Ashley Wilcox to Liberal Quakers: “I’m coming to uproot, to pull down, and destroy”

Attention, liberal Quakers: Ashley Wilcox is coming for you. 

Wilcox was the Distinguished Quaker Visitor for the Friends Center at Guilford College in NC this past week. There she delivered a sermon on April 4 titled, “Quakers and the Prophetic Tradition.” In it she forcefully declared that she was on a mission from God, one adopted from no less a figure than the great Hebrew prophet Jeremiah.

Jeremiah, by Rembrandt. He is often imagined as a voice of lamentation and grief. Given the times, and the messages he was given to deliver, it is not hard to see why.

For the guiding text, she read, 

“See [God says to the young, frightened Jeremiah], I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant.” (Jeremiah 1:10)

In the text, this statement of mission is figurative: It is not Jeremiah who is to do the uprooting, pulling down & destruction, but God, acting through the enemies of the sinful kingdom of Judah, namely the invading Babylonian armies. As Jeremiah prophesied, the Babylonian forces soon conquered Judah, pillaged Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, killed many inhabitants and took others into a long exile. (Jeremiah himself, after being imprisoned and almost killed by the Judean authorities, ended his days as a refugee in Egypt.)

But Jeremiah was not the invader. Instead, like the other major Hebrew prophets, he was a kind of mail carrier, delivering God’s message to a generally resistant people:

“Behold, I [God] have put my words in thy mouth  [Jeremiah]. . . Thou therefore gird up thy loins, and arise, and speak unto them all that I command thee (1: 10, 17) . . . .”  

Speak those words, Jeremiah; God (and Babylon) will take care of the rest.

However, Wilcox in her Guilford sermon, did not pick up Jeremiah’s messenger role, but rather that of invading Babylon. She repeated the operative phrase (1:10), but with herself as subject: “I [God] have this day set thee [Wilcox] over the nations and over the kingdoms [mainly unprogrammed liberal Quakers] to uproot, to pull down, and to destroy” what she [and God] have determined to be wrong about them. 

And, she explained, the terrible sin she is being dispatched to uproot and destroy is their practice, now a century old, of not recording ministers. Once that demolition is done, the recording system is what will be replanted in its place.

Wilcox insisted that the end of recording, and resistance to reviving it, has done much harm to liberal Quakerism, and to many in its ranks who are seeking recorded status, especially women. 

She noted also that some of these recording-seeking women were being “lost to Friends,” heading to other denominations for ordination or its equivalent. She contended that this is exacerbating a trend of decline. A survey she cited, reported that the average age of U.S. Quakers is approaching 59. The clear implication was that a revival of recording ministers would help reverse these slides.

Wilcox also complained with no little choler about opposition she has met with in making her case among liberal Friends. She referred to having heard some historical objections, but did not specify or speak of them further. From individuals, she said, she had often heard, “But we’re all equal,” and recording violates that “testimony”; and, flatly, “you think you’re better than us.”

She said the first objection shows a misunderstanding about Quaker “equality.” “We are all equal in the sight of God,” she explained, “but God calls some especially to uphold public ministry,” and such “gifts” should be “named” and affirmed (i.e., recorded) “for support and accountability.”

There was no space during or after her talk for discussion or comments, so her advocacy went unquestioned. To me that was unfortunate, not least because misgivings and objections were given such short shrift, mentioned only dismissively. 

Take the matter of “equality.” It’s true that few liberal Friends have any idea that a “Testimony” to it is quite new among Friends, and is by no means universal in Quakerdom even today.

Instead, for at least 200 years, despite their “peculiarities” of refusing “hat honor,” saying “thee and thou” to all classes, accepting women’s speaking, and the like, Friends also believed in, and practiced, many kinds of inequality, not least slavery and — well into the mid-1900s — racial segregation. (And don’t get me started on  class inequalities and issues among Quakers yesterday, or today. )

Anyone who doubts this, I commend to their attention a long paragraph in Robert Barclay’s classic “Apology,” where he considers the list of Quaker “peculiarities” (refusing “hat honor,” etc.,) which some still called subversive, and in which he claims the exact opposite (following Section II.6):

I would not have any judge, that hereby [through these “peculiarities”] we intend to destroy the mutual relation, that either is betwixt prince and people, master and servants, parents and children, nay not at all. We shall evidence that our principle in these things hath no such tendency, and that these natural relations are rather better established than any ways hurt by [these peculiar practices. Emphasis added.].

Read the rest of his explanation, and see if it is not enlightening.

So it’s no accident that “Equality” is not found in the early books of Discipline. To the contrary, they make  clear that the Society of Friends was for more than 200 years very much a hierarchical body. To start with, there were “superior” and “subordinate” meetings. Further, the physical/social elevation of ministers and elders was made visible in separate and higher “facing benches” that soon were standard in meetinghouses. 

Facing benches. The occupants were “elevated” for definite reasons, above the body.

As a separate value or witness, “equality” did not really surface until the mid-nineteenth century, and then it was  part of a larger, uphill  struggle against the recorded class system. “Equality” only won a place after decades of struggle. And to repeat, it is not universal among Friends bodies even yet. No wonder many are strongly attached to it.

Moreover, I’m not sure that Wilcox realizes that the “all-equal-in-the-sight-of-God” meme is a classic patronizing deflection by those with more power or status (real or ascribed), to complaints by restless underlings. It has a close echo in Romans 2:11: “God has no favorites,” blithely written in a world of kings and commoners, free and slaves, and silenced women. Or as George Orwell put it, in that society (as in ours), some were “more equal” than others.

Not least, on the historical balance sheet, there is the long and often sordid record of involvement by recorded elites in the suppression of free thought and free discussion among Friends, and the instigation of purges and schisms, down to and including the present.

A drawing from 1828, illustrating the Hicksite view of Quaker “equality” in decision making by the “weighty” Orthodox leadership. This is a partisan view, but it expresses concerns real enough to split Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, and which have persisted to this day. Doubtless though, the Clerk and his choice of the weightiest would have agreed that all Friends were “equal in the sight of God.”

Much of this tragic record has been recorded in standard Quaker histories, whose work is regularly ignored by the practice’s advocates. Wilcox shrugged all this off with a single sentence, simply noting that “It has been our practice,” suggesting with the passive voice that obviously no more need be said. 

