When George Fox climbed Pendle Hill he had a vision of a great people to be gathered. Friends who seek renewal of the Society of Friends use this vision as a touchstone of what the Society of Friends can become again. I know that it speaks to me.
I also think that Friends have lost sight of what it means to be a people. This isn't surprising. North American culture promotes and encourages individualism. There is a relentless drumbeat to privatize, privatize, privatize. This does not just relate to government and politics. We have privatized watching movies. It used to be we did that collectively in large public theaters. Then the large theaters became the multiplex. Then the multiplex became a video store. The video store was replaced by DVDs that came in the mail. Now those little red envelopes are being replaced by electronic downloads directly to your computer or TV. The same dynamic is playing out with drinking water, where once we had large public works projects to provide safe drinking water to large populations, more and more, people are encouraged to think that safe water comes in personal sized bottles that they buy in the store. The list of examples just goes on and on.
So in the face of this cultural and political onslaught, it is no surprise that we have trouble learning how to be a people. It is counter-cultural and old-fashioned. This plays out in many ways in the Society of Friends but today I want to look at how it influences our unprogrammed Meetings for Worship. We often approach meeting for worship very individualistically. One year at New England Yearly Meeting a number of students from Moses Brown School came as part of the schools presentation to the Yearly Meeting. Most of them talked about meeting for worship at the school as a time to go over their plans for the week. The theme was so common that it was clear to me that this was something they were being taught at the school. Even though many of us are not so overtly secular, for many of us, Meeting for Worship is something we do ourselves that has little to do with the other people in the room.
Some people come seeking no more than an oasis of quiet and peacefulness from a hectic world. They do not want to be disturbed by outside noises, restless children or even vocal ministry. If people are going to speak in meeting, it should be brief. In my meeting, there are people who will regularly turn off the blowers on the heaters in the winter, even if it means that the room never gets comfortably warm. The will do the same in the summer with the air conditioning, even if it means a warm and stuffy meeting room. On one memorable occasion, a visitor came to our meeting and rose and gave a message about the noise being made by a refrigerator in the corner of the meeting room. She asked if we had ever considered moving it somewhere else. It was disturbing her.
It is easy to view vocal ministry in the same way. Individuals give ministry as they are led. This is a very interior process but we look at it as private and individual as well. Some seem to look at vocal ministry as a form of self expression. We are told to listen to the messages that are given and let ones that don't speak to us float by. This is good advice as far as it goes but it creates a picture of meeting for worship filled with individual actors that have minimal interaction with each other during the silence.
Meeting for worship was recognized as a communal exercise. There was a recognition that there was a lot going on within the silence. Robert Barclay compared it to the action of steel against steel, each sharpening each other. Elias Hicks had a reputation as a powerful and eloquent minister. When he visited a meeting, so many people would come to hear him that it was not uncommon for the meeting places to be completely filled and people would stand outside of the windows and doors to hear him. Yet in his journal he tells of times when he was completely bottled up and could not give a message because the people were not in a condition to receive the message. In such cases, he found himself led to provide an example of silence. In the communitarian view, the messages are not given to the individual minister, they are given to the gathered body through the voice of one or more individuals. In this perspective, the relatively common experience of someone giving a message that matches your train of thought, or even that you were feeling moving in you to rise and speak, makes a lot of sense. If the messages are being given to the whole meeting, it is to be expected that the Spirit might send the message to the whole meeting..
It is also true that the quality of the waiting and listening can draw out messages. The depth of the waiting of some, can bring others in the room to a deeper place themselves, and this building depth can lead to strong and powerful ministry that would not be possible if the meeting stayed in the shallows or was slumbering. A classic example of this comes from the journal of David Ferris, an 18'th century Friend who had, at this point had spent 20 years resisting the promptings to engage in vocal ministry. Comfort Hoag was a traveling minister who was visiting his meeting and she was becoming increasingly pointed in her encouragements for him to exercise the gifts that were being given to him.
The following day being at meeting, I again felt a concern to speak to the people, but endeavored to evade it. ... Thus I spent the greater part of an hour. At length my divine Master, the great Master Builder, thus addressed me, " Why dost thou still delay .... There never will be a better time than this. I have waited on thee above twenty years ; I have clearly made known to thee my will, so that all occasion of doubt has been removed; yet thou hast refused to submit until thy day is far spent; and if thou dost not speedily comply with my commands, it will be too late; thy opportunity will be lost." I then , clearly saw that if I were forsaken, and left to myself, the consequence would be death and darkness forever! At the sight of the horrible pit that yawned for me, if I continued in disobedience, my body trembled like an aspen leaf, and my soul was humbled within me. Then I said, "Lord ! here am I; make of me what thou wouldst have me to be; leave me not in displeasure, I beseech thee." All my power to resist was then suspended ... and was raised on my feet, I hardly knew how, and expressed in a clear and distinct manner what was on my mind. When I had taken my seat Comfort Hoag rose, and had an open, favorable opportunity to speak to the assembly. After meeting she told me that, during, the time we had sat in silence, her whole concern was on my account; that her anxiety for my deliverance from that bondage was such, that she was willing to offer up her natural life to the Lord, if it might be a means to bring me forth in the ministry; and that on making the offering I rose to speak. On which her anxiety for me was removed, and her mind filled with concern for the people present.
This kind of experience, though often less dramatic, was common enough.
I have found that in conversation with seasoned Friends, that these sorts of experiences are still happening during Friends worship. What we do not have is the regular recording of these experiences as was the case when the journals of traveling ministers were commonly published. Since the laying down of elders and recorded ministers, it appears that we no longer have the place to have discussions about what is going on in meeting by people with long experience and a concern for nurturing the worshiping body. I do not think that recreating the form of the traditional Meeting for Ministers and Elders is what we need to do. I do think that Friends should explore how we can recover the function of nurturing and guiding our ministers in a form that makes sense in our current context. The place to start might be in recognizing that this is a community issue and not just an individual concern and to begin discussions in our meetings about what we experience happening in Meeting for Worship.