Do Quakers have souls? (Threshings #1)

This is the first in a short series of theological ‘threshings’. In the Quaker tradition, threshing is a lively process of getting to the heart of an issue, separating the wheat from the chaff. When a theological problem bugs me, I want to thresh it out! I may not come up with an answer, but hopefully I’ll bring out some important points. If the word ‘theology’ puts you off, think of theology as a tool that should improve the way we talk about our religious and spiritual experience. It’s not about giving definitive answers, it’s about speaking with integrity in an informed and inspiring way.

Do Quakers have souls? You may think the answer is ‘obviously yes’, or you may think this question is akin to ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’. I hope to show that this question isn’t merely abstract speculation, but actually impacts on how we live our lives.

The problem with being two things (dualism)

I have become increasingly interested in what it means to ‘have a soul’. I think many people take it as read that the religious understanding of what it means to be a human is that we are a body inhabited with a soul or spirit – an invisible thing that is the real ‘self’. However, two things have gotten me thinking that this could be quite a problematic belief.

The first involves my experience as a gay person. Attending an evangelical church, I once asked for prayer concerning my sexuality. I had the opportunity to travel to a country where homosexuality was prohibited, requiring me to go back in the closet. I wasn’t sure I was able to do this. One of the people praying over me said words to the effect that my true identity in Christ wasn’t located in my sexuality. There was a sense that somehow the ‘real’ me could be separated from the ‘gay’ me. Afterwards, I thought ‘that was a really ‘straight man’ thing to pray!’ In my experience, I can’t make that separation. My original coming-out at 17 was accompanied by an intense spiritual coming-out. I was only able to embrace a relationship with God once I was honest about who I was. So for me, I can’t separate ‘gay’ me from ‘real’ me; and what would it mean to be gay without a body?

The second involves my on-going exploration of what it means to be white. I have increasingly come to realise that being a white body has impacted on my experience of the world. Like being gay, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be something other than a white body. However, in conversations with some white Quakers, one of the barriers to recognising the impact of whiteness on our experience is the belief that our true self is located in an invisible soul, that our most real self is purely spiritual: ‘I am not my body, therefore I am not effected by colour, and I don’t see colour. We are all truly colourless.’ For a white person, one of the effects of white privilege is never having to realise you’re white. Might a belief in the true self being an invisible, disembodied soul be tied up with this?

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Original source: Budge, E. A. Wallace. “The Nile: Notes for Travellers in Egypt.” (Harrison and Sons, London: 1902). p. 161.

A Christian argument for being one thing (physicalism)

In my reading on the subject, I came across a book by Nancy Murphy[1] that provides an excellent overview of the topic from a Christian point of view.

Murphy presents four possible views of what it is to be a human (and I reckon you’d find Quakers in all four camps):

  1. physicalism – we have only one ‘part’, the body.
  2. dualism – we are made up of two parts: body-soul, or body-mind.
  3. trichotomism – we are made up of three parts: body, soul and spirit
  4. monism (or idealism) – that we are only truly mind or spirit.

Which view does the Bible take? Interestingly, Murphy says that ‘the Bible has no clear teaching’ concerning the composition of a human person.[2] This has allowed for a variety of opinions throughout Christian history. However, it’s now widely agreed that in the Hebrew Bible there is no body-soul dualism. The New Testament is not so clear, but certainly Paul’s distinction between spirit and flesh should not be interpreted as a distinction between body and soul: ‘Paul is concerned with two ways of living: one in conformity with the Spirit of God, and the other in conformity to the old aeon before Christ.’[3]

Murphy argues that ‘dualist anthropology all too easily leads to disparagement of the body and all that goes along with being embodied.’[4] When we separate soul from body the material world (including the body) becomes less important. Murphy also suggests that ‘the change from a dualist to a physicalist anthropology… calls for serious reconsideration of traditional understandings of Christian spirituality. From Augustine to the present we have had a conception of the self that distinguishes the inner life from the outer, and spirituality has been associated largely with the inner.’[5] I find this fascinating from a Quaker perspective. British liberal Quakers are very comfortable with speaking of the ‘inward’ and the ‘outward’. Our rejection of ‘outward forms’ could be seen as a rejection of the material world, saying that the spiritual is somehow more real than the physical. Yet we’re also a community who say we want climate and racial justice, things very much concerned with the physical and the embodied. With our idolising of theological diversity combined with our reluctance to actually discuss this diversity, such a confusion is not surprising!

