Saturday, 18 November 2017

The Trouble With Membership

One person uses both hands to clasp the right hand of another person.
There are few matters in British Quakerism that seem to excite as much disagreement as the question of membership. Theological diversity is certainly one, but in my experience membership is certainly up there among the most contentious, though probably still somewhat behind the concern over non-theism.
Membership was not an idea that seemed to matter much – or necessarily be thought of at all – in the early years of the Religious Society of Friends. Accounts vary somewhat as to why it became important, whether it was in order to know who should get material support from a Meeting when they were in hardship, or in order to demonstrate bureaucratic structures to satisfy the secular government (if the government could be said to be secular at that time), or various other explanations. Whatever the reason, it became necessary to identify who was a member, and procedures for bringing people into membership – or indeed removing them from membership. For a long time, in Britain, those born to parents in membership were considered to be in membership themselves, from birth - “birthright membership”; the possibility of only one parent being a member wasn't often a concern, given the fact that marrying someone not in membership was cause to be removed from membership, and society in general being such that children born to unmarried parents were, at least visibly, unusual. I suspect that where a widow came into membership during her pregnancy, the child would be considered a birthright member; I don't know what happened with new members who brought small children with them – it would make an interesting bit of research, but not one I have time for at present.
Today, Friends have many different ideas about the meaning of membership, and Meetings vary in how much importance they put on the distinction between members and attenders. I’ve heard of some who take seriously the idea, in Quaker faith & practice, that attenders should obtain permission before attending any regular Meeting for Worship for Business, while others freely welcome all, except to send them out of the room during consideration of a limited set of topics – foremost being membership matters, of course. The roles limited to members, as set out in QF&P, are also often treated more as guidelines.
I don’t know how other Yearly Meetings handle membership, and while my attempts to make sense of it all and think about how I would change our system were it under my control will eventually lead me to researching this, I haven’t done so yet. This post is more about my impressions and thoughts so far, exploring the different understandings and interpretations of membership that I have come across, where my thinking on the matter has currently reached. As with so many matters, this is a subject of continuing evolution of thought for me, as for many other British Friends.
The first thing to make clear is that I consider that membership should either mean something significant, or it should be more or less on-demand, an assertion by the Friend in question that they wish to be identified with their Area Meeting. At present, it has some significance, largely procedural, but not enough. We make a show of testing a person’s desire for membership before admitting them, and an Area Meeting in session has to approve that membership, but it is largely unclear what we are testing. We say that membership is both a commitment on the part of the Friend in question, and a source of joy and celebration (see QF&P Chapter 10), but we do not make concrete and clear expectations of what this will mean for any individual Friend. We may make more of an effort to convince members that they should contribute financially, but we are rightly very cautious to apply much pressure in that matter. Likewise, many nominations committees are so stretched to fill roles that the pressure to serve in appointed roles increases only slightly when in membership – and that only because one is then approached for those roles that the Meeting accepts are only to be entrusted to those in membership.
In my experience, many Friends also consider it a commitment on the part of the Meeting towards the new member, that in accepting them into membership we commit to supporting them, spiritually and pastorally, and maybe sometimes materially, in a different, more solid way to the duty we feel towards those who are members of our community without being members of our Meetings. And yet, I'm not sure exactly what that difference is. I've certainly witnessed significant apparent sense of commitment towards long-time, well-established attenders. Perhaps there are simply attenders that we are waiting to welcome into membership, and in the meantime accord them all the regard we do members, except those precluded by our own processes and policies – like not allowing them to be trustees or treasurers, and sending them out of the room during membership matters.
Membership itself is marked by Meetings more than many things, but still little for something so important. A new member is welcomed after Meeting for Worship, and perhaps bought a book; in my case, the purchase of the book was somewhat delayed after the welcome, not due to any fault on the part of the Assistant Clerk (Membership), but because I took so long to pick one. Solemn rituals are not considered Quakerly, and nor is the marking of anniversaries; but the end result is that entry into membership is treated in a fairly secular way. Perhaps this is right; membership is not a fundamental spiritual change in an individual, as many Christians consider baptism. Yet it is spiritually significant, and more so for some new members than others. Should we be more sensitive to each Friend in they see their membership, and how they would like it recognised?