But more does need be said: Yes it was “our practice” to record, until a large slice of Quakerism ended that practice, after using the gospel test of judging the tree by its fruits” (Luke 6:43) over generations, and finding the “fruits” of that “practice” too often bitter, poisonous & destructive. (That struggle is recounted in detail here  and here . )   

In North Carolina, where such active aggression by a clerical faction only recently triggered the destruction of a 320 year-old Yearly Meeting, such cavalier treatment of this history is particularly unconvincing.

As for the matter of some Friends saying to her and other advocates, “you think you’re better than us,” I wonder if she could hear herself pronouncing that she had a divinely mandated personal appointment to “uproot, tear down and overthrow” a century of different practice, deeply rooted in many of the liberal bodies, whether asked for or not. 

One could dismiss this declaration as mere hyperbole. But I pay Wilcox the respect of believing that she meant what she so emphatically said, and repeated.

I also take very seriously those who propose to fulfill a text which quotes God as saying “out of the north (or maybe this time, the south) an evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land,” (Jeremiah 1:17) . . . for I am with thee, saith the Lord” (1:19) Yes, that is definitely meant be an unequal encounter.

Part of what confuses me here is that, as far as I can see, doing without the recording system does not deny Friends of any gender opportunities to pursue their leadings or join with others to worship and work. If Wilcox is led, as she said, to promote and refine the ministry of women, she is free to do so, recorded or not: she can apply her energy and imagination to that work, and gather others who are like-minded to it. After all, many unrecorded Friends have labored to that end (and others) for generations.

What am I missing here?

All I can see to be gained by this system’s revival, especially after observing the damage it has lately wreaked in various yearly meetings, are two things: First, the bestowal of distinctive signs of status, including an “official” credential. And second, the ability to stop others from pursuing their concerns, under the rubric of “accountability,” dispensed by an official in-group.

In the days of the recording system, such “accountability” was quite intrusive; for instance, it even included the option to censor any publication by members, for “soundness.” 

Is that now ancient, irrelevant history? Not at all: attentive American Friends have seen a once-large midwest yearly meeting disrupted and torn for six years (2003-2009) by a factional clerical crusade to strip and banish one minister who dared publish a theological book some ministers did not approve of. 

Then another yearly meeting’s “recorded” leadership trashed all norms of good order, and invoked its “superior” authority over “subordinate” meetings in an attempt to isolate and expel one meeting that had moved to affirm LGBT membership. That purge ultimately succeeded, but more than a dozen meetings also left, in solidarity with the target. A few more “victories” like that, and . . . .

Three other yearly meetings have since faced similar crises. The costs of these conflicts are many; and the issues and hazards of the recording system are alive and raw among them. (Details of these struggles are available in the journal Quaker Theology, online here. )

This record amply shows that among Friends, it does not take many who are determined to “uproot, tear down and overthrow” to wreak much havoc, no doubt on behalf of what they believe is a good cause, or especially, to carry out “God’s will.” 

I’ve spent much time since the new millennium began reporting on this widespread yearly and local meeting turmoil, in all of which the recorded system was implicated. I admit to being very wary of clarion calls for more such overturning on behalf of its restoration.  My sense is that there is still plenty of energy for pushback against such calls; but have we no more weighty matters to cope with in these calamitous days?

[Besides which, there is still “accountability” in these non-recording: groups. Anyone who has worked in a children’s or youth program in that world can attest to it: all, whether paid or volunteer, must undergo a police background check before beginning their labor. I have done so myself; and passed, BTW.]

Even so, let the debate about the wisdom and value of restoring the plan commence. Wilcox might smooth the way in her advocacy by considering a somewhat different, non-Babylonian “frame” to a “prophetic” Quaker calling. Suppose she were ready to have open discussion of her ideas, based on:

First, an informed, respectful accounting of the system’s difficult and contested history; 

Next a careful examination of what “equality” means for interested Friends today (“We’re all equal before God” can be her starting point; it would not likely be the end).

And third, let us see the models for a new recording system that could minimize or avoid reproducing the chronic “bad fruits” of destructive internal controversies and politicization, while preserving the congregational autonomy fundamental for most liberal Friends. Are there such models? I haven’t seen any, and am doubtful they exist, but I’m ready to consider them.

And fourth, let us be shown how such a revival of recording would help ease the aging and reported numerical decline? Mainline churches mostly ordain women already, yet their numbers are still falling like a stone. [I hope they’ll  keep ordaining women, as a matter of justice; but will it remedy the decline — ? Not shown.] Meanwhile, the very patriarchal LDS church (Mormons) does not ordain women, yet it has grown by 45% since 2000. And among U.S.  Friends, no less than five yearly meetings — all of which still have the recording system– were the scenes of destructive schisms since the beginning of this century, and all emerged having lost many members. I’d call this sample of results decidedly inconclusive. 

Such discussions could well be extended, and at some points difficult. But I believe they would have much more credibility than what was heard at Guilford. Wilcox herself said Friends need to learn to “sit with discomfort” and work their way through tough issues. That could well start here.  But dismissing the system’s history and then echoing privileged condescension toward those with other views — these are not promising openers.

I’m with Wilcox on one thing: Jeremiah is one of my favorite prophets, too. But come to think of it — who recorded his ministry? (Besides God, and only Jeremiah heard that.) When he tried to get some street cred, by having his messages written down and presented to king Jehoiakim, he was instead subjected to the humiliation of having the king cut up the scroll and burn the pieces in a public ceremony. Not exactly the recognition he was after. And not much later he was thrown into jail and otherwise abused. Not exactly an affirmative response. But if he could still get his messages delivered even without recording, why do Quakers need it so bad?

The American Society of Friends has already had plenty of Babylonian-style “wrath” poured out on it in recent years. Do we really deserve more? Are we ready to see Jeremiah’s forecast in 4:7-8 come to pass in our beleaguered communities: “The lioness is come up from her thicket, and the destroyer . . . is on her way; she is gone forth from her place to make thy land desolate; and thy cities shall be laid waste, without an inhabitant.”

Personally, I’d rather keep that vision in biblical print, rather than watch it acted out again.

