Archive for the 'Quaker Faith and Practice' Category

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:

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?


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).

Dual affiliation

For the first 250 years of the Quaker movement, Quakers felt it was essential to separate themselves from “the world”. Attending worship at another church, participating in outward physical sacraments, or marrying a non-Quaker, were all disownable offenses until the late 1800’s.

Most Faith and Practices around the Quaker world say that when you join Friends, you drop your membership in whatever other church you belong to. Similarly, if you’re already a Friend, when you transfer to one meeting, your drop your membership in the meeting you came from. Dual membership is a Quaker no-no.

Is this realistic in today’s world? Many families come from different religious backgrounds. Many people have roots in more than one spiritual community. They enjoy worship and fellowship with other kinds of people, and they are enriched by the variety and depth of other traditions. And many individual Friends are highly mobile and have strong and active ties to more than one meeting.

In the everyday world, most of us belong to many different groups – not just to worshiping congregation or meeting, but to prayer and study groups, sports teams, craft and hobby groups, service clubs, academic groups, political parties, and so on. We’re happy to take part in all of them. Why should we have to confine our membership to just one body of Friends?

In practice, many of us are active participants in several different Quaker groups, which may not bear the title of local or yearly meetings but which claim large parts of our time, energy and financial support. Because I have been active in Friends United Meeting, does that mean I can’t also be involved in Friends Committee on National Legislation, or one of the many other organizations that dot the Quaker landscape?

One compelling reason is money. In yearly meetings where money is raised on a per-capita basis, there is a steep financial penalty for belonging to more than one group. If I have to pay $150 a year to support yearly meeting A, then I might have to pay a similar amount if I also want to belong to yearly meeting B.

Another reason is loyalty. I have to choose between being a Quaker and some other church. Participating regularly in the sacraments of some other church might make some Friends question how much of a Quaker I really am.

One of the gritty issues is the recording of ministers. Some yearly meetings do not accept Friends who have been recorded in places which are theologically suspect. Other Friends maintain their membership in a yearly meeting they no longer live in, because Friends where they live reject the whole idea of recording.

This jealously divided, outdated, gerrymandered Quaker practice seems to have little connection with Christian unity, or with the reality of our lives. Is change possible?

In some places, Friends have the option of sojourning membership – typically when they want to keep their membership in their “home” meeting but are working or studying in another area for a time.

A handful of yearly meetings have dual affiliation with both Friends United Meeting and Friends General Conference. It doesn’t seem to hurt them, and it may broaden their connection with Friends and enrich their spiritual experience. Some individual monthly meetings have dual affiliation with two yearly meetings and contribute to both of them.

There’s a renewed push going on today for Friends to choose their loyalties and “realign” ourselves organizationally. Fortunately, Quakers keep moving around, falling in love and marrying across theological lines, enjoying worship in different places, and being moved to support and participate in all kinds of projects. Younger Friends and new Friends seem astonishingly uninterested in maintaining barriers.

It may be time for us to reconsider the ban on dual membership, and make it easier for Friends with multiple loyalties to “belong”. To get the discussion going, here are some questions:

  • Does membership in another group prevent my full participation in activities of my meeting? Do I have time for both?
  • Does belonging to another group require disavowing Quaker beliefs and practices? Does the other group require a creed or statement of belief which directly or by implication condemns Quakers or denies our belonging to the family of Christ?
  • Do I provide a full share of financial support to both groups? Are the groups I belong to weakened because I can’t contribute my fair share to each?
  • Do we welcome Friends, no matter where they come from or what group they belong to? Do the labels and affiliations they bear prevent us from receiving their ministry with an open heart and mind?


Recording gifts in ministry is a tradition which goes back to the earliest days of Friends. Many Quaker pastors are recorded, as are a number of other “weighty Friends”. Because Friends emphasize that everyone is a minister and that all of us are equal, recording has often been misunderstood. In yearly meetings with pastors, the emphasis on pastoral leadership has often led to the neglect of non-pastors who felt called to minister, and in unprogrammed yearly meetings, Friends have often abandoned the practice of recording.

