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What is the basis of Quaker membership?

A Friend on the nontheist Friends email list asked what the basis for membership might be, or more specifically, what a basis might be for turning someone down for membership. The question was not specifically about belief/disbelief in God, so I did not particularly address that. I suppose, by not addressing such belief/disbelief, I am suggesting that I don’t consider it to be a valid basis for membership. That doesn’t mean I don’t think issues of belief or disbelief should be addressed on clearness committees. On the contrary, I find those conversations relevant and enlightening.

Anyway, here is my reply, with a few minor changes:

This is a good question. The best response I can offer is going to be rather unclear and ambivalent, like my feelings about membership.

I am a member and it feels true and right to be one; yet I’m not sure I believe in membership as a distinct step, before which you’re not a Quaker and after which you are one. Not on my own clearness committee for membership, nor on any of the clearness committees for others I’ve served on, has it felt like that kind of transition. Nor did it feel like a group of people evaluating another person to see whether they met the requirements for membership. Nothing of the sort, really.

On the vast majority of these committees, for the committee members and the focus person it was essentially a matter of acknowledging something that had already clearly taken place. On a couple committees there was some uncertainty, but that uncertainty was mostly on the part of the "applicant" (hate that word), rather than the rest of the committee. I can imagine a committee finding that someone just doesn’t seem to be a good fit, but I’m happy to say I haven’t seen that happen yet.

I have said before that I think of a Quaker as one who shows up and takes part (what I consider "taking part" is a fair but difficult question I’ll avoid for now). I don’t want to limit our community only to people I consider worthy, in any sense. Not spiritual depth, not moral seriousness, not political liberality, not theological agreement, not conviction, not transformation, at least not in the sense that it has or has not taken place. Come, sit with us, listen, let us see what comes of it. Our practice of worship has proven to be incredibly fertile, can help us to become who we are more fully and faithfully, to build and sustain a deeper love for each other and our world. To my mind the transformation is not of individuals to conform to a single image, but of each struggling to become his or her best, and distinctive, possible self, but doing this in community. Formal membership is not the clear critical point in that process.

I asked for a clearness committee for membership a year or so after my meeting carried my family through a horrifying medical ordeal. After this, I found that the emotional/spiritual connection between myself and my meeting had simply grown too powerful to deny. When my involvement in Quakerism would come up in conversations, and I’d say, I attend a Quaker meeting but I’m not a Quaker, it felt like a lie. Quakerism and my meeting had become central to who I was; these were my people. The fit wasn’t perfect, and still isn’t, but the relationship is deep and genuine. That’s enough for me, far more than I ever expected to find in human community.

Of course, it is possible to be a faithful and genuine Friend without formally becoming a member. I could have gone that way, I suppose, but for some reason it seemed right to take the step.

The great value of the clearness committee for membership, to my mind, is not about a difficult, earnest effort to discern whether an individual fulfills the requirements, however vague and uncertain those requirements might be. It is about engaging in conversation with someone who has expressed a desire to go deeper in relationship with the meeting and with Quakerism, and to help him or her continue down that road. We get to know the person on a much deeper level, find out what Quakerism means to him or her, answer questions about what it has meant to us. Sometimes in that discussion (not yet, for me, so far) it might emerge that the person really isn’t ready to move to the next level, or is so out of touch with the meeting’s understanding of Quakerism that membership doesn’t make sense. In which case my hope would be that the applicant would come to that realization along with the rest of the clearness committee.

I think we tend to take the decision/criteria part of membership clearness much too seriously, and perhaps take the community/relationship building part of it not quite seriously enough. It’s just a stage, and a somewhat artificial stage, in a developing relationship.


9 responses to “What is the basis of Quaker membership?”

  1. Hi James,

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts. They resonate with my own experience.

    I was first moved to apply for membership in my Meeting about a year before I actually did so. I spent many months reading Faith and Practice to determine whether I was really a Quaker. This process required me to translate theistic language to fit my own views.

    I hit a big stop when I got to the bit about trying to discern the will of God for the Meeting in business meeting. I can translate the word “God” in many ways, but there is no sense in which I believe in a personal God who has a will for Santa Cruz Meeting. At the same time, I knew experientially exactly what was being described, and I deeply believe in what it is that we do in business meeting.

    I tentatively decided that I could substitute the words “in accordance with the nature of God,” or “in accordance with the corporate discernment of truth.”

    When I came to my own clearness committee meetings, I was surprised at how little Friends cared about my beliefs or my accordance with stated Quaker principles. Instead, they met with me in a deep worship that was full communion and, eventually, a consummation of my relationship with the Meeting. The end result was not that the clearness committee put their stamp of approval on my membership application (although they did that too), but that together we came to a place of deep truth and connection.

    I had expected a verbal test of my suitability for the Quaker label and instead was given a practical test in whether I could do what it is that Quakers do.

