A Friend After 50 Years

A record of one journey into a peculiar type of Quaker Christianity, and a bit of silliness to boot.

Location: Arkansas

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

I apply myself....

I have applied for membership in my monthly meeting.

In my original post I mentioned some hesitation about membership. I've pondered this a lot and it has various sources. First, I grew up reading Krishnamurti, who emphatically advised against joining any sort of spiritual or religious organization. I followed this advice for several years with the Unitarians, but broke down one evening after a Christmas eve service --"Christmas always gets 'em," was the Minister's comment. As for Friends, I wondered why we needed "membership." Isn't that sort of a worldly idea? Early Friends didn't have membership -- if you were "convinced" that was enough. I guess I wanted that sort of "purity" -- you are either a "Friend of the Light" or not. I've felt very involved with and moved to be a part of Friends, not to mention just fascinated by the whole phenomenon -- although whether my "convincement" measures up or is even similar in kind to that of early Friends is -- well, perhaps a topic for another post.

Part of my hesitance is my vocation as a public lawyer. What are the standards for membership? In lawyer language, this process looks suspiciously "arbitrary and capricious" -- or at least has that potential. The decision to admit or deny membership could be described as extremely subjective. I would never advise one of my local government clients to engage in a decision-making process like this, for fear that they would be sued.

On the other hand, someone once remarked that in hell, there will be nothing but due process! And I don't mean to suggest that my committee will be arbitrary or capricious. (I've yet to appear before them, so I'd best not impugn their integrity at any rate). Friends rely on the spirit to guide their decisions, and that would be tough to codify.

Another hesitation has been the equality principle. This was raised by a long-time attender in our meeting: if we're all equal, then why make the distinction between attenders/members? If you keep coming back and sharing your gifts year after year, should you be considered any less a part of this religious community simply because you haven't subjected yourself to a committee designed to judge your spiritual fitness? In our postmodern, individual-centered society, there's something quite unusual about this -- why can't I make my own decision whether to be a Friend or not? When I joined the Unitarians, the only requirement was to "sign the book."

And finally, membership can have spiritual disadvantages, such as complaceny, pride/egotism, the setting of one group against others, and so on. (I think this was what Krishnamurti was concerned about).

So why have I applied for membership? For one, there's something to be said for making a commitment. I have a tendency toward the non-committal, and every once in a while it does me good to make a stand. Its what led me to get married as opposed to merely sharing living quarters. Its what keeps me going to work every day, even when I'd rather not. Yes, we can get into a rut, but there's also a danger of never finding the road at all. Committment over time enables the richness of being involved at a deeper level.

Another reason: I was asked to join. This helps. The fact that others would like you to belong takes the question out of the abstract, philosophical realm (see above) into the world of real relationships with fellow human beings.

Finally, this was coupled with a request to consider filling a position with the meeting (the truth will out!) that requires membership. To some extent its just pragmatism: easier to join than to engage in potentially endless airy debates that would most likely go nowhere. But its more than that: I think my philosophical objections were overcome by my desire to be engaged in the life of the meeting -- and to concentrate on weightier matters than the issue of membership.


Blogger Liz Opp said...

Do let us know how things progress with your clearness process!

I know that for me, engaging in my membership clearness process was a bit like being married under the care of the meeting:

1. There was a different level of affirmation, reciprocal commitment, and visibility by going through the process. In the case of membership, the reciprocity is between the meeting and the member.

2. My own process and sense of identity has deepened over time. Somehow affirming my readiness for membership coincided with my readiness to participate more fully in the life of the meeting, just as affirming my readiness to be wed with my partner began a rich journey into delving more fully into that relationship.

I am also struck by one statement in particular in your post: There's something quite unusual about this -- why can't I make my own decision whether to be a Friend or not?

My short answer is: Because Quakers don't make decisions in isolation and without testing them!

I fear that as liberal Quakerism blends more and more with our secular and individualistic society, individuals who apply for membership will be held to less rigorous clearness processes. It will be "good enough" that the person has thought about membership, has read a few Quaker books, has attended Meeting for Worship fairly regularly...

As I understand Quakerism today (for tomorrow my understanding might change!), there is a balance between corporate testing of a thing and an individual's testing of a thing. While a person may give testimony to being inwardly changed by some spiritual experience, how might the larger community recognize such change, but by outward behaviors and through spiritual fellowship?

Sorry to ramble here.... Seems to me I have much on my heart.

Liz, The Good Raised Up

2:53 PM  
Anonymous bubha said...

The Church of God is any person or persons who follow the 2 commandments of the New Testament. The Church runs through all denominations, through all faiths and when you clearly see this it leads to a greater depth of understanding of what is truly happening and why.

Whatever you do to help bring this understanding within the world is good. Whatever is done that clouds and obscures this understanding is bad.

Your path within this world is no accident, far from it. You can remember and understnand this, clearly. Conciousness is to be aware of these things.


1:28 AM  
Blogger Martin Kelley said...

Hi Dave Carl,
Congratuations. I totally understand both your hestitancy and reasons for formally joining. I wonder if membership shouldn't be like recorded ministry: a recognition and naming of a relationship that's already there. It sounds like that's where you're at--if you're ready enough to do important committee work then you might as well fess up to being a member (grin!).

I sometimes membership is something we still need to come to terms with--I don't sense we have a very good answer to the "why join" question and a lot of Meetings don't have a good consensus on what the qualifications for membership are (some kind of spiritual orthodoxy? cultural comfortability with the community). I have more questions than answers about how we might think of membership into the future.

