“The things which thou hast heard from mw among my many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (2 Tim ii. 2).
It was thus that the Apostle Paul, having counselled his “Son Timothy” to “stir up the gift of God” he had himself received, enjoined him upon the duty of providing for the continuity, the efficiency, and the purity of Christian teaching in the early Church. There is nothing of a corresponding kind to be found in the arrangements of the Society of Friends. The founders of the Society had a clear perception of the important truth that a college education did not make the student a minister of Christ, and their successors have assumed, perhaps a little too readily, that they were warranted in leaving to the Great Teacher Himself, not only the selection of His servants, but also every detail of the needful work of preparing and furnishing them for the service.
In acting on this assumption it may be feared that we have failed to give force to two important considerations. These are, first, the liability of fallible human nature wrongly to apprehend what may be even right impressions, and, second, the truth that God usually works by instrumental means for the accomplishment of His purposes.
How earnestly some of us have scanned the published biographies of ministers who have gone before us in search of such insight as we might there obtain into the way in which they have been led. How deeply interesting to us have been words dropped by living men and women who were treading the same path of service as ourselves – perhaps a little in advance of us – if therein we could find some hints for our own guidance or comfort! Is it any wonder that, led as blind men in paths that were strange to us; and constantly, and even painfully reminded of the greatness of the calling, side by side with the weakness of the instrument, we should have often felt how valuable and helpful would have been the knowledge that others who had trodden the path before us had found it a path of safety and of blessing, though perhaps not unmixed with trial also?
There were dangers from false teachers and false brethren in the days of Paul and Timothy. Wherever the good seed of the Kingdom is sown, there the devil also sows his tares. Wherever a good work is on the wheel, there Satan strives to produce its counterfeit. How greatly are the means of disseminating both truth and its opposite increased in these last days! And how greatly increased, therefore is the need that today the very things which Timothy heard among many witnesses should be committed to other faithful men who should be able to teach others also. I cannot but fear that we have been taking too much for granted in this matter; and that the Church has herself to blame if the system of letting the succession and instruction of ministers pretty severely alone is producing some bitter fruit.
I can well recollect some of the profit and blessing that attended the action of an honored minister, now deceased, who would at time gather together such of the Friends present at Yorkshire Quarterly Meeting as were in the practice of speaking more or less frequently in meetings for worship, and out of the treasures of his own experience, addressing them upon the theme of a minister’s calling and work. These were very much cases in illustration of our present point; but their extreme rarity in our modern history makes of them little more than the “exception that proves the rule.” Would that there were more such opportunities, and more such Timothies to take advantage of them!
A few years ago a desire was expressed by some of the ministers of a Yorkshire Monthly Meeting, in which there are probably at least one hundred persons not acknowledged as ministers, who occasionally take part in the vocal service of meetings for worship, to hold some similar conferences amongst them.
The consent of the Meeting on Ministry and Oversight having been obtained, a few such conferences were held in different localities. The invitations to them were by a printed note or card sent to individuals, and in some instances a social element was introduced into the arrangements. It is difficult to gauge the effects of such efforts; but it must be manifest that much of their usefulness or interest would depend upon the qualification of those who were made responsible for them; and even under the best possible conditions, it would be too much to expect that a solitary engagement of this kind, compressed into a couple of hours, could accomplish all that was desirable. The endeavour on these occasions was to convey information and instruction as to the nature of the true call to the Christian ministry; to bring before those present the excellent counsel to ministers to be found in the Book of Discipline; and to assure them of the interest felt by the Church in their service.
But the ground is far wider than can be covered by limited and isolated efforts like these. They may possibly serve as an index to a department of internal work in which our Church has great need to bestir herself; and in which there is a call for the willing services of some who are qualified to speak, not only of such themes as have just been referred to, but to lead those less instructed than themselves in the study of Holy Scripture, in the right use of whatever light modern inquiry and research may have thrown upon the sacred writings; and in discriminating between things to be received, and those which must in faithfulness be avoided amongst the multitudinous utterances of modern thought and speculation.
