A PLEA FOR A DEEPER MINISTRY
Gerald K. Hibbert, M.A., B.D.
London: Friends’ Book Centre, 1933.
This Document is on The Quaker Writings Home Page.
As we look round our Society today we are profoundly thankful for the many evidences of life and development. We thank God for the way in which He is using us, and for the signs of the Divine Life in our midst.
Our Vocal Ministry
Some of us, however, are concerned about the apparent ineffectiveness of much of the vocal ministry in our Meetings for Worship. We do not want to be censorious or lacking in appreciation, but we feel there is comparatively little of a convicting searching Ministry. Excellent addresses are given in our meetings – probably the standard was never higher – yet they often fail to make a personal appeal to the listener, or to stir him to a deeper sense of responsibility and even of sin. We seem to be afraid of going deep; we are often content with scratching the soil when we ought to harrow and plough, We need “threshing” meetings as well as those where we “speak comfortably to Jerusalem.”
There are Friends, no doubt, who would deny that there is any such deficiency in our Ministry. Yet it is difficult, after visiting numbers of meetings, to resist the conclusion that there is something lacking. This pamphlet is written by one who feels this deeply, in the hope that by prayer and a closer walk with God and one another we may enter on a stage of greater depth and power.
What are some of the reasons for this state of things? One obvious reason is a distrust of emotionalism. We have seen so many unhealthy re-actions after the great Mass Revivals of the past, or we know of so many individual cases of over-wrought feelings, in the religious circles in which we move, that we hesitate to make the emotional appeal at all. This is a quite understandable reason, and sound up to a point. Surely, however, we are not going to neglect the emotional element entirely, and fall to the other extreme. The mere fact that the appeal to the emotions has been over-done does not prove that is in essence wrong. Rather would it be true to say that until a man is touched in his feelings, until his interest is aroused, no amount of reasoning or logic will do much to move him. We Friends are probably too reserved, and not willing enough to “let ourselves go” when the right time comes. There is a right time, though some may doubt it, and he who walks close to God will recognise it when come it does.
A Teaching Ministry
We emphasise, and rightly, the value of a Teaching Ministry, and in that we think mainly of the intellectual, the rational element. There is always a temptation here to over-stress the purely rational, and to neglect the emotional. But the rational of itself “cuts not ice,” though it produces an atmosphere favourable to the reception of truth and is an indispensable ingredient in any lasting religious experience. Every teacher knows that until he makes his subject “live,” that is until he presents it in such a way that it kindles the interest (i.e., the emotions) of the pupil, he is not teaching al all. He may be talking, but that is a very different thing. He does not “get it across” until he so interests the pupil that the latter is fired with a desire to explore the subject for himself. So it is with a Teaching Ministry. We can unfortunately be Preachers without being Teachers, and no Ministry can teach unless it kindles the interest and stirs the emotion of the hearers, and makes them long to become “Seekers” for themselves. The over-emphasis upon the intellectual brings its own nemesis; in tends to kill the very thirst for the rational that it endeavours to inspire.
A Gospel Ministry
There is in principle no antagonism between a Teaching Ministry and a Gospel Ministry, any more than there is between a Mystical and an Evangelical view of religion. Misunderstandings and mistakes arise from our misuse of words, and from our inveterate habit of thinking in compartments. We have only to look at the Ministry of Jesus to see how it was a Teaching Ministry because it was a Gospel. He taught “as one having authority” because his message was the Gospel of the love of God, which touched men’s feelings to the depths and quickened their intellectual faculties as well. If we try to teach without having a Gospel, not merely on our lips but in our hearts, we shall fail.
