Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Spiritual Accompaniment

Two people sat beside a lake in forested mountainous terrain. One points out something to the other.
I had a hard time, sitting down to write this post, with how I was going to refer to what I'm trying to talk about. It's a difficult idea. Three terms came up in conversations, in reading, or in thinking about things. What I'm talking about is certainly related to the priestly vocation, the calling that is considered in mainstream clergy to be a call to the priesthood – but we have no separate priesthood; we have rather a priesthood of all believers, and unlike some other groups with something approaching such a priesthood, we do very little to emphasise a priestly role for some over others in the liberal branch of the Religious Society of Friends. It's also related to the idea of the teaching ministry, a term in mainstream Christianity (and in some less mainstream churches) for the service given by suitably qualified members of the faith community in shepherding and guiding the spiritual development of their companions in their faith. A term perhaps more comfortable for liberal Quakers is spiritual accompaniment, which means much the same – in terms of goals – as teaching ministry, but with less implication of a didactic approach.
Whatever term you might prefer, the idea is this – that sometimes we need help from another person on our spiritual journeys, not just the help of the inward teacher, and perhaps that some people are suited or called to that work, perhaps only for a time.
This is an area in which I am particularly aware of my lack of knowledge of other Yearly Meetings. Of course, I know that teaching ministry is a much more important factor in pastoral and evangelical Meetings; it is a major part of the role of the pastor, after all. However, I do not know if other liberal YMs are as reluctant to engage in teaching as we seem to be here in Britain. Anyone with experience of this in such other Meetings, I would love to hear about it; the comments section below is one way to do this, if you don't mind sharing with other readers.
There are very good reasons that British Friends are hesitant over anything that looks like teaching, except in terms of directly teaching skills and procedures, as in Quaker role courses at Woodbrooke. Of course, there are a lot more courses at Woodbrooke, of spiritual or theological bent, but those are strictly opt-in; there is no expectation in general that Friends will participate in them, and indeed Woodbrooke would probably struggle if every newly-convinced Quaker wanted to participate in Equipping For Ministry, say. Similar instruction, guidance or encouragement within a Meeting seems to be rare, patchy, and either highly informal or extremely structured based on resources from Woodbrooke or Friends House.
There are very good reasons, and the greatest, in my opinion, is this – we believe in and promote an individual religious experience, and we do not only tolerate difference, we often seem to encourage it. While our religious practice and discipline are collective, individual experience and individual understanding as as sacred as anything else to British Quakers. It's an interesting tension, that I intend to return to in a future post. This means that the idea of telling anyone that they should think or do much of anything becomes a very daunting prospect.
And yet… the purpose of such “instruction” need not be the imposition of ideas. Education derives, etymologically, from roots ultimately referring to leading or drawing (as in drawing forward or drawing out). It has come to mean, to different people in different contexts, things that relate more closely to that idea, but also to the idea of imposing correct interpretations and manners of thought. The idea of doing the latter with respect to people newly part of our community is repugnant to the liberal Quaker mindset, to my mind quite rightly so. Yet our fear of doing the latter is restraining us from doing the former. Not everyone who is suited to the Quaker way is enough of a self-starter to make the journey effectively without help; few people are sufficient autodidacts to find their way through the forest with only Quaker writings, copious though they may be, for guidance. In many cases, I believe that we are failing our newcomers out of fear of hemming them in and corralling their path along the Quaker way.
But while we may shy away from the idea of some Friends living out a teaching ministry, and even more quail at the thought of a priestly vocation, it should not be so hard to accept the value of spiritual accompaniment. In the metaphor of the forest, having someone who's walked the forest themselves walking with you does not mean that they must dictate the route travelled. Rather than a guide telling you where you must go, being accompanied means having someone walking with you, keeping you company, and perhaps giving you some benefit of their experience; when you see a waterfall, or a dell, or a glade, they may have been their before, and can tell you their experiences of it, perhaps encourage you to stop there a while, but not dictate what you do. They can tell you what they found when they took a certain fork, and what others they know found on the other path. They can marvel with you as you find your own discoveries, especially those that are new to you both. Even though one party is likely more experienced than the other, both learn and grow by taking part of their journey together – just as we all grow from our shared journey as a community.
Anyone can do this for anyone else, in principle. It is not necessary for one to be more experienced than the other – two people sharing their journey will still both benefit, and still be able to take their own choices, find their own discoveries. It seems apparent to me, however, that some people are particularly gifted at this sort of thing. They may even feel a call to do so, and it is this that we might refer to as the priestly vocation. Where they make an effort, recognised by their meeting or not, to support others in this way, that is what we might call a teaching ministry. This is not limited to people who work as tutors and associate tutors at Woodbrooke, and the kind of personal support I describe should be available beyond such resources as the Equipping for Ministry programme. Some Meetings have elders that do excellent work in this area. Others make use of Being Friends Together materials or Friendly Eight groups to foster various sorts of community growth, sometimes including such spiritual aspects and mutual support on the spiritual journey. Is it enough?
I have come to the tentative conclusion that it is not. We should be recognising those with a gift for spiritual accompaniment, especially noticing those who seem to have a calling for it at the time. We should be equipping them, training them, supporting them in this vocation. It doesn't mean setting them up as pastors, authorities on true Quaker spirituality. It means giving support and, more importantly, permission, to be the guide that some need. And those who need it are not just those new to Quaker spirituality; everyone reaches points of junction in their spiritual journey, challenges to their faith, new personal revelations that call their past experience into question. A skilled and confident accompanier will be able to fulfil the eldership role in that context with an ease and comfort that might otherwise be hard to find.
Perhaps this is about encouraging our elders to develop in this role. Perhaps it is about identifying people for a new formal role, or simply informally recognising and supporting the gifts and ministry involved – which certainly overlap with those we hope to see in elders. But the vocation and the ability are, I think, rare enough that we should not expect this sort of capability from all our elders.
Of course, there are risks to this. One reason for wanting to prepare people for fulfilling this sort of need is that it is very easy, without even intending it, to impose your interpretations and conceptions on another person. Indeed, it is likely that some who feel a leading in this direction have a (probably) subconscious desire to spread their own personal message among Friends, which is certainly not a goal that should be pursued while acting as a spiritual accompanier. Rather, the goal should ideally be a pure desire to help others on their path, and a desire to learn what others are discovering for themselves. Thus, if we were ever to appoint, recognise or support people in the exercise of spiritual accompaniment, we must apply intense discernment to the decision to do so, and supervision and support in the development of the person in that role.
Indeed, I am personally sceptical of the idea of appointing people to this role – once you start appointing people, it is hard to stop, even should there be no-one properly suited to the role. Perhaps it should be more like supporting someone in a concern, or somewhat akin to the practice, as once practised in Britain Yearly Meeting (back when it was London Yearly Meeting), of recording ministers. It is still practised in some liberal and conservative Yearly Meetings; pastoral and evangelical Meetings are more likely to still be doing this, but they mean something different by it, as I understand it. It is, perhaps, not a case of always looking to appoint such a person, but being on the lookout for someone so suited and called, testing it, and offering to support them in their support of others.
I suspect this will be a controversial idea. Perhaps you think this sort of role is unnecessary, or even harmful, for Quakers. Perhaps you think this is something we should all be doing in our small ways, for one another, all the time, and there is no need to specifically develop the skills and activity in some Friends more than others. Perhaps, in your experience, this happens informally to a more than satisfactory standard. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.
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