Two Quaker bloggers, RichardM and Liz Opp, have recently posted essays about the rôle of the elder in the Religious Society of Friends.
Richard’s essay was the first to appear. In it, he wrote that “Real eldering requires a gift of the Holy Spirit and must be Spirit led. I know what real eldering sounds like and the voice is gentle but authoritative. It is more often positive and encouraging than discouraging. Eldering is a gift that some have and others don’t.”
This doesn’t say outright, but it certainly suggests, that a real elder is one who has that special spiritual gift that makes “real eldering” possible: a gift that not everyone gets to possess, and that involves being a conduit through which the Spirit itself counsels individuals.
Liz’s essay appeared two days later. After summarizing Richard’s understanding and ascribing it to “many Friends” (not just Richard), Liz expressed concern that it was too narrow, and that its narrowness “endanger[s] the traditional rôle of elder. Elders,” she wrote, “have other functions too” — such as “helping ground the meeting” in worship, and overseeing the general condition of the meeting.
Liz contradicted Richard’s assertion that elders accompany traveling ministers on their journeys. But she agreed with his basic point that elders are definable by the special gifts they possess: “Elders have certain gifts,” she wrote, and continued in that same vein for some sentences more.
Now, I’m a tad disturbed by this business about the special giftedness of elders. It’s certainly a romantic view of Quakerism — wow! look at all these gifted men and women in it! And I don’t want to denigrate the genuine people skills to which it points. But this view of elders as specially gifted people ascribes something to them that, in fact, is not required of them, and that many of them simply don’t possess. And in doing so, it also aggrandizes them — in a way that I think would have made earlier Friends quite uncomfortable.
I’m also a bit dismayed by the assertions of both parties that “this is the traditional understanding of the matter”, since neither Richard’s description of elders, nor Liz’s, matches the actual traditional view as given in Quaker writings from George Fox’s day down to the mid-twentieth century.
Thinking that these points would be easy ones to address in comments on Richard’s and Liz’s blog sites, I turned to my library of Quaker books, and received another shock: There’s not one modern Quaker tome in my (fairly extensive) collection that does a decent job of describing what elders were and did and meant in traditional Quakerism.
In fact, the current books of discipline of some major liberal yearly meetings, such as Philadelphia, New England and Pacific, barely even mention the word “elder”. You’d never know, from reading them, what the traditional elder in our Society was like.
This is regrettable. I don’t think you can really understand traditional Quakerism at all, if you don’t understand the place of elders and overseers in it, and the reasons why they were given that place.
The lack won’t be an easy one to remedy in a journal entry, either. What follows will only scratch the surface. But let me trot out some of the key early writings on the matter, and talk a bit about what these things have to say.
The idea of appointing elders began, among Friends, as a way of guaranteeing that certain tasks would be taken care of — more or less the same tasks that in New Testament times were done by presbyters and deacons.
Friend Wilmer Cooper, in his book A Living Faith (second edition, 2001), reminds us that Friends were designating elders as far back as the early 1650s, which is to say, the first decade of the movement. For a time the terms “elder” and “overseer” were interchangeable, and the same group was expected to perform both functions. The rôle of overseer began to be differentiated from the rôle of elder, however, in the 1690s.
The first known document setting out the rôle and duties of an elder or overseer among Friends, was a general letter by William Dewsbury, one of the great early Quaker leaders, written in 1653, for the express purpose of establishing a designated body of elders among Friends.
Dewsbury’s letter had the backing of George Fox, who subscribed it (signed his own name below Dewsbury’s). And it remained influential among Friends for centuries — for instance, being reprinted by the Quaker leaders William Evans and Thomas Evans in their own influential essay, “Institution of the Discipline”, in 1837.
Here’s what Dewsbury wrote, then, in the form in which Evans and Evans reprinted it. For convenience, I am going to number the sentences, so that we can refer back to them as “Dewsbury/Evans sentence such-and-such” — “D/E § such-and-such”.)
