Membership, Part 6—Seeking alternatives, part 2: Resistance

December 6, 2020 § Leave a comment

New York Yearly Meeting has been working for several years on this problem of traditional membership not satisfying the needs of some Friends, so we now have some information about how the rest of the Yearly Meeting feels about it. Some were not happy.

The resistance to alternative pathways to membership has in some quarters been quite intense. The fact of intense resistance highlights the underlying fact that our current approach to membership is, in fact, in trouble. People fight back hardest when they think you’re trying to take something away when they believe it’s already under threat. The intensity of the pushback is directly proportional to the intensity of the perceived threat. So, while any given proposal for an alternative may have its problems, the resistance signals the need to do something.

Here are some of the questions they have raised, as reported in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s “Threshing Session on Membership Report”, and my condensed summaries of their answers:

  • Monthly meetings are the basic unit of our Society. Doesn’t that mean that membership should always live there? Well, this is not true for some Friends, and alternatives take nothing away from the sacredness of monthly meeting membership.
  • What about all the practices linked to MM membership (e.g., marriage)? This will have to be worked out.
  • Are the alternative seekers trying to circumvent our tradition? No, they are just seeking a pathway that meets their needs.
  • Won’t this drain people from already struggling monthly meetings? No, we are talking about people who would not be active in a monthly meeting anyway.
  • What does accountability look like without the monthly meeting? Membership in the yearly meeting (the alternative chosen by NYYM) will provide the “services” that monthly meetings provide their members.
  • Will other pathways follow? Who knows. More radical alternatives were considered by NYYM, but the report does not say what those were. Nor am I personally aware of other pathways under consideration by PhYM.

Basically, the NYYM pathway just replicates the process and obligations of membership in a monthly meeting for membership in the yearly meeting. The yearly meeting is still in the process of filling in the details of how it will actually work, beyond naming its Ministry and Pastoral Care Committee as the body responsible for clearness committees, affirming membership (the YM body does not affirm applications, as a monthly meeting for business does), and everything else.

Most importantly, the decision to establish membership in the yearly meeting does not address the basic questions about what membership means, what I call the “ur”-questions. For me, these are:

  • What is membership for?
  • What is religious community for?
  • What holds a religious community together?

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