I've not been in membership terribly long myself, around 18 months at time of writing, but I've been fortunate enough in that time to hear several applications for membership at Area Meeting. All of those reports, and that on my own application, had significant biographical elements. There were, of course, elements of spiritual biography to it, but usually there was a lot more. Perhaps this might be for context – it's certainly valuable in that regard – but I can't help wondering if it might not also be simply a way for the whole Area Meeting (or at least those present at the business meeting in question) to get to know more about this Friend seeking membership, to feel closer to them. Perhaps this is an unstated, yet important, element of our membership process. Of course, in other Yearly Meetings that have fewer “layers” of organisation, each worshipping group being a Monthly Meeting – generally each holding membership in a similar manner to our Area Meetings – in its own right, that feature would not be so relevant; then again, I don't know much about membership procedures in other Yearly Meetings – I'd love to hear the observations of Friends outside Britain, and there's a comments section at the end of this post that could be a great tool for such an exchange.
We want membership to be important, but we don't want it to be divisive. We want it to be a welcome, and an affirmation, a commitment and a sharing, but at the same time with as little sense of exclusion as possible. We want it to not be onerous, but we want it to be significant. We don't want it to be a test, yet we want it to show dedication to Quaker collective processes. In the end, it often becomes simply neither one thing nor another – a classic half a loaf, to my mind. It serves a positive role, and minimises its negatives by some lights, but fails to do all it aims for. Perhaps it cannot do all it aims for, and some things must be sacrificed, but by attempting to balance all of the contradictions evenly, it ends up doing none of them.
Personally, I see two broad courses of action that would make sense, though I don't claim they cover every possibility. To me, we can either pare membership back to the most essential points, and not dress it up as more than it is, or we can build it up and make real the aspirational talk around membership.
Perhaps if we pare down membership, we might identify those things that we really wish to know about someone before welcoming them into membership – and how to effectively obtain that information. We might want to make as concrete as possible the commitments we expect the individual to make to the Meeting, and what the Meeting commits to in regards of the individual. It may become more procedural, but there's still room in procedural for joy and tenderness and getting to know people. Of course, agreeing on what those things we need to find out about the applicant actually are might be difficult, and then the extent to which there are “wrong” answers could prove divisive. But then it is done, and we can make it pretty straightforward.
On the other hand, if we build it up, it can become a more meaningful experience for all concerned. Without requiring any particular theological position from the applicant, we could ensure that they've really explored spiritual questions, whether or not they have come to any answer. We could make sure they have experienced a range of Quaker processes, other than Meeting for Worship and a membership visit. We could offer spiritual accompaniment as part of the process to ensure that they are supported on the journey, of which the membership process is part. We could have a clear way of making sure that expectations of contribution, of time or money, are understood, while acknowledging that people are able to contribute in different ways and different amounts. We don't even have to limit these things to the membership process, in fact – but see this as a structured framework for our individual spiritual journeys, taken as part of a community, and membership is one element of that, to be taken when appropriate; however, I think it might be easier to start such an effort as a structured process around membership application itself.
Of course, we could choose to effectively get rid of membership, as we understand it; a person could be a Quaker, and a member of their Meeting, simply by identifying as such, and notifying the Meeting that they wish to be considered a member – no questions asked. I know there are some who would like that, indeed some who want to get rid of membership completely and utterly. There are organisational and legal reasons that mean that not having any concept of membership would become complicated, but membership on demand would cut through those concerns while having essentially the same effect.
I think that such a removal of the traditional idea of membership would be a loss, but while we do it in the wishy-washy way we tend to now, it might not seem it. It would mostly be a loss of opportunity, because if we did membership in a better way it would be so valuable and such a rich part of our religious experience – or an efficient way of doing what we feel we need to do. At the moment, I'm far from convinced we do either. What do you think?
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