Recording gifts in the ministry is not a new practice. In the 1600’s, the Quaker movement depended on the efforts of “public Friends,” who traveled, spoke, debated with non-Quakers, visited families, set up new meetings and worship groups, and often suffered imprisonment, fines, and other hardships. Though they were unpaid, they were given hospitality on their travels. At one time in London Yearly Meeting a number of horses, called “Truth’s horses”, were kept for the use of traveling ministers.

The special place of such Friends was acknowledged in Robert Barclay’s Apology:

We do believe and affirm that some are more particularly called to do the work of the ministry, and therefore are fitted of the Lord for that purpose; whose work is more constantly and particularly to instruct, exhort, admonish, oversee and watch over their brethren; and that. . . there is something more incumbent upon them in that respect than upon every common believer. . .  (Proposition 10, section 10)

Though there were no pastors in the 17th century or early 18th century, a large meeting might have a dozen or more recorded ministers. These Friends’ concern for the spiritual vitality of the meeting led them to speak frequently at worship, to be concerned for newcomers, to voice the concerns of the less articulate, to visit families and nearby meetings, and to attend (though not to officiate) at weddings and memorial meetings. No formal educational requirements were set for recording, but recorded Friends were expected to be deeply versed in the Scriptures and other works, both to assist in their own ministry and to answer the objections of outsiders to Friends’ beliefs.

In the years after the Civil War, many new meetings were being set up, and in small towns and frontier communities the Friends meeting was often “the only church in town.” Young adult Friends were impressed by the liveliness of neighboring revivals. They wanted such radical innovations as hymn-singing and a prepared message rather than the “dead” silence into which they felt many meetings had fallen. Out of this atmosphere, the first Friends pastors were called. These Quaker pastors were almost always recorded ministers. At first they were not paid, but gradually Friends “released” them for fuller service by providing full-time financial support.

During the theological wars among Friends in the late 1800’s, many yearly meetings began tightening up the requirements for recording to make sure that ministers were “acceptable” (held and taught the “right” theological opinions). Starting in the early 1900’s, some pastors and mission workers began taking college or seminary courses to better prepare themselves for ministry. By the middle of the 20th century, most yearly meetings had standardized educational requirements for pastors.

The early 21st century has seen high-profile battles over whether some pastors are “too liberal” on issues such as homosexuality and the atonement of Christ, or “not Quakerly” on issues such as baptism and communion. There have also been serious financial problems as small and mid-sized meetings struggle to provide adequate support and health insurance for their pastors.

In unprogrammed yearly meetings, there is often a “leadership gap”. Friends everywhere need trained, dedicated, and experienced leaders to make local meetings run smoothly, to run our many educational and service programs, and to communicate what Quakers believe with the rest of the world. Without these leaders, we might as well close up shop.

This may be a good time for Friends to revisit the practice of recording of gifts in the ministry, and remind ourselves of some things:

  • Not all recorded ministers are pastors – in fact, most are not! Smaller meetings need to have at least 1 or 2 recorded ministers, while larger meetings need at least half a dozen. Recorded ministers should outnumber pastors several times over.
  • Meetings are richer when we have more leaders! We need more teachers, more prophetic leaders, more people skilled in listening and wise counsel. We need more Friends in each meeting who can prepare and deliver a message, or write an article, or teach a workshop. We need gifted clerks, youth leaders and elders. We need more people who can start new meetings and guide them through the first critical years.
  • A degree doesn’t make a minister, but in today’s world our leaders need to be well-read, trained and experienced. Friends need to take leadership training more seriously and build it into their meeting plans and budgets.
  • We need a broader range of ways to recognize and encourage ministry. “Recording” has become a lengthy, daunting, expensive and contentious process in many yearly meetings. Many newer Christian groups have found ways to do this. We don’t need a professional class or an ordained clergy – we need people who feel that God is calling them to serve the church, and we need to structure new and creative ways to encourage and support them.
  • Large and mid-size meetings can release one of their members for full-time service, but most smaller meetings can’t afford to do so. The “norm” for Quaker ministry needs to move away from full-time  paid service, and encourage Friends who are part-time, bivocational or volunteers. Recorded ministers need to be the new “normal” for Friends!

