Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel
Quaker Worship and ‘Centering down’
I was recently asked a question about the term ‘to center down’ in the context of Quaker worship, and whether, as a phrase, it had been used by early Friends. A few checks confirmed my suspicions that it was not used by them, and I have not found any references to ‘centering down’ in George Fox’s writings (with which I am the most familiar). My questioner did come back to me with some examples of the use of the phrase used by 19th Century Friends, like Elias Hicks, which again reinforced my view that the phrase is a relatively modern development among Quakers. (I am grateful to Ed Reiss of Bradford Meeting in the UK, for sharing the fruits of his research)
The question got me thinking about the phrase ‘centring down’ and how it is often used in the context of describing how to settle into a meeting for worship so that the worshippers can open themselves up to receive some kind of spiritual experience. For example, in a publication issued by one meeting in the UK, this experience is described like this;
“Centring Down is Quakerspeak for the technique of becoming quiet and still and silent as the Meeting moves into silence. “
I believe this misrepresents the true nature of Quaker worship, and lends itself all too readily to the suggestion that Quaker worship is somehow a kind of technique, (even some kind of meditation technique), that can we practise to get to God. In other words, it is a human activity to which God responds. This is a human-centred view of worship, which is not really part of our the Prophetic Quaker tradition that arises from the Everlasting Gospel preached by George Fox, which in contrast points to the fact that true Worship, (Worship in Spirit and Truth, John 4:23-24), is an experience that God initiates, to which we respond, and not the other way round.
To get to the heart of this, we need to understand how Fox and the Early Quakers experienced Christ Jesus. Their key experience was that of knowing Christ as Prophet, God’s Son, our Speaker from Heaven. This knowledge of Christ as God’s Prophet is key to understanding the true meaning of worship.
George Fox talks of this knowledge of Christ as Prophet;
“So all the Children of the New Covenant, that walk in the New and Living Way, hear Christ their Prophet, that God hath raised up, and anointed to be their Teacher and Priest. So now, God doth speak to his People by His Son, as he did in the apostles days. The Lord is come to teach his people himself…and to bring them off all the world’s worships, to worship God in Spirit and in Truth, which Christ set up above 1600 Years since.” BI:296
It is revealing that Fox talks about hearing and obeying Christ in the same context as worship. The central thrust of Early Quaker preaching was a call to people to know Christ as the Prophet, the one who is to be heard and obeyed, in all things. One of the first things that people did, when convinced by this message, was to gather together with others, likewise convinced, to hear their Christ, their Teacher. Once we understand this, we can see that gathering together in silence to hear Christ Jesus, is the only proper human response to God’s call to hear His Son. In that way, Quaker worship is itself, a response to God’s call to hear and obey Christ Jesus. Quaker Worship is a direct consequence of hearing and obeying Christ, and not just one ‘way’ of worship, among the ‘many ways’.
It is true, of course, that part of that response is to become still and attentive, so that we can hear Christ’s voice and receive his teaching, but that does not mean that silent worship is a technique that either demands or even guarantees God’s attention.
Our part in worship is to be still, to be sure, so that we can hear and listen, but also that as we follow Christ’s Light, that part of us that is not of God can die in the silence, so that we may go on to experience spiritual rebirth. So we wait upon the Lord to bless us with his Presence, Power and his Teaching, and to be inwardly transformed. This is why Quakers sometime describe our worship as ‘Waiting Worship’. This is the essential part of our journey into spiritual Death and Rebirth, and we start from that inward call to Wait upon God.
If we feel that Waiting Worship is something that is optional and a ‘bolt-on’ to the Christian faith, then we would do well to consider George Fox’s thoughts on the matter;
“And all you that are in your own wisdom, and in your own reason, tell you of silent waiting upon God, that is famine to you; it is a strange life to you to come to be silent, you must come into a new
world. Now thou must die in the silence, to the fleshly wisdom, knowledge, reason, and understanding; so thou comest to feel that which brings thee to wait upon God; (thou must die from the other,) that brings thee to feel the power of an endless life, and come to possess it.
And in the silent waiting upon God thou comest to receive the wisdom from above, by which all things were made and created; and it gives an understanding and a reason, which distinguisheth from the beast. And the life of God in thee, which brings to wait upon God, which gives thee life, brings to know God; and to know God and Jesus Christ is life eternal. And to you this is the word of the Lord God."
