Two sides

 exploring membership – individual and community

Quaker Life Representative Council

18-20 October 2013

I know, I’ll try the back way in again, so stayed on the train till Bourneville. Still uphill, the walk is longer, though not quite as steep as the one up from Selly Oak station. The way passes by the chocolate factory and the surrounding houses. You can linger a bit more on your way, enjoying the buildings and the grounds, anticipating your arrival at the gate and on into the green wood inside Woodbrooke. A young man who works on the gardens told me his dad who works at Cadbury’s is a union member, like me. By the way he said it, I’m not sure he’d come across many more people who were. Over Christmas, it dawned on me just how much I have grown into the person I have become because of becoming a union rep, grudgingly and half-heartedly, facing all the challenges of the role in a busy, changing workplace, fearing I would be ‘torn apart’, quite some years ago now. As I walked through and stepped into the woods, I started thinking about the reason for coming here, membership. What did it mean to me? To anyone? Over the weekend, we were going to explore the meaning of the word and how it sat with Quakers.

Why membership? We thought you’d never ask

In his talk on the value of membership, Simon Best, Nurturing Friends and Meetings tutor at Woodbrooke, spoke of a sense of belonging. “I am a Quaker.” How does that feel? We speak of convincement leading to membership, yet there are convinced friends who are not members. And possibly members who haven’t been convinced but feel it is right for them? Does it matter? Perhaps not, if membership to you only means carrying out a functional role?  I remember coming into membership ready now to carry out such a role, whatever it was, to do my bit and to give those who’d been working so hard for years a break; to take up the baton from the previous generation, I mused…yes, and look where it has led me – on to Equipping for Ministry and BAM!!!

Belonging, certainly…I feel safe here. Nobody’s trying to tell me anything and I can sit here quietly till I find my own way along the next bit of the path or even get on a path…and convincement. A difficult concept, like the light going on suddenly. Or is it? Convincement may happen over a period of time – months or years – and may even have happened to you before you realise it. You are catching up with yourself. Discipleship or following, learning; making a contribution, doing your bit for your meeting (there is no-one else) and being held accountable so that we don’t go off the deep end with ill judged decisions. These are all aspects of the word, ‘membership’. We have forms and processes for testing our leadings. Not on your own then? Good heavens, no. What would be the point of that? Isn’t it all about spiritual growth and being part of a growing (or shrinking) community?

What are our gifts?

Who are you? How do others in your community see you? Are you a name on a list next to a job to do? Does it suit you? It may well do. It can also feel like a heavy burden. How well do you know others in your community? Do you have time to give/no time to give..? That’s ok. We all have different pressures on us at different times in our lives. One group member spoke of a rule at her meeting for doing the washing up? Unless you’re on the washing up rota, you can’t do it. How silly, I thought, though didn’t say. I had my most ordinary and uplifting connections, while chatting away washing and drying up. These were the ones which kept me coming back.

Are we spirit-led in our decision-making? If we are, we are most likely to follow the right path, even if we’ve never done it that way before (Quakers don’t do that.)

Come meet the staff from Quaker Life

Mike showed us a wordcloud based on Advices and Queries. The larger the word, the more frequent it is used. Interesting, one of the biggest words is ‘may’. What does that tell us about the Religious Society of Friends today? Back to wishy-washy again, are we? Or are we leaving the door open both to old ways, tried and tested, as well as learning from other sources of new light. Have you a question? Have you asked someone? Why not? Or have you looked in the ‘flippin’ red book’, Quaker Faith and Practise (QF&P, now in its 5th edition, just published)?

With David, the librarian and archivist at Friends’ House, we delved and discovered:

  • There is a wordpress blog, called Quaker Strongrooms, holding information about the 1913 anniversary activities, and a useful way of finding out about the library and its rich resources
  • An online catalogue, hopefully completed by the end of 2013 (fingers crossed)
  • A library guide of 1st World War commemorative events, planned throughout the year
  • Even meeting visits and general support for meetings

Jane, the manager of Swarthmoor Hall, told us about a new Friend in Residence (FIR) scheme and more opportunities for volunteering there.

