Quaker Plain VII: A Simple Ministry
by Dr. Bruce Arnold
[I was well on the way to finishing a long post on Liberation Theology for North Americans this winter when I got sick. Major sick. Without exaggeration, I can honestly say that without Bonnie I may not have survived. Getting back on my feet, getting very busy at work, and other bits of life and service have taken the focus from writing. Fortunately, I have all my notes for that piece, tentatively titled “Liberty and Humanity.” It will still see the light of day. Getting back in the saddle and writing a shorter piece is part of the process. Plus, I try always to go where I feel led, regardless of prior plans or where I thought previous leading were taking me. So:]
I’ve had the opportunity to talk with Friends recently about our tradition of vocal ministry and how best to support and enrichen it. The spark for these discussions was a plan for a minister’s retreat.
Among Conservative Friends, ministry is conducted along the lines laid down by the founders of our Society. We don’t ordain ministers, nor is there a clerical caste that runs things. We meet for worship in a quiet spirit of expectant waiting, a spirit that can directly inspire any of us to share a spoken message. There have always been some who are inspired to speak in some fashion that meets the needs of our members: more often, more deeply, more powerfully. When this gift is recognized, and a minute entered into the Meeting’s records, that person – male or female, by the way, from our earliest days – is said to be a recorded minister.
Why record ministers? Is this not ordination by another name? Have we not set up a priestly caste?
Just as we use the short hand phrase “Meeting for Business” to mean “Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business,” we also use the term “recorded minister” as short hand for “having recorded a gift of vocal ministry, which has been vouchsafed to this particular Friend to be exercised, and to this body of Friends for mutual nurturance.”
The focus is on the gift. The practice of recording is to acknowledge a mutual responsibility. On the part of the minister, there is the responsibility to cultivate the gift, to be obedient to its promptings, to share freely those lessons that are meant to be shared without embarrassment or pride. On the part of the Meeting, there is the duty to respond faithfully (by which I mean genuinely and spiritually, not with blind obedience) and to hold the minister, who must make him or herself vulnerable in every exercise of the gift, with tender care.
It is another way in which our testimony of plainness is embodied. Ministry among other Christian denominations is wound about with all kinds of ritual, hierarchy, fancy gowns, etc. Not so for us. Like our way of worship itself, ministry among us is based on the experience that nothing is needed except the direct action of the Holy Spirit within our midst.
Could not other gifts, besides vocal ministry, be so recorded, exercised, nurtured? Emphatically, and fervently, yes! Wherever we see the Holy Spirit manifesting itself to the clear benefit of the Meeting, our Society, or the world, we should have the same care for these gifts. For instance, we have a long history of prison ministry, dating back to the earliest days. We do not record those who have a gift for prison ministry.
Yet there is a reason why, from our Society’s first generation, we have recorded gifts in vocal ministry. This gift, more than any other, has built up, strengthened, inspired, chastened, taught, and shepherded our Society as a whole than any other. Perhaps its vocation is to be Primus inter pares, first among equals.
In regard to the ministers’ retreat, I certainly don’t want to limit this retreat to recorded ministers. I do want to reach out to those who are new to the vocal ministry. Having spent the vast proportion of my years in the ministry while unrecorded, Lord knows I don’t equate “minister” with “recorded minister.”
I find that even ministers of long standing, whether acknowledged formally or not, also need support from the larger group. Just having people say “I like what you said” doesn’t fill the need we have. And while I’ve been as faithful to the Light given me as I can be, that sense of God’s love and mercy are not enough either. Nor do I believe He meant them to be. He gave us each other, to love and cherish and teach and learn together.
Historically, going back to the days of Fox, the gatherings of ministers served many of these functions. Those new to the ministry could find guidance and encouragement. Those who had exercised the gift longer could find strength and tenderness in the fellowship.
We don’t get much of that. It has been a lonely journey for me, in many ways, for much of the time. Some may be less sensitive to the isolation than others, but we are all subjected to it. This is not self-pity. It’s just an honest assessment of the situation. There are so few of us, and in our Religious Society as a whole, there is very little understanding of this gift. It’s better among Conservative Friends than elsewhere, but the fact remains.
If I understand the leading to conduct this retreat correctly, it is one way to meet some of these needs, for all of us who follow this gift, not just a select few.
I’m in the discernment phase with this leading. I’m not arguing in favor of something, so much as trying to communicate how the leading appears to me so that others such as you can help discover where it leads and what it’s about. If it turns out to be something different than what I’m saying now, that’s okay. God’s will, not mine.