    One of the strengths of our process is that the clearness committee is free to move forward as it sees fit. If there are serious doubts, the clearness committee can take as much time as it needs to address them.

  2. As the person who initiated the conversation and put forward the idea of “transformation” as the basis for membership, I’d like to repeat that it’s not whether one, in the eyes of others, has attained it but rather, in the words of Particia Loring, such transformation is the basis of one’s spiritual intentionality. It is not whether one has arrived but, rather, whether one understands that this is the journey undertaken.

    This is the traditional basis of Friends community and although I think it’s certainly possible for people of any set of beliefs to share that goal, even or especially with those who hold different beliefs, my query is, and remains unaddressed, whether people who do not share that intentionality are “taking part.” This intentionality of transformation is the individual and group “activity” that is sought and manifested through Friends Faith and Practice.

    There is nothing you state, above, with which I disagree–but I don’t really know what you are saying. I do think that your self described evasion of what it means to “take part” leaves me still wondering what it means to you to be a Friend.

    As we have already explored on the List–it is not only possible but true that people sit in meeting for worship doing vastly different things from what others are doing. Or is “taking part” what each of us doing whatever it is we are doing? If one is striving to be open to moral transformation by the work of the Spirit, in the sense of traditional Friends faith and practice, and another is reflecting on how much better the world would be if only Republicans would adopt the core values of harmony, simplicity, community, integrity and equality and still another is enyoying a vision portraying the beauty of particle physics, while a fourth is actively praying that gays and lesbians in the meeting be healed of their “sin” are they each “taking part” in the sense that you mean it?

    (I suppose my answer to this decidedly NON rhetorical question is that it would depend on whether each is being conformed/transformed by what each is doing to the testimonies/fruit of the Spirit/image of God/ultimate concern. Cross, it is written, leads to crown.)

    My own view is that when you come to grips with what it means to “take part” you will have laid down this vagueness and that you may find you are not so inclusive as you claim you are, as inclusive as you claim traditionally oriented Friends often are not.

    Unless, of course, your view of being a Friend is that anything goes and everyone has to honor and respect whatever anyone wants to bring to the table. Then, still, you will find that you are not so inclusive as you think you are–because you will be led to say that you have to exclude those who do not want to include those who bring certain things–like, say, a self satisfied and unrepentent pedophilia or misogyny –to the table.

    (and, by the way, Multnomah Monthly Meeting has had to actually face the question of whether one who brings unrepentant pedophilia to the table is welcome to “take part.” Not a red herring or an absurdity.)

    So, I still don’t know what your basis for membership is. And I am not sure, yet, that you do. I know that you reject the idea that a certain set of beliefs is that basis, and I do, too. I also acknowledge and hope to help eliminate the pain Friends who have been subjected to that kind of spiritual “pat down” and subsequent rejection have been through. But knowing what you do not consider the basis for membership is not the same as knowing what you do consider the basis for membership.

    If the community/relationship building is to be taken more seriously, as you suggest, then isn’t taking seriously the decision/criteria in regard to what builds the community and the relationships, and what destroys them, to be taken just as seriously? Or is your view that there is no reason that one could want to “join” the community that can be destructive to it and that anyone who thinks that’s not so doesn’t understand what “commuity” really is?

    And, if it is your hope that the process leads to a realization on the part of the community that “membership doesn’t make sense” how does the meeting respond, with integrity and compassion, when, contrary to your hope, the person seeking membership doesn’t share that realization but insists that the meeting change what “makes sense” so as to accommodate them?

    Hope to see you at FGC. We’ll probably do better, face to face, in discussing these things that we sometimes do on line.

  3. Heather,

    Thanks for your kind words. It sounds like your clearness committee did wonderful work.


    I know my response to the question is vague, hardly an answer to your question at all. That is intentional, and I hoped to to be fairly clear about at least that intention, if unclear in the answer itself. I truly find that a lot of wrestling over how we should decide who gets to be a member and who doesn’t, mostly unhelpful to the process of building and sustaining a loving community. That was a fundamental point of my post–perhaps I didn’t get it across. And I am truly ambivalent–not fervently supportive, not fervently opposed–regarding formal membership itself. I think some very good things come out of the process, the least significant part of which is the naming of people as formal members.

    But I will go a *little* further here to flesh out my sense–still fairly vague–of what it means to “take part.” This taking part, to my mind, is not what qualifies a person to become a formal member. It is doing what we do. It is behavior, for the most part visible from the outside. We sit together. We listen to each other, and attend to the movements, words and images within our minds. Sometimes we feel powerfully compelled to speak of something that we have heard or experienced. If that compulsion seems strong and true enough, we stand and we give our message.

    There are also boundaries of behavior–not of belief or opinion or spiritual maturity, but behavior–that legitimate participants in our community should not violate, whether they wish to be formal members or not. They are not firm or clear boundaries, but they exist, and occasionally in the life of most meetings they will be crossed, and we will need to find a way to respond.

