Why do Quakers talk like that?

Why is it that so many Quakers start to talk really slow and deep-voiced, like they were suffering some grave illness, when they want to sound inspired in vocal ministry? Do we think it is somehow more fitting or more suitable to sound like we are in pain when we talk about God ?

I've been noticing this for a while, but now I'm really worried. At the PYM plenary organized by the Junior Yearly Meeting (teens) and Young Adult Friends (post-high-school age), I realized we've infected our youth.

I understand that it is painful for some people to speak in public. I know that sometimes our messages are not happy ones to deliver. But the deliberate, weighted down voices I hear in meeting for worship are not necessarily signs of weighty ministry.

Why don't we speak like we are having a good time? If God has sent us a message to share, why isn't this a joyous occasion? Why don't we talk about God in our "I got an A on my test!", "I biked up this whole mountain!", "I got a raise!", "He likes me!" voices?

Or if we're honestly not cheerful all the time, at least some of the time I would expect to hear our "Get back here and clean this up!", "What were you thinking?!!!!", "He hates me!" voices when talking about God.

I know that our young people, and even our elders still have these passionate and excited tones of voice. I hear them in the lunch line and at the coffee pot and during late night singalongs and games of Mao. I know I yell at my kids more often than I yell at God.

This day (the PYM intergenerational plenary) I missed an opportunity to say to my Friends, "Come talk to me, call me, email me, and let's be excited about God!"

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

But I thought we had to talk like George Fox, and he *must've* talked really low and boring-like to attract all those folks back in his day, the days of no-mic and large outside gatherings. :) ;) Thanks for reminding us to bring some joy into our lives and our speech: it's greatly appreciated.

8/21/2005 5:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the reason is because
Meeting is place that we often
wind up voicing a concern for the
first time. And those concerns
are often tender. Not all messages
are principally about a concern,
but I think it is appropriate and
reasonable that many are.
Agreed that there is no reason
we can't be less than solemn
when we need to be.

8/22/2005 9:36 AM  
Blogger Martin Kelley said...

Well, this sounds like an opportunity! Rather than just talking about the youth on your blog, you can actually talk with them in your meetinghouse. Ask them why they're picking up this style. You have a great opportunity for dialogue here.

My first take: speaking in worship is supposed to be a heavy burden. It's relatively recently that we've replaced the old worship style (lots of silence, more-or-less recognized ministers who might preach for awhile) with the light, breezy, everyone share style of worship-sharing.

I think you miss the point when you say it can be painful to speak in public. It's that it should be painful to speak for God. And that's what true gospel ministry is. It's hard to stay true to the voice without letting temptation to over-embellishment come in. The high-school and young adult Friends I've met tend to be much more conscious and serious about both their vocal ministry and their Quakerism. I'm relieved. We need to make Quakerism harder again.

That said, I'm guessing you really are clueing in to some over-use of the weighted-down voice. All the good gospel ministry guides say that it's okay for infant ministers to be too self-conscious for a season, to "lean into" their ministry a bit too much. It's also human nature (and the nature of Quaker ministry) that we sometimes mimic the style of those we respect and this is something we should be alert to.

I suspect that you Robin may have a gift for noticing things like this. You're also half-way between Quaker generations so perhaps you can serve as a bridge. If you can find some way of engaging dialogue--keeping it real but also keep yourself humble--then that might be an invalable service to Friends. I think there's a lot to be explored in your observation.

8/22/2005 8:08 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Upon first reading all this, I had to sit and think. I had to let the first wave of ecstatic response pass over me and then wait for the more thoughtful words to come.

Aj, I wonder how this question of voice works in the periods of open ministry in your church? Do people end up sounding stilted or conversational or tender?

David, thanks for coming by my blog.
I too have found tender concerns raised up in my vocal ministry, sometimes accompanied by tears. But somehow this feels different from the tendency of some Friends to speak so slowly and quietly and soberly that it feels stilted. It is also true, keeping it humble as Martin suggested, that I have felt this same temptation. But usually, afterwards, it is accompanied by the sense that I didn't wait long enough. That there was too much of the creature in my words (pride, and thinking I know what's best for the meeting), and not enough letting the Light shine through.

