Presbyterians and Quakers Together

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R. Scott Clark

Puritan Board Senior
With permission I posted this to my old website. I ran across it today and thought it would be useful here. I spent part of my weekend getting caught up on the back issues of the Nicotine Theological Journal - which I recommend enthusiastically.
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Reprinted from the NICOTINE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 3 (October, 1999): 1-4, by permission of the publishers.
For more information regarding the NTJ contact the editors. The NTJ is sponsored by the Old Life Theological Society,
an association dedicated to recovering the riches of confessional Presbyterianism. Co-editors: John R. Muether and
D. G. Hart. Subscriptions are $7.00 per year ($9.00 Canadian); $10.00 for institutions ($12.00 Canadian). Back
issues are $3.00. At least one other essay is online here. Here is another.

Why is it that when Presbyterians gather for prayer they look more like Quakers than heirs of the magisterial Reformation? To be sure, Presbyterian prayer meetings possess a little less spontaneity than the Quaker service since someone is assigned the opening and concluding prayer. But in between Presbyterians rely on the Spirit to lead them in the fashion of Quakers, with one person praying for this request another for that, until the length of the silence becomes unbearable and the designated supplicant utters the concluding prayer. Whatever allowances we might want to make for informal gatherings of the saints, surely the inheritors of a theological tradition that stresses decency and order might want to reconsider a spiritual discipline (the trendy way of putting it) that is inherently indecent and disorderly. Strong words those, but the pattern of informal gatherings of the saints for prolonged times of petitions has become so familiar to conservative Presbyterians that they seldom see how inappropriate it is to their believes (or they are afraid to voice objections because of the charges of impiety that will surely follow). So vituperative language may be in order to rouse contemporary Calvinists from their Spirit-led slumbers.


OF COURSE, SOME OF THE animus expressed here toward prayer meetings is simply the product of having grown up in an evangelical home. I can remember, with much pain, those gatherings of teenagers in the basement of our church, where each pimply-faced kid was expected to be vulnerable and reveal something fairly juicy that demanded prayer. If you offered no request, others could not only assume that you were not sufficiently spiritual to be thinking about those in need or your own dependence on God. These small groups of prayer were good preparation for my senior year sociology class in high school, where forced intimacy also prevailed and charges of cynicism and insensitivity also followed my choked snickering at another person's self-disclosure of failure or woe. Rather than making me more sensitive, prayer meetings only made me more aware of how forced and fake "sharing" is outside the normal bonds of friendship and family, whether religious or secular. My insensitivity was so pronounced that instead of revealing something truly personal during sociology class' warm-up exercises, I commented on the cereal I had eaten that morning. For some reason, the gals didn't think that my precious nugget about Life cereal compared with the problems they were having at home.
The Funny thing about small group prayer is how little intimacy actually prevails. Most of the requests center on the body and its ailments - someone suffering from cancer, upcoming surgery for another church member, a parent afflicted with Alzheimer's, troubles with digestion. Heaven forbid that anyone would actually pray about two of the things for which Christ prayed in the Lord's Prayer, namely the forgiveness of sins and withstanding temptation. (Yes, he did mention daily bread, but modern day request for the body make up much more than one-third of the total number of petitions, which means that we may be concerned with physical needs than our Lord was.) In fact, what would be really intimate and personal would be asking for prayer n coping with the attractive new church member who makes you wish you were ten years younger, or mentioning a recent binge on the pint of New York Super Fudge that is no longer in the freezer. Which is only to say that we like requests that require some vulnerability, but nothing as messy as real sin and temptation.


BUT THE AGONY OF SMALL group prayer only begins with the time of taking requests, which can last longer than the actual time allotted for addressing God. If, like me, you would like to pray quietly during this time, you are frozen stiff when it comes time to pick someone to open and close the meeting. Some, like myself, especially dread having to open, since in the space of fifteen seconds, you have to compose your thoughts, scan all the items for prayer and group them around certain themes (e.g., ear, nose and throat; joints; hearts and lungs,) and craft a glibly reverent prayer. And since Presbyterians avoid using set forms, we have no guides for launching into this sea of material like that supplied in the simple form of the collect. Far better is it to be chosen the closer - that way you can hear everything else that has been prayed, tie up loose ends, and best of all, gain time to compose your thoughts. But the process of constructing your own prayer while others are engaging in free prayer raises real questions about the value of those meetings.


