Thursday, 14 January 2010

Threshing our Meeting

I was encouraged by the 'Threshing Meeting' held last Sunday, to discuss possible changes to our Meetings for Worship as a result of the dramatic growth in numbers of attenders at Sheffield Central recently. A couple of people mentioned to me how much they enjoyed the process, especially the respect shown to each other by participants, and the contrast with the kind of decision-making that they often experience in work or other non-Quaker contexts. I came away feeling proud to be a member of a community which practices decision-making in such a healthy and inclusive way. Our Meetings for Worship for Business are one of the main reasons for the survival and continuing relevance of Quakers over the last 350 years, and something we can be justly proud of.

One theme that was raised by several speakers was the desire for a smaller and 'quieter' Meeting for Worship, without so much spoken ministry as we usually have in the main Sunday Meeting. This left me wondering if there is an underlying issue, which isn't being explicitly addressed in this discussion, namely the quality of our worship, and the spoken ministry that arises from it.

My own experience is that I rarely feel nourished by our Meeting for Worship on a Sunday morning. This is not just about having 'too much' ministry, but more importantly the kind of spoken ministry that tends to predominate, which often seems to me quite 'heady', rather than arising from and speaking to the spiritual depths of those present.

In a Quaker Meeting the elders have a particular responsibility for the health of Meeting for Worship, but I must admit that when I was serving as an elder it seemed almost impossible to actually do anything about it, largely due to the absence of a shared understanding of what ministry is. Of course people in a Quaker meeting have very different needs, experiences and perceptions, but without any agreement about the nature of Meeting for Worship, there seems to be a tendency for it to become largely a space for airing personal thoughts and reflections. These are usually unobjectionable, and may well be helpful to some of those present in certain ways, but unless they arise from a deep spiritual centre they will not reach to 'the life' in others, and help them to experience that spiritual reality for themselves.

We are encouraged by our Quaker tradition 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 so for others.' (Advices & Queries 12)

There is great wisdom in this, and I have been humbled by the gentleness and patience practised so consistently by many Friends in this spirit. But it does not mean that everything said in Meeting is necessarily 'God's word' for someone.

My experience is that there are 'layers' of depth in vocal ministry, and that the more frequent expression of 'surface' thoughts and opinions can crowd out the space needed for deeper words to arise from a gathered stillness.

Of course it may be that my own perceptions are at fault here, and I simply have quite different needs from most other Friends, so I would be glad to know what your experience of our Meeting is, in the comments below.


S Fred Langridge said...

My experience is very similar to yours, Craig.
I worry about it but don't have any clear ideas about what could be done.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post because I serve a large evangelical, pastoral meeting and last week we had a meeting to brainstorm our current worship format. Many in our meeting are unhappy with the contemporary worship format and desire more hymns, lower volume, more corporate prayer and altar calls. Interestingly enough, a few made comments about our current format feeling like entertainment and after the meeting I thought, "we're talking about entertainment and yet we approached the meeting like consumers--'I want this and I want that'--with the expectation that we should get what we ask for. This isn't to say that changes aren't needed, but it felt very consumerist--the very thing that contemporary worship gets accused of being. What happened to a spirit of humility and coming to worship and centering on Christ rather than all the things that annoy us?

A point you raised that I found particularly interesting was, "In a Quaker Meeting the elders have a particular responsibility for the health of Meeting for Worship, but I must admit that when I was serving as an elder it seemed almost impossible to actually do anything about it, largely due to the absence of a shared understanding of what ministry is." As a elder myself, I've begun to wonder when listening for clearness becomes inertia. At times it feels like many decisions do not get made because maybe there isn't that shared vision of ministry you mentioned, but I wonder sometimes if it isn't just pure inertia and this is coming from someone who is very thoughtful and contemplative.

Tim Neal said...

I too share your sentiments Craig. Perhaps the way to work at this is to minister to this effect in meeting?

Steven Davison said...