Not that liberal Quakerism is above criticism or has no need of reform. It does; but that’s another story and recording isn’t on my list. Meantime I’m ready for would-be reformers to consider instead the Parable of the Sower, who broadcast the message without fanfare or force; or the woman who induced change by calmly adding leaven in the loaf, or even Jesus’ highlighting of the Mustard Seed, which starts very small and germinates in quiet mystery to great effect. Might these not be more serviceable images for the task?

As Jesus said, closing the Parable of the Sower, “She who has ears to hear, let her hear.”

56 thoughts on “Ashley Wilcox to Liberal Quakers: “I’m coming to uproot, to pull down, and destroy””

  1. On my first day on the job as a reporter the City Editor, Frank M. , gave me an assignment to interview a store clerk about pre-school sales. Frank was a gruff, old-school editor, with a great sense of humor, in a day when stories were set in type and proofs were sent back down to be checked through pneumatic tubes. He always wore a white dress shirt with tie, wore a green eyeshade, and had rubber sleeve protectors from wrist to elbow (the black in on the proofs would still be moist).

    So I asked Frank, “shouldn’t I have an ID showing that I’m a reporter?”

    Frank laughed and bellowed out “If you need an ID to talk with a person, you’re in the wrong profession.”

    1. Try ministering to incarcerated individuals without Id, Credentialing, and an credentialing Body. A seminary degree or a social work license does not allow one entry into the correctional facility to work with those in bondage. I have received ordination credentials from the Church of the Brethren in order to do just such work. Before ordination, I had all sorts of trouble and negative feedback regarding asking for recorded status with the recording explicitly limiting my ministry to jails and substance abuse institutions. All of civilization and the future of Friends is in no way reliant upon or even in need of recorded Friends Ministers, but to limit the argument to the wisdom shared between journalist indicates that your editor never ntended for you to work at the White House. Certianly, he would have thought about a press pass at that point, like I needed just to cover minor league baseball. I think both the preacher in this case, and her opposition, fail to recognize the need for a pragmatic resolution to the recording concerns that recognizes those aspects of ministry that require simply documentation of denomination support for ministry. Otherwise, we only exclude ourselves from the possibility of being ministered to by the lest of these, whom we tend to restrict our access to, or prevent them from accessing us. Class consciousness might help a little with this perspective, certainly regarding volunteer status in some places as well. You may not understand how much a denominational credentialing has in a place like flint, where saying you are a Quaker and everyone is equal is a slap in the face to the residents who live there and know that has never been the case. As Chuck seems to indicate above – the equality argument among Friends has been a cop out used by those controlling outcomes in meetings as much as it is a self-serving notion of would-be do-gooders who want to make a name for themselves. Potentially, it should simply be a monthly meeting issue with Yearly Meetings recording the ministry and witness without publishing it or assigning any benefit or status to it at yearly meeting functions, where clerks are recorded (but never in control, right?)

      1. A preliminary note: there was no mention of the recording-as-occupational-credential matter in the sermon, so I did not write about it. However, it was obliquely referred to in my comment about about being open to discussing alternate models for recording which could minimize the hazards of it. I have heard a number of Job-seeking Friends wanting to use recording as a way into getting a chaplain’s job, hospital, hospice, prison, etc. I’m sympathetic to aiding people to find jobs, yet I think this imperative needs to be carefully balanced with liberal Quaker reserve regarding recording. It’s one thing to “nurture ministry,” but it is not the purpose of a Friends meeting to serve as a credential-issuing job machine, twisting ourselves into whatever form enables us to check off a bureaucrat’s boxes. My understanding is that under the First Amendment, it is a church’s prerogative whether & how to qualify its members for such work, rather than the agency’s right to force all churches to fit some preconceived pattern. So this may oblige meetings to do some negotiating with agencies (& aspiring Friends) about how to do the one without turning meetings into something they don’t want to be.

      2. In my neck of the Quaker woods (Ohio Valley Yearly Meetings (FGC), all unprogrammed, non-pastoral meetings), there is a distinction between recording someone as a minister (which is permitted by the Book of Faith and Practice, but has not actually happened in the past several decades) and issuing an “ecclesiastical endorsement,” which is specifically a credential for those wishing to work professionally as hospital chaplains, etc. (which is outlined in our recently revised Book of Faith and Practice and is routinely done under appropriate circumstances).
        I am now curious about what sort of credential might be necessary for a Friend to engage in ministry in the jails and prisons in the three states in which we have meetings (IN, OH, and KY). The Yearly Meeting has a fund designated to support prison outreach, but I do not know the circumstances under which that fund has been utilized since it was established. I also know that quite some time ago, there was an attempt to institute the Alternatives to Violence program in the State of Indiana, but for some reason this effort did not really get off the ground after some initial workshops.
        It is my belief that best “Liberal” Quaker practice calls for the monthly meeting of a Friend who receives an ecclesiastical endorsement to ensure that the Friend has an appropriate committee (“support committee,” “anchoring committee,” “oversight committee”) to provide support, nurture, etc. Friends should be mindful that in issuing this type of endorsement, the issuing body is vouching for the Friend’s gift to engage in this type of work.

  2. I did not attend this talk, but based on Chuck’s summary, I would suggest that the speaker offered a number of totally irrelevant reasons for what I (unlike Chuck) feel is a healthy conclusion. To be clear, in my view, the problem is not so much the failure to “record” or “acknowledge” gifts of ministry; the problem is a total inability or unwillingness in many corners of “Liberal” Quakerdom to provide support, wise counsel, constructive feedback, coaching (all of the things traditionally known as “eldership”) for Friends who are living with a sustained gift and concern for vocal ministry.
    My hope is that it would be possible to restore the positive fruits of the past without reinstating the abuses.
    And indeed, Friends General Conference has done much in the past two decades to offer support to individuals and meetings for understanding and cultivating the NURTURE of the gift of vocal ministry.
    One final note: If there are people who genuinely leave the Religious Society of Friends BECAUSE they are not recorded as ministers, that would suggest to me that those individuals lack the spiritual commitment to the Quaker religion that should be a qualification for recording as a minister in the Religious Society of Friends in the first place.

