It was roughly two years ago when a group gathered around the Friends Journal staff table suggested that the June/July 2020 issue should look at Quaker membership. I expected it to be an important and useful issue, solid if not flashy.
I never imagined a scenario in which it would suddenly be so relevant to every Friend, seeker, and friend-of-Friends out there.
Quakers have long been defined by a certain rootedness. Of all the practices and customs that define Quakerness, none is more important to formal membership than participation in weekly worship. As Rhiannon Grant writes in these pages, “If you can’t attend meeting for worship. . . it’s very hard to be recognized as a Quaker.”
By this measure, none of us is a proper Quaker these days. Our meetinghouses are locked tight. The benches are empty, the silence imposed rather than summoned. There’s no spiritual expectancy on Sunday morning. If we had asked Friends at the beginning of the year if online worship was “real,” most would have been skeptical. And yet here we are, all logging into Zoom for worship and youth groups and committee meetings.
A funny thing has happened in all this: we’ve learned we can be Friends at-a-distance. Recent comments on Friendsjournal.org are full of testimonies of long-lost Friends and new seekers suddenly connecting through online worship. Some of these are reproduced in our Forum letters this month. From Buffalo, New York: “We have also been blessed to be joined by members or previous attenders who live too far away to commute to in-person meetings for worship.” From Sointula, British Columbia: “I’m a long-time attender of Vancouver Island (B.C.) Meeting, yet very seldom can get to worship due to travel distances.” Friends in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, are “so delighted to have Friends join us from a distance—something that has not happened before.”
Now that we’re experiencing online worship and finding it as real (and sometimes as mundane) as in-person worship, is it something to consider keeping as our local communities slowly open up?
As we did last month, we start the issue off with three topical articles that don’t directly address the membership theme. Debbie B. Ramsey returns to the meetinghouse steps during closure and finds the Divine in the noises outside its walls. The staff at Pendle Hill, a Quaker study center outside Philadelphia, move their longstanding daily worship over to Zoom and find a way to keep a sense of place and community as they suddenly find themselves hosting one of the world’s largest daily Quaker worships. And Mathilda Navias maps out daily practices that can deepen our Quaker identity during this time away from physical worship.
Our five articles on membership mirror those themes. We have examples of welcoming distant Friends, redefining our community, caring for membership, and rethinking Quaker identity.
Crises have a way of upending old assumptions. The membership structure of Friends hasn’t been adapting very quickly to some long-term societal changes that are challenging our ways of being. Perhaps we have an unexpected gift. We are all isolated Friends in a crash course learning the tools to bring us together across distances. What does Quaker community look like after all this?