Archive for the 'Conflict and division' Category

Update on North Carolina – IV

Something new is being born in North Carolina this spring.

If you’ve been following this blog and listening to news on the Quaker grapevine, you know that North Carolina Yearly Meeting is breaking up after 300+ years. The reasons for the breakup go back for many years, and many Friends strongly wish it weren’t happening.

There are at least 3 groups of meetings:

  1. A large group of meetings which want a strong, authoritative yearly meeting, with power to discipline monthly meetings
  2. A small group of monthly meetings which want to work together, but want freedom to interpret Faith and Practice according to their conscience (more about this group in just a minute)The first two groups will maintain ties with North Carolina Yearly Meeting, which in August will become a foundation type of body, holding title to Quaker Lake Camp and distributing income from various trust funds. The two groups will otherwise be completely independent of each other. There is also:
  3. A large, disorganized group of meetings which have withdrawn completely from the yearly meeting. Some may affiliate with more evangelical yearly meetings; some will simply be independent.

I’ve been following developments with the second group, which is calling itself the North Carolina Fellowship of Friends.

In its first meetings, they have found unity and approved the following statement of principles:

  • We are a Christ-centered fellowship of Quaker meetings. We affirm the autonomy of each meeting in Quaker faith and practice
  • We will operate using the 2012 version of North Carolina Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, as printed, for reference and counsel
  • We will worship and serve our local community without interference form other meetings or a higher level organization
  • We will respect the right of other meetings to do the same
  • We will focus on common ministries rather than theological nuances
  • We will closely resemble North Carolina Yearly Meeting in its most peaceful form
  • We agree that we will have differences, but they will not stay us from our common Christ-centered fellowship

The Fellowship of Friends is starting the process of legal incorporation, has appointed co-clerks and a treasurer, is meeting regularly and forming task groups to deal with various challenges.

During the conflict, the finances of North Carolina Yearly Meeting have been in free fall. The yearly meeting has promised start-up funds to both groups, but these may not be available for a while. Neither group is likely to be able to afford much in the way of staff. The Fellowship of Friends is taking this opportunity to re-envision itself as a less centrally-controlled, less staff-dependent and more volunteer-driven body. It probably won’t look much like a traditional yearly meeting, and may function more like a large quarterly meeting.

Encouragingly, a number of other groups have not taken sides, and Friends from both sides of the split continue to be involved with ministries of common interest. The United Society of Friends Women, Quaker Men, Friends Disaster Service, Quaker Lake Camp and other ministries are continuing to meet and function as though the split hasn’t happened. If Friends United Meeting follows the precedent it set when Indiana Yearly Meeting broke up, both of the North Carolina groups will be welcome to participate in FUM.

Both of the two organized groups are planning to continue using North Carolina Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice. Early indications are that the first (authority-centered) group may adopt a few changes to tighten discipline and provide a clearly-stated process to eject dissenting monthly meetings.

Recognizing that there are many individual Friends who feel cut off from their preferred group by the division, the Fellowship of Friends welcomes individuals as well as monthly meetings as members. At its April gathering, they also approved monthly meetings which want to have dual membership. There is no word yet whether the “authority” group will allow dual membership or not.

It will also be interesting to see how the two groups will handle recording of ministers, and whether they will allow recorded ministers to transfer from one group to the other. If both groups follow Faith and Practice this will not be a problem, but much of the conflict among Friends in recent years has centered around whether certain ministers and their ideas are acceptable or not.

Things are still shaking out in North Carolina and among Friends in many other parts of the United States. Stay tuned for developments!

The wars over Faith and Practice

Many of the battles among Quakers in the last 20 years have centered around Faith and Practice – what it means, how it’s interpreted, and who controls it. Bitter arguments, guerilla wars and last-ditch holding actions have been fought over who will win and who will lose if changes are approved.

First, a little background: many yearly meetings still use the “uniform” Faith and Practice which was created by Five Years Meeting (now Friends United Meeting) early in the 20th century as a way to build unity among Friends. Iowa, Western, Indiana, Wilmington and North Carolina Yearly Meetings all use very similar material, with very little difference in wording.

Baltimore and New England Yearly Meetings created their own books of Faith and Practice. New York Yearly Meeting uses some language from the “uniform” version for the business side, but adds some of their own material on the history and spiritual experience of Friends.