    To show up for worship, and pull out a Bible and read from it for 15 minutes Sunday after Sunday, would under most circumstances violate those boundaries. Or, again in worship, to repeatedly trumpet the certainty of eternal torment in hell for those who do not repent of their homosexuality. Or to pass out tracts saying the holocaust did not happen. Or to physically or verbally abuse members of the community.

    Even in such cases we should proceed with care and humility. It is possible for us to grossly misunderstand a message or ministry that at first blush sounds depraved, and sometimes a very difficult message can contain a germ of something very important for us to hear.

    These are just examples. There is no rule book; we operate by the spirit. And, again, these are not tests for formal membership, but for participation in our community, as a member or an attender. Formal membership, I would humbly suggest, is basically for those who have shown up and taken part substantially for long enough to develop a clear sense that they belong to the community, and want to take a further step in their long-term commitment to the community.

  4. To me, membership is all about the practical. I look at what happened to the Reform Party, hijacked by Pat Buchanan. The same thing could happen to a Quaker meeting if some of (for example) Fred Phelps’s folks decided to “take us down.” Meeting membership is to me a concession to the World As It Is Constructed, where churches have own property, are tax-exempt, and have memberships.

    To me the “There is God in Everyone” idea (However you translate that) means that as far as I am concerned, there is no difference in universal terms (or to translate back to the Theistic, no difference in the Eye of God) amongst non-member, member, and active abhorrent of the SOF.

    However (and my understanding is this is one of the great contributions of Mr Fox), we are not living in the Ever After, we are living on Earth, and to the extent that we as humans don’t want to leave ourselves open to being knocked down by other humans, we need to “game” the system. And membership is that sort of game, or ought to be. Clearness committee IS largely a matter of “are you actually one of us?” but the answer is “yes” far oftener then nervous applicants suspect. Or it should be anyway…

  5. Just found this old thread — not sure anyone will read this…

    A committee that decides whether someone is qualified or “clear” for membership in a Quaker meeting is the oxymoron to end all oxymorons. It conflicts with the most basic tenets of the Friends’ faith. Only the person and God can say whether there is qualification for “membership.”

    No intermediaries. A committee is an intermediary.

    The most that is reasonable is to ask the candidate to accept the principles that guide the meeting. If they don’t, then they shouldn’t even attend.

  6. There is a Committee to determine who should be accepted as a Quaker?!? I don’t recall George Fox having a middle person or group to determine with whom he went into meeting, or whom could go into meeting with HIM.

    There is a membership application?!?

    If I sit in my living room in meeting, believing and experiencing that a person can speak directly to god and that god can move though me without an intermediary, and if I decide that my beliefs determine that I am a Quaker, then guess what? I am a Quaker.

  7. Cathleen,

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    I guess in response I would say, if you are joining a group of people then the nature of your relationship with those people hinges not only on your own sense, but the sense of those people. As should be apparent from my earlier words here, I am uneasy with the usual understanding of membership where it’s essentially about approval or disapproval. I see it more as working together to understand the nature of that relationship, where it has gone and where it might go next. But the conversation and the understanding of the community is not irrelevant to the question of whether you are a member or not.

    Also, formal membership is completely separate from the degree of openness of worship. Many, many faithful attenders of Quaker meetings are not members, and worship at most meetings is completely open to anyone who walks in the door.

    Indeed Fox did not go through a clearness committee for membership, and at the very beginning there was no such thing as formal membership. But Fox was very much involved in, in fact called for, a greater formalizing of things such as membership, largely as a result of what he saw as certain Friends acting in ways that reflected badly on Friends. Group discernment emerged when early Friends began to see the weakness of purely individual discernment. It’s been a balancing act every since, and some would argue we haven’t always been properly balanced.

    I’m really not in the least interested in deciding who gets to describe themselves as Quaker and who doesn’t. The world is full of Quakers whose understanding of Quaker is completely alien to my own. That doesn’t mean they aren’t Quakers, or that I’m not, but it might mean that we are not co-religionists. Maybe we belong to different Quakerisms.

  8. Observant Stranger Avatar
    Observant Stranger

    I hope observant strangers can jump in on this conversation. 🙂

    I think Fox’s push for formalizing memberships was a response to what James referred to as ‘certain Friends acting in ways that reflected badly on Friends.’. The issue of what we now call ‘street cred’ was looming large, in large part because of the times Fox was living in. Anything untoward that sas done in the name of Quakerism would only make social legitmiacy harder for them to attain.

    Given that Quakerism became illegal, it also meant potential harm to any Quaker who was in the way of the authorities (prison reform was yet to be invented).

    In sum, any newcomers to a burgeoning movement suffer the glare of two spotlights: the movement itself, and the world watching it.

  9. Thanks for this very helpful article.
    Somewhat ‘speaks to my condition’. 😉

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