I, too, have often felt the same way. I feel that 'vocal ministry' has often been downgraded to 'speaking in meeting," or, put another way, that people who speak in meeting see their role as serving the needs of the members of the meeting and the meeting itself, rather than serving God. 'God' here being a placeholder for Whoever inspires real ministry.

And I, too, have had trouble getting people on a committee that has care for the quality of meeting for worship to acknowledge that they even have a role to play as elders.

I think there might be three things to do. The first is to create RE programs around the faith and practice of vocal ministry and opportunities to share our experience of vocal ministry, and maybe even a meeting for listening in which people can share their complaints and hopes in a safe environment without any discussion afterwards.

The second and the most likely to succeed, I think, is to find Friends in our meetings who want to deepen their ministry and support each other in faithfulness to gather informally and periodically just to talk about our experience and perhaps to pair up as 'ministry buddies', once we get to know each other better in this way. That is, to provide each other with the nurture and oversight that we can't get from our committees. And then gradually to let our own deepening ministry irradiate the meeting.

The third is to pay more attention to the membership process. The basic problem is admitting members who do not really understand the faith and practice of vocal ministry, or Quaker ministry more broadly, and who have not been asked whether they are interested in participating in a culture of eldership when they join. Maybe we don't want to turn people away if they are uncomfortable with a disciplined approach to ministry, but we could at least ask, and make sure that they know that some members, anyway, really do think vocal ministry ought to come from God, not the week's latest disastrous news, and that some members take it so seriously as a spiritual discipline.

rosie carnall said...

Your words are rich in wisdom Craig! The discipline of silent Quaker worship is not easy and in our meeting it does sometimes feel that people are letting us know what's on their mind rather than channeling a divine message. I know as well that sometimes I'm just sitting there thinking and other times I am present in the silence, and that these are two very different experiences. Reading QF+P 2.12 recently meant a lot to me - 'The right to speak is a call to the duty of listening.' What I get from this is that our understanding of everyone having a right to give vocal ministry should essentially be leading us to the primary discipline of listening (or waiting to be called). If I have something on my mind during meeting I should listen deeply but rarely will it rise to the status of vocal ministry. But also I reverse it to get 'The right to listen is a call to the duty of speaking.' I'm thinking about the many people who never give vocal ministry and whether perhaps they are sometimes avoiding the call? Even perhaps because there are so many other people who speak so often that there isn't really time for any more?
A friend who is a lifelong Quaker was expressing some frustration to me once about people in his meeting who speak more or less every week. 'I could count the number of times I've been called to speak in my whole life (about 40 years) on the fingers of both hands' he said, 'and whilst it might be that God's calling them more often, I do wonder if it's that much more often?' We've all got to find our way as speakers and listeners in order to uphold our Quaker discipline. I too wonder how we can help each other in this venture effectively?

Craig Barnett said...

Sharon - Thanks for this. It seems like it might be helpful to our Meeting to be having this discussion 'out in the open' just now.

Pat - How to avoid 'approaching the Meeting like consumers' is a really good question to ask ourselves. I think most of us are naturally looking to 'get our needs met' by Meeting, and there's nothing wrong with this. For me though, Meeting is also about something more than my needs - it should be a place that disturbs me and calls me to something beyond myself. Perhaps the worst kind of Meeting would be one that was too cosy and comfortable.

Tim - I have often felt this temptation. Unfortunately unless I am genuinely moved to minister in meeting I would just be sounding off my own thoughts and opinions... So far I haven't felt a leading to minister on this subject, which is why I have chosen this medium to raise the issue, rather than burdening the Meeting for Worship with it.

Monster - Encouraging suggestions, thank you. I think we have the opportunity to do a lot more reflection and mutual learning about Quaker spirituality at the moment - largely thanks to the many newcomers to Meeting who bring the gift of their enthusiasm and 'Beginners' Minds'.

Rosie - Yes, I agree it's not just about whether sometimes people speak without a genuine leading to minister (I know I have done this too by the way). What is more important to me is the ministry of Friends that I need to hear but don't, because the Meeting rarely has a chance to settle into the kind of stillness from which authentic ministry can emerge.