About thirty-five years ago there occurred a considerably awakening amongst Friends in various parts of the country to the need that existed for more religious instruction. This had reference not specifically to ministers but to the members generally, and more particularly to young persons above the school age. The services of qualified individuals came into request as lecturers on subjects relating to the history and doctrines of the Society. More public use began to be made of the Bible; and in many of our evening meetings on First-days the appointed reading of portions of Holy Scripture began to find a place. Besides this, in some towns periodical meetings of the congregation were set on foot for the avowed purpose of Scriptural instruction. Some of the results of this movement are still to be witnessed amongst us in many places, but others have disappeared.
Having been familiar with the history of one experiment of the kind last alluded to in a meeting with about 250 names on its list of members and attenders, I think there may be a service in describing it, because it affords an illustration of a line of tendency existing amongst us which may account for other failures that we have to regret.
In the place to which I refer there resided two Friends not far advanced in life who had been led quite independently of each other, to the careful private study of Holy Scripture; and had found it, as so many others have done, a pursuit full of the deepest interest and profit. They greatly desired that others might have the opportunity of sharing this interest with them. Leave was obtained from the Preparative Meeting for the holding of a meeting for Scriptural instruction once a fortnight, open to all comers; but with this strict injunction – that the meetings were to be held, and to be spoken of as being only for “mutual instruction.” Any such arrangement as that of one or two persons attempting to conduct or lead the meeting was to be scrupulously avoided, as savouring of that arch-heresy the “One Man System.”
Of course everybody who reflects upon the subject will be well aware that it is no more possible to teach Christian truth upon the “strictly mutual” principle than it is to teach geography or arithmetic upon the same plan. Imagine a company of twenty two-year-old children met together to teach one another the alphabet upon the mutual principle! But this was the condition upon which alone leave was granted; and so the attempt proceeded. It was very soon found that most of the Friends who attended the meeting were content to listen, whilst those who had been making it their pleasant duty to study the chapter beforehand brought out its leading points, showed their connection with other Scriptures, and sought to apply the lessons they taught. So long as there were at least two Friends competent to do this, things went fairly well. By taking it in turns to speak they could keep up at least some semblance of mutuality. But after a short time one of these Friends removed to another town. The other struggled on for a time vainly endeavouring to force into practice the theory of mutuality. Time after time he laboured to draw others out, even to the extent of asking a question, but all in vain. Again and again he suppressed himself to try the effect of simple silence. It was hopeless. The choice lay between the so-called “One Man System” and nothing. And so the enterprise collapsed, and what might have been a fruitful service to the Church was lost – put to death by an absurd insistance upon an impossible mutuality!
I hope I may be excused for having dwelt in some detail upon this example. If we are to have instruction we must have instructors. We wrong our labourers, and we rob ourselves as a Church, if we lay them under unscriptural restrictions which mar their influence, crush out their zeal and close lines of service.
“God hath set some in the Church, first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers, then miracles, &c. Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles?” (1 Cor. xii. 28,29.)
If that be God’s appointment, surely the truest wisdom in Church organization must be that which recognises it and gives it room to work. The apostle must be free to exercise the functions of his apostleship, including the authority and influence which belong to it. The prophet must attend to his prophesying; and, if he happen to be the only one usually present in the congregation, without being daunted by the fear of possible allusions to the “one man system.” The teacher must be free to instruct without being expected to conform to an impracticable mutuality. The simple truth is that, in our zeal against human domination, we have plunged into a quagmire in which too many of us are held back from the full measure of our service and influence by an unholy fear of one another. I have even known a Friend deterred from directing a stranger to a seat in meeting by the fear of being thought too forward by his fellow members! That assuredly is the reductio ad absurdum! but the evil leaven is widespread, and affects nearly all our doings like a blight. This state of things appears to me to be wholly inconsistent with that singleness of aim, that manly simplicity, which ought to characterise the discharge of every religious duty.
But whilst this pointing out, as I have felt bound to do, one of the sources our weakness, I should be guilty of personal ingratitude if I were to omit to acknowledge the presence amongst us of individuals who have lived, and do now live, above all such littleness – apostolic men whose talents, whose learning, and whose influence have all been laid at the dear Master’s feet; and whose delight it is to employ them in His service for the good of others; noble-minded women whose houses are open, an whose personal efforts are constantly devoted to the promotion of all that tends to holiness and truth. They are the very salt of the Society.
May their efforts be increasingly blessed, and their numbers greatly multiplied!
Ilkley, July, 1892
Joseph John Dymond
Part 7 of this series is here.