Saturday, December 10, 2011

Book Synopsis: Silence and Witness

My blogging output has slowed to a trickle in recent months, due to my school-work load at George Fox Evangelical Seminary. One of my courses this semester has been on Missional Ecclesiology. Ecclesiology is the study of the church: What is the church? What makes church church? What are the various expressions of the church? The Missional part has to do with exploring what the mission of the church is and how that is interpreted and expressed within the various ecclesiologies. Here is a link to a more detailed definition of what Missional Ecclesiology (aka Missional Church) means:

As part of the course we were permitted to choose our own area of emphasis within the subject of Missional Ecclesiology to study. The assignment was to read something each week about our area of emphasis and then write a synopsis on what we read. The idea of a synopsis is to try to “echo back” the points that the author is making and express how we interpret those points. My area of emphasis was Quaker Missional Ecclesiology.

I thought I might share some of the synopses I wrote. The danger in doing so is, as I see it, twofold:

1. I may have misinterpreted and thus misstate what the author was trying to say. If I have done so, I apologize.

2. I may open myself up to accusations of plagiarism. Let me state very clearly: I am not claiming that the following are my ideas. I am paraphrasing and “echoing back” the thoughts and words of the author(s) in an attempt to express a synopsis of their work.

My intent in posting this is the hope that what I have done might be of value to someone else by exposing them to these ideas and authors. The topic of Quaker Missional Ecclesiology is a fascinating one; worthy of deeper consideration.

This week, I have been reading Silence and Witness: The Quaker Tradition by Michael L. Birkel. Birkel is a professor at the Earlham School of Religion, a Quaker college. For this synopsis I am focusing on chapters 1 through 5.


The reason for the book’s title; Silence and Witness is that silence and witness are the two pillars of Quaker ecclesiology. Quaker worship is “inward” and contemplative in nature yet it seems to consistently result in an “outward” witness, which engages the world and testifies to God’s power to transform individual hearts and entire societies. What links these two “pillars” together is the belief in God’s leading presence. “Our witness grows out of God’s leading as encountered in contemplative worship. Faithfulness to leadings, in turn, enhances the experience of worship.” [1]

Chapter 1, Spiritual Ideals in Quaker History

Early Quakers saw their movement as both an apocalyptic and prophetic response to a perceived apostate church. They viewed their movement as a revival of “primitive Christianity.” George Fox is generally considered the founder of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). He was a spiritually sensitive youth who was dissatisfied with what he saw around him in 17th century England, as people professed Christianity yet did not reflect it in their behavior. Fox traveled throughout England, meeting with Anglican priests and Puritan ministers, in search of guidance—but could not find what he was looking for. He had just about given up hope when, according to his journal, he had an encounter with God in which he was told “There is one, even Christ Jesus that can speak to thy condition.” [2] Over a period of time, Fox had a series of what he called “great openings” (what we would call “revelations”) regarding the love of God and the accessibility of God to everyone, apart from human or institutional mediators. Fox’s message was embraced by a pre-existing multitude of disaffected Christians called “Seekers” and Quakerism (as it came to be known) grew exponentially.

Birkel points out a consistent pattern of three factors that mark the dynamics of Quaker spiritual life: Interior struggle, resolution and subsequent reaching outward to change the world.

Interior struggle: “Early Friends’ experience of the Inward Light [what we would call the Holy Spirit or “Christ-in-us”] was not as a cosy fire but rather a relentless search beam that showed them their sinfulness.” [3]

Resolution: “The Light at first exposed their capacity for evil but then led to the victory of good over evil within them. A sense of inward peace followed…and a deep sense of community with other Friends who had been through the same harrowing experience.” [4]

Reaching outward: "This sense of victory energized them to labour to transform the social order into a godly society." [5]

Early Quakers came to refer to this inner/outer struggle as “the Lamb’s War.”

Friends suffered considerable persecution for their beliefs and actions—including imprisonment and confiscation of property. The persecution grew particularly intense when the English monarchy was restored after Cromwell’s death. Because of the need to keep track of imprisoned Friends and provide support for their families the Quakers developed an organizational structure based on monthly meetings where Quakers within defined geographic areas would gather to exchange information, distribute relief and make collective decisions.