  3. In South Bend, Indiana, we do not do the historical “recording” fo ministers. We do, however, recognize and support ministries with clearness and support committees, and sometimes money is involved for support. We do not limit our support to those who speak in meeting(s), though our Ministry and Counsel Committee does over see this and nurtures spoken ministry. Our Yearly Meeting, ILYM, neither endorses nor forbids Monthly Meetings from “recording” ministers. One monthly meeting has recorded a minister. It seems to me that creative and serious ways to nurture ministry is needed among the so called “liberal” Friends. It also seems to me that some meetings are engaged in this process.

  4. This is the first I’ve heard of Ashley Wilcox. It’s not clear to me that her ministry as you describe it beats many of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, eh?

    As a recorded minister myself, I have some sympathy with the idea of reviving the tradition, but your admonition—show is the models—is spot on. The original point of recording —regardless of its evolution—was to put some constraints on loose cannons, and ensure harmony between what public ministers were preaching and the general beliefs of the body.

    More to the point however: the critical difference between recording a Quaker minister and ordaining a Protestant one is that recording was never (until the 20th century perhaps) something one could ask for, seek, or pursue, much less demand. Seeking it as a status or demanding it as a right would have been seen—and in some places is still seen—as a categorical disqualification. The journal of John Churchman for instance details his struggle to be faithful to his calling and discern when he was led to preach and seek guidance from more experienced ministers and elders, but he did not seek recording. That he was recorded as a minister was a decision of the body, and done at its initiative.

    I am suspicious of those who demand recording as a right.

    1. Patrick, in my observation, “recording” as practiced in the pastoral YMs is actually a species of job hunting, with not merely a certificate to hang on the wall at its end, but also a stream of paychecks. And while I’m empathetic with people who need jobs, that turns this “practice” into something basically different than what it was, and adds a whole bundle of additional complications & temptations to those which already were in play. Something similar is rising in the unprogrammed branch, in the form of chaplaincies, in hospitals, etc— yes, it may be about leadings, but it’s also jobs, and that is a very fraught field for local meetings & even YMs to wade into.
      All this is on top of the previous system, which was more about internal power & hierarchy.that arrangement produced plenty of problems too. All this leaves me more & more wary of seeing it rebuilt. In one new post-schism grouping, I argued that all recording matters should be left to monthly meetings. Perhaps a YM could facilitate inter-meeting cooperation, but keep it out of the business of picking this Friend but turning away that one: it’s a recipe for endless trouble, rivalries & divisions. In this respect, my experience has turned me from liberal to more “Orthodox” at least as far as believing in sin, as not only afflicting church people, but also church institutions & systems. Neither individual Friends nor our systems are exempt from this condition.

      1. Chuck,
        I confess that I have not checked the Books of Discipline/Faith and Practice of the other yearly meetings with Hicksite roots, but Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice definitely leaves the matter of recording ministers to the constituent monthly meetings (who in recent decades have not felt led record anyone). On the other hand, at least as it has been presented to us over the years, prospective employers may require that an “ecclesiastical endorsement” be, well, “endorsed” by the Yearly Meeting.

        1. The idea of local meetings recording ministers is similar to my journey. I was ordained a minister of Christ by the elders of a local Christian Church/Church of Christ; over twenty years later I came to Friends. I think local meetings know best the spiritual gifts of its members, especially those who have public ministry gifts. Local meetings could recognize their own ministers and send letters to their Quarterly and Yearly Meetings of their action. It is simpler than the more “denominational” process which yearly meetings get into.

  5. Friends who speak of endorsement and recording in the same breath for purposes of prison work, volunteering with ecclesiastic committees or outreach and such, seem to speak my mind. It should be used to endorse a calling with the full support of the meeting, who allows for an individual to meet requirements of licensing bodies or regulatory bodies. Many who are looking for recorded status in unprogrammed meetings as a means of legitimizing their calling merely need say “so saith the Lord,” or, “well, it seems to me.” Of course, many have referred to me to as a weighty friend since I replaced drinking Old Quaker with ice cream. Otherwise, I have simply been the overweight Friend who hath burdened others with a sometimes windy ministry experience that they have known experientially as a judgment upon the sensitivity of the olfactory tendency toward rude judgments upon the meaner kinds of people.

  6. Interesting how nobody has yet replied to the message that not ordaining ministers is especially onerous to women.

    “Wilcox insisted that the end of recording, and resistance to reviving it, has done much harm to liberal Quakerism, and to many in its ranks who are seeking recorded status, especially women.
    “She noted also that some of these recording-seeking women were being “lost to Friends,” heading to other denominations for ordination or its equivalent. .. ”

    My MM and YM has women in many leadership positions. My meeting has many more women members as does my Yearly Meeting. I agree with Chuck’s reply (above) that opens the “money” issue.

    If anyone wants to see what happens when “anyone” can lead a religious group, just look at the plethora of Baptist Churches that I pass every time I leave my home in Douglas County, GA. Just about anyone can start a church, it seems to me. (Might there might be a “test” to get the “title”?) Judging from the marketing in our local paper and billboards, the issue is whether they can find financial support for their “ministry”.
    Might the rise of Capitalism be responsible for this denomination’s largess? .

    One last thought. Continuing Revelation is one of the reasons that our Yearly Meeting’s Guide to our Faith and Practice is “reviewed” every 10 years. This reminds me of the Jewish teachings that G-D did not “finish” creating the world when declaring “it is good!”. Clearly the facts show otherwise and I am happy to find a spiritual home outside of Judaism that understand what we see happening around us.

