Travelling in the Electronic Ministry
More traditional Christians rejected Quakerism as a dangerous doctrine. If everyone felt free to listen to God’s advice on their own then, they argued, this opens the floodgates to ranterism. People, being what they are, without a pastor or at least the Bible to constrain them will rationalize that whatever pops into their heads must be from God. Many modern secularists echo this idea. The dangerous actions of George Bush, are the direct result of his dangerous belief that his violent and reckless ideas were really God’s personal advice to the President. Quakerism recognized the danger of individuals mistaking their own whims for divine guidance and emphasized that the advice of weighty Friends was a crucial factor in helping individuals tell the difference between their own personal feelings and God. Quakerism isn’t pure individualism. There is a need to rely on collective wisdom because the voice of God is often hard to hear over the noise produced by the world. “Sense of meeting” is a sounder guide than the autocratic rule of any priesthood (because in practice these priesthoods are just self-appointed bureaucracies.) Individuals should rely primarily on their own sense of God’s will but for help in discernment depend on the decentralized advice of fellow seekers. This remains grounded in the local face to face relationships of the monthly meeting.
If this is the essential core of Quakerism, then how do we apply this insight in the 21st century? What, if anything, does it tell us about blogging, Facebook and Twitter? Quite a lot actually.
First we should distinguish between electronic intervisitation and electronic ministry. Facebook is almost exclusively an avenue for intervisitation and most blogs are primarily a form of intervisitation. Keeping a Facebook page or blogging are ways to keep in touch and share the ephemera of life. Intervisitation has traditionally been recognized as a good thing and been much encouraged. Paradoxically as travel has become easier intervisitation has decreased among us. Venues like Facebook may change that. Intervisitation was encouraged because it strengthened the bonds of community and allowed Friends to learn each other’s special needs so that we could love each other in practical down-to-earth ways. The dangers to be avoided were time-wasting on triviality and, more seriously, the temptation to gossip. These dangers are also present in electronic intervisitation. Perhaps all that is needed here is to update our queries to make Friends mindful of what is good and what is potentially harmful about such activities.
Second, there is the issue of electronic ministry. Some Friends see their blogs as more than intervisitation. They feel they have some message to share with the world and maintaining a blog is their way of sharing it. This is ministry rather than intervisitation and Friends traditionally took greater care to provide oversight for ministers. While traditional Quakerism recognizes a free and unprogrammed ministry open to all, it is also mindful of the dangers of unguided ministry. Individuals are encouraged to speak during meeting for worship as a way of learning if their messages are genuine or not. Feedback from the other members of meeting is essential. “Friend, your ministry today spoke to my condition” is not meant as flattery. It is meant to provide useful feedback. Elders were appointed to be particularly responsible to provide both positive and negative advice to individuals seeking to develop their gift of vocal ministry. In many modern meetings this function is taken over by a Ministry and Counsel Committee, but the intent is largely the same: to provide collective guidance to individuals about their efforts at ministry. When ministers would feel a leading to travel and share their messages with more distant groups of Friends additional care was taken. Monthly Meetings would be asked to give the minister a Travel Minute approving his or her leading to travel. Friends mindful of their responsibilities would not travel in the ministry without the collective approval of their Monthly Meeting. In addition often an elder was sent with the Friend to listen to the ministry they gave to the distant Friends and to report back to the local meeting what took place. Finally, the distant Friends were asked to endorse to travel minute, that is, to report back as well.
Can we replicate this for the 21st century? Certainly we can. Friends who feel that their blog is not just for intervisitation but also for public ministry can make their monthly meeting aware of what they intend to do. They can ask that the blog be monitored by the elders or by the corresponding committee of the monthly meeting. And they can record this approval on the blog itself. This would create an electronic equivalent of travel minutes and travelling companions in the ministry. Members of the monthly meeting could even read comments recorded on the blog as the equivalent of endorsements of travel minutes.