Virtual Worship IV – Zoom and the Gathered Meeting

May 29, 2020 § 8 Comments

In my last post, I revised my original evaluation of virtual worship. Before our meeting switched to Zoom for worship, I was skeptical. After that first meeting, I was thankful. Now I’m skeptical again. And for me, this comes down to whether a virtual meeting for worship can be gathered in the Spirit.

In my Pendle Hill Pamphlet The Gathered Meeting I identified five qualities that distinguish the gathered or covered meeting for worship: energy, presence, knowledge, unity, and joy.

Energy. The gathered meeting is thrilling; it fills my mind and even my body with an unmistakable sense of aliveness and focus. But “focus” is not really the right word, because there is no point of focus, but rather a whole-field sense of heightened awareness, of presence to the animating energy of consciousness.

To be honest, I’ve had these feelings when in deep meditation, so presumably I could have them in a virtual meeting for worship. There is a subtle difference, though, I think, between the deep contemplative state and the state I’m trying to describe in a gathered meeting for worship, which feels induced, not by my own individual practice, but by our corporate practice. That difference is pretty subtle. But can we feel that frisson, that shivering shared awareness, that passes through the body (the gathered body) when it’s covered by the Spirit if we are not sitting next to each other in the same space, but only present to each other as thumbnail images on a screen?

Knowledge. The gathered meeting brings a knowing, a feeling that one has touched, not some specific truth, but a more transcendent Truth. It’s as though some spiritual organ for gnosis, for spiritual understanding, has been super-charged, but without being given, necessarily, any object to be understood. We become a Subject Who Knows. And we also feel like a Someone Who Is Known. Like the sense of energy, this sense of knowing, and of knowing that we are known, transcends our ability to articulate it; it “passes all understanding”. But it is real.

Once again, I’ve experienced this state a few times on my own, in deep meditation, on LSD, and in a sweat lodge. What’s different in the gathered meeting is a collective knowing: I Know; I know that you Know; I know that you know that I Know; and I know that you know that I know that you Know. This psychic, collective, mutually reflective knowing is a signature characteristic of a gathered meeting; you look up after meeting is over and there are the other worshippers looking back at you with that look of—I Know! How would I know in this way in a virtual meeting?

Unity. This pentecost, this psychic manifestation of gathering in the Spirit, fuses the community in communion. This union, this unity, is most obvious in a gathered meeting for business, which, in my experience, often comes after hard struggle in disunity. But whether in a regular meeting for worship or a business meeting, the participants feel at one with each other in a way that transcends mere outward agreement. This unity is, in a sense, just another face of the gathered meeting’s sense of knowing. And like the collective knowing, it needs the collective. How can we share this sense of one-body-ness when our bodies and our consciousnesses are miles away from each other?

Presence. Presence, what Thomas Kelly calls the “dynamic, living, working Life”, is the hardest of all these qualities to share virtually with others. It’s not too hard to be present to each other socially on Zoom, but (for me, at least) it’s really hard to be psychically present to each other virtually. Virtually psychically present—that is an oxymoron. Meanwhile, being thus present to each other is somehow the very foundation of being present to the Presence in our Midst. On Zoom, we don’t really have a Midst for a Presence to be present in.

Joy. Joy is the easiest of these to feel in a Zoom meeting, I think. The joy I feel in seeing these faces, hearing your voices, is real and strong. But still—it is not the same as that overwhelming sense of gratitude that I’ve felt in a gathered meeting for worship, in which the unity, the joy, the knowing, the presence, and the Presence all shake my being in a way I’ve never experienced any other way. Oftentimes it has literally made me quake.

But can’t the gathering on Zoom still be worship?

The first-order question is, what is worship? What is meeting for worship for? For me, worship is the corporate practice of listening at the door for the knock of the Presence and that Voice and then opening (Revelation 3:20). We come together in worship in order to be gathered collectively into the Spirit of Love and Truth, into what Paul called the body of Christ. We come to realize what is perhaps the signature tenet of our faith, that not only can every human commune directly with the divine, but also the worshipping community can commune directly with the divine—as a community! And sometimes this happens in this extraordinary and beatific way we call the covered meeting.