In my next post, I plan to discuss some ways we can recognize and support ministry, including traditional recording but expanding the idea in different ways.


(Full disclosure: Back in the 1980’s I helped to write the manual on recording for New York Yearly Meeting, and some of the material in this blog is drawn from there. )

Spread a little sunshine

Here in the Midwest, winters are long, cold and gray. We tend to view sunshine pretty positively.  Sunshine means warmth, friendliness and life!

In politics and group process, “sunshine” means something different. It means that to the greatest extent possible, discussion, decisions, and business will be conducted in the open, where anyone can observe what is going on, where everyone has access to all of the documents, and where all members can participate in decisions.

Quakers helped to pioneer this kind of decision-making. Long before “sunshine laws” became standard public policy for government across the U.S., Quakers were modeling open business meetings, open records, and open decisions.

There’s a trade-off, of course. Open, widely participatory decision making tends to be slow, and it can be held up by people who don’t know what’s going on or who are obstructive or cranky. Many organizations develop ways to “fast track” decision-making to a smaller group, which is given (or assumes) power to decide things in a more streamlined fashion.

These smaller groups may be self-organized around a special area of interest (focus group or interest group), or appointed (a committee). Interest groups tend to be sloppy and grow in a haphazard manner. Committees tend to be narrower, especially if they have a well-defined charge. Some groups are given (or take on) decision-making power, while others are more for discussion and research, and bring their ideas back to the larger group for final decision.

Quakers in the Orthodox tradition have a reputation for leaving decisions to smaller groups, and for establishing “executive” committees with strong powers. This can work all right as long as the executive committee is trusted and is seen as following the will of the larger group. When that trust breaks down, there is bound to be complaining and restlessness.

This blog is not the place to re-fight the battles of the past, and there are many different views of why Indiana Yearly Meeting fell apart. One contributing factor, though, was conflict over how decisions were being made, what subjects were allowed to be discussed, who was allowed to speak up, and whether decisions were being made in the open.

There’s a strong movement towards openness all across our society. It’s probably no accident that the conflict in Indiana Yearly Meeting came to a head at the same time that the Occupy movement flourished in other parts of the country.

As Friends across the Midwest pick up the pieces and re-organize, it’s important to remind ourselves that “sunshine” qualities – openness, transparency and accountability – are critical for a Quaker gathering to survive and grow.

  • leaders need to be appointed
  • committees and groups need a clear charge
  • minutes need to be taken, shared with the group, and published widely
  • a budget needs to be created and approved
  • money needs to be handled properly, with a complete “paper trail” and any necessary safeguards
  • business meetings are normally open for anyone to observe, and in most cases the discussion is open for anyone to participate. In some situations, the clerk may limit decisions or discussion to Friends to who are appointed by or who belong to meetings which are part of the group.
  • groups which meet by telephone or electronically should take special care to follow the spirit of Quaker process –they need to keep minutes and share them, publicize their work, and take special care to be as open and inclusive as possible
  • only a few meetings need to be closed – for example, to handle  personnel decisions, pending legal  matters, or conflicts where parties need to be able to face each other in private

Decisions are made according to Quaker process, which is aimed at discovering the will of God and the highest level of unity we can achieve under the Spirit’s guidance.  As we believe in God, we also believe that God can help us to find the right way to move forward. “God will lead us”  is our “default” expectation — it shouldn’t surprise us! If we can’t find unity, we can:

a)  stop and give the matter more time for prayer and reflection
b) lay the matter down — not make a decision
c) refer the matter to a committee or smaller group for study and recommendation
d) ask for guidance from our member meetings
e) consider what other Quaker meetings like ours have done
f) continue with our existing practice or previous decision
g) write a cautionary advice or a question (query) to help Friends explore the issues

This may seem like going back to kindergarden, but in a Quaker business meeting,  there is no “voting” by people who are not present. Decisions are made by people who are present, not by those who are absent. Minutes sent by member meetings deserve special consideration and should be answered in writing.  Recorded ministers and pastors should be careful not to speak more frequently than other Friends, and should not be given special weight or privilege in making decisions.

