Peter H Bennett, Victoria Regional Meeting

Duncan Frewin’s article on spoken ministry (The Australian Friend, December 2019) is a carefully written and thoughtfully constructed appeal to us to dig deeply before rising to speak.  Duncan begins by presenting us with three different scenarios in which a Friend offers the spoken word in a Meeting for Worship.  In the first scenario, the minister speaks to the condition of the auditors – Duncan will go on to characterise this as “true ministry”, a term he uses no fewer than eighteen times throughout the article.  In the second and third case, the speaker falls somewhat short of offering true ministry.  In the light of these scenarios, Duncan goes on to examine with care and careful attention to detail, what makes some cases of vocal ministry, true ministry and others not.

These are difficult matters.  It seems clear that ministry that is racist, sexist or advocates a particular political agenda may fall short of being true ministry.  This is characterised in the third of the settings Duncan invites us to reflect upon.  He writes: “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.”  In such a situation we should, maybe, not be surprised if an Elder intervenes to gently encourage the Friend to re-enter the silence. But not all errant ministry is so clearly outside of right ordering.  In seeking to get a grip on those occasions which fall short of being true ministry but are not obviously errant, Duncan reflects upon the aetiology (my term, not his) of ministry – from whence does it come?  Without wanting to over-simplify Duncan’s thesis, he argues that ministry that comes from the Spirit, from God and not our intellectual ruminations is true ministry.  True ministry, he contends, is borne in true worship.  “Quakers,” he writes “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?” The answer lies somewhere in understanding clearly the true nature of worship and listening – listening to/for the voice of God, the voice of the Spirit.

Now it seems to me that in considering the matter of spoken ministry, we must make a distinction between the advice we can give the speaker and the advice we can give the auditor.

When it comes to spoken ministry Quakers do have some “rules” or guidelines, at least that is my understanding.  Here are four of them:

Friends are discouraged from coming to Meeting for Worship having prepared something in advance to say, be it a “reading” or a mini sermon.  It has always been my understanding that Friends are urged to say what comes to them during the Meeting.  This is to do with what I called above the aetiology of testimony.  We are urged to say that which is moved by the Spirit or by God within the context of the Meeting for Worship.  If we choose to speak, we are encouraged to speak from within the gathered silence and stillness of the Meeting.

Second, if one feels or believes that something has come to one that should be said, I was taught to disavow the urge three times.  I practise this technique. If I feel moved to speak I will actively engage in an inner dialogue whereby I will seek to persuade myself to remain silent.  Because I practise this technique I will, very often, remain quiet and will not speak.  If I do rise to testify to what has come to me I am usually overcome with doubt about the worth or value of my words.  I often feel inadequate and sometimes resume my seat full of regret for having spoken and interrupted the silence and stillness of the Meeting.

Third, Friends are encouraged to keep a Quakerly “distance” between testimonies.  If a Friend has spoken and then a second or third person rises to speak, each subsequent speaker is urged to wait a respectful period of time between ministries to allow for the Meeting to reflect and meditate on what has been said.  This practice allows us to avoid what has euphemistically and humorously been referred to as “popcorn” Meetings.

Finally, Friends are strongly encouraged to speak only once in a Meeting for Worship.  I was recently in a Meeting when a Friend spoke twice. What was said in the second utterance was not errant but the Meeting seemed to bristle with disapproval  – or, at least, that’s how it seemed to me.  Perhaps I was “reading” the resultant silence wrongly.  This “rule” is there for good reason.  Meeting for Worship is not a discussion group and the second utterance is often a comment upon what a previous minister has said.  And if someone ministers twice, I have very often found that the third “rule” above is violated at the same time.

These guidelines are helpful and following them allows most Meetings to be held in right ordering.  But I think Duncan’s article goes to much more profound matters and asks us to reflect deeply on what has moved us to speak at all and this, as I noted above, is a difficult matter.

A brief anecdote.

A number of years ago I was one of three people (all of whom were men) to speak at a Meeting for Worship at Orrong Road Meeting House in Melbourne.  At the end of the Meeting four Friends spoke to me about my testimony.  Three thanked me in various ways and in a Quakerly fashion with comments like “Thee spoke to my condition this morning Friend.” But the fourth, coffee cup in hand and with vehemence came up to me and said: “I don’t come to Meeting to be lectured by men, Peter.”  I was shocked and not a little hurt, but it made me ponder how differently we hear and receive the spoken word.  How, I wondered, could people hear the same utterance so differently?  The answer, of course, is that this happens when locutionary acts misfire or fail.  This occurs because of what may be called the hermeneutical gap.  That is, the differential between a speaker’s intentions and an auditor’s interpretation of those intentions.  This locutionary misfiring occurs all the time in dialectic and discourse and it is not surprising that it happens in Meetings for Worship too.  So, what is to be done?

I think it is useful to follow the guidelines enumerated above.  These have emerged over centuries of our faith tradition and religious practice and great wisdom lies behind them.  But these traditions are there to guide the minister, the speaker, not the auditors, so what advice can we give to those of us who listen to the spoken word?

I think three virtues or “strategies” are called for.  First, we are encouraged to really listen to the word.  We should listen not only to the “what” but also the “how”.  We should listen tenderly, actively and lovingly, seeking to understand from whence the spoken word comes.  What is it that has moved the minister to speak?  Advices and Queries implores us “to receive the vocal ministry of others in a tender and creative spirit.  Reach for the meaning deep within it, recognising that even if it is not God’s word for you, it may be for others.”

A second virtue is to be open to the movement and ministrations of the Spirit. The veracity of the spoken word may not be apparent at first but if we receive it with an open heart and a willingness to see what lies behind the utterance perhaps we may be allowed to see and discern its truth and in consequence avoid the locutionary misfiring to which I referred above.

And finally, if despite our best and most noble endeavours to receive the testimony of another we just cannot see or approve of its message we can still be patient both with the speaker and with ourselves.  If the utterance warrants Eldering then let it be left in the hands of those whose job it is to care for the right ordering of the Meeting.  Listening (attentively), being open, being patient – these are all virtues which the auditor can practise in the hope of avoiding locutionary misfiring.

But in the end, let us all be reminded that within the context of the unprogrammed Meeting, the default disposition is stillness and silence and therefore we could all do well to be constantly reminded of Wittgenstein’s perceptive utterance:


Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.


Share This