Open Quakers

Dedicated to Openness and Inclusivity in Quaker Meetings

Quaker Membership

A Great People to be Gathered — or Vetted ?

You become a member of the Religious Society of Friends by joining a particular area meeting, usually the one nearest to where you live. Very occasionally people may be invited to join, but usually it is necessary to apply formally in writing. Various procedures may then be followed but normally the applicant is 'visited' at some stage by two established Quakers who then report back to the area meeting which then decides whether or not the applicant should be admitted to membership. Many trees have been sacrificed in the publishing of reports about how best to 'discern' whether or not an individual should be admitted to membership, but anyone prepared to communicate in English will recognise this as a 'vetting' process.

The process of being admitted to membership of the society is usually quite painless, and probably appears quite harmless to most people. But it does have its downsides, especially in relation to the attitudes that it sometimes engenders in both members and attenders (who have not yet joined).

Why Join Anyway ?

Sometimes I have asked long–standing attenders why they never applied for membership, despite their having worshipped at a particular meeting for many years. I have always received one or both of two answers — either that they could not see the point of joining, or that they 'didn't feel good enough'.

The first of these two answers seems quite reasonable when you consider the commitment of many attenders who will help run children's meetings, represent their area meetings on other bodies, and even serve as clerk, overseer or elder.

The second answer – that they 'didn't feel good enough' – has sometimes brought me close to tears.

As one member of a meeting in Surrey wrote (The Friend, Letters, 21st September 2012), 'We do feel that there is a 'them' and 'us' situation prevailing and there is evidence, locally, that it inhibits regular attenders from progressing to membership'.

Quite.

Quis Custodet Custodes ?

Historically speaking, it is hardly surprising that Quakers have sometimes been careful about whom they admit into membership. In the early days agents of the local magistrates, or of the Commonwealth or King, sometimes infiltrated meetings in order to spy on them. Until a very few years ago area meetings were unincorporated associations, and any single member could be held responsible for the entire liabilities of his or her meeting. Caution in the matter of membership was understandable. Nowadays however Quaker area meetings are registered charities and it is the trustees who are legally responsible for the affairs of the meeting, and even then their liabilities are limited.

In the present age, Quaker practices with regard to membership are anachronistic. That doesn't matter much. But something else does. The idea that Quakers should sit in judgement over who should or should not join them in membership is in direct contradiction to the Quaker testimony of equality.

And there's more. When an application is considered by an area meeting, the applicant, like all other non–members, is barred from the discussion. Behind closed doors anything can be said about the applicant, without him or her having the slightest idea of what has been said, let alone being allowed to comment on it. This flies in the face of the Quaker testimonies to truth and fairness.

I think it almost beyond discussion that decisions made about membership can at times be arbitrary and/or based upon personal liking or otherwise. They shouldn't be, but sometimes they are. And that does matter.

In September 2017 I received an e–mail from Keith Smith, a man brought up by fairly traditional Quakers, and who is now struggling with the issue of membership. This is what he had to tell me.

In August 2008 I myself applied for membership of what I shall call 'The County Area Meeting'. Nearly three and a half years later, in January 20012, I withdrew my application for membership and I stopped going to worship.

If you are curious as to why, pour yourself a stiff whisky or make a nice large pot of tea, make yourself comfortable, and click on this link.

I hope that at some point in the future I shall be able to fill in a short form with my name and contact details, hand it in with a fiver, and be given a membership card. Until that day comes I shall take any mention of "Equality" among Quakers with a very large pinch of salt.