Thoughts on Quaker Membership


Quaker schoolteacher Thomas K. Brown established Back Log Camp on the banks of Indian Lake in the Adirondack Mountains in 1911. Thomas was married to Caroline Cadbury, of the Quaker Cadbury dynasty. For a time the camp was run as a business. Now it functions entirely as a private camp for Thomas and Caroline’s descendants, one of which, Spee, happens to live at QIV-C. Spee and her son Lucas kindly invited us along to a Fall working weekend, and we jumped at the chance. It was as if all systems were suddenly set to ‘Best Autumn Ever’. The hills glowed red and gold, and the sky was cloudless. Many of the tents are open-face, so it’s one step away from sleeping completely out in the open. At night, the soft patter of the leaf-fall on the tent roof and the haunting cry of the Loon across the lake, made for a very atmospheric night’s sleep. Our first evening Spee took us out in a canoe on the lake. With a new moon and a clear sky, there were stars everywhere. The more you stared, the more there were. Everywhere was blackness except for the brilliance above. The following day was filled with canoeing and swimming in the lake, simple domestic work and evening campfires. By the huge glowing ‘back log’ of the Focus, the spiritual and geographical heart of the camp, I had my first ‘s’more’. So bad, but so good! We will be forever grateful for the time we spent in the Adirondacks.

Indian Lake

Thoughts on Membership…

How can you guarantee yourself access to this most beautiful of locations? You basically have to marry into the family. A very specific membership requirement, and quite a difficult group to join. This rainy first weekend in October, we’ve been joined by the Nightingales, an informal group of Quakers who share songs and stories. All you need to join is a willingness to sing, listen and help with the washing up. At House Party, the music camp I visited in Vermont, participation is by invitation only, and long-term membership is only conferred if the membership committee feel you fit the House Party mould. Every group we belong to will vary in its requirements and permitted levels of participation. In 2003 I became a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Great Britain. Membership of the Religious Society of Friends is a hot topic among British Quakers – is it an outdated practice? Is it exclusive and divisive? Why are less people joining? –  and I want to offer some reflections on the subject. First I’ll look at what the membership processes of intentional communities might offer to the conversation. Then I’ll look at another religious membership process, one that I hear rarely discussed by Quakers – baptism.

Intentional Communities

An objection to formal Quaker membership I’ve heard is that it goes against our testimony to equality. I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding of our theology. We may be equal in being God’s image-bearers, but we’re certainly not equal in our gifts, experience, spiritual maturity and degrees of commitment. We may not distinguish between priests and laity, but we certainly have leaders amongst us. We are right to reject pyramid models of power and their accompanying Pharaohs, but this doesn’t mean power and authority are inherently bad. We should honour their appropriate use and find creative models to express our relationship to each other and our journey in faith. Counter-cultural communities are precious. Environments of deep trusting love need protecting, and rigorous discipleship practices need people who are truly committed. To ensure this, religious communities should be hard to join. Many successful communities have membership structures that reflect the need for a committed core, seasonal volunteers, and the space to welcome strangers. To move from relative newcomer to the heart of the community should be a long process, befitting the seriousness of the commitment.

Reba Place Fellowship (RPF), a Mennonite community in Illinois uses an onion as a symbol of their membership structure. The layers emanate outward from a committed core of ‘covenant members’, moving outward through ‘novice members’, ‘practicing members’ and ‘apprentices’ to the outer layer of neighbors, guests and friends. Another community, Casa Juan Diego – a Catholic Worker community – might be envisioned as a cluster of grapes, with a particularly committed couple of founding members acting as the stem, rooting and empowering the fruit-bearing potential of the surrounding members. David Jenzen, author of The Intentional Community Handbook and member of RPF, writes that ‘the onion works for intentional Christian communities today’ because ‘it names the reality of different layers of participation, responsibility, and commitment in community; the temptations posed by these differences: and the antidote of Jesus’ teaching and example… The onion displays a clear path to the centre by which persons can approach covenant membership as an informal choice and confirmed calling, so that no one is excluded but, rather, everyone is invited and offered a way in… The deepest purpose of the community membership structure then can emerge, to support a lifelong journey training in “the mind of Christ,” along with appropriate responsibility in his ministry.’

