The test for membership should not be doctrinal agreement, nor adherence to certain testimonies, but evidence of sincere seeking and striving for Truth, together with an understanding of the lines along which Friends are seeking that Truth.
– Friends World Conference (1952)
[The term “discipline”] . . . describes the system of order by which the religious body seeks to remain true to its principles and to help its adherents remain true. It is a system of order chosen as a conscious alternative to the religious anarchy that can occur when impulse is the basis of decision and individuals or groups move on their own tangents without benefit of the discoveries and procedures that have been tested over time.
– North Pacific Yearly Meeting, Faith and Practice (2018)
I believe that membership is a mutual affirmation of a particular kind of belonging, a covenant relationship. Much like a marriage, the partners should enter into the relationship with full knowledge of the benefits and possibilities for growth; the promise of spiritual, social, and material support; and the responsibilities that come with the commitment. As a Spirit-led relationship, it cannot be established or imposed unilaterally by either an individual or the meeting.
In considering the possibility of membership, both the person seeking membership and the meeting will benefit from taking time together to gain a deeper understanding, for all who are involved to see and be seen. North Pacific Yearly Meeting’s book of Faith and Practice offers a set of queries for clearness for membership (p. 198), which cover a range of issues that are relevant to recognizing oneself – and being recognized by the meeting – as a Friend of Truth, in harmony with “the lines along which Friends are seeking that Truth.” They also invite acknowledgement of, and informed consent to, the responsibilities of membership, including regular attendance at meeting for worship, participation in business meeting, and contributing financially as able.
In my experience as both an applicant and as a clearness committee member at Multnomah Monthly Meeting in Portland, Oregon, the clearness process is usually enriching to both the individual and the meeting representatives. Many topics are covered during the clearness process. These include the mutual sharing of spiritual journeys; learning about the individual’s talents, gifts, concerns and needs, both practical and spiritual; discussing the lived faith and practice of a particular meeting, as well as the role of quarterly and yearly meetings; addressing the relationship between liberal Quakers and other branches of Friends; and discovering which aspects of Quakerism the individual is led to learn more about.
Unlike many other churches, including the Roman Catholic church that I was baptized in as an infant, had first communion at as a seven-year-old, and was “confirmed” as a member after turning twelve (having completed the required classes on church dogma), liberal Friends have no outward sacraments that must be performed for membership, no creed that binds the speaker to beliefs that may or may not be true for that person, no pastor or priest to mediate between the seeker and the Spirit. The longstanding practice of seeking clearness on becoming a member is a form, an aspect of Quaker corporate discipline, that can be abused or administered unfairly (such as times when Friends were disowned or “read out of” membership for what we now would view as petty differences). However, this form also serves to protect against a collapse into the “religious anarchy . . . and individuals or groups mov[ing] on their own tangents without benefit of the discoveries and procedures that have been tested over time” (as quoted above from NPYM’s Faith and Practice).
Only rarely does this process result in a non-recommendation for membership or the withdrawal by the applicant of their request for membership. Some years ago, I served on a membership clearness committee for an applicant whose bullying behaviors toward both children and adults had raised concerns; the person was unwilling to acknowledge that their behaviors were inappropriate or address Friends’ concerns, and ultimately, they withdrew their application. In this instance, although the individual continued to participate in meeting for worship and other activities, clearness about membership was not found.
When I requested membership in Multnomah Meeting as a young adult in the late summer of 1977, my brief letter to the clerk of the meeting concluded:
I find a slow remembrance of the reality of a Spirit beyond and within ourselves, expressed as Light and Love, and I am taught anew the meaning and implications of this reality in everyday relationships. Leaving the forms of Catholicism, I find myself re-bound in a catholic Quakerism. This remembering, relearning and rebinding has led me in my seeking to an inward identification with Friends’ experiential faith and practice. I now feel ready to take on an outward sign, that of membership in Multnomah Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, that expresses this inward search and convincement, and the commitment implicit therein.
My personal feeling of inward unity with my newly-chosen faith as a liberal Friend did not make me a member; it was the loving actions of the meeting community, embodied by the members of my clearness committee (elderly Friend Hazel Hemphill and Quaker physician and researcher Bill Connor) and the ensuing acceptance by Multnomah Meeting itself, that confirmed my membership in the Society of Friends. My individual inspiration, my individual judgment of who I recognize myself to be, needed to be tested by the community that I wanted to identify with. Such testing is not an academic exercise with a passing or failing grade. Rather, in the sense that Friends have recognized across the centuries, this “testing” or “trying” means being willing to be searched by the Light. The membership clearness process provides a simple structure for that search, and it’s worth maintaining. ~~~
Lyn Gordon is a recently retired preschool teacher and social worker. Gardening, grandchildren, hiking, tree planting with Friends of Trees (friendsoftrees.org), and juggling several roles at his monthly, quarterly, and yearly meeting keep him out of (most) trouble. He is a member of Multnomah Monthly Meeting in Portland, OR (NPYM).