In our Home group, we wondered if there is a certain coyness about asking new attenders, even fairly regular attenders, about becoming a member? It took me back. What had coming into membership meant to me? And why had it taken so long? It was about identity, yes. It’s part of my life now, I remember thinking. Choice too. I wasn’t pushed into it. I can’t recall ever being asked and many assumed I must already be a member I’d been around for so long…but it took me 20 years. I recall talking with a wise woman at Woodbrooke on a course about becoming an overseer. Mentioning so-called ‘weighty’ and good friends who were members, Quaker saints in the making. I could never be like them. I was giving her reasons for not joining, even though I had thought about it on and off over that time, sometimes getting close but never stepping over the threshold, forever holding back a little and letting it drift. ‘I enjoy my ale. I swear a lot and I think about fornication every 7 seconds…’, I looked at her, shoulders shrugging, palms held upwards. ‘So, what are you telling me, Bernie…that you’re human?’ I went away and now realise I sat with the question. ‘I suppose so’ was the answer. I could only be me, not someone else, after all. Wasn’t that right? Wasn’t that all that God asked of me, that I try to be the best me I can be; not always that good? And that’s ok.

As far as we go, there is only us and we’ve only got now. There is only this time to be the Quakers we can be, whether in membership or not. There is no other. This is all we get. Within a couple of days, I had written a short letter to the AM clerk, asking to become a member and two people were appointed to come and visit me. And so, we’re into the process. How do you become a member of the Religious Society of Friends? And what if they said no? What then?

It seems there is more than one way to apply for membership and has been the case since 2001. Jane Muers has been around membership matters in Quakers for a very long time. She pointed out that, even in the 1931 Quaker Book of Discipline, it says friends ‘may need inviting.’ Then, of course, the majority of friends would have had Quaker roots and connections. Today, most people coming to our meetings for worship for the first time do not.

Make the process simple and undaunting…Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM) in a minute in 2001 encouraged meetings to experiment with the membership process. To some, this may require a profession of faith but the key question is how far is their membership grounded in participating in the life of the meeting?

Section 11 of QF&P has been revised for the fifth edition. While most meetings still go ahead and appoint two visitors, there are other ways. 11.04 tells us that Area Meetings may (there’s that word again) agree a simple process, varied, flexible and reflecting local circumstances. 11.05 reminds us membership is a two-way process; one involving the individual and the whole community of faith. And 11.07, the discernment process is an AM responsibility. Our membership is of the Area Meeting, not just the local meeting where we first come into contact with Quakers.

Jane encouraged AMs to have a four-stage process for membership. The first stage is about nurturing and support with meetings formalising procedures for supporting friends, interested in exploring the possibility of membership. It is a big step, one of the most important we will make in our lives. We can do this with the Becoming Friends pack, for example, or running a Hearts and Minds Prepared course. To do this, we need a pool of people, who themselves need support. Who supports the supporters? Well, perhaps, we can support each other. After all, attenders are not short of life experiences, are they? It is their Quakerliness they are unsure of. And we all know of friends who are Quakers in all but membership…what difference does it make, if there are more attenders than members in the life of a meeting, I wonder?

The second stage is initiation. There are various ways by which someone might apply for membership:

  • A working group is set up
  • An individual letter from the potential member/parent/advocate
  • A telephone conversation or a conversation. Why not? This might be more valid.
  • Offer of a meeting for clearness
  • A minute or letter from the local meeting or overseers

Whatever form is approved by AM, the minute or report or letter goes to AM for consideration. This leads us to the third stage, the discernment process.

Two questions must be answered. Is membership right for this individual? And is it right for the Quaker community (LM, AM, Britain Yearly Meeting) that this person becomes a member? Information can be taken from many different sources, including letters from overseers, verbal reports, input from other groups such as Young Friends’ General Meeting (YFGM) or a university chaplain. Then, at the AM, ideally, local friends and the potential member should be present. The AM clerk will use discretion to decide who is present during parts of the meeting for worship for business and who sees what. Given data protection, the report can be seen by the potential membership.

And the fourth stage…recognition and continuing nurturing. How do we welcome, indeed, celebrate the new member into our meeting? For me, as for any new member, that stage is unlikely to mark the end of a journey. After a period of reflection, it is stepping back onto the highway and will go on for a whole lifetime. How able are we to support one another in the years after membership? We may find ourselves sitting with these questions. And that’s ok, if we are sitting together. We will be ok.

On the final day, Jude urged us to ‘tell your neighbour what it means to you to belong to this meeting.’ Journeying through tunnels cut into the hillside in the dark, reflecting,  patiently waiting to come back out into the light and hopefully get a signal to read the next bit of your story…She pointed us toward a position where we’d like to be, one where it’s ok to ask someone about membership and what it means. Is that a conversation worth having? We can’t do it on our own.

Various activities were suggested as ways of raising this back at our LMs and AM. These included the dreaded role play, using word cards or pass the parcel game; visiting other LMs to offer Afterwords. As friends, we can do this for ourselves and there is always support from Quaker Life when we need it.

