Membership Matters

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, September 11, 2022

It’s membership that’s on my mind this morning.  It’s on my mind because recently I’ve been asked a few times about how one becomes a member of a Quaker Meeting.  I’m a member of Ministry and Council, the committee of the Meeting that handles membership matters.  

Membership:  Is this a club you’re joining?  Is membership just a matter of affiliation? Like being a member of Rotary, not a member of the Lions or of the Odd Fellows.  Or like being a Phillies fan not a Mets or Yankees fan. 

I wasn’t born into membership.  I’m a convinced Friend, not a birthright Friend.   I grew up in a Presbyterian Church.  I first went to Quaker Meeting in college, and attended fitfully until I made the decision to become a member in my mid-30s.  I remember with some embarrassment how long it took me to write a letter to the Meeting I joined – mostly because I didn’t really know what I believed.  Writing the letter made that all too clear.  They took me in anyway.  (It turned out it didn’t matter so much what I believed.  More on that later.)

I said I grew up in a Presbyterian Church.  My mother and my father had each grown up in a Northern Baptist Church.  They had full body immersion baptism as teenagers, not infant Baptism.  They met at a Northern Baptist college – Bates.  But as a family we went to a Presbyterian Church.  Why?  because it was nearby, because friends went there, and because there wasn’t a Northern Baptist Church easily to be found.  So was this Rotary not Lions, Phillies not Yankees.  I wondered as a kid.  Does it matter?  Why?

Early Quakers didn’t have membership.  They weren’t trying to create another distinct group of Christians with a slightly different set of beliefs.  They wanted to change the way everyone thought about being a Christian.  It was only after a few decades had passed and Quakers were being persecuted that they started having membership – so they could keep track of who needed assistance from other Quakers while they were in jail or didn’t have a job.  

Being a Quaker is an affiliation, I suppose.  This is my religious club; this is my religious clubhouse.  But this isn’t all it is, an affiliation.  A little over a decade ago I was a member of Quaker Meeting in Indiana Yearly Meeting, and we were thrown out.  Not from Quakerism, but from the Yearly Meeting.  It was a rude and unsettling experience.  Why were we thrown out?  Because we had beliefs and practices that welcomed people whatever their sexual orientation.  We didn’t believe homosexuality was a sin.   So we got the heave-ho. 

Does being a Quaker mean having the correct beliefs?  Many Friends recoil from that thought, don’t we?  Part of being a Quaker is not having a creed, not having to ascribe to a formula of beliefs.  It’s something else, something more.  That ‘non-creedalism (no orthodox, insisted-on beliefs) is important to me, and it seems like Indiana Yearly Meeting lost its way on that. 

What does it mean to become a Quaker, a member of a Quaker Church or Quaker Meeting.  It’s not just an affiliation.  It’s more.  To talk about that something more I think we have to think about matters of discipline and commitment, too. 

Let’s start with discipline. I know that can be a worrying, even forbidding term, with its suggestive overtones of punishment. It becomes a warmer word, however, when we think of it as having to do with being a disciple – a student, a follower, a learner. Discipline is a way of discipleship. 

We each need a discipline, I think, because we each need a way to learn about God and what God expects of us. I’m wary of those who believe that knowing God is easy, as if it were something that just happens without our having to make much effort. Perhaps that is so for some people, but I am skeptical. For me, knowing God takes active effort. Making no effort is much more likely to lead me towards inattention and selfish behavior. 

So for me, I need a discipline: a learning strategy, a regular approach to knowing God. I am pretty sure we do not all need the same discipline.  For me, that is a clue to why it is not a bad thing that there are a variety of denominations. Think of each as embodying a distinctive religious discipline. “This is how we work together to know God.”   (Of course, for many denominations, there is also a creed, an orthodoxy.)

For me, waiting worship is a most helpful approach: gathering with others in stillness to seek God.  I know many who find the repetition of the Mass to be especially useful for drawing closer to God.  I know many people who value external sacraments, or who value ‘smells and bells’, or – a lot of other things.  A place to start on a spiritual journey is to know what spiritual discipline is best for you. 

From the British Quaker Ben Pink Dandelion I learned a new word:  orthopraxy.  Quakers, he says, don’t have an orthodoxy; they don’t have a creed.  But they do have a set of distinctive practices especially in worship.  Those distinctive practices, especially waiting worship, are the orthopraxy. 

Discipline opens the door to commitment, and to community   There may be some who can find and settle into a discipline all by themselves – without anyone else.  But that’s not for me, and I imagine would not be for most others.  If I am to settle into deep, waiting worship, I want to gather with others in doing that.  We do it together.  And so it is with most religious disciplines: their practice requires a community to practice them well.  So spiritual discipline requires community, and community requires commitment. 

In seeking such a community, I’m looking for a group of people who will not just be present once, but be present together over time, gathering and regathering.  I’m looking for a group of people who will make a commitment to being together for worship and seeking, and I’ll expect to make a commitment to them, too.  To become a member of a Quaker Meeting is to say, ‘you can count on me as we seek together for God’s will.’ 

How will that commitment be shown?  I can imagine a variety of ways: via regular financial contributions, via service on committees, via volunteering to help in other ways.  But most of all through regular count-upon-it attendance, week in and week out.  Taking part, showing up, being engaged.  In my Quaker meeting it does me good to see familiar faces each week, people I expect to be there and who expect me to be there, too.  We gather strength from one another. 

Also posted on the Durham Friends Meeting website

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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2 Responses to Membership Matters

  1. Pingback: “Membership Matters,” by Doug Bennett, September 11, 2022 | Durham Friends Meeting (Quaker)

  2. Stephanie Judson says:

    Thank you, Doug, Stephanie

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