The Importance of Vocal Ministry: Transmitting the Tradition

September 22, 2018 § 7 Comments

Other religious communities have institutions in place for transmitting their tradition. Christian denominations have seminaries and some secular academic discourse to train their clergy and a number of vehicles for training the laity: stain glass windows and symbolical architecture, the church calendar, elements of the liturgy, especially Bible readings, hymns, and sermons, and catechism/confirmation classes.

Quakers in the liberal tradition don’t have any of these institutions. We don’t have seminaries because we don’t have religious professionals that need training, though we do have Pendle Hill and some other conference centers, the School of the Spirit, Quakerism 101, and other spiritual formation programs. We have a very rich tradition of written ministry, especially the ongoing Pendle Hill Pamphlet series, and some dedicated Quaker libraries. Locally, we have religious education classes for both adults and children. In theory, at least, we have the traveling ministry. And, in theory, at least, we have vocal ministry.

But all of these options are just that—they’re options. They’re voluntary, not mandatory. My Lutheran pastor when I was a kid had to go to seminary, and I had to take confirmation class. And I had to sing those hymns, follow that calendar, and listen to his prepared sermons.

The only vehicle for transmitting our tradition that will reach even those Friends and attenders who do not take the voluntary options that are available in their meeting and beyond, is vocal ministry. Unfortunately, very few Friends avail themselves of this opportunity as ministers. Not enough Friends actually know the tradition well enough to transmit it. And those that do know it do not necessarily feel a call to a ministry of teaching.

Moreover, those who do have a calling to teach, as I do, still have to wait for the Spirit’s prompting. Even then, at least in my own experience, these teaching messages sometimes feel a bit—something . . . forced, or prepared, or somehow pretty close to the threshold of not quite.

Nevertheless, I feel that more of us need to open ourselves to the possibility of a call to teaching vocal ministry, and particularly, to teaching about worship and vocal ministry itself. Because without it, we leave the matter of transmitting the tradition in the hands of whatever religious education our meeting supports and it reaches only those who come. In many meetings, that means haphazard treatment of the tradition, at best, and total neglect at the worst.

And that means that our tradition does not get transmitted. Our members become more and more ignorant, more and more incapable of “running” the meeting in ways that are faithful to the tradition, more and more prone to vocal ministry and attitudes toward worship that seem ignorant of our tradition and the conventions that we have found foster deep worship and Spirit-led ministry.

This is another reason why vocal ministry really matters—or could matter, anyway.

§ 7 Responses to The Importance of Vocal Ministry: Transmitting the Tradition

  • […] The Importance of Vocal Ministry: Transmitting the Tradition […]

  • Greg Robie says:

    Steven, doesn’t the Book of Discipline – now a subtitle for Faith and Practice – need to be factored in here? Inferred in the 1820 version of NYYM’s (if I recall correctly) was a reference to a second set of Advices and Queries for the Meeting of Ministers and Elders. Weren’t both Meeting’s Meetings dynamically disciplined by their Books of Discipline, and the vigor a practice of reading the Advices, and reading and answering the Queries in the context of a Book of Disciple, dynamically and institutionally ‘indoctrinated’? Doesn’t a periodic revision of this denominational Book constitute a history [re]-writing of sorts that.feeds into this? Vocal ministry does play its role in teaching, but a voluntarily removal from one of the three legs of Lee Lloyd Wilson’s stool from his book, Gospel Order, makes for a very tippy situation for what remains of the [liberal] Society.

    What was once a matter of disciple, especially among those in the liberal iteration of what passes itself off as Quakerism, is functionally now both quaint and personally optional (even corporately so?) … or, teaching is systemically impossible. I tested this trust [in this functional Rantorism] in practice and learned that such was the mostly comfortable, and pragmatically trusted as-good-as-it-gets, condition of NYYM over the dozen or so years after our Ad Hoc Committee on Renewal service in the early ’90s. (And, didn’t the creation of The School of the Spirit end up functionally being a positive feedback in this “~Sociopathic” dynamic?)

    Whom will not be taught, cannot learn. What will not be taught, cannot be imagined. Or, isn’t this why Wilson’s third leg is not optional … if something other than social irrelevance is the desired outcome; the “where” that such a society is both tracked for, and the “how” by which it has arrived?


    sNAILmALEnotHAIL …but pace’n myself

    life is for learning so all my failures must mean that I’m wicked smart


  • Howard Brod says:

    For me, you’ve unintentionally expressed a major concern that a number of liberal Friends have about our Quaker “tradition”.

    If a liberal Quaker meeting suffers from non-spiritual vocal ministry, then the problem lies with the meeting’s inability to organically grow as a spiritual community; not with a failure to follow guidelines or eldering. Spiritual growth can’t be coerced to occur through classes or pamphlets offered by the meeting’s committees or schools, Rather, there needs to be a gentle environment that welcomes and encourages a mystical, daily relationship with the Source of All. How this emerges for the meeting needs to be left to the Spirit as it beckons Friends in the meeting to follow its leading. This is why a free-flowing spiritual environment is essential.

