21st century, is on social media. It is on people listening to this podcast. I believe that Quakers engaging in media in the 21st century is about just showing them how we’re bringing and talking about the light.

Georgia Sparling  

Yeah, so Naveed gets it. And as a listener of this podcast, I think you might be one of the people who gets it too. We’re here to share stories of Quaker faith, Quakers spiritual courage, through audio. And if you’re as interested in hearing those stories as we are in telling them, would you consider becoming a monthly supporter of our project? Monthly donations will help us to expand our work and to tell even more great stories of spiritual courage. To become one of our patrons, you can visit TheeQuaker.org That’s T-H-E-E Quaker dot ORG. Thank you so much.

Ashley Wilcox  

Good morning, Friends. And welcome to worship at New Garden Friends Meeting. We’re so glad you’re here. Our reading today is Proverbs 9:1-6. 

Ashley Wilcox  

Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine. She has also set her table. She has sent out her female servants. She calls from the highest places in the town, you who are simple turn in here. To those without sense she says, come eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed lay aside immaturity and live and walk in the ways of insight. 

Ashley Wilcox  

So this month we’ve been doing a series on wisdom in Proverbs, and this is the grand finale. This is the final time, we see this woman personified as wisdom. In Proverbs and Proverbs 9 and we’ve learned a lot about this woman wisdom over the month. We know that she calls out from the streets, the city gates and the heights to all who will listen to her. We learned that she was present with God at the beginning of creation, and may have served as an architect’s plan, a master worker, or played with God as a little child. And today, we learn about wisdom’s home. 

Ashley Wilcox  

So in this reading, first wisdom builds the house. And this is appropriate because homes and domestic life in the Bible were often associated with women, this was the woman’s domain, and she would care for it. And men would be outside of the home more often. But wisdom builds the space with her own hands. She’s not just in the house, she is building the house, the passage says she has hewn her seven pillars. And so these pillars may be like these mythic pillars of the Earth that we’ve heard about. And those pillars were the mountains that held up the sky. So in creation, these pillars were created and wisdom was there. And then she builds these pillars in her own house, too. And so we see that her house is a smaller version of all of creation, that she was there when the world was created, and she creates her own house in the image of that creation. 

Ashley Wilcox  

And next wisdom prepares a feast. She knows that providing food and wine will help her convince those she is inviting into her home of her wisdom. And my partner and I have this week had some guests over. And we’ve kind of gotten out of the habit of that having dinner parties. And so we were preparing our home for these guests. And we’re talking about how we want to do this more. And once we get into the habit of it, we prepare the food, we prepared some wine, and we invited the guests into our home. And that was such a wonderful fellowship for us. 

Ashley Wilcox  

And so I like to think of wisdom, doing the same thing of making sure that everything is just right. She herself set the table, putting everything in place, and once to welcome these guests. And after building the entire house, she attends to every detail within it. And I think there is wisdom in this kind of hospitality, and this joyful sharing of food and drink, and bringing people in for conversation. So then wisdom invites her guests, and she not only calls out to the people herself, but she sends her female servants out to invite these guests. And this is the first place that I mentioned that wisdom had these female servants. And so this paints a picture for me of a household of women with wisdom and her female servants. 

Ashley Wilcox  

And it reminds me of another woman who is called wise in the Bible. And that’s the Queen of Sheba, who came to visit King Solomon around this time. And when she went to visit his home, and she said, “Happy are  these your servants who continually attend to you and hear your wisdom. And so this gives an image of servants who weren’t just doing work, but listening, being followers and maybe students of the person who is running the house and learning wisdom. And if the servants of Solomon were happy, then how much more so the servants of wisdom herself to live with her and work with her and learn from her. And so it’s easy for me to envision these servants going out with joy and sharing the wisdom that they have learned from wisdom herself. 

