Vocal Ministry

January 2, 2016 § 13 Comments

I have been reading Michael P. Graves’s Preaching the Inward Light: Early Quaker Rhetoric, in which he plumbs the writings and analyzes the few recorded sermons of early Friends for insights into what they thought was going on in their vocal ministry, how they explained it and talked about it, what they thought the rules and conventions should be to govern its practice. I am filling up pages with notes, and filling my mind with a host of questions about our own vocal ministry today,

Where does our vocal ministry come from? What do we think is happening when someone—when we ourselves—stand up to speak in meeting for worship? What distinguishes truly Spirit-led vocal ministry from the conscientious sharing of a heart-felt personal message . . . or is there no difference? How can we tell, for ourselves when we feel led to speak, and when others are speaking in meeting, whether the message comes from the Spirit? Should we even be weighing this question when others speak at all? Or even when we speak?

Do we even care about these questions and their answers—that is, about the faith behind our practice? Should we care? Does it matter?—do our answers to these questions affect our vocal ministry as individuals and our experience of vocal ministry as communities? If so, how?

I think the answers to these questions do matter. I suspect that they affect the quality of the messages we hear in meeting for worship. I’m certain they provide an important context that shapes the content of our messages. And I believe that our beliefs and attitudes towards vocal ministry shape how our meeting approaches the eldership of vocal ministry—what kinds of religious education we provide about it, how we nurture it, how we elder it, and what we tell newcomers, our children, and our visitors about it.

I’m going to try to answer these questions about the origins and nature of vocal ministry and the significance that our faith regarding our vocal ministry has for its actual practice.

I usually get into trouble when I try to do this, and so it makes me nervous. But I really do believe that these questions and their answers matter, so I keep trying. Because we don’t very often ask them. One of the reasons we don’t give vocal ministry the kind of attention we give our testimonies, for instance, is that we are more comfortable leaving the agreements we have about vocal ministry unspoken. Why open a can of worms? Theology always causes trouble. And God forbid we should have rules, make judgments.

And I agree. Theology does cause trouble. Rules make me nervous, too. Judge not, lest ye be judged. But let’s not kid ourselves. We do have a theology around vocal ministry, both a theological legacy from our tradition, and an unspoken set of beliefs and attitudes about vocal ministry, even if we don’t want to call that theology. And we do have rules. And we do make judgments. It’s just that all this makes us very uncomfortable. So we don’t talk about it much in our meetings. Even though we have written about it quite a bit.

Furthermore, what does it mean when a religious community does not speak about the faith behind what it considers to be one of its quintessential community practices? If vocal ministry really is one of our essential practices, why don’t we talk about it all the time? What is this culture of silence hiding?

So I’m going to put on my spelunking gear, turn on my helmet light, and head down into the darkness and the silence around modern liberal Quaker vocal ministry; that is, into my own questions and doubts and fears and confusion about my own vocal ministry, and into what I perceive to be the tacit and sometimes not so tacit assumptions and agreements in the communities with which I’ve worshiped in the liberal branch of Quakerism. And even though I’ve rarely worshiped with Friends in programmed meetings, I’m even going to venture there now and then.


§ 13 Responses to Vocal Ministry

  • […] Where does vocal ministry come from?. […]

  • It would not be helpful to note how much each of you has contributed to this dialogue. Let me simply say that your responses IMHO are of very high quality.
    I am much more skeptical of Samuel Bownas’ book on ministry than most of you are. He was one of the second generation of leaders who “squelched” the charismatic spirit of ministry so characteristic of the first Friends. Read Michael Graves closely, and you will see that.

    • In the book I’m reading on early Quaker rhetoric, he says that Bownas’s book is the first major contribution to our written tradition that actually tries to lay out practical guidance for the minister, a kind of catechism of vocal ministry. This was an important contribution. And maybe it did quench the spirit. Or maybe it simply articulated an emerging response to the fact that the spirit was already waning to a significant enough degree to require addressing.

      For most religious literature is written in response to some need or crisis. It was the Babylonian captivity that jumpstarted the first real organization of the early books of the biblical canon.

  • treegestalt says:

    It really comes down to something from one of the first comments here — though I would not have put it as: “Is God real to us?” but rather: “Is God real?”

    Because God is real, what seems on the surface to be “individualistic” turns out in practice to belong to a deeper order than the explicit forms of order many people expect. God may remain the same; but God’s ways of communicating with-&-through people can be as subject to change as people are.

    Reducing the Life at work within and among us to some pat formula, whether that’s the ‘Personal Savior’ routine or some relic of the notions of Early Friends — is too likely to miss and reject what God is creating and growing in His people(s) currently.

  • Jim Schultz says:

    Ephesians 4:11 & 12

  • In his booklet “A Revolutionary Gospel,” Lewis Benson writes of three stages of work that seventeenth-century Friends undertook: the first in the sequence was turning people to Christ through preaching the Word (the substance of vocal ministry), which reached to the witness of God in others (convincing/convicting of sin); the second stage was settling and establishing the newly convinced, which entailed repentance and amendment of life; and the third was building on this newly laid foundation, thereby enabling the Church to form and become a witness to the society at large of the new order of righteous community.

