“...for ye have no time but this present. Therefore prize your time for your souls’ sake.”
--George Fox in Letter 5, to his parents
I. No time but this present:
Tough decisions are not supposed to be made in haste. We have the aphorism, “Marry in haste; repent at leisure.” Membership in the Religious Society of Friends is often compared to marriage. Friends believe that both should ideally be life-long and life-changing commitments. Indeed, the comparison of the church to the bride goes back to the Bible. For this reason it is not surprising that, as common-law relationships have now often become accepted alongside formal marriage, many would have a similar relationship to our Religious Society. (For a discussion of this and related issues, see Alastair Heron, Caring, Conviction, Commitment: Dilemmas of Quaker Membership Today  and the surveys discussed by Mark S. Carey, Pink Dandelion, and Rosie Rutherford in Quaker Studies 13/  pp. 238-245.)
I raise the issue of complexities regarding membership at the outset because of the paradox that the ability to change religious affiliation that we see in many western countries may make it harder to commit. Again, the parallel to marriage is useful. It is a commonplace of sociological research that people who have experienced their own divorce or that of their parents are more reluctant to marry (or remarry, as the case may be) than otherwise similar peers.
So, what can I say about membership? I will make the typical disclaimer cum biographical statement, although some details are atypical. I am a convinced Friend who became involved with Quakerism as a teenager. My parents belonged to a variety of ‘mainline’ Protestant denominations and also had connections at different times with the Unitarian Universalists. I attended what was at the time a Preparative Meeting under the care of a Monthly Meeting over an hour away. (This is not uncommon in North America, but British Friends may wish to bear in mind that Monthly Meetings here are not usually deliberately set up to be groups of several Preparative Meetings; for instance, Jesus Lane Preparative Meeting in Cambridge, England would be a Monthly Meeting if it were in New England or Canada.) That Preparative Meeting was being nudged into becoming its own Monthly Meeting in a process rather similar to a long-time attender being encouraged to apply for membership, but they were only initiating the process when I applied. I thus applied for and was accepted into membership into a Meeting which I never physically attended, because I obtained my driver's license only around the time I met with the clearness committee that considered my membership. (I had been to other Meetings, though.) This made me the youngest founding member of the “new” Monthly Meeting. Because of the vagaries of my life, I have participated in some six other Meetings in four Yearly Meetings and visited numerous others in different parts of the world. I have retained my membership in the first Meeting, however, in part because I was a founder but also because I vote by absentee ballot in a town within its catchment area. I contact the local Congressional delegation with some regularity, usually about issues of Quaker concern. I was married under the joint care of that Meeting and the one of which my husband (another convinced Friend) is a member. The Meeting I currently attend is quite small and encourages Friends in its midst who are members of other Meetings to participate in a wide variety of Quaker business, including clearness committees of all types. I have handled the gamut of membership issues.
I may not be the best person to talk about membership, but, like other Friends, I have my opinions. First and perhaps foremost is the infrequency with which we invite attenders to consider applying for membership. Although we Friends talk about transparency, the discussion of membership (at least in the unprogrammed Meetings familiar to me) is taboo because of our concerns about proselytizing. I learned just how taboo when I was a teenaged attender and was considering applying to a college that had a Quaker history. In those days, applicants with a Quaker background of any sort were encouraged to self-identify (that question became illegal under human rights legislation probably around the time “to self-identify” became a verb in English, and no doubt for related reasons). I asked the clerk of the local Preparative Meeting whether she would back me up if I made such an identification. “Of course, I would be happy to write a letter explaining your situation, but I think you should apply for membership. It is a pity that Friends almost never invite attenders to take this step. My husband and I attended (our previous Meeting) for ten years and were never asked or even encouraged to apply. We kept thinking we were unworthy. Finally, we gathered up our courage and asked about joining. They said, ‘We were wondering what took you so long.’ Ever since, I have felt that Quaker practice on this point was wrong, and not just because no one should feel the way we did.”
I applied for membership a few months later, coincidentally a matter of weeks after putting down a deposit to attend a college with no Quaker connections. Over the years, several Friends who were much older than I and who worked on membership issues have spoken with me with the thought that at some point I might have some influence, however minor, on the broader discussion. Although all of these discussions have been important, that first statement cut to the core.
When Friends who have been attenders for some time inquire about membership or moot about the possibility indirectly, I retell the story about the people who waited for ten years under the fear that they were “unworthy.” I explain briefly what membership entails and show them a copy of whatever document the particular Yearly Meeting has that discusses the process. In some Yearly Meetings it is Faith and Practice; in Canada, it is Organization and Procedure; still other Meetings have pamphlets, of which Philadelphia Yearly Meeting provides an excellent example written by Jennifer Goetz. However, I do wait for at least a broad hint from the other party: I think this is as proactive as my Friend from high school days ever got.
Buttonholing individuals about membership is no doubt contrary to Quaker practice because of our history of being on the receiving end of persecution. There are other reasons we usually wait for someone to approach us, rather than the other way around; most notable is the concern that some attenders have had a negative experience with a denomination with its own expectations of membership. So, within these parameters, what can we do to encourage membership? Meetings that have regular discussions of Quaker testimonies and topics can put membership into the rotation if they have not done so already.
