Category Archives: Eldership

Anointing

As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit – just as it has taught you, remain in him.

1 John 2.27

I have been struck by the word “anointing”. Elizabeth Bathurst (as quoted by David Johnson) wrote:

But I brought them the scriptures, and told them there was an anointing within man to teach him, and the Lord would teach them himself.

For ’tis that Spiritual Anointing that the apostle John speaks of [1 John 2.20-27], which those that have received it (and in whom it abides) needs not that any Man teach them, but as the same Anointing teacheth them all things…

We are not very used, I think, to the term among Friends today. Among charismatic Christians it is much more common, and seems to be used in both the sense of being given spiritual gifts – the New Testament “handbook” to these is 1 Corinthians 12 – and in the sense of being set aside by God for a purpose. The key passage for the latter is the beginning of Isaiah 61 (“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour…”) quoted by Jesus at the beginning of his ministry in Luke 4.18-19.

But I think Elizabeth Bathurst, following the apostle John, as she says, is using the word in a slightly different sense to either of these, and it is a sense we as Quakers should recognise. In A Quaker Prayer Life, David Johnson of Queensland Regional Meeting in Australia writes,

Many of us will also have experienced [anointing] in some small way–an experience of Divine presence that is like being gently touched, perhaps with a finger dipped in warm fragrant oil, and we feel that warmth and special inward touch, and in that moment are momentarily aware of some deep religious understanding, or of a puritying presence. That is to say, we have been anointed, and it is a sign that we have been in the eternal presence–we have known the Eternal Christ within us.

Is not much of our work in our meetings rightly directed to showing this possibility to Friends, leading them gently to recognise it in themselves, however they may choose to describe it? It is the source of our ministry, as well as our comfort, and the beginning of all our leadings; it is always to be found in silence.

What Silence Is For

It has always seemed odd to me, over the relatively short time I’ve been seriously involved with Friends, that we of all people should have run into problems over language for our experience. As David Boulton writes (God, Words and Used. Helen Rowlands)

That some believe in God and others do not, or that some understand God language as in some sense ‘factual’ while others perceive it as intensified poetry, has become a problem for Friends. But my impression is that for many others it is no problem at all. In many, many meetings up and down the country, theists and non-theists meet together, work together, support each other, without tension or any deep concern over theological difference. We share clerkships, eldership and the routine offices. We are Friends together…

I have long felt that part of our problem is in fact not theological at all, rather linguistic. As long ago as 1908 Hilda Clark wrote,

One thing I understand now is that one’s intellect alone won’t pull one through, and that the greatest service it can perform is to open a window for that thing we call the divine spirit. If one trusts to it [the intellect] alone it’s like trusting to an artificial system of ventilation – correct in theory but musty in practice. How I wish it were as easy to throw everything open to the spirit of God as it is to fresh air.

In the book I quoted from yesterday, Seeking the God Beyond: A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Apophatic Spirituality, JP Williams writes

The problem for any object of thought is that even when we grasp it, we can only say what it is like in and to our grasp – whereas when it comes to the divine, we can touch or be touched but cannot comprehend, cannot enclose the divine in our fist, cannot get our hands to circle it or our ‘heads around it’. The distinct impression we get is that it’s the other way around: we are in God’s grasp, he comprehends us. God simply won’t be ‘an object of thought’: it’s not in the power of the dividing and distinguishing intellect but in the power of desiring, tentative, unifying love, to approach the divine.

Almost more telling, at least from a Quaker point of view, is a remarkable passage Janet Williams quotes from Michael Sells’ Mystical Languages of Unsaying:

The formal denial that the transcendent can be named must in some sense be valid, otherwise ineffability would not become an issue, Insofar as it is valid, however, the formal statement of ineffability turns back upon itself, and undoes itself. To say ‘X is beyond names’, if true, entails that it cannot then be called by the name ‘X’. In turn, the statement ‘it cannot be called X’ becomes suspect, since the ‘it’, as a pronoun, substitutes for a name, but the transcendent is beyond all names… I am caught in a linguistic regress… The authentic subject of discourse [God] slips back continually beyond each effort to name or even deny its nameability.

