Comments on Trusteeship in Britain Yearly Meeting

at Monthly Meeting Level.

Originally a submission to a Task Group on Trusteeship, set up by Bristol & Frenchay MM.


I saw from the notes of the first meeting (which I was unable to attend) that it seemed to concern itself with how a transfer to Charity Comm trusteeship might be managed. (The resultant contributions are very impressive. There is clearly no lack of talent in this matter in our MM.) But my concern is not so much with the mechanics of the transfer as with the management and control structure that will emerge. It seems facile to say it will make no difference.

Previously I have spoken of the attitude that prevails at meetings of Trustees as opposed to that at traditional Quaker Meetings. (When I m,ade this assertion at a meeting of Quaker Stewardship Committee the clerk, Christine Davies, refuted it saying that in her considerable experience on both types of meeting there was no significant difference. I suggest that this may be because she was present! Not many of us have her vision, experience and spiritual depth.)

Since one must accept that we, the MM, will register with the Charity Commission (CC) I hope we will do so in such a way as to minimise interference with our traditional ways. I am sure all will agree with that statement. But I believe we are being led into a setup where it will be almost impossible to achieve.

Leaving aside trusteeship, our Quaker structure of governance is that a large body of all members (MM, YM) is in control (or rather, puts itself under that of the Holy Spirit) and it directs a smaller body (at national level MfS, MfS Committee, Management Committee, at area level Clerk to MM, assistant clerks, General Committee) to carry out its discerned policies. The control, the helm, is in the hands of the larger body. I hope that this continues. I am sure that if control, or as the CC makes plain ‘power’, with its associated authority and responsibility at law is passed to a small committee with the larger being reduced, legally, to the role of an advisory committee, then the nature of our governance must be radically altered.

The point about responsibility is very pertinent. General Committee recently discussed it at length and insisted on asserting the central importance of personal responsibility for trustees’ decisions. (Note the apostrophe.) This overwhelming sense of responsibility under the law and the associated sense of their stewardship role colours all the consideration and discussion of people appointed as trustees.

There is a myth that the CC requires trustee bodies to be small. In fact there is no such requirement. The only reference I could find was that they only want up to 50 of the trustees included in the annual return.

It may be accepted that those named as trustees are thereby given control of an organisation. Studying Charity Comm documents it seems to me that at a more fundamental level it’s the other way around. Those who control the organisation are by definition the trustees. So if our organisation is one in which the larger body, Monthly Meeting, controls it, then Monthly Meeting is the trustees. I consider that we should do no other than register that fact with the charity Commission.

As Eddy (one of the Task Group) points out, the Quaker Stewardship Committee (QSC) recommendation defines the role of trustees as ‘more strategic and less operational’ than our current General Committee. Good! MM is the controlling, strategic trustees and General Committee (or something very similar) is the operational executive committee. Disruption of our tradition is minimised.

The only problem with my proposal (other than it’s not what QSC decrees) is that a few members may be disqualified from being trustees. I very much doubt that the CC would refuse our application on those grounds, and one can think of several ways around it. For instance we simply need to record that the list of trustees is the same as the list of members with possibly a few named exceptions. This list need not be public and in fact I doubt that it really need exist other than notionally.

Trusteeship or not, I was already of the opinion that MM would benefit from having an executive committee (i.e. General Committee with an expanded brief) to carry out many of its tasks, especially if we want to achieve the aim that RECAST set, of making MMs less tedious and more spiritually uplifting.

Another point to consider is that General Committee already do more than their Terms of Reference or Rules specify. So what I am proposing is simply to formalise the present reality.

Stephen Petter

Revised 25/3/06

In summary I think there's a fundamental difference between delegating to a committee which as Roger points out we do often, and setting up a group as defined as being in control, which is what is proposed. It is so radical and the sense of responsibility of the incumbents likely to be so strong as to make a fundamental difference to our Society. Our Quaker Business Method, in which we try to be subtly guided by the Spirit, is a delicate flower, easily bruised and crushed.


From Stephen Petter, 145 Oxford Street, Bristol, BS3 4RH. 0117 904 1043


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