My Meeting has been going through a challenging phase in which there have been complaints about vocal ministry to Ministry and Council. This happens not infrequently at Friends' meeting since everyone is allowed to speak, and what is said is not always to everyone's liking. Sometimes a wave of complaints arise about vocal ministry: messages are too long, too frequent, too political, or not sufficiently deep and spiritual. Like El Nino, these seasons of discontent come and go, and can sometimes be stormy. I am pleased that to clear the air, my Meeting made the decision to have an adult study on vocal ministry, using a Quaker process known as "worship sharing," which I report about in this blog.
However, I'd first like to place this challenge in a biblical context. During the Bible study that proceeded this adult study, we read Paul's advice to the church in Corinth about how to conduct meeting for worship:
When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. If anyone speaks in a tongue [ecstatic utterance], it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God.Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted.and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; for God is not a God of confusion but of peace....Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues. But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner. (Corinthians 12: 26-40)
When I first read this, I was actually in Corinth, on a boat cruise with Christians traveling in the footsteps of Paul, and I thought, "Wow! This sounds just like a Quaker meeting."
I realized that early Friends were seeking to follow the example of the early church and probably used this text as a justification for their seemingly unique mode of worship.
As this passage makes clear, early Christians did not have a set order of worship, or a priest, or even a minister. They gathered together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, spoke in "tongues" (i.e. ecstatic utterances) and allowed people to sing hymns, preach or prophesy, as Spirit moved them. Sometimes these worship services became too ecstatic and rowdy, so Paul laid down some guidelines, the most important being "all things must be done properly [sometimes translated "reverently"] and in good order."
It is worth noting that Paul uses the words "prophesy" and "revelation," which were important concepts to early Christians as well as to early Friends. "Prophesy" didn't mean a prediction; it meant a message revealed by the Holy Spirit to encourage, challenge and/or edify a congregation. Prophets also spoke truth to power.
Jews believed that Malachi was the last of the twelve prophets, and that the spirit of prophecy had ceased. Many Christians felt the same way: the Bible was a closed book, and revelation ceased with the Book of Revelation. But the prophet Joel predicted that in the Last Days, when the Messiah came, the spirit of prophesy would be revived, the Holy Spirit would be poured onto all people, and revelations from God would continue:
"I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions." (Joel 2:28)
According to Joel, women as well as men, children as well as elders, would have the gift or prophesy during the Last Days. Early Christians (see Act 2:17) as well as early Friends believed that this prophetic age was initiated by the coming of Christ and of the Holy Spirit during Pentecost. Fox believed that since Christ had come to teach His people directly, women as well as men have the gift of prophesy. Therefore, women as well as men could have "revelations" (direct inspirations from God) and give vocal ministry during Quaker meetings for worship.
During our Bible study, we were struck by Paul's statement "each person" has a part to play in a meeting for worship, that is, each participant is free to contribute, just as in a Quaker meeting.
Paul later adds that women should remain silent during times of worship, but Quakers questioned that teaching of Paul for biblical, social and cultural reasons. See Margaret Fell's "Women's Speaking Justified."
Quakers took to heart Paul's recommendation that there should be an interval of silence between sharing so that those present can ponder what was given.
When Paul says "the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets," he implies that those who have the gift of prophesy must discern whether revelations given during times of worship are genuine or not. He doesn't say how this discernment process takes place.
For early Quakers, discernment often took place on Second Day meetings in which elders gathered and reflected on the worship that took place the day before. Those who gave vocal ministry were usually part of this discernment process. We know from records of this time that Friends eldered one another, usually in a loving way.
That's what happened at our adult study on Sunday, April 3 . Around 16 or 17 of us gathered together for a time of "worship sharing" in which each had a brief time to respond to three queries (open-ended questions) regarding vocal ministry:
- How do I determine if thoughts in my head are ministry or not?
- What do I do before I rise to speak?
- How do I know if my message was “right” for meeting? What indications do I get either internally or from others?