  7. La Jolla, ( the jolly one) monthly meeting was started by a bunch of non-quakers in the early sixties who had read about Quakers in various books and so gathered a meeting. This put it in the unique state of a meeting with a sort of academic grounding and little tradition.
    Now, many years later, tradition— in the form of worship of our line of matriarchs. Olivia Davis, Gretchen Rudnick. etc..etc Jane Peers, Roena is still kicking and so is Winnie. ( See I even remember the names of those so long ago.
    This has changed our structure as we nod to our memories. I have no way of telling if these changes are for good or ill, tho not going to meeting much lately I find that I can’t follow some of the new unwritten rules. That seems bad or unquakerly . Old meetings unstated rules. Sense of disconnection.
    Our meeting rarely minuted anything more than “traveling status”. I like that.
    I am an overweight Quaker, and an old one now. But nobody ever should have to listen to me if they don’t want too. Do you want me to be able to ” make”, them with some sort of of of badge or something. Remember ” we don’t got to show you no stinkin badges”. I’m with that guy.
    Love Ben

  8. There are people who feel a call to ministry that involves reorienting their life towards it, so that it is a vocation in the sense of calling, but not necessarily a job in the secular sense. I am using ministry in a broader sense than just vocal ministry, or the traditional “gospel ministry”. That seems different to me from “everyone is a minister”. It is true that anyone can be called to give a message, or perform some act, but not everyone experiences it as something they must reorient their life towards. While there may be people who are seeking some stamp of approval, there are also people who are sincere in wanting to be faithful to their leadings, and are aware of the potential damage they can do when they aren’t, and perhaps also know that they may need support in dealing the response to their ministry. I have yet to see the police come after someone for failing to give over their own running, so I’m not really sure why a secular background check even comes up when discussing accountability.
    The people I know of who have left Friends because of feeling a calling to ministry would probably characterize it as a lack of support, even a lack of knowing how to support, the calling, maybe even that they don’t believe that people are called that way, and not simply that it wasn’t recorded.
    I would hope that the encounter with the Divine does provoke a reorientation in one’s life, and then my hope would be that one’s spiritual community would provide accountability, helping to validate or question one’s discernment and response to leadings.

    1. Thanks, Mark. I think I understand pretty well about calling & vocation (raised Catholic, eldest of 11 — I was aimed for the Church, even without anyone saying so out loud), and I feel that way about writing. My vocation has developed, had ups & downs, found support various places, been on its own a lot, and taken its share of hard knocks (“ocean of darkness,” etc.) and still often felt “well-used.” At the same time, I’ve had an identification with the branch of Friends that laid down formal recording, and I haven’t felt that not having a recording of my writing “ministry” has held me back or made me “inferior” to others who had been. Also, having done extensive research in the history of recording and how it came to be discarded by liberals, I also have felt that it was the right thing for them to do, and it’s right for them to hang onto it, even tho most liberal Friends haven’t a clue about the history (but I’ve tried to begin remedying that). It’s clearly an environment which will not work for everyone, and I don’t feel diminished (or in the wrong) if someone feels they have to go somewhere else to find the right setting for them.

  9. I reflect that another barrier to becoming a recorded minister is having a Meeting that has the membership depth to sustain the recorded minister with an anchor, clearness, or “oversight” committee who can hold the ministry in the Light to help the minister discern ministry from other impulses.

    It’s brave to be willing to submit to the authority of the Meeting, to not take an invitation to speak because your committee could not come to unity that you were called to attend, or stay open to the insight that you are not clear in your message or ministry.

    Friends who serve on anchor and clearness committees should not be rubber stamping. Clearness committee work is one of the great gifts a member may give to their Meeting. I value the clearness and anchor committees i served on, but i also had the responsibility for forming those committees. I know what i was asking of the members.

    Liberal friends may not “record ministers” but they certainly nurture ministries, taking them under the care of the meeting. To be nurtured one must submit to the authority of that Meeting and the committee. I respect the extreme reservations Liberal Meetings have for taking ministry under their care, because the moment someone stands in the way of the person with the ministry — if that person charges ahead without waiting for unity, it can disrupt the heart of the meeting for years.

    I recognize that Friends don’t always take the time to take marriages and membership under the same level of care, and perhaps that leads people to think Ministry will be treated with the same laissez-faire attention. In my experience, though, ministries get the full attention of “under the care of the Meeting.”

    hoping this makes sense, back to documenting other forms of authorization,

  10. On the subject of recording, the recently revised Faith & Practice of North Pacific Yearly Meeting (NPYM) states plainly “Monthly meetings within NPYM do not record ministers.” That was not a departure since the Pacific Coast Association of Friends, which began meeting in 1931, “…confirmed the practice of unprogrammed worship with no recorded ministers.” That association has evolved into three yearly meetings and, at least for NPYM, a widely spread number of monthly meetings and worship groups. While the number of members and frequent attenders is small compared to other religious bodies, the continued visible growth doesn’t represent decline to my understanding.

    The lack of recording itself has not been a barrier to Friends from NPYM being of service to the Society internationally. The names that come readily to mind are all women. In addition, both men and women have been released for the service of ministry by my own monthly meeting. And all of that has proceeded without the benefit of recording. Or should I say clergy.

  11. Chuck, did you seek out this Friend to explore your impressions? I think it would benefit the conversation. While there wasn’t a chance to have Q&A at that time, I imagine she would be more than happy to clarify questions. Or another way to reflect upon this opportunity: Consider what a young-adult, female Friend has to offer our wider Quaker community. So far, I don’t find such a perspective “rounding out” this thread.

    In the whole of the conversation here, I find nothing mentioned about traveling ministry, which has a likeness to recorded ministry in that it typically focuses on spoken ministry. Between 1998 to 2015, Friends General Conference had a program that supported traveling ministers. See here – .

    Recently created through Friends World Committee for Consultation Section of the Americas is a new Traveling Ministry Corps – . The focus is intervisitation among Friends in the Americas and across branches of our community There are some cross-continent visits taking place too, as announced here – .

    For now, that’s what I have to share. I hope that Friends will take opportunity to explore what is arising among wider Friends, regardless of which branch we find ourselves located and take care of varied practices to be faithful to our leadings.

    1. Mey, It’s worth noting that Ashley has as free access to these comment spaces as do you and the many others who have joined in. And while she is younger than me, the “young adult” designation has in my view expired in her case — as it did for me, and most other former “young adult” Friends of my cohort. Regarding “wider Friends,” I’ve grown significantly “wider” myself, but am feeling unclear about claiming that as a qualification for Quaker service or regard.

      1. Since you seem to be focusing on the FGC affiliated branch of Friends, among us young adult recognition is through 35 years of age. I don’t know her age actually; the photo with the post appeared youthful. If she is over 35, there’s still is a noteworthy gap generationally, which I think is important to weigh.

        What relationship do you find between recorded ministers and traveling ministers, Chuck? I welcome a thoughtful reply to my original post rather than dismissal veiled as humor. Thank you.