Such discussions can and probably should include information about how to apply and what really goes on in a clearness committee meeting. Faith and Practice and general guidebooks keep the description on clearness committees for membership general because of the variety of circumstances. The description in Howard Brinton’s Guide to Quaker Practice is typical: “It is the committee’s duty to ascertain whether or not the applicant understands the beliefs and practices of the Society of Friends and is in substantial agreement with them and intends to conduct herself or himself accordingly.” (p. 47, 1993 edition) However, people are often terrified of these meetings, and not only because there is the chance, however unlikely, that they might be encouraged to wait awhile. My thesis supervisor gave me more of an idea of what was likely to come up in my dissertation defense than most Friends tell potential applicants for membership (or marriage, for that matter, if one wants to carry forward that earlier comparison). When the latest person to apply for membership locally asked what the clearness committee was likely to discuss, I had only the information listed above. And yet we tell people that a clearness committee is not the Spanish Inquisition.
II. Some Queries for those contemplating membership or serving on a clearness committee for membership:
Neither a thesis advisor nor a clearness committee can or should anticipate all questions in advance. No one wants to give or hear answers that are completely rehearsed, but a list of questions for people to think about in advance would not hurt. It might help attenders decide if they were ready to apply for membership. Here is a list, drawn up primarily for those in unprogrammed Meetings who do not have an expectation that Friends will support a formal statement such as the Richmond Declaration. Some of these questions are of the sort that might come up in a clearness committee, although we would have time for no more than a fraction; others are more likely to be used for an attender's own reflections.
A. General issues of experience and comfort level:
How long have you been attending Meeting for Worship? Are you able to make attending Meeting a priority to the extent that physical proximity to the Meeting and other considerations such as work and family commitments allow? If these practical considerations are onerous, in what other ways can you contribute to the life of your Meeting? If you are physically distant from a Friends Meeting, are you aware of what resources your Yearly Meeting may have for you?
If your Meeting allows attenders to participate in Meeting for Worship with attention to Business, have you done so? If you are able, can you contribute to the Meeting financially if you have not already done so? How can you contribute to committee work or other responsibilities that allow Quaker Meetings and organizations to function, if such efforts are feasible for you? If a personal problem not relating to Friends (e.g., issues at work or family illness) were to arise, are there Friends with whom you would feel comfortable discussing it? If someone inside the Quaker ambit does or says something that makes you uncomfortable in belief or practice, how might you respond?
Membership in the Religious Society of Friends is through the Monthly Meeting, but it is nevertheless a membership in the worldwide Religious Society. Have you visited other Meetings and larger Quaker gatherings or Quaker-affiliated programs (e.g., Quarterly or Half-Yearly Meeting, Yearly Meeting, Friends General Conference, Friends United Meeting, Powell House, Pendle Hill, or Woodbrooke)? If you move, can you anticipate participating in a new Meeting? Friends have often accepted members, including students, who expect to move in the foreseeable future. We are experienced and (we hope) helpful in assisting with such transitions.
Do you have a rudimentary understanding of Quaker history and how Quakers in your area are organized (i.e., Monthly and Yearly Meetings), and do you inform yourself of broader current Quaker concerns?
Friends often have periods of dryness in their spiritual lives. Also, sometimes people come to a new faith community with the feeling that the community perfectly meets their needs. Friends are human beings and Friends’ organizations are comprised of human beings; we are fallible and have at least our share of warts. Can you anticipate dealing with a period of dryness or disappointment while maintaining your membership in our Religious Society?
B. Quakers and the family and close friends:
Most Friends have family members who are not Quakers. Indeed, this is often the case even inside one's immediate household. How do members of your family view your interest in Quakerism? If differences arise, as in the religious education of children, how might you approach them? If you are currently single or unpartnered, can you envisage a Quaker life for yourself if in the future you have a spouse or partner with no interest in Quakerism? Can you discuss your beliefs with family and close friends if the subject comes up without feeling the desire to try to win them over, or without being defensive if any of them try to do the same?
C. God and Christianity:
The Friends in this Yearly Meeting do not have a creed or formal statement of belief (see introductory paragraph for Friends that do have a formal statement). Nevertheless, you should have a broad familiarity with the religious traditions of Quakers, how they have developed, and the range of such beliefs today. What have Quakers traditionally thought about God and Christianity? What is your understanding, within the Yearly Meeting you now attend, about such beliefs today? Allowing for human limitations in describing the range of their own religious experiences, how would you describe your own beliefs about God and Christianity? How comfortable are you with the range of belief within your Yearly Meeting (or a lack of diversity, as the case may be)? In particular, how do you feel about the Christian history of the Religious Society of Friends?
How do you perceive the relationship between religion and science?
