Peter Williams – Canberra Regional Meeting

Peter WilliamsBackground

In Britain there have been a number of recent surveys on the beliefs and practices of Quakers. Ben Pink Dandelion ran the first survey in 1990 and some findings from the third survey in 2013 are available here. There have been no comparable attempts to survey Australian Quakers to better understand our shared identity and views about involvement within the Religious Society of Friends.

In July 2014, Standing Committee considered a proposal from a group of Australian Friends to conduct a national survey in Australia, largely based on the questionnaire used in Britain, but with some local modifications. Standing Committee agreed to endorse and encourage participation in the proposed survey, which was conducted from September to November 2014. A summary of the results was presented at Yearly Meeting in January 2015.

This first Australian National Quaker Survey aimed to survey all Members and Attenders of our Regional Meetings to answer several overarching questions:

  • What leads people to consider Membership of the Society?
  • What are the shared beliefs, practices and values held by Quakers in Australia?
  • How do these beliefs, practices and values compare with those found in the British surveys?
  • Are there generational differences amongst Quakers in Australia, in relation to patterns of belief and practice?

A questionnaire was created for completion online. However, recognising that not all members have Internet access, the survey was also made available in a paper-based format. Peter Williams from CRM volunteered to be the primary researcher and coordinator of the project. A survey Working Group provided oversight of the project, and advice and guidance to the survey coordinator, with the following members: Topsy Evans and Kerry O’Regan (from SANTRM) and Ronis Chapman, Christine Larkin, Erica Fisher and Geoffrey Ballard (from CRM).

An article about the survey was included in the AYM Secretary’s newsletter in August 2014, and in the first week of September, a personal invitation to complete the questionnaire was sent by email to all JYFs, YFs and adult Members and Attenders on the AYM membership list. Each Regional Meeting Clerk was also sent a notice about the survey for inclusion in local newsletters and notices. A total of 378 questionnaires were completed, giving an overall response rate of 20%, compared to the total AYM membership. With this number of responses, the percentage results should be accurate ± 5%, with a confidence level of 95%. The respondents closely matched the overall Australian membership by gender and regional meeting location.


The full 146-page report of the first summary of results is now available on the members’ section of the Quaker Australia website and also here.

There has been no attempt in the first report to conduct sub-group analyses of the results by age, gender, regional meeting or beliefs; this may be undertaken at a later date. The findings confirm that there is a wide diversity of views and experience amongst Australian Friends that is not easily captured in simple summaries. In particular there is a rich source of commentary provided by Friends and presented in the 27 Appendices (over 100 pages and 51,000 words) that are worthy of much more detailed consideration.

However, if the Friends who responded to the survey are representative of the total population of Friends in Australia, a few tentative conclusions may be drawn from the results:

Demographic description

  • Most Australian Friends are aged over 50 years, highly educated and from an Anglo-Australian cultural background.

Initial experiences

  • Most Friends (85%) have a Christian upbringing, 14% have a non-religious background, and 1% come from a non-Christian upbringing
  • More than half of Friends join Quakers after the age of 40 years
  • The lack of religious dogma, the form of worship, and testimonies are the key issues that attract new members to Quakers
  • A significant proportion of Friends are Attenders. The choice to remain Attenders, rather than pursue Membership, is not primarily based on disagreements about religious beliefs; these Friends may consider application for Membership if encouraged to do so by other Friends

Quaker practice

  • Belonging to a community of like-minded people and the practice of silent worship are the main factors that keep Friends coming to Meeting
  • More than 60% of Friends say that in Meeting for Worship they are listening, meditating, being with others in the Spirit, thinking or waiting. Only 13% say they are worshipping God
  • One fifth of Friends have never spoken in Meeting
  • Only half of Friends agree that they are seeking the will of God in Meetings for Worship for Business
  • Most Friends (79%) feel their primary connection is with their local Meeting, but significant proportions also feel a strong connection with Yearly Meeting (24%) and the world family of Friends (19%)
  • Around one in five Friends do not contribute financially to their Regional meeting

Religious beliefs

  • Almost all Friends (95%) describe themselves as spiritual people to some extent
  • Most Friends call themselves Quakers but only one third call themselves Christians
  • 62% of Friends believe in God, 13% do not, and 25% are uncertain or unable to answer
  • Of those who believe in God, most describe this term as The Inward Light, Love, A Life Force or Spirit, and not a being
  • Those who do not believe in God have developed a range of alternative words to substitute when traditional religious terms are used. It may be worth exploring the impact of this on the 15% of members who identify as non-theists
  • Friends strongly accept that Quakers can be helped in their spiritual journey by hearing about the religious experience of other groups
  • Almost half (48%) of Friends always or often seek God’s guidance for important decisions
  • 31% of Friends say they pray daily or more often
  • 31% of Friends believe in life after death, but more than half (52%) have no belief in this, nor in spirits, heaven, or miracles
  • More than half of all Friends see Jesus as a spiritual or ethical teacher, and “containing that of God within as we all do”. Few view him as the Son of God (13%) or Saviour (10%)
  • More than half of Friends participate in a spiritual nurture group, or other support groups
  • The activities that Friends undertake to deepen their spiritual life include participating in a spiritual nurture group (59%), serving on Meeting committees (53%), attending Meeting for Learning in their own meeting (37%), or attending a course at Silver Wattle (32%)
  • 14% of Friends with traditional Christian/theist beliefs, and 10% of Friends with non-traditional beliefs feel uncomfortable or out of place in their Meeting

Ideas about the world

  • 48% of Friends firmly agree that breaking the law can be morally justified in certain circumstances, while 13% firmly disagree
  • A significant minority of Friends (16%) believe violence can be justified in some circumstances, and concerns about pacifism were noted by several Friends as a reason for not applying for Membership
  • Friends are much more concerned about environmental issues than the Australian population in general (94% vs 62%), with 57% of Friends rating themselves as very concerned
  • Friends are much more likely than most Australians to have taken action on environmental issues; more than 60% have signed a petition or donated money to help protect the environment in the last 12 months, versus 13% of the Australian population in general.

Next steps

The next stage in analysis of these findings will be to compare the results with those from the recent British survey, and prepare these for submission for publication in the journal Quaker Studies.

Furthermore, 191 respondents volunteered to participate in follow-up interviews. While there are no plans or resources to extend the study further now, interviews could be valuable to provide more insight into some of the views expressed by Friends in these results.

The Survey Coordinator and the Survey Working Group thank everyone who participated in the survey and we hope that all Friends will find the results useful in their personal reflections and in planning activities in regional Meetings.

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