The following is based on the workshop led by Melody Brazo at the January 26, 2009 meeting of Salem Quarter. It offers first steps to discussions of hard topics. Below that there is a list of suggested activities offered by the Working Group on Sexualtiy and Ethics of the Ministry & Counsel committee of New England Yearly Meeting.  As the title suggests, the groundwork Melody describes can open the way to discussion of any difficult topic.
There's a short summary of how we responded to this material at our January meeting here.

Talking About It (Sexual Ethics, or any other impossible topic)
How to Get Started...

Making the Container
First,  it is important to lay the groundwork for doing the work.  This is important because the topic of "sexual ethics" is vast, and many of us have limited language with which to talk about it, and little experience in doing so.  In addition, sex and sexuality are topics that can bring up a lot of pain for some people.  The important thing to remember here is that we are seeking divine guidance about how to proceed as a community.  We (and especially those of us who are called to leadership on this topic) must be tender with each other, so that everyone can feel safe enough to open themselves to the divine wisdom they already posses, as well as that which may be revealed.  
Start with worship...
Explain that we need to know that we are in a safe place before we can work on hard questions.
   Go around the circle and let each participant have a chance to answer the following question:
     What do I need in order to feel invited (safe enough) to really open my heart to this work?  What do I need in order to allow myself to be vulnerable?
Write down each response on a big sheet of paper - big enough so people in the circle can read it. Read the written statement back to the speaker to make sure that it captures the meaning of what was said.
   Let everyone have a chance to speak once before anyone speaks a second time.
   Read the list of responses to the participants before moving on to the part of the conversation.  Leave the list hanging up where everyone can read it as a reminder of what is needed in order for the work to proceed. Let the group consider what is up there in the light of the following questions:
     Are we ready to move to a next step?  Is there work we can do to allay some of the concerns so we can move on?  Do some of these concerns define what work we have to do next?

Having the Discussion
As you are laying the groundwork, you may find that you need to discern common standards for talking about this subject - things like confidentiality. Work these out in the same way - with the question,
What will make you feel safe  in talking about this?

Do you need to establish definitions?
Out of the first discussion you may also find that the subject itself needs to be explored, to get a sense of where the group may find common ground and where there are real differences.  This may require "threshing".  A question like "What do we include when we use the term "sexuality"? may be a useful starting place. You may need to have another session on "Ethics. What's the first thing you think of when you hear 'ethics'?"

Do you need to share experience?
Out of the first discussion you may also realize that people in your group need to share the kind of experiences about this subject that have shaped their values.

Whatever direction the discussion takes, it is important to stay grounded in love and prayer. 
Stopping often for periods of worship helps everyone to take in what is being shared.  It also helps to keep Friends from digressing into conversations. jokes and storytelling, all of which can be tempting diversions to the harder and sometimes slow work of listening for Spirit's voice in our own, and in each others', words.

Methods for continuing the work;

Threshing Session
A Threshing Session is a gathering to provide opportunity for Friends to explore possible responses to a controversial matter, usually with the intent not to make a decision at the gathering. The process is closer to worship-sharing than to worship as understanding individual thoughts and feelings is one of the desired results. Threshing is often guided by open-ended questions which may or may not concern how the individual is responding to the Light within (so they are questions, not queries.)

Reading and discussion
Resourses for reading are listed below.

Sharing stories
Ask volunteers to share their stories. One possible theme: I wouldn't do that again!/I'm sure glad I did that! - lessons experience has taught me.

NEYM M&C Working Party on Spirituality and Sexual Ethics (excerpted from the letter sent to meetings in late 2008)
  • Select or create a committee to follow up on the minute of commitment (2007-67, below)
  • Choose facilitators or clerks. These can be from your own meeting, or members of the working party are also available. 
  • Schedule a discussion or series of discussions for Friends to explore issues of spirituality and sexual ethics. Plan the structure of the discussion(s). Meetings may create their own process, queries, and materials, or take suggestions from the enclosed documents. Decide on appropriate parameters around confidentiality and safety. Consider how to create a worshipful space for discernment, such as worship sharing. These discussion groups may include personal sharing which will be confidential, but may also yield corporate discernment as the conversation progresses.
  • As you proceed with this work, please keep your quarterly meeting informed. Please advise your quarterly meeting clerk when you are ready to bring a minute forward.
  • Please keep the working party informed as well. We are interested in reports of process as well as any minutes or summaries of your work. We will share these with all monthly and quarterly meetings.

Suggested Guidelines for Your  Process:


Discernment must be undertaken tenderly and with safety for all participants.  There are specific safety concerns for those who have been sexually wounded. On the other hand, the need for confidentiality must be balanced against the need for openness. Some Friends may find the document titled “Queries on Confidentiality and Openness” helpful.


Our discussion of sexual ethics uses the same methods of seeking truth that we bring to other topics:
deep listening to that of God within ourselves
listening to others as they express what they are called to say
learning to love and listen to those who are “impossibly different”
thoughtful reference to Quaker testimonies, our inclusive religious traditions, and the Bible
the testimony of our own bodies, hearts, and minds

Shared Principles

If we are to discern what God wants for us as a faith community, we must go beyond our own personal circumstances (gender, sexual orientation, culture, class, race, and ability) to speak to what is universally true about human beings in the eyes of God.  Our testimonies can provide guidance for many areas of our sexual ethics and practices. 
  • God wants us to approach all human beings with love and awe. 
  • Our bodies are temples of the divine. 
  • Sexuality can be an expression of our journey towards God.
  • Sex is a source of great joy.  When there is clarity and grounding, we can experience sexual intimacy with joy.
  • As Quakers, we believe that there should be a shared search for God’s voice.
  • As Quakers, we experience continuing revelation.

As we begin this process of discerning our spirituality and sexual ethics, we need to create a safe space to hear everybody speaking his or her own understanding.  As we move forward, we hope and trust that we can move into a Spirit-led process of corporate discernment.

Holding a worshipful space for discernment is vitally important.  The sharing done by individuals needs to be grounded in the awareness of the presence of God.  It will be good to follow basic guidelines for speaking in meeting, such as pausing between comments and waiting for leadings.  Worship sharing provides a structure that may work well.

This work is best undertaken when Friends are waiting upon Spirit, listening deeply and reverently and offering, with humility, stories and experiences.  “…what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

Preparation is helpful.  Those with minority points of view can be approached individually and invited to join, and it can be helpful to have one-on-one conversations with those holding strong positions.

Possible ways to begin: 
  • identify shared principles that can serve as a basis of further discussion
  • utilize queries for reflection
  • let volunteers tell their stories

Resource materials:
“In the Presence of God and These Our Friends: Embodiment, Sex & Our Life in God” by Peter Blood-Patterson Online at Towards a Quaker View of Sex, by Friends Home Service Committee, 1966. 84 pp
 Living With Oneself And Others: Working Papers On Aspects Of Family Life, by New England Yearly Meeting Ministry & Counsel
Each of Us Inevitable, edited by Robert Leuze, 1993 Online at 
Faith and Practice of New England Yearly Meeting of Friends, by New England Yearly Meeting, 1985, see especially pages 153-166
Minute of Commitment, From the 2007 Minutes/Ministry and Counsel Concerns,” 07-67, by the New England Yearly Meeting of Friends, 2007 Online at Report on Discussions with Some NEYM Youth Program Staff and Volunteers to the NEYM Working Group on Sexuality and Sexual Ethics  Electronic copies can be requested from
“A History of Christianity and Sexuality”, a research paper by Gerald Sazama   Electronic copies can be requested from
In addition, two prominent Quaker authors on human sexuality are Peggy Brick and Mary Calderone.