Tag Archives: membership

11.23: three months?

This morning before Meeting I read passage 11.23 of Quaker faith & practice. It’s a short passage, and it says:

It has been found in general that it can take up to three months for a member to familiarise themselves with their ‘new’ area meeting. When within this time it seems right, the member should ask the clerk of either area meeting to arrange for a transfer of their membership. This can be done by letter, email or phone.

It is now four months since I moved into a new Area Meeting. I’m thinking about transferring my membership, hence looking this up. But the wording of this passage raised some questions for me. For one thing, it leaves me to assume that the procedure is the same after the three months have elapsed… but it doesn’t say so. Is there a punishment for leaving it too long?

I know there isn’t, because on the previous occasions when I’m transferred my membership I’ve left it longer than three months. (In one case, more than a year!) That being so, why is this in here?

The first sentence seems clear in purpose: it’s an offer of general guidance, based on experience. It doesn’t match my experience, but that doesn’t make it wrong – I might just be unusually slow or indecisive about these things. The issue is that it doesn’t sit well with the second sentence, which seems to be saying two things: firstly, that the transfer should take place when the member feels the time is right, and secondly, that the transfer should take place within the three months which have been found to be needed ‘in general’. I didn’t feel the time was right within three months – for the third time in the ten years in which I’ve been in membership. I chose to go with the feeling, but it leaves me a little at odds with the book.

Is this a problem? On one level, no. It’s a minor and probably insignificant detail in a long book. It’s a matter of only a few words, and it isn’t creating a practical issue, because transfers take place when they are needed anyway. I am, you might reasonably think, nitpicking. To notice it is one thing, to pray about it another, but to write a whole blog post about it seems excessive.

On another level, it also seems to me to be typical of a set of problems which occur in lots of places in the book. Guidance and rules are hard to distinguish, and area meetings – acting out of love – ignore them at will. Actual practice drifts away from the text, making the text less useful as a learning tool and the practice confusing for people who turn to the book for guidance. If we don’t catch and fix these things, even the ones which seem so minor as to be silly, they might build up into a collection of errors which would be little use to anyone.

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Why collect demographic data?

I’ve now run two large online surveys of Quakers – one about threshing and one about afterwords – and on both occasions, questions about age, gender, and education raised protests. Since this information isn’t directly related to the topic of the survey, I can understand some objections about its irrelevance, but it is important in some ways and I’d like to take a little while to explore these questions, why I ask them, and what I do with the information.

Firstly, I’d like to dispel a possible misconception. I do not use this information to judge the answers to other questions. In fact, before I analyse the data I usually detach different parts of it: when I read a detailed answer about afterwords in a particular meeting, I am not at the same time looking to see how old this respondent is or whether they have a degree. Perhaps knowing this would help the Friend who refused to tell me about their educational background because “whether academic or not you can make a spiritual decision”. I completely agree. In fact, I’d really like my data to include more responses from people with less formal education – I realise that by choosing to take written responses I’ve excluded some people who struggle with reading and writing, but even at a quick glance my respondents are much more educated than the population as a whole.

This brings me to one of the things I do do with this information: compare it with the UK population as a whole. According to our census data, even in the best educated sector of the population (as of 2011, this was women aged 25-34), only around 42.6% of people had a university degree or higher qualification. Roughly 85% of the people who answered my survey had a university degree, or equivalent or higher qualification. They aren’t in that age band, either – 40% of my respondents are aged between 61 and 70 – although 68% of them gave their gender as ‘f’, ‘female’ or ‘woman’.

You might have noticed if you did the survey that I chose to take all this information in free-text boxes, where respondents could write anything they liked, rather than restricting people to clicking a button marked ‘m’ or one marked ‘f’. Setting out the question in this way enables people to give other answers – such as ‘cis male’, ‘gender fluid’ or other, more individual responses (one respondent simply gave a personal name, perhaps to say ‘my gender is completely specific to me’). Allowing this freedom of response is an important point of principle. I did regret sticking to this principle in the case of the question about membership, though – I’d intended to people to answer the question “Are you a member or an attender of a meeting in Britain Yearly Meeting?” with something like ‘member’ or ‘attender’ or perhaps ‘member of another yearly meeting’, but a number of people answered it with ‘yes’ or ‘no’, which didn’t provide enough information for me to do anything useful with it.