Murphy concludes by suggesting that ‘one could be a body-soul dualist while avoiding an excessively inward-looking spirituality. In fact, some of the greatest writers on inwardness did so… So the strongest point I can make here is to claim… that physicalism – along with an eschatological hope for resurrection of the body – leads more naturally to a concern for the physical world and its transformation than does dualism.’[6] Murphy believes that physicalism – the view we are one thing, a spirited body – is much less problematic than dualism. She also offers something that is probably alien to most British Quakers – the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body. This is the belief that at the end of time, all will be raised from the dead to face judgement. This teaching says that when we die, our disembodied souls don’t go to heaven to live on a cloud. Rather, we await God’s justice and a new life as a resurrected body. I don’t think British Quakers will be quick to revisit and take up this doctrine, which makes me wonder what a contemporary and well thought out Quaker understanding of the human person would look like.

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 from William Blake’s illustrations to Robert Blair’s The Grave , object 9 The Soul Hovering over the Body

Some thoughts from Thomas Aquinas

On the subject of the soul, I’ve been quite taken with the thinking of Thomas Aquinas,[7] the medieval theologian. He has two things to say that British Quakers might find attractive.

First, he said that the soul is not something we have, it’s something we are. If you have something, you can give it away and still be you. If you are something, then you can’t be separated from it. Well, he said that the soul could be separated from the body after death, but it wouldn’t be up to much. How would it see without eyes? How would it think without a brain? For Aquinas, the soul without a body is a rather useless thing.

Secondly, he said that everything that lives is a soul. Everything that is animate has a soul (‘soul’ in Latin is anima). He said that there are three aspects to the human soul. There’s the vegetative aspect (that respires, takes in nutrients, grows etc.) that we share with tomatoes, oaks, lichen and dahlias. There’s the animal aspect that we share with badgers, bees and whales, and there’s the rational aspect that belongs to humans. This view of the soul brings us into relationship with all living things – it’s not just the preserve of humans!

Keep on threshing…

So I agree with Murphy that body-soul dualism is problematic. It limits our ability to understand the way being a body shapes our experience of the world, and can create a disdain for the physical that is at odds with a pursuit of material wellbeing for all things. I think that physicalism – the understanding that we are one, indivisible thing – helps to address this problem. I’m also increasingly into the resurrection of the body, but I know I’m out on a limb with that one as far as British Quakers are concerned! There are lots of questions still to think about – how is physicalism compatible with Quaker spirituality and the inward/outward distinction we often make? What about the experience of those who live with chronic pain whose relationship with the body is a tremendously difficult one? What about the experience of the elderly who sense a growing disconnect from the body? Constructing a modern Quaker anthropology is too big a job for this blog post, and I look forward to reading a future book about it! Hopefully this post has raised some interesting questions. I’m very interested to know what you think about it – what do you think you’re made up of? How do your beliefs about the body/soul/spirit effect how you live? so please comment below!

[1] Nancey C. Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?, Current Issues in Theology (Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[2] Murphy, 4.

[3] Murphy, 22.

[4] Murphy, 27.

[5] Murphy, 30.

[6] Murphy, 35.

[7] Denys Turner, ‘The Human Person’, in The Cambridge Companion to The               Summa Theologiae, ed. Philip McCosker and Denys Turner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 168–80.

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Advice and Query 11: The tightrope of hope

This is a series of short, c.500-word posts looking at the underlying theology of the Advices and Queries – forty-two pithy statements that collectively capture the British Quaker faith.

Be honest with yourself. What unpalatable truths might you be evading? When you recognise your shortcomings, do not let that discourage you. In worship together we can find the assurance of God’s love and the strength to go on with renewed courage.

