by Brian Drayton, of Souhegan (New Hampshire) Preparative Meeting.
In the Spring 2000 issue of The New England Friend.

From the earliest days of the Quaker Movement Friends have assumed that, while anyone may be called to ministry, some seem to be called, appropriately and faithfully, to more responsibility or concern for the work than others. The assumption is that Christ is the head of the Church, and pours out the various gifts that the community needs. These gifts (tasks, responsibilities, abilities) come for longer or shorter periods of time, and vary in many other characteristics as well. Robert Barclay’s (circa 1670) articulation of this, as it applies to vocal ministry, is retained in some books of Faith and Practice:

We do believe and affirm that some are more particularly called to do the work of the ministry, and therefore are fitted by the Lord for that purpose; whose work is more constantly and particularly to instruct, exhort, admonish, oversee, and watch over their brethren; and that… there is something more incumbent upon them in that respect than upon every common believer.” (Apology, Prop 10 §10)

In the early days of the movement, Friends who felt the call to ministry were in touch with each other on a local, regional, and nation al level, by frequent meetings and in correspondence. They felt strongly their fellowship, their special kinship, as a result of their shared calling, though in each life the calling looked different.

During the growth of the meeting structure By the 1670s, there was a regular meeting in London of all public Friends who happened to be in town. They met for mutual support, and to work out who would go to which meetings in the coming week, so that “ministers should not go about in heaps.” There was also discussion of places that might need special attention or support. Since this meeting was held on Second-Day (Monday), it was always called the Second-Day Morning Meeting (or Morning Meeting, for short), and it continued until the early part of this century. (After Fox’s death, it also served as a way-station for Friends correspondence, and as the censor of Friends publications in London Yearly Meeting, though it had no official status as part of the Yearly Meeting— it was not the same as the Yearly Meeting of Ministers and Elders, for example.)

The way you were accepted as a member of the Morning Meeting was to sign in a big book on Second Day morning, as you came to attend. It happened in 1734 that a Friend signed in, who some felt was not in unity with Friends, and his right to attend the meeting was challenged. After lengthy wrangling, London Yearly Meeting ruled that the Second-Day Morning Meeting could not exclude any one who came with a letter from their monthly meeting attesting to the fact that this Friend was a minister, or “public Friend” in good standing there. Hence arose the custom of the monthly meeting minuting its recognition of sustained gifts in the ministry.

No one has yet traced in detail the growth of the more formal ized system that we maintain in our discipline; as with other parts of meeting structure, it grew in various places at various times, though, by the time of John Woolman, being “approved as a Gospel Minister” implied the process of observation, careful discernment, and approval that we associate with the recording process. After the institution of the formal process of recording, which spread rather quickly on both sides of the Atlantic, the procedure very soon assumed the shape we find described in our Book of Discipline (Faith & Practice). The monthly meeting, either spontaneously, or more often at the request of the Meeting of Ministers and Elders, recommend ed that a Friend who appeared to have received a sustained gift in the ministry be admitted to the Preparative and Quarterly Meeting of Ministers and Elders. With some consideration by ministers and elders, the gift was noted in the minutes. The recorded Friend would also become a member of the system of parallel meetings of ministers and elders at the levels of monthly, quarterly and yearly meetings.There was not a closed membership to the meeting of ministers and elders. There might well be more than one minister in a meeting (better if there was) or none.

The Separations of the early 1800s

By the latter half of the 18th century, the custom had settled that Elders (Friends of discernment who did not minister) met regularly with ministers. In several ways, as Friends let theology color their discernment, during the Hicksite/ Orthodox Separation (1827-28) and the Gurney/Wilbur Separation (1845- 58), the recognition of ministers was a focal point for some of the schismatic activities of this era. Ministers who were considered doctrinally unsound were sometimes hushed (a famous case from the revival period in the 1880s is that of Joel Bean of Iowa Yearly Meeting). Meetings divided over whether to accept a traveling minute or not, depending on its source and the theological stripe of its bearer. In some meetings, members who were considered to be unsound, and therefore were for years unacknowledged, quickly were recorded when they became part of separated meetings of more united sentiment. Such ministers, if their history was known, were sometimes considered a little suspect in other branches of Friends. The Wilburite outcry against Joseph John Gurney used as a weapon the fact (viciously and gleefully leaked by British traditionalists) that Gurney’s travel minute to the United States was not fully united with by London Yearly Meeting’s Ministers and Elders. Howard Brinton recounts how so orthodox a British Friend as Benjamin Seebohm was denied the opportunity to appoint meetings in certain quarters of the orthodox Philadelphia Yearly Meeting where “Gurneyism” was considered innovative apostasy, and “Wilburism” held sway.

