As I have written about in previous blog posts (and elsewhere), I long have felt that Friends are in urgent need of faithful ministers of the Gospel — those with gifts of speaking, preaching, teaching under the guidance of the Spirit. There certainly is a need for more workers, but we also need have a way to help the ministers we do have get better at their work — each according to their gift. Being under some kind of monthly meeting guidance is important, of course, but our tradition offers additional tools, and though in recent posts I’ve done some work on this, here I’d like to conclude (at least for the moment) with a more “toolbox” approach.
This is because I think that the general approach being sketched can well apply to any group seeking to carry out long-term work under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. For example, as I have gotten involved with the Prophetic Climate Action Working Group (PCAWG) in New England Yearly Meeting, I find that I seeing similar at work in our mutual accountability and encouragement. I haven’t every really tried to articulate the model out of which I am working, and so this piece is an attempt to do that. So:
Our Quaker toolbox includes what one might call “an educative network for Spirit-led workers.”
I base this on what I understand of the practice of Friends in the first few years of our movement. This is not out of antiquarian interest, or nostalgia for some by-gone “golden era,” but rather because in that practice I see several characteristics that are well-suited to our times. There are certainly differences, as well, and I do not ignore them. I see our tradition as a resource, not an idol. To quote Jaroslav Pelikan (see The vindication of tradition), “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide.”
We should use our tradition discerningly, in the same way that we make use of ministry we hear in a meeting for worship: receive it, hold it in the light, and draw from it in ways that have life. What does not at present have life for you is not rejected, but rather held respectfully — it may yet be seen as nourishment for another time, or perhaps not.
I also find our tradition important as a counter-balance (not “corrective”) to the many voices I hear (and Friends hear) from our present culture. We know very well that even as we seek to live by the guidance of the “Pure principle,” we hear many other voices from self and culture proposing, compelling, inviting. Some of these, if not from God, may nevertheless be useful; some may be contrary to the life we seek to embody. I hearken back to the practice and testimony of past Friends as a way to triangulate, and to challenge myself to test whether some alternative I am weighing is more or less consistent with Quaker spiritual commitments.
With that preamble: I suggest some parallels between the current situation of the Quakers I know and that of the first Friends, which I think make the use of the “educative network” idea particularly useful.
- First, faith unsettled: there was then, as there is now, a plethora of alternatives, styles, interpretations, vocabularies — from non-theism and atheism, through various kinds of mysticism, skepticism, through a bewildering range of Protestantisms, not to mention Catholicism and so forth; even in places where Judaism was denigrated (as in much of Europe), there were enthusiasts for the Kabbalah, and the Qur’an was available (at least in part) in translation. The variety was stimulating to some, threatening to others, and paralyzing to yet others.
- Missing tradition. The first Friends were gathered to form a people, not born into a pre-existing institution. They were adults, many of them young adults. All had a history of search for an authentic spiritual base and community; most were deeply steeped in the Bible as instruction, and as a narrative in which they participated. In the Quakerism I am most familiar with, in these times, the large majority of Friends are also convinced Friends, which is both a source of strength and also of challenges to the coherence and integrity of the movement’s vision. Convinced Friends (then and now) have chosen their “family,” and bring with them fresh perspectives and energy; there is (& was) sometimes also a tendency to see in Quakerism some of what they valued from their prior paths.
- Practice emerging or in transformation. The first Friends had no structures, processes, or customs with which to shape the life of the Spirit into human terms (words, lives, decisions, relationships), though the New Testament patterns were important reference points. Modern Friends have abundant resources in this regard, thanks to Quaker history — yet in every generation Friends have to test the continued value of their inheritance, to ensure that we are bringing our lives (individually and corporately) “under the ordering of the Holy Spirit.” One value of such inherited structures is that they indicate a need or function that followers of the Quaker way at one time found important to address. Though we may decide that their solution doesn’t work anymore, we do well to understand why the solution was developed, and how it was shaped to hold the Spirit. This can help us maintain openness to the inward teacher active both then and now, and increase the likelihood that we will follow that guidance faithfully.
- Balancing freedom vs. regulation. The first Friends were always tempted on the one hand with Ranterism, and on the other hand with the need for regulation — which can tend in some cases to verge on over-regulation or control. We must balance the same tendencies. Our God is a God of order, not confusion, but where God is, there freedom dwells.
- Crisis of authority. The commitment to the ultimate authority of the Spirit of Christ shaped the use and interpretation of the Scriptures, and the severe critique of church tradition developed since apostolic times. These days, there is no agreed-upon authority among Friends except the Spirit — with the additional complication that we are not in agreement about what spirit is guiding us, and how it is to be known. Hence, our practices of discernment and shared seeking and accountability are of crucial importance for the health of the spiritual body.
