Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel
ON BEING A QUAKER MINISTER
All Friends that know the light, which is the life in Christ, be faithful in the truth, and spread it abroad; answering the light of Christ in everyone (George Fox, Epistle 337).
There are many forms of ministry and each person in a Quaker meeting will have his or her own form of service. My subject here is the prophetic ministry of the spoken word. Anyone may be given something to say during the meeting for worship. Our worship takes place under the discipline of silence and we speak of being “set free” to speak under the guidance of the Light. This can happen to anyone, for “the light in one is the light in all”. Nevertheless it is generally accepted that some may be more likely to minister in this way than others and may have a special calling or gift for this. Like Quakers in other countries we in Britain used to recognise vocal ministry as a special gift and function by formally recording the names of ministers. We discontinued the practice in the 1920s because all too often prophetic ministry became confused with eloquence and sermonising. There is certainly a place for a good, well-informed and carefully prepared sermons or lectures, and we need more of them, but that is not what I am writing about here.
In our kind of vocal ministry the first requirement is to listen. First we listen inwardly to the Light which is the source of the words we are given to say and which gives us the power to say them. This is the witness of God or Christ in us. Secondly we must be fully alert to those who will hear the words we pass on to them. A George Fox puts it we must “sound deep into the witness of God in all”. “Sound” is the nautical term for plumbing an unknown depth of water. We are reaching out to something that is somewhere in all people but it may be ignored and obscured as it struggles with worldly concerns and creaturely activities. Appropriate ministry will help to make the light in others to be clearer and stronger. Careful discernment is needed but in my experience this is rarely a conscious mental process on either side. There is nothing wrong with silently rehearsing what you have to say beforehand but it may still come out differently. I have often sat down feeling that there is something important that I have left unsaid only to have the gap filled by the next speaker. When you are expected to speak at a pre-arranged gathering of course you need to prepare yourself and it is no bad thing to write something down. But keeping strictly to your prepared script may be a fatal mistake. I have seen opportunities with a potentially receptive audience thrown away because the speaker was too anxious to give the message that he or she had prepared without giving enough consideration to the spoken or unspoken questions of the listeners.
Unity in Diversity
All Friends are expected to study and learn to the limit of their abilities and opportunities but these vary greatly. Formal education has never been a requirement for a Quaker minister. Diversity of temperament and social background is the mark of any live Quaker meeting that is open to the Light. Sensitivity to what is required of us may be the gift of what Friends call a “limited minister”. A Friend may be mentally impaired in a way that prevents him or her from exercising other functions but he or she may still be recognised as an effective minister. I am university trained and have a facility with words and that affects my particular ministry but it does not make it better than another’s. In spite of my facility with words I am socially illiterate and have never been capable of performing the standard administrative functions without which our meetings could not exist. These personality defects would be a serious defect in a “minister of religion” or pastor in any other church. Christ saud “I go to prepare a place for you”. We say that Christ also comes to give a place for everyone in a Quaker meeting. There is a Quaker way of being and doing but no Quaker type or temperament.
A Quaker minister in 17th century saw himself or herself as doing just what Paul did in the 1st century – “preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things that concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him…” At that time nearly everyone who heard them would have agreed with those words and expected a message that used the language of the English Bible. The problem was that most people were looking for an external meaning. They mostly applied the words of the Bible to other people, in other times and places. The Quakers were asking them to dump all their previous assumptions and interpretations and to begin all over again from scratch, applying what they heard to themselves as an inward personal experience. Those religious assumptions may still be prevalent in the USA and elsewhere but in Britain now, and among those who call themselves Quakers, we are “sounding” men and women who do not know the Bible and who make do with different assumptions. So we can take nothing for granted. A Quaker minister of the Christian gospel in a Quaker meeting may now find himself in a foreign land. The natives may be friendly and may already know a deeper inner truth but if we are to be part of the same communion we have to find a way of sharing our historical tradition with them. With those of another faith we can commune but remain in our different communities. In an ecumenical setting the Bible provides a common language to start with and there are varying degrees of communion. But for as long as we call ourselves “Quaker” rather than something else we need to be clear as to what makes us different from other Christians.
The Travelling Ministry
Other churches have found it necessary to have a formal structure or constitution, a belief system and some kind of hierarchy in order to survive. Quakers claim to rely on “the spirit”. If this elusive quality is lacking we start to fade away. This has been a recurring problem in Quaker history. The answer has been in the constant stream of visiting ministers between one country and another. You could call it a sharing of ideas and enthusiasm. Books cannot do it and it has to be personal and vocal. And it starts from a local meeting or special group. We tend to think of biblical prophets as isolated figures but if you read carefully you will see that there were always, perhaps just a few, supporters in the background who usually remained anonymous. In our meetngs now a Travelling Minute is often confused it with a Travelling Letter (which is a social introduction) and Britain Yearly Meeting no longer issues or receives Travelling Minutes. I have never had a problem getting one from my Monthly (or Area) Meeting but my message has been seen as my personal concern rather than as representing the meeting as a whole. So travelling ministry is more likely to be promoted by informal networks like the New Foundation. . We have “Woodbrooke on the road” but that is a teaching ministry and not quite the same thing. It is good to increase knowledge and open up new channels of thought but prophetic moinistry challenges the ignorance that does not know its name.
