Plain in the city

A plain Quaker folk singer with a Juris Doctorate in his back pocket, salt in his blood, and a set of currach oars in the closet, Ulleann Pipes under his arm, guitar on his back, Anglo Irish baggage, wandering through New York City ... in constant amaze. Statement of Faithfulness. As a member of the Quaker Bloggers Ad Hoc Committee I affirm that I will be faithful to the Book of Discipline of my Meeting 15th Street Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Have We Friends Invented a Clergy in Trustees?

Our Religious Society of Friends is not a religion of practicalities. Ours is a religion of ideals over exigencies. It is a sink or swim experiment in love of God in each other which gave us the strength of will to oppose all aspects of slavery, to feed Germans after the great war, and barter with Hitler for Jewish lives during the dark days of nazism. It gave us the will and want to be tortured in jails rather than fight, and to send medical help to North Vietnam.

There is always a great danger in a small group "doing" for the many. It breeds dependence, not the independence which drove a capable and courage group of spiritual pioneers. It also breeds contempt of those led by the leaders. We have inherited a great tradition. It is for each of us, working together in love and faith to keep that tradition alive. If we have to do it through artificial means, the great experiment of our faith is lost and we should lay down this society. I am not about to do that yet.

However, there is a serious breach of faith and fortitude in our maintenance of Trustees as an institution which can make decisions without the direction of the Meeting. This is the only body in our Meeting with no oversight from the Meeting, and no answerability. Nominations are made at the same corporation meeting with a single reading and no prior publication so no objections can be made, unless there is some leaking of information to some in the Meeting.

My objection to the power of Trustees to act and decide does not come from a lack of trust any other Friend. The truth is that even the best of us, when given the power to act without the unity of the Meeting behind us, will, in what we perceive to be interest of the Meeting. This is a power given to Trustees, not by the Meeting, but by the State, a power whose truth we have never accepted in our history as being authority over that of God.

Trustees should have no power to make any discussion of any matter within the society of Friends without the oversight of the Meeting and without the clearly expressed unity of the Meeting. English Meetings have survived for three hundred and fifty years without the institution of Trustees. Though the state dictates that we must have trustees, to be a truly Quaker body, they must have no power not directed by the corporate body gathered in worship.

We are told by some Trustees, again and again, that they are made responsible by the state and therefore must act to preserve their own legal liability. This argument does not move me. We cannot force trustees to act, as they are part of the process of coming to unity. Most liability flows when they act, not when they do not.

If in fact, in order to maintain property, we need Trustees, then Quakerism does not work, and we should hire clergy and declare that we have become Protestant. I am not a Protestant. I am a Quaker, raised up in a Utopian faith, believing in the power of God and God's love to guide us in all our Meetings labor, large decisions as well as small.

Friends have risked life and liberty for our faith, we should be ready to risk property as well.


At 3:56 PM, Blogger Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Lorcan--I'm confused. At what level--monthly meeting, yearly meeting, or an association (like FGC or FUM) are these trustees? I'm pretty sure we don't have "trustees"--at least under that name--at our monthly meeting, though I know that committees are often called by different names in different meetings, and that different monthly meetings (at least of liberal, unprogrammed Quakers) are often organized a bit differently.

(Which makes sense, when I think about the meetings in our quarter, which vary in numbers from hundreds of members to perhaps a dozen...)

At 7:21 PM, Blogger Lorcan said...

In New England, as we were the seat of the Hicksite\Orthodox split, our meetings were asked to appoint trustees in the wake of the schism (1828). So our property is held by corporations with trustees ... can be problematic. So it is not a matter of liberal and conservative, both had trustees, and now, our meeting, which is both liberal and orthodox, has trustees.

At 8:09 PM, Blogger earthfreak (Pam) said...


our meeting has trustees, and it has never bothered me.

Of course they don't actually do anything, but sign papers once the meeting has made a decision (I think they were more active when we were buying and building on the land we have now)

I guess I'm confused as well, is thee saying that we should give up holding property (a proposition I'm not averse to considering) because by its very nature the office of trustee is antithetical to quakerism? Or simply that trustees must be beholden to the entire meeting for their "power" (which I wholeheartedly agree with!)

Property in itself is a problematic question. As are any of those places where we intersect with the non-quaker world and our value system seems rendered "impractical"



At 5:08 AM, Blogger Lorcan said...

Hi Pam:

I'm saying the second... we should own property, but that trustees should have no power to decide, but rather, as a creation of the state, they should be bound totally to Quaker process, they should be a rubber stamp for the Meeting's unity.

There have been a few times when Trustees in our meetings seem to have acted on their own authority... I would say they should have NO authority. They only exist as a function of the state, not the Quaker meeting.

Thine in the light

At 8:25 AM, Blogger James Riemermann said...

Hi, Lorcan,

My confusion is a little like Pam's, and your last comment didn't totally clear it up for me.

It is true, I think, that the trustees *technically* have the power to take major actions without the meeting's approval. But in my meeting there is agreement that they are not to do that. They do what the meeting specifically allows and empowers them to do.

