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.
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