Duncan Frewin, Queensland Regional Meeting
Sunday morning. There is stillness around the room. Quietly a Friend stands, breathes in, then breaks the silence to speak – a prayer perhaps, or spiritual reflection occasioned by a current issue, or an encouragement to persist in the spiritual search. There may be a small stirring among those present. The speaker sits again and silence returns. We reflect on what was said. Perhaps after an interval another Friend stands and offers a message that takes the reflection further, or perhaps it starts a new strand. This is our ideal of true Ministry in a worshipping community.
Another Sunday morning. There is silence around the room. Quietly a Friend stands then breaks the silence to speak – perhaps an observation about something they have read or heard, perhaps an observation on a current issue, perhaps an exhortation on a social justice issue, perhaps a story of personal significance. There may be a small stirring. The speaker sits again and silence returns. Outwardly nothing differs from the first scenario, but inwardly some of us bridle at the message, some ignore it, some debate the message in their minds, some wonder where that came from.
Another Sunday morning. There is silence around the room. A Friend stands and starts speaking, perhaps preaching their own version of Quaker ways, perhaps meandering over thoughts that are meaningful only to him or her, perhaps insisting on the truth of a political stand. Friends screw up their eyes and close their ears. Someone, perhaps an elder, stands and gently asks the speaker to say no more. There is relief around the room. The speaker sits, perhaps after some rejoinder to the reproof. Silence returns. Afterward the elder speaks to the person to explain why they asked the person to stop. Over tea there is tut-tutting.
What makes the difference in these three scenarios? How do we determine if one is true Ministry (I will use a capital letter), another is speaking in worship but probably not Ministry, another is speaking inappropriately during worship. This question has exercised many meetings over the years and probably will continue to exercise meetings.
Quakers hold that Ministry comes from God, not from the speaker’s thinking or intellectual effort. True Ministry may come from the least articulate of us, and the most fluent speaker may have nothing to offer. How do we distinguish between Ministry that comes from the Spirit, and speaking that is from the speaker alone, no matter how sincere? Do we indeed make that distinction? Superficially, in a meeting for worship it seems to be open slather – a person is free to say anything they want. But is that where we stand? My hope is that it is not. If there is no distinction between true Ministry (words that come from the Spirit) and “notions” (words that come from the individual – George Fox’s term), then I see no need for a worshipping community. We could just as well worship at home or join a discussion group.
What does it mean to give Ministry in meetings for worship? Perhaps we need to start from our understanding of silent worship. Here we need to distinguish between thinking (Fox’s “notions”) and listening. Thinking is what we do when we mull over a question or problem, exploring it from different angles, looking for an answer or a way forward or a better understanding. Let’s be honest – we all often do it during the silence on Sundays. In contrast, listening is letting God/the Spirit work on us, just letting a thought sit and allowing what arises in our heart to happen. What arises comes not from a process of intellect but from submitting ourself to the Spirit. This is what we strive to do in worship – empty ourself and let God in. When God does enter, we may be driven to speak, giving a message sparked by that encounter. Such a message has been described as coming from deep within yet also from outside or beyond ourself.
Now, we can all recognise that not everything we hear in meeting for worship is Ministry. Much of it is merely speaking in meeting, the product of thinking. We recognise Ministry when it speaks to our heart rather than our intellect. Something like the sympathetic vibration of strings in a musical instrument happens – our heart vibrates in sympathy with the heart that has spoken. Does this happen for everyone present? Often, probably not. But I believe we can all recognise when the Spirit has spoken. True Ministry comes out of true worship, and nourishes our worshipping community.
The other question that we need to consider then is “How do I know if the words on my tongue are true Ministry?” I may find myself moved to speak, but are my words Ministry? Are these words from the Spirit, or are they “notions” – something I’ve thought of? This question takes us to our responsibility as members of a worshipping community. It requires us to accept the discipline of self-examination. Not everything that is on my tongue needs to be said aloud. Not every insight that I wish to share needs to be shared. Not every good idea I have is intended for worship. If I truly submit to the Spirit, I can recognise that some of my messages are purely an intellectual exercise, that some are from God but intended for me alone, that some insights do not help the meeting, that some of my brilliant ideas are for other occasions such as discussion groups or committee meetings. And perhaps I can recognise that sometimes I just want to speak because I want to be seen as a leader in my community.
