Elders are asked to care for “the right holding of our meetings for worship” (Quaker Faith & Practice 12.11), though it is clear that responsibility for the meeting “is shared among all the members of the worshipping group” (Quaker Faith & Practice 12.12b). There are usually two elders ‘on duty’ at meeting for worship on Sunday, and other Friends fulfil this role in our midweek meetings. If anything goes badly awry, we’re expected to intervene to get things back on track. But what about the 99 meetings out of 100 when nothing goes badly awry. Are we doing anything then?
The first time I eldered a meeting for worship was at the invitation of a wise older Friend who asked me to join her in covering for the appointed elders who were away. She told me that our role was to pray for the meeting and for those called to minister. So that’s what I did. This opened the door for me to a much deeper appreciation of the communal nature of meeting for worship. From then on, I ‘eldered’ meetings from time to time, in the sense of giving my attention to, praying for, the meeting as a whole regardless of whether or not I was asked to be ‘on duty’. I’d encourage anyone to give this a go (not necessarily every week or for the whole of a meeting, just when you feel you have some capacity).
It can be a strange experience, actively yearning for the deep ‘gathering’ of a meeting but having no control over what happens. Here again my workaday rational language fails me. I do believe it makes a difference to have some people within a meeting practising this sort of ‘eldering’ (whether or not they’re appointed elders). But I don’t see this a mechanical cause and effect. It’s a subtler, less predictable, influence. Perhaps eldering in this way exercises the powers of witness, aspiration and invitation? Receiving what is and calling it to inhabit the fullness of what it can be. This for me is the power of listening, I understand listening as active and creative.
I started with the challenge of finding words to describe Quaker worship. Here we are some 1,500 words later and I find I need only one word:
What am I doing in meeting for worship? Listening.
You can read the rest of this four-part series here: