Quakers A-Z: A is for Authority

Authority is something that people often don’t like to accept. Quakers can confuse the idea that everyone is equal before G-D, with the idea that they aren’t leaders or people with authority.

Instead, the Quaker business method and Quaker nominations, with time-limited role appointments, are ultimately there to help spread the load. This prevents burning out willing (but hard-pressed volunteers/employees, and prevents power grabs. Just consider what happens when a dictator takes over, above all, one of the first steps, is to dismantle any structure. This can result in a step-down.

When someone is appointed in a role (whatever that role is called, and whatever the tasks or job description), generally, they are given authority. They have been asked to deal with a matter on behalf of others. Ultimately, this may require telling other people what they can and can’t do. Those areas of authority may overlap and intertwine with others, and that’s o.k.

This blog is part of the Quaker Alphabet Project – click here for more information.

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Examples of Role Authority

The Children’s & Young People’s (CYP) convenor may say, adults can’t help with the CYP activities without checks or permission from the convenor, otherwise parents themselves, have to accept responsibility for their children if something happens. That convenor, and their supporting committee, will make decisions about activities and supplies needed, decide the themes for the next learning period (based on what the adults will be learning after consultation with the Elders), and spend money based on a budget agreed with the treasurer.


Comparatively, the gardening team may use authority to tell people they can:

      • Only pick flowers from certain areas.

      • The CYP team can’t allow run-around games to be played in certain areas.

      • Make decisions about a tree needing to be heavily pruned.

      • Decide what goes into the planters around the front door.

      • Etc…

    Overcoming barriers

    In the same way, clerks get to hear about everything that people would like discussed, or alternatively, have a decision tabled at the next business meeting. That’s a significant part of the role. Another part is to say, “this month is already too full with necessary stuff”, “that isn’t a matter for this meeting – it should be taken to xxxx”. Or, for example, “I’m sorry but that is not in the right ordering and therefore won’t be considered without xxxx”.

    Occasionally, it may be that the group who have appointed the clerk aren’t used to that authority being utilised, or didn’t realise they’d given it. I always remember my first clerking course at Woodbrooke just after my 18th birthday. Frustratedly I asked, “How do I tell people, who still think of me as a young person, to sit down and shut up ’cause they made me the clerk?” Unsurprisingly, this made everyone laugh. Then the facilitator leant forward and solemnly said, “Well, you say just that – ‘sit down and shut up, Friend, you made me clerk!”

    In the ensuing discussion other points were suggested:

        • Reminding people that this is a Quaker MfWfB, not a courtroom, or board room. They should behave as if in worship.

        • Asking Elders to step forward and help hold the meeting to the required discipline.

        • Defining behaviour and ‘The Quaker Business Method’ (so that people who aren’t familiar can learn) is what is expected.

      Have you had similar experiences? Can you give any suggestions on how to help an inexperienced clerk?
      Comment below.

      Further Reading:

      To browse through all of the posts click on the Quaker A-Z link here or in the side bar.

      Download a copy of ‘On Quaker Authority’ by David Clements published in Friends Journal viii.1994

      Find out more about Authority and Transition from Transition Quaker.

      Read the Guide to Quaker Clerking from woodbrooke.org.uk

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