Martin, thank you for your thoughtful engagement in this question.

My opportunity would have been better at PYM, because the phenomenon was more noticeable there than in my Meeting, among 20 year olds and 60 year olds. Frankly, we don't have a lot of youth offering vocal ministry in my Meeting and what I can remember here has been less symptomatic. Maybe what I was reacting to was more a side-effect of having 300 people in one room. But it happens here too.

But why should it be painful to speak for God? If God gives the message, does God not give the strength and light to deliver it?

Finally, I read somewhere that for a long time, Friends used a more singsong voice when giving vocal ministry. Has anyone actually heard remnants of that, or can you remember when that was more common?

8/23/2005 6:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if what Robin might be clueing into here is a distance between the form (the way we speak) and the substance (what we are speaking of).

Certainly, if the message one is called to deliver is weighty, one's voice might sound deeper, more strained. If one is "quaking" (whether with fear at speaking in public, or with the sheer wonder of being called to speak) one's voice will quake. But if the message is one of joy, or triumph, or simple contentment, perhaps one's voice should reflect on that, rather than trying to utilize an unnaturally formalistic voice.

Perhaps it is the disconnect between the message, and the way that it is delivered, that is bothersome.

8/24/2005 1:26 PM  
Blogger Johan Maurer said...

Rightly or wrongly, I associate the singsong delivery with meetings in or near Barnesville, Ohio, which are the only places I've heard it. Much of the ministry in that voice struck me as being composed of set phrases -- which is not a glib criticism, because those phrases did seem to be directed at the condition of us worshippers. They were not disembodied cliches.

Thomas Taylor, an Ann Arbor, Michigan, Friend and musicologist, studied this delivery style at one point, if I remember correctly.

At our Friends church, most of the vocal ministry in open worship is fairly conversational in delivery style; there's neither a rhetorical nor a tonal cue that "God is speaking through me," more a personal reflection on the Scriptures or the sermon. It can be very powerful and from the heart, so the conversational style doesn't mean a casual attitude toward handling the things of God. There are occasionally very powerful prophetic messages; I remember one person standing up and asking us to continue singing a chorus because she felt the Kingdom of Heaven drawing very close to us; and she was right. (This is someone we already know has a prophetic gift.) The delivery was in her natural voice, but she was not asking us nicely, she was telling us.

Occasionally someone will go into a deeply confessional mode, and then the volume will be lower, but not in any sort of mannered style.

We generally have a short period of open worship for prayer requests and praises near the opening of worship. The advantage of this arrangement is that the temptation to use the longer period of open worship later on for announcements is lessened.

I've been in many unprogrammed meetings over the years, and the stylized monotone style I sometimes found in those meetings doesn't seem to be present as much in the open worship periods of the pastoral meetings I've known.

However, in many meetings of both traditions, more eldering could be helpful. Perhaps the best eldering would be individual to individual. How do you teach a whole group adequately when some of them need to shut up more, while others need to open up more? Also, when teaching a whole group about vocal ministry, my fear is that you'd end up teaching quakerishness rather than faithfulness to God. Some combination of context teaching for everyone plus individualized attention by elders (Ministry and Counsel members) might be the best.

By the way, we at Reedwood continue to distribute a flow chart that is a light but very helpful way to teach about deciding whether to speak in open worship. The chart was prepared or adapted years ago by our former pastor Stan Thornburg and has appeared in several different forms in various places.

8/24/2005 1:46 PM  
Blogger Gil S said...

I know that my own experience is that I am usually shaking when I stand to minister so I breathe and try to speak slowly and clearly to calm myself. Also I often have only the broad idea of what I am to say and the first few words, so I have to keep listening for what to say next and when to stop. I think this usually comes over as serious, but I hope not too solemn.

I've done quite a bit of research on changes in Quaker worship over time - length of ministry, tones etc. and have given talks on the subject. I may post more about it sometime but just one example springs to mind.

Esther Tuke, a weighty friend of York in the eighteenth century, was congratulated on her ministry by some well meaning Friends who told her that the beauty of her voice when she pronounced the word Mesopotamia had reduced several young women in the meeting to tears. She was horrified and resolved to speak less beautifully in future, as the message not the messenger was most important.

