Who’s in? Who’s out?

When you come down to it, the controversy which has split Indiana Yearly Meeting is all about membership. Who can be accepted as a member – and who will be excluded?

The current conflict in Indiana Yearly Meeting rose because some monthly meetings have assumed that homosexuals are barred from membership, while other monthly meetings have expressed their willingness to welcome and accept openly gay and lesbian people as members.

The meetings which oppose homosexuality feel strongly that being a gay or lesbian person is sinful, and they do not want to be associated in any way with sin. In effect, they want to exercise veto power over the membership decisions of all monthly meetings. If they don’t get their way, they want to divide the yearly meeting so that they will not have to associate with monthly meetings which welcome and accept homosexuals.

The Quaker “rule book”, Faith and Practice, says, rather dryly:

“Friends accept into adult membership those whose faith in God and in Jesus Christ as personal Savior and Lord is manifest in their lives and who are in unity with the teachings of Christian truth as held by the Religious Society of Friends.” (Indiana Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, 2011 edition, p. 51)

The decision about who to welcome and accept as members always rests with the local monthly meeting – not with the yearly meeting or with anyone else. Some meetings organize classes for new or prospective members, while other meetings offer reading material or have no formal training or exploration of beliefs.

Faith and Practice recommends that Friends  meet with applicants for membership. However, the guidelines are very vague:

“The point of the conference is not to conduct a pointed examination. It is to share views and to ascertain whether the applicant seeks a fuller understanding of the basic principles of Christian living, finds satisfaction in the faith and meetings for worship of Friends, and desires to join with Friends in corporate and continuing search for Truth.” (Faith and Practice, 2011 edition, p. 79)

Reality check:  when assessments were fairly cheap, there was a lot of prestige attached to having a many members in your meeting. In recent years, though, many meetings have been cutting their membership rolls, in order to reduce the amount they have to pay to the yearly meeting.  In 2011, the assessment by Indiana Yearly Meeting is $150 per adult member — meetings have a very strong financial disincentive against adding new members!

In addition, studies for more than 40 years have shown that formal church membership is not a high priority for many people – they come to worship, participate in activities, and give generously, but “being a member” just isn’t as important as it was to earlier generations.

So, in some ways, this whole conflict seems pretty silly. Membership decisions are local, and Faith and Practice is nearly silent on the issue of homosexuality. Formal membership in general is declining in popularity. And splitting the yearly meeting will only lead to a further decrease in membership on all sides.

And yet, the issue still generates a lot of heat among Friends. The right to be inclusive, or the right not to associate with people with whom we disagree at a deep spiritual level, seems to be very fundamental – so fundamental that Friends are willing to break a fellowship which has existed for over 200 years.

Other Friends around the country (and even around the world!) are watching Indiana Friends closely. How the question of membership plays out, and the spirit in which we proceed, will have a tremendous effect on our future.


4 Responses to “Who’s in? Who’s out?”

  1. 1 Shawn Leonard January 17, 2012 at 12:37 pm

    yes, we are watching

  2. 2 Stephanie Crumley-Effinger January 17, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    The other relevant issue is leadership. Some Friends are less concerned about West Richmond welcoming as members people in same-sex relationships (since actions rather than sexual orientation itself are the focus of the 1982 minute) than about the West Richmond welcoming/affirming minute including welcoming folks into leadership as well.

  3. 3 Quaker Pastor January 19, 2012 at 8:17 am

    wasn’t the authority of the YM also called into question?

  4. 4 Judith Applegate January 19, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    The issue of membership and leadership is very much at the core of this discussion. In the first two IYM splits, there was an attempt to curtial the ministry of those inFriend’s leadership whose theology was not orthodox enough and, later, those who worked with the anti-slavery movement. As we look back at what this meant for monthly meetings, many of those who held vital leadership roles and who were powerful ministers and financial supporters were read out of meeting in response to mandates coming from the yearly meeting. In those times, the meetings split into two factions and created two separate monthly meetings, but most of those read out remained Quaker. It took about ten years of separation for the factions to come back together, but the rift was eventually repaired. Beginning in 1982 , IYM decided to limit the leadership and membership of homosexuals in the local meetings. In our more ecumenical age, those leaving a meeting that divides on this issue tend to seek and become members in other denominations which agree with their perspective. What this means is that there will be no re-union of Frends meetings when perspectives on homosexuality change, and they will change, just as views on women ministers and divorced ministers have changed.

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All of the posts on this blog are my own personal opinion. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the members and attenders of the meeting where I belong or any organization of Friends. For more information, click on the "About Me" tab above.



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