Meeting for Worship: The Heart of FCS
FCS Discovered with Jim Davis, Archivist
Anyone connected with Friends’ Central School – or any Friends school, for that matter – is familiar with Meeting for Worship. We describe it as an activity of central importance, at the heart of School life. Why? Its centrality goes beyond the fact that it takes place – in the Upper School – mid-week. We consider it central to life at FCS because it is the one activity we all share. Neither musical events nor plays nor athletic contests can claim this distinction. By the time they graduate, seniors will have seen a wide variation in their academic, social, and extra-curricular experiences of the School. It is Meeting for Worship that is the singular, shared event common to all.
Some questions then arise about Meeting. Why do we gather in this way? Has it changed throughout FCS’ history? How is it that it has survived, pretty much intact, these 172 years? What are some examples of how it has nurtured, consoled, and sustained our community?
First, a bit of a paradox: We go to Meeting to worship in silence. It would seem that there could be no more individual endeavor than private, silent prayer. And yet Meeting happens in the presence of the community. Is it then individual or communal?
I often feel the word “community” is overused and misunderstood. It most certainly does not refer to folks having a common mind. A cursory look at our School shows the folly of that supposition. We are certainly not united in our theologies, for example. In my view, it is about being committed to a common purpose. We are united in our determination to find ways to live together and to accord each other the respect of being fellow seekers. This happens in Meeting.
Faith & Practice 1997, the well-known publication of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, addresses the balance between the individual and the community as follows: “Worshipping together strengthens the members of the worshipping community and deepens the act of worship itself. Such communal worship is like a living organism whose individual but interdependent members are essential to one another and to the life of the greater whole.”
The outward appearance of Meeting, wherever it is held, is familiar to all who experience it. But differences exist as well. FCS is singular from other Friends schools in one distinctive way. Since our move to the City Avenue campus in 1925, we have not been under the care of a Meeting and, as a consequence, we have no designated Meeting House. Upon relocating to our present campus, Meeting was held in Rex Gym – yes, a gym. In a space featuring inadequate heating and non-existent cooling, students, staff, and faculty would gather, seated in blue chairs a few sizes too small for growing adolescents (and adults!), and attempt to settle into silence. Quakers have never placed importance on the decoration or adornment of worship spaces, but the Rex Gym took this principle to extreme levels. Speaking of those blue chairs (see picture), beloved former teacher Clayton Farraday used to remind any and all complainers that they were “the best investment the School ever made.” The chairs, purchased for less than 30 cents a piece during the Depression, lasted over 50 years. Durability clearly took priority over comfort and charm, and Quaker thrift paid off.
Beloved former teacher Clayton Farraday used to remind any and all complainers that they were “the best investment the School ever made.” The chairs, purchased for less than 30 cents a piece during the Depression, lasted over 50 years.
Worshipping amidst volleyball nets, with noisy heaters and the aroma of physical exertion permeating the room, challenged us to try to find the voice of God within! In keeping with older Friends’ practice, the sexes were kept separate – until the late 1960s, that is, when students began quietly undoing the seating plan. After Meeting was closed, the silence was rudely shattered by the sound of hundreds of chairs being lined up against the wall. The gym did afford something our subsequent venue could not – flexibility of seating. Concentric circles, rows facing the stage, rows facing each other, all manner of designs allowed fresh experiences.
The change of venue for Meeting happened in 1981 with the opening of Shallcross Hall. The space was intentionally designed to perform a double duty as both Meeting space and theatre. The design of the space was, therefore, spartan; pews, arranged in a gentle semicircular pattern facing the stage, were installed instead of theatre chairs. Though clearly not a Meeting House, it does, I think, succeed in evoking a quiet, serene space suited for contemplation. At times, the presence of a set under construction distracts from one’s meditation; occasionally, it stimulates paths of thought.
Whether in a gym or a quasi-theatre, Meeting for Worship at FCS has often been the locus of a community confronting profound grief or frightening world events, as well as sharing great joy. I mean no disrespect when I say we are fortunate to have the vehicle of Meeting at our disposal. It is a readily understood practice that needs no explanatory preface, no deciphering of mechanics. When traumatic events occur within or outside our community, Meeting is called, and we simply settle into silence; purpose and practice take familiar hold. Whether it was 9/11, the imminent invasion of Iraq (both times), or loss of friends and colleagues, the process of grieving and healing has always begun with Meeting for Worship. Over the years, we have heard heart-rending stories of loss and fear shared in confidence, safe in the knowledge that the confidence would not be broken. Baccalaureate, the night before Commencement, becomes a simultaneously joyful and bittersweet evening, shared by soon-to-be-alums, their families, and the School that has nurtured them.
There have been several unusual moments in Meeting over the years that have shaken up the routine and yanked us all out of our quietude in ways George Fox probably never imagined. A teacher, for example, once walked out after loudly proclaiming, “I can’t take the silence”(!). Another teacher ate up the entire Meeting period reminiscing about his summer day camp. On occasion, when the weather is nice, we have held “ambulatory meetings” where the School has moved outside to worship.
The very presence of Meeting and the requirement that all students and faculty attend has been – to no one’s surprise – a topic of some debate. Letters to the Editor of the School newspaper have at times focused on this issue. In October 1965, “a concerned student” argues that attending Meeting should be optional for students. “Compulsory attendance… is in direct conflict with the Friends’ foremost principle: All actions a person takes must be in accord with his conscience and therefore should not be externally imposed.”
Another student expresses an opposing view in December of the same year, stating, “Meeting for Worship is something we are very fortunate to have… a time when you can forget the trials of the day and worship God in your own silent way. This period of time is important in my life, and I hope that other people feel that it is important in theirs.”
Debates such as these and others like it will always characterize the conversations around Meeting. Disagreements (sometimes heatedly expressed), joyful song, messages of profound spirituality, humor and rejoicing, challenges to School policy – all of these have found their way into the fabric of the gathering we call Meeting for Worship. We are blessed by the gifts it brings.
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