So—for me—worship is all about the gathered meeting. And I just don’t think a virtual meeting can be a medium for a gathered meeting.

Now it’s true that gathered meetings are rare, and so a meeting for worship doesn’t have to be gathered to be a meeting for worship. Moreover, I suspect that many of our members and attenders have never experienced a gathered meeting; a certain number might not even know there is such a thing. And yet a meeting for worship is still a meeting for worship.

So I attend.

A note—a minute of exercise, if you will—that arose from writing this post. I found myself using terms to describe one aspect of the gathered meeting that, in my pamphlet, I had used to describe a different aspect of the gathered meeting. This, I think, is because the gathered meeting transcends description. That hasn’t kept me from trying to describe it. However, I found in writing this post that my various descriptions of its various aspects all verge on each other. These various aspects of the gathered meeting are, in essence, all faces of the same thing. In this transcendental state, all is one.

§ 8 Responses to Virtual Worship IV – Zoom and the Gathered Meeting

  • Ellis Hein says:

    In this post, Steve has written of ‘covered’ or ‘gathered’ meetings. These are experiences of knowing Jesus Christ in your midst to gather you, to feed you with life, to wash you and make you clean and so on. They are not brought on nor controlled by our own wills or our own power. We are indeed a helpless, broken people who have no hope except the Lord appear among us in his power. We can take the fruit “offered by the serpent” and become gods in our own eyes. But we have no life outside of being “single to the Truth [which is Jesus Christ], waiting daily to feel the life and virtue of in in our hearts.” (See below) Last night I alluded to an “undefinable something” opperating among those gathered in the authority and power of Jesus Christ. This morning, I am commanded to bring this definition to that “something”. To do so, I supply three quotes, taken from a multitude of possible ones.

    So in his name keep your meetings, in whom you have salvation; and these are the true meetings, and true gatherings, who feel Jesus Christ in the midst of them, their prophet, their counsellor, their leader, their light and life, their way and their truth, their shepherd, that laid down his life for them, that has bought you, his sheep, who feeds you in his pastures of life; and your heavenly bishop, to oversee you, that you do not go astray again from God. And so it is through him you overcome, and he that overcomes shall go no more forth out of his fold, out of his pastures, who shall sit down in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, who is your priest, that offered up himself for you, and sacrifices for you, and makes you holy and clean, that he may present you blameless up to the holy and pure God; and here you come to witness and know him in his offices, by his light, spirit, and power (Fox’s Works, Vol. VIII, pp. 77-78)

    But, oh! Friends, while all these things are working and bringing to pass, repose ye yourselves in the munition of that rock, that all these shakings shall not move; even in the knowledge and feeling of the eternal power of God, keeping you subjectly given up to his heavenly will, and feel it daily to kill and mortify that which remains in any of you, which is of this world; for the worldly part in any, is the changeable part, and that is up and down, full and empty, Joyful and sorrowful, as things go well or ill in the world. For as the Truth is but one, and many are made partakers of its spirit, so the world is but one, and many are partakers of the spirit of it; and so many as do partake of it, so many will be straitened and perplexed with it; but they who are single to the Truth, waiting daily to feel the life and virtue of it in their hearts, these shall rejoice in the midst of adversity. These shall not have their hearts moved with fear, nor tossed with anguish, because of evil tidings, Psal. cxii.7,8. (Works of Stephen Crisp, EPISTLE TO FRIENDS concerning THE PRESENT AND SUCCEEDING TIMES)

    XXXI11.—To Friends, for all to wait and walk in the truth.
    All Friends and brethren every where, in the life and power of the Lord wait, and from it none walk ; but that to the light of Christ in every one ye may be made manifest, that the fear and dread of the Lord may be in all your hearts, that nothing may reign but life itself. And so, all your meetings in every place keep, waiting in the light, which from Christ doth come, the saviour of your souls; that his presence in the midst ye may all feel, who are gathered together in his name and power in his light, (which is his name,) and from the world’s gatherings are turned. (Fox’s Works, Vol. VII, pp.39-40)

  • Ellis Hein says:

    There is something undefinable that is operating when gathered (physically together) in the authority and power of Christ that is absent when we gather in some other authority, under some other power. (See the Stephen Crisp quote in my earlier comment.) This “something undefinable” is also absent when we “gather” virtually. As helpful as digital devices are, the digital age has not provided a substitute for face to face encounter in the presence of the Lord.