A three-cornered conversation

Reflections on an Equipping for Ministry course and more stuff

And yes, I did raise a number of questions which came up for me. Why was that? Because the changes I think I’m making in my life to do with acceptance of God and of me…well, these changes challenged me. I felt I was being tested. Have I really made genuine changes or how much of it is pretence?

Or was that it..? I felt in the comment I wrote in my notebook, ‘I’m still here’ that I was embracing everything the tutors were telling us without feeling the need to push anything away. Love. Love of a mother. Precious. It is raining now at Woodbrooke, pouring on the flat roof of the garden room. I like the sound of falling rain … So, it was a good thing, yeah? Actually, your feelings of love have been strengthened. Tested and strengthened. Do you know that..?

I have got used to using God language. It feels like something I put on. Is that why Jesus unsettles you so? It is a lot to take on. Do you have to take it on? It feels like being stretched a bit too far. That could be growth. It certainly is challenge.I wonder if I do have a smorgasbord approach to being a Quaker? Maybe, I am wishy-washy? Am I? I have to start answering some of these questions now. But not all of them straightaway.

What do I believe in? How do I live my life or try to? Want to live my life..? I know what I want to say. Or think I do. I’m open to God or feel I am. I imagine writing to angels. God and angels are something you feel, experience. I hear a ‘still, small voice’ inside me, guiding me, helping me live my life. It is honest and doesn’t judge me. It holds me with love, accepts my failings and encourages me.

‘Judgement’, the use of the word for me has connotations of having to be something, to strive towards… And it’s high, probably unreachable?

I think I have found a way of living which has helped ground me. My grounding can and will be shaken, like nuts falling from a tree in the wind. And that feels like a good thing.

So, the word ‘judgement’ uncovers layers from your past? Not just to do with religion or faith but also class, even being part of a group – membership? I’m ok spending time on my own. Have to for my sanity’s sake. But feeling part of…that’s something I’ve always found hard to judge. I’m learning to just be, sink in the moment and wait. Be held and trust that you will be guided. It’s not a heavy thing. Don’t make it so. Practise.

So, the word ‘judgement’ evokes lots of underlying feelings around group membership, friendship, introversion, quiet, lonely…STOP!!! Actually, you did feel lonely at times amid the throng of people. But less so. And you practised being gentle with women friends. Well done! More practice needed.

Is so much introspection necessary? As much as you need. How else can you grow?

Sometimes, my membership and friendships seem so fragile. The ground I walk on suddenly feels shaky. A tutor speaks of ‘justice’ and ‘judgement’. It’s all in relationships, isn’t it – personal, community, society? For me, this means trying to lead my life in the best way I can.

During meeting for worship in the Cadbury room, a friend ministers,

Submit to God.

Submit your whole self to God.

Let yourself be held lightly by God

and prepare to be amazed.

Part of me feels I’m heading along these lines, like a stream. I seem to always qualify my statements. Could I not have some wholehearted commitment? Except I’m still learning. I don’t think I know the answers. There’s some pride creeping in there. Is there? But feeling held and loved by God as a loving father is massive change for me. It gives me the question.

The stuff about God’s ‘eternal power’ feels at odds with my personal experience of God’s power and powerlessness. Aren’t they both the same thing? I think what detracts for me is the notion of ‘power over’. Then, glad you did those leadership workshops on the residential now, aren’t you?

And, I think, afraid. I can be dogmatic and self-righteous, judging the life journeys of others. It is an aspect of my character which I feel is the…ego? EfM has been a journey of letting go of the ego. That’s why it’s hard. It can feel like a default position. I need to practise healthier forms of relationships.

And you can do this through your ministry, yes? Singing, storytelling, fooling, writing..? Yes, I can. I hope so. By being here, I have already changed the world, I remember writing. Ha! So, do what you’re called to do. Do it as well as you can. Tell the stories. All the stories. I’ve always been a storyteller, it seems. I can’t shut up. Remember that…

Where is Jesus in all this for you? I haven’t the foggiest. And that’s ok. If that’s wishy-washy, then wishy-washy is ok. Because it’s a place but it’s not the only place. I have a richer underpinning of works and words, which help me stay grounded. And your ministry is your spring? I hope so.

Does that answer your questions? I think it does. For now anyway. There’ll always be questions. And that’s a good thing. Are you a nihilist or a universalist? Good question…or is it? I am me. This will do. In fact, coming to know who I am is a real gift. Time to leave this here, for now? Yes, I think so. I think that’s plenty.

Good. Coffee and a biscuit..?

Sounds good to me.