The traditional Quaker form of worship is unique among Christian groups. It represented, when it first began to be practiced in the 17th century, a radical departure from the forms of worship utilized by other Christian sects up until that time. Early Friends frequently cited the New Testament as support for their positions on theology, oath-taking, war, and even the role of women in the church. For those of us who see the biblical record as an invaluable channel for God’s work within us, it is helpful to explore the precursors in that record to the form of worship that Friends have been given as our most central way of being held, transformed, and taught by the Living Christ.
Sacramentally-oriented Christians look to Matt 26:26-8 as the key biblical passage undergirding their practice of group worship. Faith communities, such as Mennonites and Brethren, that focus more heavily on preaching and Bible study as central to worship often look to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Although there are many Friends concerned about the anti-Semitic content in the Gospel of John (especially in John chaps. 18 &19), the clearest biblical passage undergirding Friends worship is John 4:19-24.
Jesus’ call for ritual-free worship. The story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well is one of the most extraordinary in the entire Bible. She concludes that Jesus is a prophet based on his in-depth knowledge about her personal life in spite of never having met her before. She proceeds to ask Jesus to tell her whether God wants to be worshiped in the Temple in Jerusalem (the central location of worship in Judaism) or on Mt. Gerizim (the sacred mountain that is the locus of Samaritan worship to this day). Jesus tells her that the old worship expectations have been superseded by new ones, as “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” The reason for this is breathtakingly simple: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” In the 11th Proposition “Concerning Worship” of his Apology for True Christian Divinity, Robert Barclay asserts that:
This testimony [in John 4:23-4] is the more specially to be observed, for that it is both the first, chiefest, and most ample testimony, which Christ gives us of his Christian worship, as different and contradistinguished from that under the Law. For first, he showeth that the season is now come wherein the worship must be “in Spirit and in Truth, for the Father seeketh such to worship him”: so then it is no more a worship consisting in outward observations, to be performed by man at set times or opportunities, which he can do in his own will and by his own natural strength: for else it would not differ in matter but only in some circumstances from that under the law [i.e. the commandments regarding worship God had given to the Jewish people now superseded by Christ’s new commandment]. Next, as for a reason of this worship, we need not to give any other, and indeed none can give a better than that which Christ giveth, which I think should be sufficient to satisfy every Christian, to wit, “GOD is a SPIRIT, and they that worship him must worship him in Spirit and in Truth.”
Early Friends (for the reasons Barclay explains) forcefully rejected the sacramental forms of worship that had been practiced in Christendom for well over a millennium. When they gathered together large groups of potential converts, Friends relied heavily on periods of preaching with limited doses of silent waiting. These “public” or “threshing meetings” may have had similarities with the type of preaching-focused worship practiced by Baptists, Anabaptists and Calvinists. Fox and other leading preachers, however, apparently made a practice of waiting in silence (though we cannot say how long) until God gave them the words that they were to deliver. More significantly Friends insisted on the need to refrain from preparing messages in advance, relying instead on the Spirit to guide them extemporaneously in the message they were to deliver in such meetings aimed at sharing the good news of what they had discovered with non-Friends.. From the extensive discussion of this subject in Barclay and other 17th century Friends’ writing, it seems safe to assume that other Christian preachers routinely prepared their messages in advance.
When Friends gathered in “retired meetings” with already convinced Friends, on the other hand, their form of corporate worship differed radically from preaching-focused Protestant worship as well as the sacramentally-focused worship practiced by Roman Catholics and Anglicans. In this second style of worship service, Friends settled into silence to open their hearts together to deep communion with the living Spirit of Christ. When vocal prayer and preaching occurred in such worship gatherings, it sprang out of this closely-knit silent communion among the faithful. Again, spoken messages were under the spontaneous direction of the Holy Spirit. It is easy to understand why Barclay believed that this type of worship was the true form of worship in “spirit and in truth” that Jesus called on his followers to practice in John 4:23-4.
