Glossary of Friends' Terms

Newcomers to a Meeting of Friends will notice that Quakers have a language of their own. The trouble with private or semi-private usage is that users feel no need to explain it to other people. This can be confusing. But it can also be off-putting. Though Friends don’t at all mean to exclude anyone, unexplained Quakerisms do easily form an insider code that can leave not only newcomers but some longtime attenders feeling left out.

It may be helpful to point out that Quaker usage arises from the history and traditions of the Religious Society of Friends from its beginnings in 17th-century England. Moreover, the fact that Friends have a collective history and traditions is itself a core element of Quaker Faith and Practice. The initially unfamiliar terms Friends use are thus one way in which they express both who they are now (or aspire to be) and where they came from. It is hoped that the following glossary will shed light as well as make people feel more welcome.

Advices and Queries: Advices are calls to mindfulness—reminders intended to draw attention to the fundamental spiritual questions all people face and to the spiritual content of everyday life in the family, at work, and in the wider society. Queries are pointed questions that remind both individuals and the Meeting of the standards of conduct they have set for themselves and of areas of spiritual reflection they might attend to more closely.

After the Manner of Friends: Describes the way in which Quakers conduct events outside of regular Worship like a marriage, memorial service, or business meeting. When a memorial service, for example, is conducted “in the Manner of Friends,” the gathering begins with a silent “centering down” in the Spirit (see below). Those in attendance may subsequently rise to speak in order to share such memories and insights as occur to them. Especially given the personal character and tone of a Meeting for marriage or a memorial service, Friends loosen the reins by suspending the normal call for Discernment (see below).

Attenders: Attenders are people who regularly attend Meeting for Worship without applying for formal Membership (see Members below). Though there are a few Meeting offices (the Clerkship, for example) that Attenders can’t occupy, they’re embraced as full participants in the Meeting community.

Birthright Friends/Convinced Friends: Birthright Friends are Friends who were the children of a Quaker parent or parents. Convinced Friends (see Convincement below) are those who came to Quakerism on their own. There is in practice no difference of any kind between Birthright and Convinced Friends.

Calling: A powerful call to take up some cause or pursue some course of action, often one that will disrupt someone’s normal way of life. A famous example is the 18th-century Friend John Woolman’s calling to leave family and business in order to visit slaveholding Quakers around the nation. This example further illustrates the notion of a Query (see Advices and Queries) in that Woolman didn’t visit slaveholding Friends to tell them what they should think or how they should act and feel. Rather, he asked them about their “condition” or state of mind as “owners” of enslaved persons, leaving it to That of God in them to work its will.

Centering Down: In the traditional silent Worship of Friends, people seek to still body and mind in order to let the tasks and concerns of daily life fall away, leaving them alone in the presence of God as they wait on the Light of the Spirit.

Clearness Committee: A small, intimate gathering, usually but not necessarily convened by a member of the Oversight & Membership. The committee aims to help someone reach clarity when confronted with some important or difficult situation, action, or decision. A formal Clearness Committee is convened as part of the process of applying for Membership (see below). However, members of the community, whether formal Members or not (see below), may at any time request the convening of an informal Clearness Committee.

Clerk: A Member of the Meeting who “convenes” or chairs Monthly Meetings for Worship with a Concern for Business (see below) and generally oversees the Meeting’s corporate affairs. The Clerk is approved by the Meeting as a whole. Though Clerks often perform a pastoral role in collaboration with the committees on Ministry & Worship, Oversight & Membership, and Service, they aren’t pastors in the traditional sense. In particular, they don’t officiate or deliver sermons during Meeting for Worship.

Community: One of the major Testimonies (see below). Quakers value each person in the worship community as well as the health of the community as a whole—believing indeed that these are interdependent. In making decisions as well as in worship, Quakers believe that the community of individual worshipers, valued as individuals each of whom waits on the Light, is the true vehicle of that Light. And what is true of the Meeting is expressed in the Meeting’s place in the wider world we share with all beings.

