by Lucia K. Beamish

A talk given to the Elders of London YM.

“That the Ministry is not common to all, but that there be some Pastors and teachers, is also owned by us. Yet that hinders not that any at a time may speak as the Lord moves by his spirit, for it is one thing to be particularly called to the Ministry and another to be moved to speak at a particular time.”
—Robert Barclay, Truth Cleared of Calumnies, 1650.

“As a Church we have yet to learn that a minister is both born and made…. How many young people are accepting in a weighty spirit the responsibility which a free ministry must involve? Again and again the same story is told, the young people lack conviction, the ministry does not reach them, the half-life of the Meeting for Worship does not stir them and they drift away.” These are not my words: they were written by John Wilhelm Rowntree in 1899, but they are still. alas! true. Of how many could it be said today, as it was said of Benjamin Seebohm at about the same time or a little earlier, that “his ministry was the most characteristic thing about his life: more than anything else it was evidently that for which he lived”. One reason for this lack of ministers springs at once to the mind: Quakers are able to live fuller social and political lives than they were 100 years ago, and as a result so much stress has been placed be us on Christian action—on letting our lives speak—that we have come to regard spoken ministry as a kind of by-product, something that everyone ran take part in, without feeling a deep and serious call to it as a vocation. Yet just as John Wilhelm Rowntree recognized in his day the need for consecrating all our faculties to God, so today we must recognize that with our many study groups, with a flourishing and growing centre of religious education at Woodbrooke, and despite a flood of instructive Quaker literature filling our pamphlet racks, a great deal of shallow, unconsecrated ministry may be heard Sunday by Sunday all over the country. There may be more consecration of mind, “but heart and soul are not brought into the treasury”.

We certainly do not want to return in spirit to those 18th Century Friends, who regarded the call to minister as an awful, terrifying burden, which they dare neither repudiate nor accept lightly. Their sense of suffering, under a heavy ministerial cross, is not one that we are likely to revive. But perhaps we have gone too far in the opposite direction, that of offering unconsecrated ministry to our Meetings. What is the hall-mark of consecrated Ministry? And how can it be recognized, both be those who speak and be those who listen? If, as we have just suggested, consecrated ministry does not necessarily spring from a well-stocked mind, a knowledge of the Scriptures and attendance at study-circles, neither will it inevitably arise from familiarity with a peculiar Quaker technique, valuable as that is. Ours is a spiritual technique. which must be mastered, and it consists in the recognition of a true call, faithfulness in obeying it, sitting down when the message is given, avoiding contradiction and controversy and rightly dividing the Word of Truth. All these are important. but they are not by any means the whole thing, or even the heart of it.

Consecrated Ministry must spring from a consecrated life and have a consecrated aim and content. It must come out of a life made over to God, to holy obedience, to repentance and dedication, a life lived fully
in the world, yet not of it, in which the consecrated man or woman tries, in loyal singleness of heart, to make Christ the centre of thought and will and action. Such a life may or may not flower into vocal ministry, but I am sure that if it does, the offerings will bear the stamp of consecration, while the most learned or eloquent ministry of an unconsecrated life will not.

And surely the aim of the ministry must be quite clear, both to speaker and hearers. That is, to reach the hearts of those who listen and to reveal more of Christ to them. This can only be possible if Christ is real to the minister, and-—what is most important, if he has a vivid realization of the supreme value of every soul to God. No lesser aim and no lower evaluation should lead the minister to hope that God will give him a message and pull him to his feet. Then he must be about his Master’s business from the moment he takes his seat (as he should have been during the week), in the belief that Truth may be given him to share with others.

For after all, if we look at our Quaker way of worship we find that it is rooted in the belief that God will speak to us, and that it is more important and valuable for us to listen to God than to talk to Him. All other Christian forms of worship demand a good deal of human utterance—this is not chatter, by any means, it consists of the expression in words of our adoration, our penitence, our petitions and our intercessions. There is also a good deal of listening to God’s word, from the Bible, but there is very little room for His voice to speak freshly and inwardly to each worshipper. Only the Quaker silent Meeting realizes how vital that is, and how, as we listen, we learn, we become illuminated. we see our sins afresh and we experience the stirrings of the Spirit in our hearts. We see each other afresh too, and discover new bonds of love and understanding between us: the presence of Christ in our midst is a real communion.