The week that President Trump arrived in the UK, I sat in worship with a deep sadness in my heart, weighed down by the moral cowardice of our leaders. I felt so angry, and so powerless. As I offered these feelings to God, I felt my focus shift from the President to myself. It felt like I was being asked ‘what have you done in response to the evil you are witnessing?’, and I was unable to give an answer. I felt convicted of apathy, of not involving myself in politics at a local level. I can’t remember the last time I wrote to my MP. Was I entitled to feel so passionately angry about things that were happening at the top, if I wasn’t willing to engage at the grassroots level?

Awakening from denial

This is one of the primary functions of meeting for worship, this is when worship is truly apocalyptic – the Light reveals, it shows us our true condition, which includes the bits we’d rather remain covered up. God will not allow us to live in denial and delusion, and as long as we turn to the Light, the Light will show us how things really are, however unpalatable they may be. This advice also speaks of our ‘shortcomings’. The New Testament uses the word hamartia, which means ‘missing the mark’, and is traditionally translated as ‘sin’. The Light shows us our sin, the way we fall short as individuals, as families, as communities and as nations. I used to believe thinking of myself as a sinner involved seeing myself as a disgusting worm, but I’ve now come to see that acknowledging my sinfulness should not result in self-hatred. Such self-disgust would show me to be captive to pride, invested in the illusion of my own moral perfection. Being a sinner is nothing special, and it doesn’t take erase our intrinsic goodness as God’s good creation. We should be able to speak openly about our sin. Our meetings need to be ‘bullshit free zone’ where we can be honest about who we are. As long as we hold on to a need to be morally pure, as long as we are ashamed to be imperfect, we will hold ourselves back from the Light. Being honest means having the humility to open the closet door, allowing the Light to illuminate all that we wish were hidden about our lives.

Rescue from despair

I said God will not allow us to live in denial. Neither will God leave us to despair! The Light not only reveals our sin, it renews our courage to persevere. When we let go of reliance on our own strength, we can be filled with the strength of God. When we give up the need to be ‘good people’, we can rest in the love of the Creator whose creation is fundamentally good. Out of the heart that trusts in God shall flow rivers of living, spiritual water (John 7:38), refreshing and rejuvenating. We may be able to find this spring alone, but the work is much easier when we undertake it together in a worshipping community.

The narrow way of hope

In the committed life of faith we walk the ledge between the chasms of denial and despair. This walk of vigilant hope is a difficult, wearying place to be, and requires a regular return to the Source to be reminded of God’s love, and renewed with God’s strength. This is a way of tension, the tension of a tightrope: Jesus said ‘my yoke is easy and my burden is light’, and also said ‘if you would follow me you must take up your cross’. The life of faith is both as simple, and as demanding, as turning to the Light within, facing what it has to show you, and following it wherever it leads.

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Sourced from Wikimedia Commons; Author: Wiros from Barcelona, Spain

The more power, wealth and privilege we have, the harder our hearts will become, and the harder it is to let in the Light, so we shouldn’t expect change from the hard-hearted leaders of the nations any time soon. We need to show them how it’s done. In a world where those in power call evil good and good evil, put darkness for light and light for darkness, and who are wise in their own sight, we are called to walk the narrow way of humility and hope, of serpentine-wisdom and dove-like innocence, because with God’s help we can do the work that needs doing.

Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. [1 Peter 5:7-9]

Words and Wounds: Reflections from Britain Yearly Meeting

Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM) has discerned that now is the time to begin revising our book of discipline, the publication that captures our understanding of Quaker principles and practices. This gathering of Friends in London was extremely well planned, with loving servant-leadership demonstrated by the Clerks. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the deeply impressive work of the Revision Preparation Group (RPG), who brought their recommendations to BYM, and prepared the whole Yearly Meeting so well for this discernment. I personally found it a very emotional weekend, having a strong sense of my own place within the Quaker family. My involvement has given rise to a whole host of thoughts, and I’m going to try and piece them together in this post.

