By Marcianna Caplis
Westerly Friends have been seeking clarity on recording gifts in ministry. We have distributed and read New York Yearly Meeting’s pamphlet on the topic, and invited the Field Secretary of New England Yearly Meeting to join us for an information session. We’ve discussed it in Ministry and Counsel and at Quarterly Meeting with Friends from Providence, Smithfield, and Worcester Meetings. The subject has been under examination and discussion in Westerly since fall 1999. We have not achieved clarity, and while we understand the process, many of us fail to understand the reason.
I am one such Friend. While some Westerly Friends seem to be comfortable, I may be representative of the Friends in the Meeting who are uneasy with the practice of recording gifts in ministry. My question is, “Why?” I have heard thoughtful and reasonable responses, but none has moved the stop in my mind. Why should this practice continue or be actively pursued in New England Yearly Meeting? Both Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and London Yearly Meeting have discontinued recording of ministers, and did so early in the 20th century. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice states that “the formal recording of ministers and elders was largely discontinued, first in London and then in Philadelphia, as a practice that had lost its usefulness.” I question what we will find useful in recording ministers now.
There is much in Quakerism to cherish. There is such wisdom in Faith and Practice that I am often awed by it. Not only are the words of the Advices and Queries themselves profound, but the very format is brilliant. These are not dogma, not commandments, but thoughtful questions and pieces of advice, which provide guidance and support but do not demand anything, particularly blind obedience. Quakerism trusts. It trusts that people develop most surely spiritually when led to seek for themselves. The Religious Society of Friends leads us to be mindful of our responsibilities for our spiritual growth, the care and feeding of the soul, if you will. We are also guided to make the connection between our spiritual life and our actions in the world – all by a short series of tenderly worded questions and carefully thought-out advice.
It has been said that Friends did away with the clergy, but perhaps it is more accurate to say that Friends did away with the laity. Each Friend is responsible for ministry. No Friend speaks as the voice of Quakerism, yet all Friends speak as Quakers. I am concerned that the act of identifying some Friends as gifted in ministry is unwise in two obvious ways. Recording some individuals as gifted in ministry implies a caste among Friends — those whose ministry is worth recording and those whose is not. Equally damaging is the potential for those Friends not recorded to leave their spiritual work to those Friends singled out as recorded ministers. Why would we want to create and memorialize value differences among Friends?
And what of the process of recording ministers? Do we want to be in the business of passing judgment on Friends—of assessing the gift and deciding whether it merits recording? To what end? A Friend gifted in ministry is unmistakable. We have all recognized the ministry that emanates from a Friend’s strong and clear Inner Light. Such a gift is neither enhanced by being recorded, nor diminished by not being recorded. Can we not accept a gift from God spontaneously and gratefully? Do we need to categorize it? I fear that we, as a yearly meeting, may well diminish ourselves by immersion into naming, judging and singling out.
Let us cherish our gifted Friends and recognize the Divine Light that reveals itself in their ministry, remembering that revelation is continuous and unlimited. Let us not limit ourselves.
Marcianna Caplis, is a member of Westerly (Rhode Island) Monthly Meeting This article was first published in the Spring 2000 issue of The New England Friend, which explored a variety of questions around the recording of gifts of vocal ministry.