Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
I like Karen Armstrong's observation that Protestants especially are into "head beliefs". They believe a lot hinges on all that monkey chatter in their brains, about whether "God exists" or not, and like to stand in church, to recite some "credo". To them, being pious (religious) means "thinking pious thoughts" i.e. Judgement Day is all about finding out if you'd been "right thinking" (naughty or nice in the God = Santa Claus model).
To others, there's only practice, practice, practice. You can "do" religion, but that illusion of "being" a Friend (of Christ) relates to the idea of club membership, "being" one of the inner circle, one of the "saved". That's something one simply "is" and that's a far more secure form of binding than simply running to keep up. A star athlete is number one or two in a sport because she or he keeps earning the title. A star "be-er" (sounds like "beer") is fat and happy in the knowledge of what one simply "is" without needing to lift a finger.
I'd be happy to see a branch (fork) of Quakerism which dispensed with membership on the grounds that there's no way to "be" a Friend, only Friendly, as a modifier to one's actions, as fleeting as the Now Moment itself. You "are" a Friend now, and again now, but it takes work to "stay in the moment" as such. It's a practice. You don't get to rest on your laurels, as the Romans put it. It'd be fun to see how that turned out.
In the meantime, I do support membership as an institution, as a way to "come out" and publicly identify as a Friend. I think it takes courage to do so, and there's a lot of value in it for the members. On the other hand, I'm glad our Meeting doesn't have any secrets in the "members only" sense (be those rituals or secret teachings). All our committee work is "public" (world readable) in that sense. We even allow non-members to clear others for membership, a form of "try before you buy" i.e. why become a member of something not transparent enough to share its rotating position role playing ahead of time?
We sometimes say for legal reasons i.e. because of the tax exempt status, we need to furnish the state with the names of "officers" who might be held criminally liable. A lot of Friends want to distance themselves from those roles and make them email addresses only, with personalities left out of it, more like a corporate personhood or faceless bureaucracy.
I'm not really into that "nameless / faceless" aesthetic / ethic myself, and appreciate that our clerks use their own email addresses rather than pretending they work for some eternal government with uber-oversight powers. I well understand a Secretary not wanting the email server to be owned by the Yearly Meeting. As erstwhile Clerk of IT (awhile back), I never hid behind that mask of "email@example.com" as a non-person.
I would commend to you a lovely but also quite astute pamphlet called "Meeting" by Deborah Haight where she begins with the distinction between going to meeting and being a meeting and works out some implications of that while also talking about her lived experiences.
Are we talking about that exclusive club of friends of Christ Jesus, who hangs out with all manner of low-lifes & uppity women?
Deborah writes, in conclusion:
In fact I am always quite puzzled as to how being a Friend and being part of a Friends Meeting can be translated into meaning for children or adults if not linked inseparably to a way of life, an every-day-of-the-week way. Nor do I know how the rich, deep meaning can be experienced except in relation to other persons and most of all to the Creator of persons. To be a Friend is something you cannot be alone.
At the core of the practice of Quakerism is the experience, and the exercise (the work) of friendship with others.
Quakerism is not all "about me" and my God in some private relationship, but about me in my relationships with others as experienced in God's light. Why? Because one is not distinct from one's relationships. One's sense of otherness defines one's self.
So whom do we count as friends? Love thine enemy as thyself. Begin there? Love thyself as thine enemy?
As we go deeper into ourselves, as God does, there will we find all of humanity (and a lot else besides). We may call it "Meeting" although "Universe" might also cover it ("Creation" in more Biblical language).
Ultimately, we don't "go to" Meeting as there's no way to "get away" from Meeting. This is it!
My meeting has a similar attitude to your meeting in regard to formal "recorded" membership for the reasons you mention. It's all about BEING in the Spirit and not "practicing" human constructs as though being at meeting is a Quaker religious rite.
After a few decades of the meeting not placing any implied status to recorded membership, some in the meeting began to question why we still even offered recorded membership - if indeed the meeting itself did not assign any significance to it over unrecorded membership? The answer was that recorded membership and its associated public recognition is a spiritual tool that may be helpful to some individual Friends - even if there are very few in the meeting who still choose to seek it because they few it as not a spiritual undertaking.
It is true that among liberal Quaker meetings, recorded membership is slowly falling by the wayside - not due to a decrease of spirituality; rather, due to an increase of spirituality as meetings are reviving a spiritual thrust. Those meetings that have understood the spiritual significance of no longer emphasizing recorded membership have benefited because the result has been that genuineness, BEING spiritual, embracing unbridled inclusiveness, relishing more diversity in every way, and experiencing committed hearts - all have become the norm for those meetings.
The meeting I attend can attest to these unexpected results. The clerk of meeting and half of the Trustees (required by the Commonwealth of Virginia) are not recorded members. Nor is any committee required to be "staffed" with recorded members. We have seen no difference in commitment from those who are not recorded members and those who have chosen to be recorded members. The term "attender" has fallen into disuse within the meeting because it denotes a "less than" connotation. Truly, any who participate in the meeting are considered members - whether they are recorded or not.
The meeting over the years has opened up to all humanity and is clearly aware that we humans are all into this existence "mystery" together. The meeting demonstrates that it loves life and loves all without regard to labels, as we dwell in the Spirit together.
As NPYM info clerk (informal name), my fantasy around membership was to create this new form of practice we might call "being a totally out Quaker" as in "out of the closet" enough to be willing to pop up on strangers' smartphones when they queried the NPYM database through our free app or through the website. Our directory of such listings would be public and easy for anyone to use.
The status quo is members and attenders alike will wish that knowledge of their Quaker affiliations stay within a controlled and constrained set of records, such as hardcopy regional directories practically no one can get their hands on, unless a member. Membership is hush hush. Goes with wanting to hide behind institutional email addresses, the more anonymously the better.
What I wanted was a special category of Friend agreeing to a public listing with a smattering of fields (street address, email, phone, city, region) chosen by each Friend i.e. each Friend customizes which data appear (but not to whom, as the data is understood to be free to whomever, public with no restrictions).
I found little appetite for such a public form of membership. Instead, Friends wanted assurances of confidentiality, adding layers of bureaucracy and overhead.
Friends are suspicious of what their information might be used for, often paranoid, often with good enough reasons (they're hard to find for a host of reasons, nothing in particular to do with their Quakerism). The idea of "plain speech" does not extend to telling the whole world about one's being a Friend, even if claiming membership.
I abandoned the project.
However, looking ahead, I see room for Friends to self identify in ways they currently don't. We could reshape the institution of membership, morph it, before we let it go entirely, is what I'm suggesting. It'd be a fork, a branch, that tried these experiments. Given our non-hierarchical structure, there's no need to clear these experiments with any uber-authorities, and that's a good thing.