This means that success is uncertain and the results are not easily seen in the short term. In Lille I could address a large and attentive audience of Seventh Day Adventists, mainly Black but French-speaking. I could use the Bible to establish common ground and to contest some of their most firmly held beliefs. They were warm-hearted and convinced of my sincerity and I could hardly expect more than that. The incipient group that organised this visit has ceased all contact with Friends but that does not prove that they are “lost”. A few Quakers were present from Paris and Brussels. There may have been some resonance there but that is not for me to say. We go forward in faith. On another occasion o local Quaker had arranged for me to address an ecumenical gathering in Béziers. All denominations were represented including an independent Evangelical pastor and the hosts were the convent of Poor Clares. I had forgotten my notes and although I am never short of words I did not feel that I had spoken well. The true mnistry came from my companion, Michael Hughes. A travelling minister always has a companion but Michael knew very little French and modestly styled himself my chauffeur. Nevertheless when someone asked the key question, “Why did you come?”, he gave the right answer, to the effect that Quakers followed the inward leading of Christ and went wherever Christ sent them. His few words in broken badly pronounced French brought everyone together in a wonderful way. On my last visit of this nature to France the minister was the Conservative Friend, Nancy Hawkins who spoke no French. I accompanied her as interpreter but our audiences were never in any doubt that it was her ministry and not mine. She had complete trust in what I said on her behalf and she was the focus of attention. Most Friends were much less receptive than fellow Christians but George Fox had something to say about that in his Epistle 35: …“answer that in them all that they have closed their eyes to….. Neither be lifted up in your openings and prophecies.”
In Australia and New Zealand my wife and I experienced the whole gamut of possible reactions. In every country I have always found Friends to be welcoming and generously hospitable but it is frustrating when they cannot understand a visit in anything but social terms. Sometimes we were shunted off to fringe groups that were very rewarding, but there was usually someone who understood and worked to arrange meetings for us. Two new meetings consisting largely of Attenders were especially welcoming. My wife could talk to Friends individually from a slightly different perspective and in somewhat different terms. In Australia there was a kind of cumulative effect. Or initial reception was very guarded but as as we were passed from one regional meeting to another there was greaternreadiness to see us as more han just visitors.. In the end my travelling minute was endorsed by Australia Yearly Meeting central office although I had not asked for that. In New Zealand the YM Clerk was especially kind and one of our best opportunities was with the couple who were the next Clerks. Wonderful things happen when you “go forward in faith.” When I went with Michael Hughes to France our initial “call” was to go to Congènies. This small town had had been an important Quaker Meeting that had ceased to exist for nearly a hundred years. We were total strangers and had no contacts who could do anything for us. On the way we stopped at a convent that is well known to French Friends and after the meal I spoke to the lady sitting opposite. When I told her where I was going she said: “I have a house there.” A way opened and it is a flourishing Quaker venue now and the centre of a Monthly Meeting. I did almost nothing more myself apart from a few visits and writing letters. The Quaker presence there is notb as Christian as I would wish but we were, after all, only messengers. We do not take Christ anywhere or ive him to anybody. He goes where he will and waits for us to come.
The above may seem a long way from the occasional ministry in our local meetings for worship but it is all part of the same thing. Although a call to ministry requires the full use of whatever learning and expertise we possess, different ministers have different limitations. Head-knowledge is not essential and neither is a strong out-going personality. We do not know at th time what effect our ministry may have and mostly we shall never know. It’s just a question of being faithful within the compass of ones own measure. Ministry during worship is preceded and followed by silence and we must hope it is the right kind of silence. On more public occasions Friends do not applaud the speaker and there two good reasons for this. Firstly the minister must not be encouraged to suppose that he or she is anything special. Any merit and thanks belong to God alone. Secondly clapping after a talk can mean very little. I got spontaneous applause once from a primary class of Malagasy children. Their culture teaches them to value eloquence but I am pretty sure they had not understood a word of it. – and yet, you never know. With a Quaker audience thoughtful silence is the best possible reaction and embarrassed thanks for “an interesting tak that has given us a lot to think about“ the worst. That is a polite way of expressing disagreement and is quaker-speak for “Don’t bother to come again.”
I have been told that I have changed lives by what I said but that cannot be true. The only thing that can change a life has to come from within that person. The “answering” goes both ways and any response is mutual. On the whole I am glad we do not have “recorded” ministers. It is a gift or “opportunity” for the occasion that any Quaker has to be prepared for, even if some are more predisposed than others. We have many good ministers of the word who never think of themselves in that way. When they are called to speak to other churches or faiths it should be clear that they have the weight and authority of a long tradition behind them and are on an equal footing with other speakers with fancy names and costumes.. Within the wider fellowship of being a Quaker there is an indefinable fellowship of ministers. The English word translates several Greek and Hebrew ones but the New Testament one that appeals to me is huperétes. It refers to one who receives orders but more specifically to the rowers on a trireme. They were not like later galley-slaves but free citizens and volunteers. They had to keep in time with one another and trust the steersman and captain as towhere they were going. That is my idea of a Quaker ministers – fellow-oarsmen who are attentive to the voice of their helmsman.
“With that power of God ye will answer the witness of God in all, and bring them to that; that with that they may have a part in the kingdom of God; and share with you of the same; in which ye will have peace, life, joy, dominion and prosperity..… So, go on in the truth, answering it in everyone, in the inward parts in everyone” (George Fox, Epistle217).
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Thanks, Bill, for pointing out this post. I had not seen it before now and have been grateful to read it and to learn from Michael's long experience. I was also grateful for the brief glimpse of Michael Hughes, whom I also met on a couple of occasions.