Convincement: The Quaker equivalent of what other faiths call “conversion.” A Convinced Friend is one who has freely embraced Quakerism through a true Motion of the Spirit (see below). The term reflects a key difference between Quakerism and other faiths by its acknowledgement of personal autonomy. One is not converted from one thing to another, or from one identity to another, but is rather convinced of Quaker truth in oneself as an independent person who is also a faithful member of the Quaker community.

Covered Meeting: A Meeting in which all those gathered in Worship feel literally covered by the Spirit. Worship on such occasions is experienced as truly deep and truly shared, the achievement of true spiritual community.

Concern: Generally reserved for weighty matters that concern someone or some group deeply. A Concern may be a significant matter of conscience and may lead to action, and responding to one demands Seeking and Discernment (see below).

Consensus: See Unity below.

Discernment: A work of seeking in which either an individual or the Meeting as a whole tries to determine That of God (see below) in what appear to be the deliverances of the Spirit but may in fact be an expression of personal emotions, interests, inclinations, or prejudices.

Early Friends: The immediate followers of George Fox and, more generally, the first generations of Quakers in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Elders/Eldering: Eldering was traditionally the purview of Elders, i.e., Weighty Friends (see below) on whose experience and spiritual insight the community had come to trust and value. Current usage allows greater latitude in that anyone who feels called to elder someone’s words or behavior as harmful to other members of the community or to the community itself as a whole may do so. However, Eldering must be conducted in a generous, non-accusatory, open-hearted, and worshipful spirit, and therefore demands great Discernment (see above). Because Quakers do not a have hierarchy and or formal disciplinary structure, they depend on each other to supply the informal norms needed to support a healthy, spirit-led, and growth-enhancing community.  

Equality: One of the major Testimonies (see below). Following George Fox’s call to “walk cheerfully over the earth, answering to That of God in everyone” (see That of God below), Quakers believe that all people—indeed, all beings—are children of the Spirit and deserve respect, compassion, and freedom from discrimination of any kind.

Faith and Practice: These terms almost invariably go together. In one use, they form the title of a book published by the Yearly Meeting to which a given Monthly Meeting belongs. (See Monthly Meeting below. Boulder Monthly Meeting belongs to the Intermountain Yearly Meeting of Friends, which published the version of Faith and Practice it uses.) As a book, Faith and Practice outlines the essentials of Friends’ guiding principles and procedures as agreed upon by all members of the Yearly Meeting. However, at a deeper level, the expression “Faith and Practice” is a reminder that Friends see themselves as “practical mystics,” that is, as people whose spiritual insights are meant to express themselves in their daily lives.

First Day: Sunday.  Whence First Day School: Sunday school for children.

Friends: The formal term for Quakers. Early followers of the Society’s founders, George Fox and Margaret Fell, referred to themselves as “Friends of the Truth,” or “Friends” for short. Whence the full official title, the Religious Society of Friends (of the Truth). But Quakers also use Friend to speak to or about anyone. Friends follow Fox and Fell in honoring That of God in everyone (see below), in the belief that all people are, consciously or not, Friends of the Truth.

Holding in the Light: A Quaker form of prayer. However, for many Friends, it is unlike prayer in that it is connected with Waiting on the Light (see below). As normally practiced, prayer is addressed to God for something. By contrast, Holding someone or something in the Light acknowledges that we may not know, or should not always presume to know, what should be prayed for. Sometimes the answer seems clear—for instance, most Friends would surely pray for peace. But often it isn’t, and the notion of Holding in the Light captures the difference.

Inner Light (or Inward Light, or the Light Within): The Inner Light is the guiding principle of Quaker Faith and Practice (see above). Friends believe that, as children of God, all beings carry the Light of the Spirit within them. All beings are thus open to divine guidance and love.

Integrity: One of the major Testimonies (see below). A guiding principle of Quaker Faith and Practice (see above) is that Friends should be honest in all of their actions and affairs, dealing openly and fairly with everyone in the family, at work, and in political life as well as the Meeting community.