(An Epistle to all People on the Earth; etc, George Fox, 1657, Doctrinals, p101-2)
In conclusion, Quaker worship arises as a direct consequent of responding to God’s Call to hear His Son “This is My beloved Son, My Chosen One, hear ye him…”(Matt 17:5), and constitutes the true and spiritual worship that rightfully belongs to the New Covenant.
Add a Comment
© 2023 Created by Allistair Lomax. Powered by
"part of that response is to become still and attentive, so that we can hear Christ’s voice and receive his teaching, but that does not mean that silent worship is a technique that either demands or even guarantees God’s attention."
So true, and I think it is easy to fall into treating it as a technique, often without being conscious of doing so. It then can fall into the same category as the practices early Friends left behind, because the church focused on the technique rather than God.
It is so precious when we are with others and just fall into worship. Then there is no question of a centering practice. However, most times we are worshipping at a set time when Friends have agreed to gather. We may not come prepared to really immediately enter into the worship.
I have known Friends who have a specific technique they normally use to move into a state of really entering worship. I don't know that this is necessarily wrong, if it is something they have found which serves that purpose. Worship is not technique, but also not the absence of techniques. I myself have never adopted any particular technique, but I am respectful of those who have found it helpful. Sometimes they enter more fully into the worship than I do.
Thanks for this post. As someone with years of Buddhist practice before becoming a Quaker, it has often struck me that Quaker worship differs from Buddhist practice. In Buddhist practice there is a great emphasis on technique; body position, breath control, and control of the mind are all meticulously taught. This is accompanied by a scheme of accomplishment which is often rigorous.
In Quaker Worship there are no specific instructions for body, breath, or control of the mind. Rather there seem to be general pointers. I like the phrase "Waiting Worship". It's a helpful phrase. If I am waiting for a guest, someone I really want to see, that waiting produces a certain frame of mind, but while waiting I might sit, stand, do the dishes, etc. The silence and stillness in Quaker Worship is a cultivation of this Waiting upon the Lord.
I have been doing a lot of studying of the Quietists and their presence in the Quaker tradition, particular the work "A Guide to True Peace". One of the things these works emphasize is that Silent Worship, or Prayer, is not an accomplishment, somethin one can add to one's possessions. Their view is that periods of dryness, boredom, and sterility in Silent Worship and Prayer are the means that the Lord uses to undermine the sense that we are in charge, or that Silent Worship is something that we do to take charge of our relationship to God. From this perspective, periods of dryness are Christ speaking to us just as much as when we dramatically sense His presence. This would contrast with a technique oriented perspective where a period of dryness would be understood as a setback that we need to overcome through more energetic application of the technique.
Thanks again for the post.
Your statements, Allistair, recalled to mind the experience of Stephen Crisp, part of which I shall quote here: "So after long travail, strong cries, and many bitter tears and groans, I found a little hope springing in me, that the Lord in his own time would bring forth his seed, even his elect seed, the seed of his covenant, to rule in me; and this was given me at a time when a sense of my own unworthiness had so overwhelmed me in sorrow and anguish, that I thought myself unworthy of any of the creatures; forasmuch as I was out of the covenant of God, and hereupon was tempted to deny myself of them: then did the hope of the resurrection or the just spring in me, and I was taught to wait on God, and to eat and drink in fear and watchfulness, showing forth the Lord's death till he should come to be raised to live and reign in me, so then I waited as one that had hope that God would be gracious to me, yet something in me would fain have known the time how long it should be, but a faithful cry was in me which called that to death. And upon a time being weary of my own thoughts in the meeting of God's people, I thought none was like me, and it was but in vain to sit there with such a wandering mind as mine was, while thought I laboured to stay it, yet could not as I would; at length, I thought to go forth, and as I was going, the Lord thundered through me saying, that which is weary must die; so I turned to my seat and waited in the belief of God, for the death of that part which was weary of the work of God, (Crisps Works, p. 29-30)" The narative continues speaking of finding in the cross of Christ, laid upon him, the power to overcome sin and wickedness, the power to be crucified to the world and the world to him. As there is no "good" place to stop quoting, I will leave it to you to read on your own.
It is in this context that Crisp says in one of his sermons (sermon #14 in the book of his sermons), that the proper use of meeting for worship is to come to know a power greater than that of our enemy, the serpent. The power that only comes by hearing and following the voice of Christ our prophet like Moses.