With the lessoning of persecution after the Act of Toleration in 1689, Quakers became more settled and lost some of their initial zeal and intensity. “The metaphor of the Lamb’s War declined in use, but the threefold scheme of interior struggle, resolution and social change continued.” [6]

In the early 19th century the rival Protestant religious trends of Evangelicalism and Rationalism had a profound impact on the Religious Society of Friends, ultimately resulting in a schism. Evangelical Friends gradually adopted patterns of Protestant (particularly Methodist) worship, such as hymn-singing, sermons and designated clergy. Liberal Friends, influenced by Rationalism, kept the traditional Quaker forms of worship but became uncoupled from the Christian basis of the faith. By the mid-20th century work was well underway to repair the schisms and this work continues to progress to this day. Missions work undertaken by Evangelical Friends has also resulted in large numbers of Quakers in Bolivia, Kenya and other two-thirds world nations. “…it may well be Friends whose first language is not English who will shape important new directions for the twenty first century. [7]

Chapter 2, Meeting for Worship

“Meeting for worship is the heart of Quaker spirituality. Everything else in the spiritual life flows into meeting for worship, and all of Quaker spirituality flows out of it. [italics mine]” [8]

Quakerism is an “experiential” faith. It is the worship experience, rather than doctrine or ritual, which forms the basis of Quaker spirituality.

Robert Barclay (an early Quaker theologian) described his experience this way: “...when I came into the silent assemblies of God's people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart, and as I gave way unto it, I found the evil weakening in me, and the good raised up, and so I became thus knit and united unto them, hungering more and more after the increase of this power and life, whereby I might feel myself perfectly redeemed. And indeed this is the surest way to become a Christian, to whom afterwards the knowledge and understanding will not be wanting, but will grow up so much as is needful, as the natural fruit of this good root.” [9]

The liturgy of a Quaker meeting is both simple and complex. It is based on gathering together in a waiting, expectant attitude of heart. Silence, in and of itself, is not the point; but rather the external manifestation of worship that is based upon inner listening. Anyone present may break the silence if they feel compelled by God to share a message. Such a message is called “vocal ministry” and is generally kept fairly short. After someone offers vocal ministry, the rest of the congregation will ponder the message in silence. It is not uncommon for three or four messages to be given by various individuals during the course of a meeting for worship. It is also not uncommon for these messages to coalesce into a remarkably cohesive and profound message from God. The complexities of this approach, according to Birkel, “are familiar ones to many spiritual traditions: arriving at stillness of body and mind, discernment, and the dimensions of community life in the body of Christ.” [10]

Inner stillness can pose a daunting challenge for some, and people have developed various techniques for arriving at it (while others seem to need no technique at all). Any techniques used by individuals, however, are means, not ends. They only serve a transitional purpose to help in “centering down.”

As this “centering down” occurs, two things tend to happen (according to Birkel):

First, worshippers feel led by the Spirit on where to focus. “It may be a wordless sense of divine presence, an effortless tranquility. Others may experience images of many sorts, possibly scenes from their lives that feel in need of attention…Some may feel insight into a matter. Others may find the events in their minds painful, perhaps a difficult truth to face about themselves, a troubling interior place that stands in need of redemption or healing.” [11]

Second, worshippers “become aware of the collective dimension of their worship.” [12] Rather than being alone in a crowd (as in, say Buddhist meditation), a heightened sense of connectedness tends to occur. Quakers believe that those who are particularly centered during a meeting can actually serve as “magnets” (Birkel’s analogy), silently drawing those around them into greater depths of worship. Thus, Friends believe that ministry one-to-another can occur in silence. Quaker worship is extremely communal in nature. The zenith of a Quaker worship meeting is if it becomes a “gathered meeting.” Thomas Kelly describes a “gathered meeting” in this way:

“In the Quaker practice of group worship on the basis of silence come special times when an electric hush and solemnity and depth of power steals over the worshippers. A blanket of divine covering comes over the room, and a quickening Presence pervades us, breaking down some part of the special privacy and isolation of our individual lives and bonding our spirits within a super-individual Life and Power—an objective, dynamic Presence which enfolds us all, nourishes our souls, speaks glad, unutterable comfort within us, and quickens in us depths that had before been slumbering. The Burning Bush has been kindled in our midst, and we stand together on holy ground.” [13]