Still, for all that I'm glad you're joining. And I'm especially glad to hear someone asked you to join--it's so funny you can attend some Meetings for years without anyone broaching the subject, as if membership is some sort of taboo subject!

6:17 AM  
Blogger Paul L said...

Thanks for sharing your uncertanties; you've put your finger on what a lot of us have felt. But I'm glad you're making the commitment.

I, like Liz, find many parallels between marriage and membership in a meeting, both in the substance of the relationship and in the process of entering it.

Many of us who are married have asked ourselves (or been asked by our clearness committee), Why bother with a formal, public exchange of marriage vows? If the relationship already exists, we don't need no piece of paper from the city hall keeping us tied and true. Do we?

But if you understand marriage as a covenant -- a public exchange of mutual, binding promises, witnessed by God and other people -- then marriage becomes more than a bi-lateral relationship between two free agents who are free to come or go as they please. The marriage promises are public, mutual, and binding in nature. The parties voluntarily relinquish their unilateral wills and submit them to the marriage relationship which carries with it all sorts of obligations. Forsaking all others for example. And for life.

The community, too, is a party to the promise in that it agrees to hold both parties accountable to the promises it witnesses. That's why the community has a legitimate interest in being involved in the termination of the marriage if it comes to that, to ensure that there is an orderly and just winding up of the relationship, to protect the innocent party from being exploited by the unilateral acts of the other.

Declaring membership in a spiritual communion is very similar kind of relationship. It is a public promise between the individual and the meeting to live together in a particular kind of relationship. You accept obligations to the meeting, and the meeting accepts obligations to you. I don't recall that we explicitly ask that the commitment be life-long, but shouldn't we?

One of the challenges for Friends today is to articulate more explicitly what those mutual obligations of membership are. Does you meeting articulate them very clearly?

For myself, I've stopped saying that I'm a "member" of my meeting. Instead, I say "I belong" to the meeting. Belonging connotes to me a richer, more multi-dimensional relationship that implies mutuality than does "membership."

9:28 AM  
Anonymous Robin M. said...

"if we're all equal, then why make the distinction between attenders/members? If you keep coming back and sharing your gifts year after year, should you be considered any less a part of this religious community simply because you haven't subjected yourself to a committee designed to judge your spiritual fitness?"

God loves each of us equally, but I think we as a human community need to make distinctions between the people who have agreed to submit themselves to the discernment of the Meeting, even in such a small thing as a membership process, and people who just want to worship and potluck with us.

I think we fail to make distinctions between members and attenders at our own peril. In my Meeting in recent years, there have been times when it is really in question, who has the right to call themselves a Friend? Who has the right to speak on behalf of the Society or to start a project in the name of Friends? We have gotten so wishy-washy about membership that it has complicated the matters.

We need to be clearer about the benefits of membership, not just the "benefit" of getting to fill certain positions or, as in my Meeting, a magazine subscription.

I believe that traditionally, the economic support of the Meeting was available to members with a leading to travel or other ministry. I think there are levels of clearness committee support that might also be more appropriate for Friends who have already agreed to submit themselves, in this small way, to the life of the Meeting.

In my Meeting, we have made a conscious effort in the last year to encourage long term attenders to consider applying for membership, especially the ones who had been serving as clerks of committees. Our M&O committee wrote letters to some people, offered to meet one on one with people to discuss the possibility and the stops that they had, and discussed this quite a bit in our committee meetings.

I think the main thing has been to be clear that membership is not an endpoint in one's spiritual journey, but a commitment to a specific path. I've said this before, that any degree of intimacy requires a corresponding degree of exclusivity.

The membership process is, for (too) many people, one of the few times that we get to articulate our spiritual understandings and questions and have other folks listen and engage with us in these questions. We are working, as a Meeting, at making these opportunities more common.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Dave Carl said...

Thanks to all for you're comments. Time does not permit individual answers at the moment, but I've read them all carefully and appreciate your contributions. Clearness committee is this evening, so perhaps I'll have some comments on that in the next few days.

11:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, just how long does it take before you know? Will it be months? It does seem more complex than I thought. It seems that being willing to sit in silence for an hour, week after week :) serve on committees if asked and apply should be enough. The Unitarians have it easy! Actually, I am Catholic, converted from a mainline Protestant "sect" and that was not easy either. I've been looking into the RSOF because I feel the Spirit may found there, but I haven't gone to meeting or summoned the courage to talk to any Quakers (I don't know any), so I have found your site a blessing. I hope you hear soon and will let us know. Peace.

5:18 PM  
Blogger Dave Carl said...


I'll leave another post on the "how long" question. I'm delighted that you find this site a blessing, but hope you are checking out the many other blogs and Quaker resources on the net. There's quite a blogging Quaker community (A good place to start is with the Quaker Ranter, Martin Kelly's site).

Hope you also find some real live Friends as well (OK, we bloggers are live, but you know what I mean...:) Quakerfinder.org is a good resource for locating meetings, mostly of the liberal unprogrammed variety, but with links to others as well.

10:30 AM  
Anonymous David Parsons said...

Interesting discussion of membership reasons--I'm not enthusiastic about joining groups either. To hang out as an attender while checking out a meeting is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. However, when I found myself showing up every week, participating, agreeing with/supporting most of the the meeting...then I was a member in fact, and I realized that I might as well admit it to myself and the world.

The other alternative--if I couldn't stand to be publicly identifed with a particular group--would be a clear sign that I shouldn't be attending that group, and should resume searching for another meeting (or sect or religion), or should at least work to identify the problem with that group, and should try to resolve it...or move on.

4:48 AM  

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