A Convicting Ministry
Another reason for the lack of a convicting Ministry is the modern demand for practical results. Here again, the demand is good up to a point. We want deeds, not words: “by their fruits ye shall know them.” Our present re-action against much of the vagueness and impracticality of much religious exposition is understandable and healthy. But it tends to go too far. We demand immediate results that we can measure and handle and tabulate, and in consequence a very practical note has come into our preaching. We give addresses on “The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth,” “A New Order of Society,” “Christianity and the Slums” – and again quite rightly. But gradually there comes a feeling that it is only these addresses that are practical or that get things done: the deeper, more spiritual addresses tend to be dismissed as dreamy or unpractical. “Just fancy X. talking this morning about the deepening of our spiritual lives, when our one and only concern at the moment is the Housing Question,” is a comment one can understand, but it shows a woeful lack of perspective, and a putting of the cart before the horse. Not so did the early Friends or the great Social Reformers talk. They found their “practicality” in their religious experience: as they walked with God in the great deeps of the soul their sympathies were quickened, their consciences sensitised, they gained insight into the problems and needs of their time and foresight as to the best remedies to be employed. Spiritual sensitiveness stimulated their intellects: they grasped what they had failed to grasp before. An hour spent in prayer may be more “practical” than days of rushing about. We owe and unpayable debt to those unknown saints who give their life to prayer: with a shallow impatience we may dismiss them as “passengers,” but the Lord sees not as man sees. At any rate there is no need to be shy at the spiritual in order to be practical.
The Group Life
The chief reason, however, is probably the low level of our own spiritual life. this may sound hard and unpleasant, but must we not admit its truth, if we are honest with ourselves? The Ministry on the whole reflects the spiritual life of the group among which it is exercised. A few exceptionally dedicated souls, or even one such, may of course sound a deeper note and stir their fellows to a larger life, but where the whole Group is spiritually active the Ministry is bound to be be far more vigorous and widely shared. Thus can we all, vocal or silent, help towards a deeper ministry. Each one of us might well examine his spiritual condition from time to time, not morbidly, but healthily, and ask himself whether is ministry is as deep as it might be, and, if he is offering no vocal ministry at all, why this is so. “Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaketh,” and the richer our experience of the Divine Life the more powerful will be our ministry. To give an ethical address, or to speak on some literary subject, ned make no very big demand on the speaker: it call for little “travailing” of spirit, it does not cost much. But to claim men for Christ, to convict them of sin, to lead them to repentance at the foot of the Cross, involves deep-going for ourselves, and some of us have not gone deep enough. We may smile at the old evangelists, but with all their failings they enabled men and women to become “a new creation” – and that is what need need paramountly to-day. the old order is played out: you and I on the old level are helpless as we face the problems of to-day; we must be born again, become new creatures, if the whole creation is to have another smell. None but the newly born are capable of producing a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness.
Discipline and Definiteness
Discipline and Definiteness are tow of our chief needs today. Discipline has an unpleasant sound, and Definiteness is a bugbear to most of us Friends. Discipline suggests the hairshirt and ascetic life: Definiteness challenges our love of vagueness (sometimes styles “broad-mindedness”) and our positive passion for woolliness. Any attempt to pin us down makes us wriggle and squirm: no wonder some of our fellow Christians grow impatient with us and ask, “Do you know where you are?” Yet surely there is a place both for Discipline and Definiteness. Discipline, it the sense of self-discipline, is an essential element in morality and goodness. It is a necessary factor in the religious life. It is easy to become slack and nerveless, to suffer from that deadly sin of Accidie that so benumbs the soul. Thousands of our fellow Christians find discipline essential to their devotional life: they impose upon themselves duties and routine and hardship: they feel that their prayer life needs constant keying-up. We do not wish to imitate them in all their detailed actions, but they stand before us as a living challenge to our sloth and complacency. We may pride ourselves on our whole life being a prayer, on every day being the Lord’s Day, on every act of life being a sacrament, on every Meeting for Worship being a Communion Service – and all the time our lives betray us to our fellows, and show how hollow is our claim. The need of self-discipline is urgent, and we may well get help and inspiration in this respect from our fellow Christian of other communions. It is so difficult to keep the balance; we need to take ourselves more seriously, and at the same time to be able to laugh at ourselves. If we lose our sense of humour we are done: we become spiritual prigs. Still the nobles characters show is is possible to hold the balance even – to take the spiritual life in deadly earnest, and to smile at ourselves the while.
