Quaker Faith and Practice is the current name for our book of discipline (in Britain Yearly Meeting). It’s an interesting book, with several different types of material in it; I’d never thought of it as a very hard read, until I tried to share it with some undergraduate students! The first chapter is Advices and Queries, which I wrote about at the beginning of this year. The rest divides roughly – and not very neatly – into two: inspirational material, mainly composed of treasured extracts from other sources, and governance material, which tells you how to run the Religious Society of Friends.
There is a cyclical nature to this document and its entanglement with the Society, especially Yearly Meeting. Yearly Meeting is the body which approves changes to the book, whether as a big overhaul once a generation or the drip-drip-drip changes which accompany our shifts of opinion and movement in the law. Assisted by various committees, it is Yearly Meeting which ultimately writes its own book of discipline. However, because the book then serves as part of our community memory, it tells us, among other things, how to hold Yearly Meeting. (You’ll find this in chapter 6.) We don’t rely solely on the book for guidance, but it is one the main sources one turns to when you want to know how to do things the Quaker way. In that sense, the book helps to create and maintain Yearly Meeting, just as Yearly Meeting creates and curates the book of discipline.
Also covered by governance chapters are other things one might want to ‘do the Quaker way’: marriage, funerals, looking after people, buildings, and money. Some of these topics are covered again in the inspiration material – so chapter 16, Quaker marriage procedure, is much enriched if you read it alongside chapter 22, Close relationships. Some things fall a little in between, like chapter 19, Openings, which contains historical material (not, as it carefully points out, “a full history”) – this history both informs our practice and methods of governance, and can inspire us.
That said, the governance chapters can have a beauty and an inspiration value of their own. Frequently cited for this is chapter 15, Property and trusteeship. Sections 15:17-15:20 deal with Burial grounds, and 20, Gravestones, is almost poetic:
“Friends are left at liberty to adopt the use of plain gravestones in any burial grounds; it being distinctly understood that, in all cases, they are to be erected under the direction of the area meeting; so that, in each particular burial ground, such uniformity is preserved in respect to the materials, size, form and wording of the stones, as well as in the mode of placing them, as may effectually guard against any distinction being made in that place between the rich and the poor.”