Contention often centers around the Richmond Declaration of Faith, written in 1887, and George Fox’s letter to the governor of Barbadoes, written in 1671, both of which were included in the “uniform” version. These are filled with Bible citations covering God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, the creation and fall, justification and sanctification, the resurrection and the last judgment, baptism, communion, worship, religious liberty, marriage, peace, oaths and the Sabbath. For evangelical Friends, these two documents are an essential part of Faith and Practice. In particular, the section on the Bible in the Richmond Declaration is key:

“It has ever been, and still is, the belief of the Society of Friends that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament were given by inspiration of God; that, therefore, there can be no appeal from them to any other (outward) authority whatsoever; that they are able to make wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Jesus Christ. ‘These are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name’ (John 20:31). The Scriptures are the only divinely authorized records which we are bound, as Christians, to accept, and of the moral principles which are to regulate our actions. No one can be required to believe, as an article of faith, any doctrine which is not contained in them; and whatsoever anyone says or does, contrary to the Scriptures, though under professions of the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit, must be reckoned and counted a mere delusion.”

For these Friends, this is simply the last word on the subject. However, they often ignore the fact that Christians interpret the Bible in different ways. For example, Quakers are quick to recognize that we differed from other Christians on whether slavery was acceptable (because it’s accepted in many parts of the Bible) or whether slavery was an evil which must be resisted and fought against.

Are all sections of the Bible equally binding and valid today? If something was forbidden thousands of years ago, is it still forbidden now? It’s easy to come up with examples and exceptions. People tend to choose the texts which support their position, and often use those texts to browbeat and try to get rid of people who interpret the Bible differently – even if both sides claim to love the Bible.

When Friends in Indiana split several years ago, Friends fought over the section on “subordination”, which evangelical Friends argued gave them the authority to eject the more liberal monthly meetings. The actual language from Faith and Practice is worth reading:

“Subordination as used in this Faith & Practice does not describe a hierarchy but rather a means, under divine leadership, of common protection between Indiana Yearly Meeting and its Quarterly Meetings and Monthly Meetings. It is a relationship among Friends “submitting themselves to one another in the fear of God.” (Ephesians 5:21) In the spirit of Christ who “humbled himself and became obedient unto death” each member, each Monthly Meeting, each Quarterly Meeting and the Yearly Meeting submits to each other in the love of Christ.

Subordination is the assurance that no Monthly Meeting is alone, autonomous or independent. Thus Monthly Meetings recognize the legitimate role of the Yearly Meeting in speaking and acting for the combined membership.”

As far as evangelical Friends were concerned, the liberal meetings were in rebellion and refusing to submit to their authority, and therefore they were justified in tossing the liberals out. Very few Friends, however, seem to have read the sentences immediately following:

“Likewise the Yearly Meeting recognizes the freedom of Monthly Meetings and the validity of their prophetic voices. Each needs the other in order to be strong and vital, and both need the mediation of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. (Indiana Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, 2015 edition, p. 96)

Those two paragraphs are intended to balance each other – the authority of the larger group balanced against the prophetic witness of monthly meetings.

During the division currently taking place in North Carolina Yearly Meeting, both sides say they want to keep using the 2012 edition of North Carolina Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice. I re-read it last week, and I wonder if Friends on either side have read the opening words of the book:

“Human understanding is always subject to growth. This basic principle also underlies the development of the organizations and institutions through which the spirit of Christianity is made operative in life. While fundamental principles are eternal, expressions of truth and methods of Christian activity should develop in harmony with the needs of the times. God, who spoke through the prophets, and supremely in Jesus Christ, still speaks through men and women who have become new creatures in Christ, being transformed by the renewing of their minds and, therefore, able and willing to receive fresh revelations of truth.

Frequently, however, we see ‘through a glass, darkly’ and may misinterpret or make incorrect applications. Therefore, as the stream of life flows on, bringing new conceptions, insights, and situations, it is necessary to strive constantly for a clearer comprehension of divine truth that will enter vitally into personal experience and become a creative factor for the redemption of human character and the remolding of society on the Christian pattern. “A religion based on truth must be progressive. Truth being so much greater than our conception of it, we should ever be making fresh discoveries.” [North Carolina Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, 2012 edition, p. 9 – quote at the end is noted as being from London Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice (1960)]

Note that these two opening paragraphs are only found in the North Carolina and Wilmington versions of Faith and Practice, and are not included in the version used by most other yearly meetings.