Sells may have nailed something here that we Quakers might have seen coming long ago, and fallen into the silence “before God” for which we are known. Words fail us. Of course they do. We are only human, and words are tools of ours. Trying to apply scientific or philosophical terms to that which we encounter in worship is like trying to dig up encaustic tiles with a carpenter’s chisel – you won’t make much of an impression on the tiles, and you’ll ruin the chisel. Silence is the proper tool, and waiting is the way it’s used. Emilia Fogelklou explains as well as anyone I’ve read:

But then one bright spring day – it was the 29th of May 1902 – while she sat preparing for her class under the trees in the backyard of Föreningsgatan 6, quietly, invisibly, there occurred the central event of her whole life. Without visions or the sound of speech or human mediation, in exceptionally wide-awake consciousness, she experienced the great releasing inward wonder. It was as if the ‘empty shell’ burst. All the weight and agony, all the feeling of unreality dropped away. She perceived living goodness, joy, light like a clear, irradiating, uplifting, enfolding, unequivocal reality from deep inside.

The first words which came to her – although they took a long time to come – were, ‘This is the great Mercifulness. This is God. Nothing else is so real as this.’ The child who had cried out in anguish and been silenced had now come inside the gates of Light. She had been delivered by a love that is greater than any human love. Struck dumb, amazed, she went quietly to her class, wondering that no one noticed that something had happened to her.

In worship there is an encounter which does not yield, cannot yield, to words. Meister Eckhart knew this, and used the term istigkeit, isness, which is perhaps as good as we can can get.

Quakers and others are sometimes frustrated when they attempt to read Scripture, especially the New Testament, and find a lack of exactitude, a sense of not being able to pin down, what the authors are getting at. (In the Old Testament this more often shows itself in endless apparently irrelevant or even objectionable histories and legalities, or impenetrable apocalyptic prophecies.)  But the Bible doesn’t set out, despite the things fundamentalists sometimes say, to do science or philosophy. Its many authors – who lived in societies and among traditions very different from our own – are merely trying to give an account of an encounter, that is all, or of the effect that encounter has had on them. Quaker ministry sometimes tries to do a similar job…

In meeting for worship, and in the practice of eldership that defines and protects our meeting, Quakers have developed a practice which is uniquely capable of understanding the apophatic (that is, of knowledge of God, obtained through negating concepts that might be applied to God), of sharing it, and of living out its consequences in relationship and action. We sometimes fail to realise the importance of this:

In silence, without rite or symbol, we have known the Spirit of Christ so convincingly present in our quiet meetings that his grace dispels our faithlessness, our unwillingness, our fears, and sets our hearts aflame with the joy of adoration. We have thus felt the power of the Spirit renewing and recreating our love and friendship for all our fellows. This is our Eucharist and our Communion.

London Yearly Meeting, 1928

Reading Quaker faith & practice Ch. 4

Do you take part as often as you can in meetings for church affairs? Are you familiar enough with our church government to contribute to its disciplined processes? Do you consider difficult questions with an informed mind as well as a generous and loving spirit? Are you prepared to let your insights and personal wishes take their place alongside those of others or be set aside as the meeting seeks the right way forward? If you cannot attend, uphold the meeting prayerfully.

Quaker faith & practice 1.02: Advices & queries 15

Recently, I seem to have become something of an area meeting addict. I don’t think it’s that I have become an overnight Quaker governance geek – I still blench at much of the language of Qfp Chapter 4, and the layers of standing committees, subcommittees and working groups that characterise many area meetings still cause a slight numbness to creep over the edges of my mind. No, I think it’s more that, largely through my experience as an accompanying elder for area meeting, I have come to appreciate something of the spiritual dimension.

Strangely, perhaps, this spiritual dimension of area meeting doesn’t seem to me to be limited to AM’s role in providing a framework of governance within which the local meetings can hold their worship in peace and good ordering, but extends out into unseen spiritual community of which we are all part. As Qfp 4.01 states,

Until 2007 area meetings were known as monthly meetings. The change was made to give more emphasis to the area meeting as a spiritual community rather than a regular event, and in the interests of accuracy because many monthly meetings no longer met monthly.

We are beings of matter and beings of spirit: the two aspects of us cannot be separated, and one is not superior to, nor more fundamental than, the other. Our decisions, our mechanisms of governance even, do have real spiritual weight; our prayerful upholding really does help carry that weight out into the space that worship makes in our hearts and in our intentions – into, if you will, the discerned will of God.

