Before Yearly Meeting Gathering in Bath this year, Friends have been asked to consider some questions as a form of spiritual preparation. All the details can be found in this pdf file. I’ll probably participate in this in several ways – perhaps in my local Meeting, perhaps on Facebook, perhaps in the national online forum created for the purpose – but knowing that I only know what I think when I hear what I say, and that I tend to want to answer at more length than is comfortable in those spaces, I’ve chosen to begin my exploration here.
The first question asked in the document is:
How does your being a member or not a member affect your feeling of commitment and belonging to your Quaker meeting and to the broader Quaker community?
Well, first things first, I am a member, and have been since 2008. If anything, I think that my sense of commitment and belonging came first, and the membership afterwards. The belonging certainly came first – I have been a Quaker for longer than I can remember, and my – sometimes, admittedly, frequent – frustrations with Friends do nothing to change that. I was a cradle Quaker, having been born well after the abolition of the category ‘birthright Friend’, but I was never really in any doubt that I was a Quaker. I was even daft enough to say so at school, and to try and explain, in the playground, what that meant; my classmates – mostly Muslim or maybe-kinda-CofE – were broadly sympathetic but bemused and on the whole not very interested.
I explored a lot of other things in my teens, mainly by reading, and long-term readers here will know that I stayed basically Pagan in many ways and that Buddhism has also had an influence – but through all of that exploration I stayed Quaker as well, one foot safely in the ‘silent’ camp while I tried out the other stuff, and although I like to tell an anecdote about how in my first week at university I boycotted Quakers and went to a Christian Union thing which made me so angry I went back to Friends the next week – the truth is that this was more or less a foregone conclusion. I already knew where the Quaker Meeting was and I also already knew that I was very unlikely to enjoy the church service.
(Things might have turned out differently if I’d gone to a different church, mind you. I did attend an Anglican service in Leeds a while ago which was so lovely and welcoming and liberal and feminist and inclusive etc. that I took communion, rather to my own surprise. I was almost reassured after that to go to church parade with the Brownies and hate it and refuse to say any of the words as usual.)
My decision to come into membership, then, was mostly shaped by the pre-existence of a sense of belonging and a commitment to the community. The tipping point which made me decide to apply was active participation in a Quaker Quest planning team. The act of speaking out regularly in public meetings about my Quakerism made it clear to me that I was already a Quaker, acting and speaking as if I were fully a Quaker, and it seemed right to make sure that the paperwork reflected that. My local meeting at the time, somewhat sceptical of central processes, took the approach that this was just some paperwork we should sort out; my membership application process did not have any of the spiritual depth which some people find in theirs (partly because I didn’t have ‘visitors’ in the traditional sense but ‘a supporting Friend and a nurturing Friend’ – I won’t delay this post with the technical details but will supply them in comments if requested). My letter of application centred on all the Quaker things I had done, rather than values or beliefs and there was something of a sense that we were putting right a mistake rather than discerning a truth. I don’t think that was necessarily wrong, although I have sometimes wondered whether a different approach would have reached a different answer.
Because of this experience of membership – as a boring technicality rather than deeply related to my spiritual life – I don’t think that my being a member has all that much effect on my ‘feeling of commitment and belonging’. What it does affect is not my feeling but my action of belonging: in membership, I can serve the community, locally and nationally, in a way which is not open to attenders. This service, in turn, does have a big effect on my feeling of commitment and belonging. In the past few years, I have – for example – served as an Elder in my Area Meeting, as an (alternate) representative on Meeting for Sufferings, and on the Yearly Meeting’s epistle drafting committee. I have found all of these to be very rich and rewarding experiences – difficult and overwhelming as they are at times! – and these kinds of participation, requiring significant commitment in the first place, in turn tend to increase my feeling of belonging and my willingness to commit further.