That in every particular meeting of Friends, there be chosen from among you, one or two who are most grown in the power and life, and in the pure discernment in the Truth, to take the care and charge over the flock of God in that place.
And you who are chosen, watch over the flock of God, you to whom is committed the charge and care; and take the oversight thereof, not by constraint but willingly, not for filthy lucre but of a ready mind.
I charge and command you in the presence of the living God, not to rule as lords over God’s heritage, but in the power of the Spirit in all purity.
Be examples to the flock, and see that order be kept in the church, in constant meeting together, according to the rule that hath been given forth, that is to say, once a week, or more, if it may be, besides the First-day meeting.
And you are to have a general meeting with other Friends near you, once in two or three weeks, as the Lord orders and makes way.
Be not slack and backward, but faithful to the Lord, in improving every opportunity for Friends to meet; and, in every town where Friends are scattered, lay the charge and care on some Friends the most grown in the Truth, to see that they meet together to wait on the Lord three or four hours, as the Lord orders it, one night or two in the week.
Watch over one another with a pure, single eye, to see that those who come amongst them, walk orderly, according to what they profess.
And if any walk disorderly, those to whom the care and charge is committed, or any other who discerns them, and is moved to speak to them, to deal plainly with them in reproving them, ministering to that which is pure in the conscience, for the restoring of them.
But, if they will not reform, acquaint two or three more who are most grown in the Truth, or you to whom the charge and care of the flock is committed, with the other that did admonish them in tender bowels of love, to admonish them; and, with plainness of speech, minister to that which is pure in their consciences, to raise up the Witness, and to judge and cut down the deceit; that their souls may be saved and their nakedness covered.
But if they still walk in disorder, when the church is met together, reprove them openly; and if still they do not reform, but walk in their filthiness, when the church is met together, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, charge them to depart from amongst you.
So, cast them out, and have no union with them, not so much as to eat with them, until they reprent, and turn to the Lord, and walk in obedience to that which is pure.
If they do this, then receive them again: but if they still walk on in the stubbornness of their wills, and do not bend to that which is pure in their consciences, keep them forth, that no filthy person dwell in the house of God.
Then will the blessing of the Lord God be with you.
And see that there be not any in outward want in the church, and that all walk orderly in their places and callings.
And if any root of bitterness spring up in any, which causeth strife in their minds one against another, as soon as you know of it, call such before you and examine the matter strictly; and stand in the wisdom and power of God to guide you to judge the cause, and end it in righteousness.
But if the cause be hard for you to discern, and the measure you are grown to cannot discern betwixt the parties, I charge you, and command you, not to be hasty in the cause before you, to order it in your doubtful and dark minds: “for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.”
But send for some who are more grown in discerning, to judge the cause and end it in righteousness.
Then will deceit be judged, and strife kept out, and the innocent set free to serve the Lord: and your union will be in Christ Jesus, where you will bring forth fruit, abiding in him, and through his blood you shall overcome the world in you and without….
The eternal, pure, Spirit of the most high God, rest upon you, whom he hath chosen to watch over his flock … and furnish you with courage and with boldness and pure wisdom to rule in the power of his Spirit, to cut down all deceit, and to wash the disciples’ feet, in bowing to the pure in the least appearance; and ministering to it, to strengthen the desire raised up towards the name of the Lord….
Then will you have unity together in that which is pure, eternal, begotten of God….
Please note the general thrust of this letter. It’s set out in the first sentence: these people are to have “care and charge over the flock of God” in a particular place.
They’re to be the people in charge, their job description consists of a list of things that people in charge would naturally be expected to do, and there’s no mincing of words about it.
No doubt, many of you can see at a glance how this directive mixed the duties of elders with what we now see as the separate duties of overseers.