At different times and in different yearly meetings, Quakers have fought to keep Faith and Practice “just the way it is”. Soon after Indiana split, though, a new section was added:

SECTION 90. PROHIBITION OF SAME-SEX MARRIAGE
Friends have traditionally held marriage to be a matter for which the whole meeting shares in oversight and responsibility. It is recognized that pastors are authorized by the state to solemnize marriages and are often authorized by the Monthly Meeting to officiate.

Given Indiana Yearly Meeting’s understanding of marriage as a union between one man and one woman, and given Indiana Yearly Meeting’s position describing the practice of homosexuality to be contrary to the will of God as revealed in Scripture, no Indiana Yearly Meeting Monthly is authorized to give oversight to same-sex ceremonies under its care, and no Indiana Yearly Meeting minister is authorized to officiate any same-sex ceremony. Ministers in Indiana Yearly Meeting are responsible to adhere to the agreed standards for marriage. Failure to do so, by officiating a same-sex union, will be understood as grounds for dismissal from a ministry position and/or rescission of status as a recorded minister. Monthly Meetings providing for same-sex ceremonies under the care of their meeting will be subject to discipline from Indiana Yearly Meeting.

Now that Friends in North Carolina are in the process of dividing, the more evangelical group are also calling for an immediate revision to Faith and Practice. This new section has been proposed:

“The Yearly Meeting has power to decide all questions of administration, to counsel, admonish, or discipline its subordinate Meetings, to institute measures and provide means for the promotion of truth and righteousness, and to inaugurate and carry on departments of religious and philanthropic work.”

For liberal and progressive Friends, or for those who simply cherish spiritual freedom, the issue isn’t whether they’re Christian or not. Overwhelmingly, they identify themselves as Christian. They love and follow Jesus. They value the Bible and seek guidance from it. The Bible speaks loudly and clearly to them on a wide variety of issues.

But they disagree with evangelical Friends on some other issues, and they’re not willing to let evangelical Friends dictate to them. I saw the entire conflict in a nutshell last week at Representative Body, when a frustrated evangelical leader asked, “Why do you want to belong if you don’t accept our discipline?”

In nearly every yearly meeting, Faith and Practice isn’t set up to handle the situation when Quakers disagree strongly with one another. Time after time, in yearly meetings around the U.S., conflict and frustration have arisen because:

  1. a yearly meeting is unable to make a decision or move ahead when Friends are not in unity. We suffer from an inability to “agree to disagree,” especially in changing times.
  2. a yearly is unwilling to take back (rescind) the recording of ministers for teaching or writing ideas which other Friends dislike. There is a mechanism for rescinding, but most yearly meetings have not been able to unite on doing so. In other cases, a yearly meeting has been unwilling to discipline leaders or meetings for celebrating physical sacraments.
  3. there is no mechanism or acceptable precedent for laying down or expelling an entire monthly meeting because of perceived disagreement over issue of faith or practice; trying to force an expulsion has repeatedly led to division

Quakers treasure unity, and the strength which comes from making united decisions. The wisdom of the group is often greater than the wisdom of any individual. However, we also treasure the spiritual integrity of individuals and the right of people to disagree, and Quaker history is filled with examples of times when an individual or a minority has been right.

How will we survive the conflicts of this generation? Will our young people or will seekers who come to us value our conflicts, or will they turn away and look somewhere else for communities of truth and love?

Counting the cost of division

I attended the North Carolina Yearly Meeting Representative Body on March 4th. If you’ve been following this blog, many recent posts have reported that the same spirit of division which has overcome several other yearly meetings has also damaged North Carolina Yearly Meeting.

I’m still a newcomer to North Carolina, but I see a real generational factor at work in the divisiveness at work among us. When I arrived at Representative Body, I estimated a little over 200 people were present. I looked carefully around the room, and I estimate that fewer than 20 people in the room were under the age of 40; the majority of the group were probably over the age of 60.

For readers who are not members of North Carolina Yearly Meeting, this report may help you to understand the stark cost of division among Friends. The figures quoted are from reports at Representative Body last weekend:

  • During the last 3 years, North Carolina Yearly Meeting has gone down from having 72 monthly meetings to only 46, a decrease of 36%. Four more monthly meetings have withdrawn from the yearly meeting since we last met in November.
  • Our membership has decreased from 7,565 members 3 years ago to 4,214, a decrease of 44%
  • As programs have been cut and staff have been laid off, yearly meeting budget askings have gone from roughly $923,000 5 years ago to about $432,000, a decrease of 53%.
  • Actual giving to the yearly meeting budget was only $303,000, an additional 33% reduction.