Standing For Something
As to Definiteness, is it not true that we have carried our dislike of it to an absurd point? We are proud of saying we have no Creed (which of course is not true: each of us has some belief by which he lives), and we think this excuses us from making up our minds about anything. Up to the present, at any rate, the Society of Friends has been a branch of the Church of Christ, and that ispo facto implies certain beliefs, e.g. that the view of life taken by Christ is truer than that of Confucius, that we gain our life by losing it, that true mastery is show by service, and so on. Have we not had enough of the “orgy of vagueness” from which we have been lately suffering, and do we not feel the need of standing for something? This must not be taken to mean that one has any desire to fasten a definite Creed upon our Society: that would be contrary to its genius. But it does mean that we invite all our members to examine and see whether there are not deeper riches in the spiritual life than we have hitherto dreamt of, and whether our boast of “creedlessness” is not actually standing in the way of our further growth. It is a terrible mistake to cry “I have no creed,” and to leave it at that, thinking that we are thereby excused from further attempt to understand the nature of God and of Christ, to explore the riches of the Divine Love, to get clearer light intellectually on some of the great mysteries of life. If the possession of a Creed has sometimes stultified men’s progress and made them satisfied with what they have already attained, the proud boast of Creedlessness has often had the same effect. In fact the man who says “I have not Creed” is an out and our “creed-ist”: his creedlessness is his creed. The only justification for out refusing to be bound by a Creed is that we press forward whole-heartedly in the intellectual and the emotional search for God, using our freedom form the bondage of the letter as a wing to bear us up toward Him. If our freedom becomes merely an excuse for slackness and vagueness, truly we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
Plea for Deepening of the Spiritual Life
And so I would appeal quite frankly and simply for a deepening of our spiritual life – for more understanding and searching prayer, for more concentrated meditation, for fuller communion with our Heavenly Father, for a more disciplined spirit, for a greater definiteness and fixity of purpose. I would ask our Society to go behind all its philanthropy and activity in so many helpful direction, to that which underlies it all. I am sure we have not sufficiently explored the realm of the Spirit, that we have not thought enough on the deep things of God, that we have often walking in blinkers and shied at questions which we ought to have faced, and I believe that we are running dry in consequence. I am not pleading necessarily for more attention to Philosophy or Theology (though there are worse things than that, and we need not plume ourselves on our notorious weakness on the philosophical and theological side: we ought rather to be ashamed of it), nor am I suggesting that our Society should become a community of cloistered Saints (though again there are worse things than that), but I do most earnestly suggest that we need a closer walk with God and a stronger grip on Christ, that we are content with a superficial experience, when we might have a deep one, and that our ministry is weak in consequence. We are, thank God, strong in some points, but we are weak in our attitude to Christ, we are weak in our appreciation of History and in our sense of indebtedness to other communities, we are weak in the surrender of ourselves to God. Do we try to think things out to their logical conclusion, do we see where our beliefs would lead us if we lived them out, do we love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and strength, and do we love our neighbour as ourself?
The Divine Constraint
There has been in the past, and there might be again today, a tremendous power in the personal appeal of a consecrated spirit. When a man feels that he is called of God to the winning of souls, when he believes he is the ambassador of the Most High and commissioned by Him, he goes forth to the work convinced that the God who has called him is calling each one of his fellows. He has felt the Divine constraint in his own life: he is not his own: he is a man under authority: he is a commissioned officer in the service of his King. In that spirit he approaches others: he reminds them that the same God is claiming their allegiance and their service: that behind them and above them and within them is the Everlasting God, the Spirit of Truth, the Lover of their souls: and he urges them to respond to the claim, and to take life as a trust, a commission from the Most High. It makes all the difference whether we think of ourselves as merely drifting, or as “laid hold of” by God and called to co-operate with Him. And is is, I think, largely because the sense of a Personal God has become dimmed of late, that this note of urgency and of Divine Commission has died away.
