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.