Quakerism: a view from the back benches continued
Copyright 1966 The Back Benches
Something has been said above about the need for a daring reappraisal of what membership in the Society of Friends means to members. Here we will probe the question of what membership requires. At present, we believe that most Meetings ( the few exceptions being barley adequate to prove the rule ) have no requirements for membership other than some accepted patterns of application, visitation and the like. It is safe to say that denials on any basis are rare, and more likely to occur on grounds other than the applicants religious conviction or position on Quaker testimonies. To press the point further, we can say there is at present an unwillingness among Friends to deal with these matters with prospective members, because to attempt this would necessitate the Meeting undertaking to arrive at unity on these thorny questions in the first place.
We maintain that Friends must do just that if they care about their Meetings communities. That is, they must (1) seek unity on what the requirements of membership should be, in a series of called special meetings to thresh out the matter, (2) apply these requirements to themselves, and (3) use them in the examination and acceptance of new members. Open now to the cries of wounded sensitivities regarding loss of freedom, we take shelter beside (critics may say "behind") George Fox, who did outline stringent requirements for adherents to the Light, and in whose time Quakerism was at its most potent and vital. If Friends cling to their faith that truth can be revealed to the faithful searcher, they need not fear to undertake the search, no matter how long and arduous it may be. The result may be a minimal definition. Conversely, who among us can say that a search undertaken in love and patience will not reveal to us a new requirement, not presently known to us singly?
Supposing that unity has been found on requirements of membership, but frankness compels us to admit that some members have more light on certain testimonies than others. Can we then submit ourselves to discipline by the corporate body, employing a new form of the historic Quaker practice of "eldering?" Can we redefine this proactive to remove the modern connotation of reprimand, expand it beyond the current meaning of controlling disruptive ministry in worship, and coin a new term which would carry the concept of mutual sharing of insight to achieve unity? We might call it "insight sharing" or "mutualizing." The reader who is interested in this suggestion will no doubt devise a more apt term.
This practice used today - as in Quaker history - would ask members to share their clarity on various testimonies with their fellow members. For example, if a Meeting has reached a corporate decision that a modern requirement of the testimony on brotherhood is a willingness to sell one’s house to a Negro, a Friend who feels clear on this testimony will be asked to labor with one who is not; he will be speaking for the corporate body, drawing on his own revelation in the matter, and strengthened by the knowledge that he is advancing he Meeting’s work.. Under this practice, this same Friend may find himself unclear on another of the testimonies united on by the Meeting and thus be the object of the Meeting’s concern and attention. Hence, the "mutual" aspect of this practice historically known as eldering may bring it up to the present day.
Having come through this task, the Meeting may then be free to communicate its requirements to prospective embers and to set up certain programs to help attenders make considered decisions regarding their relation to the Society. For example, a systematic course of study can be offered, responsibilities outlined, readiness for membership reasonably assessed by the applicant as well as the Meeting. This will help avoid resignations based on an original misunderstanding of what " a Quaker" is.
What safeguard in this arduous procedure against the dreaded dogmatic, creedal system? It is, again built into the Quaker method of arriving at decisions. Functioning properly, Friends can bring out all differences, all points of view on a problem and gain not just consensus, but Truth. We must accept the fact that perception of Truth may divide as well as unite us as a Meeting. If it unties us, it will strengthen us; if it splits us, we should have the courage to follow where the Truth leads us.
The suggestions set forth here as ways to vitalize community in the Society of Friends are not offered as brand new, heretofore-unthought-of techniques. Concerned Friends have no doubt ruminated over these and other, even better, ideas time and time again. The only possible novelty here is that we openly propose that Meetings test these ideas by use, with no guarantees of absolute success; but with insurance against absolute failure resting in the inevitable enlargement of self-knowledge, deeper awareness of others, and exercise of faith in the Light by which we seek to find the way.
(to be continued)