Britain's Quakers have for the first time agreed to allow non-Quaker journalists to report on their Yearly Meeting, at which key decisions are made about the movement's future. The media will be allowed to attend from next year.
This year's Yearly Meeting, which concluded on Monday (31 May), included two sessions of intense discussion on the question, which has concerned British Quakers for some years. Views were strong on both sides, but several contributors said that their own opinions had changed and that they were now inclined to support the inclusion of non-Quaker journalists at their meetings.
Quaker journalists have attended for some time, mainly from the British Quaker magazine The Friend. Some have questioned the consistency of this approach, given that The Friend is an independent publication and not owned by the Quaker organisation.
The decision was motivated in part by a survey last year which revealed that many people regarded Quakers as “secretive”, a description they are keen to avoid.
Although Quakers first considered inviting the media over thirty years ago, the issue became more pressing after the 2009 Yearly Meeting, when Quakers agreed to carry out same-sex marriages, provoking a surge of media interest.
There are about 23,000 Quakers in Britain. They are known more formally as the Religious Society of Friends.
The Society has a unique method of decision-making, which involves meeting in an attitude of worship and seeking the Holy Spirit's guidance. Some argue that this involves everyone present having a worshipful approach and that the method would therefore be undermined by the presence of secular reporters.
But others point out that Yearly Meeting already includes non-Quakers, in the form of official representatives of other faith groups. In addition, some opponents of the move admit to being motivated by fear of how Friends would be described in the media.
The Friend reports that one participant in the discussions said, “We may find details reported that have no great importance – and points of enormous importance to us that are not reported”.
But others disagreed. One said, “I would rather be misrepresented by a journalist who attended, who actually heard what I said, than not be represented at all”.
Another suggested that there was no need to fear the media if Friends “have confidence in our processes and discipline and in our Quaker ways.”
Concern was expressed about the tendency to stereotype journalists, who were described by one participant as “an unpleasant group”. Others encouraged Friends to welcome the media and even to hope that journalists would be positively affected by their experience of Quakers. Oliver Goldsmith was quoted: “Some who came to mock remained to pray”.
While journalists will be invited from next year, the Quaker Communications Department has been asked to work out the details with sensitivity. It is likely that media will still be excluded from certain sessions and be asked to respect Quaker conventions.
The Religious Society of Friends was founded in Britain in the seventeenth century on the basis of a distinctive interpretation of Christianity.
Quakers emphasise that everyone can find God inwardly and that this experience should lead to living differently. The early Quaker leader George Fox said, “Christ has come to teach his people himself”. Quakers have come to be associated with a strong commitment to peace, equality and the recognition of God's light in everyone.