The living water of silent communion with God. Earlier in the same “Woman at the Well” story Jesus tells the woman that he could have given her “living water” had she asked for it. She misses his point badly, thinking he is talking about a literal source of physical water. He clarifies for her, however, that “the water that I will give will become [in those who ask for it and receive it] a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Jesus’ words hearken back to Isaiah 55:1-2, where the prophet speaks about true spiritual food and drink, available without price. (Early Friends, incidentally, also rejected the usual Christian principle that ministers should be paid for exercising their gifts.)
When our hearts are knit together in powerfully gathered waiting worship do we not enter into living water and drink deeply from it? What deeper spiritual refreshment could be available to us than this drawing on the living water that Christ offers us every time we gather with Friends to wait expectantly upon this gift?
The bread of spirit-led vocal ministry. A few verses later in John 4:31-38, Jesus’ disciples are equally clueless when he starts talking about spiritual food. He says that “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” He goes on to talk about the spiritual harvest that is ripe and waiting to be gathered. Again, Jesus’ words are rooted in Isaiah 55:2-3 where the prophet says to “Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.”
If we hear authentic prophetic vocal ministry directed extemporaneously by God springing out of deeply gathered silent communion with God, we will be fed. If we are given this kind of ministry, listen to it, and heed it, then we will be directed by God in how we can address the great crises facing our world today. Where can we find (or nurture?) Friends willing to go out and reap this harvest today? (I wrote a poem called The Harvest at the beginning of the new millennium on this subject.) Is it surprising that many of our meetings are not growing if we are not feeding those who attend with the living bread of this kind of prophetic ministry that changes lives and the world?
Barclay cites the instructions that Jesus gave his early disciples in Mark 13:11 as clear indication that they will be given words that they can speak by the Holy Spirit.
Now, if Christ gave this order to his disciples before he departed from them, as that which they were to practice, during his abode outwardly with them, much more were they to do it after his departure, since then they were more especially to receive the Spirit “to lead them in all things” and to “bring all things to their remembrance” (John 14:26). And if they were to do so when they appeared before the magistrates and princes of the earth, much more in the worship of God, when they stand especially before him, seeing, as is above shown, his worship is to be performed in Spirit; and therefore, after their receiving of the Holy Ghost, it is said (Acts 2:4): “They spake as the Spirit gave them utterance,” not what they had studied and gathered from books in their closets in a premeditated way.
In popular lay terms, prophecy is thought of as predicting the future. As the term is used biblically, however, prophecy means God speaking through an individual, using that individual as God’s mouthpiece to communicate important truth to God’s people. Clearly such prophecy is neither logically thought out nor does it spring from human wisdom. In fact, I believe (as Barclay does) that the term prophecy as it is used in the Book of Acts and especially in the letters of Paul (e.g. in 1 Cor. 14) refers to the kind of spirit-led vocal ministry that was so evident amongst the first generation of Friends and that we aspire for, at times experience, and need much more of in our Quaker waiting worship today.
Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ first disciples are described in the gospels as baptizing with water. In Acts the new churches also utilize water baptism as an outward sign associated with entrance into the new faith community. In Matthew 3:11, John the Baptist says that he baptizes with water but Jesus will baptize with the Holy Ghost and with fire. In Acts 1:4-5 Jesus states: “But wait for the promise of the Father, which,” saith he “ye have heard of me: for John truly baptized with water, but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost, not many days hence.” Believers in the new church are described through out Acts as experiencing two baptisms, the second being baptism of the Holy Spirit.
It is usually assumed today that spirit baptism refers to speaking in tongues, drawing especially on the story of Pentecost in Acts 2. If we have experienced deeply gathered worship in God’s presence, however, is this not baptism with the Holy Spirit? As mentioned earlier, Jesus said in John 14:17-26 that when he left his followers he would send a Comforter in the form of the Holy Spirit. Are we not deeply comforted and nurtured by God’s presence when our waiting worship is truly “covered”?
