What happens in meeting for worship part three: spoken ministry

In the third part of this series on what happens in Quaker meetings for worship, Katie Evans discusses spoken ministry. (For earlier instalments, see part 1 and part 2.)

I still find the question of where spoken ministry comes from difficult. However, articulating what I experience in meeting for worship has given me a provisional answer. For now, I would say that spoken ministry arises out of the intersection of what’s in the speaker, what’s present in the gathered group, and the revelatory loving gaze of God on both.

Russian Dolls image by Hannah Alkadi
Russian Dolls image by Hannah Alkadi

There’s one more element: a compelling sense that the experience, idea, insight, question – whatever it is – is to be shared with the group then and there. Not every insight is for sharing in spoken ministry. I love the now rather quaint sounding advice to distinguish between ‘bread for thee’, that is, insights that are for us personally; and ‘bread for others’, insights that are given to be shared as spoken ministry.

Together, these four elements put in context two distinctive features of spoken ministry that I usually shy away from discussing: synchronicity and shaking. To my rational mind, these sound like superstitious magical thinking or a weak attempt to prove the existence of a supernatural God. I don’t see them that way, but I can’t deny the inconvenient persistence with which they make themselves known.

By synchronicity, I mean those occasions when one person’s spoken ministry seems to speak directly to another, to articulate just what was in their heart and mind. Or when, unspoken, there’s a common theme in our interpretations of a particular meeting. One occasion stands out as a particularly clear example: that Sunday I found myself unexpectedly sitting with grief. I looked around the room and couldn’t see of an obvious prompt, no one recently bereaved for example. Nevertheless, the presence of grief was strong, almost palpable, though not distressing, and I wondered if I should speak. The silence felt deep and gathered – words weren’t needed. I kept quiet. Then, after 45 minutes of silence, a visitor rose and spoke of her grief. At times like this I experience and recognise a collective ‘what’s here’ that we can consent to share in.

On the rare occasions when I feel called to speak in meeting for worship my heart pounds, standing I feel weak at the knees, shaky. I hear this is a fairly common experience for Friends. It isn’t simple discomfort with public speaking – I’m quite happy giving the notices after meeting. Rather, I associate it with ministry coming from more than just our day-to-day selves, our thoughts and experiences, and with feeling somehow asked to take the risk of voicing those depths.

I remember one Friend whose spoken ministry I found difficult – he tended to speak abstractly and, I thought, a little pompously. One Sunday I happened to be sat in front of this Friend when he rose to speak. He rested his hands on the back of my chair and I could feel through the chair that he was shaking, though his voice gave no sign of this. After that I had no trouble listening to his ministry. I knew that despite the impersonal, slightly ‘preachy’ words, his ministry was heartfelt and came at some cost.

You can read the fourth and final part in this series here. 

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