Because anyone can break the silence and offer vocal ministry, there is an element of risk involved in a Quaker meeting. Vocal ministry may consist of a prayer, an insight, a description of a vision, a word of exhortation, a passage of scripture (with or without commentary), etc. The goal is to only offer vocal ministry if one is strongly compelled by the Spirit to do so. Thus, when an individual receives an impulse to speak, they ought to run it through a series of internal discernment filters before acting upon it. This discernment process includes examining one’s motives for feeling led to share the message, engaging the question of whether the message is intended for just oneself rather than the whole community and considering if the message is to be shared at present or held for a future time. When giving vocal ministry, Quakers endeavor to not “outrun the Guide” or “go beyond the leading” but to be faithful to deliver the message in as pure a fashion as possible.

Because of the interior nature of Quaker worship, it can be difficult to describe what occurs. A good summary, however, is provided by Isaac Pennington, an influential 17th century Quaker:

"And this is the manner of their worship. They are to wait upon the Lord, to meet in the silence of flesh, and to watch for the stirrings of his life, and the breaking forth of his power amongst them. And in the breakings forth of that power they may pray, speak, exhort, rebuke sin, or mourn, and so on, according as the spirit teaches, requires, and gives utterance. But if the spirit do not require to speak, and give to utter, then everyone is to sit still in his place (in his heavenly place I mean) feeling his own measure, feeding there-upon, receiving there from (Into his spirit) what the Lord giveth. Now in this is edifying, pure edifying, precious edifying; his soul who thus waits is hereby particularly edified by the spirit of the Lord at every meeting. And then also there is the life of the whole felt in every vessel that is turned to its measure; insomuch as the warmth of life in each vessel doth not only warm the particular, but they are like an heap of fresh and living coals, warming one another, insomuch as a great strength, freshness, and vigor of life flows into all. And if any be burthened, tempted, buffeted by Satan, bowed down, overborne, languishing, afflicted, distressed, and so on, the estate of such is felt in spirit, and secret cries, or open (as the Lord pleaseth), ascend up to the Lord for them, and they many times find ease and relief, in a few words spoken, or without words, if it be the season of their help and relief with the Lord." [14]

Chapter 3, Discernment

Quakers believe that revelation is a continuing process—that God still leads people and reveals truths. There must be freedom for individuals to receive divine leadings. A leading might be a sense of calling to undertake a particular ministry, such as John Woolman’s leading to travel throughout the American colonies in the early 1700’s speaking against slavery, or Lucretia Mott’s leading in the early 1800’s to advocate for women’s rights. However, although leadings come to individuals, they are submitted to the community to discern whether or not they are genuine. The process of group discernment—sorting, careful listening, recognizing, clarifying, confirming--is taken very seriously by Friends. Quakers are somewhat unique in the practice of communal discernment and have developed a number of tests to apply to leadings. Quaker historian Hugh Barbour has identified four such tests: Integrity (Is the leading self-indulgent?), Patience (Has the leading “seasoned” for a time?), Self-Consistency (Is the leading consistent with scripture and with the values of the community?) and Unity (Does the leading bring unity or disunity?). [15]

Communal discernment also comes to the fore when Friends gather to conduct church business. It is sometimes wrongly assumed that Quakers make decisions by consensus. Rather, Friends seek to listen together and come to a place of corporate unity on discerning what the will of God is on a given matter. Thus, Quaker business meetings are often referred to as “Meeting for Worship for the Purpose of Attending to Business.” Friends will wait on moving ahead with a decision until they feel they have reached unity. This goes far beyond majority rule or acquiescence to the authority of leaders. It also requires considerably more patience. Quaker meetings for business typically begin with a time of silent listening. “As in meeting for worship, the silence is an opportunity to open oneself to the guiding hands of the Holy Spirit. It is not a time to organize one’s thoughts or to devise the strategy of an argument to persuade others.” [16] A meeting for business is facilitated by a member designated as “clerk.” The role of the clerk is to serve the meeting by prayerfully observing, encouraging the reticent, asking clarifying questions, gently admonishing those who over-speak, turning the group back to silent listening prayer if things become heated or stymied, and, most importantly, trying to discern the “sense of the meeting” and communicate what they perceive back to the group for their assent or dissent. When unity has been reached on a decision the clerk will articulate it back to the group in the form of a minute and ask if they approve.