Speaking To Their Condition
As we look back in our own Quaker annals, we notice how powerfully this note has been struck at certain periods, and what remarkable results were achieved. It is, of course, the old prophetic consciousness of “Thus saith the Lord,” which never completely dies out, and which (in spite of its dangers and possibilities of abuse) is one of the most tremendous things in the world. This sense of “Woe unto me if I preach not the Gospel,” “The Lord God hath spoken: who can but prophesy?” is at the back of the greatest religious movements in history. A further point of extreme interest emerges. Those who thus feel the Divine commission often seem led into sympathetic rapport with their fellow-worshippers, so that they are able to some extent to read their hearts and “speak to their condition.” We may call it telepathy or thought-reading or what we like, but the fact remains. At times it seems almost weird and uncanny, but there is nothing of this about it, unless the development of one’s finer feelings and faculties is uncanny. It is the natural result of the Divine indwelling in the soul of man. “Theysat, or seemed to see, says Rufus M. Jones, “the inner state and condition of persons before them. They were gifted with unusual insight for understanding situations. They were more telepathic than the rank and file of the membership were” (Later Periods of Quakerism,” p. 224). They “travailed with the suffering seed” as they called it, that is, they sat in silence with a meeting till they had worked their way down, “centered down,” where they could feel out and discover the state and condition of the meeting or of individuals in the meeting. Then they could speak with extraordinary power, and many a heart was yielded to God because its owner felt that he personally, she personally, was being claimed for Him. Think for example of Elizabeth Fry, and how how the gay “Betsy” was claimed for God by William Savery, much the the consternation of her sister Richenda: what the world might have missed had William Savery given a weaker message! Read again the instances given by Rufus Jones in chapter vii. of the work just quoted. Smile at the reluctance of a certain young man to be long in the presence of Samuel Emlen, of Philadelphia, because he feared to hear unpleasant truths, but rejoice with him when after a period of silence Samuel “addressed himself to the trembling youth with such a soul-searching testimony as unveiled all that the latter most wished to be hidden,” and so enabled him to find his true self and realise the claim that God was making on him.
The Price of Shallowness
Now of course it is not suggested that we should try to imitate our ancestors in every particular: other times, other manners. Nor is it suggested that we need to acquire any “uncanny” sense or to undergo any professional training for ministry, or that we should think there is anything unnatural about it. But it is suggested that we are not going as deep in the life of the spirit as these men and women of old, and that we are paying the price in shallowness. The reading of Quaker history is immensely valuable both for the warning and the inspiration it gives. The mistakes we can now avoid, and the inspiration might be ours. So why should we not do the “greater things” that are promised us?
The Glorious Gospel
For after all, what a glorious Gospel has been entrusted to us! The boundless love of God, God in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, Christ in us the hope of glory, God in man, man the Shechinah of the Most High, Divine Fatherhood and Human Brotherhood – is it not worth proclaiming, togather with all its implications? None of us can go too deep in this: there is no getting out of our depth here. We meet people sometimes, who, as we put it, “go too deep for us”: we cannot follow them, and they hinder rather than help us. But we can never go to deep into the love of God. The deeper our own sense of it, the richer will be our lives, and the greater our power to bless. As we grow more into this love, understanding it better, realising both its stern and tender side, feeling its cleansing, healing, stimulating influence, our lives will re-act in a new way on our fellow-men. Our Ministry – in the widest sense of the service of our life – will have something of the Master’s spirit, and that part of it which we call the Vocal MInistry will go deep and “remove mountains.” Prayer, faith, consecration, self-surrender – no-one knows what these may do. The spiritual life is one long adventure, full of surprises, and it may yet be that we – even we – may be enabled to give a message that shall bring mankind to the foot of the Cross.