Quakers are a (very) liberal Christian-based religious movement with about 20,000 members and regular attenders in Britain. They are probably best known for their silent form of worship and long history of commitment to nonviolence and practical peacemaking.

Last year, at their national decision-making forum in Canterbury, British Quakers made a collective commitment to become a ‘sustainable, low carbon community’. This makes British Quakers potentially the first ‘Transition Religion’. It presents an exciting opportunity to model how a national religious body might respond to the challenge of transition throughout its structures, practices and culture. It also highlights some very challenging questions.

One of the unusual aspects of Quaker organization is its extreme decentralization of power. Local and area Meetings throughout the country make their own decisions on the basis of every member participating equally in a vote-less decision-making process. National decisions are made at an annual gathering at which every Quaker in the country is eligible to participate on the same basis, again without voting. If it hadn’t worked for over 350 years, it would hardly be considered a viable form of organization…

So the decision to become a ‘low carbon-community’ is not a top-down directive that can be imposed by those ‘in charge’. To become effective, it needs the willing participation of local Meetings throughout the country. Inevitably in practice this is a patchy operation.

There are some Quaker Meetings which have embraced the challenge with enthusiasm, taking on a range of initiatives that will be familiar to Transition groups everywhere – including rooftop solar panels, planting orchards and vegetable gardens, improved insulation etc. Other Meetings are more sceptical of this new direction, and resistant to making any substantial changes, and within Quaker structures there is no-one with the power to compel them.

My own Meeting in central Sheffield is very large by Quaker standards, with a couple of hundred members. Sheffield Quakers responded enthusiastically to the Canterbury Commitment, carrying out a Meeting-wide carbon footprinting exercise to establish a baseline for the future, and replanting our small Meeting House rooftop space as an ‘edible roof garden’. A project group was appointed to oversee energy efficiency improvements to the Meeting House, and to act as a support group for members undertaking any sustainability-related actions. A programme of monthly events was started, including low-carbon lunches, and workshops on recycling, energy efficiency etc.

Sheffield Quakers in their edible roof garden

Since that initial burst of enthusiasm though, it has proved unexpectedly difficult to maintain momentum. Our carbon footprint results are sitting on a shelf somewhere, and no-one seems quite clear what to do next. One of the obstacles seems to be that once the project group was appointed, initiatives on sustainability began to be seen as solely their responsibility, and from there it is just a short step to becoming an ‘interest group’, rather than a commitment of the whole community.

Having only recently recognised this, our response has been to take this dilemma back to the whole Meeting, to ask our regular business meeting to discuss ‘how can we ensure that fulfilling our commitment to become a sustainable, low-carbon community becomes the responsibility of all of our members, in all of our groups, activities and processes?’

 We don’t yet have the answers to this question, but at least we have worked out what we are working towards. We are aiming to be a community where every activity, from social events to political campaigning and spiritual practice will embody our commitment to sustaining life and building community resilience. Our challenge is to keep finding ways of ‘mainstreaming’ the Canterbury commitment, so that it becomes a part of the everyday culture of Quakers, both in our personal and family lives and in all the activities that we do together.

 This parallels the kind of changes that are needed throughout UK society, where a commitment to sustainability is also often regarded as the concern of a ‘special interest group’, rather than a truly shared responsibility. Within Quaker communities we at least have the advantage of proven practices for collective decision-making and conflict resolution, and some well-tried structures for avoiding both authoritarianism and the ‘tyranny of structurelessness‘.

Quakers have played a significant role in major social changes in the past, including the abolition of slavery, prison reform, and more recently championing the right to same-sex marriage. Part of the power of these campaigns has come from taking collective action within our own community first, before calling on other people to change their behaviour. It took American Quakers a hundred years to free themselves of the corrupting influence of slave owning. Once they no longer relied on exploitation for their own livelihoods, they became one of the most powerful and effective campaigning movements for the abolition of slavery throughout the world. We don’t have a century to free ourselves from our reliance on fossil fuels, but if we can act much more quickly, perhaps Quakers can contribute to a wider process of transition to a life-sustaining civilisation.

A brief report on Quakers’ progress nationally towards becoming a low-carbon community is available here. Some of the ideas in this post are explored in more depth in this essay on the implications of peak oil and climate change for British Quakers (written before the Canterbury commitment was made)

I also write a regular blog on sustainability and spirituality from a Quaker perspective at Transition Quaker. Please feel free to get in touch if you would like to discuss any of the issues raised here.