Ministry, humility and community
The ministers we plead for are such as, being holy and humble, contend not for precedency and priority, but rather strive to prefer one another and serve one another in love; neither desire to be distinguished from the rest by their garments and large phylacteries, nor seek the greetings in the marketplaces, nor uppermost rooms at feasts, nor the chief seats in the synagogues; nor yet to be called of men Master, &c. Such were the holy prophets and apostles, as appears from Matt. 23:8-10, and 20:25-27.
[Barclay's Apology, Proposition 10, section XXXIII]
Even in their plain garments, it seems clear that there were some ministers in the history of Quakerism who indeed sought the chief seats on the facing bench and the greetings in the market place. The fear that this will happen again is often used as an argument for not recognizing minsters. This is interesting for two reasons. First of all, not many Friends alive today in the liberal tradition, has any direct personal experience of sitting in a meeting for worship and having the recorded ministers and elders sitting in the facing benches overlooking the congregation. It has been my experience that even in meetings that have facing benches in their meetinghouses, it is rare that anyone sits in the upper rows of the facing benches unless space is an issue. The second reason is that refusing to record ministers does not remove the temptation to pride that comes from being recognized as a weighty Friend. What we have removed is the system of accountability that could provide a check for that tendency towards pride.
As I have discussed earlier, a faithful minister will be provided by God many opportunities to work on their pride. A minister such as Barclay describes is one who will strive to be faithful to their Guide and to their gifts. The problem comes from those who may not be so faithful or who, in the course of time, begin to put too much faith in their own powers and not rely wholly on the Lord. Or there are some who might seek to be respected in the meeting, or who feel that the meeting is in great need of their wisdom, and so speak more often or at greater length than they should. In business meetings I often think of these Friends as “Hallmark Friends.” They have a message for every occasion. The problem is that by no longer naming ministers and elders, we have removed the structures that would have provided a check or a guide to those who, for whatever reason, are not being sensitive to their inward guide.
Since we have, for most practical purposes, given up providing outward discipline for those who might not have sufficient inner discipline, Friends from time to time are faced with people who are going off, with no guidance or oversight, speaking for Friends on one subject or another. This is most often seen with Friends with some burning concern. When this happens, Friends on Ministry and Counsel or in a similar position of responsibility are often in a bit of a quandary as to how to proceed. They are often reluctant to say anything except in the most egregious cases because they do not feel that they have the proper authority or standing to speak. This timidness extends as far as an unwillingness or inability to provide guidance to Friends who speak frequently and inappropriately in Meeting for Worship.
The root cause of this problem is that we have lost sight of the fact that one of the principal features of Quakerism is that it is a communal exercise. We respond to an inner prompting to speak or act, but we are also speaking and acting in the context of a community. A message in meeting may be inspired by the Spirit but at the same time it is also drawn out by the quality of the listening for the Friends assembled and worshiping together. When Stephen Grellet spoke in the wilderness there were three parties involved, although Stephen only knew of two. He was there and the Spirit was there. But the other key person was the logger who was listening unseen. His listening ears were also an indispensable part of the story. Elias Hicks notes a number of times when he was unable to speak or unable to speak as well or as fully as he was called to because the listeners, what he called the auditory, was not prepared to hear the message he was carrying.
This idea of a communal spiritual practice is strongly counter-cultural in American society which places an inordinate emphasis on individualism. It stands against the social, economic and political trends which seeks to privatize as much of civic life as possible. But the communal nature of Quaker spirituality also pushes towards humility. It reminds us that we are not the only judge of our spiritual life. It recognizes that we may be wrong and that others may see some things more clearly than we can. It recognizes that we hold our gifts, not as treasures for ourselves, but as stewards for the community. This also puts a burden on the community to receive the gifts that have been given to individuals on behalf of the community. This means recognizing gifts that have been given, drawing them forth, nurturing them and providing guidance and support for the people exercising them. This is true as much for the person whose gift is teaching First Day School or sending get well cards to Friends who are ill as it is for those who are led to become public Friends in one form or another.
Blessings to all,