This, more specifically Quaker, information leads to the other thing I do with these answers: compare with other Quaker sources to see whether I have a sample which is representative of the whole. For example, I can compare my information about gender – about 68% women – with the tabular statement for Britain Yearly Meeting for 2015, where 62% of members and attenders across England, Wales and Scotland are women, and see that I’m only a little bit out. On the other hand, I can also look at my information about membership, where of those who gave clear answers and indicated that they were within Britain Yearly Meeting, 88% are in membership, and see that they’re significantly over-represented: in the tabular statement, only about 63% of the adults reported are in membership (the other 37% being attenders).

I can think of ways to explain this. For example, people who have been involved with Quakers for longer are more likely to be in membership, more likely to be on the email lists and Facebook pages where the survey link was shared, and more likely to feel confident reporting on their experience of afterwords. However, if I hadn’t collected this information, I wouldn’t know that there was anything I needed to explain.

There are many kinds of information which I haven’t collected, too. For example, standard equal opportunities monitoring forms in the UK at the moment would also ask about sexuality and ethnicity, both questions I chose to leave out. I didn’t leave them out because I think they don’t matter – my whiteness and queerness make as much difference to my experience of Meeting for Worship as my age and gender, which is to say, they are incredibly important in some ways and irrelevant in others. I did leave them out mainly because there are not as many high-quality sources with which to compare, and because when the numbers are low (for both alternative sexualities and minority ethnicities, we are looking at around 10% in many locations in the UK, although this various considerably depending on several factors) it would be easier to have a small change look important when it was actually just chance.

By collecting four data points – age, gender, education, and membership status – I hope to have some points of comparison and get a feel for how my sample is similar or different to other Quaker and national surveys, without asking people to fill in more questions than is reasonable.

Reading Qf&p 10 & 11: Belonging to a Quaker meeting/Membership

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.

M is for Multiple Religious Belonging

Sometimes I wish I had a shorter, neater term for this concept! ‘Polyreligiosity’, perhaps. Anyway,  what I am interested in here is the situation some people find themselves in whereby they belong to more than one religion. This situation raises obvious questions. What does it mean to belong, and how does that vary between traditions? What counts as a ‘religion’ for this purpose? What are you supposed to put on forms where you are asked to tick one box and presented with a list in which you identify with two or more options?

It also raises some less obvious questions, such as: Who can assess whether ‘multiple belonging’ is really taking place? How do other members of the religions involved react? What are the potential advantages and dangers of belonging, or trying to belong, to more than one religious tradition at once? How should sociologists, theologians, and philosophers talk differently about religion if multiple religious belonging is possible? Why are some pairs of traditions apparently more common and/or claiming more scholarly attention than others? Is belonging to more than one religious tradition like speaking more than one language, or like supporting more than one political party, or like supporting more than one football club, or like enjoying both Star Trek  and Star Wars, or like being bisexual, or none of these, or something else?

One intuition some people have about these questions is that being involved in more than one religion is either confusing, or dangerous, in the sense that mixing the belief-claims or practices of two religions might destroy their cohesiveness and/or be a kind of ‘pick-and-mix’ in which only the nice bits are included and the harder parts – to do with death, sin, or changes needed to the believer’s lifestyle – are ignored. Sometimes people also feel that the situation of having more than one religious identity is different depending how you got there: that being raised in a family with more than one tradition (a Christian parent and a Jewish parent, for example) is different to trying to learn a new tradition on top of your old one as an adult. Others suggest that learning a new tradition to the level which would make it possible to experiment with multiple belonging involves a lot of scholarly work – learning a language in which to read ancient scriptures, for example, even if many people who grew up in that tradition do not have this language.

As you may be able to tell, I am at a stage with this issue where I am collecting lots of questions and not yet finding many answers! I think some of the answers might lie in the question about what religion is like – when we think about religion, what do we think are the closest comparisons? In my previous work (and blog posts) I’ve written about religion as like language, drawing on Lindbeck’s work in this direction; and others, notably Kathryn Tanner, have written about religion as like culture. However, there are also other analogies: is religion like gender, or ethnicity, or fandom, for example?

B is for Belonging

What does it mean to belong to a religious community?

In 2014, my most popular post was about Quaker understandings of belonging, and our struggles with them. (If you didn’t read it, it was: Yearly Meeting considerations of membership.) In my post this Wednesday, I talked about the boundaries of religions, relating this to issues around appropriation and belonging. In this post, I want to make some general observations about two groups with which I am familiar: Quakers and Pagans.