We need our theological gifts

I welcomed the decision to revise our book of discipline with a sense of awe – with both excitement and fear. We have an adventure set before us, and we’re going to need all of our gifts to undertake it, particularly the gifts of our theologians. We all do theology every time we try to make sense of, and communicate, our religious experience. However, there are Friends out there who are skilled in the use of theological tools, and there is important and exciting theological work to be done. I hope that the ‘theology think-tank’ that took place as part of the RPGs work is not the last.

At BYM, a repeated phrase was that our diversity is a richness and a strength. This gave rise to a theological question within me: Why is this so? As was pointed out in session, when we speak of our diversity as British Friends, we are really talking about diversity of belief. But even when we look at the diversity of belief amongst British Quakers, how diverse is our religious diversity? In my experience, there is an unspoken Quaker theological mainstream that certain beliefs and behaviours fall outside of. What do we say to a Friend who shares their experience of contacting the dead? How would we react to a Friend who spoke in tongues during worship? I’m sure we can all think of particular beliefs or religious behaviours that would not be easily welcomed at our local meeting. Perhaps our diversity of belief is the freedom to use whatever words we choose to describe a shared experience. But, as Craig Barnett pointed out, in using different words we can be describing quite different experiences, and our differences of belief may be irreconcilable. So the question of diversity of belief is a thorny one, and we need our theologians to help us handle it with care.

I was particularly moved by the presence of our international Quaker visitors. To travel all that way just for our little gathering! It struck me that, when we say ‘our diversity is our strength’, this must include all the ways that Quakerism is expressed throughout the world. It must even include those expressions of Quakerism that make us uncomfortable. For our diversity to truly be our strength we must pay a price, and that price is the need to have deep and difficult conversations with each other, face to face, about what we hold most dear. We must commit to a greater degree of religious literacy, attempting to understand what our Friends mean by the words they use, taking the time to learn one another’s language.

The Spirt of vulnerability

So the work before us is costly, and will require us, as Alex Wildwood shared, to be vulnerable. The word ‘vulnerable’ comes from the Latin vulnerare – ‘to wound’. To be vulnerable is to be wound-able. This work, if we do it right, will be painful.

British Quakers have a difficulty with wounds. I find that we have a very positive self image. We are well-versed in talking about the achievements of Quakers past. The walkway in to Friends House has them inscribed on the paving slabs. It is good that we can draw confidence and hope from the strengths of our tradition, but if we do not balance this by acknowledging our failings, both within our tradition and within ourselves, then we are being guided by a spirit of pride. We can be healed of this spirit through a recognition of our own wounded-ness. During BYM we heard of Quakers’ continuing engagement with issues of power and privilege and sustainability. If the whole Yearly Meeting is to embrace this work then we need to embrace our own complicity in the problems, our own capacity to wound, dare I say our own sinfulness.

The Christian tradition that I inhabit has a central place for wounds. It says that we can’t have Easter Sunday without Good Friday. The crucifixion shows that there is a place for failure, weakness, abandonment and betrayal in God’s story. Even in the New Life, there will never be a time when we can stop being vulnerable with one another. Jesus’ resurrected body still bears the marks of crucifixion. We bring our wounds with us. If in Jesus, God is wound-able, then the Spirit of God is also the Spirit of vulnerability

In describing his own wounded-ness, Paul learned that he could not rely on his own strength. He could only rely on God’s grace, for ‘power is made perfect in weakness’ [2 Cor. 12:9]. Revising our book of discipline will only be a success if we can countenance its failure, if we can acknowledge our own frailty. Quakers have got things wrong before. We aspire to live adventurously, and a story is only an adventure if there is the possibility of danger and defeat.

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Being a community of argument

During BYM we were asked ‘How can we get beyond potentially divisive words’? I do not believe that we can ever get beyond divisive words, and to attempt to do so would be a mistake. I hope that in revising our book of discipline we can engage passionately with potentially divisive words in the hope of understanding one another better. A new book of discipline will not solve the difficulties of our diversity of belief, and it will not put an end to the need for difficult conversations.

