Where does our vocal ministry come from?
January 5, 2016 § 29 Comments
We’ve had some very thought-provoking comments. Thank you, readers. The post that follows was in works while these comments unfolded.
For centuries, our answer to my title question—where does vocal ministry come from?—was obvious and unquestioned: Jesus Christ. Or his spirit, the Holy Spirit. The Light within us, understood to be the inward spirit of Christ. All the same thing.
In the famous passage in which Margaret Fell describes her first encounter with George Fox, Fox is addressing precisely this question—where does your preaching come from? He is speaking specifically to the primary rhetorical approach of the Puritan minister, to preach from a passage in the Bible, unpacking it, as it were, for the congregation in his (sic) sermon.
And so he went on, and said, “That Christ was the Light of the world, and lighteth every man that cometh into the world; and that by this light they might be gathered to God,” &c. I stood up in my pew, and wondered at his doctrine, for I had never heard such before. And then he went on, and opened the scriptures, and said, “The scriptures were the prophets’ words, and Christ’s and the apostles’ words, and what, as they spoke, they enjoyed and possessed, and had it from the Lord”: and said, “Then what had any to do with the scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth? You will say, ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?” &c. This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again, and cried bitterly: and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, “We are all thieves; we are all thieves; we have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves.”
Today, we still ask the question, “What canst thou say?” But we no longer assume that this Light is the Light of Christ and we no longer assume that what we speak in meeting for worship is “inwardly from God”. Of course, this depends on what you mean by “God”.
I suspect that nowadays, any Friend who claimed to be speaking on behalf of God would receive a skeptical and anxious regard. Especially since so many of the people who DO claim to know God’s mind these days are violent sociopaths.
Yet this is exactly the claim that Friends have made until relatively recently.
This momentous shift in Quaker thinking about vocal ministry is mostly about our understanding of and attitudes toward “God”, and ultimately, toward Jesus Christ. God used to be a “who”; now God is a “what”, if God is anything meaningful to us at all. (Of course, I am speaking mostly of liberal Friends here.)
Many (liberal) Friends do not consider Jesus to be God. Put another way, they don’t believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who “was God and was with God” from the beginning. Thus the Light within us cannot be the inward Light of Christ. It has to be something else. But what?
Without Jesus to hold the Trinity together, “God” recedes into the distance. No longer the Father, God becomes an undefinable, basically unrelatable Supreme Being. You start piling up the absolutist adjectives, like all-knowing, all-powerful, all-present, etc., and each one of these adjectives only makes God more distant, more difficult to relate to. Not in the way that you could relate to Jesus, or even to God as the Father.
So—no divine Jesus, and you’re left with a distant, absolute, abstract God. That leaves the Holy Spirit—no longer the spirit of Christ, however, no longer the ongoing presence of the resurrected Christ, the Comforter/Advocate that Jesus promised from the Father. Cut loose from a disassembled Trinity, the Holy Spirit becomes just “the Spirit”. And here we are.
“The Spirit” is even more undefined than God not-the-Father. More potentially universal. More plastic in the hands of us quasi-believers.
Moreover, many Friends, I suspect, connect this now-generic “Spirit” to “that of God” in everyone, which I think many Friends consider some kind of divine spark, some piece or aspect of “the Divine”—the Spirit—within us. The Light within, that of God within, the Spirit—all one mysteriously continuous and universal spiritual reality that we humans do somehow participate in in some vague and undefined way.
Now we’re getting somewhere. If God is Spirit and if the Light, that of God within us, is also somehow that same spirit, then Spirit-led vocal ministry arises within us from the Light and yet partakes of something spiritually larger than just ourselves.
I think that this might approximate what modern liberal Friends think is going on with vocal ministry, if they think about it at all. And it’s not really so different from the understanding of early Friends—except that it’s no longer tied to Christ and the rest of the tradition, which stands on scripture. Which is a huge difference. It’s post-Christian. It’s even post-traditional, in the sense that it has thrown over most of Quaker tradition, and has not yet developed or adopted any other tradition to replace it.
As a result, it lacks substance. But it’s open, welcoming, malleable. You can embrace it almost whatever your prior experience is. You can be indifferent or even hostile to Christian and biblical tradition. You can bring whatever pieces of other tradition you’ve picked up along the way, as I have done. You can even be Christian, for these ideas are really not too far off from some of the ideas in the gospel of John, especially those surrounding the Word, the logos.
And since this religious ideology has no real substance, Friends often seek substance somewhere else. They become Buddhist Quakers—or are they Quaker Buddhists? Or they are thrilled to find the Gospel of Thomas and become a kind of home-grown gnostic.
Many of us, though, fall back on the credal idea that Friends have no creed. We reject the practice of thinking too much about our religion, and we do without much substance. Who needs it?
However, being a post-traditional, mostly substanceless community means that individualism reigns. We have become a community without clear boundaries or definition, in which anything goes.
And the nebulous, unarticulated character of modern liberal Quaker thinking about God, the Spirit, encourages this individualism. And it quietly and increasingly dominates our attitudes toward vocal ministry. Though it’s probably going too far to talk about Quaker “thinking” in this context, for our ideas and attitudes are mostly tacit assumptions and unstated shared conclusions, maintained by a tacit agreement not to probe it too much.
Without the weight of our tradition holding us down, giving us boundaries and context and actual text—content with which we could talk to each other about what’s going on with a common vocabulary—we tend to float up and away. By contrast, believing that you have been inspired by the actual spirit of Christ necessarily instills a certain gravity, a very powerful sense of responsibility. Which we no longer feel.
Read Samual Bownas’s book The Qualifications Necessary for a Gospel Minister, or the journals of earlier Friends like Elias Hicks or John Woolman, and you get the sense that getting their vocal ministry right was one of the most arduous, terrifying, and important things in their lives. Most Friends, I think, find speaking in meeting a little terrifying, too, at least in the beginning. But this is not because we feel the weight of divine judgment; not because we feel we have assumed an apostolic mantle to speak for the living Christ. Not because we are, for the moment, at least, prophets of God’s word.
No longer afraid to give offense to God, we fear instead giving offense to the community, and we fear, perhaps, failing to be true to our higher selves.
This individualism in our practice of vocal ministry has led the community to a new set of agreements about the practice, but we do not discuss these agreements openly very often. We learn these agreements—we teach them—by osmosis. We see other Friends speaking in a range of ways about a range of things, and nothing happens to them. Most Friends seem happy with the ministry. The community seems to accept these messages, even embrace them, and so that’s what we do, too.
Even our language is shifting. Why do I say “even”—of course it shifts. “Vocal ministry” is giving way to “speaking in meeting” and “offering messages”. “Vocal ministry” makes us vocal ministers, which implies a sense of calling. But a sense of calling would mean speaking rather regularly, with a sense of mission. Mission could easily slide into sermonizing. “Speaking in meeting”, on the other hand, is rather generic. It is safer. It implies, perhaps, that the individual is responsible for the action and the message. But at least it doesn’t imply you’re channeling God.
Well, this has been a lot of speculation and generalization. In my next post, I want get down and personal. I want to talk about what vocal ministry is for me.