Joining the Religious Society of Friends

Meeting for Worship is open to all, but not everyone present at Meeting is a member of the Religious Society of Friends. Eventually most attenders begin to consider if and when they should apply for membership. This page deals with some of the questions which may arise. It is one person's view, and other people would probably emphasise different points, but as a whole it has the approval of the Elders of Lewes Meeting.

How the present practice developed

During the first century of the Society's life there was no formal procedure for membership. Anyone who attended Friends' meetings, and who was prepared to stand with Friends in court or to support the dependants of those in prison was counted as a Quaker. When persecution ceased it became necessary for membership to be defined more formally. At that time poor people, the responsibility of the parish, were often treated harshly. Quakers, who had been used to supporting those who were imprisoned or whose goods had been taken from them, resolved that none of their members should suffer poverty or become a charge on the public purse, so they provided poor relief for all Friends who needed it. The expense was too great for some weekly meetings, so the burden was shared within the Area Meeting. Some people who knew a little about Friends pretended to be Quakers and claimed assistance. To avoid this it was agreed that records of membership should be kept by Area Meetings. Rules were drawn up to ensure that any Friends who were travelling had proper identification, and for the issue of certificates of transfer for Friends who moved. Since that time, membership has always been of a Area Meeting; Local Meetings technically have no members.

Until this century, new members were generally the children of Quakers, acquiring their membership as 'birthright' Friends. This is no longer possible, but there are still many Friends who were born into the Society. Parents may still, if they wish, apply to have a child (aged less than sixteen years) admitted into membership. On reaching the age of sixteen the child may then write to the Area Meeting Clerk to indicate a personal acceptance. Friends are aware that many such young people will prefer to defer such a decision, and many who as teenagers show little interest in the Society return to it in their twenties, thirties, or later.

Those joining from outside were 'convinced' Friends. The procedure for joining was simple. The applicant wrote a letter to the Clerk of the Area Meeting which then appointed two Friends to visit, and their report was the basis for the decision as to whether they should be accepted. The procedures for application, for visiting, and the decision-making of the Area Meeting will be described in more detail later.

What may be expected from membership?

There are few, if any, tangible advantages of being a member rather than an attender. Almost every one of the privileges open to members is, in practice, also open to attenders. A member may attend Local Business Meeting, Area Meeting and Yearly Meeting as of right. Attenders are also welcomed and encouraged to attend, but they should first ask the Clerk's permission. It is extremely unusual for this to be refused. The Clerk may ask non-members to leave the room briefly when sensitive personal matters are discussed. You might expect that all officers of the Society would have to be members, but our structures are sufficiently flexible to allow a non-member to accept considerable responsibility. Often Attenders who are considering moving closer to the Society will take an active part in a Meeting, and Friends seeking to appoint people for the many tasks which have to be done will be more concerned about personal qualities than with formalities. Why join, then? Perhaps for the same reason as the first Friends: to stand and be counted as a Quaker. In becoming a member one is making a statement to Friends, to those outside, and most of all, to oneself.

What must you believe to be a Quaker?

The way to membership of most religions is the acceptance of a statement of belief. Quakers have never required any particular statement of belief, however simple or general. Historically this dates from the times when Christians of one persuasion or another would demand that others assented to their creeds. Friends suffered much because they would not accept any of the statements which others put forward to test them, and they were firmly resolved that they themselves would never adopt any formulae which could be used against others. Later they realised that creeds are always smaller than the truth which they try to express, and that they encourage a static point of view rather than a developing faith. For this reason there is no statement anywhere of what a Friend must believe, or of the minimum that one must accept to be eligible for membership.

This is not to say that beliefs are unimportant; Quakers see belief as so important that nothing second-hand will do. The authority for what one accepts is known within, and is not accepted from anyone else, whatever their status. The Quaker emphasis is on a shared search for truth, and a working out of faith within a challenging but supportive group. At its best, a meeting may include people whose theological views are mutually incompatible at many points, but who nevertheless work and worship together without any disharmony.