STILL, YOU WANT TO PRAY IN A way that keeps you from sounding stupid or unspiritual, which means you have to think about what you are going to say to the Lord of the universe in front of these fervent Christians (providentially, since they are more enthusiastic than confessional they won't likely care if you sound stupid as long as you sound zealous). At the same time, you need to make sure you don't pray for the exact same thing as someone else. Nor would it be good to contradict another supplicant. But if you are thinking about your turn to pray, you are not exactly praying along with the other people as they pray. In fact, small group prayer appears to be self-defeating, since the whole point these gatherings is to engage in a prolonged time of corporate prayer. And if each person is worried about what he is going to say, then the sense of corporateness is lost, and the meeting is really only a series of individual prayers. In effect, small group prayer provides a corporate setting for prayers that should really be part of private devotion. Which means that small group prayer - to use the vernacular - is far more horizontal than vertical. It's a way to help us be close to others, not a very fitting environment for directing prayers to God. It's therapy not piety.


IF, HOWEVER, PRAYER IS NOT about making ourselves vulnerable to others or displaying in spontaneous fashion our heartfelt trust in God, if it is actually, as the Shorter Catechism has it, "the offering up to God for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ," then perhaps a better version of small group prayer would be to read Scripture and then pray on the basis of what God's word reveals. Instead of acting like Quakers and letting the Spirit lead, Presbyterians should be relying upon the inscripturated word that is supposed to govern all things Reformed. A prayer meeting, Reformed style, should be a dialogue between God and his people, with Scripture reading, and then a prayer in response, another Scripture reading, and another prayer, and so on. At least this way, God would get some say in what his people are praying, and the requests might actually be for things revealed in the Bible - like perseverance, not health.


But even a truly Reformed prayer meeting would not permit enough time for preparation. It still relies on spontaneity and assumes that truly spiritual people should be able to pray publicly at the drop of a hat. This kind of thinking even haunts Presbyterians when they gather for corporate worship. Presbyterians in the pews want their ministers to pray a good and moving prayer extemporaneously. If he uses a written prayer then lots of people get jumpy. That's because a minister should be a real man of God, and real men of God don't need crutches when they pray. Thus well intended, well constructed, and theologically sound prayers are supposed to proceed organically from the godly heart (even though these same ministers could never be entrusted to write a new creed or revise existing ones - "ours is not a creed-writing age"). Preparation, notes, or prayer books are telltale signs of the lukewarm heart.


THIS EXPLAINS, IN PART, THE Presbyterian attitude toward liturgies. Liturgy here refers to the regular or repeated use of forms, prayers, and readings in corporate worship. At the simplest level, of course, everyone in corporate worship uses a liturgy in the sense that they follow an order of worship rather habitually. In the purest sense of free worship, only Quakers and Pentecostals qualify since they wait upon the apparently unpredictable movement of the Spirit. But if an assembly of believers uses some set order, even if it is only ten praise songs followed by a sermon and prayer, then they are following a liturgy in the most general sense. Presbyterians do not oppose liturgies in this broad sense because if they did it would mean having to retype the entire bulletin every week, instead of simply inserting the selected hymns, Scripture readings, and sermon title. But they do oppose liturgies in the narrow sense and here they generally follow the argument developed by Charles Hodge. "The great objections to the use of liturgies are," he wrote, "that the authoritative imposition of them is inconsistent with Christian liberty; that they never can be made to answer all the varieties of experience and occasions; and that they tend to formality, and cannot be an adequate substitute for the warm outgoings of the heart moved by the spirit of genuine devotion."


Since the NTJ is on record in favor of the regulative principle of worship, it would be hard to quarrel with Hodge's first reason that bishops or higher assemblies would be tyrannical in requiring all congregations to use the same forms and order of worship And historically, this objection has carried the day, even when Presbyterian denominations have produced good liturgies and recommended them to ministers and sessions. Liberty of conscience has legitimately permitted Presbyterian congregations to follow their own patterns and customs.


