Understanding Quaker Worship

[Minor revision, 8/26/2020]

In this post I continue my presentation of experiential, psychological aspects of Quaker faith and practice in their original context; namely, the founding Friends’ interaction with scripture. I believe that this approach can deepen our practice by enriching our understanding of it in a way that is both faithful to tradition and meaningful to 21st-century, even post-Christian, minds. I ask that the reader reserve judgment while the latent image develops in the progress of this post; if all goes well, the negative will become a positive. In that spirit, let’s have a look at Quaker worship, which, as many readers will know, is grounded in silence of body and mind. Worship, which may begin in formal gatherings but comes to permeate one’s life, can be understood as founded on a passage in the gospel book of John:

But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him.1

“In spirit and in truth”? “Spirit” is not threatening, but the word “truth” tends to make many Quakers cautious; after all, every fanatic believes that she possesses the truth. We might ask with Pilate, “What is truth?”2 But, as the reader of John’s book knows, Jesus had answered that question before it was asked: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”3 (There’s more to his statement, but we’ll deal with that later in this post.)

To worship in truth is, then, to worship in “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). And to be in Christ is to be re-created, to become a new person in a new world: “If anyone is in Christ,” says Paul, “new creation! Old things are passed away; behold, all things are new.”4

What does that mean in practice? A passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans can help make that clear.

I entreat you, then, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God: this is your spiritual worship. And don’t be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the re-making of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God — that which is good, well pleasing, perfect.5

To present one’s body as living sacrifice is to enter that new life in which, as Paul put it, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me.”6 One continues, of course, to live an embodied existence, but one’s sense of self has changed. The body has been turned over to God-who-is-love in order that it may be, as George Fox would say, “restored into the image of God”7 — that is, into the spirit that is called Christ, the spirit that we encounter in the life and teachings of Jesus. Thus one becomes a new creation, the Kingdom of God in human form; one becomes, as our myth would have it, part of the risen spiritual body of the savior-sanctifier of the world.

To be in Christ is, then, to be animated by the spirit of Christ, and to be, therefore, a member of Christ’s body; that is, it is to be Christ in this present world.8 As Paul tells us, we come into that new identity by deconstructing ourselves, by discerning and breaking free of our conformity to the ways of the world — our normal ways of thinking and feeling — and allowing our minds to be re-made in the imago Dei. In doing that, we are sustained and guided by the universal love — the will of God — that had lain hidden in our hearts, flickering weakly beneath our own will and wisdom, beneath our burden of self-love and self-deception.

Echoing Paul, Isaac Penington puts it in this way in “A Brief Account concerning Silent Meetings”:

For one is to come into the poverty of self, … into the nothingness, into the silence of one’s spirit before the Lord; into the putting off of all one’s knowledge, wisdom, understanding, abilities — of all that one is, of all that one has done or can do outside of one’s measure of life. And one is to travel into that measure of life in order to be clothed with the nature, spirit, and power of the Lord. […] Now in this measure of life, which is of Christ, … there is the power … to work in and for the soul that which God requires, that which is acceptable in his sight.9

Discerning our current “measure” of universal love, which we may be surprised to find is much smaller than we’d thought, we recognize its priceless value and, despite the cost and the incalculable risks, give up everything to enter and abide in its life and power.

Writing elsewhere on the doctrine of justification,10 Penington reminds us of the journey of Abraham, who “acted not of himself, but by faith, and by living to God, and obeying his voice in that land to which he was led.” Like that archetype of faith, we go out from our (psychological) home, “out of [our] country, kindred, and father’s house,” not knowing where we are going but entrusting ourselves to the love that leads us, coming finally to dwell in a new and very different land. As a result, we become sons and daughters of God, living in “the nature, spirit, and power of the Lord.”

Worship, then, is a journey in which we travel from the ersatz light of self into the darkness of faith in love, there to be transfigured in the “true light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world.”11 In that movement, we experience baptism and communion — our dying to the old self and our being raised into Christ, the image of God.

But when Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he finished with “no one comes [or, is coming] to the Father except through me.” Does that point to a necessity for belief in traditional Christian doctrine? The scripture says that Abraham was justified by faith,12 but surely he did not hold such belief. Nor need we. If Christ is truth, and if to “worship the Father in spirit and in truth” is therefore to live in and as Christ, then Jesus’ concluding clause can be read as including all who so live.

