Quaker jargon buster


Quakers have a great sense of history; they continue to use words and phrases that others might not, for instance those that: 

  • keep the title despite the purpose having changed, like ‘Meeting for Sufferings’
  • have a different meaning to when used generally, like ‘visitor’, ‘notion’ and ‘Friend’
  • are just plain quaint, like ‘right ordering’.


If you are new to Quakers you may find the minefield of Quaker language a bit hard to navigate. Here’s a guide.

Advices & queries – a slim volume of often-quoted suggestions to help Quakers spiritually. It forms the first chapter of Quaker faith & practice; it is available online or from Ealing meeting.

Area meeting (AM) – a meeting for business administration and decision-making for a group of local meetings which are geographically close to each other. For example, Ealing Local Meeting is part of London West Area Meeting.

Attender – A person who worships regularly with Friends but who is not formally a member of the Religious Society of Friends. Quakers generally don’t tend to be fussed about who is a member, and some Friends are regular attenders for decades.

Birthright – Until the late 1940s a person who was born to a Quaker family automatically became a member of the Society by right of birth, hence birthright! Nowadays an application must be made to become a member of the Society. Since then the term has come to be used more loosely to describe any Friend born of Quaker parents. Compare convincement.

Book of discipline – Now better known as Quaker faith & practice. Discipline is used in the sense of discipleship.

Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM) – An older name for Quakers in Britain, the body that takes care of all meetings in Britain. Also the name for the yearly decision-making event, which happens annually, either at Friends House, London, or as part of a Yearly Meeting Gathering, at a residential venue (usually a university campus) to help more people attend. Abbreviated to BYM.

Business meeting (BM) – a meeting for decision-making and business administration for a local meeting. When held for a local meeting’s affairs, it is a local business meeting, and for an area meeting, it is an area business meeting.

Christocentric – A Quaker whose inspiration is essentially Christian and who might believe that the Religious Society of Friends is essentially a Christian denomination. Compare with Universalist. Also a term for some Quaker worship abroad.

Clerk – a person appointed by a business meeting or committee to take a meeting through its business and write the minutes. See also convener.

Committee – there are lots of these, in many sizes. It is said that God so loved the world that she didn’t send a committee. For example, Children and Young People’s Committee, Premises Committee, Outreach Committee, made up of Quakers from the meeting appointed by a business meeting after being suggested by a Nominations Committee.

Concern – an idea or prompting by the Spirit that leads a Friend to take on an issue as a personal crusade. The Friend will probably bring their concern to their business meeting to be tested, that is to see if it is a true ‘concern’ or simply a ‘notion’.

Convener – applied to a person who is responsible for the organisation of a one-off meeting for business. Some committees that meet regularly e.g. Children & Young People’s Committee have conveners. Compare clerk.

Convincement – a discovery of truth, as in ‘Quaker by convincement’, one who has become convinced of the truth of the Quaker way. It is used to describe anybody who joins the Society. Compare birthright.

Daffodil ministry – every spring a Friend notices how lovely the daffodils look as they come to meeting for worship, and they minister about how lovely the world is. Sometimes a pejorative term to describe uncritical and predictable ministry.

CYP – abbreviation for Children & Young People.

Discern – to seek the leading of the spirit in reaching a decision, often in a meeting for worship for business. Quakers love discernment about anything and everything and don’t use voting to reach a decision.

Dots and commas – Quakers can (sometimes) be pernickety about the wording and punctuation of minutes. At Britain Yearly Meeting a Dots and Commas Committee may ‘tidy up’ minutes drafted by the clerk.

Elder – as a noun: a member of a meeting who is serving as an elder, with responsibility for the ordering of the spiritual life of that meeting. As a verb: the process of gentle redirection of a person by an elder back onto the path of right ordering, often by a short chat.

Enquirer – someone enquiring about Quakerism!

