Introducing Quakers: Organisational Structure
Quakers meet together for worship (Meeting for Worship) at a Local Meeting, equivalent to a church congregation. Local Meetings group together as an Area Meeting, meeting occasionally to carry out the business of running the organisation locally. Yearly Meeting administers the Society at a national level, and determines its broad direction. Meeting for Sufferings deals with business matters between annual Yearly Meeting gatherings. Friends House in London is the administrative headquarters of Britain Yearly Meeting.
Meeting for Worship and the Local Meeting
Quakers meet together for worship (religious observance) with Members and Attenders of their Local Meeting. This is equivalent to a church congregation, and may or may not be based in a Quaker Meeting House. At minimum, a Quaker Meeting House has a Meeting Room in which Friends can gather for Meeting for Worship. There may also be other rooms, such as a library and a small kitchen. Quaker Meeting Houses are not sacred places like churches and cathedrals. Indeed, it is common for Meeting Rooms to be let out during the week, particularly to voluntary and charitable organisations. Alternatively, if the Local Meeting does not have its own Meeting House, the Meeting for Worship might be held in a hired room, for instance in a local community centre. Some very small meetings for worship may take place in the house of one of the members of a Local Meeting. There are also sometimes Meetings for Worship that are held in the open air, for example at peace camps. At Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre (formerly known as Woodbrooke College) a Meeting for Worship is held daily in the Meeting Room.
Members of the Local Meeting also meet together to address matters of business (see section: Meetings for Business). These business meetings usually precede the business meeting of the Area Meeting.
Canterbury Meeting and Maidstone Meeting are examples of Local Meetings, each based in its respective Meeting House. What are now called Local Meetings used to be referred to as Preparative Meetings (PMs).
Partly for administrative purposes, several Local Meetings in an area are grouped together into an Area Meeting (AM). For example, Ashford, Broadstairs, Canterbury, Faversham and Folkestone Meetings are the constituent meetings of East Kent Area Meeting. (A monthly Meeting for Worship is also held in Deal.) The principal focus of the Area Meeting is to conduct business. The business might be about supporting one or more of the Local Meetings, it might involve testing a ‘concern’ with a view to forwarding the concern to Meeting for Sufferings, or it might be receiving a request from Meeting for Sufferings. Some of the roles undertaken by individual Quakers are Area Meeting appointments. Examples include Elders, Overseers and Meeting for Sufferings representatives.
Until recently, Area Meetings were known as Monthly Meetings (MMs), because they usually met for business monthly. Sometimes two or more Area Meetings are grouped together into a General Meeting (GM). East Kent Area Meeting and West Kent Area Meeting sometimes get together for events. General Meetings used to meet quarterly (once every three months), and were sometime known as Quarterly Meetings (QMs).
The next level up in the hierarchy is the national level, referred to as Yearly Meeting (YM). Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM; formerly called London Yearly Meeting) meets once a year, alternating between meeting in London and meeting elsewhere in Great Britain. As there is always a lot of business to be transacted, during the intervening months representatives of each Area Meeting within Britain Yearly Meeting meet together in a meeting called Meeting for Sufferings. This unusual name derives from the time early in Quaker history when many Quakers were persecuted and imprisoned, and some were tortured. Whilst in Britain there is only one Yearly Meeting organisation, in the United States there are several distinct Yearly Meeting organisations.
Although a Yearly Meeting is the top-most tier in the structural hierarchy, some Yearly Meetings are in contact with each other through the Friends Worldwide Committee for Consultation (FWCC). (Also see: The Role of Friends House.)