Yearly Meeting Miscellany (3): Membership

This blog post is dedicated to Jane Muers, who as well as being my mother and ‘Granny Jane’ to all the children on our block at YM, was the principal author of the most radical change we made to Quaker Faith and Practice this year…

No, I don’t mean the changes to the marriage chapter. I mean the change to the meaning of membership. That’s right, the one nobody noticed (because of the way the business session was run, but that’s water under the bridge).

We changed the account of membership given in chapter 11, so that membership is primarily about being recognised (by yourself and others) as belonging to this community, and only secondarily, though importantly, about a personal affirmation of faith and commitment. This is a subtle but important shift.

In the immediate context, we did this so that child membership, which we decided after an extensive review to retain in its current form (folks didn’t notice that happening either, did they?) ceases to be a weird anomaly. Moreover, we did it so that we could make sense of admitting adults with limited (mental) capacity to membership, and put some principles in place so that that can happen.

More interestingly, I think this makes absolutely clear what many of us go on about all the time, that saying ‘we all’ or ‘our community’ or ‘Quakers’, and not meaning children and/or adults with limited mental capacity, is at best only partially truthful. Beyond this, it makes it rather clear that this community is not something in which we earn our place, or something to which we can only belong if we commit to doing lots of stuff, or (perish the thought) something that’s only really open to people who can read, understand and comment grumpily on Guardian editorials.

So in a way we’re saying: this community’s given to us by God before we make it into anything. We’re given to each other before we decide to be here. And we decide to be here, as well. But I think we need to acknowledge the people who don’t (yet, or ever) decide, as fully part of our community, and learn that in important respects we’re all in that situation.

The change takes us further away from the Baptist/Anabaptist position (although having the child membership option always meant that we weren’t straightforwardly aligned with it).  I have to say that, although I’m content with the changes myself, I rather hope some Friends will be bothered about the de-emphasis of personal expression of commitment. In any case, Quaker participants in ecumenical dialogue will need to take note. Arguably (though only arguably) what we’ve ended up with in Quaker Faith and Practice, because of our historical diversity of practice now acknowledged properly in the text, is what could be an attempt at an ecumenical ‘shared text’ on church membership.

It seems unlikely that one possible logical consequence, viz. an increase in the acceptance of children into formal membership, will happen (since children not in membership who attend Meeting are in any case generally recognised as ‘Quakers’).


5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Zandy on 10 August, 2011 at 9:57 pm

    Thanks for that. No I had not noticed that business being passed. I am glad it has, but suspect that many Friends will take some time to accept the implications.


  2. Posted by Steve H on 11 August, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    Hi Rachel, thanks for these thoughtful glimpses of (for me) a different tradition.
    I was interested enough in what you wrote to go and read the relevant sections of *Documents in Advance* (I assume that was the best place to go?) I’d be interested in teasing out sometime why you think the changes you made serve to distance Friends further ‘from the Baptist/Anabaptist position’ – this in two ways:
    1. You rightly note that we would find your position on child membership a problem – but then we find our position on child membership a problem; we just haven’t found a solution yet… The question of ‘adults with limited mental capacity’ is not one that we have struggled with recently, however; we do not require formal assent to a written creed so much as evidence of the Spirit’s work in a person’s life – we would tend to use the evangelical language of ‘conversion’ or ‘rebirth’, of course. The opening of this in creative and individual ways to those who would find it difficult or impossible to express their spirituality in classical formulae is routine amongst us. I have personally been involved in accepting adults with learning difficulties into membership of a Baptist church more than once; as to the wider community, I think it is true to say that every Baptist Assembly (the closest thing we have to Yearly Meeting…) I have attended has had at least one plenary session in which people with learning difficulties have led us in worship (even taking the full charismatic ‘worship leader’ role, introducing and linking songs, leading in prayer, and generally MC-ing the entire event).
    2. That said, I guess most Baptists would feel uncomfortable about shifting the language from ‘personal commitment’ to ‘recognition of community membership’. However, it strikes me that as soon as you start to theologise this in your post – ‘the community is given to us by God before we make it anything…’ that distinction starts to collapse – I suspect it collapses in rather different directions for Baptists than for Friends, but that could do with some teasing out. (A good post-liberal move is obvious: Baptist churches are communities that socialise their adherents to confess their own personal experience of conversion, &c. I’m not opposed to arguments like this – I think the best explanation of the success of the Alpha Course runs on precisely these lines. I think, however, that the reality of lived community for Baptists – & I suspect for Friends – is rather more interesting: the English Separatist movement, which gave both our traditions their birth, was strongly committed to the creation of a visible, Godly, community – John Smyth, a Separatist leader before he founded the first Baptist church, once wrote ‘is not the visible church … the chief and principal part of the gospel?’ I suppose that British Baptists and British Friends have maintained this sense that the visible community is important; we Baptists have overlaid it with versions of classical evangelicalism; you seem to have taken a different turn, which I begin to sense from reading §11 in the Documents in Advance, but would not presume to try to narrate.) I wonder if both our traditions have actually found ways of living community which make the two statements ‘I believe and commit myself to live by X’ and ‘I regard myself as a member of this community, and find acceptance from other members’ actually identical in meaning, or at least have striven to find ways of living community which yearn and strain towards this identification?