I have only limited experience with speaking in tongues. I recognize that it is deeply comforting and transforming to many Christians who experience it. For me personally, however, baptism with the Holy Spirit describes the worship we experience regularly amongst us during gathered meetings for worship, certainly far more than ecstatic speech.
Friends reject the need for water baptism. We say that spiritual baptism is sufficient to provide us with the return to primordial chaos and fresh creation that water baptism symbolizes. Past generations of Friends’ journals often described a tumultuous period of self-doubt and dark discouragement prior to convincement or in the very early stages of spiritual transformation. God works with us, often painfully, in prayer and in shared worship to “accuse us” and help us to face blocks and rock-hard places within us as an important step in our growing loving relationship with God. The spiritual baptism available to us in covered worship is the door to change and new birth for us, without the need to either be sprinkled with water or to enter into a font or a river. The way Barclay states this is that “this baptism is a pure and spiritual thing, to wit, the baptism of the Spirit and fire, by which we are buried with him, that being washed and purged from our sins, we may walk in newness of life…” [Apology, 12th Proposition “Concerning Baptism”]
Holy Communion. Friends have never felt that the Last Supper story in Matthew 26:26-8 required them to carry out a ritual with bread and wine. Friends like to say that we believe in spiritual rather than outward communion. Is not our communion the experience of being knit together in covered worship?
It is difficult, perhaps to, discern what Jesus meant in the words he spoke to his followers at the Last Supper. When I have attended Episcopal mass from time to time (bless me Quaker fathers for I have sinned!), I have often been moved by these services. Nonetheless, like Barclay, I find it impossible to believe that the same prophet who spoke the words to the Samaritan woman that worship henceforth must be in spirit and in truth intended the events that took place during his last hours with his closest disciples to be endlessly repeated as an outward ritual representing the primary or even exclusive way of entering into communion with God or of gaining access to redemptive transformation.
The need to listen in silence for God’s voice. In 1 King 19:11-13 God comes to the prophet Elijah in the wilderness not in a great wind or fire or earthquake but in the “sound of sheer silence” (NRSV) or a “still small voice” (KJV). The gospels describe on a number of occasions situations where Jesus went into the desert or to lonely isolated places to pray. Solitary prayer is similar, in a way, to the kind of stripping away that we do in the beginning of waiting worship, seeking to move to a place deep within us away from the day’s – and the world’s – worries, thoughts, and ideas to allow God to worry secretly within us.
Many of us object (as I expect Barclay might have) to referring to our form of worship as “silent worship”. We do not worship silence. We worship the Living Christ, the God at the heart of All. We do, however, need a period of silence to enable God to work within us and amongst us – preparing fallow ground for God’s living water to knit us together and enabling us receive open-heartedly the sustenance of God’s prophetic word through the mouths of those called to prophetic ministry. If we do not enter deeply into silence, our ears are blocked, our hearts are not yet sufficiently opened to their inward Teacher, and we remain in our own human wisdom. Barclay lists many additional biblical passages (see the appendix below) that point towards the importance of waiting on the Lord, use of silence, wordless prayer, and the necessity that spoken ministry be directed extemporaneously by God.
Although it is not difficult in reading the works of early Friends to determine the form that their worship took, it is much more difficult to know with any certitude what form worship took in the early Christian churches. Early Friends may or may not have been correct in assuming that the form of worship they practiced was a return to the worship used in these early apostolic church communities. Barclay marshals a convincing argument, however, to suggest that the early church did, in fact, take seriously Jesus’ call to worship in spirit and in truth and place a high value on spirit-directed prophetic utterance as a critical source of guidance in their new Christian communities. It is hard to imagine how different Christianity would be today if the Church had interpreted these New Testament passages over the millennia as early Friends did – and shaped its worship, as a result, in a manner similar to that which early Friends grew quickly into.
The same can be said of the Religious Society of Friends today. It is hard to imagine how different the Religious Society of Friends would be today if Friends had continued to worship with the power, authority, and direct reliance on the Holy Spirit as they did in the 17th century.