In every yearly meeting I have observed, division has a catastrophic effect on ministry and mission. North Carolina is only the latest example.

The pension fund for pastors is being discontinued; retired pastors and surviving spouses will receive a lump-sum payment proportionate to the years they served. Health insurance is no longer offered. North Carolina Yearly Meeting has become dramatically less attractive as a place for pastors to serve. This will affect the quality of leadership we can expect in years to come, and will make it difficult for many meetings to attract any new leadership at all.

During this difficult period, the yearly meeting superintendent, Don Farlow, has voluntarily reduced his own salary. This personal sacrifice has helped to keep the yearly meeting going – but it also means that it will be difficult to raise the budget again if we ever want to have a full-time person in the yearly meeting office.

Under the current scenario, this may not take place – if the yearly meeting becomes a financial “shell organization”, we may only have a single part-time staff person in the yearly meeting office, or perhaps farm out the responsibilities to an accounting firm. Each of the new “associations” which belong to the yearly meeting would be responsible for hiring whatever staff they can afford (if any).

Quaker Lake Camp currently receives about $160,000 – about 40% of its annual funding – as a subsidy from the yearly meeting. Quaker Lake is a very popular program which nearly everyone in the yearly meeting supports and does not wish to see hurt. At Representative Body, we had a first look at several different scenarios for how funding for Quaker Lake can be achieved:

  1. by diverting income from all possible trust funds to support the camp; this would drastically reduce income available for other ministries and missions
  2. by dramatically increasing the amount we take from yearly meeting trust funds each year; over time, this would drain the principal from the trust funds
  3. by undertaking long-term major fundraising for Quaker Lake to increase its trust funds; by my calculation, Quaker Lake would need a total endowment, including existing funds, of roughly 4 million dollars to fully replace the yearly meeting subsidy (assuming a 4% average annual income)

According to an outside attorney who has been hired as a consultant to assist with the legal and financial aspects of the breakup, Quaker Lake Camp may need to become an independent 501(c)3 organization, which would own or lease the camp property.

The advertising for the 2017 summer camping program at Quaker Lake takes no notice of the division. Seems as though kids aren’t interested in the squabbles of the older generation – and I sincerely hope that the camp will continue to be a fun and exciting place for young people no matter where they’re from!

On a more encouraging note, the North Carolina president of United Society of Friends Women International said that Quaker women plan to continue to work and worship together without regard for the division. This follows similar decisions in some of the other divided yearly meetings. Maybe Quaker women have more love, or more sense, than the rest of us!

Friends Disaster Service, another popular and much appreciated ministry, also plans to continue welcoming volunteers without regard to the division. Everyone celebrated a major bequest of $162,000 to FDS last weekend from a Friend who left most of his estate to the work of rebuilding homes after disasters.

The bottom line: division is already a devastating loss to many yearly meeting programs and ministries.

We do care about our children, and the camping program remains popular. Funding will be a big challenge in the long term.

Ministries and fellowships which are independent from the yearly meeting are continuing to do their own thing and are not allowing the division to affect them.

The next few months and years will continue to show whether division was a good idea – or not.

What, if anything, is a yearly meeting?

Early in the 21st century, many yearly meetings are in transition. New York and New England Yearly Meetings, where I worked in the 1970’s and 1980’s, claim to include both pastoral and unprogrammed Friends – but the number of pastoral meetings, and the percentage of members in pastoral meetings, have been dropping steadily since the 1950’s. They’re not as inclusive as they like to think they are.

A number of yearly meetings have divided or are in the process of dividing. In Western Yearly Meeting the “center” remained more or less intact, but they lost monthly meetings from both the liberal and evangelical sides. Indiana Yearly Meeting lost about 1/3 of its membership, now mostly joined with the New Association of Friends.

North Carolina Yearly Meeting is in the process of becoming a sort of umbrella organization, which will serve as trustee for the property and administer the investments. Most of the monthly meetings will become part of either the “authority” group (which favors a stronger central authority) or the “autonomy” group (which wants more freedom for monthly meetings in interpreting and applying Faith and Practice). A third group of North Carolina meetings were unwilling to wait around for the division to take place, or just weren’t involved very much with the yearly meeting, and have opted out completely.

Yearly meetings used to act a lot like denominations, with a central office, full-time staff in a variety of ministry areas (Christian Education, peace, youth work and missionary work were all common), elaborate training programs for ministers, health insurance and pension funds, the whole works.

