Membership

La sortie du Conservatoire, Renoir, in partAt YM, we discussed the meaning of membership. I want to belong. When I joined Quakers, as I moved towards Transition I felt isolated and vulnerable. I was a stranger, and you took me in.

However we are counter-suggestible, often, and not all feel like that. One woman said she had been an attender for thirty years before joining, and each suggestion that she join put her off for longer. Sometimes, Friends wish such an attender to be an elder or a clerk. Thoughts, and thought-experiments:

In Tripoli five ex-pat Quakers have a meeting in each others’ houses. They all retain membership of British area meetings. Someone joins them, and wants to become a Quaker. For this person, a Membership procedure has great importance. They could, together, discern that this new person is one of them, a Quaker entire, but they have no power to call him a member of our Society.

I could say the first attender should grit her teeth and allow the formal procedures to recognise the reality of her membership, her being a Quaker, however unhappy she feels about joining; or the second should be satisfied with the welcome and inclusion he gets from the other ex-pats. Or, I could say that Friends should accept fuzziness around membership, that the first is obviously a Quaker and can be given the jobs, but the second needs a formal membership procedure and British Quakers should give him one.

We are members of area meetings originally because we operated a parallel poor law, and needed a group which would be responsible for our poor; but we don’t, now, and the difficulties of having a National membership should not be insuperable. A small committee could be appointed, or an existing committee could deal with it. We have lots of committees. Generally, we are members of particular area meetings now because we are members of communities of people, Friends in practice as well as theory, but not all of us need be.

Sometimes things are important to people, and the rest of us should look after them. I met a woman who loathed the very word “God” because for her it was irredeemably masculine, a Father which excluded her, and no matter how reasonable I am, saying God is agendered, and being careful with the pronouns and language I use, when she hears the word “God” she gets upset.

My role, here, in these disputes, is to be a peacemaker, a role most Quakers like. “Can you give what they want? It should not be too hard. It is not a great denial of Principle,” I say, winsomely, to both sides. This is more Quaker than “plain speech” is, so there.

Membership, the word “God”, the ability to reject formal membership procedures, all have value, but each individual human being has greater value.

To provoke thought, I suggested a “proposal of membership”. Elders could identify an appropriate attender, and bring the matter for the discernment of Area Meeting, then tell the attender that we will recognise her/him as a Quaker, a member, if s/he only agree to it. Some people are frightened of the membership procedure, imagining they might not get through. Some don’t.

10 thoughts on “Membership

  1. Do you think you need to worry about belonging? There was once a lady named Marcelle Gabrielle Sophie Charlotte, aka Madame de Mas- she always said, “Darling, all you need is a tennis racket and a dinner jacket, and you can go anywhere in the world and belong.”
    She also had a line about something in the eyes. “We just recognize each other, those of us who ‘feel’ more.”
    I’ve always thought of you as someone who belonged. But of course I was an only child for many years, so I tend to presume everything belongs to me. Mike says I also have a tendency of speaking to people as if giving instructions to staff- but that’s an unrelated issue (probably connected to his Welsh Methodist rebellion) 🙂
    In any event, I know it’s not much, but I’ve always counted you as one of my people. And so Jo Stafford:

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    • I am glad to call you “friend”, and it is meaningful despite the distance. My family were not particularly close, and certainly not emotionally supportive. I felt I belonged at a Mensa weekend- here were people like me; and then at the Sibyls “Christian Spirituality group for the Transgendered”, and now with Quakers. I have just had a week with two thousand people who share not my beliefs necessarily but many of my attitudes and values. The salons of Mme. Verdurin or Mme. de Guermantes do not compare, as they are competitive places. I felt similarly with a Scottish Episcopal Church gathering, around 1990. It is a good feeling.

      I sometimes notice something in the eyes.

      Thank you for the video. Lovely voice, and I don’t think I had heard of her.

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  2. It makes me nervous, this belonging and not belonging, like the cliques of high school or the gyrations of being Episcopalian. I thought of converting to Judaism and going to live in Tel Aviv … but then I saw all that I had to do to belong, and I lost my nerve. I never fully feel that I belong, because I’m “damaged goods” emotionally, and I see the world as a place where people can become snakes (and promote their job titles).

    In the end, Pink is right … belonging is a feeling, a sense, a taste of something sweet. It’s not a process, it’s the ability to follow the trail by instinct, need and desire. But what do I know?

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    • Cliques, old boy networks, “belonging” in a small town where you have to behave exactly as people expect- all a bad thing. But, here, I met people so like me, and it was wonderful. And I can find that in any large British town, in the Meeting house.

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  3. A bit like Mark, the idea of belonging or not belonging, of being accepted or not accepted into groups makes me uncomfortable. Not nervous, but irritated by the notion and likely to avoid such groups and the people who group identify. So I’m surprised and disappointed that there’s a membership formality in the Quakers, which seem so open and all-encompassing in welcome. Tribalism is part of our evolutionary heritage, I get that, but I think as a species we need to intellectually move beyond it (not sure how much of that I believe, just pondering …)

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    • We have something beautiful, a process which works, but which needs cared for and understood. We accept all who want to join our community, but membership is about committing to taking care of our process, and doing the work necessary for it to flourish. And we are flexible enough to admit to membership someone like me in 2002, not ready yet to do the work but needing somewhere to belong and seeing the value of the process.

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  4. Thank you for this. I do feel we’ve moved away from membership as an essential part of Quakerism, and while many seem upset by this I don’t mind. When I was young you had to be a member to attend area meeting, to serve in most roles, to feel fully a part of the society. Now I know attenders who are far more active than many members. I don’t think they’re less Quaker for being attenders. I do hope we find a way for those who want to join to be able to, but I don’t think we need to insist those who feel uncomfortable making a formal commitment should do so. The comments at YMG about membership being like marriage struck me, we no longer insist Friends marry, we recognise committed relationships between individuals for what they are. And we hopefully recognise individual Quakers, whether members or attenders.

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    • Welcome. Thank you for commenting.

      I was interested to read of your SWAN child, and the questions you hear. I would like your blog to be somewhere to write whatever you liked, whenever you felt moved to it. You have things to say, and this can be a good place to say them, more expansive than a tweet or even a facebook share.

      On membership, I wonder how many people there are in this group- attenders who everyone recognises as Quaker but do not want to apply; I don’t want tidiness for the sake of it.

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