Are Quakers Christians?

John Wesley discussed this in his letters more than 200 years ago. It is still a matter of controversy and there is no simple answer. It is a fact that many Quakers consider themselves as Christians, and it is a fact that many do not. If we used a creed or other test of belief we would be able to draw a line, perhaps one that other churches would accept as a valid distinction, but it is not our way to exclude those who can work and worship with us. If we could only ask an applicant one question about this matter, it would not concern what they believed about Jesus, but whether they sought to follow his way.

The first Friends considered, somewhat naively, that they had returned to the ways of the early church. Present-day Friends often seek to recover the spirit of that church, and believe that it is easier to understand who Jesus was if one discards much of the traditional theology that grew up in the Christian church over the centuries. Friends are not exclusive, expecting to find 'that of God' in all peoples, cultures and religions. They do not believe that revelation ceased when the ink dried on the last word of the New Testament. This is sometimes a source of disagreement with other Christians.

All churches accept the authority of scripture, of tradition, and direct revelation, but the emphasis placed on each differs in different churches. Quakers put the authority of the Inner Light first. It might be worth noting that the phrase in early Quaker times was the 'Inward Light of Christ.'

Must Quakers be pacifists?

The Religious Society of Friends is better known for its peace testimony than for anything else. Thinking people are aware that the question of non-violence is not an easy one. All Friends are opposed to war, violence, and aggression, but some can imagine circumstances in which violent action might be a lesser evil than standing to one side. George Fox is reported to have said to William Penn, "Wear thy sword while thou canst."

The Society has room for those who have not yet totally accepted pacifism. Some will be on their way towards it, and others will never feel it right to take an absolute position. Friends whose views differ from the consensus of the Society will need to consider their position very carefully, and those who hold the established views must be constantly aware that the majority are not always right. Quakers seek the light, and in meeting they test their beliefs against the experience of the group. It is not the business of the Society to enforce uniformity of belief or action, but to uphold each individual who seeks to follow whatever light they have.

Most of us will not have to decide, in the event of war, whether to enlist or to declare ourselves conscientious objectors. The peace testimony is not fundamentally about conduct when a war is in progress, but is rather about preventing all war and oppression. The causes of war include political, social and economic injustice, and Friends who work to establish right relationships between people and nations make it less likely that situations will arise in which no form of action or inaction will seem right.

What must Quakers do?

People become Quakers when the desire to attend meeting turns into a commitment. All of us are likely to go through periods of dryness, of being angry, or tired, or spiritually cold. In accepting membership we take on an obligation to persist even through such difficulties. At times there may be other priorities, and age, health, distance from a meeting, or other responsibilities may make attendance difficult. Under such circumstances Friends will try to gather enough like-minded people together to hold a meeting, or will make a quiet space in their lives to tide them over until they can next attend a meeting with others. The practical commitments are much the same as for any other organisation. People are necessary to do the work to keep it functioning and money has to be found to keep it solvent.

Working for the Meeting

One of the distinctive features of the Quaker faith from the beginning was that there were no paid ministers - although some Quakers overseas employ pastors. Friends House, at the centre of the organisation, has paid administrators, and a few meetings have paid wardens. Local meetings generally have to carry on their business without paid help. They are strongest when every member takes an active share.

The sense of belonging and sharing should always be felt within a Meeting, but both attenders and members may feel under pressure to take on more responsibilities than they can manage. We are ultimately responsible to the Light within us, and not to what other people expect of us. It is our duty to work out for ourselves the best use of time, and to accept or decline requests to take particular responsibilities in the meeting as seems right. We do not distinguish between the sacred and the secular, and we do not expect our religious concern to be worked out solely within the work of the Society. Most Friends belong to other groups, and take with them what they have in terms of Quaker insights and disciplines. The proportion of time given to Quaker and other concerns varies from one person to another.

