“If we are to hold our place as a Christian Church in these days of intelligence and education, we must have a better regulated, more intelligent and judicious, as well as sanctified, ministry.” – From a private letter.
The above sentence briefly expresses a deliberate conviction, which has been forced upon the mind of the present writer by his observation, during a series of years, of the vocal service prevailing in meetings for worship, both in London and elsewhere. He is, of course, aware that the mode in which such meetings are often conducted at the time of the Yearly Meeting has long been a subject of concern to the Meeting on Ministry and Oversight; and that attempts have been made in many years past, by the issue of minutes of advice and by the appointment of committees, to regulate them. The discouraging fact is that the abuse of liberty still exists, and proves, by its existence, the inadequacy of our system to secure that order which is one of the first requisites of efficiency and decorum. Moreover, it must in candour be added that many of those who thus give evidence of want of discretion and self-restraint are themselves members of Meetings on Ministry and Oversight. Some allowance should doubtless be made for a certain amount of excitement almost inseparable from the gathering of large numbers from distant and, perhaps, isolated places, for a great religious festival; but the mode in which the excitement shows itself is probably a true index of tendencies existing all over the land.
Our theory concerning the ministry of the Gospel is unquestionably beautiful, true, and Scriptural. It is possible that in the endeavour to reduce it to practice we have imposed on ourselves some limitations which the authority of Holy Scripture does not necessarily require; but leaving that point open for possible future considerations, it may be here remarked that in the application of all theories having reference to human affairs, whether religious, political, or social, we find abundant cause to take account of the “earthen vessel.” All true theories work admirably in the hands of perfect instruments. It is because the instruments are so rarely perfect that our moral and social ideals so often fail in practice to be realized.
Very early in the history of our Society the tendency of our liberty of speech to lead to confusion was manifested. It was probably, to some extent, held in check by the personal influence of the first generation of leaders. At a later time disciplinary regulations were attempted, and Elders were appointed to keep watch on the ministry and exercise some amount of control over it. Measures of this kind proved so effectual, that in the latter half of the last century and the early years of the present one there were very few preachers to be found amongst the men of the Society; what service of this character remained was left chiefly to the women. The principle which asserted the possibility of worship without words became perverted almost into the worship of silence itself. The society dwindled in numbers, and the energies of its best members found their field of exercise in the promotion of moral reforms and in works of philanthropy, in place of the direct advocacy of evangelical religion.
My own earliest impressions of a Friends’ meeting are associated with the ministry of a venerable ancestor, one of whose favourite texts was a passage in the Song of Solomon ii. 7, “I charge you ... by the roes, and by the hinds of the field, that ye stir not up, nor awake my love, til he please”; which he was accustomed to apply as a warning against breaking the silence of a meeting, except under a terrible sense of impending woe in case of disobedience. Another survival from the age of quietism must have been witnessd by many still living besides myself, when a deeply-concerned Friend was allowed to declare to the Yearly Meeting his conviction that “the only thing the ministry amongst us required was universal repression.” He “was happy to say that in the meeting to which he belonged they had had no ministry for above fifty years.”
But, happily, for the continued existence of our body, a great change has come over it in recent years. The establishment of First-day Schools, and the entry upon the work of home and foreign missions, have been attended by a fresh breaking forth of aggressive zeal in the propagation of the Gospel; and since the admission of many new members, drawn to us chiefly from the attenders of Adult and other First-day Schools, a large increase has taken place in the number of those who speak in our meetings for worship. Some of those, it may be, are as yet only imperfectly aware of our views as to the right call and qualification needed for Christian ministry. A guiding wisdom is needful in dealing with this new reaction; and the Church, with the assistance of Aquilas and Priscillas, must brace herself for the effort.
The remedies capable of being applied to the needs felt to exist amongst us at the present day may be divided into two categories, viz: –
- 1st. Those which may be adopted by the Church herself, in the way of arrangements and regulations.
- 2nd. Those which lie at the doors of the individual speakers themselves.
Taking up these in order in which they are stated, one is led to allude, with a fresh feeling of regret, to the change made in the year 1876, when the before-existing Meetings of Ministers and Elders received large additions, both to their constitution and their functions, and became “Meetings on Ministry and Oversight.” This regret was keenly felt at the time by the present writer, as one who had derived great help from the attendance of the meetings composed as they were before. They were occasions in which experienced ministers, with great tenderness , and under the sense of a blessed unity in the love and service of Christ, often gave wise and helpful counsel to their younger brethren. Offerings in the ministry from those whose names were not yet recorded on the list of approved ministers were passed under review, in a confidential and loving spirit; and when occasion seemed to call for it, individuals were deputed to procure interviews with some of these Friends, and to convey to them messages of counsel or encouragement as the case might require. With the wide enlargement of these meetings, and the provision of a number of printed directions for conducting them, all this was changed. The introduction of a large body of additional members, some of them young in religious experience, was found to be a hindrance to the confidential consideration of such delicate matters as those affecting the service of individual ministers; the drawing of heart to heart on the part of those interested in a common field of labour of the most solemn kind was rendered impossible; and, as a matter of fact, year after year passed by with hardly any allusion to the subject of ministry. This at any rate has been one effect of the change in the large Monthly Meeting to which the writer belongs.
The attendance of these meetings has now greatly fallen off, the usual number present being less than one-third of the membership; and a very common reason assigned for the non-attendance is that “there is nothing in them worth going for.” In that Monthly Meeting it was quite a usual thing, twenty or twenty-five years ago, to add two, three, or even four, names to the list of recorded ministers in the course of a year. Now, though the number of persons who more or less frequently take vocal part in meetings for worship has greatly increased, years pass by in which none are so recorded. This may be in part attributable to a disinclination, which it may be feared is increasing, to carry out the Society’s regulations with regard to the recording of ministers. Under the plea of avoiding the creation of a clerical caste, the democratic proclivities of the present age are thus manifesting themselves in our Church affairs, in apparent forgetfulness of the truth that wholesome government is essential to real liberty, and that a state of things in which everybody does only that which is right in his own eyes is not a state of freedom but of anarchy.
I may not pass from this portion of my subject without some allusions to the institution of Eldership; but that must be reserved for another letter. In the meantime, let me remark that if something like the restoration of the “Preacher’s Meetings,” which existed in the very early days of the Society, could be brought about, it would be to me a joyful realization of the desire of many years. I would add to the ministers themselves meeting on such occasions a few selected Friends, not preachers, who should be chosen not on the ground of age, or wealth, or social position, but on that of possessing spiritual qualifications for sympathising with and assisting ministers in their work. It is needless here to describe in detail what should be the duties of such meetings. They would be largely on the lines already alluded to, as in the writer’s experience, exercised formerly by the Meetings of Ministers and Elders, and would afford opportunity for united prayer, for considering the needs of the flock, and for taking counsel together in order to the furtherance and efficiency of the work of the Gospel amongst us.
Joseph John Dymond
Ilkley, June, 1892
Part 4 of this series is here.