Category Archives: Worship

Reading Quaker faith & practice Ch. 29

How can we walk with a smile into the dark? We must learn to put our trust in God and the leadings of the Spirit. How many of us are truly led by the Spirit throughout our daily lives? I have turned to God when I have had a difficult decision to make or when I have sought strength to endure the pain in dark times. But I am only slowly learning to dwell in the place where leadings come from. That is a place of love and joy and peace, even in the midst of pain. The more I dwell in that place, the easier it is to smile, because I am no longer afraid.

If we dwell in the presence of God, we shall be led by the spirit. We do well to remember that being led by the spirit depends not so much upon God, who is always there to lead us, as upon our willingness to be led. We need to be willing to be led into the dark as well as through green pastures and by still waters. We do not need to be afraid of the dark, because God is there. The future of this earth need not be in the hands of the world’s ‘leaders’. The world is in God’s hands if we are led by God. Let us be led by the Spirit. Let us walk with a smile into the dark.

Gordon Matthews, 1987 – Qfp 29.1

In a way, all our prayer and our waiting comes down to this willingness to be led. We live within the grace of the ground of being – there is nowhere else to live – but so much of the time our eyes are closed, and the illusion of separateness somehow inclines us to believe that we are reliant on conditions, on material sufficiency and social and political influence. When we come to realise – and it is only by dwelling “in the place where leadings come from” that we can realise it – our littleness, our transience and the infinite security of our insecurity,  we find that it is no more than our conscious, dependent stillness that keeps us there. Our practice, whether it be the shared silence of meeting for worship, or whatever contemplative practice we have developed over the years ourselves, is all we need.

Quaker faith & practice recognises this as a calling, a fact that sometimes gets forgotten in our discussions of the ways in which Friends may be being led. A statement from London Yearly Meeting (as it was then known) in 1986 puts it like this:

We recognise a variety of ministries. In our worship these include those who speak under the guidance of the Spirit, and those who receive and uphold the work of the Spirit in silence and prayer. We also recognise as ministry service on our many committees, hospitality and childcare, the care of finance and premises, and many other tasks. We value those whose ministry is not in an appointed task but is in teaching, counselling, listening, prayer, enabling the service of others, or other service in the meeting or the world.

The purpose of all our ministry is to lead us and other people into closer communion with God and to enable us to carry out those tasks which the Spirit lays upon us.

Qfp 10.05

This call to “receive and uphold the work of the Spirit in silence and prayer” is central to my own understanding of myself as a Friend, and in fact to pretty much everything I write here. The “how” of this is perhaps as various as Friends themselves, and encompasses all our different and diverse flavours, Christian and universalist, theist and nontheist, and all the changes that may come to each of us as we seek to be faithful to what the Spirit lays upon us. We are a people of the way, not of some imagined destination, and we walk together in the blessed dark of our unknowing.

Testimonies

Sometimes I wonder whether, under the influence of the need to reach out to a secular society, we have made testimony simply into an expression of ethics. We have numbered and acronymised (forgive the invention!) our testimonies, and progressive people of goodwill will, more or less, be in agreement with them. That is fine as far as it goes. But the ways we express our relationship with the divine in everyday life surely cannot be limited to convenient words or headings in an index. Testimony is not a strategy, nor is it a political manifesto. Rather, it is a vital response to a call from the depths of our being to examine our lives and to heed the cry of the world itself.

Harvey Gillman, Words (available from The Friend magazine)

I’ve always been a little worried about testimonies. They seem all too much like lists of requirements: one must be able to put one tick at least in each of the boxes to be considered a Quaker. I can much too easily imagine a membership applicant’s visitors asking, “How has your life shown forth Integrity and Truth this week? And how about Stewardship, Peter Bloggs?”

Surely, our testimonies are merely descriptions of the ways in which the Spirit has led us, like Paul’s list of the Spirit’s fruits in Galatians 5.22-23: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” We cannot resolve to live these things, or we will fall at the first hurdle. Only by opening ourselves to the Spirit in worship and prayer will they grow of themselves in us; and then others may, probably at our funeral, recall how they observed them – “a testimony to the grace of God in the life of…”

Quaker renewal will, it seems to me, only happen as we set aside our worries about forms and words, the ins and outs and the details of who is and who isn’t which kind of Quaker, and sit down together in silence, waiting on the Spirit’s presence:

Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.

Isaac Penington, 1661

Quaker Renewal?