Leading: Often “a leading of the Spirit.” Awareness of being drawn or guided by a divine call.

Meeting for Worship: An hour-long gathering for unprogrammed silent worship.

Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business (or Monthly Meeting, or Meeting for Business): Once a month, the Meeting takes care of its corporate business. Friends’ manner of conducting business expresses their basic faith that the Light that is in all, when heeded, draws all into agreement or Unity (see below) in their common affairs. Boulder Meeting holds Meeting for Business on the second Sunday of each month (except June), after Meeting for Worship. Occasionally, when an urgent matter can’t wait for the next regular Business Meeting, the Clerk announces a special “Called Meeting” to deal with it.

Meeting House: The building where Friends gather in Worship. Early Friends chose the term in order to distinguish their form of worship from those conducted in the churches and temples of other faiths.

Members: Members are Friends who have taken the step of applying for, and have received, formal (or “recorded”) membership in the Meeting.

Mind the Light/Walk in the Light: Minding the Light and Walking in the Light refer above all to the conduct of everyday life. Friends strive to attend to and be guided by the Spirit at all times and in all of their doings, however lowly, casual, or routine.

Ministry: The important thing about Ministry in a Quaker context is that, in the absence of a priest or pastor, anyone may be led to offer it. Most Ministry is oral. But Friends also value the “silent” Ministry of worshipers who continue to wait and listen in worshipful silence. However, in offering Ministry, people should try to discern whether their messages truly come from the Spirit and speak to the condition of the Meeting as a whole. (See Discernment above and Speak to One’s Condition below.)

Monthly Meeting: This is the fundamental organizing unit of the Religious Society of Friends. Membership and decision-making responsibilities all reside in the Monthly Meeting, which consists of a group of Friends who meet together at regular intervals to wait upon God in Meeting for Worship and Meeting for Business. Monthly Meetings belong to wider organizations: the Regional or Quarterly Meeting, the Yearly Meeting, Friends’ General Conference, and Friends’ World Committee for Consultation.

Motions of the Spirit: The experience of being powerfully moved by God, the Spirit, or the Light, usually (though not always) in a clear direction toward a specific act of Ministry or course of action in the world.

Opening: A revelation; a clearing of the way; a path forward pointed out by the Spirit.

Pacifism and the Peace Testimony: One of the major Testimonies (see below). The aim is not only to avoid doing violence but, as George Fox put it, to “take away the occasion for all war.”

Plain Speaking: “My yea is my yea, and my nay is my nay.” The aim here is to speak with accuracy and sincerity—to say what you mean, as clearly and in as straightforward and upright a way as you can. It is connected with the traditional (but now rare) use of “thee” and “thou,” i.e., the now obsolete informal “you” of early English. However, it is more deeply grounded in the demand for honesty and truth in all our words and deeds.

Quakers: A pejorative name given to Early Friends by their adversaries in established churches. The term originates in the observation that many Friends, when moved to give Ministry (see above) or to commit exemplary (and sometimes risky and defiant) acts of Witness (see below), would literally quake owing to the powerful Motions of the Spirit ( see above) they experienced. Friends embraced the term as a means of turning the intended irony back on their detractors.

Queries: See Advices and Queries.

Seasoning: A culinary metaphor that describes the process by which Friends postpone taking a difficult decision in order to allow more time for Discernment (see above).

Seekers and Seeking: Quakers regard all people as Friends in that all of us have That of God in us, and so are (consciously or not) Friends of the Truth. However, some Friends in this broad sense are also Seekers: that is, people who actively seek God, the Light, the Way, the Truth. It’s important, though, that Quakers themselves are and remain Seekers. They believe that Early Friends bequeathed, not a fixed creed, doctrine, or system of beliefs, but rather a “continuing revelation” that, in principle, has no end. Thus formal, “recorded” Membership in the Society is not an endpoint, for there is none. Membership is instead commitment to a fellowship of Seekers, a community oriented by a corporate as well as personal Waiting on the Light (see below).

