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Frequently Asked Questions

Various questions and answers about all aspects of Quakers and their practices.

What are your central beliefs?
 
We believe that in every human being there exists the capacity to respond to God's Spirit within ourselves and in others. We call this, "that of God in everyone" or "the Inner Light." This belief arises from first-hand personal experience, found inwardly to be true and valuable. The experience of our Society has been that the truest and most valuable way of life is the religion of love taught by Jesus Christ. Friends believe that each person is precious, unique and of equal worth in the sight of God. It is the experience and discernment of inward Truth that guides our lives.
 
Quakers emphasise the inward spiritual reality that is often symbolised outwardly in other churches by traditional ceremonies and sacraments. Baptism means an inward, spiritual experience of God, not a ritual act, and communion is also of the Spirit, a conscious openness to and communication with God. All of life, when lived in the Spirit is sacramental. There is no division between the secular and the religious.
 
Meeting for Worship is the central activity of our faith. In New Zealand, worship is based in silence, which provides a pattern for our lives of focussing attention on what is essential and eternal, without distraction by the transitory or the trivial. Truth is usually discovered in quiet, undistracted waiting for the leadings of God in the human heart, in humble simplicity of spirit.
 
Silence is greatly valued by Friends. In removing pressure and hurry, it helps us to be aware of the inner and deeper meaning of our individual lives and corporate life. This silence is more than the absence of sound. One can be aware of external sounds but not be distracted by them. The silence of Meeting for Worship is different from that experienced in traditional, solitary meditation. The listening and waiting in a Meeting for Worship is a shared experience in which worshippers seek to be aware of God's presence.
 
Friends have found that the Light of God may illuminate a gathered group as well as an individual heart and bind the group together in a community of faith, conscience and experience. Friends try to see and affirm in one another the divine potential, "the Seed," "the Spirit of Christ," "the Light within."
What do you believe about humanity's origin and future?
 
Amongst Friends we hold a variety of views on these subjects. However, outwardly we are less concerned with speculation and theories on humanity's origin and an afterlife, than with practical efforts to bring in the Kingdom of God, here and now, on this earth. We believe that humanity is evolving, through a continuing act of creation. We are called upon by God to cooperate in this process, by helping one another develop to the full our God-given potential.
How did the Quaker faith arise?
 
In the 17th Century England was in political, religious and social turmoil. The Bible had only just come into common circulation in English translation and was widely read and quoted. Clergy and Preachers were for the first time challenged on their own ground. The founder of the Quaker faith was George Fox (1624-1691), a seeker in England who strove to rediscover the essential truths of Christianity. At a time of spiritual despair after hearing many Clergy and Preachers who could not meet his deepest need or show him ultimate Truth, he heard an inner voice saying, "There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition." "And when I heard it," he wrote, "my heart did leap for joy." It was the beginning of a Spirit-filled and Spirit-led ministry through which he gathered followers in a remarkable Charismatic movement, based on response to the Inward Light of Christ and a commitment to live and act accordingly. As a result, Fox and his followers were persecuted, tortured and imprisoned both by Oliver Cromwell's Puritan government and the restored government of King Charles II.
 
The persecution of Friends helped to spread their radical understanding and experience of the Gospel throughout the world, especially into Europe and America. Eventually, in partnership with Margaret Fell and other gifted Friends, he organised the movement into the Religious Society of Friends. The movement of seekers that followed George Fox was known briefly as "Children of the Light," then as "Friends of Truth," before being known as "Friends" and "Quakers". From its beginning, the Religious Society of Friends has been one of the historic peace churches.
What are your sources of authority?
 
Our primary source is God's Spirit or Light, within and beyond ourselves. This Light is confirmed or amended by reference to the life and teaching of Jesus, and to the shared wisdom of Friends (Quakers) past and present.
 
Since every human being can have direct access to God, just as God has immediate access to every person, Quakers find that intermediaries are not necessary. Therefore we have no professional priests or ministers. We have a tradition of vocal and pastoral ministry that is open to all Friends. In our Meetings for Worship it is possible that any one of us, moved by God's Spirit, could speak with the same kind of inspiration with which the prophets and apostles spoke in Biblical times.
 
Some Friends know and love the Scriptures. As George Fox made clear, they need to be read in the Spirit in which they were written. In this way, the same Holy Spirit that has inspired the scriptures in the past can inspire living believers centuries later. Friends find guidance and spiritual encouragement in the Bible, but do not make the Bible the final test of right conduct and true teaching. Divine revelation is continuing, not confined to the past.
 
