Membership – II

Last week I ran into someone at a community event, who told me with great pride that he was a “birthright Quaker”, even though he doesn’t belong to a Friends meeting and hasn’t gone to meeting for worship in more than 50 years.

This happens fairly often, and it always puzzles me, since most yearly meetings in the U.S. removed birthright membership from their Faith and Practice early in the 20th century. Before then, if you were born in a Quaker family, then you were automatically considered to be a Quaker.

It was a great way to keep up the membership numbers, especially in the days of large families. And it’s nice to think of people handing down their sense of belonging, sort of like a family heirloom or a precious jewel. I’ve known many people who have proudly told me that they were “birthright Friends” because one of their Quaker grandparents told them when they were little.

The reality, though, is that birthright membership no longer exists, and it hasn’t for quite a while. No one is “automatically” a member. Quakers are more in line now with other groups which insist that to be a member, you have to make a positive declaration that you want to be one – usually as an adult or at least as a teen.

Many yearly meetings have a provision for junior members – children who are allowed to join if their parents make a request for membership on their behalf. It’s almost the same as the old birthright membership, and it can be a loving way for meetings to welcome younger children.

Unfortunately, the experience of many Quaker groups is that the majority of these young Friends drift away some time during their late teens or young adulthood. It’s probably better for us to look at other paths to membership if we really want to grow.

A big part of the cultural and theological struggle among Friends today centers around membership questions – What do people have to do to join? Who is “acceptable” as a Friend? Who sets the rules – the local meeting or the yearly meeting? Is someone who joins Friends in one meeting automatically acceptable by another meeting?

A number of yearly meetings belonging to FUM state, rather dryly, “Friends receive into adult membership those whose faith in God and in Jesus Christ as personal Savior and Lord is manifest in their lives and who are in unity with the teachings of Christian truth as held by the Religious Society of Friends.”

Although this statement covers a lot of ground, many Friends have adopted other “tests” for membership, usually unwritten – is this person sufficiently evangelical, or sufficiently liberal, to get along with us? Is this person straight, or do we accept gay and lesbian people as Friends?

Another big question is, how difficult should it be to become a member of our meeting? Some Quaker groups set the bar fairly high – they expect people to have read several Quaker books, perhaps go to a couple of retreats or go to a series of classes. Other Quaker groups set the bar fairly low – they accept anyone who says they have accepted Jesus as their savior, or perhaps if they know the words to the George Fox song.

Many local meetings have nearly given up the whole idea of membership – if you come to meeting 2 or 3 times, you’re considered a member, until you stop coming. That’s it.

The majority of Friends in the world today undoubtedly think of themselves as Christians, and I certainly fall into that group. However, I have also known many wonderful Friends who are not able to do so, for a variety of personal or deeply-principled reasons. I guess I’m not inclined to be part of the “theological police” – even though I’m a Christian, I don’t have the itch to throw other people out.

I’m sure that there will be readers of this blog who want to hold out for a “high” view of membership – members of Friends should be well-read in the Bible and in Quaker writings, deeply committed in their Christian life, widely-traveled in Quaker gatherings, active donors to many Quaker causes, regular writers of letters to Congress and to their local newspaper, and so on. I admire Friends who fit this picture, but they will probably make up a fairly small minority in most meetings.

In practical terms, members:

1) attend worship regularly, unless they’re unable to do so
2) take part in the life and activities of the meeting
3) love and accept the other people in their meeting
4) continue to test and shape their religious beliefs and daily practices, and help others to do the same
5) help the meeting to discern God’s will in monthly meetings for business
6) support the meeting financially to the best of their ability

 I’m sure there will continue to be fairly wide differences among Friends who want a more consistent theological characterization of membership — probably one which matches up with their own theology, whatever it is. 

While I want to encourage a lively and ongoing discussion of beliefs and experiences among Friends, I think that it’s best if our working definition of membership is simple, accessible, and behavioral, and as open as possible. 


4 Responses to “Membership – II”

  1. 1 Bill Samuel November 27, 2013 at 11:53 am

    Those six points are all good, but they don’t really address what is the purpose and vision of the meeting, without which membership is more like joining a social club than a faith community. I appreciate the dangers of requiring some formulaic adherence as a condition. It needs to be more dynamic and operational than that. But I think we have also seen the perils of pretty much ignoring the matter of unity in faith.

    Personally I’m a member both of a Friends group and of an unaffiliated church. Both have Mission and Vision statements which guide their communities, and with which members are expected to unite. These are not creedal or narrow, but do serve as a basis for unity in faith.


  2. 2 colin November 27, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    I really like your six points. I really don’t think you need anything else. We are a religious group in that we are certain that there is more to life than an inter relationship of personalities…there is a dimension that defies is found in the life of Christ and is seen in the life of many other paradigmatic individuals..including people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King who introduce us to life in all its fullness. It is clear that our ministry to the world is grounded in our Christian tradition and we thank God for that…but it is not limited by an historical interpretation of the meaning of the life of Christ by a church, interested primarily in its authority and its survival, but is open to the life of the spirit as we experience it today and we should be thankful for that..and what canst thou say? So please don’t try to tell me what I should think or believe but embrace me and welcome me into a fellowship which seeks the truth in love, justice and compassion wherever that may lead…we need to lead life experimentally

  3. 3 broschultz November 27, 2013 at 5:56 pm

    I would be happy to accept the points given as a basis of membership. I think several of the points allow room for unity with a particular meeting’s vision or mission statement( I personally think a specific stated vision or mission statement is a sign of a healthy meeting).

  4. 4 Steven Davison November 28, 2013 at 11:52 am

    The condition that used to define membership in a Quaker meeting, I think, was willingness to engage with the meeting in a covenant of mutual accountability: You accepted—ideally, you invited—the meeting to engage with you about your religious life and the meeting invited you to engage with its life. Meetings sometimes abused the power of eldership that this brought and certainly the policing of Friends by their meetings went far beyond what we would accept today.

    Nevertheless, those of us who take our religious life seriously, and especially the call to ministry, both vocal and otherwise, recognize that we need community for discernment, support, and oversight.

    On the negative side, all the problems we have as a community come to us in the form of people we have admitted into membership. In order to protect our worship and our fellowship, we ought to be upfront with applicants for membership that we want to be able to labor with them if we feel it’s necessary.

    I wonder how many Friends look at membership this way? I wonder how many meetings do?

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All of the posts on this blog are my own personal opinion. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the members and attenders of the meeting where I belong or any organization of Friends. For more information, click on the "About Me" tab above.



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