Sense of the Meeting: During Meetings for Worship with a Concern for Business (see above), the Clerk will seek to determine the community’s emerging Consensus or Unity (see Unity below) and then put it in words in the form of a satisfactory minute. An important role Clerks perform, especially during thorny discussions, is to guide the community toward Unity by articulating what the Sense of the Meeting appears to be, and then asking those present if they have got it right.

Simplicity: One of the major Testimonies (see below). It calls for the avoidance of extravagance, luxury, and waste. But it also encourages the avoidance of needless complexity of all sorts and, in this sense, is connected with Plain Speaking (see above).

Speak to One’s Condition: A word or action that strikes one as particularly appropriate, that helps clarify a situation or one’s own thoughts and feelings. Friends also use the phrase as a reminder to be mindful of other people’s circumstances, characters, and states of mind so that what they say and do may be genuinely helpful and on target.

SPICE: A handy acronym used to remember the major Testimonies (see below): Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality. Some Friends add Direct Access to God (SPICED), and others, moved by environmental concerns, add Stewardship (SPICES).

Stand in the Way/Stand Aside: During Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business, someone may conscientiously differ from decisions the community as a whole embraces. Such a person may decide to Stand in the Way, preventing Unity to form because they are convinced, in conscience, that Unity has not in fact been achieved. However, someone may choose to Stand Aside, registering their disagreement while nonetheless allowing a decision to be made.

Testimony: Testimonies are closely related to Witness (see below). However, a Testimony differs in that it usually reflects a longstanding, historical or traditional feature of Quaker Faith and Practice. Friends thus speak of the Testimonies of Simplicity, Equality, or Peace: goals Quakers have always sought whose pursuit has always been exhibited in their words and deeds.

That of God: The Light within; the presence of the divine in everyone; the “still, small voice” of the Truth that speaks in every heart.

Threshing Session: A Called Meeting (see Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business above) to enable Friends to share insights on some especially difficult issue. An important feature of threshing sessions is that it is agreed from the start that no decision is to be taken. The aim is rather to help Friends hear and understand each other’s views and feelings without judgment.

Unity: In Meetings for Worship with a Concern for Business, Quakers don’t decide matters by vote. Instead, they aim to reach Unity—a corporate condition often slightly misleadingly called “consensus” since consensus doesn’t necessarily involve the unanimity Friends seek. The guiding idea is that the Meeting as a whole decides, under the guidance of the Spirit.

Waiting on the Light: “Don’t just do something; sit there!” When gathered in Worship, but also when facing the difficulties and emergencies of daily life, Friends Wait on the Light. This is one reason why, at least in unprogrammed Meetings like Boulder’s, Quakers have neither a creed, an officiant priest or pastor, or a liturgy or order of service. Friends don’t presume to know in advance what God wills, what the Light will reveal, where the Spirit will lead. So they wait, offering themselves up in attentive and worshipful silence.

(A/The) Way Opens: The experience of being shown the way through some difficulty or conflict. Such experiences can occur anywhere and at any time, but a particularly telling example is what sometimes happens in Meeting for Business (see above) when, in worshipful discussion of an issue around which strikingly conflicting views have emerged, the Meeting as a whole suddenly reaches Unity in a decision no one person in attendance had thought of. The Opening of the Way testifies to the presence of the divine in our midst.

Weighty Friend: A Weighty Friend is a Friend recognized for acting and speaking in ways that clearly reflect the leading of the Spirit. Such a Friend is often looked to as a model and guide. (Also see Elders/Eldering above.)

Witness: Where a Testimony (see above) has an historical or traditional character, Witness usually denotes a specific act. It is a personal or corporate bearing of Testimony, something done in Witness to the Light.

Worship Sharing: A more informal gathering in Worship in which participants are invited to express themselves without the kind of Seasoning or Discernment (see above) expected of Ministry in a regular Meeting for Worship.

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