The authority of individual experience, illumined by the Light of God, is balanced by the authority of the worshipping group which offers a gentle discipline by seeking to discern, corporately, the leading of the Spirit in all matters relating to the Meeting.
What books or writings do you follow?
 
For our guidance and encouragement we have Quaker Faith and Practice, the book of Christian discipline of Britain Yearly Meeting, and Quaker Faith and Practice in Aotearoa/New Zealand, both being anthologies of Friends' writings over 350 years. In addition, the Quaker Handbook of Aotearoa/New Zealand Yearly Meeting, deals with matters of process and organisation. Two small booklets, the Advices and Queries (Britain Yearly Meeting) and Questions and Counsel (Aotearoa/New Zealand Yearly Meeting), offer guidelines for living in a Quaker way.
How do you view the Bible?
 
As Friends, we are encouraged to be open to new light from whatever source it may come. Some Friends find such light in the Bible, liberally interpreted, especially in the New Testament accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus.
 
We do not regard the words of the Bible as the final authority in matters of doctrine, morality, or church government; that function belongs to the Spirit of God who inspired these writings. The words of the Bible transmit to us, in human language, revelations given in the past to inspired but fallible men and women like ourselves. Therefore they must be interpreted in the same Spirit as that in which they were written and applied to our circumstances in our own time, in the light of our present knowledge.
 
We also value spiritual and other insights expressed in the work of a wide variety of other writers, including mystics and thinkers of Christian and other religions. In whatever we read, we regard as all important the discernment of the Spirit behind the written words.
What is your view on creeds and theology?
 
Quakers have beliefs, but do not formulate them into a creed or statement of faith as a test for applying for membership. Quakers have always been more concerned with being led by the Spirit than with precise definitions. There are Quaker theologies, though not often referred to. Wary of being caught up in debating abstractions that are not connected with life, Advices and Queries reminds us that "Christianity is not a notion but a way."
What is your approach to morality and values?
 
We think the best way to teach is by example. Our tradition includes "testimony" in a number of areas of special concern to us, expressing values that arise naturally from our faith. A testimony is a witness to the living Truth within the human heart as it is acted out in everyday life. It is not a form of words, but a mode of life based on the realisation that there is something of God in every person, that all human beings are of equal value, and that all life is interconnected. It is affirmative, but may lead to action that runs counter to certain practices currently accepted in society at large.
 
Testimonies reflect the corporate beliefs of the Religious Society of Friends, though individual Friends may interpret them differently according to their own light. They are not 'optional extras' but fruits that grow from our faith. They include testimony to Integrity, to Peace, to Equality, to Simplicity and to Community.
How are Friends' testimonies expressed?
The testimonies are expressed in actions and attitudes such as the following:
 
  • Rejecting war and all preparation for it as contrary to the spirit and teaching of Jesus, trying to regulate our lives so that we do not contribute to the causes of strife and war, and working for reconciliation and loving relationships between individuals, communities and nations.
  • Caring for victims of war - the wounded, amputees, refugees, and immigrants
  • Resisting all forms of injustice, oppression, slavery, exploitation, greed, waste and discrimination.
  • Recognising the equal worth and rights of all regardless of race, age, gender, social class, sexual orientation, disability, and socio-economic status, etc;
  • Supporting freedom of conscience, individual responsibility and courage, opposition to torture, tolerance of dissent.
  • Simplicity of lifestyles, promoting right sharing of world resources, reverence for the environment, and conservation of resources and habitats.
  • A responsible attitude to alcohol, tobacco, drugs, gaming and other addictive substances and processes, and the avoidance of exploitative sexual relationships.
  • Adherence to truth, straight speech, business integrity, refusal to swear oaths in court (as this implies a double standard of truthfulness, an affirmation is used instead).
  • Encouragement of sound science, education, open-mindedness, freedom of information, publishing truth and speaking truth to power.
  • Social service for people with disabilities, psychiatric patients, and prisoners.
How do Quakers view the Creation?
 
Quakers have always held the Creation as sacred. Their attitude has been one of kindness to, and non-exploitation of living creatures. (This has lead some Friends to become vegetarian).
 
Quakers have embraced the advances of science in understanding the universe, and in other areas of research, and have sought to foster those that they have believed to be for the greater good. More recently Quakers have become aware of the interconnectedness of life and the need to use resources sustainably to preserve the planet. Humankind is not the species to whom all others are subservient, but one among many. All life forms are founded in the natural world and sustained by its resources. We are accountable for our impact on nature in all that we do. Quakers believe that development of technology must be guided by awareness of ethics and ecology.
Where and when do you meet as a group?
 