        1. Regarding traveling ministry, I think of that as a project, rather than a status. Some years ago I traveled to England, France & Ireland, for a project of speaking about U.S. torture in the Iraq War, to both Quaker and non-Quaker groups. I asked for and received a letter of introduction from the Clerk of the meeting I then attended, which I presented to the Quaker groups I visited, and which was signed by Clerks there. When my trip concluded I returned the letter to the home meeting, and that was that. If others hope to establish a category of “traveling minister” recorded in the way I wrote about in the post, as a permanent status designation, I would not favor that. And as for “Young Adult Friends,” since I am an alumnus of a generation regarded as something special because of our youth (an estimate which turned out to be very much exaggerated), I am not persuaded that preserving and valorizing that designation is very productive, and am not much interested in it. I prefer that if Friends who are young want to be adult Quakers, they get to work on that; the “young” part will soon enough dissipate, regardless. Some further thoughts on this subject, and advices for “YAFs,” traveling or not, is in this blog postL

      2. Chuck, like Ashley and you I am sure that there is value in friends considering this subject and knowing the history. The way that you have opened this conversation is quite problematic.

        I agree with the friend above that a conversation with Ashley would be a very appropriate way to voice your concerns, writing a post warning others of her and summarizing her message does not forward the conversation. I appreciate that a friend has posted her comments below and know that to be fully informed one needs to here the origin as well as the commentary.

        Chuck, if you had a written a blog about your view and knowledge about the issue your message would be stronger. However you chose to demonize a fellow friend who is standing in her truth and sharing a message from her deep grounding. Academically dismissing this is problematic, and dismissing her youth and not mentioning the gender dynamic that is at play is not okay. How is it that a man, who some may consider an elder, of the community can speak out and tear down a woman who is significantly younger and then say they do not believe there is any problem with that?

        Your message does not come from a place of hearing that of God in another Friend, it comes from some other place much darker. If I were a women under sixty, your time and actions may be enough to drive me from Quakerism, or at least silence me from speaking my truth. I doubt that you will change this way of being, but I want to tell you clearly that your voice polarizes friends, and the speed with which you lash out does not embody the holy community that I think we are seeking.

        I support the foundation of clearness committees, support committees and elders that many have spoken of here. I have seen that when faithfully carried out these bring great depth and grounding to the work of minister (recorded or not). It is worth noting that Ashley did have an elder with her.

        1. Essex-Haines 04/14/2019

          Andrew Essex-Haines, it may be further problematic for you to learn that I have studied and written and spoken on the issues and history of the recorded class among Quakers for twenty years: essays, lectures in and out of class, plus months of deep original research from which came the only two books yet published on the matter. This extended labor could indicate that I take all this seriously, which also unfortunately seems to be quite problematic for you. The fact that my work has shown the key heroes of this struggle, whom I have often lifted up, are mostly women, mostly undervalued & forgotten, could also be problematic, since I blogged about it in a way you did not like. Evidently even more problematic is the fact that I ventured to write (accurately) of what I heard in a publicly advertised, open meeting, yet one set up so that comments, questions and conversation were excluded, without having waited for somebody else’s permission. Further, I committed the grievously problematic act of believing that she meant what she said, even though I was told she was not yet aged sixty. Whatever darker place this sense of your entitlement about dictating Quaker protocol in all this comes from, it also is very problematic. And if you think my challenge to her thesis was “demonizing,” your experience with demons is, um, problematically thin. Not least, the idea that a Critical blog post would silence or drive away someone who is convinced their “prophetic calling from God” is to “uproot, pull down & destroy” much of the Society — well, that’s not only problematic but risible.
          My late mother, not a Quaker, had a fitting summary response to such a pompous litany of problematization: “Oh, Pshaw!”

          1. Chuck, I know your history, and experiance and think that there is value in hearing that. Which is why I said “Chuck, if you had a written a blog about your view and knowledge about the issue your message would be stronger.” Inactually did appreciate your history lesson about recorded ministers and recent events.

            I don’t think that your comments will stop Ashley from speaking her truth. I think you personal attack shows an example to many other women and Friends. I hear that you have held up many women in their calling and would encourage you to do that loudly and clearly (I also noticed that you chose not to name any of them). I think that recording is one part of Ashley’s message, and I think that supporting gender and sex diverse voices in Quakerism is another. Maybe your next blog post will focus on your vision of how we as unprogrammed Friends can do that.

            I do hope that you have written to the hosting institution to be sure that there is an opportunity for conversation in future events such as this. I doubt that Ashley had the opportunity to design the full nature of the event. I hope that you spend the time to hold our institutions to account in the ways that you see them threatening Friendly discourse.

            Maybe in my note I should have said, my sense of Quaker protocol or some such caveat, but I dont know that it would have made my comments any more palatable. However, i appreciate that you are interested in calling out my entitlement as an issue rather than inspecting your own.

            In closing I guess I will just say it appears that I was right when I said, “I doubt that you will change this way of being, but I want to tell you clearly that your voice polarizes friends, and the speed with which you lash out does not embody the holy community that I think we are seeking.”

          1. Why the lying Mey, Andrew? What has convinced you to lie to this group about what is right here to see? What is wrong with you? You make me very angry.

          2. You both are simply Trolls. Review what what said here. No personal attacks. Questions not answers, accurate history. Please think this kind of sharing though further before posting.

        2. Why the lying? Chuck has bent over backward to be even-handed here. Nowhere is there any demonizing. Stop it. Quiet down. Listen.

          1. Neither Andrew nor I have been anything but civil. We just haven’t been in Chuck’s “line” as have most (but not all) comments in this thread. (I’m curious too about the median ages here; I bet there’s correspondences as well.)

            I asked sincere questions that are quite relevant among liberal Friends. Andrew filled in fuller words to what I pointed out. Nothing un-friendly at our ends; just views that aren’t “centrist” to this thread.

            And it is a conversation — not a lecture. The point of Q&A. Our voices are relevant & Equal (testimony, no??).

  12. The reasons for simply not recording ministers in unprogrammed meetings are the ones that make most sense to me. I did wonder, however, after reading these responses, what credentials are necessary for a job as a hospital chaplain. (Surely someone couldn’t just carry a letter from their meeting into a job interview any more than people use an honorary doctorate to practice in a field.) I found Katherine Jaramillo’s June 1, 2010 article from Friends Journal, “Bringing the Quaker into Hospital Chaplaincy,” confirmed my suspicion that the M. Div. or similar credential is a prerequisite. Jaramillo comes from the unprogrammed bunch and writes glowingly of her degree program. I’ve been interested to notice over the years how many Friends from this tradition attend theological seminaries just because they find the studies interesting.

