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INSPIRATIONS: Vocal Ministry

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The Quaker Meeting engraving after Maarteen van Heemskerk. Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS GETTY images
Friends have written little on how to worship or what the experience in Meeting for Worship is like but they tend to be quite vocal on . . . uhm, vocal ministry.   There seems to be no method or prescription on  how to achieve silent communion with Spirit.   Yet, Meetings often judge themselves by  their vocal ministry:  too much, too little, too political, too shallow,  too long, too short, etc.  In contrast to other Quakerly topics, Monthly Meetings frequently post some information on vocal ministry.  Some Friends have created bullet pointed lists and some have even created flow charts on the topic.  And Meetings seem eager to get instruction on vocal Ministry.  New York Yearly Meeting’s Spiritual Nurture Working Group reports that, offered a  list of 12 different workshops , Monthly meetings requested the topic on vocal ministry more than all the other 11 combined.   Following are some ideas that may illuminate the subject.  MTK
This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.  1 Cor 2:4. NIV
You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God? -- George Fox
Left:  The Quakers Meeting Engraving After Maarteen van Heemskerk.  Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS via GETTY Images
Right:   A Quaker's Meeting in the Seventeenth Century published 1893 London. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty.
"That All Plants May Bud". from Timeless Quaker Wisdom in Plainsong by Paulette Meier
Lyrics from George Fox:  "Let not the sons and daughters, nor the handmaids, be stopped in their prophesying, nor the young men in their vision, nor the old men in their dreams... So every one may improve their talents, every one exercise their gifts, and everyone speak as the spirit gives them utterance...... So that all plants may bud and ‘bring forth fruit’ to the glory of God.”

Spoken Ministry In the Life by Robert Hewison in 1965

        My piece was pat and all ready to say,
        She rose first. I threw my piece away.
        My well-turned stuff
        Was not so rough
        As hers, but easy elegant and smooth.
        Beginning middle end
        It had and point
        And aptly quoted prophet priest and poet.
        Hers was uncouth
        Wanting in art
       Laboured scarce-audible and out of joint.
       Three times she lost the thread
       And sitting left her message half unsaid.
       “Why then did thee throw it
        Into the discard?”
        Friend,It had head(Like this).
        Hers oh had heart
Utterances by John Greenlief Whittier
But what avail inadequate words to reach
the innermost of Truth?   Who shall essay
Blinded and weak, to point and lead the way,
Or solve its mystery in familiar speech? 
Yet if it be that something not thy own,
Some shadow of the Thought to which our schemes,
Creeds, cult, and ritual are at best but dreams,
Is even to thy unworthiness made known                                                                                                                                         
Thou mayest not hide what yet though shouldst not dare
To utter lightly, lest on lips of thine
The real seem false, the beauty undivine
So weighing duty in the scale of prayer
Give what seems given thee.   It may prove a seed
Of goodness dropped in fallow grounds of seed.
Or solve its mystery in familiar speech
  • Our worship consists neither in words nor in silence as such, but in holy dependence on the mind of God.  For such dependence it is necessary to begin with silence until the words can be brought forth which arise from God's Spirit. Barclay's apology in Modern English 1991. p. 257-258
  • The intent of all speaking is to bring into the life, and to walk in, and to possess the same, and to live in and enjoy it, and to feel God's presence.  George Fox 1657
  • Feeling the spring of Divine love opened, and a concern to speak, I said a few words in a meeting, in which I found peace. Being thus humbled and disciplined under the cross, my understanding became more strengthened to distinguish the pure spirit which inwardly moves upon the heart, and which taught me to wait in silence sometimes many weeks together, until I felt that rise which prepares the creature to stand like a trumpet, through which the Lord speaks to his flock…. All the faithful are not called to the public ministry; but whoever are, are called to minister of that which they have tasted and handled spiritually. The outward modes of worship are various; but whenever any are true ministers of Jesus Christ, it is from the operation of his Spirit upon their hearts. Matthew 5:23-24 (NRSV) So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Readings for “Quaker Basics”, Week 3. 23 of 38 —John Woolman, 1741
  • Out of the depths of silent worship, vocal ministry may arise, as voice is given to a fresh discernment that sparks from the group encounter with the Light. Nevertheless, meeting for worship can take place with no vocal ministry at all – indeed, some of the deepest meetings, including the gathered meeting, can be completely silent. And it is also important to remember that vocal ministry is only one of many ways in which the Spirit, encountered in the Meeting for Worship, moves us to minister to one another.     From Page on vocal ministry from Chatham
  • By "vital vocal ministry" we mean messages that take the community of faith deeper into what is helpful, loving, challenging, and timeless.  On Vocal Ministry. Nurturing the Community through Listening and Faithfulness. by Barry Crossno and J. Brent Bill PHP # 460 p 2
  • Truly gathered worship means the participation of everyone who is present holding the meeting in the Light, listening to the Spirit's movements in their hearts, and being willing to speak if so led.  ibid p5
  • Continuing revelation is the heart of vocal ministry.  As we sit in expectant waiting, we open ourselves to the possibility of being a conduit for eternal truths, healing ministry, and new insights that will shape and reshape our own lives and the lives of those who hear the message and will be affected by any work that arises from it.  Engaging in vocal ministry relies upon trust and surrender .  . . Ultimately, we Friends are on a community journey  ibid p 30
  • Friends often find it useful to test the urge to speak by means of internal queries – for example, messages may be received that are intended for the individual, not for the group as a whole. However, the level of these internal filters may need adjusting from time to time. If one speaks seldom or never, it may be worth taking the risk of lowering the internal hurdles and seeing what happens. Conversely, frequent speakers may consider raising them. After the rise of meeting for worship, the time for afterthoughts provides an outlet for messages of which you are not quite sure.   From vocal ministry page.
