Quaker Theology #15

The Spiritual Similarities of Quaker Silence
and Pentecostal Glossolalia in Worship

By Ho Yan Au

The means for worship and liturgy vary among Christian denominations. Traditional churches such as the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican/Episcopal Church promote a sensible sacredness and solemnity through symbolic rituals with materials such as incense, bells, candles, etc. Protestant churches simplify the whole process by abandoning the use of materials and focus on preaching and scripture readings. Undeniably, they can potentially draw worshippers’ focus on God and mediate his presence.

However, I suggest that Pentecostal glossolalia and Quaker silence are distinct means for worship since ontologically, they are about the direct guidance of the Spirit and practically they usher this directness by a personal contact with the Spirit without words, music, materials and priests. Outwardly, Quaker silence seems to be different from Pentecostal glossolalia – a contrast of inward and outward in two aspects. First, as Daniel N. Maltz says, Quakers take the inner spiritual self and seek for inspiration from the Spirit by silent waiting, while Pentecostals "conceptualize the Holy Spirit as external" by regarding themselves as "vessels being filled by the Spirit."[1]

Second, silence focuses on the inward light which is intangible while glossolalia per se is an outward manifestation which is audible. Nevertheless, implicitly, they both share four spiritual characteristics– 1. a sign of direct experience with God, 2. the Spirit’s sovereignty in worship, 3. the edification of self and others, and 4. the challenge of human language which will be elaborated in the following.

It is worth noting that in this article, "Pentecostal glossolalia" does not carry a denominational meaning, but solely refers to a spiritual phenomenon. This is for two reasons. First, the interpretation of glossolalia varies among Pentecostal denominations. The Assembly of God in the USA and the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) uphold the belief of glossolalia as an initial physical evidence of the Spirit baptism, while Elim Pentecostal Church of Britain does not have the same doctrine.[2]

Second, there is no common understanding of glossolalia between Classical Pentecostals and charismatics who experienced the Spirit baptism and gifts in the mainline protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church. Missiologically, referring to the Lukan illustration in Acts 2, Classical Pentecostals in the early stage of the movement believed that glossolalia was a gift for world evangelization by speaking local languages without learning. In addition, from the Pauline account of glossolalia, they also find the evangelical purpose of glossolalia used in the public as a sign to non-believers so that they may know Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 14:22).[3] Eschatologically, based on their premillennial view, Classical Pentecostals consider glossolalia to be a sign of the final harvest and the imminent second coming of Jesus Christ.

Charismatics neither uphold the doctrine of initial physical evidence, nor the missiological nor eschatological views. They believe that it is a gift from the Spirit for praise and prayer, a sign of the Spirit renewing the church and uniting Christians from all traditions.

However, they both agree on the use of glossolalia for worship, and hence this article is concerned with its functions and spiritual significance in worship. The word "Pentecostal" carries a broader meaning than denominations and refers to movements of the Spirit which revives and renews churches with the outpouring and endowment of gifts from the Spirit.

British Quakerism today has become theologically and religiously more liberal than Twentieth Century Liberal Quakerism.[4] Its members do not just adhere to Christian faith, but also to Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Universalism, pantheism, atheism or nontheism. For Evangelical Quakers, some of them believe in Jesus Christ as the only true God and the Saviour, while some of them regard themselves as Christian because of their acceptance of Jesus’ ethical teachings or based on their own definitions. Pink Dandelion proposed the term "post-Christian" to describe the diverse spiritualities within the Society.[5] Nonetheless, they still worship together at Meetings through silence, which they insist is the only medium for direct guidance of the spirit(s).

Their reasons for silence are almost the same as the early Quakers in the seventeenth century: the redundancy of preaching and a distrust of human language.[6] They believed that God’s Word was not solely represented by scripture preached by ministers, but was rather an "ongoing and progressive process to be realized in every man." It is absolutely possible for every individual to directly receive divine revelation from God without preaching.[7] Therefore, there is no need to keep such a role-separation of preacher from listeners, but instead, everybody can play these two roles simultaneously through listening to God silently.

Moreover, as preaching is communicated through human language which can easily be used in "trivial, irreligious or untruthful matter…which gratified the earthly but not the spiritual side of man,"[8] they think that spiritual messages can be distorted by earthly ideas and consequently the edifying power is diminished. Hence, complete silence with a well-prepared heart that waits for God’s word and the glow of the inward light is the best way to receive the purest and truest inspirations. As the founder George Fox urged his adherents,

Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts, and then thou wilt feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord God, whereby thou wilt receive his strength and power from whence life comes, to allay all tempests, against blusterings and storms. That is it which moulds up into patience, into innocency, into soberness, into stillness, into stayedness, into quietness, up to God, with his power.[9]

Nowadays at Quaker Meetings, silence is still "the central part of its ritual" and believed to be a "…medium through which God’s will is heard, voiced and discerned."[10] After understanding the definitions and meanings of Pentecostal glossolalia and Quaker silence, we can explore their spiritual similarities during worship under four headings.

1. Signs of direct experience of God.

Both Pentecostal glossolalia and Quaker silence lead to a direct experience of God through three processes: self-disclosure, intimacy, and transcendence.

Firstly, they usher a divine-human self-disclosure which is due to a mutual pursuit for each other. The American Quaker scholar Rufus Jones believes that "God is seeking for persons even as persons are seeking for God".[11] Seeking implies a self preparation of the seeker for communication with others. Quakers prepare themselves for the spirit(s) by intentionally maintaining a physical and spiritual stillness while Pentecostals worship in tongues, the utterances of which are seen as a desperate cry to God to reveal himself more and more.

For Friends, the divine disclosure comes when "the Inner Light begins to glow–a tiny spark". It will "blaze and illuminate our dwelling" and "make of our whole being a source from which the Light may shine out" if attention is paid to it with love.[12] The divine discloses himself in a status of silence which becomes "the welcoming acceptance of the other."[13]

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