The temptation to avoid disagreement is strong, and it can be easy for us to say that words don’t matter, that we’re a religion of ‘pure experience’ or that silence negates the need for words. This is to treat silence as an escape.

For two thousand years the Christian Church has been in disagreement over what it means to be a Christian. In many ways, this is what unites the Church. The Church is a community of argument, and what they argue about is how to best use a set of shared materials and practices. It’s like sharing a box of Lego bricks – the bricks being things like the Scriptures, doctrines and rituals – and arguing over how the bricks should fit together. I think it’s fair to say that the Quaker community is also a community of argument. The course of change within the Society has never been smooth, and I don’t think our new book of discipline will be trouble-free either. Inevitably, there will be some who leave the Society as a result of changes that are made, and this should grieve us all.

I hope that British Quakers can fully embrace being a community of argument. This will involve asking what we are in argument over. Perhaps our current disagreements are over what bricks should be in the Quaker box. We may wish to take the most difficult bricks out in order to minimise disagreement, but I don’t think inclusivity lies in ridding ourselves of difficult words or parts of our history. We may also want to just add more bricks to keep everyone happy, but then we need to ask how these bricks can fit into coherent patterns that we all have ownership of.

At BYM there were suggestions of keeping things relevant, and of removing archaic language. I quite like things that are archaic. Sometimes words, concepts and stories stick around for hundreds of years for good reasons. It is often the most contemporary things that quickly become dated (the Street Bible being a good example). This revision is a great opportunity to ask what underused resources from our past might serve us well today. Other communities are asking this question. The academic theological community has recently seen a resurgence of interest in patristics, the first 1000 years of Christianity that Quakers never talk about, using these old insights to address contemporary problems. Stories that are thousands of years old are being used to speak to contemporary issues amongst Quakers, such as Friend Peterson Toscano’s research on transgender people in the Bible. The early Quakers had tools that we could use in understanding our response to issues of privilege and power, as I have written about previously. Can we see the revision of the book of discipline, not as a shedding of an old skin, but as an opportunity to rummage through, add to, and reassemble our Lego collection?


The BYM epistle quotes Isaac Penington: ‘And the end of words is to bring men to the knowledge of things beyond what words can utter.’ The ‘end of words’ does not mean the literal demise of words. Words are not irrelevant. Penington is pointing out that words have a very important purpose. They are indispensable tools,  and I look forward to playing my part in helping my Quaker family use them well.

[Edit: I originally wrote ‘we are certainly not diverse in other ways, such as race or class,’ but have been reminded that to repeat the trope that ‘Quakers are all white and middle class’ ignores the diversity you can find in local Quaker meetings, so I deleted that sentence. When taken as a whole Yearly Meeting, I don’t believe we are as representative as we could be, and we should work to make our structures *inclusive* as well as diverse, ensuring that the white, middle class voice is not the dominant one.]

Advice and Query 10: Worship in the desert

This is a series of short, c.500-word posts looking at the underlying theology of the Advices and Queries – forty-two pithy statements that collectively capture the British Quaker faith.

Come regularly to meeting for worship even when you are angry, depressed, tired or spiritually cold. In the silence ask for and accept the prayerful support of others joined with you in worship. Try to find a spiritual wholeness which encompasses suffering as well as thankfulness and joy. Prayer, springing from a deep place in the heart, may bring healing and unity as nothing else can. Let meeting for worship nourish your whole life.

Worship is not always about celebration and fulness. Grief and emptiness have a vital role to play in the authentic faith community. Thomas Kelly writes that spiritual wholeness involves an enlarging of the heart, intensifying the joys and sorrows in our lives. This A&Q invites you to come to worship when you feel you have nothing to offer, realising that your sadness, anger, tiredness, weakness and desolation are in fact important offerings that your fellow Friends need. No meeting is complete without them. ‘The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise’ [Psalm 51:17]. Our needs allow others to give. As well as asking in the silence, verbally ask trusted Friends for prayerful support. There is a real power in naming our needs. In the silence, trust that the Holy Spirit is praying in you. for ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words’ [Romans 8:26].

