Ä is for (De) äldste (The Elders)
In Sweden we have Yearly Meeting äldste (Elders). At present four people serve in this capacity with a view to supporting and nurturing the spiritual life of the Yearly Meeting (YM) and its constituent meetings and worship groups. The YM äldste are also responsible for ensuring that those who seek membership of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Sweden are visited according to our tradition. This always takes place in cooperation with the local meeting or group to which the applicant belongs. De äldste also have special responsibility for the arrangement of Quaker weddings, funerals and memorial meetings for worship.
We have chosen this way of working in Sweden after years of experimentation. It works well, and is still being developed. The development includes a broadening of the oversight function (what we in Sweden call medlemsvård) and a deepening of the eldership function (in Sweden known as andaktsvård).
At its Annual Meeting in 2010, the Europe and Middle East Section (EMES) of the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) focused on the theme ‘Elders as Midwives of the Spirit’. During the Annual Meeting I was one of six Elders appointed to uphold the clerks during the meetings for worship for business, meet with them in worship before and after sessions, welcome Friends into the worshipping space with a formal handshake and a smile at the door, begin meeting by being the first person in the worshipping space, try to be a channel for the spirit during meetings for worship and for business, take responsibility for closing meetings for worship, lead the silent grace at mealtimes and be available for consultation or discussion on matters relating to Eldership during our time together.
At the Annual Meeting I learned more about the role and experience of an “accompanying Elder” and realised that we all – not only those travelling in the ministry – need to be accompanied and nurtured in order to birth and shepherd the Spirit that is within us. It became clear to me that Eldership is something other than Oversight. Eldership involves a faithful nurturing of the Spirit so that it can grow, strengthen and be heard and felt in our meetings and in our wider communities and circles. In other words, spiritual growth requires the skills and tenderness of a midwife, a shepherd, a gardener.
What struck me most during our time at the Annual Meeting was the tangible sense of harmony, gatheredness and discipline. These aspects have also reminded me of the original Quaker meaning and significance of Gospel Order, which in a nutshell refers to the radical transformation and re-ordering of lives and relationships that stems from a covenant relationship between the Quaker faith community and God (or whatever name we wish to use for the Divine or ‘spiritual Other’).
Many Quaker meetings and groups in Europe feel that they are too small for formal Eldership and Oversight and ‘take care of each other’. In the coming year these groups will be offered the possibility of learning more about these functions in an online study circle, run by EMES. That initiative is an adventure. So is the work of De älste.