Be silent , O all flesh.

This article was first published in The Call in 2011.

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Dear Friends,

In the stillness and silence of the power of the Almighty dwell, which never varies, alters, nor changes, but preserveth over and out of all the changeable worships, religions, ministers, churches, teachings, principalities, and powers, with the power of God, which keepeth over all this, to the kingdom of Christ, that is everlasting.”

(George Fox, Epistle 201)

It is unlike us to lead on George Fox. Worthy though our ancient friend was, and though he was both an apostle of Christ in his time and an elder and apostle to us now by his writings, we do not preach George Fox. We preach Christ. We preach the same Christ that Fox preached.

George Fox never founded the practice of silent worship; in fact it could be said that far from founding it he found it! It was the practice of a group known as the Seekers, who came into being in the 1620s, probable influenced by the preaching of the brothers Walter, Thomas, and Bartholomew Legate. This group of people had come out of all the forms and hierarchies of established religion, broken, poor in spirit (that wonderful state in which one realises that nothing, even one’s standing in a church, even one’s piety, even one’s works, even one’s humility, is of any value to God and in realising that takes the first step heavenward; “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3), and knew that their only hope was Jesus Christ. Their silence was one of waiting and hope – “Be silent, O all flesh, before the LORD: for he is raised up out of his holy habitation.” Zechariah 2:13. It was a silence and a hope that George Fox knew and recognised, and there is no better way to hear this than by his own testimony:

But as I had forsaken the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those esteemed the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. When all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do, then, oh, then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition; and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy.

Then the Lord let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give Him all the glory. For all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief, as I had been; that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus when God doth work, who shall hinder it? and this I knew experimentally.

My desire after the Lord grew stronger, and zeal in the pure knowledge of God, and of Christ alone, without the help of any man, book, or writing. For though I read the Scriptures that spoke of Christ and of God, yet I knew Him not, but by revelation, as He who hath the key did open, and as the Father of Life drew me to His Son by His Spirit. Then the Lord gently led me along, and let me see His love, which was endless and eternal, surpassing all the knowledge that men have in the natural state, or can obtain from history or books; and that love let me see myself, as I was without Him.” (GF, Journal, Ch1)

To meet in the silence of the flesh in those days was a matter of prophecy. It was prophecy to the sufficiency of Jesus Christ, before whom all things made by human invention are worthless. From that silence before the Lord all other things proceeded – prophesying, praying, preaching, teaching, singing – according to the anointing of the Holy Spirit. “All ye Friends, that wait in that which is pure in itself, which cannot lie, which doth not change, wait upon God, for God doth not change, and let all flesh be silent before the Lord, that the life may speak in all; then the mouth of the Lord is known, and God is exalted and glorified with his own work, which he brings forth.” (GF, Epistle 43).

Fox speaks of “them that are come to silent meetings… to feed there” (Epistle 131), meaning that such things as were broken and blessed by the Lord were to be had as spiritual sustenance at such meetings as observed the commandment “be silent , O all flesh”, but we know that early Quaker meetings, whilst ‘silent’ in that way were far from ‘quiet’ in another. The prophesying, praying, preaching, teaching, and singing all filled the air with sound.

Where does that find us today?

A Friend coined a word for religious proceedings which delighted the senses – he called it ‘religertainment’, a combination of the words ‘religion’ and ‘entertainment’. A second Friend replied with another coining – ‘religaxation’ – a combination of ‘religion’ and ‘relaxation’, by which he meant a meeting in which the silence does nothing more than soothe the senses. Each is a manifestation of the personalisation of religion. The disciples waited with ‘one accord’, taking the words from Acts 1:14 and 2:1.

We are a small and isolated people, our meetings are small and largely quiet. Perhaps that is meant to be so, perhaps we are keeping a particular, if small, candle of prophecy burning to let other professors of Christianity know that Jesus Christ is sufficient. Perhaps we are like a small number of soldiers ‘holding a line’ in the Lamb’s War. Our silence must therefore be the silence of all flesh, and if we are quiet that must be the outward testimony to the inward silence. It must be at the Lord’s command, and must be broken when we are commanded to speak, to prophesy, to preach, to pray, to teach, or to sing.

Someone unused to Friends’ worship recently asked “Why are Friends not more exuberant?” He had been invited to the funeral of a Friend which took the form of a meeting for worship (albeit within the discipline of the liberal body where the name of Christ is rarely heard). He was surprised to find that no one spoke, and at last felt impelled himself to stand and speak about the deceased person. He left at the end somewhat dissatisfied, but perhaps he had not considered that it had been the Lord’s will that he and no one else should speak on that occasion. Who knows?

One last thing about the appeal to the senses in worship. When we are come at last to Jesus Christ and know his love and salvation, the whole world has a different feel and scent to it. It is fresh to our senses, fresh to our intelligence, as it is to be seen with the refreshment of our spirits. There is nothing amiss with what may be given in worship pleasing the sense or the intelligence, but only if that measure of pleasing is according to the Lord and not according to us. There is nothing wrong with singing or with ‘exuberance’ as long as it is in answer to the clear prompting of the Lord. It is not to be an end in itself, either to impress or please a visitor or to delight ourselves. If we sing the words of the Psalmist or of Whittier or of Wesley it should be because the Lord has given us those words to sing. Otherwise we are not in the same spirit as were the Psalmist or Whittier or Wesley when the Lord led them to write their words. Take heed however, Friends, that the prophecy we are given may not always delight us nor be agreeable to the world.

Therefore silence all flesh, and see your own ways be clean.” (GF, Epistle 47)

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