A Quaker Glossary

This page defines some Quaker words and phrases used elsewhere on this site.

Attender: A person who attends meeting for worship and perhaps participates in other parts of the life of a meeting, but who has not become a member.

Clerk: The clerk of a meeting performs an administrative function in a way that also provides spiritual leadership. Clerks act in a capacity similar to chairperson during and between business meetings. Among unprogrammed Friends, in the absence of a pastor, the clerk is the meeting's representative to the community. Programmed Friends usually have both a pastor and a clerk. Usually a clerk is nominated by a committee, approved by the full body, and serves a specified term, after which another clerk is appointed.

Concern: A deeply-felt and Divinely inspired sense of personal responsibility to do something about a situation or problem or need. (See leading.)

Consensus: See Sense of the Meeting.

Continuing Revelation: Friends believe that the Divine Spirit, God, continues to make itself known to us directly, if we strive to be receptive, to listen expectantly and patiently for the "still small voice." In some Friends' traditions, such an unmediated opening is more highly valued and sought after than the teachings of tradition, clergy, or Scripture.

Faith and Practice: Also called "Disciplines." Each yearly meeting creates or adopts its own book of discipline describing "good order used among us." Typically, contents include the practices and procedures used in the yearly meeting, inspirational extracts from Quaker literature, and "advices" and "queries" (guidance and questions to help Friends examine themselves and their lives as they strive to live more fully in the Light). Links to Yearly Meetings' Books of Faith and Practice can be found here.

Leading: A sense of being called by God to undertake a specific course of action. Leadings often arise from a concern.

Meeting: Among many Friends, the word "church" is not used, and the word "meeting" often serves the same function. A meeting may be the body of people who constitute a congregation, or it may be an event in which Friends come together to worship or to attend to other matters in the context of a spiritual encounter with God and one another. [The word "church" is used in the Evangelical branch of Friends and by some other programmed Friends.]

  • Meeting for Worship: This event is the period in which the Friends community gathers to take part in a religious observance. It parallels the Catholic mass or Protestant church service. In different branches of Friends, meeting for worship takes different forms -- see programmed and unprogrammed worship below. In addition to regularly scheduled (generally weekly) meetings for worship, many Friends may hold worship together at the beginning and end of committee meetings, at the beginning of class in a Friends school, and on other occasions, sometimes spontaneously.
  • Meeting for Business is short for "meeting for worship with a concern for business" or "meeting for worship for business." In business meeting, decisions are made together through worshipful attention to the Spirit and deep listening to one another in a shared search to discern the truth (see "sense of the meeting").
  • Monthly Meeting is the term used to describe a Friends congregation (e.g., Allentown Monthly Meeting). Monthly meetings generally hold meeting for worship on a weekly basis (sometimes more or less often), but have meeting for business once a month. [Note: this is an American definition. British Friends call their congregations "preparative meetings" and several of them come together monthly to have meeting for business. In this case, "monthly meeting" refers to the aggregate.]
  • Quarterly Meeting is the term applied to an association of monthly meetings within a local region. They gather for business meeting, shared worship, and other activities four times per year. [American term.]
  • Yearly Meeting refers to a larger body of Friends, consisting of monthly meetings in a general geographic area connected with the same branch of Friends. This body holds decision making sessions annually. The term "yearly meeting" may refer to the annual sessions, to the body of members, or to the organizational entity that serves the body of members. For most purposes, a yearly meeting is as high as Quaker organizational structure goes. Each of the 30+ yearly meetings in the U.S. has its own Faith and Practice, and there is no higher authority in the structure of the Religious Society of Friends, although yearly meetings network with each other through branch associations and other Friends organizations.

Meeting House: The Meeting House is the building in which a monthly meeting gathers for worship and other community activities. [NOTE: one attends meetings at the "meeting house," but is a member of the "meeting" or "monthly meeting." Friends do not use the term "meeting house" to refer to the community itself.]

Opening: A divinely inspired recognition of some truth. (See continuing revelation.)

Programmed/Unprogrammed Worship

  • Programmed Worship is practiced by Friends in much of the U.S. and Africa, as well as in South and Central America and other locations. It is similar in many ways to Protestant church services and is led by a pastor, or someone acting in the role of a pastor. There is likely to be a sermon or other "prepared" message, singing, and reading of Scripture. Programmed worship may also include a short or substantial period of silence. Rites of sacrament (such as baptism or communion) are generally not conducted. Friends who practice programmed worship are described as "pastoral," since they are served by a pastor.
  • Unprogrammed Worship, the practice of early Friends, is continued in much of the English-speaking world, Europe, and former British colonies, as well as various other locations. The meeting gathers in silence and worshippers seek to be receptive to the Divine Spirit through the Inward Light. If vocal ministry is offered, it is done so spontaneously by any worshipper who feels called by the Spirit to speak. (See Your First Visit to An Unprogrammed Meeting for greater detail.) Friends who practice unprogrammed worship are also described as "nonpastoral," since there is no formal clergy in service to the meeting.

For further information on the different branches of Friends in the U.S. see here.

Sense of the Meeting: The purpose of meeting for business is for the membership to achieve unity in its discernment of a decision. Both the practice and the end result are called "sense of the meeting" (as in: "We make decisions by sense of the meeting" and "It is the sense of the meeting that we will take the Harleyville Worship Group under our care"). Unity is not to be confused with unanimity. It is not necessary for every member to fully agree with a decision, but rather for Friends to discern that as a body they are called in a particular direction. Some Friends use the secular and more modern term "consensus" to describe Friends decision making practice, since no voting occurs, but many adhere to this older term, which emphasizes that it is a religious exercise.

Testimonies: Friends do not have a list of prohibitions or requirements that specify how they should behave in the world, but a long tradition of individual Friends' efforts to follow that Spirit which they encounter inwardly during worship as they conduct their outward lives has resulted in certain recognizable "themes" that continue to re-appear, in different ways, again and again among generations of Friends. These themes are called "testimonies" because they testify to the guidance of God as Friends have experienced it. There is no "official" list of testimonies, but a common acronym used in many Friends schools is SPICES: simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship of the earth. (See links on the peace testimony.)

Unity: see "sense of the meeting."