Herding Porcupines in the MRM

what this Quaker thinks the MRM could learn from the Religious Society of Friends

This last few months within the MRM have been incredible and exciting. I’ve watched with delight as the MRM has blossomed into being a real life movement rather than existing as an online community. I’ve also been aware this sudden expansion is going to generate a need for organisational and governance structures, if we are to maintain this kind of momentum. This need for organisation concerns me. There is a risk, if we establish hierarchies and processes along traditional lines, it will set us up for internal conflicts and schisms. Equally, poor decisions on organisation and governance could also result in cult of personality and/or burnout for those to whom leadership falls.

The MRM is full of strong individuals and activist personalities, and one of the reasons I feel comfortable on AVfM is because of this feisty individualism. This kind of atmosphere is familiar to me from my faith community. I am a member of the Religious Society of Friends (RSoF), also known as Quakers. Liberal Quakers joke about themselves, saying that if you ask two Quakers for an opinion you will get three answers. Despite this diversity, we have managed to maintain a cohesive organisation, through finding a structure and a decision-making process that is both non-hierarchical and responsive to issues raised from within the community.

Disclaimer: I am not expecting the wholesale adoption of these ideas. Rather I would like to share an alterative model of governance, which has worked for Quakers for almost 350 years. I am aware I am speaking as one individual within the MRM and speaking as someone from a liberal unprogrammed Quaker perspective  (some Quakers are conservative and pastoral). I am putting forwards a series of ideas that may seem strange and alien to many of you. Regardless of whether any of these ideas are adopted or not, I would hope that this article provokes some timely discussion on how we organise ourselves within the MRM, as we can ill-afford mistakes that might set our movement back decades, if our structures result in division and infighting.

Quaker governance finds its roots in our testimonies.   Amongst the core testimonies is equality. Equality within the RSoF was manifest by early Friends in the refusal to remove their hats and to use the plural pronoun “you”, instead of the singular “thee” to people of socially higher status. In addition, they were prepared to withhold tithes, as they saw that tax ending up in the pockets of the clergy, rather than being distributed to support those with need.

Quakers hold to the idea that voting to decide an outcome is both divisive, and fails to recognise the truth that radical and alternative solutions, which address the concerns of all parties, can be found when thoughtful reflection is undertaken. I hesitate to use “god-language” in this forum, but we Quakers say that our business meetings are “meetings for worship for business (MfWfB)” and it is the divine Light that guides us to making the best decision.

Within the majority of the different Quaker organisations across the world, the worship groups, called (in the UK) Local Meetings (LM) are the core decision-making bodies. LMs hold responsibility for approximately 90% of the decisions needed to run the day-to-day life of our community to support and care for our members and attenders. LMs decide where and when the community meets for worship and how locally held money is allocated to different aspects of the community. If the LM owns its own premises, how the premises are looked after and who the other users are will be decided locally.

Within any Quaker meeting there is an appointed clerk (or co-clerks).  The Clerk’s role is to listen intently to what is said at the MfWfB and to formulate a minute reflecting what they are hearing. If the Clerk wishes to contribute to the discussion in the MfWfB, he or she must step away from the clerking table to speak, so it is obvious s/he is speaking as an individual, not as the Clerk. Once the minute is composed, it is read out to all present, and the question is asked “Does this reflect the will of the Meeting?”

Those in agreement will say; “I hope so”. If you disagree, then you suggest how the minute should be amended, and it will be re-drafted after some discussion and reflection on the amendment. As with all offices in a Quaker meeting, the  Clerk is appointed for 3 years and can only serve two consecutive triennial periods.

Quaker business practice sounds difficult and cumbersome to people who have never experienced it. Quakers themselves make jokes about minutes that take years to agree – the colour of the meeting room carpet is an apocryphal minute that takes 9 years. Yet this process has proven to be effective and functional within our diverse congregations, and has sustained us through some tough decisions, in our history as a community of activists.

There are a number of positives to this method of conducting business.

First, it takes away the power of voting that can result in division and a sense of “win-lose” forming within a group. Establishing solutions with zero-sum outcomes is what causes schisms within organisations where there are high numbers of activists.

Second, it enforces personal accountability to the business of the community. Quite simply, if you want to be involved in the decision, you need to be part of the process, as a minute can not be overturned unless there are legal or financial implications to the decision that were not known at the time the minute was agreed.

Third, it gives authority to those named in a minute to act on behalf of the community to undertake specified and agreed activities. There is no ambiguity about what is to be done by who and by when, if a minute is written with due care and attention to detail.