This being so, the Quaker minister must never forget that although, if his service is to be consecrated, it requires as much thought and prayer as he can give to it, and as much preparation of mind, yet all must be left behind when the Meeting starts, all must be willingly relinquished, because the call to speak may or may not come. Of course by this I do not mean that his mind should be kept a blank; that is impossible as well as undesirable. No! Every Quaker worshipper knows that unwanted thoughts surge in, uninvited, during the hour of Meeting, and we have to learn how to offer these thoughts to God in the spirit of worship. And we have to say, all the time, “Speak. Lord, for Thy servant heareth” while our minds rest naturally, on the things of God that our prayer and study of the past week have brought us. But these must not dominate our worship. The message of another may lead to a call to minister, or God may speak quite freshly to us.

T. S. Eliot has said that a good poet is conscious where he should be conscious, and unconscious where he should be unconscious; so with Quaker ministry. The aims and functions of ministry should be thought out consciously in the week, so that on Sunday mind and spirit may be free to respond to God’s voice, which does not come out of the blue into a blank, but rather out of the minister’s pre-formed unconscious into the conscious hearing of others.

I said, and I think you will agree, that the aim of all ministry must be to reach the hearts of those who listen, and to reveal more of Christ to them. The simplest and most direct way of doing this is that of the humble witness, to whom Christ has become increasingly real, who has experienced the guiding hand of God, and who obeys a call to witness to this truth. This is not to teach doctrines about God, not to try and persuade others to accept what we believe, but to show them that we believe. This witness is borne, not by personal reminiscences, but by the strength of convincement that underlies what is said, and by the frame of consecration within which the lives of the speakers move. As Phillips Brooks described it, ministers of this sort:

“have tried to live such a life so full of events and relationships that go out as the shot goes, carrying the force of the gun with it, but leaving the gun behind.”

Not a very Quakerly metaphor, I’m afraid, but telling, for all that!

This kind of ministry is possible to all, and it is the glory and characteristic of specifically Quaker ministry; it is at once the simplest and the most demanding, as I think you will agree.

I want, however, to say a few words about the lessons we may learn from the ministry of other Christian churches, because we can learn something from them.

What about the priest? What is his special function, and can it suggest anything that will enrich our service? As I see it, the priest has two main functions; one is to offer up prayer on behalf of those worshipping with him. Anglican priests are given beautiful forms of prayer for every week of the year and for expressing every human need. It would not hurt the young Quaker minister to make some of these Collects his own so that they may flower into expression when and if the moment of worship demands it. Free Church ministers have more liberty, but they make use of formulae to which they adhere more or less closely. The very word formulae makes us shy violently, but we might possibly examine this practice, and learn that corporate prayer may embody elements of aspiration, and open up ways of approach to God that often drop out of our worship altogether.

We Quakers are so free that prayer need not be offered at all in Mecting; this is surely an impoverishment of worship. To offer Quaker prayer, the Friend must be so much in unity with the rest, that words spring through him expressing the aspiration of the whole Meeting. To do this is a priestly function in the highest sense, and it only comes simply and naturally to the Friend whose life is a continuous prayer. This is rare, and this is why we have too little prayer in our worship. The other main function of the priest is a sacramental one. Just as in Jewish days, sacrifices were offered up by the priest, and rituals enacted by the king, so, in many Christian services, rites and ceremonies are acted by the priest in a symbolic representation of truths believed in by all. Bread is broken and given, water is sprinkled in the form of the Cross, the Bishop, or chief priest. anoints the new King, and lays his hands on men who offer themselves for the ministry.

We, as Quakers. wisely dispense with these outward rites. but as Bernard Bosanquet wrote, years ago. “the abandonment of a symbol means either the relinquishment of the thing symbolized, or the grasping of it in a higher form”. Which are we doing? If we are to be priests in the highest sense, we must be able to communicate these sacramental acts in our worship, as well as in our daily lives. And this has to be communicated through the power of imagery and symbol.

the two great things, the power of Christ and the value of their brethrens’ souls, are certain and tangible to them, not subjects of speculation and belief. but realities which they have seen and known: then they have sunk the shell of personal experience. lest it should hamper the truth that they should utter,

There is a tendency today to decry all spiritual images and to regard the use of it as a childish stage from which we have evolved into maturity. But are we spiritually so mature? The evolution of our bodies has taken thousands and thousands of years, that of our minds has been a little less slow, but that of our spirits seems to me to be slower than that of our minds. Our images may change, but use cannot dispense with them altogether, because, as Kant has shown us conclusively, Space and Time are categories of human thought. This means that we can only think of God meaningfully with the help of images which may not be ultimate, but which are for the present real. Temple has called Christianity the most materialistic of religions. We need to think of God as Person, while believing that He is more than Person. We must accept Christ’s symbol of Him as loving Father, if we are to enter into a living relationship with Him, just as we accept Christ’s symbols of Himself as the Good Shepherd, the real Vine, the Living Bread, and the water of Life. Even in our Quaker stress on the immanence of God we make use of the symbol of Light. To abandon these would be to rob religious thought of all rich significance, and to land ourselves in a vague Pantheism that has little relationship with historical Christianity.

