Present Condition



When I look at a piece of furniture, and engineered piece of technology or a computer programme, I look at its state of maturity, the marks of use and age, the damage and decay that it has collected. Among Quakers a person’s condition refers to his or her state of spiritual maturity, the marks of experience and accumulated wisdom.


Numbers have dwindled from one in ten of the population in the seventeenth century to 22,000 and then to 16,000 in my lifetime. A glance at the last page of the 2009 Tabular statement1 shows our numbers have been declining since 1935. Interestingly there was a brief increase in numbers about the time of the Second World. I note that the people who joined then are in part the seasoned Friends of today.

By 1750 the English population is estimated to have been 5.74 million,2 Since the regular census was introduced in 1801 the population has risen steadily to just under 50 million in 2001, surprisingly without noticeable falls during the two world wars.3 So the decline in absolute numbers masks a more significant decline as a proportion of the whole population and thus a decline in apparent influence in England’s affairs.


We have become so tolerant and there is such a wide diversity and variety of belief that we are hard put to identify the core characteristics of Quakers. This is shown vividly in the series Twelve Quakers and … published by Quaker Quest. The core and powerhouse of our practice is our Meeting for Worship. Advices and Queries are popular and widely used as an introduction to Quakerism. Our Testimonies on many subjects have in the present Qf&p been organised into three areas: Peace (55 items on 18 pages), Social responsibility (86 items under 5 sub-headings on 52 pages) and Unity of Creation (15 items on 6 pages). Our traditional testimonies on integrity, truth, simplicity and plain speaking for example, are less prominent.

Quakerism is not a static thing that can be captured in a creed, a set of rules, a collection of testimonies or even a few issues. It is as it has always been a changing and dynamic faith - in many senses a living faith. How can this be captured in a single essay or image? Fox tried it in his Journal. Barclay tried it in his Apology. Both spoke to their time but now they are dated and increasingly difficult to read. Julia Ryberg tried it recently in her very moving address to BYM 2009, but her images were of arrested motion.

The dynamic nature of our spiritual life is captured in Jacob wrestling with the Angel (Genesis ) and in the notion of a spiritual journey that is becoming popular among Quakers. Harvey Gilman (“What is Spirituality?” in Quaker monthly, 11th November 2008) sees our spiritual life as a journey through relationships.

Like other Churches, indeed other Religions, we have failed to take on board the lessons of science. We find ourselves beset by: the evidence of science and the theories of Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, Darwin and many others; Creationism boldly rejects the whole of science and claims absolute truth for the Book of Genesis; Yet another view claims a version of evolution science has proved the non-existence of God.

Rejecting the anthropomorphic, medieval view of the world epitomised by God as an old man sitting in the clouds of heaven above earth, has led too many of us to reject the whole spiritual thing. We have ceased to use religious language because some Friends find it difficult. We are unsure what to say to enquirers. There are constant requests to the major Quaker publications for more spiritual articles. The new framework for action has “Deepening the Spiritual life of our Meetings” as its first priority.

Nevertheless we continue to worship regularly.


Quakes today are often isolated, single members of recent, mature convincement who come together only on Sundays for Meeting for worship. For the rest of the week they are immersed in family, career and social activities without the cooperation, care and support of other Friends who have similar values.

In recent years many of the Quaker institutions, like Woodbrooke and our various Quaker ministries to the world and our Quaker schools have become independent charities. At present all the Area Meetings are in the process of becoming independent registered charities. The end result of his compliance with the Charity Law is that we become fragmented: a collection of small organisations that can be monitored and called to account individually. This has robbed us of our political and power to do good in the world and to influence the course of events for the better. Disenfranchising Meeting for Sufferings (legal power and responsibility now rest with the trustees, like any other charity) has left us weak in law and in practice.

Years of effort, consultation and consideration by Recast has given us a new organisation and some new names to make us more intelligible to the outside world. It would be imprudent to suggest any further changes in our structure or administration. The result could only be confusion and disenchantment among people already tired and dispirited.


Disenfranchised, our central executive, Meeting for Sufferings, has consulted widely in a search for a new role and a new function within the new structure of the RSoF. Many Friends laboured long and hard for more than a year. They consulted widely, with individuals, Meetings and organisations.

Their report is tastefully produced with large type, plenty of white space and makes easy reading. The pictures and symbols are well chosen. I particularly respond to the sunset over troubled sea and someone hugging a tree. The quotations are comfortingly warm. It is an amazing piece of Quaker engineering. Surely we can all accept and subscribe to it without reservation?