    1. Dee, the “credentials” matter for institutional chaplains is more complex than it looks, and the FJ article reports. Large institutions often take their signals from large denominations, where “the ministry” is considered a “learned profession” involving seminary degrees, internships and the like. However, the First Amendment prohibits the government, or its agents, from interfering with “religious expression,” including how churches prepare their “ministers,” or priests or whatever; a Friend who was “ecclesiastically endorsed” by a Meeting, using whatever specific standards they are led to, has as much legal standing as a Doctor of divinity from some expensive seminary. (After all, how many seminary degrees did Jesus have? Or Moses? Muhammad? The Buddha? George Fox? Margaret Fell?) But to make good on this technical freedom, one would likely need to have a substantial bank account with which to hire a good lawyer. For non-wealthy recent seminary grads, loaded down with student loan debt, that’s not an easy road to take. And the fact that, say hospitals, are tied in with the impossibly wealthy Medical-Pharma-Industrial-Financial-Complex, can hardly be dismissed as a recruiting factor for a generation, many of whom are accurately defined as part of a New Precariat, as far as employment goes.

      1. Wow, I didn’t know that. Thanks for the clarification. I’m glad to know how people may become chaplains, but imagining the potential results of that process is pretty scary.

  13. Thanks, Chuck, for this illuminating post; and thanks, other Friends, for your many thoughtful comments.

    One problem that I have with “recording” ministers is that the status seems to be *permanent*. Aside from extreme misdeeds, there is nothing that causes a Quaker minister, once recorded, to become “unrecorded”. And that seems to me to fly in the face of what I understand about charismatic gifts. There is a prophetic stream, available to all but only perceived by some. Those few act as the medium of our vocal ministry, sharing their best understanding of what is bubbling up from the prophetic stream. But what if that connection runs dry? Shouldn’t the person then be released from the ministry?

    Add to that the desire of some to want to be *paid* for their ministry, and you can see where the problems arise.

  14. In my forty years as a liberal Friend in a clearly Hicksite meeting I’ve had some awareness of the old practice of recording ministers; I’ve even met a few recorded ministers. I’m aware (mainly through Chuck Fager’s recent books) that a century ago the issue of recorded ministers was intertwined with select meetings, intensely hierarchical structures, temporal authority over meetings and individuals, tests of theological purity and correctness, and the power to elder or even to remove or “purge”. But liberal Friends abandoned this practice long ago.

    With this history and understanding in mind I have been interested to read about a new energy among evangelical Friends to restore the practice of recording ministers. All this is of only passing academic interest to me if this movement remains sequestered within the world of evangelical Friends. After all, they surely have the right to configure themselves in a manner that seems rightly ordered to them.

    So, it is with some interest that I read about one evangelical Friend’s “mission from God” to “uproot, to pull down, and to destroy” among liberal Friends the practice of not recording ministers.


    There is much to be concerned about here. I would begin by asserting my belief that Friends in America are not a single religious discipline. Our massive differences in both faith and practice have had us evolve into several separate religions. Just as biological evolution leads eventually to one species becoming several separate species, so it is among Friends.
    These differences in faith and practice are huge. The Richmond Declaration, the authority of the bible, the role of non-Christians, humanists, atheists and sexual/gender minorities, the peace testimony, etc., etc., etc. I feel more fellowship and unity with the Unitarian-Universalists than I do with Evangelical Friends.

    I am troubled by efforts by another someone representing another religion to try to change us; this effort seems terribly disorderly. When one religious discipline seeks to change or “pull down and destroy” another religion, the results can be calamitous.

    I’m also concerned that this strange effort to impact liberal Friends seems to have a stealth evangelical component. I glimpse elements of the Great Commission and even the Doctrine of Christian Discovery in all this. Christian right-wing evangelicals have been working in many contexts to inject their beliefs into all aspects of religious and secular life, and this effort seems to me to be similar to that. We liberal Friends are able to struggle with and discern our own structures and practices; we’ve done it well for hundreds of years; we’ll muddle through without this external guidance.

    1. I am a member of a liberal meeting and I do not agree that I am of a separate religion from pastoral friends, conservative friends, evangelical friends, or, in Ashley’s case, a semi programmed Friends meeting. Reading her actual words I see a wealth of wisdom in what she is saying, and have already shared her post widely among friends in my yearly meeting.

      My personal feeling is that we need to work at healing the rifts within the Religious Society of Friends, seek guidance and wisdom from each other, visit each other. I don’t think we need give up our unique identities, but if we are open to Spirit we will be led where we are needed and we may be surprised at what will be opened to us.

      I feel saddened about your characterization of Ashley and her words as having anything to do with the Doctrine of Discovery. My understanding is that this Doctrine is one exacted by the Catholic Church giving Christian Explorers the cover to commit acts of theft of land and genocide of indigenous peoples. And you use these words against this Friend? And Chuck replied “well said”? It is in these harsh words of yours and in Chuck’s blind acceptance thereof that I cannot recognize Quakerism in in any form (whether evangelical, liberal, pastoral, conservative) whatsoever.

  15. Thanks Jacob. I would always reserve the right to just say “fuck this shit”, to this sort of thing but am glad you are more articulate.

  16. Ok, who is Ms Wilcox, what’s her meeting, does she have a minute? Where else has she spread her message?

  17. Friends, just checked New York Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice. We record “gifts of the Spirit”. And we are quite liberal. Is there a difference between “minister” and “gifts of the Spirit “?

  18. Ashley sounds like a very nice person. I would certainly listen to her voice above many others. What more is needed and why the acrimony from —- who? —her cult followers? Steaming.

      1. It is far past time that Quakers stop dithering about with silly euphemistic silliness. My mom ( a quaker matriarch if there ever was one and a fine writer) would never have put up with some of the mealy mouthed pother we put up with in our discussion. We need to be exemplars of the truth or what the hell are we? Enough, say what you have to say —clearly, simply, and god help you —honestly.

