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.
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.