Shrinking and aging membership, economic inflation, and new, rapidly expanding Quaker organizations competing for attention and funds, have all taken a tremendous toll on yearly meetings as they used to exist 40 or 50 years ago.

In one of the first studies I made of Friends, You Can’t Get There From Here (1985) I calculated that most yearly meetings needed at least 1,500 active members in local meetings in order to support 1 full-time equivalent yearly meeting staff person. That was an optimistic figure at the time, and most yearly meeting staffs have shrunk dramatically since then.

Many yearly meetings have given up having a central office, and full or part-time staff now work from their own homes or use space donated by a local meeting. Yearly meetings have been forced to drop health insurance and retirement plans, and many Quaker camps, schools, colleges, retirement communities and missions have been laid down or spun off as independent organizations.

It’s time for Friends to drop the charade and ask ourselves, “What is a yearly meeting today? What are we trying to preserve? What can we build for the next generation?”

In one of the earliest yearly meeting descriptions we have, Friends in Great Britain wrote in 1668: “We did conclude among ourselves to settle a meeting, to see one another’s faces, and open our hearts one to another in the Truth of God once a year, as formerly it used to be.” (Quaker Faith and Practice, Britain Yearly Meeting, 1995, section 6.02)

This is still one of the simplest and most heart-felt reasons for having a yearly meeting – stripped of the generations of tradition and controversy, without the heavy layers of financial and institutional commitment. Unless we have in our hearts a real longing to see one another, to worship together, and listen to each other, yearly meetings will continue to implode.

Friends in the newly-divided yearly meetings are being forced by circumstances to travel more lightly, to be nimbler and less institutional, to live with smaller budgets and focus on worship and fellowship as their primary activities.

In coming posts, I want to share some other ideas about what yearly meetings can be in order to serve a new generation.

Have we learned anything?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).

Update on North Carolina Yearly Meeting – III

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that North Carolina Yearly Meeting has been going through a major struggle for several years.

Leaders in many of the more evangelical meetings have been calling for a separation, and at least 20 meetings have already withdrawn from the yearly meeting. The yearly meeting’s finances have been in free fall, and there has been great anxiety about the future of Friends in North Carolina.

At the Representative body meeting earlier this summer, Friends agreed in principle to a separation into two group, with the Executive Committee to draft a proposal in time for Yearly Meeting on August 12-14.

Take a step back for a minute: internal tension and calls for separation have been taking place across yearly meetings in the U.S. for many years since the early 20th century. More recently, Western Yearly Meeting lost a number of meetings but remained largely intact, while Indiana Yearly Meeting split into two groups, about 60% keeping the old name and about 40% forming the New Association of Friends.

I attended the business session of North Carolina Yearly Meeting last weekend, and the draft plan for separation was presented. The plan received initial approval, and we broke into a number of small groups to discuss the plan before lunch.

After lunch, before the decision making resumed, we heard a number of reports – from Quaker Lake Camp, from mission workers, from Friends Disaster Relief – and it was clear that Friends are still deeply interested in continuing and supporting these efforts. No one wants to see our youth and mission work suffer because of a division.

When we took up the question of separation again, the clerk asked if the meeting would wait in prayer while the Executive Committee met to work on a modification of the plan. There was some visiting and conversation while the committee went out, but many Friends were praying quietly.

When the committee came back, they brought a rough draft of a new proposal:

  1. That the yearly meeting remain intact
  2. That the yearly meeting hold title to the physical properties and financial assets
  3. That two groups be formed, with each group being responsible for its own statements of faith and belief, as well as membership, recording of ministers, quarterly meeting organization, and internal administration
  4. That the yearly meeting continue to be a channel for mission work, youth programming, ministers’ retirement and other matters of common interest

In essence, the yearly meeting would become an “umbrella organization” or a “big tent” which will let us work together in places where we can agree, and which will let us work separately in areas where we can’t agree at present.

Neither of the two new groups would be responsible for the beliefs of the other or have disciplinary power over the other.

In many ways, North Carolina Yearly Meeting would become more like Friends United Meeting, which is a very diverse body of yearly meetings from around the world, which comes together to support Christian work in the name of Friends.

This new proposal was approved and will go back to the monthly meetings for discussion. It’s too early to tell whether this will allow us to keep together in a new way, or whether hardline Friends will insist on a complete separation.

I think that the new plan could work – but only if Friends are willing to make it work. It would allow each group to have its own space, and it would help us to maintain a measure of unity and allow us to support Christian work which we all value and enjoy. For many reasons, it may be better for Friends to re-organize than to divide.

