Friends generally believe that first-hand knowledge of God is only possible through that which is experienced, or inwardly revealed to the individual human being through the working of God’s quickening Spirit. This explains the attitude of Friends towards many things, including the person and ministry of Jesus Christ, the scriptures, the establishment and authority of the church, its use of ceremonies, symbols and sacraments, and especially the obligations felt by each individual.
Broadly speaking, the concept of the Inner Light is twofold. Firstly, the Inner Light discerns between good and evil. It reveals the presence of both in human beings, and through its guidance, offers the alternative of choice. Secondly, the Inner Light opens the unity of all human beings to our consciousness. Friends believe that the potential for good, as well as evil, are latent in everyone.
George Fox acknowledged that there is an “ocean of darkness and death” over the world. But he also saw that “an ocean of light and love” flows over this ocean of darkness, revealing the infinite love of God. Friends believe that the power of God to overcome evil is available in the nature of anyone who truly wants to do the will of God. To a great extent, we are the arbiter of our own destiny, having the power of choice. Salvation, in the Quaker sense, lies in our power to become children of God.
Although the Inner Light or the Divine Spirit has always been available, Friends generally accept that the fulless of God’s divine revelation is made manifest in the life of Jesus Christ – “made flesh and dwells among as, full of grace and truth.”
This type of direct experience of God is not unique to Friends. It is common to both Judaism and Christianity. But the Religious Society of Friends is unusual in the way it tries to support its members in obedience to such calls. Friends have always encouraged in one another an approach to Christian discipline that stresses the need to be open to the Holy Spirit and the call of God.
The word testimony is used by Friends to describe a witness to the living truth within the human heart as it is acted out in everyday life. It is not a form of words, but a mode of life based of the realisation that there is “that of God in everyone’, that all human beings are equal, and that all life is interconnected. It is affirmative but may lead to action that runs counter to certain practices currently accepted in the society at large. Testimonies reflect the corporate beliefs of the Religious Society of Friends, however much individual Friends may interpret them differently according to their own light. They are not ‘optional extras’ but fruits that grow from the tree of faith. Basic Quaker testimonies are: truth, equality, peace, simplicity and community.
Truth is a complex concept. Sometimes the word is used for God, sometimes for the conviction that arises from worship, sometimes for the way of life. It was the obedience to truth as they understood it that led Friends to act in ways which others thought odd and even provocative. For early Friends, witnessing to Truth involved keeping up public meetings for worship, whatever the penalties involved. It also involved preaching, for which many Friends were imprisoned. The concern for truthfulness led Friends right from the first day to refuse to take oaths. An oath according to them was a sign that there were two different levels of truthfulness and they believed that you should tell the truth all the time. Margaret Fell, for instance, was imprisoned and lost all her property for her refusal to take an oath of loyalty to the king.
If God is directly accessible to all persons, regardless of age, gender, race, nationality, economic, social or educational position – if every person is held equal in God’s love and has equal potential to be a channel for the revelation of God’s Truth – then all persons are to be equally valued. There is that Seed, that Light – there is “that of God’ in every person. For Friends this insight has meant, from the beginning, equality of the sexes and of races. In England and the English colonies this had to mean the end of privilege based on wealth or class. In Japan and Kenya, where the existing cultures made women little more than ‘domestic property’, it resulted in the establishment of Quaker schools for girls. It also formed the basis for opposition to slavery and the death penalty.
The peace testimony is based on the same understanding of the nature of God and of human beings. How can one kill another child of God, a potential channel of Truth, no matter how misguided he or she may seem at the moment? This testimony has led Friends to oppose all wars and preparation for wars. At the time of the American Revolution, many Friends were ‘disowned’ by their meetings for participating in military actions. Later, Friends, faced with military conscription, worked to establish the right of conscientious objection. Some Friends still work to end conscription for military purposes, not only of their bodies but also of their tax money.
The peace testimony has meant efforts to ease suffering of victims of war on all sides. It means efforts to be or to seek a reconciling force between peoples and nations in conflict. It means a constant search for non-violent means of conflict resolution through institutions of law, such as international treaties and structures like the European Union or the United Nations. It means a continuing search for peace and social justice through personal and group non-violent techniques for mediation and social change. The Quaker Council for European Affairs (QCEA) in Brussels, and the Quaker United Nation Offices (QUNOs) in Geneva and New York, for example, promote Quaker views at the heart of centres of power, where political, economic and military decisions with world-wide effect are made (“speaking truth to power”).
There is certainty among Friends that the world offers many distractions from the Truth, for example the pursuit of wealth or power or pleasure, extravagance in language, fashion or behaviour, and too great an emphasis on business, even for good causes. Truth is usually discovered in quiet, undistracted waiting for its leadings in the human heart, in the humble simplicity of spirit which acknowledges that ultimately God is in charge of our world, not we ourselves.