The use of imagery is not only a sacramental and priestly function, it is very much the mark of the prophet; this has always been regarded as characteristic of Quaker ministry, but it is not always clear what is meant by it. In the 18th century divine inspiration was sharply distinguished from human reason, so that the prophetic message tended to become rhapsodical, incoherent, and often unrelated to the needs and thought forms of the day. The use of imagery was prolific, but it came almost entirely from the Old Testament. Fox had spoken of Christ as the Light. the Shepherd, the Teacher, in images that glowed out of his own experience. But after his death, as tolerance and prosperity replaced persecution and poverty, the stream of living power narrowed. Christ became less important, and the desire to preserve the Society as a remnant, a peculiar people hedged in by strict disciplinary rules, revealed itself, among other ways, in a change of imagery. Now ministers drew from history of the Jewish people, whom they felt Friends resembled—a people called originally by God to a glorious heritage upon which they were turning their backs; they were a degenerate vine, a backsliding Ephraim, breaking Covenant, and deserving the rod of God’s chastisement. The imagery flows on. but it is seldom drawn from the life of the Gospels, and there is little sacramental value in it for us, though for those to whom it was addressed, there was sometimes an authentic prophetic ring, since it was the message of men utterly dedicated and consecrated to God’s work. Like Wesley’s preaching, it must have startled and shocked its hearers, but unlike Wesley, it was not focused on Christ; that is why the Evangelical movement, when it came, brought a new impulse and inspiration to the Society of Friends, as well as to England as a whole. The New Testament was restored to its rightful place, and the great movement of Christian humanitarianism flowed on, springing out of the love of Jesus for mankind. Men like Stephen Grellet, William Allen and Joseph John Gurner offered a ministry that was evangelistic rather than prophetic.

This leads us to the third aspect of all consecrated ministry; it not only bears witness to new life, and to the direct word of God spoken through His prophets, it also carries a message of good news. God speaks to men here and now in the light of what He did for men 2,000 years ago. How much of the ministry offered in Friends’ Meetings today seems to be cut off from this essential historical root! How rare, even sometimes how suspect is any message reminding us that God was made incarnate at a moment in history, that Christ came to show us clearly what God is like, and that He has done so uniquely. How little we hear of the Cross and all that it means to the disciple, of the Resurrection, with its message of triumph over sin and death! Is this because so few of us have entered into this life, have known the experience of forgiveness, have even been conscious of sin and the need for it? Yet there is still a message to be given to burdened, struggling. despairing souls, and our ministry, if it is to be truly consecrated, must find room for proclaiming the good news of the Gospel, as well as for witnessing to the inward Light in all men.

Am I right, Friends, in urging that our Quaker ministry, if it is to be fully consecrated, should be at least as rich in content, as clear in its aim as the ministry of other Churches? Ought we to bear simple witness, and also to accept some of the functions of prophet, priest and evangelist? If so, then we are embarking on a very demanding and exacting service. Yet, we have only to remember, as convinced Friends, that the gift and the power will come from God: He does not expect us to be all these things at once, neither is it likely that all these functions will be required of all who feel the call to minister. One of the most helpful and beautiful features of Samuel Bownas’ book on the Qualifications Necessary to a Gospel Minister is the stress laid on the
time needed to gain experience and understanding, before any one can come to a settlement, and true and perfect knowledge of his own gift.He distinguishes three states through which the minister passes, and he calls these “Infancy”, “A young man’s state”, and lastly “the Father’s state”. He urges too the recognition of a diversity of gifts, and Elders can help beginners by following the wise counsel of Bownas. I think that Quaker ministry is the one that recognises most fully these stages: other Churches, though they demand a probationary period expect their clergy to produce full length sermons as soon as they are ordained, and although they comment, at the close of a man’s [sic] career, on his deepening message, little official provision seems to be made for his infancy in ministry. Whereas the young Quaker is expected to start with brief, sometimes stammering words, and a wise elder will welcome this and lovingly encourage development of the gift. We may here recall a passage from the Journal of John Richardson:

“After a large Yearly Meeting, where were many able ministers, worthy William Penn, who was one of them. taking me aside, said, ‘The main part of the service of this day’s work went on the side, and we saw it and were willing and easy to give way to the truth, though it was through thee, who appears like a shrub, and it is but reasonable the Lord should make use of whom He pleases. Now methinks thou must be cheerful.’ “

How can the young minister be sure that his is a true call and a message from God? here I think we may help him by suggesting that there are three ways of learning the value and right ordering of his ministry.