Epistle – Quaker gatherings often send a report of their deliberations to other Quakers. The best known example is the Yearly Meeting epistle. They often start ‘To Friends everywhere…’

fFriend/F(f)riend – Someone who is both a Friend (Quaker) and a friend (companion).

Friend – A member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). We get our name from the original title of ‘Friends in the Truth’, although today it is understood by many as the common shared relationship with others. Quakers often refer to themselves collectively as Friends and will address a Quaker as ‘Friend’ which helps to include newcomers (and is also very helpful for the times they can’t remember the person’s actual name).

Friends House – the central offices of Britain Yearly Meeting, opposite Euston Station, London, where most central work is done.

Leading – a prompting thought to be received from the Spirit. It can turn into a ‘concern’!

Local meeting – both a geographic term (for a Quaker meeting held locally) and a term for the administration and decision-making business meeting held regularly at a local Quaker meeting.

Meeting for clearness – meeting of a group of experienced and knowledgeable Friends to help in the amicable settlement of disputes or to help Friends find clarity about a matter.

Meeting – used in different contexts, and so confusing. It can be as shorthand for meeting for worship, or it can refer to a meeting of Quakers that has gathered for business and administrative matters, for example: local Quaker meeting, area business meeting, Six Weeks Meeting and Yearly Meeting.

Meeting for worship – the great mystery of Quakerism: what happens in meeting for worship? We don’t actually worship using agreed words or ritual in the way that some other traditions do. Quakers believe that when we gather together in silence we can engage in a direct and personal relationship with God/the spirit/the light. (We have different ideas on the nature of God!)

Meeting house – a place where Quakers gather for worship, but with no special significance or decoration, and not the only place that they may do so. When 17th century Quakers referred to churches as ‘steeplehouses’ it wasn’t meant as a compliment.

Meeting for Sufferings – a meeting for visionary decision-making and business administration for Quakers in Britain. It recently considered changing its historical name to reflect its current purpose. It is the executive body of Britain Yearly Meeting and meets regularly at Friends House.

Membership – what you apply for when you decide to want to join Quakers. It is a common practice for visitors to come round to see you! Contrast with attender.

Ministry – this is our term for what should happen when a person is led to stand up and speak during meeting for worship. Ministry is inspired by the spirit.

Minutes – these are the record of the proceedings of a business meeting written by the clerk or convener of that meeting. Quaker minutes are written and agreed as the meeting proceeds with its business.

Monthly meeting (MM) – former term for area meeting (group of local meetings or area business meeting which usually takes place monthly). Renamed as area meeting at Britain Yearly Meeting 2007.

Notion – 1) any approach to religious matters not based on firsthand spiritual experience. 2) a ‘leading’ that didn’t turn into a ‘concern’, someone else’s concern that isn’t important to you, or any religious and spiritual initiative that the meeting does not feel moved to carry forward. Quakers try to judge rarely, but deciding when something is a notion is one time when they do. Not the kindest term. Not often used.

Occur – as in ‘This Friend’s name would not have occurred to me’, used when deciding on nominations of Quakers to particular roles (e.g. elder), as a way of disagreeing with whether an individual is appropriate for a role.

Overseer – a member of a meeting serving with responsibility for the general welfare of the members of that meeting.

Plain speech – this is how Quakers aspire to speak (in the past, ‘Let your Yea be your Yea’) and avoiding terms like ‘Lord’ and ‘Your Majesty’; often, however, their speech is so complex that jargon busters get created just to deal with the misunderstandings.

Popcorn ministry – There are days when everybody seems to have something to say at meeting for worship. There is little or no silence, and people burst into ministry like a panful of popcorn on the stove. A pejorative term.

Preparative Meeting (PM) – former term for a Local Quaker Meeting (geographical e.g. Ealing or local business meeting), replaced by ‘local meeting’ at Britain Yearly Meeting 2007.

Programmed – describes a meeting for worship that has an order of service and is led by a minister. Meetings for worship in Britain are unprogrammed, but two thirds of Friends world-wide belong to yearly meetings that hold programmed meetings.