In fact, it doesn’t seem all that clear that these two sets of duties ever should have been separated. Just looking at our own local meetings, we can see how the problems that arise in our worship and ministry (the problems that are the province of elders) are often interlinked with problems that the worshipers and ministers are wrestling with in their private lives (the problems that are the province of overseers). And whenever these two sets of problems are so interlinked, the tangle really has to be dealt with as a whole.
There were good reasons for dividing this set of duties in the way that Friends eventually divided them, between two groups, the elders and the overseers. The main reason was that, otherwise, the single committee responsible for both types of work would be overburdened with duties. Another, lesser reason was that dividing the work gave more people an opportunity to involve themselves in the crucial work of the Society.
But Dewsbury’s letter helps us see that a single type of person was needed for both sorts of duties: someone who
is himself (or herself) very familiar with such issues and their real-life solutions,
has shown sufficient steadiness and integrity to be worthy of Friends’ trust in handling them,
has developed the detachment and perspective needed to hear of them as they arise without becoming unduly disturbed, and
has gained the strength needed to deal with such issues without becoming faint of heart
— or as Dewsbury puts it, someone who is “grown in the power and life, and in the pure discernment in the Truth” (D/E §1).
And this insight, as to what qualifies Friends for eldership, is important for us here because it demystifies the matter.
We can see that in Dewsbury’s (and Fox’s) estimation, an elder is not someone who has charismatic gifts beyond the measure of ordinary mortals; he or she is simply someone who has the necessary experience, seasoning and discipline to do the job right and without transgressing.
There’s a passage in another early Quaker document, by Richard Farn(s)worth and other leading early Friends, that underscores and clarifies this point. The document is titled A Testimony from the brethren, who were met together at London in the Third Month, 1666…, and I take it from A. R. Barclay’s 1841 anthology Letters, &c., of Early Friends:
We do advise and counsel, that such as are made overseers of the flock of God by the Holy Spirit, and do watch for the good of the church, (meeting together in their respective places, to set and keep the affairs of it in good order,) to beware of admitting or encouraging such as are of weak and of little faith, to take such trust upon them; for by hearing things disputed that are doubtful, such may be hurt themselves, and hurt the Truth; not being grown into a good understanding to judge of things. …
We also advise that not any be admitted to order public business of the church, but such as are felt in a measure of the universal Spirit of Truth, which seeks the destruction of none, but the general good of all, and especially of those that love it, who are of the household of faith.
Please notice, dear readers, what this passage doesn’t say. It doesn’t say: No one can be an elder or overseer unless they display special gifts. It merely says: Don’t appoint anyone as an elder or overseer who hasn’t yet developed the strength, the faith, and the necessary understanding of Christ’s Spirit as that kindly Spirit that “seeks the destruction of none, but the general good of all”.
And, really, any Friend can develop that strength, faith, and understanding, given sufficient time and sufficient dedication to Christ’s path!
Now here again is the same point made in 1676-78 by Robert Barclay in his Apology, Proposition X, Section 26:
…There are also the elders, who … grown up in the experience of the blessed work of truth in their hearts … watch over and privately admonish the young, take care for the widows, the poor, and fatherless, and look that nothing be wanting, but that peace, love, unity, concord, and soundness be preserved in the church of Christ; and this answers to the deacons mentioned Acts vi.
Again no mention of special talents! Barclay’s concern is only that such people be properly “grown up in the experience of the blessed work of truth in their hearts”.
So let us return again to the fact that Dewsbury’s description of the work of the elder and overseer is a list of administrative duties. Let us now note that Dewsbury does not say anything along the lines of, “You elders have a special gift from God, and it is not for mere mortals to dictate the work of that gift. Go forth, O elders, and follow your special gift wherever it may take you”. And yet that would be what we’d expect him to say, if elders were defined by their special gift from God. But Dewsbury says instead, “Here is the list of duties that you must take on as elders.”