8/25/2005 9:53 AM  
Blogger Johan Maurer said...

Thanks, Gil. What really gets me is when I find myself on my feet with just the opening line, which may have formed itself very completely in my mind and comes out with great conviction, but without a clue as to whether I'm supposed to continue, and with what.

After years of preaching both in unprogrammed worship and in sermon settings, I've learned to trust that if there is supposed to be something beyond that first line, it will come. Still, I start out in some fear and trembling, which isn't a bad thing. There is a little observer in me that stands aside and watches the synthesis happen—the Holy Spirit (I hope and pray) working with the intellectual or spiritual or experiential building blocks that she finds at hand.

Other times, the synthesis happens while I'm still seated, and I am given a whole message. Then the scary part is: will I remember it long enough to deliver it coherently? I need to remember that the Spirit is also in charge of the delivery process.

8/26/2005 12:36 AM  
Blogger Martin Kelley said...

Oooooh Gil, I hope you do share your research on the different styles. I'm reading Samuel Bownas's now and was struck when he sounded apologetic that a particular ministry only went on for a paltry fifteen minutes. I can't imagine what would happen in any of the meetings I know if a 25(ish) year old stranger from out of town stood up and ministered for fifteen minutes! After the first minute or so everyone would start fidgeting and passing nervous glances.

Robin: sure, the opportunities aren't always there. I wonder how we might make opportunities. I'm not speaking rhetorically or anything: I really wonder how we could. One thing I've explored just the tiniest little bit is house visitation. Classically I guess this would be an overseer actually coming to house for an inspection (any pianos?) but one fruitful opportunity was just inviting a high school seeker who had attended a few times if he wanted to go to lunch at a local restaurant. It was me and my wife Julie and he and his girlfriend, who we were meeting for the first time. We made a point of actually talking about spirituality and Quakerism and what he was looking for, so this wasn't just hanging out. It wasn't long after the lunch date that he sent a letter asking to become a member. This is only one incomplete example. I wonder if there are other ways we could make these sorts of opportunities (I have one plotted (like I need another project) but you'll have to wait for that...)

8/26/2005 1:40 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Johan, I think I've seen a version of the flow chart about speaking in meeting for worship. Does it have as the default response, "If no, return to center"?

Welcome to Gil, both to my blog and your own blog. It is a pleasure to have you over. I like the line about resolving to speak less beautifully. Of course, this could also lead to undue attention to message delivery, but perhaps she recognized she had gone too far.

What a gift to read how experienced, contemporary Friends discern for themselves about the leading to vocal ministry!

I have recently resolved to trust my body's intution more. I know when the Spirit is moving me and when I just have a good idea. There is also a difference between a little nudge and the Great Wave. In the last year, my experience has shown me that when I get up in response to the little nudge, the fruit of my ministry has been confusion and misunderstanding. It was worse than Spirit-less speaking that no one remembers, it was actively disruptive to the community. I am fine-tuning the discernment process, I guess. Long ways to go.

Opportunities and house visitation, YES. Actually, I think this has two parts. That invitation to lunch sounds like what many attenders are hoping for. Sure, some folks do come wishing they could visit invisibly the first time, but after that, the healthy folks want community.

I also have this dream of inter-Meeting visitation. I will have to write more about this idea of traveling with a couple of teens at a time to visit other Meetings. I hope to be able to offer this kind of visitation to teens in my Meeting when my kids are a little older. But I keep mentioning the idea to other folks in hopes they won't wait six years for me to start. Martin, I will hold your new project in the Light, even though you are keeping us in the dark.

8/27/2005 1:14 AM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

Intervisitation is a concept and a Quaker tradition that is growing on me. It knits meetings and Friends together in a way that written correspondence and sharing of newsletters cannot, and I think visits from seasoned Friends help us ground more deeply in our shared faith.

Liz, The Good Raised Up

8/29/2005 10:20 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

If you're reading all this, you should also read Johan Maurer's post called The Quaker Voice about "What are the marks of authentic collaboration between human beings and the Holy Spirit?"

He starts by quoting my whiny little post and goes on to write something way deeper, more powerful, more to the point. Thanks Johan.

8/30/2005 11:11 PM  

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