Image credit: Suki Ferguson for Quakers in Britain

QUAKERS HAVE BEEN ASKED to stop using the term ‘overseer’ because of its connotations of oppression and slavery.

The term has been used since 1753 – a time when Quakers could be disowned by their meetings for ‘immoral’ conduct – to represent Quakers who provide pastoral oversight, support and care.

But in 2019, Quakers in Central Yorkshire raised a concern that the term was outdated. And on 1 December, Meeting for Sufferings, the representative body of Quaker meetings across the country, heard statements from over 40 areas, many of whom already use other terms such as ‘pastoral friend’.

This is the latest decision from the Quakers related to their commitment to becoming an anti-racist faith community and ensuring that Quaker communities feel welcoming to all. At their annual gathering in June, they agreed to make practical reparations for the trans-Atlantic slave trade, colonialism and economic exploitation.

Now Quakers across the country are considering how to put this decision into practice alongside work to understand how values feed into behaviour and creating spaces to learn. All staff at Quakers in Britain are receiving equity, diversity and inclusion training and the charity is actively identifying where marginalised staff face barriers.

Siobhán Haire, deputy recording clerk for Quakers in Britain said: “There is no external scale of anti-racism which we can measure ourselves against, no impact dashboard for the personal and corporate epiphanies which are required of us if we are truly to embody anti-racism and know ourselves to be anti-racist. We’ll have moments of clarity and progress, where a new insight is given to us, but we’ll have many more moments of trying our best and feeling unsure about whether it’s contributing to progress.”

The word overseer is a literal translation of the Greek Episkopos (usually translated by the established church as ‘bishop’) used in the bible: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood,” reads Acts 20:23

In the United States, concerns have been raised for several years over the term, used to describe the managers of slave plantations, thanks to the difficulty of separating it from its racist history.

* More on Quakers becoming an anti-racist faith community here.

* Source: Quakers in Britain