Ashley Wilcox  

So, at this point, we know a lot about wisdom, this woman wisdom, but something I haven’t talked about is that there is another woman in Proverbs, and it actually skips back and forth between wisdom and this other woman, and the other woman is folly. And so we have wisdom and we have folly as these two women in Proverbs. And there are a lot of similarities, surprisingly, between wisdom and folly. And the waves, they’re described in Proverbs, both go out to the high places. And they make the same call you who are simple, come in here. So they’re both calling out to the simple ones, to the ones who have not learned wisdom yet. And both wisdom and folly, built their houses, and offer feasts to these simple ones. And I find it interesting, the description of folly in Proverbs is pretty appealing. She has good things to offer. Both wisdom and folly offer a feast and folly’s water is sweet and her bread is pleasant. So she’s offering sweet water and good bread and wisdom is offering this meat and wine. And so we can see what might sustain us longer, but both taste good. 

Ashley Wilcox  

And in my first message on wisdom in Proverbs, I talked about the wisdom from our own tradition. And we see this wisdom, especially in our meeting for business, when we gather together to listen and wait and hope that the Spirit will lead us together as a community. And we believe in this process. I feel sure that everyone in this community believes in this process that we can listen together and be led together. But we’re not always great at it. Sometimes, we don’t quite follow it. Sometimes, it’s tempting to try and convince others of our own rightness, we know what the right thing to do is and so we, you know, just sidle up to someone say you agree with me, right? Let’s convince the rest of them. And that can feel really good, especially when something’s approved, and you just feel so right. It feels good. But that’s not what the wisdom of our tradition teaches us. The wisdom virtue, tradition gives us meat, and good things to drink, that will sustain us longer. And then then sensation of being right in the moment. And this choice between wisdom and folly is one that we all get to make everyone gets to choose. And we don’t just choose once we choose. At every step, we get to choose over and over again. And so if we choose folly, we have another opportunity to choose wisdom the next time. And the reading also makes it clear that when a person chooses wisdom, that involves giving something up. It’s not just getting things but it’s also having to say no to things. The wisdom tells the simple ones that they must lay aside immaturity.

Ashley Wilcox  

And those who choose wisdom will start on the path to walk in the ways of insight. So this is a path this is ongoing. This is something that we follow. And as I was sitting here, I was thinking about how hard it is to suggest giving things up right now in the season of loss. And this time when we have lost so many in this community, you know, we have so many memorials. And it’s not just the people that we’re losing, but there was them and the things that they knew, you know, we’ve had people who have been doing things for this meeting for decades. And we find that when they’re gone. We’re not sure what to do. We don’t know how to do the things that they did. And so we have to build our own house again. And we’re so fortunate to have had these people. And so I hear wisdom now calling to us, and saying that we’re the ones Those who are following in this tradition, we’re the ones who embody this wisdom for those who are coming up those who are going forward. And it is time for us to live into this wisdom in our own house.

Jon Watts  

So, Ashley, thank you so much for sharing this recording with us and giving us this inside view of New Garden Friends Meeting. I wonder if we could just do a quick debrief here. How do you feel like it went?

Ashley Wilcox  

I think it went really well. And it was an interesting experience for me. I usually have most of the message by Thursday, and I have it written out. And I know I can go off track if need be, but I’m pretty set. And with this message, I didn’t have all of it. By Thursday, I had the bones of it, but it was shorter than usual. And I knew there were pieces missing. And I was like, Okay, well, we’ll just see what happens. So it turned out that there were pieces that I needed, that hadn’t happened yet. And I found that as I was sitting in worship, before giving the message, and while I was giving it. And one of those is that my partner and I had guests over for dinner on Friday night. And it was just a great time and giving this message about hospitality and preparing the food and laying the table felt really right after having just done that myself. So that was the first piece. 

