PROPOSALS FOR STRUCTURAL CHANGE IN BRITAIN YEARLY MEETING

By Stephen Petter, January 2003.

All Local Meetings have been asked to reply in April to a number of questions on the subject of the organisation and structure of Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM)..I shall encourage my Meeting to do so. Meanwhile. for what it is worth, here I wish to express my views. I believe I do so from a basis of experience and relevant education. (See footnote.)

Amongst the proposals that I welcome is that Preparative Meetings and Monthly Meetings be renamed and here I shall refer to them as Local and Area Meetings respectively.

I believe we do not need yet another restructuring, but if we are determined to have one we might as well be bold and create an organisation likely to last a few decades. My view is that most of the document's suggestions are far too timid.

1. My most radical suggestion is that Meeting for Sufferings (MfS) should be divested of direct responsibility for what is now called Quaker Peace and Social Witness (QPSW), the main part of which was formerly called Quaker Peace and Service and prior to that Friends Service Council (FSC).

This is the situation in the USA where the many Yearly Meetings make use of American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) but it is not directly controlled by any one of them. AFSC is active both at home and abroad. It clearly retains its Quaker basis but uses non-Quaker staff (as does QPSW). Its governing body must include representatives from several US Yearly Meetings. Our 'Friends Service Council' would be supported mainly by BYM. This could be directly by the YM rather than through MfS. But it might also be supported by and work on behalf of other European YMs and would be free to seek support from and conduct projects for other like-minded NGOs. Most of the smaller European YMs undertake service work in their countries and abroad, and some would wish to preserve their independence, but others might welcome the offer to merge their efforts with a European FSC. At present QPSW has a special relationship with Ireland FSC.

The governance of this European FSC could be modelled on that of Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) - Geneva. For many years it was controlled solely by BYM though supported by other European YMs, but in recent years its governing structure has been reformed to one where most European YMs are represented on its governing body, though BYM retains the largest share.

Moreover, the new EFSC might merge with Quaker Concern for European Affairs.

Originally all our witness was undertaken by individual Friends working under concern with the support of our committees and Yearly Meeting. At a later stage professionals were employed to carry out our work for us, but they remain officially under the control of MfS. As time went on the departments and supporting committee structures developed their own ideas of where their talents lay and what best needed doing. They developed admirable reputations in their various fields of activity. Seldom does MfS lead them, rather they bring MfS along the path that they with their expertise consider the most useful. Thus 'the tail wags the dog'. In my four years on MfS I do not remember any instance where we gave a positive lead to our committees. Nor do I remember any instance where we felt able to reject a proposal that they submitted to us.

N.B. See footnote on my experience.

On one occasion there was considerable disquiet in MfS over a project initiated by one of the sections over which we were supposed to have control, about which we were informed after it had commenced work, and which many felt struck at the roots of one of our testimonies. Despite this we were held until the protestors acquiesced, largely on the grounds that by now the Society had made commitments to outsiders on which it would be embarrassing to renege.

Possibly the only occasion in recent years when a department's own plans were over-ridden it was not by MfS but by an overwhelming expression of concern by Yearly Meeting. MfS was irrelevant. I am quite convinced that had the matter been raised in MfS - which anyway was impossible due to MfS's own unwritten rules - it would had got no-where. Such influence as YM had could as well have been effected through the governance I am proposing. In fact the Department only accepted the work on condition extra funds were raised so that its existing programmes were not affected. If 'EFSC' were as independent as I suggest, and were it not to have agreed, YM might well have undertaken the project itself.

Not only in policy matters but financially, QPSW is highly independent of MfS. The QPS part of QPSW has much funding over which MfS has no control. In recent years when we had a cash flow crisis, QPS, the largest department, was able to carry on despite having almost no income from the MfS budget.

If for no other reason my proposal that we hive off QPSW would put us in a more honest position.

This proposal would leave BYM with a much smaller head office in which the largest department would be what is now called Quaker Life, formerly Quaker Home Service, responsible for all religious, spiritual and life-style aspects of our central work. If our peace and social witness is really to spring out of our worship, then it is the latter which we need to nourish. Besides Quaker Life, "Friends House" through MfS would also continue to service our other essential legal and administrative responsibilities, such as the holding of yearly meetings, internal communications, fundraising, membership lists, Friends Trusts, the library and bookshop, World Relations and Christian and Interfaith activities, etc.

My proposal would make very little difference to the workload of MfS, since decisions of any significance are seldom referred to it by QPSW.