  19. One of Ashley Wilcox’s concerns seems to be that in the absence of a formal recording process for ministers, meetings cannot provide support and accountability to Friends with those gifts. But there are other ways to achieve this. My unprogrammed meeting appoints spiritual care committees for Friends who have a leading for a particular type of ministry: vocal or otherwise.

  20. Yes, both Meetings where I’ve been/am a member always had a mechanism to help further an individual’s spiritual gifts.

    This discussion reminds me of an account given of “Old Regular Baptists Churches” here in Kentucky — the churches of the “hollers”. Each church would have a minister whose main role was to make sure people were taken care of. There would also be 5 or 6 deacons. On Sunday before service they would huddle up and come to unity on who had Spirit that morning. That’s who would give the sermon.

  21. What I heard from Ashley was several yearnings:

    – That Quakers continue to be prophetic (and thus have structures in place to support that)
    – That Quakers support those who hear the call to be prophetic and give them accountability.
    – And perhaps she is asking that Quakers *value* those who offer ministry and value the ministry they offer.

    If I read Ashley right, it isn’t recording as much as the accompany structure of support that she finds important — but (and this is my own interpretation) that recognition is part of that support.

    I wonder if Quakers have the capacity to fulfill these yearnings.

    If the capacity isn’t there, the structure isn’t going to help.

    I have my own history with this struggle and realizing that the limits of who we are fall far short of what we say we are was a shock and a grief.

    Lastly, I have to note that most of the people speaking in this conversation are men, commenting on a woman saying how it is for her as a woman. And here I am feeling like her voice isn’t being heard and paraphrasing it, which feels like the classic situation of the woman saying something and the male group not hearing it, but then being able to listen when the man speaks.

    1. Chris Parker, I think you were on to something important when you wrote:

      “I wonder if Quakers have the capacity to fulfill these [prophetic] yearnings.
      If the capacity isn’t there, the structure isn’t going to help.”

      I believe that’s about right. It certainly fits the experience of many biblical prophets; and it also fits the experience of many Quakers who acted “prophetically.”

      The history of the recording of ministers among Friends repeatedly shows that the most vocal of the “prophetic” types were very often persecuted by these very “structures.” IN fact, it is my view (ad I’m not alone in this) that the recording structures served much more to stifle prophetic challenges to the Quaker status quo.

      The example who shows this for me more than any other (tho there are others too), is Lucretia Mott. She spent decades preaching for the abolition of slavery, the elevation of the status of women (inside & outside Quakerism) ad other reforms, most of which are accepted today.
      For her trouble she had to fend off half a dozen attempts to silence and disown her, mounted by members of the various recorded establishments. Bt she was a very skillful Quaker infighter, and escaped these many attempts at suppression. Her experiences and study convinced her that the “safest” Quaker structure for Friends “prophetic” types, was that of NO recorded ministers, because t gave figures lie her the most freedom to pursue her dangerous path.

      Some commenters have suggested that the discussion on this thread is too male, implying that all ales here should shut up. I don’t buy that, because the thread is open to all. Besides, I was brought to clearness about the uselessness of the recorded class among Friends as a “support” for the prophetic types among us by the stedfast, fifty-plus year consistent witness (with lots of suffering) by a stalwart woman Friend, Lucretia Mott. I have written about this online, here:
      In this piece one cam read Lucretia’s arguments in her own words; and if one prefers to listen to her still powerful woman’s voice over mine — I wouldn’t object for a second.

  22. I do not have the time to pursue this thread in the detail it deserves, but I have a couple of basic thoughts. First, we must be careful to distinguish correlation (increasing age of “liberal” Friends and the demise of recorded ministry) with causation (the demise of recorded ministry causes an irreplaceable core group of younger “liberals” to leave). This is especially a problem if we rely on anecdotal evidence. I would like some hard facts before undermining a system of greater equality that has served to atttact many Friends who are currently involved. In brief, I remain to be convinced by Friend Wilcox’s main premise.

    Another issue is remuneration, which is a whole other can of worms… Just about any organization in OECD countries that relies on volunteers to fill crucial roles has a dearth of leadership in the thirty to fifty age range. The time crunch of this demographic is systemic and defies an easy fix. Credentialing and remuneration will help only a few people and create other problems, although a case can be made for them for hospital chaplains and similar professionals, for whom the academic requirements make some sense.

    I may or may not have the opportunity to get back to this discussion later.

  23. Wow! What a spirited dialogue.
    IMHO Ashley Wilcox’s talk was not a good way to frame the discussion. Her feminist pitch and her focus on “recording” deflected Chuck and other commentators from the more basic issue of how to nurture vital inspired spoken ministry in unprogrammed meetings.
    Pet peeve: claiming that recording does not convey a claim to preferred status while at the same time listing it as a credential in representing oneself to outside groups and organizations.
    A second pet peeve: ignoring the history of the Plymouth Brethren and the Laestadian (laplander) Lutherans ( who do not record ministers but have strong traditions of vocal ministry.

    1. Hi Bill, you’re pretty late to this party, but I guess it’s been going on in various forms for at least 170 years (to my incomplete knowledge), so whatever.

      Not long ago, I undertook to make a list of the most compelling vocal Friends ministers I had personally seen & heard In my 50+ years among Friends. It was a very short list, and the one at the top (the late Bill Kreidler, who died in 2000 of AIDS), was not, to my knowledge, ever recorded. A few others were reasonably competent, a few others were much overrated, and I soon forgot the rest. This coheres with my studies, which suggest that the office of recorded minister overall had withered and dried up internally long before it was mercifully abolished. The reasons for that need study that I don’t think has yet occurred. Particular issues aside, I’m dubious that Ashley W. is a new arrival in the compelling preacher category, at least not yet. I understand she got a grant to start a program promoting vocal ministry by women, which ended up being hers, which went on for awhile to very sparse response, and then was given up. Presumably there are other ways in which she could minister usefully, though I won’t presume to give advice about that. I remain a liberal Friend who follows my own model, namely Lucretia Mott, who was an internationally renowned minister, traditionally recorded, a member of Select Meeting, yet a vocal critic who called repeatedly for the abolition of both the role & the body and could explain why. I can explain my view also, in historical & ecclesiological context. I’ve yet to read or be part of a serious discussion of it now which took these matters into account. I wonder if I ever will.

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