    Hope your summer is proving both a good family time and at least adequately productive…



    • Hi Steve, and sorry to have taken a while to reply to this… I think the assumption I was making, perhaps wrongly, was that a move to de-emphasise [what we had previously had as] the [primary] account of membership as consequent on intentional expression of an individual’s commitment meant that what we were saying fitted less obviously well with what Baptists were saying. It is very interesting, in that context, to learn that child membership is a shared area of at least minor historical confusion/concern. (I wrote a little bit about my take on it as a parent, on t’other blog, way back when:
      Absolutely agree re adults with limited capacity & the multiple ways of seeing evidence of the transformative work of God in somebody’s life. On that, I think what’s happened is that our documented Faith & Practice has taken a long time to catch up with your, and at least some of our, lived faith & practice! I did have an interesting conversation with a F/friend at YM about a small child both of us had known, who was born with very severe learning disabilities – and concerning whom my F/friend had realised that if she was not made a member as a child it would be quite hard, within what we actually had written down (and hence within what Meetings would refer to to support discernment in difficult cases), for her to become a member as an adult.

      And yes, there’s something very interesting and worth thinking about in the Separatist history and the ways it’s worked through. (I remember conversations at a peace churches theological conference, a few years back, about the not-very-surprising but nonetheless ironic fact that Mennonites, Brethren and Quakers all defaulted to support for adult baptism/initiation, and all seemed to do a very good job of keeping their traditions in the family, generation after generation). Quaker communal peculiarity, I would say, has been strongly linked to theologies of testimony (‘peculiar’ action that appears both as testimony-against some aspect of ‘the world’ and testimony-to God’s work in and for the world; ‘accepting testimony’ in that context implies joining in with it, and you easily get from that to the need for material/communal transmission & learning of testimony).


  3. I read the text in Docs In Advance, approved and thought it was a follow on to a previous discussion that I somehow missed (I presumed at York) but was happy with it. Wonder if there would have been much discussion if the clerk had seen you stand? Would Qs been happy to accept – there weren’t any others standing.

    Personally I’m happy with the idea of a member not having to earn a place in our Q community, but am also concerned that people think just turning up on Sunday is enough. Rather than presuming they should support the wider Q community as much as possible whilst still nurturing the local ones too. Have always found it interesting how many people feel they only belong to LQMs not even AMs let alone Britain Yearly Meeting or the world wide family of Quakers.


  4. Thinking about this a little more, we have always placed a great importance on the community aspect of membership. I am thinking about the days of birthright membership and of disownment for “marrying out” or indeed for bankruptcy. Those disownments took the position that breaking the committment to the community removed the right to membership even though the individual retained their personal committment to the faith (and their right to attend meeting for worship).

    In modern times we may end membership because “the spiritual bond has been broken” through conduct or publically expressed views (evidence of lack of personal committment to the faith), but also for lack of contact or not showing “any interest in the life of the Society” (probably lack of committment to the community).

    So we have altered the balance between the two aspects of membership but perhaps not for the first time?


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