Another advantage might be that (in addition to supporting 'EFSC' with their contributions) local and area meetings might be more inclined to undertake their own peace and social witness activities. Currently there is a fear of stepping on Friends House toes, or otherwise of feeling that since work is carried out by our YM through QPSW, there is no need to do it independently. The Northern Friends Peace Board is the exception that seems to prove an unwritten rule. I know that if one suggests doing work similar to but outwith that done by a Friends House department one can get quite active discouragement. In fact this has to my knowledge extended to attempts by one former department to avoid having YM hear proposals from certain individuals that were not in line with their plans.

2. My second proposal (which would be less pertinent if the first were accepted) is that major sections of Friends House (by which I mean the professional staff and their committees and support groups) could be relocated in the provinces. They could be composed mainly of Friends living nearby. Then some of the very valuable property at Friends House could be leased or sold. This would be a further encouragement of Friends outside London, and would be a step on the Green path.

3. My third suggestion is that Meeting for Sufferings (MfS) should seek nominations for its committees from amongst its own number.

In recent years MfS Nominations Committee has experienced almost insurmountable problems finding names to fill all the positions on national/central committees. People are less willing to agree to be nominated, and frequently representatives ask for early release. One problem is that the members of Nominations cannot know enough Friends. Hence the suggestion that Area Meetings nominate people to form a central pool from which MfS Nominations Committee can make appointments. I feel that this suggestion is unlikely to be accepted. My suggestion is a variant. Area Meeting already accept the task of finding Friends to serve on MfS. Let these in effect be the pool. MfS would need to remain the same size.

A disadvantage will be seen as that of asking a potential MfS representative to lay him or her self open to another central nomination. This might be alleviated by releasing MfS representatives from all local committees.

The advantages however are several. Not least that as a MfS representative on another central committee the Friend is more likely to convey the attitude of MfS. Currently many representatives of MfS are not nor have ever been members of MfS. Reporting back to MfS is very rare and formal. Another advantage is that as a member of MfS a representative will have much more confidence based on their detailed knowledge of some of its committees' work. It would also make members of MfS more aware of the organisation for which they are responsible. Even familiarity with Friends House itself, having been there when it is at work (MfS meetings are held at weekends when the staff are away) would be empowering. Many members of MfS when I served on it felt intimidated and too inexperienced to take a full part in the deliberations (in fact my opinion was that this was the major problem of MfS).

4. Reduction in size of Meeting for Sufferings. After much consideration I remain convinced that the oft-repeated problems of MfS are in no way due to its size. (It has over 150 members, mostly nominees of Monthly Meetings, with large MMs having several representatives.)

I consider it essential that MfS continues to consist mainly of representatives from Area Meetings. I consider that the pressure is currently for greater centralism, for the sake of managerial efficiency, and while I do not disagree with this movement I consider it essential that the centralised, efficient organisation be led and controlled effectively by the membership. By membership I mean not only those who take an active part in central and area committees, but those with little interest beyond their local worship group, other than a vague awareness and a willingness to contribute financially. These are the Friends who need to feel that what is done in their name is really relevant and worthy of support. There are many effective competitors for these Friends' attention, such as Greenpeace, the Stop the War Coalition, Amnesty International, and the calls of other denomiations and faiths (e.g. the C of E under its new leader).

(Where I consider it impracical, if not inherently impossible, for the work to be ' led and controlled effectively by the membership', i.e. in the case of former QPS, I suggest it becomes independant in theory as in deed.)

(While serving on MfS I became convinced that the main problem was that its members felt overawed by Friends House, and that many were not aware of their responsibilities and authority. For instance when in a speech to MfS I mentioned in passing that we were Trustees it emerged that many members had not realised this. One Friend was so shocked by the news he asked to be released! After I left a reform was introduced, in which new members of MfS received some induction training. The only 'training' my intake received was a session to convince us of the need to convey the centre's needs to our local meetings, and how best to do so. I do not think this state of affairs happened by accident. Some years previously, we were told, MfS had been a very ill-disciplined meeting, with members insisting on discussing details rather than only broad policy, and efforts had been made to regulate it. I felt the regulation had been overdone.)

4.a. An effective way to reduce the size of MfS would be by not including all the current ex officio members. Most of these are Friends House staff who, I strongly feel, should only be required to attend MfS as resources for information and advice. In Parliament, and in local government councils, the senior staff sit to one side, available if need be. When I served on MfS I felt that the presence of the senior staff from each of the departments (though individually admirable persons) was inhibiting. On occasions when they felt threatened or under criticism some of them would defend themselves very vigorously. Moreover, when discussing a complex subject, the knowledge that the expert was present was inhibiting. Surely, one thought, he or she will contribute to the discussion. But often the debate was over and the staff person had contributed nothing. One wondered if they had discussed the matter with the Clerk previously. In fact one often felt manipulated. If one had some knowledge of a subject one might notice a relevant (and often helpful) clause in the Minute which had not been expressed in the discussion.