    Many in our liberal meetings today are not yet convinced—have not moved into the first stage—and therefore the second and third stages of development (settling and building) go largely undiscovered. The work for any who have been inwardly convicted of truth and have learned the necessity of silently watching for its promptings for guidance to speak in meeting have before them the work of the first stage: turning people to Christ, the truth, through giving voice to the power and spirit of the Lord that can reach to the witness of God in everyone. This was the vocal (gospel) ministry as it was at first, and is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

    Benson concludes the segment on stages of the work with a paragraph that reminds, reassures, and, yes, comforts us that our time is not the only time of mistaken notions of individualism.

    “A fairly large segment of first-generation Quakers misunderstood the nature of the Quaker revolution. They thought it was leading to an individualistic righteousness and a loose association of free-wheeling religious individualists. They failed to catch the vision of a great people gathered to God by Christ who would learn together, obey together, witness together and suffer together. However, faithful Friends, who had grown up in the truth, became builders of the new righteousness and the new community.” (p.11)

  • isaacsmith says:

    Probably the best insight I have on this topic comes from Lewis Benson: vocal ministry is *ministry*, that is, it is a service done for the meeting to draw it further into the spirit of worship. This means that whatever is said should speak to the condition of those gathered and strengthen their connections to God and to each other.

    Now as in any kind of ministry, it’s easy to be well-meaning but still do it wrong: People who care for the sick, for example, know better than to offer up platitudes like “God never gives you more than you can handle” that don’t speak to the sick person’s condition. Similarly, a lot of vocal ministry is well-meaning–Friends think they should say something inspiring or they have an experience they’re trying to make sense of–but it has the opposite effect on the meeting for worship. It scatters, rather than draws Friends together. Anyone who has had to listen to someone go on for five minutes about, say, their encounter with a homeless person understands what I mean.

    When it comes to vocal ministry, my primary yardstick is, does this bring the meeting closer together in the Spirit or does it push them apart? The answer, of course, will vary from meeting to meeting: Doug Gwyn analogizes vocal ministry to manna from heaven, which serves the needs of those gathered on that day, and not on any other. So talking about vocal ministry will involve less theology *per se* and more cultivating that sense of service to the meeting, and specifically how to speak to the real needs of the meeting, not just one’s notions of what the meeting needs.

  • I am uncomfortable about talking about ministry, because my talk cannot address it.

    Early in my Quaker experience, I stood and spoke, and wondered- was that inspired ministry? And I could not work it out, or give arguments; yet if I consulted my feelings, I felt clear enough that it was. “It felt right” is all I can really say.

    I have said strange things in ministry, and if they were not inspired, I hope that the wisdom of the silence and the people will absorb and transcend or transform it.

    I heard ministry recently, and thought, that message was for the speaker himself- yet speaking it will make it clearer for him, and our Love can accept it. There is no harm in it. At my meeting the bad does not drive out the good.

  • […] Where does vocal min­istry come from?. […]

  • treegestalt says:

    The distinction between human and divine influences is significant; but the line is by no means a sharp one — more of a continuum in which messages at any point along the line are still serving some purpose within God’s ongoing shaping of the world.

    The key is that Messages are appropriate when they’re ‘prompted by’ God. Traditionally, this came to mean something like ‘If it’s a _real_ Message the minister is channeling God,’ which made people too reluctant to speak —

    and that, the results suggest, worked to ‘quench the Spirit’ and make Meetings less helpful to people who needed to hear more words for their development. It may also have worked to make people treat Messages worded to fit that theology, and people who often gave such Message, more seriously than they actually deserved.

    God provides many influences on our lives; and our situation still requires us to examine whatever meaning they convey, in the process of deciding whether or not that meaning is true enough to be helpful.

    I remember one Message I heard, toward the end of a Meeting where I’d been struggling strenuously with the question: “What do You really want me to do?”

    The speaker, new to the group, said that he and his wife just loved going to Quaker Meetings. They never attended another Meeting afterwards, that I know of — but the other part of the Message was that they and their baby really needed a place to stay for awhile. I hoped someone else in the Meeting would offer them some space afterwards, but nobody else did; and we did have room in our bookstore. Although they did stay longer than expected, and I sometimes wished the baby were better housebroken, I’m quite sure this was a true Message to me.

  • Ben, thank you for your thoughtful comment. Bownas’s book is precious to me, as well, as I say in my next post, which hasn’t seen its last review yet. I’ve not read many early Quaker journals, but the ones I have read all evince a deep sense of responsibility for vocal ministry, which they experience as a profound and even terrifying religious calling. I can’t imagine Elias Hicks staring off by mentioning something he just heard on NPR. On the other hand, I can’t imagine sitting raptly as he threatened me with divine judgment, either. Our attitudes are evolving, in both good and bad directions.

    What it comes down to is whether the ministry speaks to the Light within at least some—or at least one—of its hearers.

