A friend of mine who has been attending Quaker meeting regularly for several years now has said a couple of times recently that she finds Quakers very smug. She also commented that other churches she has been part of do not spend nearly as much time as time as Quakers do talking about themselves, amongst themselves.
I’m not entirely convinced that Quakers are unique in having these conversations (I’m not sure about other churches, but I know that any online pagan community will go through a round of ‘real Pagans don’t do that!’ or ‘but surely all Pagans agree about…’ from time to time). I do agree that we have these conversations a lot among Quakers, and I’m about to add to the problem by writing another blog post about Quaker membership and community (yet another – see the rest of my tag on ‘membership’). I also suspect that there are a couple of underlying factors here: one is that a lot of Quakers wish they felt more secure and welcome in their Quaker meeting, and the other is that many Quakers believe, often subconsciously, that you can create community by talking about community.
There are, of course, lots of problems which can be helped by talking about them. Quakers are often reluctant, despite a few wise passages in Qf&p and the efforts of Living with Conflict and other projects, to talk about conflict as a problem in meetings, even when that would help. It seems to me, though, that when I feel most part of a community, it’s because we’re doing something together and/or genuinely like one another, rather than because we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the structure and formation of our community.
If we didn’t ever talk about the structure of our community, though, there are things I would get away with not thinking about. Reflecting on chapter 11 has brought to the fore my insecurity about my membership. Every time the issue of membership is discussed, I deal, not always consciously, with the fear that my membership will be taken away from me. My reaction to the suggestion that membership as a category should be abolished – no! I struggled to get that, don’t take it away! – and my reaction to any idea of restricting membership by belief – surely I wouldn’t pass? what about times when I doubt/think x/prefer different words? – are both deeply shaped by a worry that my membership is bogus, that if people knew what I really thought or felt they would reject me, and that although I am very committed to the Quaker community, the community doesn’t really want me.
(I am not, by the way, claiming that any of this is true or logical. My local Quaker community do value some things about me – they like my clear speaking voice even if they don’t always want to hear what it says – and there’s some evidence that I can be useful in the wider community. Nevertheless, a fear that I am not really accepted colours all my reactions to discussions of this topic.)
There are always areas of life in which we try to do things differently, where we think mistakes were made. There are aspects of teaching when I promise myself I’ll never do it that way; when I was asked to participate in a membership visit, I wanted to include a whole list of things which I felt were not considered during my membership application process, as well as some things I valued and wanted to replicate.
Overall, I do think that the process itself is valuable; asking people whether they are really committed to the community offers – if it is done well – both the individual and the Meeting an opportunity to reflect on how they relate to one another. Of course, this needs to be reviewed over time, because needs and abilities on both sides will change, but a membership application process can offer a foundation for this. Confirming that commitment through a formal process also enables us to trust one another with roles which involve taking on responsibility and dealing with vulnerability; this is why some roles in a Quaker meeting are, and in my opinion should remain, restricted to members.
To return to the comments of my friend, mentioned at the beginning: if we never reflected on these things, what would happen? It’s possible that we would all just get on with it, feeling secure in our personal relationships to one another and trusting the Spirit to look after any structures the community needed. I don’t think I’d experience it like that, though. If we never talked about these things, I think many of us would just worry about it without discussing it, as we currently do with many other potential conflicts in our meetings, and sometimes that would turn into a real problem. I’m prepared to say that we may sometimes spend too long on internal issues – but I also think that if we cannot get relationships right amongst ourselves, we don’t stand a chance of changing our wider society.