Monday, 10 November 2008

Persons and Functions

One of the great virtues of Quaker practice is that it makes a clear distinction between persons and what they do. It is refreshing to not be defined by what one does, and equally refreshing to discover by accident what others do or have done.

This practice is built into our structure. Meetings have clerks and convenors, not chairpersons. Minutes are agreed by all present, not by an executive. Persons are nominated to a task, they do not apply or get voted in. The need for tasks is discerned, and laid down when no longer required.

However, this is very hard to interpret in the world or even to one another. When one does things, results are evident (or not if done badly). We like to find out who made such and such a decision, who authorised this or that. We want responsibility to rest with individuals, so we can call them to account. But in a Quaker meeting, all our accountable, concerns are turned into action by the whole meeting.

Thus we achieve the primacy of the personal over the functional. I am a member of a community, not a functionary in an organisation. I am not a member of a society, I belong to a community. ‘Membership’ is an outward sign, and has no significance in the community. It is akin to ‘marriage’, where the ‘piece of paper’ only means something to the tax inspector.

George Fox saw vividly the failure of the church in his day. It had become an organisation. His genius was to set up the Society of Friends (of Truth) to make it very difficult for us to suffer the same corruption.

‘… it is salutary to remember that all of us can fall into apostasy if we lose our sense of the pre-eminence of the inward truth over the outward order in which it is embodied and expressed.’ (from Britain Yearly Meeting Quaker submission to World Council of Churches on the Nature and Mission of the Church, MfS 2008).

So now our Yearly Meeting Recording Clerk can be known as a CEO (Chief Executive Officer). I for one will be very nervous about attending a business meeting where the person at the table cannot tell the difference between clerking and executing.

For the difference is categorical.

We needs must *do* things to at least get our daily bread, but we do these things in order to make space for us to *be* persons in community. The Yearly Meeting should be the ultimate expression of British Quakers *being* together.

When I talk to people about Quakers and how they do business, I make it very very clear indeed that the conventional model of chairperson and or executive is completely invalid. We have these seemingly anachronistic words for our key activities precisely for this reason – they are only anachronistic by dint of minority usage.

I highlighted this same category error in an earlier blog in response to the Long term Framework questionnaire (

If there is not a word for something, it does not exist. Ask the Inuit about snow. If we stop using special words for our almost unique way of coming together, we will quickly slip into just doing things the same way as everyone else. The pearl of great price will have been trampled on by swine.

Phew! I managed all the above without using religious or spiritual language. Just two biblical allusions for the cognoscenti to spot. This was deliberate. If we dispense with spiritual and religious language we will be even more lost. For religious and spiritual language *describe* something categorically different: Community and being. Persons distinct from functions. Friendship and love. Community and being does not result in something concrete that can be demonstrated, so we have worship and celebration and ritual and we needs must talk of sin and redemption and atonement and forgiveness and immanence and transcendence and…and…, for these are the characteristics of beings in community.

Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our debts
As we have forgiven our debtors;
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.

For only then will the kingdom come.

The title of this blog, “Persons and Functions” is the title of a series of BBC radio broadcast talks by the moral philosopher and (at the end of his life) Quaker, John Macmurray, published in The Listener, 26 (1941) pp. 759; 787; 822; 856. Macmurray, like C.S. Lewis in ‘The Abolition of Man’ (; full text here: saw more clearly than I ever can the truth of the error I have attempted to point out.


Martin Kelley said...

Hi Gordon, unfortunately mainstream management ideas are very entrenched in a lot of big Quaker institutions.

The executives are well-meaning I'm sure but it's the old saw that when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail. Here in the states, some orgs think every problem results from the lack of program and we're very program-centric for a people who proudly declare ourselves unprogrammed. FWIW, I've been hoping that blogs and other forms of electronic organizing will help balance the situation more and give us ways to bypass some of the hierarchy to laterally connect.

Thanks for your post, you really hit the nail on the head, grin!

Anonymous said...

Veering slightly off the point of your (shrewd) post, I don't think it's like marriage at all:

"It is akin to ‘marriage’, where the ‘piece of paper’ only means something to the tax inspector."

And to the immigration officer, the social workers and justice system when you have kids, the hospital where your partner may not be in a fit state to consent to treatment (especially abroad), the legal system when it comes to inheritance, and a whole host of other legal/social areas. Only people who have the privilege of access to marriage can be so blithe about it.

David Carl said...


You wrote,

"So now our Yearly Meeting Recording Clerk can be known as a CEO (Chief Executive Officer)."

I may have missed something in your post, but, how so?

Gordon Ferguson said...

David Carl, Britain Yearly Meeting Trustees agreed that the term 'Cheif Executive Officer' may be used, at their meeting of 7-8th March 2008. You can read a press release using the term here: (for 12th March). You can also read a letter in The Friend about it here:

Gordon Ferguson said...

Anonymous: Sorry to sound so blithe - In my view it is a sympton of the problem I describe that results in people being denied that 'piece of paper' - the sooner we can have the law (functional) truely separated from religion (personal) and it be possible in law for any two people (or even groups of people) to be recognised as having a social relationship, and therefore to receive benefits under law, the better. You can be assured that this sort of thing makes my blood boil, such as the diabolical H8 proposition in California.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Beautiful apology gladly accepted - I hope you'll accept mine; when I reread my comment, it sounds perhaps a little (and unintentionally) harsh.

Anonymous said...

Dear Friend
There is always a problem with titles even within Friends when they confuse role with power but further to that when they believe because they have the role they have the power to do things. The one I am am thinking about was when I thought that I was being Eldered, which I would accept, but it turned out to be one Elder's view without reference to other's.
There are many in Friends now who have come from a managerial background/ladder climb that they cannot make the mental distinction between the secular and the spititual in terms of service to the Meeting - especially if you accept roles in Friends.