Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
This past week, members of the Ministry and Worship and Healing and Reconciliation committees met to discuss Eldering. As our guide, we used Margery Mears Barrabee's 2007 Pendle Hill pamphlet entitled Spirit-Led Eldering. Barrabee had once been a member of our Monthly Meeting, so many of the anonymous illustrations she used to articulate her points described people and situations we might know very well.
The discussion had been prompted by earlier efforts of my committee. Earlier this year, I sought support and guidance from other Friends to Elder and experienced very mixed results. Members of Ministry and Worship differed considerable in their understanding and definition of the practice. We conceded, by the end of the experiment, that many Friends saw Eldering in punitive, harsh terms, more like an admonition or scold. These persistently negative views got in the way of even the best of intentions.
This topic was deemed important enough to reach out to the clerk of the entire Meeting. He gladly offered his services and kept us more or less on the same page for two hours. Our written text turned the concept of Eldering upside down. Instead of being a matter for a particular committee, the pamphlet encouraged every member and regular attender to be responsible for the practice. Though specific instances were noted, Barrabee deliberately left the matter open ended and somewhat imprecise.
When should an individual, committee, or group Elder, we asked? According to the author, there ought to be no established protocol or lines drawn in the sand, aside from listening intently to the guidance of God and the Spirit. We were encouraged to share our own stories of intense, powerful religious experiences and other similar instances where we felt the presence of the Divine. I have been fortunate to know God and to convene with him, which I recognize may not be the experience of those who sat in the same room I did. For Friends who seek him, I truly wish that they would keep knocking, because, as we know, the door will be opened to those who persist.
What follows are definitions of the forms that Eldering can take. I took this from an outside source.
By the conclusion of our discussion, we accepted that the definition of Eldering is much broader than any of us had ever imagined. I recognize the plight of Friends who have come from religious communities that resorted to shunning and disowning members who did not fit a narrow standard. Yet, we cannot pretend that our hands are entirely clean. Once upon a time, the Religious Society of Friends read out many members for not fitting a neatly defined protocol of what Friends were supposed to be.
In Liberal Friends circles, particularly the pendulum has now swung in the opposite direction. As has been mentioned over and over again, we are afraid of confrontation, meaning we don't Elder at all. Eldering is necessary, both to people we know quite well and those who may still be strangers. A religion like ours, which is mystical and mysterious, requires that we place authority in the hands of a supreme being for final judgment. The God I believe in can make his presence known dramatically and undeniably, or can be frustratingly distant. And again, every day I seek, knowing that I will eventually find.
I pray that others may have insight beyond themselves and their physical bodies. Any gathering of Friends must have some compass, some weighty grounding that keeps everyone on the same page. Whether we are careful to let the Spirit led us in vocal ministry or in any other pursuits, we need a tool for discernment that takes us away from the mortal and flawed.
If we make God, not humanity, our standard, Eldering need not be seen as a punishment. As we are all called to Elder, so we are all commanded to connect with a higher power. That is the only way it can and will ever work. I've seen other religious traditions collapse when the focus is placed upon good intentions devised by people. God is more powerful than we are and the only person, in my opinion, who knows what is best for us. I will try again to listen for a voice who is, in my experience, never still, nor small.