In traditional Friends meetinghouses, you will find 2 or 3 (sometimes more) rows of benches facing the majority of the seats in the meeting room. (You can see the facing benches from the Henniker meetinghouse, built 1799, here). These seats are usually called the”facing benches” or “ministers’ gallery.” I will briefly remind Dear Reader what they were designed for, but that’s not my main point here.
Backgound. In Quaker theology, it is the Spirit of Christ that should direct the worship upon any occasion, and that Spirit may direct anyone present to make a vocal contribution — prayer, teaching, preaching, testimony, song — as a service to the worship. We are advised “Do not assume that vocal ministry will never be your part, ” and this is one (not the only!) reason we are to come to worship with hearts and minds prepared.
But in addition to this precious freedom, Friends have traditionally testified that for some people, the vocal ministry becomes a concern, which is carried for some length of time, possibly for life, and that the presence of such Friends concerned for the Gospel ministry is a vital element nourishing the faithfulness of the whole body. Robert Barclay, in his Apology, writes:
we do believe and affirm that some are more particularly called to the work of the ministry and therefore are fitted of the Lord for that purpose, whose work is more constantly and particularly to instruct, admonish, oversee, and watch over their brethren.
Such people are expected to consecrate time, effort, and other resources to the work, and to learn over time how to do it more faithfully and well. When a meeting came to the conclusion that a Friend had this gift, she or he was expected to sit in the ministers’ gallery. In addition, there are Friends whose gifts are principally those of spiritual nurture, whose work in the worship is to maintain an active, prayerful, watchfulness in the service of the quality of the worship and the ministry. These Friends, “well grown in the truth” regardless of their age, were termed “elders,” and also expected to sit on the facing benches. It was part of the orderly holding of worship for Friends with these responsibilities to face the meeting.
In recent decades, the facing benches in most places are no longer “marked” for this function, and indeed Friends prefer their seating to be in circles or hollow squares, so that all the worshipers are facing a common center where no human is. This trend reflects a typical reluctance to name and nurture those with “chronic” gifts in ministry or eldership.
I note, however, that the gifts keep emerging, and we have such a need for them!
Foreground. A few years ago, I was at the beautiful old meetinghouse in New Bedford, Massachusetts. It’s a splendid space, large and light=filled, built during the city’s prosperity as a center of the whale-fishery. As I often do in empty meeting houses, I went and sat for a few minutes in the ministers’ gallery, picturing the meetinghouse full and centered, in the stream of divine life and instruction. I realized that the facing benches here could have held dozens of Friends, even allowing for our cultural preferences with regard to”personal space.” After that, I fell into the habit of computing how many people might’ve sat in the facing benches of the meetinghouses I visit. Even in our little meetinghouse in Henniker, NH, which has a capacity of perhaps 65, the facing benches could seat close to 20 (and when both men’s and women’s sides were in use, double that). The facing benches constitute between 5% and 15% of the total seating capacity in most places I’ve seen.
This architectural detail is a reminder that Friends traditionally expected that the gifts of ministry and eldership would be poured out plentifully. Each person’s gift has a different “shape,” and a meeting’s spiritual work can best be served by this diversity of gifts — and the meetings at their best felt it their duty to see and nurture that diversity. It was not an exclusive club, any more than there is a limit on musical gifts — the gifts traditionally called ministry and eldership are given to encourage all the many kinds of life in our meetings — and there’s a lot of work to be done. Can we become less fearful, grudging, parsimonious in our thinking about these matters?
I encourage you, Dear Reader, to reflect on the implications of the facing benches, even if your meeting doesn’t have any, or even has no benches! Is your meeting (or are you) so shy of seeing and encouraging people’s gifts that many remain under-developed, mis-shapen, or even overlooked? Can we so learn again to rely on the Spirit’s guidance that we can accept the abundance that is offered us, and welcome it by taking intentional practical steps to help our many gifted Friends to nurture, train, and exercise those gifts whole-heartedly? The fields are white to the harvest, but there are too few hands at work — though the Lord of the harvest keeps sending workers to us.