Ready to Speak Out: forming the public presence of Quakers today

People interviewed for this project often commented on the way in which distinctly Quaker ways of campaigning – especially working from principles rather than pragmatism and looking to the long term – earn respect among other campaigners and politicians. This can sometimes mean that Quakers are slow to speak out on some issues, especially if they don’t have a united position, but, as Paul Parker, the Recording Clerk of Britain Yearly Meeting, told us for this project, “when [Quakers] are clear, we can go for it and go for it over long periods”. This is produced by the discernment process Quakers use to arrive at their public positions: a long, slow, careful process of seeking clarity which at its best creates a community who are so firmly rooted in their principles that they can continue to take the same positions for centuries.

It means that Quakers only speak out on issues on which they have a high level of unity. Once the discernment has happened, a strong voice can emerge. Paul Parker told us about effect of the 2009 Britain Yearly Meeting decision on same-sex marriage – to treat it equally with opposite-sex marriage – and the way that the unity the yearly meeting had around that enabled Quakers to speak out: “the fact that we were so united on that enabled us to pursue [equal marriage] in the public forum far more confidently than other faith communities were able to”. This decision was, as Rachel Muers has written before, part of “a very long collective process of discernment”. Similar effects can be traced from the 2011 decision to become a low-carbon, sustainable community: in 2013, Quakers became the first church in Britain to divest from fossil fuels.

This approach also means that Quaker positions are not often affected by pragmatic concerns such as the current political climate. Although Quakers as a body do respond to topical issues (see the News page of the main Quakers in Britain site for recent press releases), these responses are based on long-standing discerned principles. The response to a trade agreement is as rooted in ideas from the times of the Foundations and before as any other Quaker statement: the quote in this press release from Helen Drewery, a staff member at Quaker Peace and Social Witness, talks about seeking “economic relationships that reflect our fundamental human equality”. That’s an idea which could have come straight from the committee who wrote the Foundations.