And Dewsbury repeatedly cautions the elders not to overreach these duties, or to exceed the powers that are being granted to them: don’t “rule as lords”, he says (D/E §3); don’t “be hasty in the cause before you, to order it in your doubtful and dark minds” (D/E §16), but “if the cause be hard for you to discern …. send for some who are more grown in discerning” (D/E §§16-17).
So this isn’t a vision of elders (and overseers) as charismatic judges. It’s merely a vision of elders (and overseers) as administrators and controllers with clearly defined jobs in a system.
Some important ideas about elders and overseers changed in the centuries that followed. What changed the most was Friends’ ideas about how much control over the community these two groups of people should exert.
Dewsbury and Fox originally designed the work of elders and overseers in a context where nearly everyone was a first-generation Friend, drawn to Quakerism by the promise of a community where everyone would live zealously in the Spirit of Christ, committed never to sin, committed never even to be so much as unkind to each other.
What those first Friends wanted of their Religious Society was that it be a holy order, a bit like those of the Benedictines or the Jesuits, only for Protestant householders instead of for Roman celibates. This was not an unusual expectation in that time; the Amish and Mennonites wanted the same thing of their communities.
And in such a context, it made sense to place such powers and controls as Dewsbury describes in the hands of a designated body of the faithful. Such powers and controls were needed in order to keep weaker members of the community from going astray.
So the people into whose hands these powers and controls were given — the people appointed to be elders and overseers — were people who had displayed the highest degree of commitment to the high ideals of Quakerism: the ideals of never sinning, of being just, transparent, accountable, and never ever unkind. They were chosen on this basis, so that they could be trusted to use the controls they were given as well as any human might, in the service of the high Voice that spoke in Friends’ hearts and consciences.
As the generations passed, though, and Quakerism entered its middle period, the ardor and commitment of Friends declined, and their hunger for a community of saints declined as well.
At this point, most ordinary Friends became more and more inclined to be just ordinary people living in a Quaker variation on ordinary ways. But the Friends community still wanted its elders and overseers to be a counterbalance to this tendency, and so it picked, for elders and overseers, those who were most zealous for the old ways. This created an unintentionally unhealthy situation, in which the desires of the elders and overseers were powers increasingly at odds with the desires of the ordinary members of the community.
Moreover, the elders and overseers, in this middle period of Quakerism, were generally chosen for commitment and conformity to the established rules of Quakerism, rather than for any deeper spiritual seasoning they had acquired.
Things that early Friends knew clearly, got forgotten in this middle period.
One of the important original expectations of elders and overseers had been that they be Friends of sufficient experience to have some understanding of the conditions of others, so that they would make good counsellors — that they be “grown into a good understanding to judge of things”, as the Farn(s)worth letter puts it. Another expectation — again in the terms of the Farn(s)worth letter — had been that elders and overseers understand clearly that the Spirit desires “the destruction of none” and “the general good of all”. In the middle period of Quakerism, these wise expectations were forgotten, giving way to the far lesser expectation that the elders and overseers just be conformers and enforcers of conformity.
Thus the elders and overseers slowly ceased to perform their duties in the manner that the community, and the movement, really needed.
The elders’ and overseers’ control rose to a peak in the eighteenth century — first in Ireland, where Joseph Pike led the charge against backsliding Friends, and then, later, in the American colonies. But then new, secular liberal values began infecting Friends in the nineteenth century, values emphasizing the right of the individual to think for herself and choose her own path. And as these values grew stronger, the original vision of Quakerism as an ordered religious Society began to lose its hold on Friends’ imaginations.
Now Friends began challenging the control of their elders and overseers, and diminishing their elders’ and overseers’ powers again. This happened first among the Hicksites and lesser splinter groups, sometimes even in the form of shouting matches, to the express horror of their opponents the Orthodox. But later in the century, it also happened among the more liberal Orthodox Friends, the group that Rufus Jones belonged to. And finally it happened even among Conservatives and Evangelicals.
Still, aside from this gradually changing view of the degree of control that such people ought to possess, Dewsbury’s basic ideas about the rôles and functions of elders and overseers survived pretty much unchanged all the way down to World War II — and in some places, longer than that.