We meet at least once a week for an hour-long Meeting for Worship, generally on a Sunday, in our Meeting House if there is one in the area, or in a rented space. Friends can worship at any time and in any place. The Meeting is held in attentive silence, and may include vocal ministry from a Friend or Friends who are prompted by God's Spirit.
 
Once a month we hold a Meeting for Business. Each of the nine major regional groups is known as a Monthly Meeting, an autonomous group, responsible for pastoral care and for the admission of new members. There are also a number of smaller worship groups and "Recognised" Meetings.
 
Members from the nine Monthly Meetings gather once a year for a Yearly Meeting which seeks guidance from the Spirit in making final decisions on matters that have usually been considered by the Monthly Meetings.
For what purposes do you meet?
 
The spiritual centre of our religious experience is the Meeting for Worship. We meet in silence and in expectant waiting to hear the word or leading of God for us. There may be spoken ministry which ideally should arise from the depths of our worship. There may be prayer, praise, a reading, a personal experience shared, challenge, advice, or even occasionally singing.
 
Our weddings and memorial services are held in the same manner. We also have meetings from time to time for meditation, study, business, or to consider service or social or political action.
 
Our Monthly Meeting for Business is an extension of our Meeting for Worship. It begins and ends with worship, and can fall into prayerful silence when we need greater wisdom from God. Members are encouraged to bring to the Monthly Meeting their 'concerns', i.e. their desire to see action taken on a social or political issue. If the Meeting feels that it is an issue to which the individual Friend is truly committed and that the Meeting is in sympathy with the moral and spiritual principles involved, it encourages and upholds the Friend in his/her concern - or may make the concern its own. We also meet often for fun and sharing together; for parties, camps, celebrations; and for mutual support in times of difficulty and suffering. "We believe the words of Jesus that 'where two or three are gathered together in my name,' there am I in the midst of them." (Matthew 18:20)
What days, festivals or other special occasions do you observe?
 
None. Although our Meetings for Worship usually take place on Sunday, we do not regard any day as more holy than another but try to live every day in an awareness of the presence of God. At all times and in every place we try to sense the eternal which is behind the succession of ordinary events. We regard all of life as sacred, and every meal can be a communion of thanksgiving. As God is everywhere accessible, we attach no special sanctity to any building. We see the Spirit at work continuously, if only we are open to the Spirit's light.
How do you arrive at decisions?
 
The Quaker method of decision making is the same as the Quaker method of worship - we are seeking the guidance of the Spirit. We do not take a vote. All members, women and men, young and old, have an equal voice and responsibility. The Clerk, (appointed by the Meeting to replace both chairperson and secretary of non-Quaker meetings) guides proceedings until she/he can feel the "sense of the meeting." The Clerk, as servant of the Meeting, then writes a draft minute of the decision which is read aloud. If it is acceptable to the Meeting, it is recorded and the next item on the agenda is considered. If not, individuals suggest changes to the minute or the Meeting "waits upon God" in silent prayer until a satisfactory way forward is found. If unity is not reached, the matter is held over for further consideration.
Who are your ministers, and what do they do?
 
The responsibilities which other churches delegate to a hierarchy, priest or minister are, in Quakers shared by all in membership and by others attending as well, if they so desire. It is the task of the nominations committee to find suitable people to undertake the various kinds of service required by the Meetings and also by the Yearly Meeting. All appointments are rotated regularly and are unpaid.
 
Elders are appointed to take special responsibility for the spiritual life of the Meeting. Overseers care for the needs of members. Committees are appointed to look after work with children, maintenance of premises, publication of the monthly magazine, The New Zealand Friends' Newsletter and other activities.
In what ways do you attempt to attract new members?
 
New members are always welcome. In our experience the Quaker faith is the right way for us. We have a wide tolerance of other religions and respect for their truths. We do not put pressure on anyone to join our Society, as we believe that convincement to become a member must be the work of the Spirit. The Quaker approach has been to uncover potential Quakers by helping enquirers to discover the faith they already have rather than by persuading them to change. Instead of proselytising, we publish information about our Meetings on notice boards, and in occasional media reports.
How may one become a member?
 
Before applying for membership, one needs first to have an understanding and acceptance of our Quaker Christian heritage, and the principles and practice of the Society, especially our manner of worship, and be willing to take on the responsibilities of membership. Asking for membership implies a commitment to the Quaker spiritual community and its work. When a Monthly Meeting receives an application, it sends two members of the meeting to visit the applicant for an informal discussion on the significance of membership and what it involves. They look for evidence that the applicant has genuinely been drawn to the Society by the leading of the Spirit. When the visitors report back to the Monthly Meeting, the decision is taken whether to welcome the applicant into membership, or to ask him/her to wait. We see formal acceptance by the Monthly Meeting as the outward recognition, by the group, of the inward experience of the applicant.
 
