From the name 'overseer' to gifts and weapons
New name for ‘overseer’?
I was glad to read Eric Walker’s letter (2 February) questioning the word overseer, and the following letters welcoming it.
A couple of years ago I posed the question ‘should we begin searching for a new name?’ to my Local Meeting, but at Area Meeting the decision went against it.
Some Friends feel a strong emotional attachment to the historical term, and it was regarded as an acceptable in-group term. Besides, we would never find another word that Friends could unite around. Others agreed that it was a misleading term with negative, top-down connotations (including memories of overseers in the textile industry), but they were reluctant to spend energy on a divisive quest that upsets much-loved fellow Friends. However, it must seem an odd term to new attenders in a non-hierarchical Society aiming for equality and truth.
The words we use are not set in stone, and apparently only the most conservative Friends Meetings in US still use the word ‘overseer’. In Australia overseers are sometimes known as ‘carers’.
Since we are about to revise Quaker faith & practice now would seem a good time to ask and search again.
My own suggestion would be ‘contact Friend’. It seems neutral, invites contact both ways and describes accurately at least a large part of the role. It has been helpful when explaining to new attenders that ‘overseer’ is the historic term, but some of us would prefer to call it ‘contact Friend’.
Eric Walker tells how one attender, on being told that she had been allocated an overseer, decided not to come to Meeting any more. I wonder whether the attender in question was feeling patronised or imposed upon, rather than reacting to those negative connotations of the word ‘overseer’ which have concerned subsequent correspondents.
The word ‘overseer’ doesn’t bother me at all, but I should hate to feel as a newcomer that anyone thought I needed an official minder. In all the Meetings I know the welcoming and inclusion of new attenders happens quite spontaneously, and making this an official task seems to me the heavy-handed bureaucratisation of something that should be happening naturally.
Wouldn’t a lighter touch be more beneficial?
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