The framework could have identified the problems and difficulties that we face as a Society. It could have suggested ways to find solutions to these difficulties. It could have highlighted what Quakers do best and most effectively, suggested what resources might be needed and how we could find them and use them wisely. It could have provided advice and guidance to Quaker decision-makers or have given an inspiring vision of the Quaker world.

The framework avoids all these temptations, and their uncomfortable controversy. It discerns unoriginally, that after 350 years, we are a fragmented collection of individuals and Meetings, with historic commitments to peace and justice, a new interest in global sustainability and a reputation for community and interfaith work.

We must find a new way of working together. We have a mandate for individuals to return to our spiritual roots, raise concerns, and test them, at our grass roots. Meeting for Sufferings will uphold us in this and offers eight criteria for testing a concern, beyond a Meeting for Clearness. The bottom line (actually on the back page) is ‘And how will we know when we have achieved what we set out to do?’ Perhaps when we have specific, measurable, achievable, realistic time limited objectives?

This report sets no directions and does not present a way forward, it only gives a frame for a mirror of ourselves today. The future is something else.


6.1 Quakers' Business Method

We Quakers have a unique way of conducting our non-spiritual business, known as the Quaker Business Method. It arises directly form belief that we are a God-led community. We all have direct access to God and that we are a spirit-led (God-led) community. The methods is based on the Meeting for Worship and is conducted as a focused Meeting for worship and the clerk is given the task of identifying the 'sense' of the Meeting' on the matter in hand. (See Business Integrity for more discussion.)

As I see it we have come to treat the discernment process and the Meeting for Worship for Business as a piece of magic that we have only to invoke to be given the 'right' answer. True discernment is an awesome and mystical process. (See The magic of discernment for more discussion.)

In my view the Quaker Business method is superb when it is used correctly, for the moral and ethical aspects of any particular issue but we need to do our homework and come with 'heart and mind prepared' not a blank mind and a bland heart. The consequences of this abuse have been and continue to be devastating to our operational affairs.

6.2 Vulnerable Victim

Vulnerable Victim4 seems to have been read as an account of a fraud and advice on what to do about it. This is a good reading and enables Friends to take constructive action. My local Friends who read the report and advised Area Meeting, rightly identified two aspects: how to avoid the situations that led to the fraud in the case cited and what to do after such an event. In the first instance they rightly focussed on preventive actions.

Firstly, Vulnerable Victim deals with a fraud. This is eye-catching and dramatic. However the principles, behaviours, attitudes and culture that it describes apply to many other areas of our Meetings for Worship and Quaker service. A recent high-profile example is our care for children and prevention of child abuse. Another on-going area is our stewardship of premises and property.

I read Vulnerable Victim as a case study in the exercise of trust and faith in the conduct of our internal affairs – and in its disastrous breakdown. To my mind the significance of Vulnerable Victim goes well beyond the (important) tinkering with our administrative procedures to our personal conduct and attitudes and to the development of the culture that is each local meeting.

Vulnerable Victim portrays a situation in which a group of Friends delegated responsibility, made appointments and accepted reports, in the faith that all was well. Friends trusted but did not exercise that trust with good stewardship. That trust was betrayed by an individual under intolerable stress who was not given the care that we pride ourselves on giving to all. Friends assumed without checking; delegated without support. The emotional and spiritual fallout was horrendous. I feel for those involved from my own experience in other fields.

My experience of Quaker Meetings over several decades is that Vulnerable Victim was an accident waiting to happen. There are similar situations in minor and not-so-minor ways in our meetings up and down the country. The consequence is that things don’t get done and people get hurt and discouraged. Collectively, we are poor stewards of our physical and spiritual resources. The fact that Vulnerable Victim as taken so long to become a reality is a testament to the integrity and expertise of a few stalwart Friends. See for example the testimony to the Grace of God in the life of Joyce Plater5. I’m not trying to say that we-are-going-to-Hell-in-a-handbasket . I feel we should use the Vulnerable Victim experience as a wake-up call for how we conduct or lives: prevent fraud in non-financial areas, avoid spiritual fraud in our Testimony on Truth and Integrity in personal affairs.

The secular and especially the commercial world is way ahead of Quakers. There is a wealth of management and human relations experience that Quakers have ignored. We should look to all our administrative procedures not just the financial. We should ensure that trust is always supported with caring stewardship for the task and for the person. Decisions should be made with proper information and true discernment – personal as well as corporate. Risks as well as money and people should be cared for with integrity

6.3 Money

The Society of Friends is supported by and is dependent upon the subscriptions of its members and on legacies. The sagas of Old Jordans, Quaker International Centre and Vulnerable Victim, show how far we have come from the nineteenth century. Then the Society was in effect supported by wealthy Friends whose fortunes often derived from industry and banking. The present ‘Credit Crunch’6 has put pressure on all charities and, for us has highlighted our years of financial imprudence.