Counting the cost

My last two posts have been about the conflict among Friends in North Carolina Yearly Meeting. At the last Representative Body meeting on June 4th, they approved the recommendation of the Executive Committee that the yearly meeting move towards a formal separation.

One of the things Jesus said was to count the cost before starting anything big (Luke 14:28). Here are just a few of the costs – some are financial, some involve relationships, some are spiritual, and all of them are important.

Things which will suffer immediately in a separation:

  • Support for missions will decrease – missions are one of the main reasons Friends gather in larger bodies, and mission support is one of the biggest casualties in any breakup
  • Youth ministry – the loss here will be both financial and in the numbers of Young Friends who are able to get together for camping, youth programs, trips and events
  • Education – yearly meeting support for Quaker colleges has been flatlined or declining for years, and the breakup will only make this situation worse
  • Yearly meeting staffing – every yearly meeting which breaks up winds up cutting staff dramatically. (In other posts, I’ve estimated that it takes roughly 2,500 to 3,000 local meeting members to support 1 yearly meeting staff person.)
  • Division of funds – hopefully there will be a fair division of the assets of the yearly meeting, which both sides can agree to. In many church break-ups, arguments over money have gone on for years, and the bitterness has lasted for generations.
  • “Lost” monthly meetings – during the controversy, some meetings choose to become community churches or become independent Friends meetings
  • Reputation of Friends – Quakers in North Carolina will no longer speak with one voice. This hurts us here in our own communities and in other parts of the Quaker world.

Other costs will show up more over the long term – say, in the next 5-10 years:

  • Long-term giving – until all of the legal issues and trusteeship of the yearly meeting funds are settled, very few people will want to make major bequests or large capital gifts.
  • Visitation between meetings – this has already declined, as people haven’t been certain about whether they’re welcome or not.
  • Leadership – one of the biggest casualties of this kind of breakup is when ministers and pastors are no longer accepted by each others’ groups. Retirement, insurance and education programs for ministers will also be a major casualty – which means that fewer people will be willing to commit to long-term involvement as pastors and ministers. As a result of this conflict, we may find it very difficult to attract talented Friends even to apply for leadership positions in our yearly meeting.
  • Burned out individuals – many of our best people, who have tried to mediate the conflict or who have stood faithfully, are simply worn out. We may lose dozens of our best clerks, ministers, committee members and staff people who have given years of their lives trying to build up and preserve North Carolina Yearly Meeting.
  • Young adult Friends – Quaker organizations across the country have been having problems for more than 30 years trying to get Boomers, Millennials and X-ers involved. North Carolina Friends have done better than most in this area, but it’s going to be much harder now. Where will our next generation of leaders, teachers, ministers and worshipers come from?

It may be a genuine relief for yearly meeting sessions not be dominated by quarreling, and I certainly hope that we will recover some of our joy again. Friends will continue, somehow. But we won’t be as strong, not for a long while.

It may be too late for North Carolina Friends to turn back – but I hope we count the cost!

Update on North Carolina Yearly Meeting

Quakers in North Carolina have been pressured for years to take sides and separate from each other. The issues have shifted from time to time and haven’t always been stated openly. Sometimes it’s been over music and worship, sometimes it’s been about accepting gay and lesbian people as members.

A lot of the time the stated issues – particular points in Faith and Practice, arguments over nominations or hiring staff, whether to allow membership in more than one group – seem to have been a cover or proxy to the real disagreement.

For many years the majority of Friends in North Carolina were determined not to separate, but more recently the arguments have become louder and (according to many witnesses) more hateful. Attendance at yearly meeting sessions has dropped as many Friends just decided to stay home.

More pressure on the yearly meeting came during this last year, as first 3, then more, and now a total of 17 monthly meetings have withdrawn from the yearly meeting.

Last weekend, the Executive Committee acknowledged to the representative body “the differences among Friends in North Carolina Yearly Meeting that are continuous and unabating regarding the use of Scripture and the freedom available to interpret Scripture through leadings of the Holy Sprit; the autonomy of individuals and individual meetings within the broader authority of the Yearly Meeting; and whether the Yearly Meeting has or should have authority to discipline meetings for what are determined to be departures from Faith and Practice.”

The Executive Committee recommended that “the member meetings of North Carolina Yearly Meeting patiently commit to an orderly, deliberate, compassionate and mutually respectful plan of separation into two yearly meetings, and in that plan of separation, allow each meeting, if it chooses, to join either of the two new yearly meetings, however organized.”

