Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Membership, Convincement & Belonging

Plastic pawn playing pieces in several colours arranges on a white board with lines variously connecting them.
There are many ways of belonging to the Quaker family. There are those who are part of our community without identifying with our faith, fellow-travellers who participate in some, even all of our activities but do not consider themselves Quakers. There are those of fervent religious belief in the spirit of the early Friends. There are those who call themselves Quakers but deny the religious nature of the experience, or who recognise it as religious but are still patiently waiting for a direct experience of the Divine that they recognise. There is, of course, the division between member and attender, and other terms we throw around – newcomer and enquirer being quite popular ones.
We don't seem to have a coherent view, however, of these different dimensions of belonging, of being part of the Quaker community, of being a Quaker. In this post, I will be exploring some elements of this “belonging space”, to borrow mathematical terminology.
There are some Quakers who hold the view that the term “Quaker”, or indeed “Friend”, should be reserved for those in formal membership. I don't think that this is a good yardstick, personally; membership is at least as much an administrative matter as a spiritual one, in my experience, and being a Quaker is a matter of inward spiritual state. On the other hand, relying entirely on self-identification has its own problems. Whatever the appropriate test might be (and I describe some possibilities below), we can't assume everyone will apply the same test. That said, it's likely that whatever the test we might think most appropriate, it cannot be applied by anyone outside the individual, as it requires inward knowledge or is based on subjective experience.
So, membership is one dimension of the Quaker belonging space, but it is a binary one (except, possibly, in those Yearly Meetings that still practice birthright membership). What are the other dimensions, and how do they relate to one another?
One obvious dimension is the social, community-based one. It is clear that we could describe a person as having Quaker belonging if they are part of our community – if they are involved in our activities, if we know them and consider them “on of us” in a social sense. We cannot know what they are doing, in the privacy of their mind, during Meeting for Worship; we cannot know what they think is happening during that practice. If they come regularly, do not act in a way we consider beyond the pale, if they stay after and join us for coffee, if they engage us in conversation, if they come to our social events and engage in our issues, they belong to our community. This is not a very satisfactory dimension, however, unless you consider (and are happy) that the Religious Society of Friends has become a social club and activists' assembly – and I do not think that is the case, nor do I think it would be a good thing if it were.
Another dimension that seems obvious is belief, though it is hard to see how to apply it cleanly when our beliefs are so diverse. It's not hard to draw a baseline set of beliefs, however, sparse and vague as they may be. For a person to fit religiously among Friends, it is necessary to believe that there is something that makes Meeting for Worship, and perhaps more importantly Meeting for Worship for Business, more than a bunch of people sitting around and saying things that it occurs to them to say. I know there are Friends who think even this basic element is going too far, but I cannot in good conscience admit that it is unnecessary; I consider it entirely necessary. Now, it might be that this something is not what would be considered paranormal or supernatural in the everyday senses of the word, or what I refer to as transmundane; for some it is a better, wiser part of our own minds that is not readily accessible, for example. But it is something, and it is that something that makes our business method not simply a strange form of consensus. Similarly, we might hold that some degree of pacifism is required, and some degree of belief in equality, though it is harder to be precise as to how those bars lie.
Membership, community, belief – is this all there is? I suspect many of you feel instinctively that this is not all, as indeed I feel. Another dimension might be discipline, the commitment to bring one's whole life under the ordering of the Spirit (however one understands that “something”). There's also corporate discipline, the commitment to submit, to some extent, to the corporate discernment of one's Meetings – at each “level” of grouping of Meetings, though the degree of authority of each “layer” over the others varies between traditions, countries, areas, and subject matter. This is something that distinguishes the Quaker way from other faith traditions that believe we can live by divine guidance; we believe in both individual guidance and revelation, and the use of corporate discipline to check that guidance and guide our community as a whole. Commitment to that balance and discipline is, for me, part of what it means to be a Quaker.
All of these elements are related. Membership solidifies our position in the community, and may not be granted to someone who has not involved themselves in that community. The nature of our discipline is part of involvement in Meeting for Worship for Business, another part of our community activity. Our beliefs clearly relate to our involvement in these processes. And so on, and so forth. But there is still a very important element, a major dimension to Quaker identity, that is missing.
You've probably guessed what it is, given it's mentioned in the title of this post: convincement. What is convincement, though? Our use of that particular word might lead one to think that it is about a rational acceptance of key Quaker propositions, but I feel that misses the true reality of the experience. For me, convincement is, in some sense, a form of being “born again”, as some Christian sects put it. On the other hand, I don't think it requires a road to Damascus moment. For some, there is that sudden realisation of something beyond. For others, it is a gradual process that leads them, one day, to realise their understanding. It may be harder to discern for those raised among Quakers, for they have not become part of the community from being entirely outside it, but I think it is still there.
A key point here is that someone might have the beliefs that form the common core of functional Quakerism, might be part of our community, might get involved in all the things we do, might even be a member (though whether this is really appropriate is questionable, as I discuss below), without this experience. Participating in our most solemn religious activities does not require the experience, certainly. There are those who have been Quakers for decades who have not had the experience of which I write, though they might be hopefully waiting for it all that time.