  • And what of the listener and his role in the vocal ministry? Since authentic vocal ministry arises directly from the group’s immediate spiritual encounter with the Light, the listener  is tasked to listen tenderly and search for that spiritual meaning in the vocal ministry, whether or not the message immediately seems to speak to him or her. The speaker may be trying to articulate something that is hard to find words for. The role of the listener is to try to discern the underlying spiritual message that the speaker may be struggling to express. If, after such a search for underlying meaning, the message is still not resonating, it may be that the message is for others, not for the listener. Page 3 of 3
  • And if anything be revealed to one that sits by, when the first is silent, that stream of the spiritual gift is turned to the other because that spiritual liberty is in the true church, for every one to speak as they are moved by the Holy Spirit”. Ellis Pugh, c. 1700 (Pugh was a Welsh Quaker who moved to Gwynedd, PA in1687)
  • Meeting for Worship is central to our experience as Friends. As our meeting grows in numbers and vibrancy, it is important that we are each aware of the responsibility we bear for the quality and depth of our worship, and specifically for vocal ministry. We are reminded that “it is no light matter to break the living silence. This should be done only with a sense of humility, awe, and reverence.”  . . . ™ Come to meeting with neither an intention to speak, nor a determination not to speak, but rather with an attitude of openness to the leadings of the Spirit. ™ If you do feel moved to speak, take a moment to test your leading. Traditionally, questions like the following have helped in this process of discernment: Is this message from the Spirit, or somewhere else? If it is from God, is it meant only for me, or for the entire Meeting? Even if meant for the entire Meeting, is now the right time? Genuine ministry is often preceded by a physical uneasiness, a “heart pounding weakness,” from which our name Quaker is derived. ™ Remember that silence is not just the space between messages, but a deep and living communion with the “Spirit which gives life.” Your silent prayer and openness to God are themselves a form of ministry that enriches the Meeting community. Allow adequate time between spoken messages, so that all may fully listen, and truly hear the previous message. ™ Vocal ministry carried on in a spirit of debate, lecturing, or discussion [can be] destructive to the life of the Meeting for Worship. It is rarely helpful to answer or rebut what has been said previously. Friends moved to vigorous support of causes need to find brief and sensitive ways to voice their insights, including outside of Meeting for Worship PYM Faith and Practice, p. 20
  • In vocal ministry, brevity is greatly valued. If you speak, do not feel compelled to explore all the implications of your insight. Rather, leave room for the Spirit to work through the next person, building on your words and possibly extending them in an unexpected direction. ™ Inevitably, not all vocal ministry will be equally meaningful to all present. Remember that ministry that does not speak to you may nevertheless be valuable to others. If you find yourself struggling with another’s words, learn to listen for the Spirit behind the words. ™ In regard to any impulse to speak a second time during worship, Friends have traditionally counseled restraint. Partly this is a matter of equity (since most present will not speak at all, none should speak more than once), and partly a recognition that to offer genuine vocal ministry is a weighty matter, requiring a degree of spiritual discernment and obedience beyond what most of us can muster twice in a single hour. ™ Finally, remember that our manner of worship is ultimately a mystery under the direction of the Holy Spirit. Each Meeting for Worship is a spiritual adventure, unique and unpredictable. Let us remember in humility that “the end of words is to bring us to the knowledge of things beyond what words can utter” (Isaac Pennington, 1670).
  • On being audible:   If you have considered and pondered if the Spirit is not speaking to you alone, be confident that the words are meant to be heard by others. You are giving the meeting the gift that has been given to you to share. Take a deep breath, lift up your head, and speak toward the people in the meeting. If you can remember to do it, speak as loudly as you comfortably can
  • In Friends' meetings also, from the fact that everyone is free to speak, one hears harmonies and correspondences between very various uttterances such as are scarcely to be met elsewhere. Caroline Stephen. 1890. quoted in Crossno and Bill PHP #460 p 4
  • At one time, those who were discerned as having a calling and a gift in the ministry were "recorded."  They were accountable to each other, to the elders and to their own monthly meetings.  Marcelle Martin  says that while she understands why recording gifts of ministry have been discontinued to prevent certain types of abuses . . ."God was still giving gifts of ministry and eldering but such gifts were not sufficiently recognized or nurtured by meetings, and neither meetings nor individuals were held accountable for them being well used and received.  The result has been a significant decline in the quality of worship and ministry, and a diminishment of spiritual vitality in many meeting communities ." Invitation to a Deeper Communion. PHP #366 Marcelle Martin". p 20   
  • Vocal ministry is an important, but not an essential element in Quaker worship.  Both theoretically and actually a meeting which worships in complete silence may be as valuable as one in which speaking occurs . . .But experience shows that meetings in which there is little or no vocal ministry for a length of time decline in membership and power.    There are usually some members of a meeting who require no vocal aid or guidance in their worship, but there are others who are greatly in need of this help.  Because the search for Truth and Life is a group search as well as an individual search, even those furtherest along the way derive strength and encouragement from others in the meeting. Friends for 300 years. by Howard Brinton. p 83.
