Who’s a “real Quaker” and who isn’t? What does it mean for someone to join and what responsibilities do we have for those who are in membership? What other “almost Quaker” identities exist and how do we relate to them? In our June/July issue, we’ll be looking at Quaker membership.
When we read journals from the heady early days of the Friends movement, the process seems simple: adopt a few of the anti-authoritarian Quaker peculiarities and tell your shocked relatives that you’re now a Friend. That informal system didn’t last, and Friends set up a model in which membership was based in a local meeting.
As the Quaker movement became more formalized, newcomers became ever more rare, but in the twentieth century newcomers began flowing back into Friends. Mid-century projects like Rufus Jones’s Wider Quaker Fellowship shared Friends’ beliefs in accessible ways. Outreach committees formed. The modern clearness committee process was established. Today many Friends are convinced, i.e., they were not born into the Religious Society of Friends.
All of these phases called for shifts in our membership model.
Today, we can identify a variety of pressures on the current membership model:
- Increased mobility means work and school often take us far from home meetings, especially for younger adult Friends.
- Quakers’ visibility on the Internet and outreach projects like our own QuakerSpeak video series mean seekers can find us even when there is no Friends meeting nearby.
- We continue to have ongoing questions of what qualifications might be needed or appropriate for membership.
- The emergence of new Quaker associations out of the breakup of historic yearly meetings raises questions for the status of ousted members.
- The newer phenomenon of online meetings for worship means isolated seekers have a way to connect with Friends worship but no brick-and-mortar meeting to affiliate with.
- Shrinking memberships, combined with the increased time pressures of modern life, have made it harder for outreach and clearness committees to operate effectively in many meetings and Friends churches.
- Experiments with at-distance and/or yearly-meeting-sponsored memberships are raising a host of questions about how individuals relate to larger Quaker bodies and vice versa.
In addition to identity, there are all sorts of questions about the expectations and duties of members.
- How do we expect members to financially support the congregation?
- What leadership positions should be member-only?
- When might it be appropriate to revoke someone’s membership? Do we still disown Friends in 2020? Are there circumstances for which we should?
As always, these ideas are just suggestions. We’re happy to read whatever readers think about the current state and future of our Quaker institutions.
Submissions due March 19, 2020.