How are the other 10% of the decisions get made within the RSoF? Approximately 8-9% of them are made at Area Meeting (AM). AM will hold responsibility for functional and structural decisions that have implication for a geographical group of LMs. As a rule, the work of the AM is done when there is a need for more specialist skills to undertake a task. The statement on safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults is an example of an AM level decision-making.

Our safeguarding statement and procedure was developed a small committee of Friends and then ratified in AM, in a similar process as described for writing a minute. I was my LM representative at AM when the safeguarding statement was read out, and yet at that point I could still stand and request a considerable amendment to reflect that there will be members and attenders in our community who may be falsely accused, a matter included in the final document.

The last 1-2% of decision-making is done at Yearly Meeting (YM) level. My AM is part of the Britain YM, which is the oldest and largest of the YM in the Quaker world. The Britain YM has political influence and financial assets as a result of our industrial (Cadbury, Fry) and banking (Barclay, Lloyds) heritage, plus our long-established history of political activism, which has required the formation of an executive called Meeting for Sufferings (MfS), made up of representatives from each AM, but this is unusual amongst Friends. British Quakers also meet yearly, and any member can attend Y. Commonly 1,000-2,000 people will gather for MfWfB as part of the YM.

MfS and YM always prepare documents in advance to circulate through AM and LM about issues of national concern. Any LM or AM can respond to these issues, by preparing minutes of response. These minutes will inform the processes of the YM or of MfS. Equally, a person in a LM could raise a concern, and if supported by their LM and AM after a process of discussion and discernment, their concern can be sent to MfS or YM for discussion and possible action.

The “big” decisions made by YM or MfS are often the visible and press-worthy actions of the RSoF in the UK. In recent years, Britain YM has declared our support of gay marriage, and affirmed our commitment as to develop as a sustainable, low-carbon community. MfS directs our parliamentary lobbyists in several areas, including support of a legislative change to allow those who entered military service at age 16, to have the option to change their mind on their turning 18 years without penalty.

Not all our decisions as a YM are made easily. Last year, there was a commitment to end trade with, and investment in, companies and organisations who profit from Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories of Palestine. This declaration gave us considerable adverse press and strained previously excellent relations with the Jewish community in the UK, but follows in a long tradition of Quakers being “two steps ahead” on social causes. Returning to my starting point on testimonies, Quakers have always held to a testimony of Truth, and this can sometimes be uncomfortable, when our truth is out of step with the mainstream.

I believe there are some good things to learn from Quaker experience that could help inform the discussion we need to have as a movement as we begin to create organisational structures.

1) Where possible, care should be taken that decision-making is done avoiding zero-sum scenarios. By avoiding voting, this means that many options will be discussed and a solution that all people can accept will be found. Often where people can not “agree” a decision, they are willing to accept a decision, as long as they feel their perspective has been considered and heard in the process of coming to a way of moving forward.

2) Participation is encouraged by the process of minutes being thoroughly agreed in meetings, and the process of preparing documents in advance enhances personal accountability and allows for informed discussion.

3) Minutes giving both direction and authority to individuals, allowing for clear chains of accountability. Quakers being activists, once a minute is decided usually get on with what is needed pretty quickly afterwards!

4) The local groups must be largely autonomous to make decisions on matters that affect them directly. These groups should be able to prepare responses to concerns that affect the wider organisation. Where local groups identify an issue that may have wider implication, they should be able to transmit that information both upwards and sideways in a structured and efficient manner.

5) For activities that have wider than local impact, or which demand specialist skills and knowledge, geographical clusters of groups can to pool together to have that expertise and work shared

6) To avoid both fatigue in natural leaders or the negative impact of cult of personality within groups, where there is a need for formal office holders, have the jobs for a specified term. This, along with co-sharing of key posts also develops potential new leaders and allows for succession planning.

6) For issues of national or international importance, there may be a need for an executive for some decisions, but there should be the opportunity for all members to participate in decision-making at some point in the year, as the gatherings have a two-fold purpose of building community identity and ensuring ownership of national and international issues.

And the reference to porcupines? Most MfWfB are like herding cats until anything contentious is discussed…then it is like herding porcupines; cat-like in nature and prickly. At our most recent AM, I was the porcupine in the midst. Yet, I felt my voice was heard and my contribution valued. As we were dealing with an issue that will take time to evolve, I will have responsibility to be there for other AM where it is raised, if I want the community outcome to reflect my position. I know already that my questions will be raised at MfS and YM, as the Clerk felt I had raised a significant point that had been overlooked. 

Recommended Content