At the Nontheist Friends Network conference, in the questions and discussion after my talk, a friend asked about my approach to ministry. Most of the question was about how we understand ministry in meeting for worship, but along the way he raised a very interesting point – he said (and I paraphrase here, but hope that his point is clear and made in terms he would accept) that he wouldn’t want to claim that his spoken ministry came from anywhere but himself, because so much damage is done in the world by other people who claim that their instructions come from God.
He contrasted this, correctly, with some statements I made in a recent Friends Quarterly article about afterwords and spoken ministry. (No link, sorry; it’s a publication which has yet to reach the internet age.) In exploring the difference between what should be said in afterwords and what should be offered as ministry during worship, I draw a distinction which I think is well-founded in previous Quaker writing, namely between what is inspired by God and given through us, and what comes entirely from us. My questioner at the conference doesn’t think that there is any God external to the world from which such things could come, and in my response in the moment I answered that aspect of the question by suggesting that we may be able to locate God within the community, in such a way that the collective awareness of the people met for worship together hear ‘that of God within them’ into speech. No supernatural; perhaps nothing transcendent, depending how far up/out/down you want that term to go; but a bit more here than us chickens, if you will.
There are other possible answers, but for this post I want to set aside the question about God and focus on the question about the claim I make when I give ministry.
I hope we can agree that giving spoken ministry during Quaker worship is different, socially and experientially, to other forms of public speaking. Even prepared ministry isn’t the same as giving a presentation or making an announcement. It feels different: people talk about being led to speak, finding themselves on their feet, their hands shaking. For me, a pounding heart is usually the first clue, together with a few phrases or a sentence which I keep returning to, which present themselves as needing to be said whether or not I have fully understood them and connected them to what else is going on. It’s also socially different. There are different rules (from the structural, like not speaking twice, to the content, like restrictions on political material) and the reception is different. That goes beyond ‘nobody claps’ to a sense that what is said is weighed and taken seriously.
There’s a connection here to previous conversations on this blog and around Facebook about judging ministry. If we’re taking it all that seriously, of course we want to discuss and judge it and have the best quality ministry we can have – something we often express in terms of wanting it to come from God and be supported, rather than overriden, by the minister’s personal input. What if that’s a terrible mistake? What if, by accepting and using that distinction, we are reinforcing a pattern of social acceptance for anything which is claimed to come from God, even where it runs against our morals? I take this to be the core of my questioner’s worry here.
Firstly, there’s the matter of truth and truth-telling. If I experience my ministry as given by God/dess, I should say so, even if I then need to go on to explain more about what I think that means. That’s truth-telling on my side. Then there’s truth-telling on the other side: who are all these people, out there in the world, claiming to have messages from God, and are they telling the truth about that? Well, it seems reasonable to think that some may be lying. But while I’m prepared to make the claim myself, it seems unfair to say that everyone else, or everyone who’s not a Quaker, or everyone I disagree with, is lying. (Atheists might say: you are all lying. Please allow me to assure you that I may be mistaken, but I do believe what I’m saying! I might be mistaken – fair enough, but I think my evidence, my experience, is enough to run with this hypothesis for now.)
So: I need to say that my ministry comes from God. I need to believe that at least some other people, probably including some I disagree with, are also telling the truth about their experience of this. I had abandoned this blog post around this point, stuck to resolve this, until I heard some ministry which suggested to me a third category of ministry – ministry which acknowledges God but does not come straightforwardly from God. This third kind of ministry of spoken prayer.
In the kind of ministry I was thinking about when, some time ago now, I began writing this post, the minister does not speak to God, and rarely speaks about God. Rather, the minister speaks prophetically, for God or in God’s voice – or, more modestly and more commonly, in the minister’s own voice but sharing something which God has revealed, from God through us. More “and I experienced a great feeling of love” than “God says, She loves you.” (Examples fictional but I hope plausible.) Taking God out of this kind of ministry leaves us with the puzzle outlined above, in which it’s not clear why these things are worth saying, or can’t just be said in a chat over tea, if they don’t have the authority of revelation behind them.
In spoken prayer, though, the minister does not share what God has revealed to them, but rather reveals their own understanding of God’s nature by speaking to God: the words and ideas of the prayer come from us. This is much more like my nontheist friend’s idea of ministry – except that it addresses directly a God whom my friend would take to be a metaphor or useful story. It points, however, to a way in which my initial picture of ministry was too narrow – things which are not from God can still be God-involving ministry, in a Quaker tradition which predates the word nontheist if not the concept. Spoken prayer is uncommon now in British Quakers meetings, but perhaps it can enjoy a revival of sorts if it provides a theological model for the inclusion of nontheist understandings of ministry.
Where would this move leave the question of responsibility? I and my nontheist friend retain equal responsibilities to the truth, to name as best we can the sources of our words. Both of us, and the minister who offers spoken prayer, have a responsibility to our Quaker tradition to speak faithfully as we are led – accepting that we are led by we know not what! The minister who, as I sometimes do, speaks as much on God’s behalf as my own, has a responsibility to acknowledge that other people get apparently contradictory messages from the same source. Beyond that acknowledgement, perhaps I also have a responsibility to engage seriously and positively with the implications of that conflict: to try, for example, to bring other evidence of the holy source of my words. (There’s a whole other post about the fruits of the Spirit in there – especially if I think I can point to them as well or better in the life of my nontheist friend than my own!) The form of spoken prayer, though, points to a way I might engage with that responsibility: by bringing my needs, questions, and struggles before God and the community – or God-within-community if you will – for testing and support or challenge. In that way, I am no longer a lone voice crying in the wilderness, with a message which may be from anywhere, but part of a group who pool their measures of Inward Light, their wisdom and experience, and access to whatever is more or less metaphorically Divine, and can claim to know what God wants us to do.
Finally, note ‘us’. I have observed that in my own experience, my Goddess does not tell me what other people should do, but how I and my community should behave. Although sometimes frustrating, perhaps this is a blessing in the form of a limitation of responsibility for true prophetic calls.