Additional Biblical References in Barclay’s Apology regarding Waiting Worship
[Note: all emphases below are my own, not Barclay’s.]
Barclay lists a number of biblical quotations that support the importance of “waiting upon the Lord”:
That to wait upon God, and to watch before him, is a duty incumbent upon all, I suppose none will deny; and that this also is a part of worship will not be called in question, since there is scarce any other so frequently commanded in the holy Scriptures, as may appear from Psalm 27:14; Psalm 37:7, 34; Proverbs 20:22; Isaiah 30:18; Hosea 12:6; Zecharaiah 3:8; Matt. 24:42; 25:13; 26:41; Mark 13:33,35,37; Luke 21:36; Acts 1:4; 20:31; 1 Cor. 16:13; Col. 4:2; 1 Thess. 5:6; 2 Tim. 4:5; 1 Peter 4:7. Also this duty is often recommended with very great and precious promises, as Psalm 25:3; 37:9; 69:6; Isaiah 40:31; Lamentations 3:25-26, “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength,” &c. Now, how is this waiting upon God, or watching before him, but by this silence of which we have spoken?
He goes on to clarify Friends’ belief that praying and preaching must be preceded by silent waiting:
From what is said it doth appear how frivolous and impertinent their objection is, that say they wait upon God in praying and preaching [without actual waiting in silence], since waiting doth of itself imply a passive dependence, rather than an acting; and since it is, and shall yet be more shown, that preaching and praying without the Spirit is an offending of God not a waiting upon him, and that praying and preaching by the Spirit presupposes necessarily a silent waiting for to feel the motions and influence of the Spirit to lead thereunto. And lastly, that in several of these places where praying is commanded, as Matt. 26:41; Mark 13:33; Luke 21:36; 1 Pet. 4:7, watching is specially prefixed, as a previous preparation thereunto. So that we do well and certainly conclude that since waiting and watching are so particularly commanded and recommended, and this cannot be truly performed but in this inward silence of the mind from [women and] men’s own thoughts and imaginations, this silence is and must necessarily be a special and principal part of God’s worship.
He addresses directly the suggestion that worship in silence is not found in Scripture:
I answer, we make not silence to be the sole matter of our worship, since, as I have above said, there are many meetings, which are seldom, if ever, altogether silent, some or other are still moved either to preach, pray, and praise, and so, in this, our meetings cannot be but like the meetings of the primitive churches recorded in Scripture, since our adversaries confess that they did preach and pray by the Spirit. And then, what absurdity is it to suppose that at some times the Spirit did not move them to these outward acts, and that then they were silent, since we may well conclude they did not speak until they were moved, and so no doubt had sometimes silence (Acts 2:1-4) before the Spirit came upon them, it is said, “They were all with one accord in one place”; and then it is said, “The Spirit suddenly came upon them”; but no mention is made of anyone speaking at that time, and I would willingly know what absurdity our adversaries can infer, should we conclude they were a while silent.
And that examples of a whole silent meeting cannot be found in Scripture:
I answer; supposing such a thing were not recorded, it will not therefore follow that it is not lawful, seeing it naturally followeth from other Scripture precepts, as we have proven this doth, for seeing the Scripture commands to meet together, and when met the Scripture prohibits prayers or preachings but as the Spirit moveth thereunto, if people meet together and the Spirit move not to such acts it will necessarily follow that they must be silent. But further, there might have been many such things among the saints of old though not recorded in Scripture, and yet we have enough in Scripture signifying that such things were. For Job sat silent seven days with his friends together (Job 2:13); here was a long silent meeting. See also Ezra 9:4 and Ezekiel 14:1 and 20:1. Thus having shown the excellency of this worship, proven it from Scripture and reason, and answered the objections which are commonly made against it, which though it might suffice to the explanation and probation of our proposition, yet I shall add something more particularly of preaching, praying, and singing, and so proceed to the following proposition.
