Role call: Celia Waterhouse says one name is an oversight

‘We may well intend the Good Shepherd, but are we really listening to the meaning?’

'The word ‘bishop’ derives from Greek episkopos, meaning, quite literally, over-seer: we perform the role of Good Shepherd ‘watching over’ the flock.' | Photo: by Brett Jordan on Unsplash.

As I reach the end of my second triennium as an overseer I’ve been considering our name for this role. How many Quakers realise that overseers are the bishops of our church? The word ‘bishop’ derives from Greek episkopos, meaning, quite literally, over-seer: we perform the role of Good Shepherd ‘watching over’ the flock. In many churches the bishop carries the ceremonial crook, symbol of pastoral care.

Our particular meaning of overseer is different from outside the Quaker community, where it means ‘supervisor’, the Latin equivalent. At best this denotes a mentor checking over work, an instructor, a line manager. At worst it conjures up a taskmaster wielding power in exploitative and oppressive circumstances. In these senses it implies both the superiority of the overseer and a hierarchy.

When I began the role I didn’t understand the objections occasionally aired in the Friend. But I became uncomfortable with how ‘elder’ and ‘overseer’ were capitalised in minutes and reports – this too implied hierarchy.

This year Black Lives Matter (BLM) has made a deep impression. We are uncovering terrible inequalities and injustices. Twenty years ago I was editing for a book of songs from around the world reflecting multicultural UK society. Since BLM we have looked with fresh eyes at the contents, which include traditional US songs such as ‘Li’l Lisa Jane’. We discovered songs arising from minstrel shows, which involved stock characters created to mimic and lampoon the names, speech and music of enslaved people, caricaturing life on the plantations in racist, demeaning ways.

How times change. My organisation is taking new understanding on board and acting on it. Just because a particular song is enjoyable to sing or useful for pedagogical purposes, should we continue using it in teaching schemes and choirs once we discover its racist connotations, or find we are using a sanitised version which omits or alters original verses normalising violence, rape, and other forms of oppressive control?

Two years ago on a clerking course at Woodbrooke I met a non-Quaker with a deep-rooted aversion to ‘overseer’. That made an impression. Weighing up tricky considerations about the appropriateness of certain songs in today’s world makes me realise I feel increasingly uneasy about it, particularly as Quakers already understand its historical baggage and fearsome connotations outside our community. We may well intend the Good Shepherd ‘watching over’, not ‘supervising’ with its implied hierarchy, but are we really listening to the meaning in the hearts and minds of the society around us?

I’ve been thinking of alternative words giving a better sense of our Quaker meaning. Here’s a list for starters: accompanier; advocate; ally; befriender; buddy; colleague; companion; compere; comrade; confederate; co-partner; counsellor; friend; caring/designated/pastoral friend; mentor; pal; proponent; supporter. Isn’t it time to start a conversation Friends? What do you say?

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