Preserved ministry: Reading Qfp Ch. 1

How can we make the meeting a community in which each person is accepted and nurtured, and strangers are welcome? Seek to know one another in the things which are eternal, bear the burden of each other’s failings and pray for one another. As we enter with tender sympathy into the joys and sorrows of each other’s lives, ready to give help and to receive it, our meeting can be a channel for God’s love and forgiveness.

Quaker faith & practice 1.02: Advices & queries 18

This month it has fallen to me to choose and read Advices & queries. Last Sunday this one, no. 18, showed itself to me, reminding me that these Advices & queries are “not a call to increased activity by each individual Friend but a reminder of the insights of the Society.” It is as a community that they are discerned, and it is as a community that we read them, and listen for how they might affect each of us personally. In that sense, they’re a bit like preserved ministry.

Most of our words for the process of preserving things have somehow come to have negative connotations when it comes to using them as metaphors for the human condition. People are frozen in horror, pickled in an excess of alcohol, their sympathies dried up, stale and unprofitable. But I remember from the days when I kept a large vegetable garden that preserving was a joyful sort of a process: slicing and salting the runner beans, shelling and freezing down pod after pod of peas and broad beans, lifting and bagging the main crop potatoes, stringing up the onions to dry. I loved all that.

These Advices & queries, then, bits of preserved ministry, have kept their goodness over the years, and only require opening up, rinsing through, and they’re as good and nourishing as the day they were bottled. This, no. 18, is a particularly sustaining one. It seems to wrap up all the comfortable strengths of eldership and oversight into these few sentences…

Holding…

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…

Reading Quaker Faith & Practice Ch. 12 – final thoughts

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.

Craig Barnett, ‘Spiritual Eldership‘, on the Transition Quaker blog

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.

Galatians 5.22-23

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.

QFP 26.70

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.

Reading Quaker Faith & Practice Chapter 12

Loving care is not something that those sound in mind and body ‘do’ for others but a process that binds us together. God has made us loving and the imparting of love to another satisfies something deep within us. It would be a mistake to assume that those with outwardly well-organised lives do not need assistance. Many apparently secure carers live close to despair within themselves. We all have our needs…

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…

With our structure, we risk failures in understanding and transmitting our tradition, and failures in pastoral care. We do not always adequately support one another. When we appoint people to carry out tasks for us, there is a danger of approaching this in too secular a way… We can and must pray for them to receive the necessary gifts and strength from the Spirit.

Quaker Faith & Practice 12.0112.03

Coming, as Susan and I did last year, from an area meeting with traditional roles for elders and overseers, into one where corporate eldership and oversight are practised, brings an oddly different perspective. These words carry greater weight than they appeared to when I first read them, and the sense that one needs to be faithful to one’s own gifts is that much keener. As the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” (1 Corinthians 12.4-6)

I am only just beginning to learn what it means to share the responsibilities of eldership and oversight as a community. The process is one of continual learning, of building upon lived experience: we are not working towards a time when arrangements are settled, and Friends can sit back and let things progress along well-worn tracks. Each of us must watch for the others, as we are watched for ourselves. Only the Light can show each of us where the path is taking us, and this calls for faith. Change and uncertainty are all we can be sure of, and we rely on the Spirit, rather than tradition, or on the structures of our roles and responsibilities.

Change and uncertainty extend too to the words we use to describe our journey to ourselves and to each other. One of the glories of being human seems to be our uniqueness, the quality we share with all creatures of being individually different though recognisably members of the same species. If we are faithful to our defining Quaker insight of “that of God” in each of us, we will have to recognise that our perceptions and experiences of that will be as various as the people who have them. As Zélie Gross writes,

The way forward lies in having confidence in our ability to to live creatively with difference and to learn from it, which is a much more resilient and enduring kind of strength.

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…

Where pastoral and spiritual care are shared across the meeting, as in ours, there is at least the potential, given sufficient faith and courage among Friends, for this kind of creative living to be grow and be nurtured, rather than depending upon the gift of open-mindedness in one or a few Friends in particular roles.

Living by faith is a great adventure, possibly the adventure of being human; and though we may be called to do things as apparently absurd as walking on water, the Spirit is faithful, and will, if we trust, lead us precisely as we come to “know one another better in things that are eternal as in things that are temporal.” (OFP 3.02)