On the difference between inward and outward prayer, and the critical importance of inward prayer as well as outward verbal expressions:
Prayer is twofold: inward and outward. Inward prayer is that secret [and silent] turning of the mind towards God whereby, being secretly touched and awakened by the Light of Christ in the conscience, and so bowed down under the sense of its iniquities, unworthiness, and misery, it looks up to God, and joining issue with the secret shinings of the Seed of God it breathes towards him and is constantly breathing forth some secret desires and aspirations towards him. It is in this sense that we are so frequently in Scripture commanded to “pray continually” (Luke 18:1; 1 Thess. 5:17; Eph. 6:18; Luke 21:36), which cannot be understood of outward prayer, because it were impossible that men should be always upon their knees, expressing words of prayer; and this would hinder them from the exercise of those duties, no less positively commanded. Outward prayer is when as the spirit (being thus in the exercise of inward retirement, and feeling the breathing of the Spirit of God to arise powerfully in the soul) receives strength and liberty, by a superadded motion and influence of the Spirit, to bring forth either audible sighs, groans or words, and that either in public assemblies, or in private. [cf. Geoffrey Kaiser’s interesting article on the subject of audible sighing and groaning during early Friends’ worship “Three Kinds of Singing in Meeting” in the Sept. 2011 issue of Friends Journal.]
He quotes Paul’s passage in the 8th chapter of Romans on the role the Spirit plays in our efforts to pray:
This necessity of the Spirit’s moving and concurrence appears abundantly from that of the apostle Paul (Rom. 8:26-27): “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.” Which first, holds forth the incapacity of men [and women!], as of themselves, to pray or call upon God in their own wills, even such as have received the faith of Christ and are in measure sanctified by it, as was the Church of Rome, to whom the apostle then wrote. Secondly, it holds forth that which can only help and assist men to pray, to wit the Spirit, as that without which they cannot do it acceptably to God nor beneficially to their own souls. Thirdly, the manner and way of the Spirit’s intercession, with “sighs and groans which are unutterable.” And fourthly, that God receiveth graciously the prayers of such as are presented and offered unto himself by the Spirit, knowing it to be according to his will. Now it cannot be conceived but this order of prayer thus asserted by the apostle is most consistent with those other testimonies of Scripture commending and recommending to us the use of prayer.
On the necessity of the Spirit to true prayer in Ephesians 6:18 and Jude 20,
where the apostle [Paul] commands to “pray always in the Spirit,” and “watching thereunto”; which is as much as if he had said that we were never to pray without the Spirit or watching thereunto. And Jude showeth us that such prayers as are “in the Holy Ghost” only tend to the “building up of ourselves in our most holy faith.”
Paul saith expressly (1 Cor. 12:3) that “no man can say that Jesus is the Lord but by the Holy Ghost.” If then Jesus cannot be thus rightly named but by the Holy Ghost, far less can he be acceptably called upon. Hence the same apostle declares (1 Cor. 14:15) that he “will pray with the Spirit,” &c. A clear evidence that it was none of his method to pray without it!
Paul suggests the danger of trying to understand matters of the spirit by “human wisdom”. He suggests that we can only be taught by the Holy Spirit. Barclay cites several passages in the 1st Letter to the Corinthians where Paul emphasizes the importance of spiritual over human understanding, e.g. 1 Cor 1:17 and 1 Cor. 2:3-4 and 2:13. In 1 Cor. 14 Paul also describes the key role that prophecy (which I have defined earlier in this essay as Spirit-directed vocal ministry) needs to play in Christian worship.
I suggested earlier in this essay that Barclay associated the term prophecy, as Paul uses it, with Spirit-directed vocal ministry in Quaker worship. Whether or not we agree with Barclay on this, it seems clear that he sees Paul’s advices about worship in 1 Cor. 14 as describing a form of worship close, at least in spirit, to what he participated in regularly with the Friends of his own day. At the very least we can join with Barclay – and Paul – in believing that prophecy plays a critical role in shaping the life of the faith community. Without it, we are without a sure guide, as a community and as a prophetic people capable of making a difference in our world today.