When early Friends affirmed the priesthood of all believers it was seen as an abolition of the clergy; in fact it is an abolition of the laity. All members are part of the clergy and have the clergy’s responsibility for the maintenance of the meeting as a community. This means contributing, in whatever ways are most suitable, to the maintenance of an atmosphere in which spiritual growth and exploration are possible for all. It means contributing to the meeting, in whatever ways are right for the individual, by giving time and energy to events and necessary tasks, and also being willing to serve on various regional or yearly meeting committees and other groups. There is a special expectation that Friends attending meetings for church affairs will benefit from working together under Quaker discipline on the decisions that need to be made. Membership also entails a financial commitment appropriate to a member’s means, for without money neither the local meeting nor the wider structure can function.
Membership does not require great moral or spiritual achievement, but it does require a sincerity of purpose and a commitment to Quaker values and practices. Membership is a spiritual discipline, a commitment to the well-being of one’s spiritual home and not simply appearance on a membership roll. The simple process of becoming a member is part of the spiritual journey: part of the seeking that is so integral to our religious heritage. The process of becoming a member is not only about seeking but also about finding.
The process is an important part of the life of the area meeting, too; accepting a new member means not only welcoming the ‘hidden seed of God’ but also affirming what it is as a community that we value and cherish. Quakers once called themselves ‘Friends in the Truth’ and it is the finding of this truth that we affirm when we accept others who value it into membership.
From QFP 11.01
I’ve read this often enough before, but for some reason the words “abolition of the laity” just leapt out at me when I began reading this chapter as part of the project. Of course! This is the key to understanding Quaker worship, and more than that, the key to understanding how corporate eldership and oversight can work. If there is no laity, then we are all priests, and are all responsible for each others’ growth, healing and care. This is love in practice, and if we do carry the pastoral and formative responsibility, each for the other, then our community is indeed a Society of Friends.
Working this out, of course, is less easy. I am only gradually learning what it means not to depend upon appointed elders and overseers, as we did in our previous area meeting, but to share these responsibilities as a community. I am coming to realise that in a sense, especially as regards eldership, we are all learning, and will continue to learn, as long as the system is in place. There can be no destination, no time when arrangements are settled, and Friends can sit back and let things be dealt with. Each of us must watch for the others, as we are watched for ourselves. Only the Light can illuminate things for each of us, and this is a tremendous risk to take. We are called to walk out every week, every day on the waters of change and uncertainty, with only our sense of being called to sustain us.
How are we to be faithful to such a call? Jennifer Kavanagh once wrote, “Faith is not about certainty, but about trust…” Somehow once again it comes down to the experimental (in both the modern, and the 17th century “experiential” senses of the word) nature of our faith – as Charles F Carter put it:
True faith is not assurance, but the readiness to go forward experimentally, without assurance. It is a sensitivity to things not yet known. Quakerism should not claim to be a religion of certainty, but a religion of uncertainty; it is this which gives us our special affinity to the world of science. For what we apprehend of truth is limited and partial, and experience may set it all in a new light; if we too easily satisfy our urge for security by claiming that we have found certainty, we shall no longer be sensitive to new experiences of truth. For who seeks that which he believes that he has found? Who explores a territory which he claims already to know?