Paying for the meeting

At the beginning of each financial year a Local Meeting will prepare its budget. In addition to its own needs it will require money for its Area Meeting. The Treasurer will send to each member (and to any attender who wants one) a 'schedule' asking what they feel able to give. At this point there may be some mention of an 'average' amount required. This figure is purely for guidance. Each Friend is free to give what seems right. Only the Treasurer and Auditor will know what is actually given.

Money is also required for the work of the Yearly Meeting, and most of the activities which attract people to the Society of Friends receive some central support. Donations to Central Funds are often made separately. For some while there has been a discrepancy between Friends' wish to have work carried out and their willingness to fund it.

Applying for membership

The procedure is simple. A request in writing must be sent to the Area Meeting Clerk. Some applicants write at length of their experiences and their reasons for applying, but all that is necessary is 'no more than a plain request.' Before doing so it is usually helpful to consult the overseers at the local meeting. They will be able to offer advice if the applicant wants it, and will help with the processing of the application. The Area Meeting will appoint two visitors, one from the applicant's meeting, and one from another meeting. Overseers will be able to recommend Friends with whom the applicant will feel comfortable. At a convenient time the visitors will call on the applicant. According to the instructions for visitors, "The visit should provide an opportunity for a mutual interchange of thought on the responsibilities of formal membership and on the commitment which is implied in the application."

The visit is not an examination of the applicant's theology. Friends have no creeds, and there are no rules about which beliefs a Friend must hold or may not hold. Nevertheless the Society of Friends is a religious society, and historically it is of Christian origin. Many people have some association with the Society because they share its social and political concerns, especially those concerning peace and social justice. They are always welcome to join in these activities, but membership implies a unity with the religious heart of the movement, Meeting for Worship, and those who have not yet found the habit of attending meeting an essential part of their lives are probably not yet ready for membership. The offer and acceptance of membership, if they are to be a reality, depend on informed consent, so perhaps the essence of the visit is to ensure that the applicant has a real understanding of the nature of the Society, its demands and its problems. New attenders often have an exaggerated view of the merits of members of the Society. They need to know our weaknesses as well as our strengths if they are not to become disillusioned both with existing members of the Society and their own ability to follow the Quaker way.

It is natural that applicants will worry about the forthcoming visit, but after the event most of them look back on it as a valuable and memorable experience. The visitors will report to the next Area Meeting which will decide whether to record the applicant as a member. As soon as possible afterwards the new member is informed, welcomed, and presented with the Book of Discipline.

Like all Quaker procedures, the rules are not rigid, and Friends may, after careful thought, decide to vary the usual procedure in special circumstances. People are more important than rules. Area Meetings have been known to dispense with a formal visit, and have at times offered membership to those who appear to have been too diffident to apply, but who were already members for all practical purposes.

Learning more about the Society

Friends are prolific writers, and there is a vast amount of literature about the history, beliefs and activities of the Society. One source should perhaps be singled out more than any other, the sternly named Book of Discipline, otherwise known as Quaker Faith & Practice. This is given to new members when they are welcomed, but potential applicants may borrow a copy from the Meeting House library.

This is a remarkable solution to the problem of documenting a faith without writing a creed. Since there is no one official view, and no one infallible experience, the Society has prepared an anthology of the experiences of Friends. Its aim is not to define limits beyond which the Society cannot go, but to record with thanks what has been experienced, and to help prepare Friends to receive new insights. It also has pointers to areas of potential growth which the Society as a whole has not yet accepted as part of its corporate experience. Among many chapters which are of obvious spiritual importance there are others which may at first seem to consist just of dry rules and regulations. In fact they witness to the tradition of the Society that it is not just about belief in theory - it is about the way that we put our beliefs into action. We have Meetings for Worship, but no Meetings for Business, only Meetings for Worship for Business.

William Penn wrote, "It is not opinion, or speculation, or notions of what is true, or assent to or the subscription of articles or propositions, though never so soundly worded, that ... makes a man a true believer or a true Christian. But it is a conformity of mind and practice to the will of God, in all holiness of conversation, according to the dictates of this Divine principle of Light and Life in the soul which denotes a person truly a child of God"