Likewise, as a free man I technically have the power to put out a newsletter that misrepresents my community, speaks for them in a way I have no right to do. But as a Friend I do my best to be faithful and not do that.

If a particular meeting has trustees that regularly go beyond what the meeting has entrusted them to do, that is a problem. But I'm not sure I see the institution of trustees as the problem there, but a meeting's failure to exercise proper oversight of its trustees.

Am I misunderstanding?

At 6:34 PM, Blogger Liz Opp said...

Hi, Lorcan.

I am of the same spirit as Pam and James. ...If the trustees are too entrenched in "the way things have always been," perhaps the clerks and/or M&C of the yearly meeting might be asked to meet with the trustees and others in the monthly meeting, to help restore the decision-making power and corporate discernment where, in my understanding, it rests:

with the monthly meeting and its Meeting for Worship with attention to Business.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

At 5:11 PM, Blogger Heather Madrone said...


We don't have Trustees in our monthly Meeting, so I'm not familiar with the set-up. In our Meeting, we have a Meetinghouse committee to handle issues related to our property

Is it the custom of many Meetings to have nominations approved without seasoning? Except in rare circumstances, nominations in our Meeting are seasoned for a month before coming before the Meeting for approval.

At 9:37 AM, Blogger Linda said...

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At 1:36 PM, Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

Without addressing all the issues Lorcan has raised, I may be able to help clarify the situation I believe he is talking about. In one of he comments he begins by saying "In New England...", but unless he says I'm wrong I think he mean to say "In New York City...".

I wasn't aware that this had anything to do with the schisms of 1828, but I can confirm that much of the property of New York City Friends - - including two of our three meetinghouses (Brooklyn and 15th Street but not Flushing), our cemetery in Prospect Park, and a substantial endowment in stocks and bonds - - is held by a "corporation" which elects trustees. The corporation or its trustees also employ an administrator and a small staff to care for the property. I believe that the same corporation also owns the Friends Seminary, the Brooklyn Friends School, and the Mary McDowell School, but I am somewhat unsure of this and would be glad to be corrected if I am wrong. This corporation is not an alien body. Its membership is defined as being the same as the membership of New York Quarterly Meeting, which in turn is the sum of the membership of all the constitutent monthly meetings. So in effect all Friends in New York are members of the corporation.

The corporation "meets" once a year for the sole purpose of "electing" trustees. This is done in a quaint procedure that takes place at a predetermined time in the middle of the April session of the Quarterly Meeting itself. The Quarter's business session is briefly adjourned, the Quarter's clerk withdraws from the clerk's table, the clerk of Trustees calls the meeting of the corporation to order, nominations for the vacant slots on Trustees are read, generally speaking they are then immediately approved by sense of the meeting (not by voting) and are thereby said to be "elected", the meeting of the Corporation adjourns, the clerk of the Quarterly Meeting resumes her or his seat, and Quarerly Meeting for Business (which is typically a rather lengthy proceeding) resumes. These annual meetings of the corporation are always preceded by public announcements at meetings for worship for three consecutive weeks so as to ensure, as required by law, that the members of the corporation (all us Friends) are aware that it is happening.

Lorcan says that the trustees are ...the only body in our Meeting with no oversight from the Meeting, and no answerability. Nominations are made at the same corporation meeting with a single reading and no prior publication so no objections can be made, unless there is some leaking of information to some in the Meeting. I feel that this is an exaggeration. They are answerable to all of us in the formal sense that we don't have to re-nominate or re-approve them when their terms are up if we don't want to. They are also "answerable" in the informal sense that they are part of our Quaker community, interact with others in it, and can be labored with at any time if concerns arise. I also know of at least two trustees who were nominated and elected precisely because many Friends felt their points of view about various property-related issues needed to be represented, so it is entirely possible for Friends generally to influence the direction of the trusees over the long term. I have also been under the impression, though Lorcan may be right and I may be wrong, that the "nominations" brought to that meeting of the corporation have usually already been brought to the Quarterly Meeting itself or to the constituent meetings through our usual nomination/appointment procedure, which includes readings of the names at two meetings. The actual election is a more or less pro forma exercise to give legal effect to what has already been almost-finally decided by the Quarterly Meeting itself. If this is not the case, I see no reason that it couldn't become the case. As far as I know no one is agitating to keep these nominations under wraps. Finally, I know that the trustees regularly report to the Quarterly Meeting and that they respond to questions from the floor. Their investment All of this represents a distinct improvement from the days (back in the early 1970's) when the trustees were widely perceived to be insensitive to issues such as investment in defense-related industries.

Currently many Friends in New York are exercised by some issues regarding the relationship of our schools to our meetings, both at the monthly meeting and quarterly meeting level. Such issues naturally arouse feelings on all sides, as well as questions about who has authority to decide what. I think (and, again, he can correct me if I am wrong) Lorcan's concerns arise in that context.


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