Some meetings discontinue the practice

Friends in the Hicksite yearly meetings, and in London Yearly Meeting, were confronting several difficult facts about the Religious Society of Friends. In the first place, it was shrinking numerically, even in yearly meetings where the excesses of disownment for scruples had been curbed. In the second place, the members were much less in unity about some of the traditional defining peculiarities of Friends, in dress and address, and they were finding new openings in the educational and political establishments. Intellectual movements also were challenging the long-held beliefs and modes of expression among Friends. In sum, it was getting harder to say with any degree of clarity just what it was to be a Friend.

These Friends assumed the unprogrammed form of worship, and the “free ministry.” The increase in education, social action, and general mixing with the world was working important changes on the nature of religious expectations, and therefore on the ministry in meeting, and on the idea of the ministerial vocation. Increasingly, the ministry in meeting was shared by very many, the acceptable of whom were sometimes referred to in the literature of the time as “unrecorded ministers.” More and more, the discussion of spoken ministry turned on what happened in regular meetings for worship, and from that narrowed point of view, the distinction between recorded and unrecorded (never clear in any case) was hard to define, and therefore hard to say anything useful about. Some Friends came to believe that the vocation to the ministry of the Word did not in fact exist. The long and the short of all this was that the practice in most places in Hicksite and London Quakerdom was disappearing fast, except where tradition was rather strong. Although lively debate occurred in publications such as the Friends Quarterly Examiner, the focus in contemporary discussions of ministry was on preparation of individuals, since each has some share, and may be called on at any time, to an act or episode of ministry. Further, the ministry in the meeting for worship was seen as only one of many ministries urgently needed and yearned for in the sometimes appalling modern world.

Advice to ministers

Friends who have been seen to have this burden and gift laid on them must take care that their life is ( in increasing degree) so ordered as to carry this responsibility seriously. It should make a high claim on one’s life. We cannot prescribe the details, but we can describe the overall pattern that we encourage ministers to bear in mind as a guide and inspiration. Since ministers are called, as way opens, to articulate and nourish the spiritual life among us with the instrument of language, they must see as their prime duty to grow in the depth of their practice of Friends way of life—living experimentally with the Spirit on a daily basis. The minister’s life should make room for consistent practice of prayer and scriptural study. A minister need not be a scholar, but should strive for a comprehensive and balanced familiarity with the main outlines of Friends history and traditions, as well as of current meeting life. A long-term acquaintance with the writings of the early Friends, and of some of the journals of ministers in all periods of Friends history, has often been found to be of help.

The minister’s life must include time for reflection, so that the exercise of the gift is appropriate. The minister must learn discernment about when to speak and when not to, when to accept invitations to teach or lead, and when to open this opportunity to another. This gift is a gift of service which we hope will appear widely among us, and part of the minister’s calling is to pray and seek for its appearance in others.

The minister should not see this work as taking place in isolation. It is properly contextualized in the demands of daily work and family life, and of the work and life of the meeting. Further, the minister should find opportunities, both unexpected and regular, to worship with and talk with others in the ministry, not necessarily about the ministry itself, but out of each other’s life, and the fellowship of carrying a shared concern on behalf of the meeting’s life.

Ministers are reminded that the use of words is to bring others to the end of words, and that the goal always is to gather Friends or any other group into a deeper sense of the Presence of God among us, and into a realistic, dedicated, and joyful response to that Presence in the moment, and over time…