'The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net,' wrote Francis Howgill in 1663, 'and his heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land. We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in.'
Early Friends felt no need for formal membership; they were a community of seekers who recognised in each other a similar hunger, a similar quest. Seeking the 'hidden seed of God' they were prepared to recognise it wherever they found it.
The seventeenth century, however, was not an easy time to be a dissenter; and Friends, like many others, suffered ridicule, arrest, imprisonment, fines, distraint of their goods and death. In this harsh climate it required a degree of personal commitment openly to avow membership. This, combined with the recognition of a 'heavenly power' at work, was all that was required.
Today membership may not involve putting liberty, goods or life at risk but the spiritual understanding of membership is, in essentials, the same as that which guided the 'Children of the Light'. People still become Friends through 'convincement', and like early Friends they wrestle and rejoice with that experience. Membership is still seen as a discipleship, a discipline within a broadly Christian perspective and our Quaker tradition, where the way we live is as important as the beliefs we affirm.
Like all discipleships, membership has its elements of commitment and responsibility but it is also about joy and celebration. Membership is a way of saying to the meeting that you feel at home, and in the right place. Membership is also a way of saying to the meeting, and to the world, that you accept at least the fundamental elements of being a Quaker: the understanding of divine guidance, the manner of corporate worship and the ordering of the meeting's business, the practical expression of inward convictions and the equality of all before God. In asking to be admitted into the community of the meeting you are affirming what the meeting stands for and declaring your willingness to contribute to its life.
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 helping to contribute, 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 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 membership application process 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.