Another form of group discernment is the “Clearness Committee,” where a person seeking clarification on a leading or a life decision (such as marriage or a job opportunity or relocation to another state) will gather with four to six Friends who will listen with them—sometimes asking out of the silence gently probing questions as they are led by the Spirit—with the goal of helping the individual receive a clearer sense of God’s will (as well as their own motives) in the matter.

Chapter 5, The Testimonies

“Quaker spirituality is both inward and outward. Friends have always expected the Holy Spirit to transform individuals and then guide then into ways to transform society…In worship together Friends have experienced not only wordless union with God but also practical leadings to engage in concrete actions.” [17] Because of the consistency of the Holy Spirit’s leading, over time Friends have discerned certain patterns or principles that affect their outward behavior. These patterns or principles are referred to as “testimonies.” These testimonies are typically expressed as Integrity, Simplicity, Equality and Peace.

The testimony of Integrity is manifested in many ways but all have at their core the conviction that truth-telling is essential. From the 17th century to the present, Quakers have refused to take oaths; feeling that an oath implies a double standard of truth-telling (to swear an oath that one is telling the truth implies that at other times one may not be telling the truth. Instead, Friends endeavor to speak at all times as if “under oath”). Early Quakers were persecuted and imprisoned for their refusal to swear oaths of loyalty to the monarchy. Another form of truth-telling is in the realm of commerce. Quakers were among the first merchants to set fixed prices on their goods—thus charging the same price to everyone. They felt it was dishonest to have customers pay varying prices for the same products based on the customer’s negotiating skills. Quakers quickly developed a reputation for integrity in business and achieved considerable success as a result. The testimony of Integrity also comes out in the Quaker imperative to “speak truth to power.” Quakers have often been outspoken critics of injustice and oppression.

The testimony of Equality has its roots in George Fox’s early revelations that everyone has direct access to God. In meeting for worship, for example, Friends believe that anyone—male or female, young or old, educated or unlearned, etc.—may be called upon by God to offer ministry. The Quaker view of the equality of women and acceptance of their role in leadership positions was scandalous in 17th century England—a time when it was debated whether women even had souls! [18] In the United States, Quakers were known for their respectful treatment of Native Americans.

Oftentimes the testimony of Equality is expressed in a “leveling down” fashion. Early Quakers refused to follow social customs of the time which elevated certain classes of people. Thus they refused to participate in practices such as “hat honor” (removing one’s hat in the presence of a social “superior”), using formal language or addressing people with titles and honorifics (“your Majesty”, “your Grace”). These acts of non-conformity were audaciously counter-cultural and resulted in persecution but also gradually brought about profound changes in English and American culture.

Perhaps most importantly, the testimony of Equality has manifested in direct action to confront societal injustice (including war). In 1947 the Quakers, via the Friends Service Council in London and the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for showing “…that it is possible to translate into action what lies deep in the hearts of many: compassion for others and the desire to help them…” [19]

The testimony of Simplicity “has to do with trust and with focus…A simple life is based in confidence in God’s faithful providence. In addition, a simple life enables one to keep God at the center.” [20] Early Friends eschewed luxury and waste; seeking to unencumber themselves from needless distractions. One of the clearest exemplars of the testimony of Simplicity is the 17th century American Quaker John Woolman. Woolman was a small businessman who discovered that he had a knack for business and, as a result, saw his business begin to grow and was soon receiving tempting offers to expand even more. Instead, he intentionally pared his business down to the minimum necessary to support his family, sending his customers to his competitors. He wrote in his journal:

“My mind through the power of Truth was in a good degree weaned from the desire of outward greatness, and I was learning to be content with real conveniences that were not costly; so that a way of life free from much entanglements appeared best for me, though the income was small. I had several offers of business that appeared profitable, but saw not my way clear to accept of them, as believing the business proposed would be attended with more outward care and cumber than was required of me to engage in. I saw that a humble man, with the Blessing of the Lord, might live on a little, and that where the heart was set on greatness, success in business did not satisfy the craving; but that commonly with an increase of wealth, the desire for wealth increased. There was a care on my mind so to pass my time, as to things outward, that nothing might hinder me from the most steady attention to the voice of the True Shepherd.” [21]