No one exercises veto power. Decisions which are made by the larger group should not be un-done later by smaller groups of Friends, except in case of real emergency. Meetings which do not participate in making decisions or which do not provide spiritual and financial support are a matter of special concern. Friends who are habitually long-winded or obstructive need to be dealt with, usually in private, by Friends who are appointed to do so.

As we move forward, let’s re-commit ourselves to sunshine — let’s be known not just for what we believe and do, but for how we decide to do things together.

Have Friends changed?

Indiana Yearly Meeting is locked in a controversy over whether a local meeting can accept gay or lesbian people as attenders and members. Whichever side you come down on this issue, one of the main arguments underlying it is a desire to be faithful to Scripture and to Quaker tradition. We like to see ourselves as upholding, practicing and passing on unchanged the truths which we have received from Friends in the past.

What we don’t often realize or admit publicly is that Quaker tradition has changed – sometimes slowly, not always gracefully, but we have in fact changed many times over the years. The changes have not been trivial, and they have often been accompanied by heart-searching debate and major conflict. The idea of Friends as a harmonious, conflict-free body is a myth.

Here are some issues on which Friends have changed dramatically during the last 300+ years:

  • Slavery – Friends did have slaves, and it took a lot of convincing by John Woolman and others to get Quakers to free their slaves and several generations of work to disentangle ourselves from being tied to the slave economy
  • Attending “public amusements” such as athletic games, musical events, circuses, races, dances, reading novels, romances, and plays were disownable offenses for more than 200 years. Quakers today feel free to go to football and basketball games, concerts, and to read anything we want. [Disclosure: I have lived in Indiana for 23 years now and have never even watched a Pacers or Colts game on TV.]
  • Plain dress and speech – this was once one of the most distinctive Quaker testimonies. You could tell a Quaker by the way he/she dressed and spoke. Now only a tiny minority of Friends use “thee” and “thou” or dress plainly
  • Separate business meetings for women and men – originally set up to ensure that women would have an equal voice; along with separate entrances into meetinghouses and sitting on different sides of the worship room, this practice was largely laid down in the late 1800’s.
  • Use of alcoholic beverages – Friends originally allowed this, then gradual moved towards temperance or non-use and in some yearly meetings towards militant temperance. In the last 50 years, some Friends privately use drink alcohol, though most yearly meetings warn against it. [Disclosure: I am a life-long teetotaler, and I wish that Friends would re-engage this testimony more seriously today.]
  • Divorce – once a disownable offence and stigmatized in many meetings well into the 20th century, divorce is now treated with compassion and divorced people are accepted everywhere into membership
  • Service in the military – also a long-standing Quaker testimony, which is still officially upheld today. However, many Quaker young men volunteered during the Civil War and were not disowned, and in some meetings during WWII over 50% of young men in were in the military (though many served as medics). Paying war-related taxes of any kind was once a disownable offence but is now done routinely by most Friends.
  • Marrying non-Quakers was once the major reason for being disowned; Quakers also cautioned against wearing special clothes or going to unneccessary expense for weddings
  • Bankruptcy – in the 1700’s, many meetings would pay the debts of a bankrupt Quaker in order to “clear the good name of Friends,” and then disown him. Quakers were strongly warned against making risky investments
  • Hireling ministers – one of the strongest Quaker no-no’s, this was reversed in many Orthodox meetings in the late 1800’s. It is still a major issue dividing FUM and FGC Friends.
  • Gossiping and talebearing – say no more! Quakers are as guilty of this as anyone else, and the current controversy in Indiana Yearly Meeting has led a major increase in this practice.

The bottom line: we may argue today about whether Friends will accept a change, on what grounds or to what degree, but the claim that we have never changed is simply nonsense.

Friends have changed dramatically, and we’ve done so many times. And in most cases, change from a traditional practice has taken place gradually over a generation or two. Sometimes change has come peacefully and almost without comment; other times Friends have felt so strongly about change that we have divided, only to come back together again in a few years.

I don’t ask Friends on either side of the present controversy to abandon their faith, or to do anything contrary to their conscience. I still believe that we can find a way to live faithfully together. Between the strident and uncompromising voices at either end of any conflict, there is usually a sensible and acceptable “middle way”.

