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Organization of the
Society of Friends
by Bill Samuel
Originally published September 9, 2001 at Suite101.com
As the Quaker (Friends) movement developed in the middle of the seventeenth century, it needed to develop an organizational structure. Friends developed the basic structure that in large part has continued on until today even before they had a formal membership system. The system involves three levels of bodies conducting significant business, each named after their frequency of meeting to conduct business.
As the system developed, each larger body had authority over the smaller bodies which comprised its membership. This is still true in many places today, but in other places the larger bodies have become associations of the smaller bodies without clear authority over the member bodies.
There has really never been a centralized body with authority over all Friends. Ties were maintained through intervisitation and correspondence in the first couple of centuries. Since then, Friends have developed a number of associations at a larger level of organization than had been done in the past, but none of these have had any authority over the member bodies.
Monthly MeetingsThe smallest significant business structure in the Society of Friends (Quakers) is the monthly meeting. As it developed in Great Britain, the monthly meeting was composed of several local worshipping groups called preparative meetings. British Friends continue to follow this system. Kenyan Friends follow the same system, but call their local worshipping groups village meetings.
In North America, it is more common for the monthly meeting to be composed of just one permanent worshipping group. Preparative meetings are usually meetings in development which will become monthly meetings in time.
The monthly frequency of congregational meetings for business continues to be common practice today. However, some Friends churches have less frequent general meetings for business for the whole congregation.
Quarterly MeetingsThe next step up in the organization was the quarterly meeting, composed of several monthly meetings. This is the level in which there has been the most change over time. In some places, quarterly meetings continue in the historical pattern. But in many places, they have lost most of their business functions, meet less frequently, or do not exist at all. Where intermediate bodies do exist, they may be known by other names such as half-yearly meeting, regional meeting or general meeting.
Yearly MeetingsThe largest traditional organizational structure for Friends was the yearly meeting, composed of several quarterly meetings. This structure still exists almost everywhere in Friends today. Usually, the term "yearly meeting" is used in two different ways. The same term is used for the organization itself, which often today will have an office and staff, and for its annual business sessions. In a few cases today, the organization no longer uses yearly meeting in its name. There are also a few cases where the organization holds general meetings for business more frequently than once a year. The meeting times and places of yearly meetings are published in a Calendar of Yearly Meetings, available both in print and in an online version.
Associations of Yearly MeetingsMost North American yearly meetings suffered a schism in 1827-28, resulting in "Orthodox" and "Hicksite" branches of the Society of Friends. (See the Background section of Realignment Among North American Friends? for more information.) The yearly meetings of each branch did not engage in any official communicatins with those of the other branch.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the yearly meetings of each branch increasingly worked together on common areas of concern, such as missions and the development of Christian education materials. More and more often, representatives of different yearly meetings would meet together. This move towards working together resulted in the creation of the Friends General Conference in 1900 for the Hicksite branch and the Five Years Meeting of Friends (later renamed Friends United Meeting) in 1902 for the Orthodox branch. Evangelical Friends began joint work much later, and are now organized as Evangelical Friends International. The three "Beanite" yearly meetings have a joint publication and other joint activities, but no formal association.
These associations were all formed in North America. However, due to missions activity, the Orthodox and Evangelical associations now include member yearly meetings from other parts of the world. In each of them, the North American membership is a minority of the total membership. Yearly meetings outside of North America not resulting from mission work of those two branches (as well as a few North American yearly meetings) are not part of associations of this kind.
Friends World Committee for ConsultationIn the twentieth century, serious efforts began to bring together Friends across international boundaries and theological differences for consultation. World conferences began to be held periodically starting in 1920. The 1937 conference decided to establish the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC).
The FWCC has no authority over member bodies of Friends, but rather exists to foster communication and consultation. It holds conferences, has a newsletter and publishes a Calendar of Yearly Meetings. It has four geographical sections, each of which covers at least a continent.
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