To surrender our bodies and minds to God even as Jesus did is to “come to the Father” by becoming members of the body of Christ, “partakers of the divine nature.”13 And the divine nature of which we partake is love, “the sweet, tender, melting nature of God, flowing up through his seed of life into the creature, and of all things making the creature most like unto himself, both in nature and operation.”14 No one comes to love unless through self-surrender to its hidden glimmer in one’s heart, the “true light that enlightens everyone.” “For God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God in them.”15

And there, in that well-known but often deprecated passage from the first epistle of John, is the interpretive key to our effective “translation” of the ancient images into our less, or differently, mythological thinking. That we may allow the pull of love to separate us from the patterns which a systemically unjust world has imposed upon our thinking and feeling, patterns that have defined who we are and how we live; that we may empty ourselves of that mind and submit to being, as it were, re-created ex nihilo16 in the image of God-who-is-love, so that we now “have the mind of Christ”17 and incarnate love in this world: this is Quaker worship.

NOTES for “Understanding Quaker Worship”

[1] John 4:23, KJV. I will simply note here that the passage is one of many that raise gender issues, exploration of which is not appropriate to this post.

[2] John 18:38a, KJV.

[3] John 14:6a, KJV. Hodos, translated as “way,” means a road or a journey.

[4] 2 Cor. 5:17, my translation.

[5] Romans 12:1-2, my translation and emphasis.

[6] Galatians 2:29, KJV (updated).

[7] George Fox, Epistle XXXII, pp. 38-39 of Vol. 7, Works, 1831 edition. “Restored” refers to the myth of the fall: in Christ we are restored, says Fox, “up into the state man was in before he fell”; namely, the perfection of innocence. (Same volume, p. 269.) See also Colossians 1:15a, which speaks of Christ as “the image of the invisible God.”

[8] See 1 John 4:17b: “as he is, so are we in this present world.” George Fox liked to quote the phrase with regard to the Friends: he does so, for example, at least nine times in The Great Mystery.

[9] Isaac Penington, “A Brief Account concerning Silent Meetings; the nature, use, intent, and benefit of them” (1680), my close paraphrase for readability and inclusion. Penington’s brief essay on worship is part of a longer work called “A Further Testimony to Truth, revived out of the ruins of the apostasy.”

[10] Isaac Penington, “An Addition concerning the Doctrine of Justification,” in “The Way of Life and Death Made Manifest and Set Before Men” (1658). Penington’s biblical point of reference is Hebrews 11:8-10.

[11] See John 1:5-9.

[12] See Romans 4:3 and Galatians 3:6. Penington (see note 10) says, “Mark, then, [that] the justification or redemption is not by believing of a thing done without [i.e., external to] man (though that also is to be believed), but by receiving him into the heart. For the virtue [i.e., the power] of all [that] Christ did without [i.e., did outwardly] is within him: and I cannot be made partaker thereof by believing that he did such a thing without, or that he did it for me, but by receiving the virtue of it into me, and feeling the virtue of it in me. This is that which saves me, and makes that which was done without to be mine.”

[13] See 2 Peter 1:4.

[14] Isaac Penington, “Concerning Love,” in “Some Mysteries of God’s Kingdom Glanced At” (1663).

[15] 1 John 4:16b, my translation.

[16] Creation ex nihilo, out of nothing, is actually not specified in the book of Genesis (or anywhere else in scripture). I use the phrase here with a nod to Penington’s “nothingness.” More strictly, we could speak of the biblical correspondence between the original ordering of the cosmic chaos and the contemporary ordering of our inner chaos, both accomplished by the Logos, “Christ the power and wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). For more on that, see “Answering That of God as Revolutionary Praxis.”

[17] 1 Corinthians 2:18, my translation: “For who has known the mind of the Lord, to be able to walk in unity with him? But we have the mind of Christ.”

7 thoughts on “Understanding Quaker Worship

  1. It is a great post. The only problem is that when you ask who and what is Christ, Quakers seem to say you can’t have a clear answer that the whole community will buy into.

  2. That’s true in my experience. And there’s sometimes even resistance to using the word, or to hearing it used by other Friends, so that it can be difficult even to begin discussion of what “Christ” might signify for us.

    As I recall, that lack of unity, perhaps along with its rationalization in the contemporary doctrine of continuing revelation, was an important element in your journey, which you have recounted beautifully in your book, Leadings: A Catholic’s Journey Through Quakerism. I found the book a few years ago during a silent retreat at Gunpowder Meeting in Maryland, and I’m grateful for it. I recommend it to my readers.

