A few years ago I travelled with a group of Friends and others from the Campaign Against Arms Trade to the BAE Systems AGM at Farnborough. The aim of the trip was to protest the company’s supporting of repressive regimes in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and elsewhere through arms sales and unethical business practices, by means of what CAAT described as ‘[f]orensic questioning combined with high farce’.
All through the planning meetings, and on the train to Farnborough, I was deeply unsettled, and unclear about my own involvement. I was entirely in agreement with CAAT’s objectives, and yet I could neither see myself in the role of questioner, nor in the organised catcalling and general lunacy of the ‘high farce’ brigade.
Once the meeting commenced, though, I found I dropped into silence at the edge of a block of seating, and remained alert but silent throughout the proceedings. I found myself, to my surprise, holding in the Light not only my fellow CAAT supporters, but the BAE Systems board members, the security staff, and everyone else involved as well. I listened to every word, every exchange, with rapt attention, and watched as security ejected eight of the most vocal catcallers, and as each person – CAAT member or BAE shareholder – stood to ask their question. In fact, I was holding the space for the AGM, and for all who took part, without judgement, without influence, without prejudice and without even the desire for some particular outcome. Those things happened (I found to my immense amazement) without my willing them. In fact, I discovered I was unable to will; I was there purely as a channel, an aerial if you will, for the ground of being in which we all were held, and from which we and all else had come.
A few days ago our Area Meeting held a residential weekend on eldership, using material from Jenny Routledge’s book, Living Eldership, and from her Being Friends Together resource. Using Jenny’s material, of course, brought us up against the concept of accompaniment, which she had encountered so powerfully during her time at Pendle Hill. As Jenny writes,
Recently the practice of an elder accompanying a travelling minister has resurfaced. Jan Hoffman’s travelling ministry in the States has led to a resurgence of accompanying elders, bringing a mutual growing in the Spirit for the minister and the elder, and growth in the power of the resulting ministry. Those who travel in this way speak of a deeply spiritual friendship which results from ‘knowing each other in that which is eternal’…
For those experiencing accompanying eldership as minister, elder or as a member of the meeting, the presence of the elder makes a significant difference. Those who ministered spoke of their sense of being upheld and of being able to go deeper ministry coming closer to their true calling. Those who accompany them also experience a rich and rewarding journey in which they learn much. One Friend expressed what she had gained: ‘My conclusion to the group was that I felt that upholding is really about trust – trusting the process, trusting the Spirit, trusting each other and trusting ourselves.’
Members of meetings for learning at which accompanying elders were present have spoken of being taken to a different level by their presence. An accompanying elder often transforms what might be described as a secular presentation or workshop into true ministry. Helen Gould’s account of being accompanied by an elder vividly illustrates her ministry in delivering the Backhouse Lecture: ‘I found that I was able to pray that I would speak all and only what I was given to speak, and that the worshipers/listeners would receive benefit. From that moment I was not actually aware of myself. I’m not sure how to put this at that point I was, I believe, simply a channel for God’s love.’
It had not really been clear to me that my experience at Farnborough was an experience of accompanying eldership, but of course that’s precisely what it was. In section 21 of Living Eldership, Jenny Routledge quotes a Friend, Angela Kyte, who stepped into the role of her accompanying elder on a clerking course at Woodbrooke:
I kept a journal as a reference tool, and to help me clarify my own role. I felt the most important thing was to trust the process, and to maintain the intention to succeed, although I still had no clear idea of what success might look like…
Like Angela Kyte, I too had the opportunity to experience being an accompanying elder for our Area Meeting on the Sunday. The sense I had had at the BAE Systems AGM, of precise alertness, and a kind of actinic clarity, was there again, in perhaps even greater measure, now that I was aware of what was going on. Once again, I found myself holding the space, and within that even my own person, with his reactions and his prejudices, was held just like the Friends at the table and throughout the room. To give oneself to the process, however little understood, seems to be all that’s required. The rest becomes a matter of presence and attention only; the love that underlies the intention, that indeed underlies the meeting and all else, is enough.
It will be interesting, and more than interesting, to see where this goes. Angela Kyte’s suggestion of a journal is perhaps particularly good. Whether the practice of accompanying eldership will be as transformative for area meeting as it has been for me remains to be seen(!); and whether the practice will spread across our local meetings, or become ‘standard equipment’ for area business meetings, is by no means clear. In this all I can do is wait, and trust the Spirit – for myself, I am fascinated to see how things work out in the months to come…