Quakers don’t seem to learn. There have been several major divisions in the last few years over conflicts related to sexual issues and faith – in Western Yearly Meeting (2003-2009), Indiana Yearly Meeting (2008-2013), North Carolina Yearly Meeting (2016), and currently in Northwest Yearly Meeting.
I don’t know what your position is on these issues. Quakers are all over the map, which should be no surprise at all by now – an old joke goes that in any group of 10 Quakers, there will be at least 15 opinions.
What bothers me is that Quakers have refused to learn from experience – the experience of our own generation, repeated multiple times in numerous bodies. I’m not surprised that we don’t agree – I’m just surprised that we haven’t figured out that this disagreement is apparently normal, and that we keep hammering at each other in an effort to create and enforce a uniformity which isn’t about to happen any time soon.
I’m not pushing for anyone who reads this to agree with how I interpret the Bible on these issues. What I’d like to point out are the practical lessons which Quakers across the board in this generation haven’t figured out.
- Division means loss – fewer members for everyone. Friends who advocate division almost always claim that we will be stronger if we break into more theologically uniform groups. In practice, every division I’m aware of has led to a drastic loss of membership. When a yearly meeting divides, there aren’t just two groups – a bunch of Quakers simply leave altogether. In the two yearly meetings I’ve studied most closely (Indiana and North Carolina) there was an overall loss of nearly 30% of the total membership.
- In a division, many meetings choose to not to belong to any yearly meeting. We don’t know what their future will be. A few, with considerable effort, manage to retain their Quaker identity. Many eventually disband, or become generic community churches.
- Attacking individuals and meetings only makes things worse. I’ve seen a number of campaigns to “get rid of the problem” by attempting to rescind the credentials of Quaker ministers or expel local meetings which don’t toe the line. This makes sense to Friends who are intent on closing ranks and cleaning house, but it doesn’t work very well on a yearly meeting scale. Other Friends rush to their defense, and the whole conflict becomes personal and bogs down.
- When you start making threats to leave or withhold funds, the game is over. In several yearly meeting conflicts, large meetings have threatened to pull out if they don’t get their way, or groups of meetings have announced that they will hold back funds to the yearly meeting until the conflict is settled. These tactics are seen by other Friends as little more than playground bullying.
- Appealing to Faith and Practice as the “rule book” may work tactically, but it doesn’t fix the real conflict. I’ve seen this tried in almost every yearly meeting I’ve ever been a part of. It’s usually seen as manipulative by the losing side. Appealing to the rules may work for the moment, but it doesn’t bring Friends back together. Changing the rules to get what you want, or ignoring Quaker process altogether, is also always seen as unfair and makes division almost inevitable.
- In a division, ministries and missions always suffer. In spite of the fact that these are usually the most popular part of a yearly meeting, when Quakers start talking about division, funding and interest goes down, participation drops, and gifted mission workers and ministers and their families suffer. Youth programs, schools and cooperative efforts of all kinds which have taken generations to build can be destroyed.
- As a practical matter, time and generational change seem to be on the side of welcoming/affirming Friends. For most Quakers under the age of 40, this is a non-issue. And for many Quakers, it’s mostly about family or close friends or co-workers – they refuse to condemn people they love. They may not have any other agenda. Federal and state laws have changed, major employers pay no attention to sexual identity, a lot of society has moved on.
- Quakers aren’t the only ones dealing with these issues. Other denominations are having the same problems, and they’re often making the same mistakes and refusing to learn from them. Why we think we need to re-invent the wheel, have the same conflicts, and then be surprised by the outcome is really beyond me.
Here are a few positive lessons which I wish Quakers would pick up on:
- Being connected matters. Belonging and being active in some kind of organization is better than belonging to none. Friends may need to find ways to change or re-purpose our structures so that we can continue to pray together and to do ministry and mission together.
- Ignore the boundaries. When Indiana Yearly Meeting broke up, one of the first things that happened is that the United Society of Friends Women announced that they were going to continue to meet and work together. When everybody else is set on dividing, find new ways to work together, worship together, and get to know each other.
- Respect each other. During a conflict, Quakers usually try to follow this, but it often breaks down in private. I’ve heard a lot of vicious name-calling, demonizing and attributing of malicious intent during Quaker conflicts. Genuine respect for the motives of people I disagree with goes a long way towards keeping things on a more even keel.
- Choose your Bible texts carefully. Most of us are familiar with the texts having to do with sexuality, and we’re not likely to change each others’ minds about how they should be interpreted. If we want to find our way through conflict, maybe we need to look at some different Bible passages. My personal favorites which I recommend to Friends are Jesus’ prayer for unity (John 17:11), the description of how conflict was handled in Acts (Acts 10 and 11, also Acts 15:1-35), Paul’s counsel on handling disagreement (Romans 14-15), and Paul’s advice on discerning what spirit is present in a group (Galatians 5:13-23).