Quakers in Britain have two official levels of belonging: attenders and members. There are also a number of visible variations on these: the very-long term attender who calls themselves a Quaker but is not in membership (sometimes even having resigned from membership) is one, and another is the member who almost never attends (sometimes for practical reasons, sometimes because they no longer wish to, but nevertheless feel part of the Quaker community – if they grew up in a Quaker family, for example). Being born into Quakerism is unusual (14% of the community in Britain, according to a recent survey). Being an ‘attender’ or a ‘member’ says little about how often you attend Quaker events, or whether other people in your life know you are a Quaker. Not being in membership does hold people back from serving in certain roles (except when someone finds a work-around for this or an appointing meeting decides to ignore it). There are thus many less formal ways of belonging to the Quaker community.

Pagans in Britain are a much more diverse and less organised group. No one organisation is in a position to administer membership for all Pagans, although some groups such as the Pagan Federation try to encourage all Pagans to support them. Where groups do have tightly controlled membership arrangements, it is often related to esoteric material – many Wiccan groups will have oath-bound material, for example, and OBOD has the correspondence course which is members-only. That said, OBOD don’t, to the best of my knowledge, have a procedure for removing members from their list, although they do stop sending the magazine if you stop paying. Here, a distinction between a ‘member’ and a ‘subscriber’ comes into play – while paying, you are both. Before paying, you are neither. After ceasing to pay, you may be a member (allowed to read the correspondence course material for which, after all, you have paid) but you are no longer a subscriber.

Quakers ask for money from their members, but don’t make payment a condition of membership in the first place, so there isn’t the same level of ‘subscription’. They might ask you to subscribe to certain claims – not theological ones but ethical ones, such as ‘war is wrong’. (They might. It’s not clear to what extent these questions are actually asked directly when someone is applying for membership.)

For myself, Quaker belonging is mainly about the community; about participating in waiting, listening worship with others, and working on issues which matter to the community. There are other aspects as well – the principle of listening worship, for example – but my belonging is focused on the community. On the other hand, my Pagan identity and my Druid membership are more focused on solitary spiritual development – on having a framework in which to practice (in the sense of play with, work on, get better at) things which help me to be grounded and connected. I like going to Pagan rituals and Druid gatherings sometimes, but if I never went again I’d still be very much a Druid. If I couldn’t go to a Quaker meeting at all, I’m not sure I’d still think of myself as a Quaker.

One of my ongoing interests in multiple religious belonging: cases where people are fully members of more than one religion at once. This can be by birth (where the parents are of two different faiths – for a detailed discussion of this see Susan Katz Miller’s book Being Both), or a position, like mine, evolved in adulthood – sometimes one religion is from childhood, sometimes a childhood position is abandoned and multiple new religions are adopted. I think that it’s especially interesting that some religious groups seem to be very open to this; Quakers, for example, who already have a large number of ‘seekers’ among them, people who have explored a variety of religious traditions in their lives, are generally (not always – remember that for any claim about Quakers, some Quaker will be trying to disprove it!) generally more supportive of those trying to practice multiple religious belonging than some other groups would be.

B is for Boundaries

A question raised by the issue of appropriation (previous blog post) is about the boundaries between cultures, religions, or other groups. How do you know whether something – a word, practice, or object – has moved from one tradition to another if you don’t know where the boundaries between the traditions are? It often seems obvious that this movement has occurred, but articulating the details of when we say that is has happened and when we say that it hasn’t is much more difficult than establishing that some clear cases exist.

Another issue which raises related questions is the existence of multiple religious belonging – people who are (or claim to be, I suppose we don’t have to agree with them although it seems rude to discount their description of their lived experience) members of more than one religion at once. Some of these people might choose to hyphenate their religious identities – Buddhist-Christian – and others just think of themselves as both at once, Jewish and Pagan. Here, the question is: don’t some religions have boundaries which prevent a person from simultaneously belonging to another religion? Generally, we assume that a religious identity is singular – it might change through time, but one person only has one at once. This is reflected in, for example, the ‘tick one box’ approach used for religion on the census. (For much more about religion on the census, explore Abby Day’s work.) If it is possible to belong to more than one religion at once, we might need to rethink our ways of talking about religion. Why is it ‘weirder’ to be both a Christian and a Pagan than to be both a Christian and a Friend of the Earth?