D. Vocal ministry and the general conduct of Meeting for Worship:
How do you feel about vocal ministry in Meeting, or the lack thereof? If your Meeting has long periods or silence and/or plenty of completely silent Meetings for Worship, how would you feel about attending a so-called “popcorn Meeting” with lots of vocal ministry, or vice versa? Can you listen respectfully to a message that may not be meant for you, but which may be meaningful to another?
Are you familiar with Friends’ principles about the outward sacraments (water baptism and communion with bread and wine or juice)? How do you feel about these?
If your Meeting is completely unprogrammed, how do you feel about the lack of designated periods for music in Meeting for Worship? If you enjoy religious music, are there other opportunities, inside or outside of the Religious Society, that provide what you need in this area? Likewise, how do you feel about the absence of religious art in most Quaker Meeting Houses?
E. Quaker testimonies:
There are a number of areas of community, national, and global concern in which Friends have traditionally been active. These concerns come out of core beliefs, which we call testimonies. Quaker testimonies include, but are by no means limited to: sincerity or integrity, equality (whether of gender, social status, education, or other aspects of the human experience), simplicity, and peace. Modern Friends have also developed a testimony of environmental concerns, including the welfare of species other than our own. In addition, the testimony on integrity has led Friends to use affirmations rather than oaths.
Friends approach these testimonies in different ways. How do you approach these testimonies yourself? Does it bother you if another Friend has a different response to one of these testimonies than you do (e.g., differences of belief and practice about the peace testimony or views on gender, marriage, and sexuality)?
F. The world of Quakerism:
The Religious Society of Friends has members and attenders all over the world. For historical and other reasons, they differ enormously in the way they understand Quaker belief and practice. Traditionally, the organizational “building block” of Quakerism is the Monthly Meeting, called a “church” in some parts of the world. Monthly Meetings in turn belong to broader organizations, usually Yearly Meetings that meet annually (often with regional gatherings that meet more often); these are in turn connected to the Friends World Committee for Consultation, which represents Quakers from all over the world. Do you have a basic idea of the range of Friends in the FWCC and what their beliefs are?
If your Yearly Meeting is part of another Quaker organization, such as Friends General Conference (FGC) or Friends United Meeting (FUM), do you have a basic understanding of what that organization is and what its beliefs are? People in North America should be especially aware that some Yearly Meetings have dual affiliations with Friends United Meeting and Friends General Conference and that tensions have arisen due to differences in beliefs and expectations among members of these two umbrella groups. These Yearly Meetings are: Baltimore, Canadian, New England, New York, and Southeastern.
G. Other questions and concerns:
Is there anything you would like to ask a clearness committee?
III. Other issues related to membership:
I have some broader issues in mind as well. Committees on Ministry and Counsel or their equivalent can keep up with people who are in the process of drifting away, if only to maintain the conversation and have accurate contact information. (I have known of membership clerks being approached by Ministry and Counsel because they do not have current addresses of all members, only to reply that membership clerks are likely to be in the same position.)
We might also consider saying something similar to what some other religious organizations put on their monthly newsletter: “those who are interested in knowing what membership in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) entails should feel free to contact the clerk, the membership clerk, or a member of the Committee on Ministry and Counsel/an Overseer (with names and contact information).” A letter applying for membership is sent to the clerk, but it is important to make it clear that the clerk is not a stand-in for a member of the clergy.
One final point: when the subject of raising the age limit for people on the “temporary list” (called “junior members” in some Yearly Meetings) came up in Canadian Yearly Meeting, I was one of many who were generally supportive. Times have changed. Whereas previous generations of Friends might have been likely to have permanent jobs and even children by their twenty-sixth birthday, the cut-off for many temporary lists, this has been unrealistic for some time. Although others have worked for some time and written at length on the subject, I also would encourage Yearly Meetings (and Monthly Meetings, where flexibility exists) to consider raising the age limit or to look at ways in which people who otherwise move a lot might feel comfortable applying for membership in our Religious Society.
Despite the noblest intent of all concerned, Friends who have served on committees to look over the membership list (the name and participants of such committees differ according to Yearly Meeting and sometimes within Yearly Meetings) sometimes have tales to tell about people who have applied for membership in the Religious Society of Friends and been accepted into it, only to sink into disillusionment later. Certainly some have applied when they had insufficient experience outside their local Meetings and were dissatisfied with a new Meeting in a different town. Some rethink their spiritual values and go elsewhere, the same as other people come to us. But does that make the idea of membership a hot potato? I hope not. The fact of a divorce does not by itself preclude remarriage under the care of our Religious Society (at least in the Yearly Meetings familiar to me). Likewise, we all know that “divorce” from membership happens from time to time. When people leave our Religious Society, it is important not only to see why the Friend wishes to leave (like a marital divorce, such separations are occasionally called off) but also to ensure that the process is “no fault” and transparent. Friends try to arrange visitation for the member who wishes to resign not only to ensure that such a person feels “clear” about the Meeting (and vice versa) but to reduce the risk of hard feelings. Occasionally we have had a happy reunion later.
|Exterior of Sparta Meeting House, Yarmouth, Ontario|
photograph ©Kristin Lord 2013