The first is whether he finds that God is showing him more and more clearly the interdependence of the inward Light with the Christ of history. If, as sometimes happens, he thinks only of the former, his message will become vague and hazy—even perhaps pantheistic; the only food that he can give to others will be an injunction that they too follow their inward light. We have all heard ministry of this kind, and while it is a necessary ingredient of the Word it is not a feeding, edifying, and saving message. If, however, the Christ of history is his Lord and Friend, as well as his source of illumination. the Incarnation, the Cross and the Resurrection will come to mean more and more in the minister’s own life, and he will be able gradually to speak to the states of others, states of fear, of guilt and doubt or despair. He will find that the Gospel is not out of date. but unfolds with the world’s needs: in the words of H. G. Wood, “the truth as it is in Jesus is final, because it is never finished”.

The second proof that his ministry is consecrated and given him by God will lie in his own awareness both of dependence on forgiveness, and of a slow but sure growth in grace. The two will go together. I don’t think it possible for a true minister to say, “I have no sense of sin”, or to say “I am no nearer Christian love and power than I was a year ago”. The two will deepen, paradoxically together, because the desire to be like Christ will always reveal one’s deep unlikeness.

“They who fain would serve Thee best
Are conscious most of wrong within.”

It was the failure to recognize this that led early Friends and John Wesley into the doctrine of Perfectionism, which if it meant a sense of sinlessness was clearly unattainable, but if it meant deepening maturity is, and should be a sure sign of Christian growth.

The third test that a young minister should apply is that of his Meeting’s support. This is very necessary, and it places a big responsibility on older Friends in whose power it may be either to crush the young shoot or to allow it to grow unpruned. We must of course do neither, at the same time realizing that ministry, if it is to be of value, need not always be “acceptable” in the sense of pleasing its listeners. Encouragement of the young minister must not take the form of praise, pure and simple. There should be perhaps some criticism, perhaps added suggestion, though this is difficult, because we must believe that God has given the message, while recognizing that the young minister may have outrun his guide in some places, or misunderstood Him in others. The element in ministry that is most often neglected today is the need for God to he revealed as Holy Judge of conduct as well as Forgiving Father, and it is the desire to be “acceptable” that hinders ministers from speaking to this. If stress is laid exclusively on the compassion of the Father, as if this were the only quality by which God makes Himself known to men, Quaker ministry will not have the piercing power that will change “lukewarm. drowsy spirits”, into convinced and committed disciples. Evil is real and one of the duties of all ministers is to expose it as such. The thing that will save the minister from climbing on to a denunciatory pedestal, such as, I fear, some of the early Friends climbed, is the sense of oneness with the Meeting, of common failures, and, as I said earlier, of the minister’s continual need of forgiveness himself. Yet he must have the courage to show that the inward Light is a burning, as well as an illuminating power, and, as Penington told us, its first function is to reveal sin. In this respect, more than in any other, the real support of the Meeting and of Elders should be faithfully given, so that the ministry of the young beginner does not fall into a false psychological blurring of black and white into grey, or fail to point out what Anselm called “the gravity of sin”.

The ready response among Friends, especially among the young, of various appeals for service abroad and at home shows that we have learnt the need for letting our lives speak. But as a rule we have not realized that speech is part of our lives, and that unless we can bear consecrated witness to the truth in our Meetings, they will wither and atrophy. “The Word resounds in the words spoken”, writes R.E.C. Browne, in a little pamphlet called The Ministry of the Word (published by the S.C.M. Press in 1958),

“it is the power of the release men know when great and terrible truths are spoken, it is the strength of minds delivered from the narrowness of Time, it is the mirror in which men see themselves, are saved from the trivialities and folly of their sin. Our use of them is a participation in God’s creative work; we take and transform what He forms…. Words are nurture for the mind, just as bread is for the body, and both have their origin in God without whom no thing or word is made and used.”

To recognize the sacramental, prophetic and evangelistic power of words, is the thought that I would leave with you, in faith that our Quaker Ministry, so great in potentialities, so humble in its utter dependence on God, may become once again a vocation and a consecration to our young people.

This talk was originally printed in The Friends Quarterly, 14:8, October 1963.

Lucia Beamish was an English Quaker historian whose 1965 PhD from University of Oxford was on The Quaker Understanding of the Ministerial Vocation; with Special Reference to the Eighteenth Century [summary], and who had a book published: Quaker Ministry, 1691-1834, (Oxford, 1967). She gave an address to the Friends Historical Society in 1966 on the subject of her work on Quaker Ministry 1750-1850. She died in 1969.