BUT HODGE'S OTHER REASONS need further scrutiny. His second argument - that liturgies cannot meet the variety of circumstances requiring prayer - is actually disproved by the practice of small group prayer meetings (not to mention the assumption about specificity in prayer that makes the Lord's Prayer unusable). Most of the requests made at such gatherings are almost always included in any number of the prayers that Reformed and Presbyterian ministers composed. For instance, the older Psalter Hymnal includes a prayer for the sick and spiritually distressed. It starts as follows:


Eternal and merciful God and Father, the eternal salvation of the living and the eternal life of the dying. You alone have life and death in your hands, You do continually care for us in such a way that neither health nor sickness, neither good nor evil can befall us; yes, not even a hair can fall from our heads without your will, You order all things for the good of believers.


We beseech you to grant us the grace of the Holy Spirit that he may teach us to know truly our miseries and to bear patiently your chastisements, which as far as our merits are concerned might have been ten thousand time more severe. We know that they are not tokens of your wrath but of your fatherly love towards us, that we might not be condemned with the world...


Space prevents reprinting this prayer in its entirety. But since the majority of requests at small group gatherings are health related, this prayer would actually apply in most situations. What is more, it includes petitions for spiritual ailments as well, thus covering all those gathered who are unwilling to bare their souls.


STILL, SOME MAY OBJECT WITH Hodge that prayers should be specific. But the dangers of specificity are rarely evident to its proponents. For instance, there is the pastoral practice of using the pastoral prayer to announce an accident or birth that happened in the hours just before worship and so is unknown to most of the congregation. It runs something like this: "Lord, we pray for brother Harry, who now lies in a coma at the Bucks County Memorial Hospital, room 215, owing to an auto accident late last night. We hold up his family, who request that church members not visit Harry, and ask that you would be merciful to them in your providence." As much as a spate of announcements mid-service destroys the natural rhythm of worship, such praying can be equally disruptive. And what about when the pastor forgets to pray from the pulpit for the request made by one member even though he mentioned all the requests of others? Of course, prayer is not something that should be manipulated to soothe wounded feelings or maintain good relations.
But what is the neglected person to think, that their request is chopped liver? And what does it say if a request goes unmentioned? Does it mean that God won't superintend and bless that situation'? At the same time, why should petitions be more specific than praise and thanksgiving? If we thank God for forgiveness from sin, for his adopting love, for his sanctifying grace, why can't request be equally general'? God is supposed to answer all kinds of prayer, even the undecipherable groaning of our hearts. Could it be that the demand for specific prayer goes beyond what God requires?


The most enduring of Hodge's objections is the notion that read prayers are not "an adequate substitute for the warm outgoings of the heart moved by the spirit of genuine devotion." Here is the clincher for low church Protestants. A read prayer cannot be a sincere prayer, and that's because sincerity has to be conveyed in one's own words; it cannot rely on the language of others. The folly of this idea is practically self-evident and calls to mind the alliance between Presbyterians and Quakers mentioned at the outset. Carried to its logical conclusion, as it is, with the left side of the liturgical/piety spectrum, this notion means that to express our deepest feelings for God we should not use English, or Latin, or any other known tongue; instead, we should devise our very own language. The problem is what happens when Pentecostals speak in tongues. So in some cases using inherited words is a good thing. What is more, some of the best prayers are ones that depend heavily on the language of Scripture or the rich idiom of the Shorter Catechism.


IN CONTRAST TO HODGE, JOHN Calvin taught that using forms for prayer was a fitting way to address God. He even constructed prayers to that end, many of which were used in Dutch Reformed family and corporate worship until the 1960s. Calvin wrote, I highly approve of it that there be a certain form, from which the ministers be not allowed to vary: that first, some provision be made to help the simplicity and unskillfuness of some; secondly, that the consent and harmony of the churches one with another may appear; and lastly, that the capricious giddiness and levity of such as affect innovations may be prevented. To which end I have showed that a catechism will be very useful. Therefore there ought to be a stated catechism, a stated form of prayer, and administration of the sacraments."


