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.
While the nurture of the spiritual life and responsibility for the right holding of meeting for worship continued to rest with ‘elders’, the more practical aspects of pastoral care were, towards the end of the eighteenth century, assigned to appointed ‘overseers’.
Most area meetings continue the practice of appointing elders and overseers from their membership to ensure that the needs of the worshipping groups within their compass are met.
There is much material available on eldership in Quaker Faith and Practice, and within the Quaker community generally, but as Jenny Routledge discovered when researching her book Living Eldership, there is less on actually being an elder.
Increasingly, I’m beginning to feel that the spiritual discipline of eldership is central not only to what is distinctive about Quakerism as a religious movement, but to the life of the Meeting, and ultimately to the life of each individual Quaker. Do note that I said, “the spiritual discipline of eldership”, not “elders”. Elders are important to spiritual welfare; but in the end, as a workshop participant said to Jenny Routledge, “Elders are the ones who remind us that we are all elders.”
“We are all elders…” It sounds good, but what does it mean? For a start, I think, we are each of us responsible for the spiritual life of our Meeting – all the way, eventually, to the Yearly Meeting of which we are part. We each have the opportunity to join in worship, where the presence in the silence of each of us is as vital as breathing. The coming together of Friends to worship is the engine of all that Quakers do, and its effects ripple through the world bringing peace, justice and love far beyond the walls of our meeting houses.
Spoken ministry seems to flow naturally from the silence – as Pierre Lacout says,
In silence which is active, the Inner Light begins to glow – a tiny spark. For the flame to be kindled and to grow, subtle argument and the clamour of our emotions must be stilled. It is by an attention full of love that we enable the Inner Light to blaze and illuminate our dwelling and to make of our whole being a source from which this Light may shine out.
Words must be purified in a redemptive silence if they are to bear the message of peace. The right to speak is a call to the duty of listening. Speech has no meaning unless there are attentive minds and silent hearts. Silence is the welcoming acceptance of the other. The word born of silence must be received in silence.
But much as our spiritual lives may be centred on meeting for worship, we have lives that stretch across the other six days of the week. David Johnson wrote,
A Quaker prayer life arises from a life of continuing daily attentiveness. The first generation of Quakers followed a covenant with God, based on assiduous obedience to the promptings of the Inward Light. This process did not require established churches, priests or liturgies. Quaker prayer then became a practice of patient waiting in silence.
Prayer is something to be done daily all through our lives, and not to be left till we go to Meeting for Worship once a week. Yet prayer is not easy for many of us…
(David Johnson, A Quaker Prayer Life)
As elders, we each have the tender lives of our Friends to care for, to hold in the Light. Whether we are called elders or not, each of us can help the other to grow closer to the endless stream of the Spirit flowing through all of our lives.
Harvey Gilman, whom I have quoted on this blog before, has an article on elders in the Words series in this week’s issue of The Friend, where he too discusses Jenny Routledge’s work:
In her writings on eldership, Jenny Routledge has helpfully pointed to three ways of considering the role of the elder, which may also refer to the challenge of any religious community. She mentions accompaniment, discipline and nurture. This chimes in with my experience of those people I call the elders of my life. As Friends, we talk of answering that of God in each other. We might also talk of affirming the worth of each other, eliciting an awareness of the Light within each other, walking side by side with each other, challenging each other out of our habits and our fearfulness, calling each other to be accountable for our lives and actions, pointing out that spiritual growth is a matter of discipline and discipleship, nurturing the seed of authenticity in each other – and sharing together some of the deep insights of Quaker tradition. I have been eldered in all these areas. I am profoundly grateful for this eldering.