Friday, 8 April 2016

Spiritual Eldership

“Some Friends, whether called elders or not, have been looked to for spiritual counsel from the beginning. So in 1653 William Dewsbury proposed that each meeting should appoint ‘one or two most grown in the Power and the Life, in the pure discerning of the Truth’ to take responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the meeting and its members.”
Quaker faith & practice 12.05

Reading chapter 12 of Quaker faith & practice, one could gain the impression that eldership is primarily yet another administrative function within the Quaker meeting. There is a long list of responsibilities, but relatively little reflection on eldership as a spiritual gift and ministry.

Quaker eldership is just one expression of the vital ministry of nurturing the life of the soul, which is recognised in many religious traditions, and which can take place wherever the gift of spiritual eldership is accepted and exercised. Spiritual eldership may take place through formal appointment to a Quaker role, or informally through our relationships with the Friends and others who act as spiritual accompaniers, guides and nurturers throughout our lives. Reflecting on my own history, I realise how blessed I have been to receive the gift of spiritual eldership from so many people, and how essential it has been in my life. Some of these 'spiritual elders' have been Quakers, but most are people from other traditions who have supported my own confused searching over many years.

As I have served my area meeting as an elder, I have experienced the privilege of being invited to listen to Friends’ struggles and leadings, the joys of spiritual awakening as well as their disappointments, frustrations and hurts. Whenever I am invited into someone’s life in this way, I am profoundly conscious of the great responsibility and trust involved in the exercise of eldership.

The ministry of eldership is a spiritual gift, a calling and a challenge. It is this gift and calling that we aim to recognise through the appointment of elders for our area meetings, but it can be received and exercised by anyone, whether or not they are formally appointed. It is the calling to make oneself available as a midwife to the soul, a mothering and fathering of the inner life of another person, through attentive and compassionate listening.

Exercising the ministry of eldership does not mean setting oneself up as a spiritual teacher. The most crucial insight of the Quaker way is that the Teacher is within. There is a vital role for the teaching of Quaker practices within our meetings, but the aim of all of our practice is to come to the Inward Teacher and Guide. None of us can teach another person how to live, or know how the Spirit is leading them. The spiritual elder does not point the way, but simply by listening reminds their Friend that they already have a reliable source of inward guidance, and encourages them to put their trust in it.

The ministry of eldership also nourishes and re-affirms our covenant with each other as members of a Quaker community. Where eldership is faithfully practised, with tenderness and in response to a calling of the Spirit, it fosters relationships of mutual nurture and accountability within the meeting. Eldership is a reminder that we are not alone, but members of a community who participate in a shared commitment to discern and follow divine leadings. In a Quaker community, each of our individual talents and leadings are part of the Spirit’s gift to the whole meeting. We belong to each other, are responsible for each other, and also accountable to each other for the faithful discernment and exercise of our leadings in spoken ministry, Quaker service and testimony.

This relationship of mutual accountability and nurture in a Quaker meeting is profoundly countercultural. It challenges the dominant culture’s assumption that we are all isolated individuals who are not answerable to anyone else. This assumption is so widespread among Friends that it often leads to a suspicion of eldership as a form of inequality or hierarchy.

The role of Quaker eldership has certainly been abused in some times and places. There are undoubtedly meetings in which some elders have caused great hurt by assuming the right to suppress or manipulate others. In our current Quaker culture though, these failings are readily identified and challenged. It is far more common for contemporary Friends to fail in the exercise of eldership through a timid reluctance to engage with the calling and responsibility that is laid on them by the whole area meeting. We are too often afraid to do anything for fear of being accused of elitism or authoritarianism. In this way, our commitment to mutuality and community can be undermined. Without the confident exercise of eldership to encourage mutual listening and accountability, a few especially assertive Friends can easily come to dominate the worship or decision-making of the community. The needs and insights of newcomers or less dominant Friends can be neglected, in the absence of elders who are prepared to actively include and support them.

This is the challenge of the calling to spiritual eldership. It can attract criticism and conflict, and requires the courage to be faithful to the responsibility laid on elders by the community. Exercised faithfully and with humility, eldership can also be a joyful opportunity to nurture our communities, and to be invited into our Friends’ lives, to wonder with them at the miracle of divine life that is present within each person.

How have you experienced spiritual eldership in your life, whether in a Quaker meeting or some other context? Is there someone who has acted as a 'midwife to your soul'?

This post is a response to the 'Reading Quaker faith & practice' project of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group, which aims to encourage a national conversation about how Quaker faith & practice speaks to us and how it serves us as a Yearly Meeting. The full calendar of readings for use by local meetings, writers and individual Friends is available here.

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"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)