But Quaker history shows that change does happen. And to Friends who promise that they will never change, I would quote one of my father’s favorite sayings – “Never is a very long time.”

Disagreement happens — get used to it!

One of the core differences among Friends in Indiana Yearly Meeting today is whether gay and lesbian people can be members of our meetings and participate fully in the activities of our meetings. Friends on all sides of this issue have very strong feelings, which they back up with all kinds of reasons – from law, psychology, Quaker tradition and especially from the Bible.

Each of these different kinds of reason deserves its own special treatment. There are pros and cons for each, and reasonable people can disagree on them.

For this post, I’d like to consider some of the arguments from tradition – the idea that what’s been done in the past should always define and control what is allowed in the present and in the future. And rather than just talking about the issue of homosexuality, I’d like to present some issues where Friends have changed over time.

The classic issue, of course, is slavery. Many Friends kept slaves in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. The arguments in favor of slavery were mainly economic, but they were backed up by arguments from the Bible. It took an entire generation of dedicated ministry by many Friends (John Woolman was the most famous) to convince Quakers that slavery was evil, and that Quakers who kept slaves should liberate them or be disowned.

Even though slavery was formally banned by most yearly meetings by the 1770’s, it took many more generations for Friends to deal with the problems which remained. Should slavery be abolished immediately, or should slaves be taken back to Africa? How could Quakers disentangle and divest themselves from all trade connected with slavery and slave-made goods? What financial and educational responsibility should Friends have towards ex-slaves?

A major break took place in Indiana Yearly Meeting in the 1840’s, over participation in the Underground Railroad. The issue by then wasn’t whether slavery was right or wrong; the question was whether it was all right to assist runaway slaves. The tension and the spirit of divisiveness was so great that the yearly meeting broke into two groups – Indiana Yearly Meeting and Indiana Yearly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends. The period of formal division lasted for more than a decade – even though both sides agree that slavery was wrong.

There have been many other issues which have divided Friends. Some have been driven by theology, some by personality conflicts, some by Biblical questions, and some by different views of what Quaker practice should be. All of them provoked passionate and sometimes bitter debate.

Some real-life examples of deeply divisive issues from Quaker history include:

  • can Quakers marry non-Quakers? Tens of thousands of Friends were disowned for this during the first 250 years of our history
  • must Quakers wear plain dress and use plain speech? Again, Quakers were disciplined and disowned for at least 8 generations over this issue
  • can one be a Quaker and use alcoholic beverages? This is an issue which has swung back and forth several times in our history. (Disclosure: as a passionate, life-long teetotaler myself, I wish that Friends were more united on this issue, but I also think that Prohibition was a big mistake.)
  • can Friends divorce? And can divorced people be a part of a Quaker meeting? For a very long time, the answer was no. Even though divorced people are fully welcome in most meetings today, there are still Quaker meetings where they are shunned and ostracized.

At different times, Friends have declared that music and singing in worship were wrong, that attending any kind of public games was a disownable offence (think twice before you go to your next football or basketball game, Friends!), that celebrating Christmas or Easter was unscriptural, or that “plays, romances or novels should be suppressed” (IYM Faith and Practice, 1839, p. 21).

My point here isn’t that every change is right, or that conservatives are automatically wrong. Most Quakers I know are conservative on some issues and eager for change on others.

My point is that people do disagree, and that it’s not the end of the world. In spite of our disagreements, Friends have managed to start many different kinds of missions, build excellent schools, influence the society we live in, cooperate with other churches, and save thousands of lives through relief efforts.

We don’t have to agree about everything. We can still work together! When we focus on what we can build, we thrive. When we focus on our theological disagreements, we crash and burn. Right now, unless we pull back, Indiana Yearly Meeting is officially headed towards another mass crash and burn episode.

Friends in Indiana are demanding that we settle our current disagreement once and for all, in a period of just a year. History shows that most issues take at least a generation to work out, and finding a new sense of unity on most major issues takes 50 to 100 years.

In my next post, I’d like to talk about how Christians with deeply differing convictions can get along. I look forward to hearing from you!

What about the other options?

I’ve been hearing a lot of sentiment in minutes and posts on the IYM Facebook discussion page, asking why Friends can’t “agree to disagree”.  This option never really had a chance to be threshed out by the yearly meeting as a whole last summer.

