Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Silence and Ministry

Recently, someone again reminded me that they prefer silent meetings. I think the remark may have been a kind of challenge to the substance of what I had written in June last year in ‘Reflections of an Attender’. I feel drawn to return to the issue, but first I wish to make clear that I respect the right of each person to personal choice. I have my preferences and no doubt you have yours. That’s the way things are, but isn’t there more to the movement of the Spirit, (just as there is more to life itself), than my preferences or yours! Having considered further the issue of Meeting for Worship, I return to the theme, even at the risk of being boring.

We are told that one day the Buddha was sitting with his disciples when an angel appeared to him and asked: ‘how long would you like to live? You can ask for a 1000 years if you like’! Without hesitation the Buddha answered; ‘80 years’. When the angel had gone some of his disciples admonished the Buddha, and said, ‘think of all the good you could have done if you had asked to live for a 1000 years. The Buddha replied, ‘If I lived for 1000 years, people would be interested only in how to prolong life. I am far more concerned that they focus on enriching the life they are actually living in the community in which they live.

I wonder if there could be something of a parallel between this story and our lives as Quakers. We are Friends. We are community. We have so much to give and so much to receive from one another. We are all interested in silence, as a way to prayer, and to life. However silence is not an end in itself. Could it be that sometimes we seem to settle for the length of silence, rather than the quality of silence and what it is that arises from the silence? Couldn’t we all discover more from the silence and from each other if we shared more generously what it is that arises within us during the silence. Quakers lay special claim to what is called ‘the priesthood of all believers’. To me, priesthood is ‘a reality’ that calls for action; it calls us to be more for each other. Priesthood is not ‘an ideal’ in our heads, or just a thought to be cherished. So no matter how much attachment we have to our personal preferences, our role as priests calls us to serve one another.

I rejoice each Sunday when our Meeting for Worship has a balance of silence and ministry; especially when the ministry emanates a) from a deep silence and b) from a wide range of members or attenders who feel moved and are willing to take the risk of stepping outside of their ‘comfort zone’ of personal preference and respond in spoken ministry to what has traditionally been called the ‘little voice’ or ‘the light’ within.

It may well be that some people, up to this point in their journey, just do not have the sense of an inner voice? If this is so then of course just trust the reality of what is happening and feel comfortable to sit in the silence and enjoy the space offered to all.

However, to those who do have a sense of an ‘inner voice’ the issue is about whether we ‘take heed of the promptings of love and truth in our hearts and trust them as the leadings of God’, (A&Q,1). If we do trust the promptings then surely to share what emanates from within, during our time of silence, is for the building up of our Religious Society and the enriching of all our lives. To hold back on ministering, when one is prompted to do so is surely just as egocentric as someone ministering without an inner prompting to do so.

As a consequence, of silence and ministry we all go out into Sheffield and beyond, more inspired and committed towards the building of a more just and loving society. Surely this is what we are called to, the building up of the Kingdom of God on earth! My plea is that we respond ‘to the leadings of God who’s Light shows us our darkness and brings us to life’. Each of us is called to trust that my ‘feeble’ ministry is for the building up of the Meeting, and consequently ‘the Kingdom of God’ on earth.


Peter Lawless said...

Excellent comments Maurice. This is of particular interest to me having drawn some adverse comments in the past. If we are true to the promptings within us we can only follow them. Ministry may well be intended for only one or two people in Meeting therefore not all Ministry may not seem essential to all present. If moved we must trust and take the risk if that is what we are called to do.
In Friendship
Peter Lawless

RichardM said...

I agree that Friends who feel led to speak in meeting should not hold back from speaking. But I have to disagree with your suggestion that everything one hears in the silence is meant to be shared. Many Friends receive guidance from the Spirit during waiting worship but only a few of these are messages that are for the Meeting. God is indeed within all of us and speaks to all of us but only some have the gift of vocal ministry and are used to relay messages to others.

Scots Ali said...

Re-reading Maurice's piece, I don't see where Richard draws the conclusion that "everything one hears in the silence is meant to be shared". Great piece, Maurice, I feel exactly like you do about my local Meeting - although last Sunday we broke the "silent" mode and there was a lot of really deep and valuable ministry - we even ran several minutes past the noon "deadline"!

RichardM said...