The testimony of simplicity seeks, therefore, to focus our attention on what is essential and eternal, without distraction by the transitory or the trivial. Plain and honest speech is an expression of simplicity. Respect for God’s creation and, therefore, concern for the environment and the right use of the world’s resources is another obvious expression of this testimony. A growth economy based on extravagance, wastefulness and artificially stimulated wants is seen to be a fundamental violation of the simplicity testimony.
As equally beloved children of God, all human beings are brothers and sisters, one human family, no matter how great our differences of experience, of culture, of age, of understanding. Friends have found that the Light may illuminate a gathered group as well as an individual heart and bind the group together in a community of faith, conscience and experience. Friends see it as their task to build a broader community throughout our world, by seeing and affirming in each other the divine potential, the Seed, the Christ, the Light within. We must learn to deal with one another by affirming and nurturing the best we find in each other – or, in the words of George Fox – by “answering that of God in everyone”. In such a community, Friends believe, human beings witness to the sovereignty, compassion and love of the God of their experiences.
Quaker worship happens when two or more people feel the need to be still together and seek God’s presence. This can happen anywhere and anytime, but Friends usually refer to a meeting for worship to indicate the meeting which takes place regularly at a meeting house or another fixed place. In attentive waiting together in silence, Friends can find peace of mind and a renewed sense of purpose for living and joy in wonder at God’s creation.
Silence is greatly valued by Friends. In removing pressure and hurry, it helps them to be aware of the inner and deeper meaning of their individual and corporate lives. It enables them to begin to accept themselves as they are and to find some release from fear, anxiety, emotional confusion and selfishness. This silence is more than an absence of sound: one can be aware of external sounds, such as a dog barking, a car passing, or a child calling. But these sounds are not distractions. They are absorbed, often unconsciously, as Friends try to be open to that of God within. An early Friend, Robert Barclay, described his experience during a meeting for worship as follows: ‘I found the evil in me weakening and the good raised up’.
The seating for a meeting for worship is usually arranged in a circle or a square to help people to be aware of one another, to be conscious of the fact that they are worshipping together. Those present settle quietly, and by corporately seeking God’s will, become open to one another. This may happen quickly, or it may take most of the meeting, usually an hour long.
The silence is different from that experienced in traditional, solitary meditation, which normally takes place deep inside oneself, as a devotional exercise for one’s own spiritual development. The listening and waiting in a meeting for worship is a shared experience in which worshippers seek to meet God.
Meetings for Worship
Friends may worship entirely without words, but usually there will be some brief spoken contributions. This ministry is intended to express aloud what is already present in the silence. Anyone may feel the call to speak, man, woman or child, Friend or first time visitor. There is a very wide variety of sources of spoken ministry and the acceptance of them is an important part of Quaker worship. Since the Religious Society of Friends is part of the Christian tradition, people may speak of the life and teachings of Jesus, use words from other sources, or refer to events in daily life. Friends try to receive positively what is said and to look for the underlying truth, regardless of the words in which it is expressed If Friends are impelled to respond to vocal ministry, they should be very cautious and try to build positively
Meeting for Worship for Business
In the Quaker unprogrammed liberal tradition, there is no clergy and it is Friends who take on the needed roles and responsibilities for the community. Discernment and decisions are made in these meetings in a spirit of worship, with an intentional attention to the Inward Teacher. During the meeting Friends listen carefully, patiently, and open to the Spirit’s
movement. It is a process of discernment of guidance, rather than a sharing of opinions. We do not vote, but the clerk (and everyone) listens for an emerging spiritual unity on the Spirit’s leading for this group on this issue. The clerk tests for this sense of the meeting, and when the meeting is in unity, a minute is written and approved on the decision.
When unity is not yet reached, the meeting continues to seek the Spirit’s guidance together, perhaps with a time of silence. Unity of the meeting may not mean unanimity; someone may not be in agreement, but may stand aside, recognizing the meeting’s discernment and unwilling to block the decision. If the meeting is not in unity, the
decision will be put off, while Friends “season” the matter, seeking deeper guidance and openness to the Spirit.
Specially appointed meetings
For special occasions Friends can hold specially appointed meetings. Like other meetings for worship, a meeting on the occasion of a wedding, for example, begins in silence. A Friend will then stand to explain to newcomers and family guests the procedure which will follow. The bride and bridegroom stand when they feel ready, take each other by the hand and make a declaration to the meeting. After this, the meeting continues with a period of silence. Out of the silence vocal prayer or ministry may arise relating to the marrying Friends.
In a meeting for worship on the occasion of a funeral or in a later memorial meeting, Friends concentrate lovingly on the life of the late Friend. The meetings have no set form apart from the usual meeting. It may be held at a grave side, the crematorium, or at the usual meeting place. It is a service of thanksgiving for the grace of God displayed in the life of the departed, with thoughts of comfort and sympathy for those left behind