Over on the nontheist Friends website, James R has posted his take on the basis of Quaker membership. I find that while I feel I have something to say about membership in the Religious Society of Friends, Way is not open for me to explore that topic head-on just yet.
Instead, I found myself turning to consider membership and identity side by side.
I think of one's membership as one's participation in a group to which she or he has chosen to belong; and I think of identity as one's self-concept or self-identification in relation to a group that reflects that person's own self-understanding.
Yet the concepts of membership and identity can be thought of as close cousins, or two sides of the same coin, especially when one's membership in a group stretches over a long period of time... to the extent that the person's identity may become intricately knit or wedded to being an active, long-time member of the group.
Similarities and differences between membership and identity
I have realized that there appears to be much in common between membership and identity:
Both membership in a group and an identity with a group develop and evolve over time. The evolution of one's membership and of one's identity over time is impacted by personal experiences within the group and by shared experiences of the group (e.g. life transitions, handling of conflicts, celebration of holidays, response to world events, etc.). Membership and identity involve a peer group or cohort--others who are going through what we are going through, and others with whom we might check out our assumptions, our reactions, our concerns. Membership and identity could be multigenerational, carried from one generation to the next. Membership and identity carry expressions of implicit and explicit norms, expectations, and values held by the group. One's membership and one's identity imply that the individual is headed in the same general direction and faces the same challenges as the rest of the group, at least most of the time.
On the other hand, there are some important differences between membership and identity:
My membership among Friends and my identity as a Friend
One's membership to a group is typically only part of one's life, whereas one's identity is the grounding of one's life. We might find that we must give up our membership to a group because of some violation to our core principles, for example, but we will retain our identity nonetheless. On the other hand, if we give up our identity, we lose ourselves, and membership in a group may become superficial or may be an attempt to meet our psychological need to belong. Membership is often consciously chosen or even pursued, especially after childhood or adolescence, and it evolves for as long as the membership is intact; but one's identity is, at least initially, unconsciously acquired and developed from infancy, shifting and evolving from birth to death. Similarly, the behaviors, norms, and expectations are often learned or even studied as part of one's membership, whereas the behaviors, norms, and expectations that extend from a person's identity are most likely acquired unknowingly. With membership, there is usually some form of self-selected give-and-take, such as paying dues in exchange for receiving benefits. With one's identity, there is a sort of unconditional, often automatic inclusion within the group. With membership, the individual is a part of the group because of what she or he does: "You're a part of us because of how you participate." For one's identity, though, the individual is a part of the group because of who the individual is: "You're a part of us because of who you are."
My own membership among Friends is a bit tricky since I feel I have integrated my membership in the Religious Society of Friends as part of my identity, part of my grounding for who and how I am.
When I first sought membership in the monthly meeting, I was going through an identity shift from being a Quakerly Jew to being a Jewish Quaker. The membership clearness process lasted several months as I sought to reconcile my initial identity as a Jew with my developing identity--my consideration of membership--as a Friend.
The tipping point for me was when I realized and accepted that I could not be happy, I could not "live up to my measure of Light," I could not become what God was asking me to become by holding onto Judaism.
(The story is much longer than that, but this post is long enough as it is!)
As I have said, I didn't automatically claim the identity "Quaker" when I became a member of the meeting. What changed, though, with my membership was that I more intentionally became part of the world of Quakers: I involved myself with committee work; I attended Meetings for Worship with attention to Business; I read more about Quakerism.
These were conscious choices, made over time.
But Quakerism didn't become part of the grounding of my being until years after I had started worshiping among Friends.
I unknowingly took up the identity of "Quaker" some time after I began serving on a large (120+ Friends), Spirit-led committee that helped me link my own deeply held, then-unnamed values with specific outward practices I had not previously understood or knew about.
The combination of many years among Friends; years of service on a disciplined committee that drew on Quaker traditions and vernacular to carry out its business; and personal relationships with Friends who supported my growth as a Friend all aligned with my experience-based faith in a loving Principle that binds us together.
Even though there is great theological diversity across the spread of the Religious Society of Friends, I regularly see my own best self reflected in the lives and words of Friends for whom I have a great deal of love and tenderness. Unknowingly, my identity as a Quaker has been consistently affirmed by these other Friends, who also live (or in one case, had lived) their lives from their grounding as Quakers.
Many of them are Conservative or Conservative-leaning Friends, and I now understand why I speak of my membership within Liberal Friends but I speak of my identity as a Conservative-leaning Friend.
What I am reaching for
I think what I am reaching for here is that, understanding the close connection between membership and identity, I find myself less eager to judge Friends who treasure their participation in and their identification with Quakerism.
So I must live into the paradox of carrying a concern for how we convey our faith and its traditions while also caring for persons whose identity is Quaker, just like my own.
I sense I have not quite arrived at the core of what drew me to write about membership and identity, yet I have worked on this post for a number of days and then have let it season a while. My hope is that many of you in your comments will help advance the conversation, which may in turn help to draw out what it is that lives in me that I am still laboring to reach.
As always, thanks for reading me.
Here's a related post from Cat that offers more to chew on, at Quaker Pagan Reflections...
...and a subsequent quick-to-follow post from the other half of Quaker Pagan Reflections, Peter.