The experience is simple, but utterly profound. It is what the early Friends taught of, at the heart of their new way. It is simply direct experience of the Divine, or God, or (Holy) Spirit, or whatever you prefer to call it. To me, the most meaningful sense of convincement is the realisation that you have had this experience – though you might not realise it for years after it happened – and that it is leading you to journey among Friends, to be part of our community and share in our discipline. This is important, for these experiences of the Divine can occur in many faiths, even those who do not feature them as part of their teaching; the experiences form part of Quaker convincement only when they lead one along the Quaker way.
The experience need not be earth-shattering, need not make one feel as though one were a new person. It might happen in small ways on a regular basis. It can be hard to be sure that an experience is really of that nature. For myself, some of the times I have felt such an experience were in meeting, both plain worship and business meetings (though I would not say that all instances of being moved to speak are such an experience), and others have been in solitary reflection (indeed, I wrote a post about what I think was my first such experience). Still others I have found in reaction to the natural world, or even great works of human artifice. We must not mistake this as a tremendously high bar to surmount. Indeed, part of our religious education – when we manage to engage in any – should be to help people to recognise experiences that they may not have identified as such.
Now, I do not say one cannot be a Quaker without that experience. One can believe wholeheartedly in the possibility, but not have experienced it. Now, one might react to that belief by fearing the experience, or by seeking it – or possibly both. If one is prepared to seek it, or at least be open to it, one can be a Quaker in every meaningful sense. It might be better not to describe such people as convinced, however – to set a meaningful distinction, and to identify those who believe they have had such experiences, we might say they are Quakers by convincement, and others are Quakers by inclination, or by habit.
In drawing this distinction, I am obviously asserting that the distinction is important, and I believe it is. One might consider, if one sees things in a Christian way, that it is the baptism of the Holy Spirit, a sense in which the Quaker faith is deeply Pentecostal. It certainly affects one's outlook. One thing that I must make absolutely clear, however, is that I do not make the distinction to set one group above another. It alters the character of one's spiritual experience, but not the validity or value of it. It deeply affects one from that day forth, in my experience usually leading one to hope for more such experiences – to seek after them, to try to work out how to increase their likelihood and frequency – but it does not make one better, as a person or as a Quaker, than those who seek after truth without that experience.
That said, there is an argument to be made that membership, a matter of common debate and uncertainty in its value and implementation (as I have previously discussed), should perhaps be something we assume will follow from this experience, this convincement. The foundation of the Quaker faith was based on the possibility of direct experience of the Divine, and I sympathise with those who feel that it has become inappropriately de-emphasised by Quakers of all traditions today. If we were to see it as a prerequisite of membership, it would be a suitable re-emphasis, and it would mean that membership were about more than affirming your wish to be part of our community. It could not be tested, only asked and asserted, but that could be done with due solemnity.
There are a few problems with this approach. One is that we have a great many members already, and it is hard to know how many have had this experience, would recognise in themselves the sort of convincement I describe. If we included this as some sort of test, would we need to review all existing memberships? Would there be a problem with distinguishing “legacy” members from those who had asserted this form of convincement? That is a deep problem, but not the only one.
Another is that people may not recognise the experience from such a description even if they have had it. Finding a way to communicate the idea that speaks to all Friends would be very difficult, given our huge range of conceptions of the nature of the Divine. How could we ever be confident that we have done so, other than by having much stronger religious education within our Meetings, and making clear an expectation that people participate in it? Not that this is a bad idea, but I do not anticipate it being something of which we would find it easy to persuade most Friends of the importance.
We still have a subjective experience to look at; that is an unavoidable problem, unless we were to believe that there would be some outward change that applied in all cases and could be tested for – and even then it would be hard to think of a way in which it could not be faked. At some point, we must trust one another.
As I have already mentioned, this poses a particular problem for those raised among Friends. They might have this experience from a very young age, and find it hard to differentiate it, while those of us convinced in adulthood experience a change once we already mature in mind. Applying this concept would require us to incorporate it into the way in which we teach the children of our Meetings, so that they might identify it, or know that they have had such an experience. My wife was raised among Friends, and she tells me that she could not say with any confidence whether or not she has had such an experience. I can certainly see that she might have had them from such an early age that they were entirely normal to her.
Finally, there is a great value in membership, as it stands, as a statement of commitment to a Meeting, as a rite of passage, as a welcome and a form of belonging. Removing that from those who cannot say that they have had such a convincement experience would be a great loss.
We might, then, have two forms of membership, perhaps orthogonal to one another, recognising these different steps, but that then becomes terribly complex. Ultimately, I am not advocating for change in our practices or processes. I am not suggesting a new test for who is a Quaker, nor clamouring to change our membership practices. Here, I am merely saying this is something we should recognise, and talk about, though never idolise. I do not pretend to have an answer, but it is something that bears thinking about as our Religious Society moves forward in the Spirit.
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