“Pure worship under the Gospel stands neither in forms, nor the formal disuse of forms; it may be without words as well as with them, but it must be in spirit and in truth.” – Christian Practice, chap. 1, sec. 14.
“Keep all your meetings in the power of God.” – G. Fox.
Intimately connected with the exercise of the Christian ministry is the mode of holding meetings for public worship.
I have no change to propose in the arrangements for holding these meetings. If they are to be occasions for the unhindered prostration of the individual soul before God, and at the same time for the free exercise, on the part of all the members of the congregation, of spiritual gifts in preaching, prayer, and praise, it appears to me that their only possible basis is a reverent silence.
This is a matter upon which but few directions have been recorded in the Holy Scripture; much having been left to the wisdom of the Church itself under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
It may, however, be permitted me to remark that worship ought not to be regarded as a mere passive attitude of the mind, but as a real act, in which the will takes part. Our silent worship must not be an empty waiting for something to be said or done, but a watching unto prayer, an exercise of the soul in which we both watch and pray.
A praying congregation makes the way for a fruitful ministry. A frivolous or listless state of mind amongst those assembled makes the preacher’s path almost as difficult as it is in a meeting where the minds of those present are in a self-satisfied, “Gospel-hardened,” condition. Not less trying to the minister of acute spiritual perceptions is the state of things when the expectation of some in the congregation is upon him, rather than upon God. I have often wished that our congregations knew, more clearly than they sometimes appear to do, how greatly it is in their power either to assist in the service of the ministry, or to hinder it. It is perhaps in those meetings which contain a considerable number of newly admitted members that this view needs more particularly to be emphasised. Too many of our new converts appear to suppose that it is in the power of a minister to preach or to pray whenever he likes; and even to expect of him that as a matter of course he will have an address or a prayer ready at every meeting; just as they have been accustomed to find things in the places of worship of other denominations.
Not only our “attenders,” and newly-admitted members, but many of our younger Friends, and even some who are older, need educating upon these points.
The Apostle Paul has left on record a few instructions applicable to the vocal services in meetings for Divine worship, to which it is well that we should give heed. Thus, to Timothy (1 Tim. ii. 1) “I exhort therefore, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings, be made for all men.” To the Corinthians, “When ye come together each one hath a psalm, hath a teaching, hath a revelation, hath a tongue, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying. And let the prophets speak by two or three, and let the others discern” (or discriminate, marg.) 1 Cor. xiv. 26-29.
Strikingly in harmony with this Apostolic counsel, I have many times observed that those meetings have been the most profitable, and the most obviously blessed with the Divine presence, in which, after a short period of solemn silence, prayer has been the first vocal exercise, and has been followed by not more than two or three addresses from different Friends. Far be it for me to advocate a fixed plan, or anything resembling a liturgy; far also from desiring the utterance of prayer in a “formal or customary manner,” but I do think that this Apostolic pattern is one which we may well seek for ability from on High to carry out, both in the acts it calls for, and in the restraints it implies.
One of the things most wanting in our congregational worship is, the utterance of united praise. How often has a conspicuously “good” meeting ended in a feeling of flatness and incompleteness, because, though the hearts of many are secretly desiring to return thanks for God for His goodness to us, no expression is given to it. Joyful thanksgiving is wonderfully infectious; and an offering in humble heartfelt praise, at the conclusion of such a meeting as I have been describing, has often a powerful effect in fixing and confirming on the minds of those present the lessons and impressions received in the course of the preceding worship.
The natural and most appropriate mode of expressing praise and glad thanksgiving is in song. The power thus to express ourselves, and the desire to do so, are amongst God’s gifts to us, to be used for His glory. But this is an exercise which, in this country and in modern times, we have excluded from our meetings for worship. Our early Friends did not do so. Their views and practice are described by Barclay in his Apology (Prop. xii. sec. 26) thus:– “As to the singing of Psalms, ... the case is just the same as in the two former of preaching and prayer. We confess this to be a part of God’s worship, and very sweet and refreshing when it proceeds from a true sense of God’s love in the heart, and arises from the Divine influence of the Spirit; which leads souls to breathe forth either a sweet harmony, or words suitable to the present condition; whether they be words formerly used by the saints, and recorded in Scripture, such as the Psalms of David, or other words.”
I would by no means desire to see singing become a prominent feature in our public worship; but should there not be liberty to give utterance to melodious praise on precisely the same putting forth, and with the like preparation of heart, as in the case of public Gospel testimony or supplication?
I deplore exceedingly the extent to which highly organized musical performances are introduced so largely into the “services” in many churches and chapels, and often advertised beforehand, so as really to warrant the reflection that places of worship are becoming to a large extent places of amusement. Against this we, with our spiritual views of what true worship is, surely have a testimony to bear. But I cannot think that entire abstention from the legitimate use of a thing is the noblest or more effective form of protest against its abuse. There are dangers and difficulties no doubt; but is it not possible that by confronting these in reliance upon the help of our Divine Master, and showing to other Churches a more excellent way, we may render better service to the cause of truth than by our present negative course?
To some minds at any rate the singing of hymns, in our homes or elsewhere, is a distinct “means of grace.” I have myself been present at meetings which, I could feel no doubt, ought to have been closed by the united singing of a hymn of praise, but were not. And on the other hand, the uplifting of even a single voice in a meeting in a holy song of thanksgiving has, in my experience, proved most refreshing and helpful.
All I plead for is, that there should be no absolute prohibition of singing in worship; but that if any loving disciple should feel constrained to raise the consecrated voice in song, as so many now do with appropriateness and acceptance in the recitation of hymns, it should not be discouraged. It would be open to others to remain silent or to join in singing the hymn, as their best feelings might dictate; and thus we should gain what we now so much lack – opportunities for united devotional praise.
Ilkley, July, 1892
Joseph John Dymond
Part 9 of this series is here.