Monday, May 31, 2010

Thoughts on Gospel Ministry, Part 2

This is a continuation of Joseph John Dymond's letters to "The Friend" of London in 1892. Part 1 was here.

Letter II.

“We rejoice that, without any provision for collegiate training, a living Gospel ministry is in the Lord’s goodness preserved amongst us. May it become more and more a ministry searching and awakening, exercised with a right understanding seasoned with grace, and made effectual to the winning of souls under the quickening, illuminating, and baptising power of the Holy Spirit. It is our prayer that it may ever spring direct from the fountain, and be kept pure in the simplicity which is Christ; and clear in its testimony to Him” (Yearly Meeting Epistle, 1892).

Such, in the cautious and stately language which is characteristic of these documents, is the message that comes down to us ministers from the recent annual assembly of our Church. It is in the spirit of that utterance that I desire to approach the solution of the inquiry suggested in my former letter – namely, whether preaching of the Word amongst us is fulfilling the end for which it has been called into being; and in doing so it may be permitted to me, as a private individual, to use somewhat greater plainness of speech. But at the outset I must disclaim any right or intention to judge against my brethren. My nature shrinks even now from the task I have undertaken, and I am conscious of no qualification for it, except the fact that the endeavor to discharge faithfully for more than thirty years the office of a Christian minister, concurrently with the claims of a busy professional career, has made me acquainted with many of the dangers, the perplexities, temptations, and errors to which such a calling is specially liable. If by allusion to some of the infirmities and failures by which my own course has been marked, I can be instrumental in helping any dear younger brother, called to the work as I was to my own amazement so long ago, it will be to me a joyful evening service, rendered to a cause that lies nearer than any other to my heart.

Most intimately associated as is the “testimony of Jesus” with our holiest aspirations and our supreme hopes, and great as is the responsibility resting upon us in the exercise of a calling fraught with possibilities of eternal moment for others, I cannot but feel it is upon tender if not upon holy ground that I am treading. But I have always found that where the Master leads it is safe for the disciple to follow; and if this be the service He appoints to one who is now debarred from taking much further active part in a public duty which has been the joy of a lifetime, I am more that content.

The very existence, then, of the paragraph above quoted from our Yearly Meeting’s Epistle is an answer to our question. That annual letter, as is well known, is intended to embody the leading exercise of the Meeting in considering the state of the Society. The exhortations it contains are understood to point to something needing a remedy.

If you ask any intelligent Friends from any of our 326 settled meetings whether the ministry they hear from week to week fully satisfies their spiritual needs, I venture to say that the great majority will answer in the negative. Many will have to tell you that they have no resident ministry at all. Others will reply that they have plenty of speaking, but very little true ministry of the Word. Some will have a mournful story to tell of weekly harangues in a stereotyped cadence or monotone, which have emptied the meeting-house of nearly all the thoughtful young people belonging to the congregation, driven elsewhere for the spiritual food and instruction they had looked for in vain from those of their own communion. There are others again that have ministers whom they love and honour, but who seem to have lost the power of discerning the point at which the anointing oil has ceased to flow, and who weary their hearers and dissipate the good impression of a real message, by long repetitions and inappropriate additions of their own

Verdicts like these from the lips of others are confirmed by one’s own observations. That there do exist man bright and blessed examples of an opposite kind, there is no disposition to deny. Let us be thankful for them, and accept them as a stimulus to strive after a like experience. But could anyone not habituated to such scenes have been present, for example, at some of the gatherings for public worship held in London last month, and have brought away the impression that what he had witnessed and listened to there had been truly to the ordering of the Lord? He would perhaps have heard an impressive Gospel address of twenty minutes or half-an-hour’s duration, full of helpful thoughts, carried home with solemnity to the hearts and consciences of the hearers, upon which it would have been delightful and profitable to dwell for a few minutes at least; but before the preacher’s last word had well ceased to sound, a piercing voice from another part of the room startles everybody, and puts an effectual stop to all meditation upon the former theme. And so on to the end of the meeting, speakers succeeding one another in eager succession, and with little coherence or sequence of ideas. Even a solemn concluding thanksgiving and prayer fails to bring the scene to a close; but well-meaning persons, apparently wholly wanting in the blessed faculty of self-restraint, continue to “relieve their minds” of some text or verse, or some sentiment that has occurred to them, until at last the Elders at the head of the meeting hastily avail themselves of a momentary silence to shake hands and break up the meeting. Is this in the beautiful Divine ordering? or is it the liberty of prophesying run out into anarchy? “God is not the Author of confusion, but of peace.”

If may be that the visitor has come into one of the meetings for worship to which the public have been specially invited. Certain approved ministers who have made themselves responsible to the appointed committee for the holding of the meeting are seated at the head. Before the congregation has fully settled down, a dear friend below, in a rapid, agitated voice, inaudible in the greater part of the large room, delivers himself of a string of Scripture passages, which have probably contained his own spiritual food during the day, and produces no result except surprise in the minds of the witnesses. After that the real worship begins; an earnest prayer for blessing, followed by a brief but solemn pause. Then one of the ministers whose names have been advertised rises and delivers his message. He has opened the way for someone else to follow in harmonious further development of his theme. But if there be one present conscious of a call to do so, he is too considerate to join in the hurry to “take the floor,” and another interposes – out of the true harmony – and so the service is marred. The congregation has been listening for a full hour and a half to a succession of addresses; the shades of evening are falling in the dim recesses of that half-filled room; but there is another speaker whose heart is astir within him, and who cannot stay it. A few sentences express a not inappropriate message, and then the dear man, surely under the guidance of his own impulses rather than under that of the highest authority, proceeds to deliver himself in a monotonous cadence, which makes the tendency to fall asleep almost irresistible, of a series of reflections upon the Yearly Meeting proceedings and so forth. This, in which the “Public” can feel no interest whatever, continues for half an hour. The service, which was marred before is now simply ruined; and the congregation, with a sigh of disappointment, and yet of relief, rises in the twilight and departs.

These are no fancy sketches. They are amongst the examples we present to the citizens of London in illustration of our theory on the subject of Gospel ministry. Is it likely that they will be moved by our teaching if these are its fruits?

The duty of the physician is first of all to diagnose the disease, and after that to seek for and apply the remedy. When this exceedingly unwelcome preliminary duty has been accomplished in the present case, it will be needful to inquire into the circumstances which have conduced to it, and the means of cure.
Joseph John Dymond
Ilkley, June, 1892

Part 3 of this series is here.

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