It is interesting to me that modern Quakers still use the word ‘worship’ to describe their weekly silent meetings. Worship tends to mean adoration and awe-inspired prayer directed at a Deity, usually with a vocal component such as Psalm reading or singing. Many non-theists balk at the idea of worship. Worship implies giving reverence to something greater. My understanding of worship was a two-way communication process between God and the worshiper. We come with hearts and minds prepared and perhaps to hear of word of God in return. We come to offer ourselves to Light in order to expose what we have hidden and to confront what needs to be confronted. If a word of Ministry arises, then we test it, try it, and give it not for ourselves, but for others.
Lately I’ve come to doubt my own experiences. At the Equipping for Ministry course at Woodbrooke, my tutor listened to my conversion story and subsequent journey through a variety of churches. She listened to my meanderings through Baptist, Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, and Independent churches and how dissatisfied I was at most of them. I told her that I could go on many such journeys and still end up coming back to my conversion experience, which happened almost 32 years ago now, as the one thing that I could count on as true. I told her that no matter how progressively I saw religion, I always come back to it. I need it. She suggested that perhaps there is a reason for that. Why was I so anxious to get rid of it or explain it away?
Good question. Was I worried that my adherence to an experience with the Christian Jesus puts me out of step with most contemporary and progressive Quakers, especially in Britain? It felt to me, when I first came to Quakers, that mentioning Jesus was a bit taboo, yet early Quakers founded their entire religion upon the person of Jesus Christ and his words in scriptures. Their early meetings for worship consisted of reading the bible together and then waiting in silence to listen for God’s response. Now, no one reads anything except perhaps the occasional Advices and Query. Most times I long for a word from God that doesn’t consist of the daily newspaper items or political point.
Early Quakers were quite fervent at meetings and even outside of meetings, it was not uncommon for many to be struck by their faith. The importance and reverence with which early Quakers met for meetings of worship is impressive. Stephen Crisp wrote in 1663:
With diligence meet together, and with diligence wait to feel the Lord God to arise, to scatter and expel all that which is the cause of leanness and barrenness upon any soul; for it is the Lord must do it, and he will be waited upon in sincerity and fervency of spirit; …and let none be hasty to utter words, though manifest in the light in which ye wait upon the Lord; but still wait in silence, to know the power working in you to bring forth the words, in the ministration of the eternal word of life to answer the life in all. (Christian Faith and Practice in the experience of the Society of Friends, London Yearly Meeting, 1959 edition)
This is a perfect example of answering ‘that of God’ in everyone: ‘in the ministration of the eternal word of life to answer the life in all’. That ‘life’ we are to answer to is the Life offered by the Spirit of Christ/God. It is the Light that we perhaps are born with, but damage through our own evil acts, thoughts, deeds until we cannot see our own light any longer. In worship our own damage comes to Light and we find healing there.
I’ve have since come to believe that perhaps the purpose of my life is to stir up that of God in people, even perhaps when it seems extinguished or quashed; to face that which suppresses it and to help root out the bad thing. I relish my 1983 experience with Light and Love, not because it makes me important, but because I can’t deny it happened and I can’t escape its intended effect. I am grateful for a certainty in this world of terrible uncertainties. I should count it a blessing.
When I worked in the busy office of a large church and had the church calendar to hand, it was very difficult to ignore the Christian cycle of holy days. In fact, my whole job was to create things based on those days. I often tried to observe these holy days as an incentive to get ‘closer’ to God as we were advised to do by our religious leaders. I went through the devotionals and prayed the prayers. However, I could never reconcile in my mind why Lent and Easter followed so closely after the supposed birth of Christ in December. No sooner had the joy of birth been celebrated than we had to clothe ourselves with ashes and mourn Jesus’ death. Surely someone made a boo boo on the church calendar?
The more I learned of these arbitrary dates on the calendar and of the Church’s attempt to co-opt pagan dates for Christian purposes, the more I realized that we weren’t truly following anything but what a few priests decided at a council way back in the annals of time. Then one could argue about which church actually decided this and who is the ‘true’ church, blah, blah, blah. This was a theological rabbit hole down which I’d gone before and did not want to go down again.
George Fox and his Quakers traditionally ignored church holidays, which was quite a radical position considering that the entire community from which they sprang was steeped in religious practice and Church of England tradition. Many were arrested for keeping shops open on Christmas Day. So what problem did the Quakers see in Christmas and Easter? George Fox writes in his journal:
I returned by Kingston to London, whither I felt my spirit drawn ; having heard that many Friends were taken before the magistrates, and divers imprisoned in London and other towns, for opening their shop windows on holidays and fast-days (as they were called), and for bearing testimony against all such observations of days. Which Friends could not but do, knowing that the true Christians did not observe the Jews’ holidays in the apostles’ times, neither could we observe the Heathens’ and Papists’ holidays (so called) which have been set up amongst those called Christians, since the apostles’ days. For we were redeemed out of days by Christ Jesus and brought into the day which hath sprung from on high, and are come into Him who is Lord of the Jewish Sabbath, and the substance of the Jews’ signs. (page 669, London Yearly Meeting edition, 1975)
Observing any religious holidays were not an option for Quakers in 1673 according to Fox. Every day was supposed to be a holy day, not just an arbitrary few on the calendar. Today, I’m sure there are many Quakers who put up Christmas trees and celebrate with their family and friends because they have non-Quaker children and grandchildren who love the holiday.
So should Quakers observe religious holidays now? Do we follow the religious convictions of those of a different time and era or do we follow our conscience informed by the Light? The answer is obvious isn’t it? The basic premise of The Religious Society of Friends is that the Spirit moves us, as a body, in ever evolving convictions. The Light, the same then, now, and forever, always enlightens those who listen and what was good for Quakers in 1673 may not be good for Quakers in 2015.
Personally, I did not find Lent and Easter helpful in bringing me any closer to the Christian God. Contemplating Jesus’ death is supposed to make the Christian feel guilt keenly; guilt that sinful mankind forced God to send Jesus to die that we might have eternal life. This guilt is then supposed to induce more devotion and commitment to the Christian life as defined by that religion. But this just seems emotionally manipulative to me and is one of the chief problems I have with Christian atonement theory. But that’s another post.
There are some Quakers who find all of the Christian symbolism and continued adherence to church cycles very un-Quakerly in that we are clinging too much to one particular religious tradition. Why not, they may ask, observe the Muslim holy day of Ramadan or the Spring Hindu festival of Holi? Or to be even more radical, why celebrate anything religious at all? The beauty of Quakers is that we are left to make our own decisions as spiritual adults and not be told what to do like recalcitrant children.
So, given the history of Quakers then and now, What canst thou say?
Again, Steven outlines exactly how I feel about Quakers in Britain. At times I feel I have no right to criticize a faith group that I’ve only been part of for 2 years now. But another part of me feels that as one coming in from the ‘outside’, I can more readily see what the problem is. This is well worth pondering.
Originally posted on Through the Flaming Sword:
I want to start a new series to which I expect I will return from time to time, though I may not sustain it like I have some of my other posting series; in those previous themes, I have written until I felt I had shared everything I thought I had been given to say. I am less sure where I’m going with this one. Here’s what I’m up to:
I want to analyze and address the Quaker-pocalypse, the seemingly irreversible general decline of Quakerism.
In subsequent posts, I want to look at the causes of this decline in its various aspects, propose some efforts to stem the tide, and—here comes my own predilection for apocalyptic thinking—suggest how we might reorient ourselves toward our virtually inevitable though not imminent demise.
For I believe in the Quaker-pocalypse. I retain my faith in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit…
View original 624 more words