What if this time of spiritual coldness continues beyond one meeting? Do you still feel inspired to go to meeting, despite your inner emptiness? If so, then coming regularly to worship is a sign of faithfulness. To keep coming to meeting, even when you get nothing out of it, may be a time of important spiritual growth. It may be a wilderness time, a ‘dark night of the soul’, that you will only truly understand once you are on the other side. It is important to share this journey with a trusted Friend, perhaps a spiritual director. Don’t walk through the desert alone.

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But there is another possibility. Sometimes, if we find ourselves in long spell of spiritual dryness where going to meeting seems to make no difference, this might be a sign that something’s not right. Maybe it’s time to experiment, to try something else, or simply to take a break. The key question is: ‘are you going to meeting because you feel called to go in spite of the dryness, or are you going to meeting because that’s what good Quakers do?’ If it’s the latter, then maybe it’s time to try not going to meeting. What love requires of you may sometimes be to stay at home. If you’re going to try this, do it with the blessing of your meeting. Speak to the people responsible for pastoral care, and explain your feelings. It is better that they know the reasons for your decision, so they can support you in the best way. ‘Accept the prayerful support of others.’

Finally, this A&Q also addresses the worshipping community, and not just the individual within it. It reveals that true worship can take us in all our complexity. It can take our rage and our emptiness. Worship is not about playing a role. Worship should be somewhere where we can be our thoroughly disreputable true selves. This is a real challenge for the Quaker community. Can we hold each other in times of distress, where no easy answers are forthcoming?

Advice and Query 9: Offer your whole self

This is a series of short, c.500-word posts looking at the underlying theology of the Advices and Queries – forty-two pithy statements that collectively capture the British Quaker faith.

In worship we enter with reverence into communion with God and respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Come to meeting for worship with heart and mind prepared. Yield yourself and all your outward concerns to God’s guidance so that you may find ‘the evil weakening in you and the good raised up’.

Married to a protestant, and with a heart for ecumenism, it is not unusual for me to attend worship where ‘communion’ is synonymous with ‘bread and wine’. As long as I’m not formally representing British Quakers, I always take part. I believe in the unity of the church – that Christ breaks all the boundaries we try and set – and see the ritual sharing of bread and wine as symbolic of that unity. I share this because the peace and connectedness I experience after taking bread and wine communion is the same as when I’m in Quaker worship. The spiritual communion is the same. Quakers *do* celebrate communion with God. What does it meant to enter this shared communion with reverence? It means to enter with expectation. We go to worship with the anticipation that God might bind us together more strongly, and with a readiness to respond to the Holy Spirit. Reverence may sound serious and sombre, but as C. S Lewis said, joy is the serious business of Heaven.

So we come with anticipation and readiness. We come with heart and mind prepared. In the previous A&Q I wrote about the connection between worship and sacrifice. As well as coming with a sense of expectancy, we also bring our offering – not a blood sacrifice but a prepared heart and mind. Every day we have the opportunity to prepare our offering, to harvest a daily crop of gratitudes, to confess an inevitable number of shortcomings, and hold ourselves and others in the Light. Then when we come together in our Quaker fellowship, we can heap all this thankfulness, confession and prayer onto the alter, and see what the Holy Spirit makes of it. A wise Friend once said to me ‘If everyone comes to meeting empty, no one can go away full.’ We bring our spiritual bread and wine and feast together with God.

Archbishop's_Chapel,_Ravenna

However, we don’t come expecting to get something in return. Our offering is not a payment or a bribe. In expecting God to do something, in anticipating the Spirit’s promptings, we cannot then feel cheated if seemingly nothing happens. God doesn’t owe us anything. We prepare our heart and mind not in order to receive an enjoyable worship experience each week, but in order to be more open to whatever God has prepared for us, which may be joy, tears, judgement, consolation or apparently nothing. We prepare heart and mind during the week because one hour on a Sunday is not enough. If God is God, then worship is where we discover who we really are.