Quaker – originally a pejorative name for a member of the Religious Society of Friends, now a title worn with pride and probably more widely known by the public than the term Friend.

Quaker faith & practice – a book which seeks to express in words the workings of the Spirit as experienced by Quakers over three hundred years. It is both an anthology of Quaker thought and guidance on the right ordering of Quaker affairs. It is revised every generation to reflect the continuing revelation and understanding of the Spirit. It is also known as the Book of discipline, and is available to read online.

Quaker Centre Bookshop – a very useful source of books on all matters Quakerly, you’ll find it at Friends House and online at www.quaker.org.uk/bookshop.

Quaker Peace and Social Witness (QPSW) – the central peace and service department of British Friends. It represents them at national level on issues of peace and social justice. It facilitates dialogue to build greater understanding of these issues, and disseminates outcomes and ideas. QPSW works with Quaker and other partners to put this understanding into action on a variety of projects within Britain and around the world. It gives considerable support to QUNO Geneva.

Quaker Quest – sessions that aim to help you find out about the Quaker way of life and offer introductory courses including Quaker speakers, time for discussion and experience of Quaker worship. Sessions are free, open to all and held regularly around the country – check the Quaker Quest website for more details.

Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) – the formal name for the organisation which Friends/Quakers belong to. When used without ‘Religious’, it can lead to confusion of Quakers with a dating agency.

Right ordering – the correct manner of doing things, in keeping with Quaker tradition and practice. A body of wisdom and insights that has evolved over three hundred years of seeking the guidance of the Spirit, and partly captured in the Book of discipline.

Six Weeks Meeting – formerly a committee responsible for the upkeep and administration of Quaker premises in and around London, now replaced by London Quakers Property Trust.

Swarthmore lecture – a lecture given at the time of Britain Yearly Meeting by one or more Friends. It is an important platform for the continuing development of Quaker thought and theology.

Testimonies – The cumulative lived witness of generations of Friends. Aspects of our witness on which most Friends can actually agree! They include peace, equality, simplicity and truth (and possibly sustainability as an emerging testimony) – abbreviated P.E.S.T.(S.). They are a way of life arrived at through spiritual experience, rather than goals to achieve.

Testing a concern – a process of deliberation by a local or area meeting to examine whether a Friend’s concern has religious validity and should be promoted and supported by that meeting.

That Friend speaks my mind – said during business meetings when another Friend has just spoken exactly what you were thinking, and you cannot stop yourself from saying something.

Universalist – A Quaker who believes that there is a universal truth that may be found in all faiths, as opposed to Christocentric.

Unprogrammed – describes a meeting for worship where all ministry and prayer is inspired by the Spirit rather than by a predetermined order of service. This is the practice in Britain. Compare programmed.

Visitor – 1) If you apply for membership two people will often be appointed by your area meeting to help you and the area meeting decide if the commitment to membership is right for you. They will write a report to help you and the area meeting to be clear. 2) A Friend visiting from another area meeting. 3) Simply somebody new to meeting.

Weighty Friend – one who is influential (i.e. their opinion carries weight) within the Society (while remaining consistent with our testimony on equality, of course).

Woodbrooke – the Quaker study centre in Birmingham. It is used for events like retreats, gatherings, enquirers’  weekends. Other similar venues include Charney Manor in Oxfordshire and Claridge House in Surrey.

Worship – see meeting for worship.

Yearly Meeting Gathering – a fusion introduced in 2009 of Britain Yearly Meeting, Summer Gathering, Junior Yearly Meeting and a Children and Young People’s programme.

This guide has been produced by Ealing Quaker Meeting’s outreach group. We’ve tried to be accurate, and reliable, but of course some of our definitions may well be out of date, or just not quite right. We would really value any suggestions to improve it!

If you like this guide, you might also like Quaker Speak by Alastair Heron, which you can read at our meeting house library.


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