There appears to be confusion at our Yearly Meeting over the question of what authority or power a Quaker body has when it approves a minute of concern. Some are uneasy when the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) or Pacific Yearly Meeting (PYM) approves a minute calling for monthly meetings to take action. To help bring clarity, I’d like to share my understanding of Quaker “polity” (the form of government by which a religious body makes its rules or decisions). My understanding is based in part on the diagram above, which you can find at the Southern California Quarterly Meeting website.
First, a quick explanation of a “minute of concern.” For Quakers, a concern arises from a leading of the Spirit, usually involving an issue of justice. This concern causes the individual or the body to express its views and usually to take or call for action. This concern usually arise in an individual or group of individuals in a Quaker body (such as a monthly or yearly meeting, or a Quaker organization, like FCNL or FWCC). Spirit usually calls on Friends to share this concern either with the Quaker community and/or those in power.
What is the process for discerning a minute of concern, according to our Quaker polity? As aforementioned, concerns usually arise from an individual who feel Spirit or the Inward Light leading or compelling them to take some action. The individual goes to a Meeting to discern if this is a genuine leading, and if so, whether it is an individual or corporate concern. If the Meeting unites with this concern, it may decide to bring it to Yearly Meeting so it can be shared with the larger body of Friends.
It has been the practice of Pacific Yearly to give the Peace and Social Order Committee (PSO) authority to discern which concerns should go to the Yearly Meeting. PSO brings forward a concern only when three or more Meetings unite, or when a Quaker body such as FWCC or FNCL asks for a concern to be brought forward. This process insures that Yearly Meeting’s annual session recognizes and honors “that of God” in the monthly meetings and in the Quaker bodies to which we send our representatives.
This year it was decided by M and O to let the Spirit work directly by giving Friends the opportunity to raise minutes of concern during Listening Sessions at the Yearly Meeting annual session. I have no objection to this new practice and see merit in it, but I am troubled that we seem to have abandoned a practice that recognizes and honors how Spirit is at work at the monthly meeting level. Our new practice raises questions about our Quaker polity.
Is Quaker Polity Bottom up, or Top Down?
Modern Quaker theology stresses the primacy of the monthly meeting over the Yearly Meeting. Most Friends reject the hierarchical idea that the Yearly Meeting is a “higher body” that can dictate to monthly meetings. But this hasn’t always been the case among Friends. In the past, Yearly Meetings had much more authority and power than they have today. In Woolman’s time, when Philadelphia Yearly Meeting united in a minute calling for Friends to cease and desist from owning slaves, most Friends felt obliged to do so. I don’t know if there were any penalties for not complying with this minute, but the pressure was such that many Friends either gave up their slaves or left the Society of Friends.
It’s worth comparing our Quaker polity that how many churches operate today. For example, if the General Conference of the Methodist Church says it is contrary to church doctrine to have gay pastors or perform same-sex marriages, every constituent church is obliged to follow that decision. Failure to follow that decision results in consequences, such as a trial that could lead to a pastor losing his status as a pastor.
Quakers do not operate in this way now. When FWCC or FCNL or a Yearly Meeting comes to unity to support a minute on same-sex marriage or sustainability, it can make requests or recommendations to monthly meetings but it has no authority to enforce such a request.
Our polity has changed over the years. During virtually every war from the Revolutionary War to the Iraq invasion, Yearly Meetings have affirmed our Peace Testimony. At one time, Friends were pressured to leave the Society of Friends, or at least repent, if they joined the military or even if they married outside the Society of Friends (which was considered an equally grievous offense--which shows that our Quaker discernment process isn't infallible). In the 20th century we no longer have such requirements. We uphold our Peace Testimony, but individual Quakers have joined the military, while others became COs or war resisters. We do not reject a Friend who has served in the military, or require an allegiance to pacifism. We simply affirm our Peace Testimony, urge Friends to refrain from war, and then leave it up to individuals to do what their conscience and Inward Light require. This is our 20th century polity and I happily embrace it.