Ashley Wilcox  

And the second piece, which is really hard, is that Eden Grace passed away on Saturday. And I know you know this is just such a huge loss for Friends, and for many of us very personally. And so I’ve been grieving that. And in the context of what’s happening in New Garden Friends Meeting, I’ve been there for about nine months now. And we’ve had 10 memorials. It’s just been so many deaths, and so many people who are central to the meeting there. And so I’m grieving people, they’re grieving the loss of family members and old Friends. And it’s just been a really hard season of loss. And so when I was thinking about the piece of the message about having to give things up, when you choose wisdom, I was just thinking, like, how can I ask these people to give anything else out, we have already lost so much. And then it just came to me in that moment of how when we lose these people who have done such important things, like we don’t know how to do those things, and we need to step up. And that is a call to us to find the ways to go forward and to be true to this tradition. 

Ashley Wilcox  

And so that was so meaningful for me in that moment, and I can tell it was really, really meaningful for folks in the meeting as well. I felt really in the moment when I was giving this message. I was connecting with people who were facing me and people who know me. And now some of them who know my partner until when I mentioned him, I could see their faces, like smiling when they heard about him and us. And then when I talked about the losses, I was looking at the people who have lost folks very recently, and feeling that in my body, that sensation of grief in my chest and of us being in that together. And so I think when I really feel led, I have this kind of looseness that I don’t always have a being able to respond in the moment. And I felt that on Sunday of whatever I said would be the right thing and that I could go off script and that I wouldn’t be held in that moment and that we would settle into worship after that. And we have, I think, a good 35 minutes of open worship after I get the message. And there were three messages out of the open worship, which is a really nice amount for that kind of space. There were spaces between the messages, and I could just feel people going deep and that I got to have that experience of worship with them.

Jon Watts  

Ashley, I want to thank you so much for joining us in this experience and sharing, you know, this delicate, intimate practice of vocal ministry with our listeners is fairly meaningful for me.

Ashley Wilcox  

Thank you so much for inviting me to do this. It’s been wonderful.

Georgia Sparling  

Thank you for listening and thank you to Ashley for sharing her message with us. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this episode. To share those you can go to QuakerPodcast.com and leave a comment on this episode’s show page. While you’re there, you can also download a transcript from this episode that’s complete with discussion questions, and you can find out how to subscribe to the show, if you haven’t already. 

Georgia Sparling  

This episode was produced by Jon Watts and me, Georgia Sparling. Jon wrote the music for this episode. Thee Quaker Podcast is part of Thee Quaker Project, a Quaker media organization with a focus on lifting up voices of spiritual courage and giving Quakers a platform in 21st Century Media. 

Georgia Sparling  

If you want to support our work, please consider becoming a monthly supporter. Learn more about how you can join our giving team at TheeQuaker.org That’s t-h-e-e quaker.org. We’re a brand new project and every contribution expands our capacity to tell Quaker stories in a fresh way. 

Georgia Sparling  

Before we go, I wanted to share one more thing. We were looking at our Apple Podcast reviews and saw that we actually have some, so thank you so much if you’re one of the people who has left a comment. 

Georgia Sparling  

We wanted to share one of those. So today I picked from username Goody in LA, who says “I came to learn more about Friends, curious from the outside, and this show does not disappoint! This is wonderful to listen to, and I can’t wait for more. Thanks to you both for sharing your voice.” 

Georgia Sparling  

Well, thank you for such a nice review. If you, too, are listening on a podcast app like Apple Podcasts, you can leave a review as well. Click on our show’s logo and then scroll past recent episodes until you get to the Rate and Review section where you can share what you like about the show and how you found us. We’ll share more reviews in coming weeks. So again, thank you for listening. We’re taking a break next week but then we’ll be back the following Wednesday with a brand new episode.

Recorded and edited by Jon Watts and Georgia Sparling

Original music and sound design by Jon Watts (Listen to more of Jon’s music here.)

Supported by listeners like you (thank you!!)

Referenced in this episode:

Ashley Wilcox. Photo by Emily Weaver Brown
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One Reply to “Inside a Semi-Programmed Quaker Meeting for Worship”

  1. Russell J Nichols

    I attended Buckingham Friends School in Bucks County, PA for 7th & 8th grade back in the mid-1950s.

    I am a member of the Klondike Baptist church (a Reformed Baptist congregation) and long retired (will be 80 in a few months).

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