I am at the stage of articulating these as research questions, rather than having any clear answers. However, I do have some directions in which I hope to look. One place I hope to look is other work on identity; in particular, I’m interested to know whether it’s useful to think of religiosity as performance, of religion as something that one does rather than something which one has – an analogy here to the work that Judith Butler and others have done on gender. Are the questions about multiple religious belonging in any way comparable, or in any useful was comparable, to the questions which have been asked about bisexuality or non-binary genders, for example? That many authors start from a question about whether these positions ‘really exist’ suggests to me that there might be points of commonality, but any comparison will need careful exploration.

Overall, because religious traditions are communities consisting of people, their boundaries seem to be closely related to issues around membership: who belongs to, or in, the faith. This in turn raises a whole new set of questions: how do you know who is a member of which religion? Some religions have very explicit positions on this, while others don’t seem to be very sure themselves about who counts as a member. This doesn’t just apply to people, of course; we often ask this question about practices (did you read an article this winter about whether putting up and decorating a tree is ‘Christian’ or ‘Pagan’? There always seem to be a few). Practices, though, are practised by people, and so we come round again to the same issue. Boundaries are tied up with belonging – to be the subject of a future post!

Yearly Meeting considerations of membership

In the discussions around membership – not just the main sessions, but the response groups and informal talks over food and in queues – I picked up three strands of desire, which in my journal I chose to express as letters. I’ve rewritten them for this blog post, expanding them and trying to clarify. I’d be very interested to know whether other Friends feel that these are accurate!

One desire is focussed on Area Meetings, their clerks, elders, and overseers. It says something like:

Dear Area Meetings, we appreciate all the work you already do in managing membership, and long to support you in being open-minded and open-hearted as you undertake this work. Are you familiar with our current chapter 11 and the flexibility it gives you? Membership is a relationship between you, the Area Meeting, and the individual. In forming, adjusting, or dissolving that relationship it is vital to focus on the needs of those involved – yours and the individual’s, which may be quite different in different cases. Please don’t be shy about opening conversations around membership, asking about people’s needs, and offering what you have to give.

A second strand is focussed on attenders, especially long term attenders who are active in Meetings but have not applied for membership.

Dear attenders, we love you and are delighted by everything you contribute to our Meetings. Please talk to us – when someone applies for membership, we as a community are able to join in their journey of discernment, by appointing visitors, supporting Friends, or a Meeting for Clearness, and hearing about this process at Area Meeting; if you do not feel ready to apply or have decided that you will not apply, we may not know why. There are probably as many reasons as there are people in this position, and we do care about what those reasons are. If you’d like to be asked about membership and your meeting hasn’t raised the issue with you, they may be shy or worried about pressuring you; consider raising it yourself. If you have decided to remain involved with Friends but not to apply for membership, please don’t automatically remove yourself from discussion of it – your perspective is valuable.

A final group who attracted a lot of attention at Yearly Meeting are those I’m going to call ‘Friends in transition stages’. This is a big and complex group who have some relevant similarities. Sometimes they are young people who are away from home, perhaps working or studying, perhaps not attending regularly in the place where they are living but known to Meeting elsewhere; they could be people who are focussed on work and/or family and not finding time to attend often; they could be Friends who have moved to a new job or on retiring and find new barriers to attending (whether geographical, social, financial, or temporal). Some will not be in membership and hesitate about applying to an Area Meeting where they are not known or to one where they are no longer living; some will have membership but hesitate to transfer it. Some will have strong links to other, non-geographical, Quaker bodies, through a Listed Informal Group, Young Friends General Meeting, attending Yearly Meeting and other events, or service on a central committee or other body. Others will have a strong sense of Quaker identity and values, but may not have any active connection to a Quaker organisation. The key commonality in all of these cases is that someone is Quaker, feels part of our community and is known to some Quakers somewhere, but their membership status does not reflect this partly because of the geographical nature of our procedures.

Dear Friends in all these multiple and complex transition stages, none of us seems quite sure what to say to you. We know that you are there – most people, after all, go through some of these times one way or another, and may have very different experiences of it but can conceptualise the existence of these issues – and we know that you can be living out Quaker values, doing work inspired by your Quaker faith, and engaging with Quaker spirituality in these spaces. If the transition is good for you, or towards something which is better for you, we’re happy for you – and want to uphold you whatever is going on. Generally, we would like to support you more closely; if you have the time, energy, and inclination to be in touch, we’d be very glad to hear from you, and we’re trying to be open to hearing it in all sorts of ways – via social media, a chaplain somewhere, a call to someone you used to know, or a hundred other ways, as well as the traditional Sunday morning.

I took lots of things away from Yearly Meeting, which I may write about in future, but this was one of the outstanding ones.