Membership has become an optional extra for many meetings in the Liberal tradition in Europe. No longer does it define identity—something inherited like one’s DNA, or absorbed growing up—yet there are still many yearly meetings that acknowledge birthright membership, including entitlement to burial in Quaker grounds!
Membership is often seen as a sign of commitment. However, some already very engaged and active attenders who think of themselves as Quaker hesitate to apply for membership because they expect that it will bring new obligations and demands, often at a time in their lives when they feel already stretched and pulled in several different directions. Some say their own unworthiness holds them back from application: “I smoke and drink, how can I be a Quaker?”
Membership is also acknowledgement of an existing relationship within the community: “If it quacks, it’s a duck.” So why bother with elaborate membership processes, when all we need to say is, “Yes, this Friend is known to us, and we consider them to be part of our meeting”? After all, attenders are often included in the book of members.
Perhaps membership should allow the exercise of accountability, but how? Should we ensure applicants are well-versed in “Quaker ways”—at least as we understand and practice them? What of disownment, much used at various times in our history and still technically in our books of discipline? Would we use it today? In what circumstances?
Should membership be about explicit acceptance of a common religious practice? Or a shared understanding of what it means to be a community of faith? Have we become blessed with too much diversity to hope to establish any such common ground?
Membership has been compared to marriage, and I wonder what kind of marriage—a mutually supportive, contented companionship; a daily struggle for adjustment and compromise; or an all consuming passion to know and be known?
For some, membership is a lifeline connection that provides an anchor of stability in times and situations of personal challenge or isolation. This is the case for many international members who have no meeting to relate to, or the young woman who applied for membership of my area meeting just as she prepared to leave to take up a challenging job in a war zone.
For some Friends, formal membership is simply a divisive, un-Friendly, exclusive practice which places artificial barriers to people’s participation in the corporate life of our communities: an intrusive scrutiny of someone’s beliefs and way of life.
So, is membership a pragmatic arrangement to enable us to operate as a corporate body? Is it the culmination of a process of coming to belong in fellowship? Or, is it first and foremost a spiritual experience, the beginning of a new way of being and a new set of covenantal relationships? If it is primarily a spiritual experience, what bearing does “convincement”—or, dare I say it , “conversion”—have on the membership application process?
Considering the commitment aspect of membership, I hear the voice of Martha in the longing we express for more attenders to come into membership: “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself—tell her to help me!” Jesus responded: “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:40–41). So perhaps, like Mary, attenders are indeed attending to what Love requires of them, focussing on the essentials, on the meeting for worship, on living a faithful life, whilst resisting the formality of membership—entanglement with elaborate committee structures that can, at times, be perceived as a hindrance, rather than a support, to the life of the spirit. Many attenders contribute as much as many members to the support of their meetings. So is the distinction between members and regular attenders a real one? In other yearly meetings people not in membership are called “Friends of Friends.” Would it be more helpful to describe both active formal members and regular attenders as participants in our meetings? Should we consider what is really essential, and prune our structures? Are we really open to the changes and challenges that new members bring?
Finally, to the question of convincement. We tend to think of it as a form of persuasion, or the discovery that the Quaker way suits us. This is not the meaning that earlier generations of Friends gave the word. Convincement was an experience of transformation, a sudden or unfolding realization of deep truths with life-changing significance. It can be an exhilarating experience of liberation, but also a terrifying ordeal that confronts us with the depths of our darkness, so that the Light can break through. Such convincement is no longer a requisite for membership. Yet it is a fundamental part of the Quaker insight that we are all called to live in holy orders; we have no separate priesthood to mediate the sacred to us, we are therefore the “royal priesthood,” and “peculiar people” (1 Peter 2.9). Living in holy orders means becoming aware of one’s unique place and purpose in the world, being the most authentic “me” I can be—and encouraging you to be fully and uniquely “you.” Living this truth changes us and makes us instruments of transformation: “They were changed men themselves before they went about to change others,” William Penn wrote.
Membership in the Religious Society or any religious or spiritual community is a means to an end, and not an end in itself. I was helped to see this by Evangelical Friends, who say they are Christian first and Quaker second. I initially found this disturbing: are we not an alternative to mainstream Christianity? Until I understood that, for them, being Christian means pledging loyalty to something greater than a human institution, however cherished, and connecting to others who express that loyalty in different ways.
I hope we can give thanks for all those Friends who have chosen to be in formal membership, for all those who are members in all but name, and perhaps should be recognized as such. We can rear and nurture them lovingly from an early age in our meetings, sowing seeds that will bear fruit that we cannot imagine. We can honor all who choose to participate in the life of our communities but whose sense of integrity holds them back from full membership for whatever reasons. May we sit lightly to the letter of any mechanism we choose to adopt, tending first to the Spirit always.