To be without an ordained clergy is not to be without either leadership or ministry. The gifts of the Spirit to us include both. For us, calls to particular ministries are usually for a limited period of time, and those gifts pertain to the task rather than the person. In one lifetime a person may be called to a number of ministries.
London Yearly Meeting, 1986 (QFP 12.02)
Elders have concern for the spiritual lives of our meetings and the individuals within them but because we are increasingly diverse in our communities and our beliefs, it is difficult to find a common language to express that spiritual life. That can result in silence, or a misconception that they are trying to impose an unacceptable system of belief…
Jenny Routledge, Living Eldership
If it is true the British Friends are more open (than other Christian communities) with our wondering and questioning, we can aspire for this to be true in each of our meetings. It will not help our meeting communities if Friends ignore or discourage discourse arising from questions about God. We have to make it possible for difference – even the kind that brings with it the risk of contention – to be explored, and to continue towards understanding…
The role of eldership in building confidence will be to encourage a spirit of respect for people’s own experience and their genuine concern to find the language that embodies it. Friends from anywhere on the spectrum of belief or spiritual understanding can feel marginalised and not heard in a meeting where discussion feels too risky or it takes place in private corners only between people of like mind. If this is happening in our meeting, we will need to make opportunities for respectful and open sharing of religious experience and perspective, ensuring that Friends observe the discipline of listening with open hearts and minds.
Zélie Gross, With a Tender Hand
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.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
It is clear from these and many other passages that eldership, the care and nurture of the spiritual lives of our meetings and their members, is in itself a ministry of and in the Spirit. It can’t be anything else, or it will become an exercise in corporate self-defence, or damage limitation, and will end up hurting those it is intended to love and serve.
Love. Honestly it just seems to come down to love. Paul put love at the head of his list of spiritual fruit for a good reason – all the others seem to flow from, and depend upon, love. Perhaps the greatest act of love is to help someone to realise who they actually are, and that is a spiritual thing, since we are spiritual beings. In his first letter to the Corinthians (Chapter 13) Paul points out that whatever we try to do, if we do not have love, we will achieve nothing.
It sounds so simple… I think I sometimes forget that Paul lists love as a fruit of the Spirit. It is only in resting in the Spirit, soaking up the Spirit in worship and in our own practice, that love will come to heal and renew all our relations. Only by accepting that we do not know can we come to hear what the Spirit is saying. As Jennifer Kavanagh wrote, “We may not know what, how or why, but our not knowing may co-exist with a firm knowledge that! And where does that knowledge come from? It comes from a different kind of knowing. A knowing that comes from experience.” To bring our unknowing into the field of the Spirit in worship and prayer is to become open, open as Isaac Penington describes:
Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.
Surely all we can do as elders (and we are all elders in meeting!) comes from this, and comes down to this, really. To show this as love is all we can hope to do, it seems to me.