Thought for the Week: Oversight and eldership

Alison Leonard reflects on caring in the Quaker community

I was looking around for something to counter my drift towards despair about the present political landscape when a friend, who works at the Bradford School of Peace Studies, sent me a copy of a lecture given last year on the theme of caring. In it James Thompson argued for caring to stand at the centre of any argument for social justice.

Caring in our present society, he says, is delivered reluctantly, at the lowest possible cost, by the poor to the desperate. One council even has a stated policy of giving ‘just enough’ care: the minimum – and no more. Then James Thompson quotes Norman Geras, the highly regarded political philosopher of the Holocaust. In his book The Contract of Mutual Indifference Geras documents the climate of fear in 1930s Germany that led ordinary people to ignore the sufferings of their Jewish, homosexual, disabled or Roma neighbours, instead of giving friendship or help. James Thompson offers us, as an alternative, a ‘contract of mutual regard’ – ‘tender relations with others [that are] central to the rationale of many political projects’.

This train of thought led me to the Quaker vision of community. As Ben Pink Dandelion says, the Quaker thing is not an ‘I’ thing, it’s a ‘we’ thing. This, in turn, took me to a fresh consideration of the two major roles in a Quaker Meeting: oversight and eldership.

Oversight encompasses the caring aspects of community, and can be done by all of us, not just those appointed. In times like this, when politicians and news media urge fear and hostility, we can make special efforts to extend that care beyond the Quaker Meeting, around where we live and beyond.

The eldership role, if we step outside the Quaker context, is more subtle. It could involve getting together before a demonstration, with others who are intending to go, to give attention to what might happen there and to rehearse the best way of preventing violence in the course of a march; or arranging Meetings for Worship and Fellowship to support those who are most involved in political activity.

In these febrile times, a conscious effort to lower the temperature and support healing in our communities might be something we can all take part in.

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