However, membership is not the only way of participating in the Quaker community. Attenders decide for themselves, without any pressure, their own pattern of involvement. Both members and attenders are equally important, respected and dear to us.
What name do you prefer?
 
We like to be known as the Religious Society of Friends. Our name in Maori, gifted to us by the Maori Language Commission, is Te Hahi Tuhauwiri - "The faith community that stands shaking in the wind of the Spirit."
 
The term "Quaker" was originally a nickname, given after Fox brought to court in 1650 on a charge of blasphemy, told the judge he should quake at the 'word of the Lord.' The judge scornfully called Fox and his friends "Quakers" and the name stuck. It is now widely used and quite acceptable to us.
 
In addressing one another formally we use both Christian name and surname without any prefix or title such as Mr, Mrs or Dr. We try to avoid using prefixes or titles for anyone, in speech or writing, and encourage our children to do the same. This custom stems from Friends' testimony on the equality of all - adult and child, king and commoner, man and woman, married or unmarried, doctor or illiterate, and so on.
Are there any popular misconceptions about the Quaker faith?
 
We are not extinct, and neither are we puritanical or fundamentalist in our outlook. We have no regulations about dress, behaviour or social practice, although a small number of Friends in the UK and the USA still maintain the ways of "Plain Friends," and appear very conservative in their customs and clothing. However, this is voluntary and not compulsory, and lived in a desire to be faithful to Friends original Testimonies. Simplicity of living is still a Quaker testimony today.
Are there any groups to be distinguished from?
 
We are a religious organisation and not a Friendly Society. We are distinct from other Christian groups in Aotearoa/New Zealand. We welcome contacts with other Christians, and willingly join ecumenical bodies that do not require of us adherence to a set creed or statement of faith.
What else is there to know about Quakers in Aotearoa/New Zealand?
 
The Quaker, Sydney Parkinson, was on James Cook's first voyage to New Zealand. Others visited or settled before the first regular Meeting for Worship in Nelson in 1843. New Zealand Friends formed a Yearly Meeting, independent of London Yearly Meeting, in 1964.
 
Early concerns of Friends in Aotearoa/New Zealand included running adult education classes, running a hostel in Wellington (1907 to 1945) to enable rural children to attend secondary schools, and, since the Defence Act 1909, opposing conscription and acts of war. Friends in Aotearoa/New Zealand have always shared the concern of Friends where in the world. The Society was active in setting up Corso, originally the Council of Organisations for Relief Service Overseas, in 1944. It was one of the original constituent bodies of the National Council of Churches, now known as the Conference of Churches in Aotearoa/New Zealand and has participated in many interchurch activities and projects such as the Downtown community ministry in Wellington central and the Programme on Racism. The Society supports a number of organisations and lobbies within Aotearoa/New Zealand which are concerned with service or social change, including the establishment of the NZ Foundation for Peace Studies and the Alternatives to Violence Project.
 
At Yearly Meeting 1988-89, we committed ourselves to building a just partnership between Pakeha and Maori people. Since 1992, Yearly Meeting has declared Quaker Meetings as "Reconciling," thus publicly welcoming gay and lesbian people into the Society. In 2000, the Yearly Meeting issued a statement on ecological sustainability.
 
Friends have houses in Wellington, Whanganui, Nelson and Auckland with accomodation available to visitors at reasonable charges.
What is the Friends' Settlement?
 
In 1920 a co-educational Friends' Primary School, offering non-militaristic education, was opened in Wanganui. After 50 years of service it was closed in 1969 and sold. Friends have retained adjacent farmland, some of which is now the site of the Friends Settlement.
 
The idea of a Quaker residential community was first agreed upon in 1909 and surfaced again 60 years later. It is now a reality as Friends' Educational Settlement on 7 hectares of land on the edge of Whanganui. The Settlement consists of about 15 separate family homes, plus communal buildings. Many Friends see this as a Quaker "marae". The community is outward-looking and active in local affairs. Weekend seminars are run on themes close to Friends' hearts: mediation, meditation, social justice, parenting, sharing our faith, men's and women's weekends, and many more.
What is Yearly Meeting?
 