For my own experience, I frequently find myself putting together words to correct shortcomings in the meeting, or to share new insights that I have developed. But they are not Ministry. In fact very little of what arises for me needs to be said. But it has been the experience of Friends over the centuries, and it is my experience too, that we know when the words must be spoken. Often the clue is in our body – a feeling that our chest will burst to let the words out, a quaking in the whole body (even if no one else can see it), a shortness of breath or a pounding of the heart demanding that we stand. Indeed, some Friends describe being “propelled” to their feet with no clear idea of what words will come out. The words may indeed be halting or seem to be wrenched from the person’s body. Yet we can all recognise that those words are true Ministry, a message from beyond the speaker.
True Ministry often takes the worshippers to a deeper place – “touched by God” – and gives us nourishment for our spiritual journey. I suspect each person present may take different nourishment from the same Ministry. Some people in fact may take nothing from it. Perhaps they were not listening, or perhaps they are not spiritually ready to take in the message. That is part of what it means to worship in a community – the community includes people at all stages of understanding, from children to elders (both in age and understanding). But true Ministry feeds the worshipping community generally.
Now, we recognise that much of what we hear on a Sunday, though well meant, is not true Ministry. So what am I supposed to do with such a message? Perhaps it is true Ministry for someone else, or perhaps it is only for the speaker, or perhaps I am not ready to hear it. The loving response, and the advice of our Questions and Counsel is to let it go. I can acknowledge that it does not speak to my condition, or that it is meant for someone else, or that the speaker has erred by saying more than the Spirit required, then let it go. However, resenting a message because it has disturbed “my” worship is a problem. True worship is the work of everyone present. If I can talk about “my” worship, it is unlikely to be true worship. So I have a duty, as a member of that one body, to accept that most Ministry that does not speak to me was given in good faith. I can ignore the words, but I am not free to resent them or reject the speaker.
What do I do however when someone’s words are clearly unacceptable? We do occasionally hear such speaking – exhortations to support such-and-such a political party, opinions verging on racism, carrying on personal feuds, the same message given repeatedly as if we weren’t listening, etc. Such messages disrupt worship to pursue a personal agenda. Every meeting has stories of inappropriate speaking in worship and how it was dealt with, whether well or badly. Quakers hold that in a worshipping community every one of us is responsible for the health of our worship. We recognise elders among us, who anchor the worship. Larger meetings appoint some as elders to watch over the health of our worship. Whether appointed or not, elders have a responsibility to educate us all about true Ministry. Likewise, as in the third scenario above, elders (or any Friends present) may need to intervene to protect the worship, as lovingly as possible, from inappropriate speaking. And it is laid on all of us to support that speaker toward a better understanding of what true Ministry means.
But there is a further question that is not always considered: What do we do when someone’s words are truly Ministry from the Spirit? The Minister needs to know that the message has got through. Acknowledging true Ministry is one way of encouraging more true Ministry. Modern Quakers, though, (including myself) often say nothing. The Minister is left wondering if the message was heard, or if it was inappropriate. But if I say “Thank you, I am so glad to hear that,” I seem to be thanking the person for their intellectual effort rather than acknowledging a message from the Spirit. The old way was to acknowledge the Spirit’s moving through the speaker. “Thee was highly favoured today” was a common phrase. Can we imagine modern words with the same meaning? We need to acknowledge true Ministry as Spirit-born, and acknowledging it reminds us – both speaker and listener – that what we listen for in worship is the voice of the Spirit.
So I hope that all Friends will submit themselves to the discipline of distinguishing speaking “notions” from offering true Ministry, and will resist the temptation to speak more than the Spirit requires. Likewise, I hope that all Friends will consider the responsibility involved in offering Ministry in worship, and neither shirk the responsibility nor take it lightly. For true Ministry that arises from true worship nourishes the whole worshipping community.