The testimony of Simplicity also accounts for the once distinctive Quaker practices of “plain dress” and “plain speech.” This intentional seeking of simplicity is the antithesis of modern day “Consumer Religion.”[22]

The Quakers are perhaps best known for the Peace testimony. During one of George Fox’s many imprisonments, he was offered release if he would agree to accept a captaincy in Cromwell’s army. He records in his journal what his response was: “But I told them that I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars, and I knew from whence all wars did rise, from the lust according to James’s doctrine…I told them that I was come into the covenant of peace which was before wars and strives were.” [23] He was summarily beaten and remained in prison.

The Peace testimony manifests not just in the opposition to war but in active work at peacemaking. For example, William Penn (founder of Pennsylvania) wrote in 1693 An Essay Toward a Present and Future Peace of Europe [24] in which he outlined something very similar to today’s European Union (and included Russia and Turkey). Quakers see justice and peace as inextricably linked, since injustice and oppression often lead to war. Injustice, oppression, marginalization and greed are really just alternate forms of violence—typically against the poor or powerless.

Closing Thoughts

My synopsis has traced the trajectory of Birkel’s book, which is neatly summarized by the book’s title: Silence and Witness. Birkel has effectively demonstrated how the silent, listening worship of the Quakers ultimately manifests in a counter-cultural lifestyle of external witness and has proven to be a form of ecclesiology that is resistant to commodifying influences which abstract belief from concrete practices. [25]

I have accumulated many books on Quakerism over the years and this is one of the best in terms of providing an accessible and well-rounded and inspiring overview of what Quakerism is all about. I think every Quaker and anyone interested in the Religious Society of Friends would benefit greatly from reading Silence and Witness.

[1] Birkel, Michael. Silence and Witness: The Quaker Tradition (Orbis, 2004) p. 15
[2] The Journal of George Fox, edited by John L. Nickalls (London: Religious Society of Friends, 1975) p. 11
[3] Birkel, Michael. Silence and Witness: The Quaker Tradition (Orbis, 2004) p. 22
[4] Ibid.,p. 22
[5] Ibid.,p. 22
[6] Ibid.,p. 27
[7] Ibid.,p. 38
[8] Ibid.,p. 38
[9] Barclay, Robert. Apology for the True Christian Divinity (George Amoss, Jr. translation, 1675)
[10] Birkel, Michael. Silence and Witness: The Quaker Tradition (Orbis, 2004) p. 40
[11] Birkel, Michael. Silence and Witness: The Quaker Tradition (Orbis, 2004) p. 44
[12] Ibid.,p. 44
[13] Kelly, Thomas. The Gathered Meeting. This essay has been widely distributed among Friends and appears in a collection of Kelly’s essays entitled The Eternal Promise (Friends United Press, 1966) p. 43
[14] Pennington, Isaac. Selections from the Works of Isaac Pennington (Darton and Harvey, 1658) p. 357
[15] Birkel, Michael. Silence and Witness: The Quaker Tradition (Orbis, 2004) p. 56-58
[16] Ibid. p. 69
[17] Ibid. p. 104
[18] George Fox wrote in his journal: “After this, I met with a sort of people that held, women have no souls, no more than a goose. But I reproved them, and told them that was not right; for Mary said, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.” The Journal of George Fox, edited by John L. Nickalls (London: Religious Society of Friends, 1975) p. 54
[19] The full text of the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony speech can be read online at
[20] Birkel, Michael. Silence and Witness: The Quaker Tradition (Orbis, 2004) p. 111
[21] Woolman, John. The Journal of John Woolman (1871 Edition, Houghton Mifflin) p. 68
[22] Clark, Jason. F2F presentation, George Fox Evangelical Seminary, Oct. 2011
[23] Fox, George. The Journal of George Fox, edited by John L. Nickalls (London: Religious Society of Friends, 1975) p. 65
[25] Clark, Jason. “Consumer Liturgies and Their Corrosive Effects on Christian Identity” in Church in the Present Tense (Brazos Press, 2011), p. 42


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