I’ve mentioned that Evans and Evans reprinted Dewsbury’s letter in 1837 — and it was in the opening section of the opening volume of their prestigious multi-volume series The Friends’ Library. From this advantageous position, Dewsbury’s letter came to exert a renewed influence on another four generations of Quaker readers in the Orthodox (Wilburite and Gurneyite) world.
All through the nineteenth century, the descriptions of elders and overseers in official statements from Friends bodies continued to express the same basic understandings. As liberal attitudes strengthened, Friends adjusted their descriptions of the elders’ and overseers’ duties accordingly. But — for instance — in 1931 we find the London Yearly Meeting Revision Committee still saying:
The primary duties of elders are to seek for true discernment in respect to offerings in the ministry, and to be loving and faithful in the exercise of that discernment; to be diligent in spiritual travail and prayer for those on whom the ministry of the word devolves; to sympathize with them in seasons of conflict and discouragement….
It is [the elder’s] part also to consider how far the varied needs of the congregation are met by a corresponding variety in the vocal ministry, so that all may be alike edified by the due exercise of a diversity of spiritual gifts. In this service he may at times be called upon to consider prayerfully, in consultation with his fellow elders, whether any Friends, in younger or older life, are failing to offer such service as they may be qualified to render, and, if this appear to be the case, lovingly to urge upon such a faithful obedience to the voice of the Divine Guide within the heart.
And this is of course still just a list of administrative duties —indeed, still pretty much the same list that the earliest Friends went by — only now expressed more mildly, because Friends had by this time lost patience with life under the control of their elders.
Thus all the way down to roughly World War II (and in some places longer), all through the period which we think of as “traditional” Quakerism, “elders and overseers” just meant people who’d been given certain specific administrative duties — not necessarily people with any special gifts.
And indeed, especially in the smaller Friends communities, most of the elders and overseers were very ordinary people just trying to fulfill their responsibilities as best they could.
So where did this idea come from, that elders aren’t just ordinary Friends entrusted with certain specific tasks, but are rather a set of special people with special charismatic gifts?
I see two processes involved.
First, Friends discovered early in their history that elders and overseers wouldn’t be effective in their work unless they were respected, and wouldn’t be respected unless they were good examples. In Dewsbury’s letter we already see him telling the people who would be elders, “Be examples to the flock.” (D/E §4).
Three generations later, in 1722, we find Joseph Pike, the Quaker reformer, spelling out in his autobiography a primary reason why being an example is important:
…Let me add a caution to all ministers and elders, to take great care of any undue liberty in words or behaviour, before such as are young and tender in the Truth, whether in youth or riper age; for the newly convinced are very sharp in observation; and if they observe anything, whether it be in … words … or in behaviour, which they think not agreeable to that solidity the Truth leads into, it is apt to stumble or confuse them. We find, the great apostle Paul was very tender over those who were young and weak, and denied himself of lawful things, lest he should offend them, and said, though all things were lawful, yet all things were not expedient.
By 1806, the importance of elders’ being good examples had become so clear that Philadelphia Yearly Meeting made it the focus of a set of queries and advices:
…Are ministers and elders careful to attend meetings for divine worship, bringing their families with them. Do they diligently attend meetings for discipline, encouraging such of their families to this duty as are of proper age, and suitable deportment?
…Are the lives and conversation of ministers and elders clean and blameless among men: are they in unity one with another, and with the meeting they belong to, harmoniously labouring together for truth’s honour?
…Are they good examples in uprightness, temperance and moderation; and careful to train up their families in plainness of dress and simplicity of manners, becoming our religious profession?
…It is earnestly and affectionately recommended, that ministers and elders watch over one another for good, to help those who are exercised in the ministry in the right line, discouraging forward spirits that run into words without life and power, advising against affectation of tones and gestures, and every thing that would hurt their service; yet encouraging the humble careful traveller; “speaking a word in season to them that are weary.”