CALVIN'S REASONS STAND IN marked contrast to contemporary Presbyterian attitudes toward prayer. They imply, in a politically incorrect way, that not everyone is equal when it comes to praying well. Even the idea that some prayers are better than others comes as a shock to folks who think sincerity matters more than quality of expression. And if not everyone is equal, then praying in public may be legitimately limited to those who pray well. Calvin also thought liturgical uniformity was desirable. Observing the diversity of "styles" within the Presbyterian fold only confirms Calvin's point. Any common Presbyterian liturgy would be an improvement upon the diversity that prevails under the "leading" of the Spirit or better, the idiosyncrasies of taste. Finally, Calvin thought prayers could actually be silly and that good forms would prevent such silliness. Of course, if sincerity is the sole standard, dignity and beauty don't matter. But if prayers may actually displease God, then attention to proper form may be just as important as zeal.


Calvin stands in opposition to almost three centuries of Presbyterian practice under the influence of revivalism. Despite keen attention to precise doctrine and theological nuance, Presbyterians tolerate all manner of poor theology and spiritual vulgarity in prayer. But blaming evangelicals, a long and honorable tradition at the NTJ, will not explain everything since within the Westminster Standards themselves lurk doctrines that encourage subjective attitudes toward prayer. According to the Shorter Catechism, prayer is a means of grace, right along side preaching and the sacraments (88). But in the Heidelberg Catechism, prayer comes in the Third Part, Man's Gratitude (Q&A's 86-129), while preaching and the sacraments are in the Second Part, Man's Deliverance (Q&A's 12-85). Louis Berkhof explained the significance of this difference between Westminster and Heidelberg in his discussion of the means of grace. "Faith, conversion, and prayer," he wrote, "are first of all fruits of the grace of God, though they may in turn become instrumental in strengthening the spiritual life. They are not objective ordinances, but subjective conditions for the possession and enjoyment of the blessings of the covenant." For this reason, Berkhof corrected Presbyterians for adding prayer to preaching and sacraments as a means of grace. "Strictly speaking, only the Word and the sacraments can be regarded as means of grace, that is, as objective channels through which Christ has instituted in the Church, and to which He ordinarily binds Himself in the communication of His grace." (This may explain why the Westminster divines did not include a question and answer on how prayer becomes effectual the way they did for Word and sacrament.)


COULD IT BE, THEN, THAT THE, Westminster divines were showing the affects of pietism? That's not entirely a stretch if English Puritanism itself -~ was a parallel development to German pietism, even if far more tolerant of scholastic thought. Whatever the reason, the difference between the Shorter Catechism and the Heidelberg Catechism on prayer shows a movement among Puritans away from the sixteenth-century and Continental Reformed habit of identifying grace with the objective work of God, rather than the later pietistic and evangelical custom of blurring the distinctions between subjective experience and holy ordinances. Prayer becomes a means of grace in the middle of the seventeenth century, and by the late nineteenth century it takes on, a life of its own, receiving far more attention than the Lord's Supper (received at best once a month) and the Word preached (heard probably once a week).


THE POINT IS NOT THAT PRAYER is a bad thing, though small group prayer meetings may be. Instead, it is to restore what is a genuine privilege to its rightful place, alongside Word and sacrament. Prayer is a good thing. As the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, prayer "is the most important part of the thankfulness God requires of us" (Q&A 116). But it does not open the kingdom of heaven (preaching). Nor does it signify and seal God's promise to forgive our sins (Baptism and the Lord's Supper). As important as prayer is, participation in a prayer meeting may be less revealing than Word and sacrament about the piety of Christian persons. And if Presbyterians can come to their senses about prayer, they might abandon the Quaker practice of waiting for the Spirit, give up sitting in circles with their heads bowed, and thereby regain the stiffness and seriousness for which they are legendary.

Henry M. Lewis SC 88
 

Philip A

Puritan Board Sophomore
Ouch, been there.

When our church was originally being planted, we adopted the model that Rich Barcellos showed us, which was to assign a prayer issue to one of the men, and then read the prayer letter or concern. Once we were stood up with our own pastor, we ditched that as being "too rigid", and instead use the method as listed above, leaving each request to whoever "feels led". (Funny, I never get that feeling.) So now I take one request during the meeting so as to do my duty and check the box. How's that for Spirit quenching dead orthodoxy?