  3. Thank you for this post. I wonder about use of the word “power” in the early Friends’ testimonies; what does it mean, if anything, beyond how it is conventionally used?

    • The Friends would have been using the word in a biblical sense. Two biblical words come to mind: exousia and dunamis (or dynamis). Although both can be translated as “power,” there is a difference.Exousia conveys the sense of authority; dunamis, power as ability to accomplish things — which would include moral power. Luke 4:36 uses both words: “And they were all amazed, and spake among themselves, saying, What a word [is] this! For with authority [exousia] and power [dunamei] he commandeth the unclean spirits, and they come out.”

      In the KJV rendering of John 1:12, the evangelist says, “To as many as received him, he gave the power [exousian] to become the [children] of God.” But even there the sense should probably be of authority. Exousia often refers quite clearly to Jesus’ authority — to teach (he teaches with exousian, unlike the others — see Mk. 1:22), to cure illness, to cast out devils. So those who receive the Light or Logos receive the authority (exousia) of Christ — to teach, to heal, to discern good from evil (“the saints shall judge the world,” George Fox liked to quote — see 1 Cor. 6:2), and to cast evil out.

      In order to do that, they must have Christ’s exousia, but also his dunamis — the two are interdependent.

      Dunamis is defined (from the Blue Letter Bible: a very useful Web site) as:

      strength, power, ability
      a) inherent power, power residing in a thing by virtue of its nature, or which a person or thing exerts and puts forth
      b) power for performing miracles
      c) moral power and excellence of soul
      d) the power and influence which belong to riches and wealth
      e) power and resources arising from numbers
      f) power consisting in or resting upon armies, forces, hosts

      The first Friends probably had in mind the first three meanings (a,b, & c) when they used the word. Their use would have been conditioned by Paul’s definition of Christ as “the power of God, and the wisdom of God.” The Christ within is the wisdom and power by which human beings live godly lives. Fox refers to that in his famous, “I told them … that I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.” (See the post Perfection and Pacifism.) That is, he lived in the moral excellence of the divine life and power that is Christ, the life and power “residing in a thing by virtue of its nature” — and the Friends were “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). To be animated by the divine life, which is love, is to act in the divine power — and with divine authority. (That latter may tend to raise red flags, but I find that it’s useful for conceptualizing the inner process: by learning to trust love’s working in us, we come into the power and authority to discern the evil in ourselves, to cast it out, and so to heal. As we begin to do that, we begin to find the ability to teach — to offer, for example, vocal ministry — and to help others on the same path, as well as to discern, beyond the accepted morality, what is good and evil in the world.)

      According to founding Quakers’ teaching, then, one who is animated by the divine nature is one with Christ and therefore possesses both the power (dunamis) and the concomitant authority (exousia) of Christ. “They who are the flesh and bone of Christ,” said Fox, “are with him, and sit with him in the heavenly places, for their conversation is in heaven” — even here and now.

  4. I spoke about this post a few weeks ago at Homewood Friends, and I will try to repeat here, briefly, the question that I then raised:
    If meeting for worship is a place for us to allow our hearts to be transformed — for love to be made real, what does it mean that we worship together? It seems important for us to have this corporate worship … to sit in the same room and experience it together. What does that mean for us as a community? What would we as a community do or be if our hearts were transformed together? What does it mean for us as a community to “have the mind of Christ,” to work toward realizing Christ’s kingdom of peace and justice on earth?

    What do you think, George?

    • I can say that those are useful queries for us, queries that we might ask ourselves again and again. I think that we are able to answer them to some extent now, and that doing so will help us answer them more fully in the future. I would not, however, want to attempt to specify in advance where a given community will be led: in practice, that would be to work toward an ideal, to try to live according to law. The crucial thing, it seems to me, is that we help each other discern and yield to the love in our hearts and then support each other in expressing that love.

      “Mind that which is eternal,” wrote George Fox in his epistle #24, “which gathers your hearts together up to the Lord, and lets you see that you are written in one another’s hearts; meet together every where, growing up in the spirit to the Lord, the fountain of life, the head of all things, God blessed for ever!” “That which is eternal” is love, and in it we see that we are already “written in one another’s hearts” even as the law of God — which, again, is love, as we know from the teaching of Jesus — is written in our hearts. So it seems that the important thing is to learn to “mind” that love, to hold each other in it, and to “grow up” — to mature, in Paul’s terms, into our “measure of the fullness of the Christ” — together in that spirit.

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