Modern Quaker polity can be imagined as a series of concentric circles of different sizes (as the above diagram shows). The individual (who has access to the Divine) is the smallest and central circle, the monthly meeting is larger, and the Yearly Meeting or Quaker organization is much larger. Each circle is on the same level. Each circle can communicate with and make requests of other circles of Friends. But these requests are non-binding. They are simply appeals to the Light Within.
So I am not troubled when FCNL or FWCC ask me to take action. I know that these bodies have gathered in the Spirit, have come to unity around a concern and feel led to share this concern with Friends. When they ask me to take action, it is up to me to inquire within and ask myself, “Can I unite with this minute of concern? Do I feel led to take action myself, or to support others who are taking action?”
Some Friends may feel pressured, but perhaps that may be because they don’t fully understand our Quaker polity. Because I know our Quaker organizations are doing their best to be faithful to Spirit and are asking (not requiring) me to do likewise, I am grateful to these bodies for encouraging me to ask such questions. They remind me how important it is to wrestle with difficult issues.
I love our Quaker polity, as it is practiced today, because it is all about equality. A monthly meeting can make a request to yearly meeting and a yearly meeting can make a request to monthly meetings. Each body is equal. This is consistent with Jesus' teachings that we are to call no one a leader except God (see Matthew 23: 29-31).
Do Local Meetings or Larger Quaker Bodies Have More Clout?
The world doesn’t embrace our equality testimony, however, and we need to be clear and honest about this fact. When FWCC or FCNL takes a position, it is seen as representing the Religious Society of Friends. Because FWCC is a world-wide body, it carries more clout in the world that if a little meeting with, say, twenty souls approves a minute of concern. That same is true of FNCL, AFSC, etc. That’s why it’s very important for us to choose carefully the representatives we send to these bodies and to voice our concern if these bodies take a position we cannot unite with.
When FWCC unites in a minute on sustainability not once but twice in four years, we can be pretty confident that this is a continuing revelation. We are seeing a new testimony emerging from Spirit and uniting Friends around the world. Therefore, we need to take it seriously. But we aren’t required to do anything about it.
The Choice is Up to Us
Thankfully, I see our sustainability testimony becoming increasingly crucial to Friends. Meetings like Claremont are taking extraordinary actions, like putting up solar panels and partnering with a local group to get rid of their water-wasteful lawn and plant fruit trees sustainably. But the impending environmental crisis is so scary it is very tempting to hide our heads in the sand and do nothing and hope it will go away. For this reason, I am grateful for FWCC, QEW, FCNL and concerned individuals who keep reminding me that our mother earth is indeed very sick, we are the cause and we need to do something about it. I have lived in denial myself for many years, but now that the veil has been lifted, I thank God I can see clearly.
It’s like the excruciatingly painful moment when the doctor told my wife and me: “That growth in your chest is cancer.” We were devastated, but once we knew the truth, it set us free to act wisely and make the right choices. We didn’t blame the doctor for the diagnosis and for prescribing treatment. We thanked him and were glad that the doctor gave us his recommendation. We knew it was up to us to do what we felt was right. That’s what a minute of concern is all about.
Recently I went to a documentary about the climate crisis called “Time to Choose.” It showed the horrors caused by our fossil fuel addiction—its catastrophic effects on the poor in the developing nations—and then showed how wind and solar could provide us with a clean, healthy lifestyle. Seeing this stark contrast, and its implications for our future, I was glad that the film maker reminded me that it is “time to choose.” I hoped others would see this film and take its diagnosis and prescriptions seriously. What came to my mind were the words spoken through Moses to his people: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” (Deut 20:19). Each generation is forced to make this difficult choice: do we choose the comfortable path that leads to death and destruction, or do we choose the more difficult path that leads to life? My hope and prayer is that our Religious Society will choose life so we and our children will live in peace and harmony with nature and with God.