  • Ellis Hein says:

    The following extract is from Stephen Crisp’s Sermon 14 (which can be found at I have drastically shortened it to fit a comment. The whole is worthy of reading. Crisp’s statement or definition the purpose of worship throws a different light on what is involved than is ordinarily understood. Here is the quote:

    But, my friends, that which chiefly concerns us at this day, is to behold the kingdom of Christ, the eternal Son of God, within us, to go forward and prosper; and the kingdom of Antichrist suppressed and destroyed, and utterly laid waste; and this is wrought two ways, first, inwardly; second, outwardly…We all know, and we must confess, that we have been subject to the man of sin, whatsoever we are now. We have seen the reign and government, the rage and tyranny of the wicked one, that hath led us into rebellion and disobedience to the Lord our Maker…I hope we do none of us like it. It was so with me; and they that are under the tyrannical government of satan, have many cries and wishes in their souls, that they were freed and delivered from it, and brought under the government and obedience of Christ Jesus…This hath been the cry of some ever since they have known the word; and I am persuaded it is the cry of many at this day…But may not some say, how shall this great work be wrought: For it is a great work, and we verily think that nothing but an Almighty Power can effect it…I am of this mind, that nothing but the Almighty Power of God can do it; and when you have come to my experience, to know this as I have done, then I hope you will seek after that, and you will see good reason for it; and you will then come to this profession, if the Lord puts not forth his Almighty Power, I must then perish, for there is no other power can deliver me. When you come to know this, what must you do: Why you must wait for the revelation of that power that will take you off form all trust and confidence that you have ever had in any thing else…When a man or woman comes to this pass, that they have nothing to rely upon but the Lord, then they will meet together to wait upon the Lord: And this was the first ground or motive of our setting up meetings…we should use them as poor desolate helpless people that are broken off from all their own confidence and trust, and have nothing to rely upon but the mercy and goodness of God; and if he pleaseth to reveal his power among us, we know that he is able to save us.

  • Bill Samuel says:

    There is nothing in your definition of worship that couldn’t happen in a meeting via Zoom. You write, “I just don’t think a virtual meeting can be a medium for a gathered meeting.” However, you were unable to give a real reason why it can’t be. There are challenges involved, but I don’t see how those challenges make it prohibitive. I think it would be more helpful to try to find ways that improve the chances of a meeting held by Zoom to be able to be a gathered meeting.

    • QuaCarol says:

      Oh, well said, Bill!

      We all need to learn how to worship all over again.

      We’re all beginners. What wonderful potential this moment contains for Quakerism.

    • I agree, Bill. I think I may have let my thinking slip. When talking about the gathered meeting, I tend to feel that a meeting for worship is not quite complete unless it’s gathered. But of course, this is not true. So yes, these virtual meetings for worship are meetings for worship. But I still question how they might be gathered.

      I did, in fact, give a bunch of reasons why I think they can’t be gathered. So by “a real reason”, I guess you mean one that convinces you. I admit that my reasons are just inferences from my experience shaped by my own—what shall I call them?—metaphysical assumptions and biases. But there we are.

      As for how to foster a gathered virtual meeting—good point. All the things I offer in my pamphlet about nurturing the gathered meeting still apply to a Zoom meeting, except the one that is “empirical”—sitting close together, and the one that requires a physical space—preparing the room with prayer; but you could, of course, prepare the Zoom with prayer. I say “empirical” because this one comes from an actual study of sorts. Sometime in the early 1990s, New York Yearly Meeting’s Ministry and Counsel Committee posed a bunch of queries about the gathered meeting in its annual letter requesting state of the meeting reports from the local meetings as input for the yearly meeting’s state of society report. That year, I was the Friend who synthesized the state of the society report from those local reports.

      Two of the questions were: What does your meeting find helps to foster the gathered meeting? And: What has your meeting found hinders the gathered meeting? By far, the majority of meetings answered: sitting close together, and sitting far apart. Thus I have empirical, if admittedly anecdotal, evidence that physical proximity is an important factor in the gathered meeting.

    • You speak my mind

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