As someone who travels in the ministry, Emily Provance is already used to connecting with her home meeting remotely. In this virtual interview, Emily explains how Quakers can use online tools to worship together—and not just in emergency circumstances
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When we talk about worship in specific, there is a sort of inside feeling that I think all Friends would recognize. There is a sort of groundedness, a sort of deep listening, a sort of spaciousness that’s connected to the experience of expectant worship (that point in time when we are expecting to hear from God) and what is interesting to me is that even when we are sitting virtually, when we are very far away, we can still have that same internal feeling. It might take, sometimes, more focus, it might be harder, but it can happen and I know this because I have felt it.
Listening for God Online
My name is Emily Provance. My meeting is Fifteenth Street, which is in New York City, and I travel in the ministry full-time, which is an old Quaker tradition, and it means that I go from group of Quakers to group of Quakers and visit and worship with them.
I started traveling in the ministry, at least a little bit, maybe five or six years ago. It’s still unclear to me exactly what the beginning was, and then over time it became more and more and it was a little bit more than a year ago that I gave up having a full-time home. Because we don’t have a central hierarchy, we don’t have a single person who tells all Quakers, “this is the way that you need to do things,” there’s sort of a natural drift that can happen where our local communities can sort of spread apart from one another, and what travel in the ministry can do is that it allows some people, those who feel called to do it, to go from place to place to place to place, and what we carry with us is the connection of the wider body of Friends.
It’s the knowledge of what’s happening in the different local communities; not just the factual information, although that’s important, but also the deeper pieces about how is Spirit moving among Friends? And because we’re able to do that it’s almost like a circulatory system; it’s carrying the oxygen from one place to another and making sure that we don’t drift apart as much as we otherwise might.
In the 21st century we have a lot of other ways to connect. Originally, sending somebody was just about the only way to do it. These days we have the virtual connections, too. We can send the emails, we can meet by video, we can have social media, and to me all of that is a living part of travel in the ministry, at least it has been for me.
Practicing Discernment Together Virtually
There’s a book called Practicing Discernment Together by Lon Fendall and Jan Wood and Bruce Bishop, and one of my favorite pieces of this has to do with the different ways in which people can hear from God — that some of us hear from God as a literal voice, for some of us it’s a feeling, for some of us it’s a physical feeling in our bodies, for some it might be scripture or vivid imagery, and there are a whole bunch of different ways — what’s really cool to me is that when we’re meeting together virtually we can actually hear from God in all of those same ways. None of those are reliant on our being physically in a certain place or even on our being physically together with other people.
So something that is meaningful to me as we are learning how to worship virtually together is to ask ourselves the question, “how do I usually hear from God? What is that experience normally like for me?” and we can pay attention to the same cues. God might surprise us, but we can pay attention to the same cues and we can experience hearing from Spirit in the same way even though we’re looking at each other on a screen or we’re listening to voices on a phone, and even though we’re very far apart from one another.
Expanding Connection and Accessibility
I think it’s always going to be the case that there are some Friends who have a harder time with virtual worship than they do with physical worship, but it’s also always going to be the case that there are some Friends who have a harder time with physical worship than they do with virtual worship. The only way that I can imagine that we could make worship accessible to as many people as possible is to do it in as many ways as possible, and that absolutely includes virtual worship.
We talk about, as Friends, the idea that we need the voices of every person in order to do discernment as well as we possibly can, in order to really hear from God, and to me that implies that we want to make it possible for every person to speak, for every person to be able to voice what they are hearing from the Spirit. One of the pieces of ministry that I’ve been involved in for years is a concept called “age inclusion,” and one of the pieces of that is talking about the fact that for many people who are on the younger end of the spectrum if we don’t have the electronic options, if we’re not doing well with social media, if we don’t have distance attendance options by video, then a lot of people are left out.
That applies not only to Friends who are on the younger end of the spectrum but maybe to Friends who are working full-time or to Friends who don’t have access to transportation or to Friends who are dealing with chronic illness and often can’t leave home. But then we always have to remember that if we move too far to the other end of the spectrum — if we go totally virtually, if things are only electronic — then we have another group of people who feel left out, and so it’s a matter of stretching ourselves to do both.
What I’m incredibly grateful for in this time is that we are developing new skill sets, things that Friends have long said are impossible: we cannot possibly have a meeting for business where we have some people coming in on video, we cannot possibly sit in worship together where we’re using video and phone, some things can only be done in person. We are learning to stretch and we’re learning that it’s not just us who stretch but that God can make this happen. God being God has the ability to make these things work.
- In this video Emily asks for us to reflect: “how do I usually hear from God? What is that experience normally like for me?” Are you hearing from God through virtual worship?
- Can online worship become part of regular Quaker practice? Why or why not?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.