A lot of moving pieces! Those who called themselves the Children of the Light tuned in to a signal amidst the noise, centering on the presence and activity of the light and spirit of Christ, inwardly and in the gathering people. This growing focus was made possible by the Publishers of Truth and others who came forth in the ministry, who articulated, for the Children, and the world, what was happening, and explained the shapes that faithfulness was taking — in speech, behavior, worship, and more. They also explained (or developed explanations of) the ways in which this new movement was in continuity with prior revelation — one of the major tasks of Barclay’s Apology, for example. Other innovations, such as the growth of some common discipline and organization, both shared in this work, and were (are!) in tension with it, as is probably healthy, if we are indeed to be guided by the Spirit that “bloweth where it listeth.” The Gospel life is a mysteriously lawful freedom.
The first generations of ministers among Friends saw that their model was a radical, new birth from the Spirit. The wise ones saw that it was real work, and full of real dangers, both to the movement, and to the ministers. They were shown early on that, when faithful, their efforts were all fruits of the one Spirit, whose servants they were, on behalf of the whole gathering people. Being public, visible spokespeople on behalf of that Spirit, they had to be on their guard that they do nothing that would harm those who were spiritually young, nor dishonor or tarnish the movement in the eyes of the unconvinced.
They took seriously this sense of collaboration, in several ways — and it is my opinion that all of these “methods” were needed, and were mutually reinforcing.
- They worked together as way opened or as Friends asked. They made plans for campaigns and journeys, they shared writings, they coached each other on the best way to handle opposition and controversy. They drew up schedules and lists to support their work
- They held each other in prayer, and in love for the work’s sake.
- They wrote to each other. There are quite a few general letters “to Friends in the ministry” from most of the early leaders, and from occasional others over the first two centuries of the movement (Some Friends had a particular tenderness for their fellow servants —e.g. George Fox, Charles Marshall, Martha Routh, Samuel Bownas). Additionally, there are many letters between individuals in the ministry — sharing news about what they are doing, places they’re visiting, people they are talking to, challenges and triumphs, sorrows and joys.
- Their communications were not just supportive, but also educative. They gave each other advice and warnings, and called on each other for help.
- They met as often as they could to share worship and mutual counsel and comfort.
- They expected that faithful workers would grow in the gift, through experience and through all this mutual, forthright support. They remarked on individual’s progress and mistakes.
- They kept clear before their eyes their service from the Spirit of Christ, for the Body of Christ, in collaboration with other gifts and callings; and remembered that whatever they received was a gift from that Spirit to be husbanded and not possessed.
The office of “elder” was not differentiated in the way it was in the later 1690s or early 1700s, but minsters (who were often called “elders”, a term generally connoting spiritual authority) were alert to receive counsel from those “well grown in the truth.” At a time when there was no tradition to embody and teach lessons learned and affirmed by the body out of experience with the guidance of the light, Friends worked from that guidance alone. In the Spirit, scripture’s authority was used for precedent and insight; and the wisdom of individuals and worshiping groups was evaluated.
Those with gifts of prophecy, teaching, and counsel, trusting that when faithful they were guided by the same life and truth, lived into a shared apprenticeship — mutually accountable for the diverse gifts and operations of the one Spirit. We can do this too!
At present, I will not extend this with illustrations or elaborations of these points (if there were sufficient interest, I might try in future). For those who want to explore this further, I mention a few references.
Journals which bear on this topic: George Fox, Samuel Bownas, Martha Routh, Catherine Phillips, John Churchman (many others as well).
Other writings (historical or descriptive) (a selection only!)
Barclay, A. R., ed. Letters, etc., of Early Friends.in Friends Library Vol. 11. London, Darton & Harvey, 1847.
Beamish, Lucia K. Quaker ministry 1691 to 1834. Privately published
Bownas, Samuel. A description of the qualifications necessary to a Gospel minister.
Braithwaite, W.C. The beginnings of Quakerism.
The second period of Quakerism
(The ministers’ collaboration and mutual support a thread throughout these indispensible works)
Doncaster, Phoebe. John Stephenson Rowntree: his life and work. See especially his essay “Gospel Ministry in the Society of Friends.”
Drayton, B. On living with a concern for Gospel ministry.
Grundy, Marty. Early Quaker ministry.
Penn, William. The rise and progress of the people called Quakers.
Taber, William P. 1980. The theology of the inward imperative: travelling Quaker ministry of the middle period. Quaker Religious Thought 18(4): 3-19.
Taber, William P. 1985. The Eye of Faith: A history of Ohio Yearly Meeting, Conservative. (Esp. Ch. 8, “The ministry of the Golden Age.”