Yield! Relax and lay your burden down, for His yoke is easy and His burden is light. Yield! Put up your sword. Stop fighting. The war between God and creation is over. Remove yourself from the centre. Christ is the Prince of Peace – not only outwardly between people and nations, but inwardly. The Holy Spirit brings peace to the inner war of our divided selves and weakens the power of evil. The only power evil has is from our power for good. The best word for evil is perversion, for evil is our good gifts used wrongly. The perverted good within us must be weakened through being healed and restored, through being put to the refining fire and set straight. As I write this I hear the echoes of anti-gay Christian rhetoric, speaking of same-sex desire as a river that’s burst its banks. It’s unfortunate that ‘perversion’ has these connotations, because its the best word for evil I’ve yet come across. Evil as perversion must not be thought of only meaning sexual morality, as all our good gifts can be used wrongly. And all our misdirected efforts can be realigned if we yield our whole selves to the guidance of God and the illuminating power of the Light.

Advice and Query 8: Join the thanksgiving of the cosmos

This is a series of short, c.500-word posts looking at the underlying theology of the Advices and Queries – forty-two pithy statements that collectively capture the British Quaker faith.

Worship is our response to an awareness of God. We can worship alone, but when we join with others in expectant waiting we may discover a deeper sense of God’s presence. We seek a gathered stillness in our meetings for worship so that all may feel the power of God’s love drawing us together and leading us.

A&Q 1 to 7 have presented us with a series of foundational theological principles, chiefly concerned with the nature of God and how we may know God’s will. With A&Q 8 we begin the second group of Advices and Queries, which deal specifically with worship.

Worship is a response, rather than something we initiate. We don’t make anything happen, something has already happened. God *is*, and we can only respond with worship.

Worship is about thanksgiving, and giving thanks through sacrifice. Sacrifice isn’t a payment. Abraham discovered this when Yaweh refused the sacrifice of his son Isaac – this God is not like the other Canaanite gods who demand the blood of children. Ultimately, not even the blood of animals is required: ‘The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.’ [Psa. 51:17] The prophets speak of the uselessness of blood sacrifice if it is not accompanied by justice: ‘For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.’ [Hosea 6:6]

Faithfulness, humility, love and justice – this is how God wants us to give thanks, this is what makes our worship acceptable. These ideas come together in Paul’s words to the church in Rome (which for me capture the essence of Quaker worship):

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. [Romans 12:1-2]

Worship is something we do better together. We seek a gathered stillness not as an end in itself. We come together not for a quiet space or time out. The purpose of our gathered stillness is worship, and the purpose of our worship is to be drawn together – the religare of religion – and lead by the power of God’s love. Worship begins and ends in God’s love.

communion_of_saints_-_baptistry_-_padua_2016
Created by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

How is it possible to worship alone? Perhaps because we are never really alone. Worship is an ancient song we join in with. It’s a thunderous river we jump into. We add our pinch of incense to the aromatic clouds already billowing up before the throne of God. I have occasionally had the experience in worship that there are more people in the room than physical bodies. I believe that when we worship we join with the worship of all who give thanks at that moment. Not only that, but from the perspective of eternity we join all who have worshipped and all who will worship, the ‘great a cloud of witnesses’ [Heb. 12:1] that is known as the communion of the saints.

In my thanksgiving, I see myself in perspective. I remove myself from the centre of things (what a burden it is to be at the centre!) and take my place in the choir of worshippers. Not only must we remove our individual selves from the centre of the universe, we must see the human race in perspective. If the God whose love we respond to is the Creator of all things, then it is not just humanity who is God’s creature. The birds, the trees, the stones, the seas, the stars and the angels – everything that is visible and invisible, conceivable and inconceivable – all created things give thanks to their Creator who loves them powerfully. We catch a glimpse of this in the Book of Revelation:

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,

“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might
forever and ever!” [Rev. 5:11-14]

Worship is our response to an awareness of God. To become aware of God is to give thanks for all that is Good, living renewed lives in response. To become aware of God is to become aware of our fellow creatures in all their vibrant mystery. To become aware of God is to find our rightful place in the cosmos, allowing ourselves to be led further and further into Love.