  • The spiritual exercises of the meeting may include spoken words.  No one should go to a Friends' meeting with the definite expectation either of speaking or of not speaking.  Each attender should be open to dealing appropriately with whatever may be laid upon him by the Spirit of truth and Life. 17.  Guide to Quaker Practice. Howard H. Brinton.  Pendle Hill. php 20
  • During worship, all share responsibility for vocal ministry.  God may call upon any one, regardless of experience or education, age or gender to be a messenger. . . When someone does offer vocal ministry, Friends seek to be open, notwithstanding any hesitations or imperfection in the speaker's words. PacYM Faith and Practice. p26. 
  • Friends find that vocal ministry:
    • Can arise in anyone who is present at meeting for worship;
    • Manifests itself in the individual as a “call”, described as an uncomfortable quickening or a profound silence before speaking and a sense of relief or release afterward;
    • Arises from the heart rather than the head;
    • Impels the worshipper to rise and share the message received from Spirit;
    • Does not break the silence but adds to it;
    • Takes many different forms, including prayer, song, story, testimonial or dance;
    • Cannot be readily reconstructed afterward by the one who responds to the call;
    • Is a conduit for God’s love and work in the world;
    • Is a call to faithfulness.
      Philadelphia yearly meeting.
  • When one rises to speak in [a gathered] meeting one has a sense of being used, of being played upon, of being spoken through. It is as amazing an experience as that of being prayed through, when we, the praying ones, are no longer the initiators of the supplication, but seem to be transmitters, who second an impulse welling up from the depths of the soul. In such an experience the brittle bounds of our selfhood seem softened and instead of saying, “I pray” or “He prays,” it becomes better to say, “Prayer is taking place.”  Thomas R. Kelly,The Eternal Promise, 1966
  • There can be complete unity of worship without a single word being said. I have known a few such meetings and shall never forget them. It was their silence, not their words, that was memorable. And even one short sentence, spoken nervously at the spirit’s prompting, is better than a well-phrased five-minute talk prepared beforehand. —Clive Sansom, 1962
  • And thou, faithful babe, though thou stutter and stammer forth a few words in the dread of the Lord, they are accepted. —William Dewsbury, 1660
  • Prayer offered in the right spirit is a great power and has a wonderfully unifying and quickening effect. The times of silent waiting in our meetings for worship are not intended only for the refreshment of the individual worshipper. If the silence be a living one, in which the worshippers seek to enter into each other’s needs and to bear in their hearts the sufferings of the world without and the call to dedication in the service of the kingdom of God, silent prayer may naturally lead also to vocal prayer. The expression of prayer will not be of the nature of an address to the congregation, neither exhortation nor exposition of doctrine. If it is offered simply and humbly in fellowship with others and as a heart-felt cry of man’s spirit to his Heavenly Helper, it is of the utmost value in building up our common religious life. If we meet as members of one family in the presence of our Father, we should not shrink unduly from this offering of love. —London Y. M.: Christian faith and practice, 1960, no. 300.
  • Vocal ministry may take many forms, as prayer, praise of God, song, teaching, witnessing, or sharing. These messages may center upon a single, vital theme; often apparently unrelated 3 (1st Corinthians 12:27 (NRSV)) Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (4 Matthew 18:20 (NRSV)) For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. Readings for “Quaker Basics”, Week 34 of 38   pym faith and practice Readings for “Quaker Basics”, Week 31 of 38 Worship and the Meeting for Worship
For further reading, see: PYM Faith and Practice (1997), pp. 17-20. Thomas Kelly, “The Gathered Meeting”. Howard Brinton, Friends for 300 Years, chapter 5, “Vocal Ministry”. Douglas Steere, On Speaking Out of the Silence, Pendle Hill Pamphlet # 182. John Punshon, Encounter with Silence, pp. 83-91. Worship & Ministry Lancaster Friends Meeting Lancaster, Pennsylvania 1998 (revised 2008)
Theological, based on bible exegesis.   This is a very scholarly document on three levels of prophetic gifts:  gifts of grace, acts of service and operations of God.        3 levels of vocal ministry. 3 levels of vocal ministry.
by Michael Fondanova.  Friends Meeting of San Antonio. Doctor of Ministry from the Graduate Theological Foundation. 
Strenthening Vocal Ministry in Meeting for Worship.  Western FRiend, February 11, 2016.