Friday, 2 April 2010

Ministry in Meeting for Worship

I enjoyed all the contributions on the blog concerning the size of our Meeting and the issues related to our ‘threshing’ in January. It’s great that many from our Meeting expressed both at our Meeting in February and via the blog their perception of our situation as being a wonderful opportunity rather than as a concern, in the sense of it being a problem! I’m glad too that related issues around ministry and silence, have been ‘threshed’. On Jan. 31st Laura wrote of her “delight that we should be having this discussion via the blog”. I’m happy that the whole topic is being kept alive and before it goes to sleep I would like to offer my perspective on silence and ministry in worship.

At Meeting for Sufferings on March 27th many of these same issues were raised and ‘thrashed’. The topic was taken from priority ‘a)’ of “A framework for Action 2009 – 2014”: ‘Strengthening the spiritual roots in our meetings and in ourselves’. It seamed very clear at Sufferings that whether ‘bums on seats’ are increasing or decreasing, the relationship between silence and ministry in worship is an issue very much alive throughout our YM. I was glad to be able to offer some feedback from our own Meeting, flowing from our February 7th LM and the many reflections offered by Craig, Simon, Laura, Sharon, Rosie and others who have contributed to the blog.

The following insight once came to me in the silence. Suppose a group of hermits decided to meet for an hour each week to pray or to contemplate. Being hermits they agreed that the whole gathering would be in total silence!! The question for me was: whilst the hermits would surely gain a great deal from the experience – would this be what we seek in our Meetings for Worship?

In my view the answer is a very simple ‘no!!’ My perspective is that we meet as a community in which we wish to support one another and to learn from one another. Our community grows in depth not only through what comes to us individually in the silence but also through the sharing of the inner experiences that each individual recognise as spiritual or as being of God. It’s my belief that Quakers should have reason to be concerned if the balance tips too far in one direction or the other i.e. if within our MfW we have too much ministry or too much silence!

I see clearly the problem of too much predictable or ‘heady’ ministry. However, it would be concerning if individuals who join us in Worship were deterred from exercising their gift of ministry because they get the impression that meeting in silence is more valuable than a Meeting with ministry. I know that I’m nourished both by silence and by the ministry that flows from what others experience as coming to them from the same silence.

I believe that the Quaker way of worship brings with it wonderful gifts. We deepen our prayer lives; we learn about the gift of discernment and we learn about active listening. For me, all of this is a part of the Quaker experience and a part that hopefully we will pass on to future generations. We learn in the first instance to sit in silence and in the silence we allow ‘that of God’ to speak to us in our hearts, but we also learn to receive and to offer ministry. Some Quakers seem to believe that we have no priests, but surely the reality is that we are all priests i.e. we are called to minister to one another. Ministry for Quakers is a two-way process. We receive with gratitude and we offer freely.

By participating in Worship we learn to grow and to progress from merely occupying ‘Quaker space’ to discovering the ‘Quaker Way’. This is the way along which: a) we learn to listen to the spirit of God deep within ourselves, b) we learn to listen deeply to the spirit of God as communicated to us by other members of our Meeting, c) we learn to discern the appropriate time in which to offer ministry. Hopefully we also learn to use the gift of discernment further in doing the will of God in our daily living, in today’s complex world.

I now digress to make a point. We learn to speak by speaking. We learn to write by writing. We learn to think by thinking. These are skills that we have developed from earliest childhood. Together with the wider society Quakers share the priority that is placed upon these skills. We all seek to help our children to acquire proficiency in their use and we wish that they practice them on a regular basis. However as Quakers we surely place a high value on ‘discernment’ also. I understand discernment as the ability to know from ‘deep within’ the rights and wrongs of actions. Just as with speech or writing discernment is a gift that we develop not in a vacuum but by exercising it within a community. Where better, I ask, than within the security of a loving community?

Quaker worship teaches us to wait in a deep silence. As the Psalmist wrote, ‘Be still and know that I am God’. In the silence we pay attention to what God may wish to communicate to us from ‘within’. In the silence we also receive ministry from other members of our community i.e. we learn to actively listen and to pay attention to what God may wish to say to us through other members of our community, even some unlikely ones. This is the real gift offered by diversity. However, we can also learn about offering ministry.

We learn to trust our inner knowing or discernment and then we need to do something with it. As with all skills, discernment too needs to be tested out. We test it out by trusting what comes to us in the silence and then when the time seems appropriate and when we feel moved to do so we offer ‘words’ in ministry. Very importantly we can learn still more from the feedback we later receive from caring and honest Friends - be they elders or attenders. Hopefully these Friends will be willing and able to offer us encouragement - or further guidance if this seems appropriate!

So, returning to the overall question of ministry within MfW. I too wish that ministry be deep and spiritually based. We should all be wary of offering predictable ministry or of saying something just because it seems ‘clever’. I wish especially that we would all give adequate time between one ministry and the next and I too would welcome the occasional meeting when no one feels led to offer ministry.