    I remember when I was at Pendle Hill, one fellow routinely came into the meeting room late, crossed diagonally across the entire meeting room to sit in a far corner, then rose mere minutes later to deliver messages that always seemed unseasoned to me. Until one day, following exactly the same routine, he said something that did, in fact, reach deep into my soul, pushing past my internally rolling eyes and judgmental sighs to nurture me greatly. So you never know.

    And I remember from a passage early in Woolman’s journal his talking about an elder who, already in what must have been only the early 1700 oughts, or maybe teens at the latest, bemoaned constantly that the Society was becoming diluted from the good old days. So we’ve been complaining about our apparent decline since the very first generation.

    Nevertheless, I have despaired sometimes at what seems to me to be a low bar for our vocal ministry, on average, and a surfeit of shallow ministry getting over that bar. So let’s explore this together.

  • bxlloyd says:

    You are speaking to my condition, Friend. My journey in Quakerism has been defined in some way by my relationship to vocal ministry. As an actor and a teacher, early in my attending at Quaker meeting I became aware that I was pre-conditioned to speak, and I became suspicious of my own impulses. This led to a spiritual journey of sorts, supported by the meeting I first became a member of, in which I actively explored the relationship between performance and ministry. I have led many workshops on this relationship, and I also now offer an experiential workshop on vocal ministry to Quaker meetings.

    I agree that the questions you list above must be asked, and that we don’t ask them for the reasons you describe. An elder of mine, Arlene Kelly, told me once, “You want to clear the room of Quakers? Draw a line on the floor and say you stand on one side of it.” Our collective relationship to vocal ministry is in disarray because we “liberal” Quakers have a pathological suspicion of authority. In the absence of a respect for, or at least a curiosity about authority, a kind of righteous skepticism arises, in which the use of authoritative structures (with designated elders, for instance) is seen as an act of oppression.

    We have made a fetish of personal freedom in “liberal” Quakerism, so much so that nearly anything goes when it comes to speaking in meeting. This is a uniquely, late 20th century syndrome, born of the influx of anti-authoritarian, politically progressive attenders, turned members. The secular, cultural and political priorities of the community of “liberal” Friends have trumped any sense of obedience to authority, whether that authority be divine or human.

    To be clear, I am in fact a member of the politically progressive population that makes up most “liberal” Quaker meetings, and I generally share the points of view concerning, for instance, the human rights of the LBGT community, the scourge of gun violence, the systemic racism of our institutions, etc. But none of that makes me qualified to speak in meeting for worship.

    The best book I ever read about this is Samuel Bownas’ book “Description and Qualifications of the Quaker Minister” (I may have bungled the title, it’s not in front of me.) His central point is that one is only ready to speak after one has been transformed by the Holy Spirit. There used to be groups of Friends you could meet with to talk about how you are being transformed by the Holy Spirit. But today – you can usually count on the fingers of one hand the number of Friends who will even admit that they believe such a thing as the Holy Spirit exists, and that it can transform a person. As Ben Pink Dandelion writes, “liberal” Friends worship the “absolute perhaps.”

    “Liberal” Quaker meetings for worship have become, by and large, secular meetings for discussion on spiritual and political themes. There are long periods of quiet in between offerings, and sometimes the discussion can be quite moving. But does anyone still believe that they are standing to speak because they feel God is calling them to do so?

    In a room in which nearly everyone agrees that that is the touchstone, that it is God who chooses you to speak, then the uttering of vocal ministry becomes a sacred act, charged with an energy and power that leaves all secular concerns behind. It may make the speaker cry, shake, sing, whisper, beg, exhort, implore. But in my experience one thing is clear. When I have been in the presence of such Spirit-led vocal ministry it is clear that the speaker is *feeling* something. This is the only goal of my workshop: to help modern Friends discern a *feeling* (as opposed to a thought) that may move them to speak. Almost all the written testimony of earlier Friends on vocal ministry contains these feeling words when describing their experience: “I felt a sudden movement in my spirit”, “I was pierced by a need to speak” “I felt suddenly uncomfortable, discontented”, etc. Nowhere do you read of Friends recalling an article in a newspaper and rising to speak about.

    Today, we are quickly embarrassed by exhibiting our feelings, especially in front of a group. In this, the quiet worship of Friends is misleading. We have come to think that we must be subdued and reserved in meeting for worship, when in fact the quiet is meant to be a place where we might clearly discern a felt leading to speak. And when we speak from the feeling place we are usually not composed. Let’s remember why we were called Quakers – we physically shook when we worshipped.

    Finally, the question must be asked: do we believe in God? Is God real to us, real in the sense that God can be felt, discerned, His/Her effect on humans actual and measurable? Because if the answer to this question collectively, among those gathered to worship at a Quaker meetinghouse, is “perhaps”, then we should simply sit back and enjoy our meeting for discussion. I realized some years ago that I am, in fact, a “conservative” Friend, in that I long for a more formal Quaker worship, and more ministry on the Gospel of Jesus. Jesus who, you know, talks a lot about obedience and discipline. But I am in the minority here, and that is fine. I am happy to worship among my Friends, and seek the leading of the Holy Spirit among them.

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