Thanks for posting this Dr. Clark. I was just talking to Rev. Morrison at High Desert URC about the NTJ this past Lord's Day, and resolved to get myself a subscription. I've now got an envelope in hand to take to the mailbox this morning.
 

ChristopherPaul

Puritan Board Senior
This is a very helpful article.

I often wanted to bring up some concerns with my elders at the church I used to attend, but never did. During prayer time people insist on sharing physical problems such as illnesses and injuries. Week after week you would pray about the same coworker, mother, friend, etc. What I really wanted prayer for was my struggles with sin and my inadequacies at being a husband, father, friend and witness. I often “joked” to my wife that one day I was going to raise my hand and express my struggles with unbelief and lack of meditation on the word of God. If I did, no doubt, the prayer leader would generalize the request by saying something like, “Well, I am sure we could all use prayer for that; anyone else have a request?” What would happen if came out and asked prayer about “coping with the attractive new church member”? Prayer has been a great struggle for me during my pre-reformed days and my post-reformed days. It seems very shallow and superficial and as the article stated which I never thought of it this way, very charismatic and quaker-ish.
 

MrMerlin777

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
Excellent article. Frankly, I've never thought of prayer meetings from that perspective before. (Most likely my modern American Evangelicalism upbringing is at least partly responsible.;) )
 

ADKing

Puritan Board Junior
While I sympathize with the main critique against modern prayer meetings I am concerned about some of the other statements and presuppositions in this article.

1. The author ponders, "COULD IT BE, THEN, THAT THE, Westminster divines were showing the affects of pietism? That's not entirely a stretch if English Puritanism itself -~ was a parallel development to German pietism, even if far more tolerant of scholastic thought.Although it would be a fair study to attempt to prove this (though I am unpersuaded he is correct) nevertheless this seems like a very weak argument for dismissing the Westminster tradition.

2. The NTJ claims The NTJ is sponsored by the Old Life Theological society,an association dedicated to recovering the riches of confessional Presbyterianism. However a good part of this article was devoted to disagreeing with "confessional presbyterianism" of the Westminster variety by advocating liturgies and set forms of prayer. As he said, there are examples of this in the reformed tradition at large however this is not what the Westminster Directory of Public Worship advocates. Why is it that today so many people want to claim to be confessional presbyterians and then almost at the same time show that they are not in sympathy with the tradition to which they claim to adhere? This is a concern of mine because the problem is not limited to this article. There are many people claiming to be "confessional presbyterians" but more and more I see this term being drained of any real meaning. :2cents:
 

Semper Fidelis

2 Timothy 2:24-25
Staff member
While I sympathize with the main critique against modern prayer meetings I am concerned about some of the other statements and presuppositions in this article.

1. The author ponders, "COULD IT BE, THEN, THAT THE, Westminster divines were showing the affects of pietism? That's not entirely a stretch if English Puritanism itself -~ was a parallel development to German pietism, even if far more tolerant of scholastic thought.Although it would be a fair study to attempt to prove this (though I am unpersuaded he is correct) nevertheless this seems like a very weak argument for dismissing the Westminster tradition.

2. The NTJ claims The NTJ is sponsored by the Old Life Theological society,an association dedicated to recovering the riches of confessional Presbyterianism. However a good part of this article was devoted to disagreeing with "confessional presbyterianism" of the Westminster variety by advocating liturgies and set forms of prayer. As he said, there are examples of this in the reformed tradition at large however this is not what the Westminster Directory of Public Worship advocates. Why is it that today so many people want to claim to be confessional presbyterians and then almost at the same time show that they are not in sympathy with the tradition to which they claim to adhere? This is a concern of mine because the problem is not limited to this article. There are many people claiming to be "confessional presbyterians" but more and more I see this term being drained of any real meaning. :2cents:
Ironically, I think Dr. Clark would agree with you about claiming to be Confessional while not is disingenuous but Dr. Clark is not a Presbyterian.
 

ADKing

Puritan Board Junior
Ironically, I think Dr. Clark would agree with you about claiming to be Confessional while not is disingenuous but Dr. Clark is not a Presbyterian.

Indeed! The criticism was not aimed at Dr. Clark. However the editors of the NTJ are presbyterians and do make the claim to be confessional.
 

