Tag Archives: YMG2014

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.

Spiritual Preparation for Yearly Meeting: question 3

What is the continuing spiritual effect of membership?

Commitment and the reinforcement of that commitment through the process of involvement, often in committees but also in other forms of community and communication.

A cycle of learning, testing, and change as I am called to new concerns. The learning phase is about seeing the existence of a concern and finding out where others stand on it – reading, listening – taking in both facts and experiences. The testing phase is about thinking and feeling, formulating my own position, working out what is right, what is possible, what God asks. The change phase is for action: either, usually, in my own life, or working with others to create a larger change. And when I make a change, of course I begin learning in a whole new way, and I continue to test to see whether the path is still the right one.

Trust. I don’t always trust others in my meeting with the details of my life and feelings; the meeting is too large, and I am too often shut down or misunderstood. Nevertheless, I do trust Quakers: to be there, to follow their own codes of conduct, and that I can walk into a meeting anywhere in the country and meet a new friend (if not, as often happens, an old one). I also choose to trust the Quaker process. Even if I am not at a business meeting, even if their decision puzzles me, I trust that if it was made in a Quaker meeting which was correctly held, it represents the will of God for that meeting at that time.

Being known. Being in membership obliges a membership clerk somewhere to work with overseers and others to maintain up-to-date details, especially to keep contact details. They have varying success in this, but in my experience generally do well enough, and in most places contact lists of some kind are published. It’s not necessary to be a member to appear on these, but to me, being on the list – contactable by other Quakers, on a whim or for business – is a microcosm of what membership is about. To agree to appear there requires a certain level of openness to involvement, and being known in this formal way is the gateway to the commitment with which I began this post.

Spiritual Preparation for Yearly Meeting: question 2

“If you are in membership, did something change for you, and in you, when you became a member? Did you feel different, more responsible, perhaps even transformed?”

(See last week’s post for an introduction to this topic.)

Did something change? No, not at the moment of becoming a member. Yes, before my application; membership was a result of the change not the cause. Yes, but gradually afterwards, as the implications of membership began to sink in and the change of status began to take effect.

In fact, I think it would be more useful to include ‘becoming a member’ in a list of other events in my Quaker life which have created transformations and shaped the way I do Quakerism. It’s impossible to write an exhaustive list of these, but I’d want to include:
– a teenage Quaker women’s weekend with adult leaders who took feminism and mental health seriously;
– the on-again, off-again choices to sit through ‘big meeting’ rather than go out with the children;
– going to Woodbrooke for the first time, on a monthly meeting weekend about Quaker history which turned out to ignite a concern for outreach;
– doing ‘the Whole Banana’ weekend course at Woodbrooke with Alex Wildwood and Tim Peat-Ashworth;
– speaking at Quaker Quest for the first time, a direct result of that first Woodbrooke weekend and a direct cause of my application for membership;
– recognising that I was never actually going to go to Young Friends General Meeting and asking to be released from my appointment as a representative;
– applying for and being accepted into membership;
– becoming an atheist in the library one morning, leaving to go to campus Meeting for Worship, wondering why, and deciding that it didn’t matter;
– noticing that a week later I wasn’t an atheist any more;
– moving cities and making the Quaker Meeting one of my first stops, both before and after coming into membership;
– filling in a yellow (central service volunteering) form, different because of but not directly caused by being in membership…

It would be easy to go on, although to some extent these moments become clearer in hindsight. Equally, although many of mine do involve the formal structures of Quakerism, some are completely disconnected from it, and some – like asking to be released from a service I was never able to start – were hardly positive encounters with that structure. It would also be possible for me to write lists like this about my journey into Paganism and my explorations of Buddhism (or for that matter my membership of GirlGuidingUK, where renewing your Promise becomes a symbol of this continuing process of developingĀ  membership) and those lists would reveal quite different aspects to my spiritual life – and would include things which happened among Quakers, were organised by Quakers, or on Quaker property.

Did something change? Yes. Was the change precipitated by or located around my application for membership? No, not really.

Spiritual Preparation for Yearly Meeting: question 1

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 haveĀ  – 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.