The crucial insight for me is that a purely secular association is based on members' preferences. People may come together on the basis of shared purposes or interests, but it is their individual choices that are primary, and that define the basis of their membership.
There are many organisations, such as sports clubs, charities, political parties and trades unions, where members make generous commitments, and sometimes substantial sacrifices, for the causes that motivate them. The implicit understanding though, is that individuals opt in to these organisations on the basis of their pre-existing interests or values, and remain involved only to the extent that the group continues to serve or promote these preferences. In practice, of course, long-term involvement in any group also tends to form ties of loyalty and belonging which may go beyond the original motivations of their members. According to a purely secular understanding, however, these bonds are quite incidental to the explicit aims of the organisation.
By contrast, a Quaker community is (at least potentially) not just a collection of individuals with overlapping interests, but a 'people'. It is not grounded solely in the preferences of its members, just as the minute of a Quaker business meeting is not just the sum of individual opinions. Instead, people are led to participate in a Quaker community by the action of the Spirit, which may guide them in ways that remain quite obscure to their conscious intentions. A Friend in our Meeting once described to me how she had felt drawn to start attending a Quaker Meeting despite knowing very little about the Quaker way. This was not a matter of looking for a group through which she could pursue her existing interests, but being led by an inner dynamic that was drawing her towards new motives and a deeper encounter with life.
In reality, this Seed of Life is at work in many places in the world where it is not explicitly acknowledged. The Inward Guide is present to everyone, gently nudging them in directions that will enable their flourishing, or wrestling with their resistances and refusal of the Light. Many people are drawn into secular social movements, charities, political action or community groups by the action of this Spirit, drawing them towards opportunities for a more abundant and generous life.
The difference for a community that recognises the activity and guidance of God within each person, is that we can acknowledge this as the basis of our life together. Members of a Quaker community are not just individuals with similar social backgrounds, interests or values. A meeting community is formed by our common response to the same Spirit and Guide that is at work within each of us, however variously it is understood and described. It is our mutual recognition of this shared response that draws us together into community, even with people we might not otherwise choose and with whom we may have little else in common.
It is because we are responding to the same Inward Guide that we come to belong to each other, and to recognise our mutual responsibility and interdependence. We need each other to help us to be faithful to the Seed of Life within, and to practise the disciplines of worship, discernment and testimony that enable that Life to flourish in us and through us.
A community that is grounded in this mutual recognition and shared practice does not have to rely on being socially similar, or having the same opinions or attitudes. Becoming a Quaker does not depend on having the 'right' views or fitting in with a socially homogeneous group. We can find ourselves drawn to a Quaker meeting despite broad differences of background, experience and perspective, and expect both to enrich the discernment of the community through our differences, and also to be continually challenged and transformed ourselves.
Instead of expecting a Quaker community simply to serve or reflect whatever intentions we bring to it, we come in response to an inward call to go beyond our current motivations. Through the practice of the Quaker way together, we can expect our views to be enlarged, our resistances dissolved, our inward wounds healed, and even our desires transformed, so that we grow into "new thoughts, new desires, new affections, new love, new friendship, new society, new kindred, new faith; and new hope, even that living hope that is founded upon true experience..."
(William Penn, 1677, Christian faith & practice 37).
What is your experience of Quaker community?