And let all dwell in that which gives ability to labour successfully in the church of Christ, adorning the doctrine which they deliver to othars, being examples of the Believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in truth, and in purity.
Now, the assiduous practice of any discipline such as this has a real tendency to change a person’s character.
It doesn’t do much good if one is only trying to conform to outward rules, of course. But if one is really trying to be a good example of such broader virtues as “harmonious labour”, righteousness, and mercy, God is likely to bless one’s efforts with the reward of a spiritual alteration, so that one actually becomes more and more like the person that one has been striving to behave as.
So as a person active in the eldership (or the overseership, or the ministry) works year after year for fifteen or thirty years at the difficult personal practices of humility, integrity, kindness and understanding, and at learning to say the right thing in the right way to newer Friends, she or he is likely to turn slowly, gradually, into a fairly awesome figure.
Great Quaker elders, then, were made by dint of sustained practice and struggle on the heavenward path, and of their own willingness to yield to the lessons of the Spirit along the way. Anyone willing to put in the necessary practice and struggle and do the necessary yielding-up can grow in this same way. It was never a path restricted to the specially gifted, but rather, a path open to anyone who would be willing to hold herself to it. (And there are some wonderful stories of initially unprepossessing folks who did grow, by following this path, into great Quaker elders!)
But anyone who grows long enough along such lines is likely to wind up being a moving and awe-inspiring figure in the eyes of younger seekers. And it is only inevitable, then, that some such younger seekers will begin to imagine that the old Friend is someone born with some sort of special gifts.
And this, I think, is one cause of the romantic view of elders as specially gifted people.
The other cause is related, but it is something that really only came into play as elders and overseers were deprived of their former control over the community.
For though they now lacked power, these people still had the task of dealing with disorderly members and attenders. So they needed to develop different methods of eldering — methods that would work in situations where they were now powerless.
And this was the cause of a renewed interest in that “gentle but authoritative voice” that Richard wrote of, as well as being the cause of a much-renewed desire to act only insofar as they had the clear leading, and the clear backing, of the Holy Spirit.
It’s not as if no Quaker elder had ever exercised that “gentle but authoritative voice”, and that total reliance on the leading of the Spirit, prior to World War II. One thinks of Pike and Woolman, who were famed for both attributes.
But in the records of the nineteenth century, one can find many complaints from Friends who felt that elders and overseers relied too much on authority without gentleness, and on rigid human rules instead of the Spirit. And when elders and overseers were deprived of power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such reliance on authority and rigid rules became impossible. Elders and overseers had to find their way to a purer reliance on gentleness and the Spirit than most of them had ever known.
So, far from being characteristic of “traditional” eldering, these methods are actually more characteristic of the newly-powerless elders of the twentieth century.
The art of reaching people when one is powerless, is a wonderful art, and it’s an amazing thing to witness. It is very likely to strike onlookers as something “I could never do; it takes a specially gifted person to do it.” In fact this is not true; anyone can learn to do it. Learning to do it does take work! It requires a combination of long habituation to utter dependence on God, with practice, practice, practice in certain basic interpersonal skills. Gandhi taught his followers ways to do it. People were taught ways to do it in the 1950s and 1960s in civil rights movement workshops. The Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) teaches ways to do it. I myself teach ways to do it in my witness workshops. But the misunderstanding, that “I could never do it,” still persists.
And this too contributes to the romantic view of elders as specially gifted people.
In some ways, the new developments in Quaker thinking about eldership are very healthy.
They commit us, at a whole new level, to the path of gentleness.
They teach us a heightened dependence upon God’s power instead of our own.
They elicit a new, heightened spirituality in our elders, in answer to the changing circumstances.
In other ways, though, these developments are dangerous —
For in the first place, they require elders and overseers to have skills and powers that may not be present in smaller Quaker communities.