However having said all that - I would also like to encourage all in our Meeting to be brave in trusting the strong insights that come to them in MfW, especially when the insights are accompanied by strong emotions. For me the emotional component that accompanies ideas that come into our awareness is a very significant factor. Surely something of this emotional component was the source of people being called ‘Quakers’.

Holding on to all of this and still knowing that we can get it wrong, I value what St. Paul said: “The spirit of God is not a spirit of timidity”. I believe that we all need to learn a) to trust the insights that come to us; b) to trust the emotions that accompany such insights; c) to trust ourselves in offering ministry; and d) to trust the feedback we receive from others in our community.

In brief, we are a single Quaker community. Within this community we learn to minister by ministering and in ministering we also test out for ourselves and for the Meeting the gifts we share. Discernment and ministry are gifts for the whole Meeting. I would hope that we are all guided by no.13 of Advices & Queries:- “Do not assume that vocal ministry is never to be your part. Faithfulness and sincerity in speaking, even very briefly, may open the way to fuller ministry from others. When prompted to speak, wait patiently to know that the leading and the time are right, but do not let a sense of your own unworthiness hold you back. Pray that your ministry may arise from deep experience, and trust that words will be given to you”.

Let me once again state that like others, I do not want ministry for its own sake and I don’t want ministries coming one after another without adequate time to absorb what has been offered but I do hope that our MfW is a place where we learn from that of God in ourselves and in others. This is something that would never happen in the case of the hermits! I delight especially when a Friend, who rarely ministers, offers a gem that that has come to them from the silence.

I urge a certain caution lest, even with the best will in the world, we make any assumptions about other people ‘airing personal thoughts and reflections’ or ‘offering a ministry that does not arise from a deep spiritual centre’. This could really be a ‘put off’ to a more timid soul. I believe that it would be a disservice to our community if the best efforts of one person were stifled or snuffed just because another person perceived their best effort as being less than adequate. We all need to be very careful about valuing one another within our one community.

In any community valuing another is demonstrated especially by actively listening to what that other person has to say and then by offering that person words of encouragement. I learned a great lesson at the York YM about the need for Friends to be ‘kindlers and not snuffers’ of the spirit, lest we ‘snuff out’ those who are more timid by nature and those who take a great leap in joining us in our Quaker space because they too wish to learn about the Quaker Way.

My hope is that our MfW will always be a place of welcome to those who wish to join us in Quaker space. I hope that our MfW, while being grounded in silence, will also be a place where visitors do not feel intimidated by either words or silence. Please God, no one who worships with us will hold back from offering ministry just because they feel discouraged from so doing or because of a sense of their own unworthiness. Rather, may each one of us feel encouraged to develop our gifts of discernment and when the time seems appropriate may we have the courage to offer in ministry what is discerned as being an appropriate ‘word’ for the Meeting.

Priority a. of our “Framework for Action” starts with the words: ‘We wish to see all our meetings being inclusive worshipping communities, where everyone is welcomed and valued’. This is a wonderful aspiration. May we all learn from our experiences of ‘silence’ and of ‘ministry’ so that our Meeting, with all its diversity, may progress towards being ever more inclusive and welcoming. In this spirit, may we discover an ever-greater discernment of what God’s will is for us within our Meeting and beyond it, in Sheffield and the world? This is our time and place!!!

We are approaching Easter. Grant that each in our community may experience new life and vitality from the spirit of God in our hearts and in our community. Happy Easter.


Laura Kerr said...

Kindlers, not snuffers! I love that phrase. I think we cannot be reminded too often of it. Alleluya! Thankyou Maurice. That's wonderfully affirmative and encouraging.

Craig Barnett said...

Thanks for this very helpful post Maurice. It is very true that 'we learn to minister by ministering'.

I agree that it would be harmful if newcomers or less confident people were dissuaded from offering ministry in Meeting through the fear that was not 'good enough'.

My own reflections were intended more for those of us who do not find it difficult to speak in Meeting.

In former times, Friends who regularly ministered in Meeting were 'recorded' as Ministers by their community. This was a way of recognising their responsibility to the community - to practice their calling with self-discipline and careful discernment in the service of the whole Meeting. The Meeting' also accepted a responsibility to support them in their spiritual development and the exercise of their ministry.

This practice was laid down for good reasons - partly to encourage the ministry of all Friends. But in the process we perhaps lost the sense that those who minister on a regular basis have a particular responsibility to the Meeting, and the Meeting to them.

There is a useful discussion of the issues facing contemporary Quaker 'ministers' in Brian Drayton's book 'On Living with a Concern for Gospel Ministry'.

In Friendship, and with gratitude for your gift of ministry in our Meeting,

Unknown said...

Maurice's blog about ministry and M$W contains some superlative ideas. I hope Maurice can work on them, expanding them a little into a short booklet. Bravo!

Gerard Guiton
Australia YM