In the Quaker tradition, knowing when and whether to speak during worship is an important practice. Sometimes, for example, as I wait in silent worship, a good idea comes to me. It might be a great thought, but if it is not something that God is calling on me to share with the group, I need to let it go and leave space for someone else who is inspired by God to speak.
In the old days, Friends called this phenomenon damaging another’s service. The greatest risk in ministry is not that we will say the wrong thing, but instead that we might prevent another person from delivering the inspired, God-breathed message for that particular moment.
We all mess up sometimes, of course, and occasionally a person will rise and speak when they really should have remained silent. Usually, this poorly-discerned contribution in worship is not particularly harmful. A spiritually grounded group of worshipers can handle unhelpful speaking quite well, without it unduly affecting the quality of the worship.
The most important reason that we must have discernment when speaking is not the risk that our speaking might upset the group; instead, it is because our poorly-timed words might get in the way of the true message that God wants us to hear. For example, there have been times that I have had a clear message from the Lord to share, yet just as I was about to deliver it, another individual stood up and shared a good idea. Though it was certainly not their intention, they unknowingly blocked the work of the Spirit in the group.
The traditional Quaker meeting for worship is sort of like a spiritual fire drill. It is a rehearsal in discernment, learning when to speak and when to be silent; when to act and when to be still. These same principles of discernment apply in the rest of our lives, in the work that we do out in the world and in the roles and relationships that we live in. Do I take care to be discerning about how both my action and lack of action impacts the life of my community?
Am I damaging another’s service by taking on tasks that are not mine to do? Do I block the work of the Holy Spirit by interjecting my own ideas when it would be better to listen?