Nineteenth century Friends were not only wealthy (corporately but also in some cases individually) they were good at getting things done. Today we regard management, business, and money as dirty words. We no longer understand profit7, investment8 or risk9. This does not bode well for our future.

6.4 Appointing people

(Full discussion: see Quaker Nominations)
Appointment is a two stage process both of which centre around discernment in a meeting for worship for business. It relies on personal knowledge of the pool of eligible people to suggest names of people to serve in a particular role. Then the names are put in order and the individuals are asked if they would be willing to serve if appointed. When one says “yes” that name goes forward to the second meeting and (typically) the person is appointed.

In contrast in the secular world say business a vacancy is identified. The role is defined in formal terms (function, reporting lines, tasks and skills requited and so on. The personal qualities and experience of the person sought to fill the role at this time are identified. Then the post is advertised and applications collected. The applications are reviewed against the role and personal specifications and a small number selected for further investigation. The investigations typically include, interview, checking references, formal testing or special evaluations. Several people are involved including the people responsible for the appointee and the team to which he or she will belong. Only when all factors have been considered will an offer be made. That offer may be refused or negotiations might take place on details of the contract and conditions of service.

It seems to me that both radically different approaches have shortcomings and could usefully learn from the other. Specifically, Quakers could learn to define the role and the person needed to fill it for the benefit of the meeting, relevant checks and studies cold be usefully conducted, the discernment process could be more effective if people come with heart and mind prepared rather than with an empty head, support and training for those in service could greatly enhance the effectiveness of the appointee and integrate the Quaker team much more effectively.


Many of the concerns and achievements of early Friends in commerce, banking, technology, industry, justice and prison reform, health and mental health and so on, have become part of the normal fabric of British society.

In a way Quakers are the victims of their own success. Having succeeded, what do we do next?

Like early Quakers and mid-nineteenth century Quakers, we face a world on the brink of dramatic change. We have the ability to literally destroy the planet. Economic systems world-wide are stressed to breaking point. We live in a world of a global community larger than nations, governments and multi-national companies. We also have an astonishing but sadly incomplete understanding of the world and ourselves.

7.1 Reputation

We continue to command respect and trust in commerce, politics and the general public. But increasingly in my experience, people see us as we used to be - do-gooders, peace activists and against alcohol.

Over seventy percent of people claim to be aware of Quakers but htere is "considerable confusion amongst people about the role and beliefs of Quakers' and most people think the movement is dead or dormant.10

7.2 Public voice

The media, not the church have become the capricious guardians of the public morals. The most recent example has been the public outcries against MPs’ expenses and bankers’ bonuses.11

When one commentator said that what was wanted 'was a return to the 'good Quaker values of banking', we had little to say about the collapse of the banking world that nineteenth century Quakers had done so much to build12. In spite of our opposition to the National Lottery and the efforts of QAAD, we have had little impact on public or private behaviour.

To be fair, the other Christian Churches have had little impact either. I interpret this as an unwelcome consequence of the shift in our culture towards individualism and away from established authority of any kind.

7.3 Concerns and action

We continue to work on many social issues in this country and abroad. There are I think some seeds of hope living adventurously among us. The seeds that have come my way are:
• Family and friends
• Circles of accountability
• LEAP confronting conflict
• Alternatives to violence project
• Advices and Queries on Quaker Stewardship arising out of Vulnerable Victim
• Ecumenical Accompaniers program

Each of these is addressing an issue, a set of problems, in an area of traditional Quaker concern. What I find exciting about these seeds is the way they are tackling their situations. They are dealing with the face-to-face human relationships, deploying social communication skills and developing new ones.

Quaker Peace and Social Witness, coordinates and manages central activity programmes on:

• Housing and homelessness
• Engaging with Politics
• South Asia Peace links
• Peace education
• Quaker Prison Ministers
• Disarmament and Peace
• UK Peaceworker Placements
• Turning the Tide
• Non-violence
• Economic Justice
• Ecumenical Accompaniment
• Crime, Community & Justice
• Human rights and refugees
• Peace Campaigning

It seems to me that peace and justice are its driving concerns.

(Words: 2661)

___Back to TOP


Add a New Comment

Where next

Up to About the essay
Up to Is there a problem – Short Version for a summary of this essay
Return to the main essay's Title page
Move back to essay on Historical Perspective
Move on to essay on Interpretation
Move down to the essay on Quaker Business Integrity
Move down to the essay on Quaker Nominations
Move down to the essay on The magic of discernment

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License