In order that all Monthly Meetings in Aotearoa/New Zealand may work together in unity they join a Yearly Meeting, appointing a clerk, treasurer and other officers as needed. It usually meets for about three days in July and is located in the area of each Monthly Meeting in rotation. Decision making is as for Monthly Meetings. All members receive a detailed agenda called "Documents in Advance." All may attend and have an equal voice, and all receive a copy of the minutes. Just as the Monthly Meetings are funded by contributions from members, so in turn the Monthly Meetings contribute to the general expenses of their Yearly Meeting. The clerk of the Yearly Meeting places business before local Meetings by correspondence each month.
 
During the intervals between Yearly Meetings, a Standing Committee functions as an executive in legal and other matters which require urgent decision. There are also a wide range of Yearly Meeting committees which cover all aspects of its administration and social witness. Action groups of the Yearly Meeting are set up as the need arises. One of these which is permanent is Quaker Peace and Service Aotearoa/New Zealand, which supports the corporate concern of all Friends to improve relationships among the world's peoples and relieve both spiritual and material suffering.
What part do children and young people play in the life of the Society?
 
A children's programme and child care are arranged during part of some Sunday Meetings for Worship. We try hard not to indoctrinate our children, yet seek to give them access to our Quaker Christian heritage, and they are encouraged to feel that they belong in the community of Friends. Friends see spiritual education as a life-long process of "liberating the divine within us."
 
Special activities are planned for Junior Young Friends, including an annual gathering for 13-15 year olds. Young Friends, (aged approximately 16-35) hold a week-long camp during which they may share in a service project.
What is Summer Gathering?
 
Friends and friends of Friends of all ages are welcome to these nine-day midsummer residential camps, which are for families to get to know each other and have fun. Opportunities are provided for serious discussion and study, often with guest speakers, as well as for light-hearted activities (such as bonfires, concerts and fancy-dress parties), and for plenty of informal relaxation.
What about Quakers elsewhere in the world?
 
There are about *340,400 adult members of the Society around the world, with by far the largest group, about 157,000 in Africa. There are about 92,000 Friends in the USA, 1,200 in Canada, 61,000 in Central and South America, 16,500 in the United Kingdom, 1,600 in Ireland, 1,000 in Europe and the Middle east, 8,500 in Asia, 1000 in Australia and about 590 in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Many Friends Meetings, especially in the USA, Central and South America, and Africa have established Programmed Meetings with pastors. Friends have a tradition of keeping in touch with one another through individual Friends "travelling in the ministry"to visit distant Meetings, and by shared projects, publications and annual "epistles" exchanged by Yearly meetings and by international Quaker organisations and conferences.
 
Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) consists of representatives of Yearly Meetings throughout the world. It does not interfere with the autonomy of Yearly Meetings. FWCC representatives from different Friends sections of the world, meet for regional and world gatherings several times in a decade.
 
Through Britain Yearly Meeting's Quaker Peace and Service committee (QPS) and through the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Friends can express their traditional concern to relieve suffering, unconditionally and without partiality throughout the world, according to their conviction that love of God and love of neighbour are inseparably linked. Friends are working on projects around the world - including the Middle East, Africa, Central and South America, India, Sri Lanka, Ireland and in Aotearoa/New Zealand.
 
At the United Nations Quakers have consultative status as a non-governmental organisation (an NGO). This gives the Quaker United Nations Office access to the UN's specialized agencies. Quaker houses in New York, Geneva and Brussels are much appreciated by UN and EU delegates for quiet, off-the-record meetings. Quaker representatives in the QUNO offices further Friends' concerns for human rights and disarmament.
 
* This figure excludes attenders (non-members) and children throughout Quaker Yearly Meetings around the world.
What is the Wider Quaker Fellowship?
 
This is a worldwide network which is non-sectarian in its perspective, making it possible for people to be associated with the Quaker faith while maintaining other religious affiliations. In Aotearoa/New Zealand there are no conditions for membership and only voluntary contributions towards mailing costs. The Clerk of the Fellowship corresponds with and sends out literature to rural and isolated Friends, and to those who can't attend Meetings for Worship or don't wish to be part of a local community, thus enabling them to share in the spiritual nourishment which the Quaker faith at its best can offer.
How can I find out more?
 
If you have found this introduction to Quakerism in Aotearoa/New Zealand interesting, you may like to know more about the Society of Friends. The simplest way is to go along to a Friends Meeting and meet some Friends there, or borrow some books from the library in any Friends' Meeting House. But some people would rather stay anonymous: in that case, if you write to the Clerk of any of our Monthly Meetings she or he will provide further information. Your confidence will be respected. In no contact you may have with our Society will any commitment be expected of you or any pressure placed on you.