    Liberal Quakerism distinctly emerged from Hicksite Quakerism and Progressive Quakerism when these two gradually combined, culminating with the ministry of Rufus Jones and others. And mysticism was the driver of this emergence of what we call today, “liberal Quakerism”. It is clear that Jesus had a mystical relationship and experience with the divine, and he asked his followers to experience that same close relationship with the divine. Yet, we seem to be losing that mystical core of liberal Quakerism due to implied rigidity in the meeting culture.

    Mysticism is not obsessed with tradition or head knowledge or committees, nor leaders (elders) or Quaker jargon; for to be obsessed with such is to worship these forms instead of simply cultivating an active relationship with the All (whatever name you choose to give it).

    Deeply spiritual vocal ministry will arise naturally (without needing “guidelines” or schooling) when Friends in the meeting have an environment that supports a free-flowing spiritual environment that is NOT beholding to tradition, elders, or book knowledge. Only then will worship in silence naturally bring about sharing of deeply spiritual insights via vocal ministry in the way and time that the Spirit thinks best.

    • barbarakay1 says:


    • Well, this particular post was just about one potential aspect of our vocal ministry. I certainly don’t mean to imply that the content of our tradition is the source of our ministry. And certainly spiritual formation for the members is the most important factor in maturing the vocal ministry.

      But the tradition IS THE CONTEXT of our ministry.This is Quakerism, after all, not Buddhist meditation or some arbitrary gathering of people who happen to meet each other on a Sunday morning and then are led by the Holy Spirit to speak to the others in whatever way they like.

      Nor am I arguing for being “beholden to tradition, elders, or book knowledge”. The evidence seems to contradict that idea that only in a “free-flowing environment” would we get deeply Spirit-led vocal ministry. That is what we have now, actually, and I don’t think it’s working very well.

      I am working toward some kind of balance between Ranterism, the kind of individualism that allows anything as vocal ministry, and the ossified and suffocating culture of eldership of vocal ministry that dominated the 19th century and caused us to lay it down.

      I don’t feel responsible TO the tradition, in the sense that we shouldn’t veer from it, but I do feel responsible FOR the tradition—that is, I don’t want us to lose it out of laziness, inattention, or some perverse allergic reaction to it. We have a distinctive way to foster the mysticism (as you put it) that we seek, and it works. When we use it. But you can’t use it if you don’t know it. On the other hand, it has to evolve to meet our changing needs. That’s one of the things that continuing revelation means and it’s what corporate discernment is for.

      • Howard Brod says:

        All established “churches” prefer their adherents to be over-dependent on their historically evolved traditions and structure. I don’t read or understand that to be Jesus’ personal way. Jesus was a true mystic in that he was all about experiencing a genuine oneness with the divine – just as all other mystics have experienced throughout the ages. And that’s how the earliest Quakers began before George Fox felt compelled to turn early Quakerism into an established “church” with set traditions, “rules”, and hierarchical leadership.

        The journey of liberal Quakerism ever since its roots in the Hicksites (beginning in 1828 or so) has been to slowly return to that very earliest Quakerism before George Fox switched directions to create a more rigid religious society that would be more relatable and acceptable to the world Fox lived in. In our modern world, however, the seekers we are likely to attract, would more readily relate to a deeply spiritual liberal Quaker meeting that cherishes the free-flow of the spirit among them, versus meetings that still retain controlling vestiges of the Hicksite Quakers – first implemented by Fox.

        I question if liberal Quakerism is indeed at its next step in its evolution – where we have brought Quakerism full-circle. Many liberal Quaker meetings are at the point where they are finding much joy in becoming living spiritual communities as the very earliest Quakers were, before George Fox changed direction due to pressures from the world he lived in. Those meetings that are shedding many Quaker traditions in favor of a deep spiritual experience do not have the issues you present with their meeting’s vocal ministry. They have centered their identification with Quakerism on ‘expectant waiting’ worship (silence) and making decisions by coming to a shared ‘sense of the meeting’. Anything else – they are shedding as not essential and even detrimental: permanent committees, elders or appointed leaders, Quaker jargon, recorded membership, and over-dependence on tradition.

        Liberal Quakerism is in a perfect position to create an appealing spiritual support mechanism for most seekers in the modern world. But first, we need to entirely get over ourselves and the way it was before, and just be like the people WE are seeking to join us. The fact is that most of them already have their spiritual act together. And the reason they don’t stick around after a few visits says a lot about us.

  • But there’s also Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana, which offers online learning programs as well as residential ones. It’s a “Christian Quaker Seminary,” meaning that you’ll need to pass courses in Old Testament and New Testament before you walk away with an M. Div. degree (and why shouldn’t you want to?), but there are no credal requirements for students; I’ve been going to school with a number of non-theists and non-Christians here. Scholarship help is generous for residential students. And you can learn an enormous amount about the Quaker tradition here, or I should say, the various Quaker traditions. Enormous.
    I’ve been here for three years, and expect to have earned an M. Div. here next spring.

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