"It may well be that some people, up to this point in their journey, just do not have the sense of an inner voice? If this is so then of course just trust the reality of what is happening and feel comfortable to sit in the silence and enjoy the space offered to all." Does that imply that those who sit in silence do so because they don't hear an inner voice? Maurice's post only recognized Friends who hear a voice which is telling them to speak and those who hear no voice. There was no mention of the category, which is in my experience the largest category, namely Friends who hear a voice that is speaking just to them.

jez said...

silence... stillness... expectant waiting...

A silent Meeting for Worship without God is different to one with.

Laurie Chase Kruczek said...

Nice post. It reminds me that I have yet to speak in a silent meeting, as I have not felt the Lord urging me to do so. When I feel Him leading me to speak outward, I will share what comes forth. The akwardness I would have in speaking otherwise convinces me that vocal ministry is best left to actual "leading."

That said, I do rejoice when another Friend speaks in meeting. It is often just what I need to hear at that moment, and deepens my relationship with the Inner Light.

Anonymous said...

I have trouble refering to unprogrammed worship as a "silent Meeting" because characterizing worship that way seems to imply that silence is the most important thing we are seeking.

Perhaps it is for some people, but language is a powerful thing. If we name something as "silent" we might be setting up a definition which is exclusive rather than inclusive.

And we might be making it easier to get into little individual comfort zones which make communal worship and a truly gathered Meeting hard to nurture.


Laurie Chase Kruczek said...

You say tomayto, I say tomahto.



Anonymous said...

Laurie--That's a difference in pronunciation, not a difference in name. Linguists tend to agree that *naming* has a great deal to do with conceptualization. Pronunciation has very little to do with pronunciation. :)

I accept that people have certain habits of speech, but if we are to talk about what we want in the content of our worship and especially if we are concerned about whether or not our worship style is working or promoting community or allowing the Spirit to reach us, IMO, we need to be very careful how we characterize that worship in our speech.

Using another example, we call our Peace Testimony a "peace testimony" and not a "War Protest Testimony" because we are searching for more than just a war protest. If we called it a "War Protest Testimony" we would change the whole context.

Peace. ;)


RichardM said...

In North Carolina Yearly Meeting we prefer "waiting worship" to "silent worship" because that seems to catch the essence better. We are silently waiting for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is not silence for the sake of silence.

I remember the vocal ministry of an older Friend whose family had been North Carolina Quakers for at least a century. He spoke of meeting for worship that he remembered from fifty years ago at which not a word was spoken but as he remembered "at the rise of Meeting the floor was wet with tears." The absence of spoken ministry is not always a sign that the Spirit is absent from a meeting. If we are led to speak then it is important that we speak, but we must also remember not to try to push the river.

Maurice Bartley said...

I would like to respond fairly briefly to ‘richardm’. My experience may be unusual but for me what comes to me in the silence of private prayer is most often private and I need to respond to it accordingly. However what emerges from the silence in our Community Meeting for Worship is usually somewhat different. For me here my experience is usually one of receiving something 'for the Meeting as a whole', but I too, often feel tempted to hold my peace rather than get to my feet.

I can fully appreciate that some people may well receive guidance during Meeting for Worship that they genuinely interpret as being just for themselves. In this case I accept whole-heartedly this third category that you perceive as the largest one of ‘Friends who hear a voice that is speaking just to them’.

I think it is really good to tease out, share and explore the nature of the voice we do hear during our time of Communal Worship. Taking what you say on board, I apologise for any misunderstanding I may have of other people’s experience. However I would still ask that each of us take real responsibility for responding with courage to the inner voice, and to do so as authentically as possible. I note that I, and I expect others, can easily find 'good' reasons for doing the easier thing. The Spirit of God is never a Spirit of timidity, but one of courage.

RichardM said...


I think we do really agree with each other. Your experience has been one in which you feel led, or perhaps even pushed, to share the message you have been given. You feel that the message is not for you but rather for the meeting. In this case you really should find the courage to get up and speak it. If you have elders in your meeting they ought to see what is going on and ought to be gently prodding you to give the vocal ministry that you need to give. So from this distance I will do that prodding: Maurice, you must speak it.

My response to your post was not one of telling you not to speak. It was to point out that many Friends experience clear messages that are not shared because the Friend correctly perceives that the message is personal and not intended for those gathered. Christ personally guides every one of us, but only a minority of us have what is called a gift of vocal ministry. Such ministers are given messages meant for other people to hear. You need to speak in meeting more often and test whether or not you have such a gift.