Craig

Puritan Board Senior
This is a very helpful article.

I often wanted to bring up some concerns with my elders at the church I used to attend, but never did. During prayer time people insist on sharing physical problems such as illnesses and injuries. Week after week you would pray about the same coworker, mother, friend, etc. What I really wanted prayer for was my struggles with sin and my inadequacies at being a husband, father, friend and witness.
This is a fairly common confession within my church...typically it is not during formal worship. It is during our "basic training" (which is for men being prepared for leadership w/in the church and husbandry/fatherhood) or one of our Bible studies, but it is not uncommon.

In fact, one of our elders was within my prayer group in basic training. He gave me sound advice when I made a confession of my failings as a husband and this was followed up by prayer.

I agree there can be a danger to "prayer meetings", but in my experience, Presbyterians tend to have difficulty sharing their struggles. When you do this, you express a lack of faith in God and believe His church isn't there to do what she is called to do.

I know, I know: these can be occassions for "showing off"...but what about the very real danger of laziness on the part of those opting for a more "formal" (that's what we really mean, right?) approach to these prayer times. I don't mean simply that rote is bad, rather, the fact this would contribute to the saints not making proper confession where needed and addressing eachother's needs before God...especially at a pressing time of need.

Why not require people to simply pray biblically and with reverence? Why not opt for a more disciplined "spontaneity" than for stifling our prayers?

If these directives primarily stifle prayers of the church to the point of near silence (which I believe they would), where, may I ask, can a Christian find freedom to pray if it is not in the Church?
 

Semper Fidelis

2 Timothy 2:24-25
Staff member
I finally had time to read this in full. Two honest impressions:

1. A very well written article.
2. I sometimes "hate" learning new things that reveal how sloppy I am.
 

jaybird0827

PuritanBoard Honor Roll
...
Why not require people to simply pray biblically and with reverence? Why not opt for a more disciplined "spontaneity" than for stifling our prayers?
...

Henry, Matthew -
A Method for Prayer, with Scripture Expressions Directions for Daily Communion with God

This book gave me an invaluable "kick-start" at one time and I continue to refer to it. It has helped me tremendously for family worship and also for when I'm asked to pray on occasion at our congregation's monthly prayer meeting.
 

R. Scott Clark

Puritan Board Senior
The editors of the NTJ are indeed confessional Presbyterians and have done much to help me and others to think more confessionally. While I might not now agree with everything the essay says, it was very helpful for me.

The author of the article may take a slightly higher view of the BCP than I might (though, if not imposed, many of the prayers are quite remarable. Is there a better prayer for illumination than that in the second sunday in advent?) but as I read it, the instructions of the DPW seem fairly extensive and detailed. The preface to the DPW admits the benefits of the use of the BCP while acknowledging the problems attached to its use and especially its imposition.

The DPW also seems to me to be, let us say, reluctant about "private meetings," at least if they impinge on public worship. In the colonies the old side was suspicious of pietist conventicles as were many of the old orthodox for many of the reasons given in the article.

Can they be Reformed? I think so, but I do agree with the major thrust of the article that there is much quasi-Quakerism or quasi-Pentacostalism in our small groups.

rsc
[SIZE=+1][/SIZE]
Indeed! The criticism was not aimed at Dr. Clark. However the editors of the NTJ are presbyterians and do make the claim to be confessional.
 

R. Scott Clark

Puritan Board Senior
I live in two worlds. As a faculty member in WSC I've subscribed the Westminster Standards ex animo and the Three Forms of Unity. As a minister in the URC I've subscribed the Three Forms according to the form of subscription in the URC CO.

So though not ecclesiastically Presbyterian, I am called to teach by my church in a Presbyterian seminary.

rsc

?

Dr. Clark is not a Presbyterian? Am I missing something?
 

Semper Fidelis

2 Timothy 2:24-25
Staff member
I live in two worlds. As a faculty member in WSC I've subscribed the Westminster Standards ex animo and the Three Forms of Unity. As a minister in the URC I've subscribed the Three Forms according to the form of subscription in the URC CO.

So though not ecclesiastically Presbyterian, I am called to teach by my church in a Presbyterian seminary.

rsc
Wait a minute...I thought you were a Lutheran? :confused:
 
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