4.b. However, if it is felt essential that the membership of MfS be further reduced, this might be by having only one representative from each Area Meeting. As it is important that they quickly become familiar with and confident in their role I would not like to see arrangements for alternates. The purpose of MfS is not personal enrichment, nor outwards communication, but active participation in the direction and control of the Society.

5. General Meetings should cease to be an essential part of the structure. They do indeed take talented people away from the much more important area and central organisations. Those whose constituents feel a need to continue to meet should be encouraged to do so but their status would be similar to that of recognised special interest groups.

Some General Meetings have responsibilities such as oversight of Friends Schools. These duties could be continued by special multi-MM committees. For instance in west London several Monthly Meetings (rather than the GM) work together to administer Jordans Burial Ground.

6. However there needs to be regional consultative committees, one in each of the new national regions. The main function of these Quaker Regional Consultative Committees would be to appoint representatives to and hear reports from other regional organisations, both secular and religious.

Friends seem not to have recognised the recent evolution of these regional structures. As far as I am aware many or all bodies with which we have contact are restructuring themselves to line up with them. They cover greater areas than our General Meetings. I am rather shocked by the LR Group's dismissal of the new regional structures.

Quaker Regional Consultative Committees would have similar lack of policy-making power as Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC). FWCC has the duty to offer co-ordinating advice to its constituent YMs, but not to decide policy. One of its most important functions is to provide representation of Quakers world wide on international bodies such as the United Nations.

Quaker Regional Consultative Committees would consist of representatives from all Area Meetings in the region. The number per Area Meeting might be set on the same basis as MfS currently, i.e. the number being proportional to the number of members of the area meeting.

7. We might consider forming British or European versions of FCNL (Friends Committee for National Legislation), and of FCUN (Unity with Nature), the American Quakers' political lobbying and campaigning organisations.

Both of these are independent of any one Yearly Meeting. In our case the governance model could be the same as suggested above for our Peace and Witness activities.

One of our most successful initiatives of recent years has been the appointment of a Parliamentary Liaison Officer. We should build on this success, and at the same time meet the continual demands that our Quaker voice be better heard, by creating a new, largely independent body to expand this activity, and take it into the EU.

As for Environmental concerns, there is a growing pressure in BYM and other European YMs for us to recognise environmentalism as another Quaker Testimony. Many feel that the Green movement and Quaker attitudes to stewardship of the Earth and maintenance of diversity are almost identical. In America in recent years FCUN has become active in encouraging changes of lifestyle and exerting pressures to support the environmental movement. The expression 'Unity with Nature' seems to me very apposite and very Quakerly. Would that we could follow their example!

8. I feel we should also be far more active and visible in Christian and Inter-Faith bodies. Whatever is decided I earnestly hope our CIR committee retains its present high profile position in BYM and is not subsumed under another central committee.

9. The Representative Councils could be laid down. They seem to me (who admittedly has never attended one) to serve little purpose other than to the members themselves.

However all departments and sections could hold conferences and open days frequently - at least every three years. Better, why not precede each Yearly Meeting in London with a day of conferences, one to be held by each major area of work, at the same time having Friends House becoming Open House?

SP 1/1/03

Footnote: My experience and education:

I speak from some experience in the past 30 years of service in the committee structures of BYM and another YM. I have served as a Clerk to a Monthly Meeting (Orlando, Florida) as an Overseer and an Elder and as Clerk to the Premises Committee of a busy Meeting House (Westminster), on a Central Committee, on Meeting for Sufferings and as a representative of BYM on FWCC. On the latter I served on the Executive Committee of the European and Middle East Section. While on MfS I took a particular interest in its functioning. This service on Quaker committees (and on many others in political parties and local government) plus taking a relevant degree in the Open University gives me the confidence to express what I realise will be for some rather startling suggestions.

11th January. On further reflection I feel I should add the following cautionary note:

It should be noted that the experience of service on Quaker Committees, including MfS, to which I refer above, was gained some years ago, (e.g. MfS 1997-2000) since when there have been changes such as amalgamation of departments and appointment of new senior staff. Therefore some of the situations and problems I mention may have been changed.

Ironically, Friends may be hesitant to make critical comments about central work because either they have not undertaken it so feel unqualified to comment, or are serving so feel a sense of loyalty or obligation not to 'go public', or having completed service, initially feel very relieved and unwilling to revive bad memories, then later, concerned that things may have changed. Thus few Friends criticise openly. But my experience, as a rather critical and outspoken member of MfS, is that many many Friends privately give one encouragemret to continue to express concerns they share but feel unable to voice.

 

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