Circle of Hope, a cell church movement in Philadelphia, writes the every cell (house group) should expect to contain someone who is an EGR – ‘Extra Grace Required’, but should be guarded against ‘wolves’, people who actively seek to create discord and undermine the purpose of the group: ‘We all require empathy and understanding, and at one time or another we are all an “EGR.” … Some people will test our patience and love, but they are still to be welcomed into the body of Christ… Even while we work to honor everyone with patience, we are frank about the need to set appropriate boundaries. It is the Cell Leader’s job to act as a “shepherd” who protects the “sheep” from “wolves.”’ We need to be realistic about how much support we can offer individuals, and that there are some who will actively abuse our hospitality and Quaker practices. A membership process that is rigorous can help prevent such hostile intentions fracturing the whole community.

Fall colours in the Adirondacks


Quakers don’t do baptism. At least, they don’t do water baptism. Who needs outward symbols in the age of the Spirit? Who needs shadows when you have the substance? John the Baptist used water, but the risen Christ baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire! At least, this was the early Quaker argument for not practicing water baptism, either by immersion (a full dunking) or effusion (a sprinkling). Does this argument still hold for contemporary Friends? How often do you hear contemporary British Friends speak of their spiritual baptism?

Baptism has been one of the most divisive issues in church history, over both how you do it and what it means. The formal membership process initiated by British Quakers in the 18th century was never meant as an equivalent to baptism. It was a protective and administrative measure. However, similarly to Quaker membership, baptism acts as a rite of passage. In the majority of churches it is considered to mark the beginning of membership within the universal church, the Body of Christ.

The key thing I want to focus on with Christian baptism as a ceremonial membership procedure is that by proclaiming yourself a member of the Body of Christ, you are forsaking all other memberships. At the time of Jesus, what other clubs could you be a member of? You could be initiated into one of the many mystery cults, such as that of Mithras, undergoing a ritual soaking in freshly drawn bull’s blood. Or you could participate in the dominant cult of the day and pay homage to Caesar of Rome, proclaiming him Son of God and Saviour of the world. For the early Christians, dual membership was not an option. You couldn’t serve two masters. To be baptised in the name of Jesus was to die to citizenship of the Empire, and to live by the power of the Risen Christ and become citizens of the Kingdom of God.

Baptism is an act of separation, an act of making holy (‘to set apart’). To be baptized is to be anointed by the Spirit. To be a Christian means to be a ‘little Messiah’. The Messiah is the ‘annointed one’. Baptism creates ‘little anointed ones’. A key aspect of becoming a Quaker and having this recognised and celebrated by the Quaker community, should be the rejection of Mammon/Caesar and an embracing of the Spirit’s guiding and transforming power. To become a Quaker should be an exciting and liberating process.

I would ask why is the value of membership now being questioned? Have we lost our distinctness? Ben Pink Dandelion’s recent Swarthmore Lecture is invaluable in this discussion. He suggests that Quaker culture has become infected with secular individualism. I suggest that if there is no significant difference between Quaker culture and the dominant culture of Empire, then Quaker membership becomes redundant.

Why is membership of the Society not seen as an opportunity for exciting celebration? Do we see membership as dry bureaucracy? Craig Barnett writes that our expectation of Meeting for Worship influences our experience of it. When little is expected, little is experienced. The same could be said for membership. In making our commitment to the Spirit, do we expect a dynamic encounter with the power of God?

A misty morning on Indian Lake

Nature Notables

So many birds to report on! Our highlights of the last few weeks include:

  • Ovenbird in Central Park
  • Loons (great northern divers) on Indian Lake
  • White crowned sparrow on migration at Hand Hallow Conservation Area
  • Wild turkeys on the roadside
  • Canada geese on migration over the land

5 thoughts on “Thoughts on Quaker Membership”

  1. Really helpful. Something that has always stuck with me from a discussion with a vicar years ago – he was talking about church membership and made the distinction between defining a circle by it’s boundary, and defining it by its centre. I think the onion model is closely related to that. Or thinking about Jesus and his disciples, just because you weren’t one of the 12, it didn’t mean you were outside the circle.

    I’ll be sure to listen to the Swathmore lecture when I get a chance.

  2. I’m struck as much by the beauty of your photos as the beauty of your words – what stunning places you have visited. Do you have more photos in cyberspace? Would love to see them.

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