Yesterday morning’s meeting was quiet, and the morning light through the meeting house windows was pearl grey. I spent much of the time holding the space, as it were, for Friends, sensing that the Spirit was doing something beneath the surface. And yet I was uneasy.

Towards the end of the meeting a Friend stood to give ministry, and said that like so many others perhaps she had come to meeting deeply worried, almost panicking really, about the seeming success of the campaign for a leave vote in the EU referendum. As she had sat in the silence, it had come to her that she was, in fact, one very small person, and that worry as she might, nothing except her one vote in the referendum would make any real difference to the outcome. But she could pray. Whatever the circumstances, she could still pray – and she would – that peace, and wisdom, and hope would prevail. It was all she could do; but it was the one thing needful. And she sat down.

If ever a ministry spoke to my condition, it was that. For all I had been sitting in stillness, listening and holding, the same anxiety had nagged at the edges of my mind, try as I might to settle. Our Friend had opened herself honestly to hear her own heart’s cry, and the Spirit had touched her with extraordinary precision, and brought the answer through, not despite, her and my unquietness.

In his Pendle Hill pamphlet Four Doors to Meeting for Worship, William Tabor writes:

Entering into worship often feels to me somewhat like entering into a stream, which, though invisible to our outward eye, feels just as real as does a stream of water when we step into it. Just as bathing in a real stream of pure flowing water needs no justification to one who has experienced the vitality it brings, so entering into the stream of worship needs no justification to one who has experienced the healing, the peace, the renewal, the expansion which accompanies this altered state of consciousness. I once thought worship was something I do, but for many years now it has seemed as if worship is actually a state of consciousness which I enter so that I am immersed into a living, invisible stream of reality which has always been present throughout all history. In some mysterious way this stream unites me with the communion of the saints across the ages and brings me into the presence of the living Christ, the Word, the Logos written of in the Gospel of John.

On the Quaker Renewal group on Facebook, a Friend asks whether renewal is happening, or is about to happen; and the answer is, as one of the responses wisely points out, both. It reminds me of the Kingdom of God, the ‘new covenant’ in the Gospels, which has arrived with Jesus, and is yet to come in its fullness.

In an excellent article in the Friends Quarterly (2.2016) Stuart Masters, writing on Pauline Christianity in the early Quaker movement, says:

Another dimension of the new covenant, described by the apostle Paul and proclaimed by early Friends, is that it is now possible for all people to experience Divine indwelling in which Christ acts as inward teacher, king, counsellor, prophet, priest and redeemer. The great claim of the first generation of Friends was that ‘Christ is come to teach his people himself.’ This is what Paul means by being ‘in Christ’, and what early Friends referred to as the ‘Inward Light’ of Christ. Such a direct inward presence had precedence over the physical or ‘carnal’ sources of authority in the old covenant, such as the human priesthood, the physical temple, the outward law, and the written Scriptures.

Stuart Masters concludes:

In the early Quaker movement, we see a revival of the radical, egalitarian, and spirit-led character of the Pauline churches. It may well be that Paul’s message was so revolutionary that it had to be controlled and domesticated by the institutions of mainstream Christianity. In England in the 1640s and 1650s, young men and women experienced the spiritual empowerment to break free of that controlled, and domesticated view. As a result of their life-changing spiritual experiences, they understood Paul in an entirely different way…

I will leave the final word to Paul himself, a powerful message of hope and encouragement:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8.38-39)

Whatever language we may ourselves adopt to express our experience of the Light that reaches us in the stillness, we should recognise that spiritual renewal is a radical process, not only in the modern sense of “characterized by departure from tradition; innovative or progressive” but in the sense of relating or returning to the root (L. radix) or origin of something – the musical sense of relating or returning to the root of a chord. Our renewal has to be about what Quakers are and can become; but it will not be radical enough unless it is also about where we come from, and where we still derive our strength: the simple experience of the Spirit’s light in the listening silence.

The well of love…

Liberal Quakers, which term by and large encompasses Britain Yearly Meeting, don’t these days tend to use the name of Jesus Christ at all freely, which can be disorienting for those – like myself – who have joined Friends after having been members of other churches.