This recommendation was discussed for more than 4 hours at Representative Body on June 4th, and was approved. There are no specifics for how the separation will take place, but the Executive Committee’s report says that Friends must “consider matters of (1) faith (2) organization (3) property and (4) law.”

I’ve observed similar divisions taking place in Western and Indiana Yearly Meetings, and they have been painful. In my next post, I’ll reflect on things which North Carolina Friends may want to think about – lessons I’ve learned from the way this has gone elsewhere.

Meanwhile, I hope that folks will be careful not to feed the rumor mill, make unfounded accusations, or do anything to make things worse. If separation does take place, I hope it will be done cleanly, fairly, and at the minimum level necessary, so that friendships built over many generations will not be broken.

Thoughts on division

Quakers are always going on about our interest in peacemaking, and our practice of making decisions on the basis of unity. The truth is, we have a long and unhappy history of division, and maybe we’d be better off if we acknowledged it.

Here in our area, Indiana Yearly Meeting was formed in 1821. For generations, Indiana was the largest yearly meeting in the world. The yearly meeting had scarcely started when the great Hicksite/Orthodox separation tore American Quakers apart in 1828. It left a legacy of suspicion, bitterness and mutual intolerance which we’re still dealing with today.

A series of healthier separations took place in the 1800’s, as Indiana Yearly Meeting “set off” a number of new groups as Quakers grew and expanded. Western Yearly Meeting (1858), Iowa Yearly Meeting (1863), Kansas Yearly Meeting (1872) and Wilmington Yearly Meeting (1891) are all “daughters” of Indiana Yearly Meeting.

Less  happy separations happened in the mid-1800’s, as “conservative” Friends resisted the more evangelical theology of a new generation of ministers. Conservative Friends remain as a group of small but spiritually lively yearly meetings in Iowa, Ohio and North Carolina.

While most Orthodox Quakers in the Midwest joined in the trend toward programmed worship and pastoral leadership in the late 1800’s, there were battles over just how far towards the evangelical right Friends should go. The Richmond Declaration of 1887 can be interpreted as drawing a line to keep Friends from abandoning our traditional rejection of water baptism and outward communion.

Friends also divided over many of the ideas of modern science, and in particular over the teaching of evolution, and Earlham was the center of an attempted “heresy trial” in the 1920’s. Many Friends continue to be divided over the acceptance of modern Bible scholarship and less-than-literal interpretation of the Bible.

As a result of these controversies, Central Yearly Meeting split off from the mainstream in Indiana, and Ohio Yearly Meeting moved more to the right over the years, eventually becoming Evangelical Friends International – Eastern Region.

This weekend (July 27-28) Indiana Yearly Meeting is planning to split again, with 18 monthly meetings leaving. 14 of them have agreed so far to join the New Association of Friends.

Although Friends on both sides are trying to avoid bitterness and public blaming, I can’t help but be sad about this new division. Well-meaning Friends are trying to spin this as a positive development, and maybe some of us will emerge strong and healthy again. But Indiana Yearly Meeting is a shadow of what it was – in numbers, in energy, in effective ministry, in vision.

Differences of opinion, differences in worship, and differences in understanding of the Bible don’t have to be causes of division. The primary cause is Friends who say, “I’m right, you’re wrong, and if you don’t agree, you should leave.”

Quakers would be more honest if we would admit to ourselves and each other that a big reason we care about unity is that our history is one of division. And our perspective on peacemaking might change if Quakers admitted how often and how bitterly we have fought with each other.

I feel a little hope from the past. In 1843, Indiana Friends disagreed strongly over whether it was right to help escaping slaves to freedom or not. No one supported slavery – that issue had been settled for Friends back in the mid 1700’s. But one group felt it was a moral imperative to help escaping slaves, while the other side felt bound to remain within the law. Indiana Yearly Meeting and Indiana Yearly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends existed separately for 13 years, until they finally re-united in 1856.

Maybe, someday, something like that will happen again here in Indiana, as society changes and as we all have new experiences. But I grieve for our lost unity, however fragile it may have been.
I plan to do whatever I can to help Friends in my own meeting to survive and thrive, and I am giving my full support to the New Association of Friends.

Many readers have written to me here on these pages, expressing your care and concern. Please keep us all in your prayers.

Is it always a sin?

One of the deepest questions which Friends are arguing about is, “If something is identified in the Bible as sinful, is it still a sin today?”