Everyone present who gave vocal ministry described a similar experience: a feeling in the body, such as a more rapidly beating heart, or a queasiness in the pit of the stomach, combined with a sense that one must speak, that a power greater than oneself requires speaking out.
Some spoke of rehearsing what they were going to say before speaking, while others said they had no definite idea of what they were going to say, and scarcely remembered afterward what they said.
No one spoke of preparing vocal ministry before meeting for worship: that is clearly un-Quakerly. In every case, Friends said that vocal ministry arose spontaneously, and unexpectedly, during meeting for worship. Most spoke of resisting or at least questioning the impulse to speak; and some said they were pleased when someone else gave a message similar to what they felt led to give, or else a message completely different but more appropriate.
It was also interesting to note that very few were completely comfortable with how they expressed their vocal ministry. Some felt that they didn't say everything they were supposed to say, and left out something important. Others said they felt they may have spoken too long. Another was concerned about being afraid of what Friends might think of her ministry, but spoke any way because she felt God was leading her to speak. Having been part of an Evangelical tradition where women aren't often given an opportunity to speak during worship, she feels she finally has freedom to give vocal ministry. However, she added, "It takes courage to speak."
One Friend confessed that she sometimes concluded her Spirit-led vocal ministry with a joke that undercut what she was saying. "This is my ego speaking," she said.
One Friends said that he seldom gave vocal ministry, maybe three times in five years, and he was nonetheless "eldered" because he used the phrase "as another Friend has said," in his ministry. The Friend who was criticized for using this phrase didn't seem happy about it.
When my turn came to share, I waited until I became aware of my heart beating, which is for me a sign from Spirit. I also inwardly heard and repeated biblical passage that often comes to me: "May the words of my lips and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O God." I said that my experience of giving vocal ministry is similar to what others describe, except I used the word "God," which few others used. I said that when I feel a strong impulse to speak, I ask for Divine guidance and wait for a response. I ask myself: "Is this message just for me, or for the whole meeting? Are You sure You want me to speak? Should I speak now, or wait?" Sometimes when I wait, someone else gives the message I felt led to give, and I feel at peace. At other times, someone gives a different but more appropriate message, and I also feel at peace.
I also said that people sometimes compliment and sometimes criticize my messages. It feels good to be affirmed, and it is sometimes painful to be criticized, but I try to remember that what matters most is not the opinions of Friends but whether or not I was faithful to God in giving vocal ministry. "May the words of my lips, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in YOUR sight, O God."
I know that many Friends in our Meeting aren't comfortable with God language, just as they aren't comfortable with Jesus language, but I felt that I needed to be honest about my spiritual life. and how important it is that I follow and honor God. I spend a lot of my day having an inner dialogue with the Divine, and also have experiences of the Divine Presence that are just as real as my experiences with people and material things. I am grateful I felt free to express what is essential to who I am.
One of the important features of worship sharing is that each person has a chance to speak their truth without being criticized or challenged by others. As a result, there is a sense of safety and people usually feel free to be honest with each other.
I was pleased that towards the end of our session, an elder in our Meeting spoke up about the importance of being non-judgmental. This birthright Friend from Philly generally doesn't say much, but when he does, his words are usually full of wit and wisdom. This time he was unusually vocal, even passionate, in expressing his view that we should be accepting of people who give vocal ministry. We shouldn't judge. We should listen with compassion. Another Friend expressed similar views, with deep feeling.
I am glad our session ended on this positive note. I was reminded of how Paul began his chapter on meeting for worship:
"Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy." (1 Corinthians 14:1)
Paul's phrase: "Follow the way of love..." speaks to my condition. People come to worship for many reasons--some are going through personal struggles, some are seeking God or inner peace, and some are seeking community. But whatever our reason for coming to worship, I feel we need to "follow the way of love." As Paul says elsewhere in his letter, "Prophesy will pass....Faith, hope, and love are what last, and the most important thing is love." I felt that by listening to each other without criticism, our worship sharing session on vocal ministry helped us to follow way of love.