This is a series of short, c.500-word posts looking at the underlying theology of the Advices and Queries – forty-two pithy statements that collectively capture the British Quaker faith.
When you are preoccupied and distracted in meeting let wayward and disturbing thoughts give way quietly to your awareness of God’s presence among us and in the world. 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. Remember that we all share responsibility for the meeting for worship whether our ministry is in silence or through the spoken word.
What we seek in meeting is presence, not absence. Fullness not emptiness. In entering worship we don’t seek a negation of the self. Or if we do seek an emptiness, it’s only in order to be filled – filled with the awareness of God’s presence. We seek to be full-filled, to have our horizon expanded beyond all that which preoccupies and distracts. God is both imminent – closer to us than our own breathing – and transcendent – above and beyond the individual and the human. God is among us and God is in the world. God does not want to blot us out, but for us to be fully ourselves – dwelling in God and God dwelling in us. We seek fulness, wholeness and the healing of our fragmented lives.
With this talk of healing and wholeness, some may ask what the difference is between Quaker worship and group therapy. Perhaps there is some overlap, but there are some important differences.
A meeting for worship is a public event. Anyone can come. So anything that is spoken in a meeting for worship is public testimony, not private confession. There is no sense in which things shared in meeting for worship can be treated as automatically confidential. There should be no taboo on discussing the content of vocal ministry after worship has finished. What we share in meeting for worship does not belong solely to us. It does not even belong solely to the group present. If what we speak is truly ministry, then it is God’s word – it is a revelation of God. And God is not a private thing.
Being frail and broken people, we may not always minister as we should. We may speak when we should be silent, and we may be silent when we should speak. We might use the opportunity to speak in meeting in many selfish ways. But God’s word uttered through us in worship is never just for us alone, never just for our own healing. So we need each other to test the spirits. Did what we say come from the Holy Spirit, or from a spirit of pride? The worshipping community must wrestle with and digest the vocal ministry of its members, and not see it as untouchable expressions of individual truth.
Of course, this wrestling should be done in a tender and creative spirit. We must lift each other up, not push each other down. In our our meetings for worship for business, we are exhorted to conduct our decision making in the spirit of worship. Conversely, we should also conduct our worship in the spirit of communal truth seeking. Spoken ministry is part of our collective search for Truth. We are not casting our own individual pebbles into a pond. The stones sink and remain untouched at the bottom, a collection of fragments. This image is too static and individualistic. We need an image that has some sort of direction or goal, an image where there is a guiding Truth to be sought.
All ministry, vocal or otherwise, is service for others. Whatever gifts we possess are to be used for the building up of our neighbour and the community of faith. Perhaps the paradoxical image of the living temple might work – in offering vocal ministry we hope to contribute to the shared project of building a living temple where God dwells. Quakerism is a shared religious project – a project that we’re all responsible for – and our vocal ministry should help others to feel the presence of the immanent and transcendent God among us and in the world.