Needless to say, there is no official Quaker Christology, just as there are no Quaker creeds or statements of faith. But early Quakers were entirely comfortable with the name of Christ, and with the prevailing understanding of him as saviour. As Lewis Benson writes, in A Revolutionary Gospel:

The early Quakers were not a reforming movement within the framework of a commonly shared belief in Christ as savior. They were in revolt against what the churches were teaching about salvation by Christ. They claimed that the churches’ teaching had separated belief in Christ as savior from the call of God for righteousness. Belief in Christ had become divorced from obedience in righteousness. Fox said that the belief of his Calvinist contemporaries was an “unsanctifying belief,” by which he meant that it left the believer still captive to sin and a dweller in the life of unrighteousness. The Calvinist doctrine of “imputed righteousness” was rejected by the Quakers. They that have received Christ within, said Fox, “they witness the righteousness itself without imputation.” The chief point of the controversy between Puritans and Quakers was whether Christ had the power to make men truly righteous as well as the power to forgive. This is a disagreement about that which is most fundamental in Christianity. It is a disagreement about how we experience Christ as savior. But the Quaker revolt was not directed solely against Calvinistic Puritanism. Before Calvin the Church of Rome had assumed the role of mediator of moral truth to its members, it set a standard of morality defined by the church and kept in force by the power of the church. The scandals that developed in the administration of this church-oriented morality were the occasion of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Looking back across the centuries of Christian history Fox was able to say, “The righteousness within and sanctification within hath been lost since the apostles’ days,” and “the sanctifying belief hath been lost since the apostles’ days.”

Quaker faith is based in the experience of the Spirit in silent worship, and it is that Spirit which the early Quakers understood as the indwelling Christ. The apostle Paul prayed that

according to the riches of his glory, [God] may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

(Ephesians 3.16-19)

It is this indwelling which the early Quakers understood by their experience of the Light. As William Penn wrote:

The Light of Christ within, who is the Light of the world and so a light to you that tells you the truth of your condition, leads all that take heed unto it out of darkness into God’s marvellous light; for light grows upon the obedient. It is sown for the righteous and their way is a shining light that shines forth more and more to the perfect day.

(QFP 26.44)

Of course, the experience of the Light is far deeper than words. As Paul wrote elsewhere:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

(Romans 8.26-27)

It seems to me that Friends today, realising the inadequacy of language, and indeed of concepts (“notions” as the first Quakers would have said), quite rightly espouse an understanding of prayer and worship that is intentionally, rootedly apophatic, despite occasional intersection with the spoken word in ministry. But even in this we are consistent with our spiritual ancestors. Isaac Penington wrote:

The sum and substance of true religion doth not stand in getting a notion of Christ’s righteousness, but in feeling the power of endless life, receiving the power, and being changed by the power. And where Christ is, there is his righteousness.

Perhaps we need to be prepared to extend to each other that openness which we so readily extend to those of other backgrounds in faith, and to allow each other freely to use whatever language springs from our hearts in worship, in full awareness of the inadequacy of any language or system, any knowing even, to express the actuality. What is there is unknowable. Anything any of us might say or think about God is partial, incomplete and misleading. God is not to be contained in our understanding, nor constrained by dimensionality. The love of God is all, and in all, and the well of love does not run dry. Paul again:

Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

(1 Corinthians 13.12-13)

Holy Saturday

In many churches today is known as Holy Saturday, the day when Jesus, having died on the cross on Good Friday, lay quiet in the cold rock tomb until the extraordinary events of Sunday morning.

The Benedictine nuns from Holy Trinity Monastery wrote a couple of years ago on their blog, iBenedictines,

There is a quietness and stillness about Holy Saturday – a day out of time – that belies the intense activity of Christ. We do not know what happened in the tomb, but the ancient belief in the harrowing of hell, when Christ descended into the underworld to set free all the righteous who had died before his coming, reminds us that God is at work even when he seems most distant, most unapproachable.

Today we have no sacraments to affirm the bonds between this world and the next, no colour or warmth to assuage our grief, no activity to distract us or give a false sense of security. We are simply waiting, all emotion spent. Most of us live our lives in perpetual Holy Saturday mode, our faith a bit wobbly, our hope a bit frail, but clinging to the cross and Resurrection with an obstinacy wiser than we know. Holy Saturday proclaims to anyone who will listen that when we cannot, God can and does. That is our faith, already tinged with Easter joy and gladness.

As Quakers we normally have no sacraments, no activity to distract us or give a false sense of security. We are all about simply waiting. Perhaps there is something in Quakerism that lives consciously, even deliberately, in perpetual Holy Saturday mode. Our prayer and our worship, are intentionally, rootedly apophatic, despite their occasional intersection with the spoken word in ministry.