I’ve talked with Friends from such communities, who complain either that there is no one in their meeting who can bring the group into right order, or else that there is no one skillful enough to try to bring order without being offensively heavy-handed. In the older days such heavy-handedness might not have been such a problem, because it was understood that when elders and overseers acted as cops they were only doing their job. But now the barest hint of heavy-handedness can trigger a meeting-wide crisis.
And in the second place, the new concept of eldership opens a door to the rise of cultic leaders — leaders who are perceived as having special gifts and who are therefore followed too uncritically.
This is precisely what happened in an earlier age to Quaker ministers such as James Nayler, Elias Hicks, Joseph John Gurney, and to some extent Howard Brinton, and when it happened with each of them it did the Society harm. We don’t need it happening again with our elders.
In the third place, there is the mirror-image problem: as we elevate our elders above the norm, we simultaneously downgrade ourselves. We wind up thinking, as RichardM confesses, “Oh, I can’t do Quaker duty X myself, I’m too ordinary! I need to leave such work to the specially gifted ministers and elders.”
This error overlooks the power of our own willingness to be faithful, which can and will open us up so that God can give us whatever is needed to do the job. It deprives the meeting community of our latent spiritual talents, and eventually it causes the community’s spiritual life to fade away.
Finally, this way of thinking can lead in the end to a setting up of a priesthood credited with salvific powers that the laity cannot share.
Indeed, there’s a history lesson here. I’ve said that this concept of elders is rooted in the older New Testament concepts of presbyters and deacons, and so it is. You can break out your Bible, if you desire, and find corroboration in Acts and the epistles, where presbyters and deacons are shown serving in the church in the manner of Quaker elders.
But the New Testament presbyters evolved directly into the Orthodox and Catholic priests. In fact, the very word “priest” is a corruption of that older word “presbyter”! And so, by degrees, they evolved also into the corrupt churchly power structure that the early Friends rejected. Do we really want our descendants to go that route again?
It is interesting to me that this modern shift in understanding, from seeing elders as traditionally having been simple appointed administrators in a Society designed as a strict holy order, to seeing them as “traditionally having been” specially gifted (born saints of a sort), reinforces a larger misunderstanding of what Friends are and have been.
It’s the same misunderstanding that causes many liberal Friends to imagine that you don’t have to be a member to be a Quaker — that anyone who likes can call himself a Quaker, and he’ll be one.
It’s the same misunderstanding that causes many liberal Friends to imagine that Fox’s “that of God in every one” is something that makes each person just naturally divine, rather than being the Voice in the heart and conscience that calls us to rise above our cheap impulses and act in better ways.
It’s a shift away from a Quaker cosmology in which people have to struggle to grow up out of sin and be as Christ would wish, and in which Quakerism exists as a disciplined body to strengthen its members in that struggle, toward a Quaker cosmology in which the Spirit gives people a ride, and Quakerism exists as a loose community of folks who go on the ride.
This, too, may be a danger. Or it may not! But whether it is or not is a much bigger question than can be addressed in this essay.
What is very clear to me is that our Quaker elderate (if I may call it that) is a good and useful institution when done rightly — and that, as it has often been done rightly in Quaker communities down through the centuries, it has been responsible, over that period, for helping many, many Friends to grow at least part-way toward sainthood. I heartily agree with Richard and Liz that it deserves to be nurtured and revived.
But I think it will never work properly unless we see it clearly enough to practice it aright. And we won’t see it clearly at all if we insist that true elders are people with superpowers. Such an insistence does not help the elders do their work; it only burdens them with dreadful expectations.
We’re far better off just thinking of elders as ordinary Friends like ourselves, to whom the meeting has given an administrative job that is delicate in nature, but must be done somehow, and should be done in faithfulness.
For that is the real traditional view of the matter. And besides, it’s the truth!
Response: Quaker MonasticsThanks for Marsshall's linking to my recent article. But due to technical issues I have reposted it which means his link is invalid.