For many sincere and devout Friends, the answer is simple: yes. If God said at some point that it’s a sin, then it’s always a sin. Other Friends are equally sincere and love Jesus just as much, but they can’t take such a literal position. They feel that at least some acts which were seen in the past as deeply sinful, may not be sins for everyone today. 

This is a problem which Christians have been wrestling with since the earliest days of the church. For example, when the Romans conquered Palestine, they set up their own temples and brought along their own flags and military symbols wherever they went. Deeply religious Jews (and some early Christians) saw this as idolatry, and rose up repeatedly in armed rebellion. They believed that God explicitly forbade them to have anything to do with idolatry, and they died in battle rather than go along with it.

Later Christians were equally opposed to idolatry, but they came to see that the rule of law which the Romans brought as a positive blessing. Paul – brought up as a strict Jew – wrote, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. . .” (Romans 13:1).

A generation or two later, the same disagreement was still going on. One group of Christians saw Rome as the beast attacking Christians (Revelation 13). Another group said, “Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (I Peter 2:17)

In the present conflict among Friends over the question of accepting gay and lesbian people as members of our meetings, some Friends feel strongly that if it’s a sin in the Bible, it’s always a sin. It’s easy to dismiss these Friends as fundamentalist and prejudiced, when in fact they are trying to be faithful.

It’s also easy to argue that these Friends are like the famous King Canute, who sat in his throne on the seashore and ordered the sea not to wet his feet. The tide came in anyway, of course, and people have mocked Canute ever since. “You can’t turn back the tide” is the basic feeling of many people today in our society – gays and lesbians are out of the closet, and they’re not going away. The tide of public opinion is changing. We had better accept them now.

On the other hand, Friends who want to be more inclusive are mocked and feared by Friends who take a more literal position. “You just read the parts of the Bible you like,” they say, “and you change the Bible to suit yourselves. You don’t respect the authority of the Bible. You aren’t really Christians. You aren’t even Quakers. You should leave!”

I’ve listened to those accusations and counter-accusations for many years, and I think they’re hateful. The behavior of Friends on both sides isn’t something we should be proud of.

  1. Some things are always sinful, and we easily agree about it. No one condones murder. No supports hate crimes. No one encourages drug abuse, or promiscuity, or a long list of other behaviors. We can agree on these – always remembering that all of us are sinners, and that Jesus calls all of us to repent.
  2. Some things are not sinful – at least not to most Christians. Most Christians agree, for example, that it’s all right to drink in moderation. (For the record, I’m a lifelong teetotaler, mostly because I dislike the taste of alcohol, but also because my example as a Christian leader might affect someone struggling with a drinking problem.)
  3. Some things are debatable – thoughtful Christians can and do disagree. In these cases, we should look to ourselves and our own behavior first – and not judge each other! As Jesus said, “First take the log out of your own eye, before you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye” (Matthew 7:1-5)

It may take a generation or more before Friends and the Christian church come to a common understanding on this issue. Some meetings and individuals will continue to hold strong feelings and opinions against gay and lesbian people, on the basis of their sincere interpretation of the Bible. Other Friends will continue to see them as their brothers and sisters in Christ, who should be welcomed in Jesus’ name.

My own feeling, which I haven’t hidden from Friends for more than 30 years, is that if homosexuality is a sin, it’s not the worst of sins, and we gladly accept lots of people with many other behaviors which I, personally, consider sinful. It’s not my job to judge.

Homosexual behavior, for me, would be deeply sinful – it would mean breaking promises I’ve lived by faithfully for many years, it would mean going against my own sexual orientation, and it would mean scandalizing people who put their trust in me.

But what is sinful for me may not be sinful for everyone else. I have met many gay and lesbian people who have tried prayer, counseling, self-discipline, everything they can think of, who are still drawn to people of the same sex. I may never understand, at a gut level, what it’s like for them. But when they come here to worship, when we pray together in the name of Jesus, when they show that they want to live faithfully and joyfully as Christians, then I feel that it’s my job to welcome and accept them, and leave my questions up to God to be answered in due time.

And when I disagree with my fellow Christians, I feel it’s my job to try to find common ground, to wait together in prayer, to be slow to anger and quick to forgive, to focus on doing good things together, and to argue and listen in a reasonable manner, with respect for the other person’s faith and convictions.

On this and many other issues, being right isn’t what gets us into heaven. It matters much more to Jesus that we live together in love, than that we win.


Disclaimer

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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