Bishop Andy John, writing yesterday in New Daylight, said of Luke’s account of Jesus’ words on the cross with the criminal crucified next to him (Luke 23.39ff)

Luke invites us to see something extraordinary about the boundless love of Jesus. There is no one beyond its reach, none too broken to fix, none too wretched to redeem, none too far gone that they cannot be found and saved. So, we are meant to see the height and depth and breadth of this grace and to marvel at it once more – but not from a distance. Instead we are invited to identify with the dying man, because we too are in need of the very grace he received and the gentle words of assurance that Jesus will bring us home.

…From the lips of Jesus himself, we are told that those who have found in him their hope and joy stand on a promise that will not fail and ground which will not move.

In the words of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The nembutsu, the central practice of Pure Land Buddhism, is often translated, “I am seeking a refuge in your infinite mercy, Amitabha Buddha, as I trust in you.”

Mercy seems to be a fundamental property of love, and love entails letting in all the love of God, all that God loves; the broken, the terrified, the pain and the uncanny bitter grieving of that which is, and is loved. And that includes each of us, as seen from the inside. Mercy is not an external, condescending thing: it is the open heart of love, quite simply that.

A Mystical Religion – Reading Quaker Faith & Practice Chapter 2

Quakerism began as a mystical religion. The earliest writings, like George Fox’s well known, “Friends, meet together and know one another in that which is eternal, which was before the world was” (QFP 2.35), attest to this, as does William Leddra’s moving testimony the day before he was martyred:

As the flowing of the ocean doth fill every creek and branch thereof, and then retires again towards its own being and fulness, and leaves a savour behind it; so doth the life and virtue of God flow into every one of your hearts, whom he hath made partakers of his divine nature; and when it withdraws but a little, it leaves a sweet savour behind it; that many can say they are made clean through the word that he hath spoken to them. In which innocent condition you may see what you are in the presence of God, and what you are without him… Stand still, and cease from thine own working, and in due time thou shalt enter into the rest, and thy eyes shall behold his salvation, whose testimonies are sure, and righteous altogether.

QFP 2.19

We forget this too easily, and at our peril. Craig Barnett, in his post yesterday on Reading Quaker Faith & Practice, Chapter 2, reminds us that “[t]he Christian mystic Simone Weil once wrote that God has both ‘personal and impersonal aspects’.” He goes on to explain,

Contrary to the way that this is often caricatured, a personal understanding of God does not mean believing in ‘an old man on a cloud’. Instead, spiritual reality is known as an active, intentional, loving, guiding and protecting presence…

Another common way of experiencing God is as an impersonal energy, principle or universal interconnectedness. This perspective is particularly emphasised in religions such as Zen Buddhism and Taoism. It also runs through the Christian tradition from very early times, especially in mystical writings such as Meister Eckhart and The Cloud of Unknowing, as well as modern theologians such as Paul Tillich.

and he points out the parallels in Quaker language: Guide, Lord, Seed, Inward Light, Principle of Life and so on.

Craig Barnett shows that the differences in approach and understanding between those who experience God as personal presence, and those who experience God as impersonal principle, form a creative tension present throughout Quaker history, and as far back in the history of spirituality as there are records. He continues:

Rather than defending my images and opposing yours, we could accept the necessity of multiple images for appreciating the many-sided nature of God. This requires me to acknowledge the validity of other people’s experience of spiritual reality, even where it differs from mine. This presupposes, of course, that I do not already ‘know’ that everyone who claims to have any kind of experience of God is deluded, and that there is ‘really’ no such thing as any spiritual reality at all.

It is not coincidental that it is the small number of Friends who reject even the possibility of spiritual experience who have been most active in promoting the identity politics game of ‘theists and nontheists’. In fact, the most significant distinction for the practice of Quaker worship is not between those who adopt personal or impersonal images of spiritual reality, but between those Friends who are open to the possibility of spiritual experience in any form, and those are not.

This seems to me to be the crux of the matter, and in reading Chapter 2 of Quaker Faith and Practice it should be immediately obvious that the possibility, and indeed the actuality, of spiritual experience lies at the very heart of Quaker worship, and at the very heart of what it means to be a Quaker at all; and all the works that Quakers have done, and still do to this day, exist and flourish out of, because of – not despite – our shared spiritual experience in worship, and in our own lives of prayer. Without this, there is nothing, except a vague inclination towards good…