Maybe now, after a year of anxiety, Friends who feel cowed might be willing to speak up in favor of this option. I think it still might work, especially if it were formalized in some way, with the boundaries stated clearly. I think there is great sentiment in favor of Friends working together on things we agree on — Quaker missions, for example.

A minute might be adopted which states that:

  1. Membership decisions are the province of local monthly meetings (this is stated clearly in Faith and Practice)
  2. Meetings which remain in IYM will not conduct same-sex marriages, and we will not raise the issue formally again unless such marriages become legal in Indiana
  3. Recorded ministers are recorded by the yearly meeting in session, and as a practical matter ministers must be acceptable everywhere among Friends
  4.  Pastors in Indiana Yearly Meeting agree to abide by and to work within IYM Faith and Practice

Another alternative which was never given serious consideration at Yearly Meeting last summer was that some form of discipline or censure might be taken against West Richmond. What might that look like?

A lot might turn on what kind of disciplinary action could be taken both towards West Richmond and towards monthly meetings which want to practice baptism and communion. There’s no practical way to “spank” an entire monthly meeting, but there are still some things which could be done. I envision some kind of a formal statement which is agreed to by both sides.

  1. The yearly meeting can clearly state that Faith and Practice has not been changed, and that minutes which have been approved in the past still stand.
  2. A monthly meeting which is not in unity with Faith and Practice on a particular point of belief should make a minute to that effect, and the yearly meeting should make a minute stating that it is not in unity with the position taken by that monthly meeting. Their minutes should also state clearly that they wish to remain in fellowship with the yearly meeting, and the yearly meeting’s minute should state clearly its desire to remain in fellowship with the dissenting local meeting.
  3. The local meeting should agree that any teaching, preaching, or public communication on the subject states clearly and fairly what the position of IYM is, and that though they are in disagreement on this point, that they remain in fellowship with IYM and that they support without reservation support its programs, missions and leadership.
  4. Meetings which dissent from the yearly meeting pledge on a matter of conscience agree to pay their proportional share of the yearly meeting’s expenses in full, and not threaten to withhold financial support when they disagree.  (West Richmond has never done so, by the way.)
  5. The disciplinary action should plan for checking back with the monthly meeting at a stated interval (perhaps 1-3 years) to see whether any further resolution can take place.

Could this work? It all depends on whether Friends in Indiana Yearly Meeting think it’s better to try to stay together or split.  Enough Friends are still asking this question that I hope we can try to stay together.  As I’ve said before, I don’t believe that division is the will of God. If it isn’t, we should try something different.

Who killed Quarterly Meeting?

One of the Great Mysteries of Life among Friends in the U.S. is why we continue to have quarterly meetings. Many yearly meetings have dropped them entirely, or re-packaged them as “regional” or “area” meetings. With rare exceptions, they exist mainly on paper, and are poorly led, poorly financed, and poorly programmed. Ask a newbie at any Friends meeting what they know about quarterly meeting, and the answer is likely to be, “Huh?”

Quarterly meetings used to have a lot more clout. In many yearly meetings, they controlled finances, made important decisions, recorded ministers, ran schools, started new meetings, sponsored missionaries, and did many of the things which yearly meetings now do.*

A good argument could be made that what killed quarterly meetings was the automobile. Quarterly meetings traditionally included all the local meetings which could reach each other within, say, a couple of hours of travel time. Most quarterly meetings were set up during the horse-and-buggy era. As cars got cheaper and roads got better, the yearly meeting centralized more functions and the quarters got weaker.

On the other hand, yearly meeting sessions were never a gathering of neighbors, and Friends lost much of our sense of “neighborliness” as the centralization of yearly meetings grew. Many of our yearly meeting sessions have become places where strangers come to lash out at each other over positions and ideas they fear that other people have.

Is there still a role for quarterly meeting? Or, as Indiana Yearly Meeting pursues the path to division, could the old-style, functional and active quarterly meeting provide a model for us?

A group of like-minded Friends from the same geographical area can do a lot together. Many local meetings are too small to have a good youth program. Peacemakers in our meetings are eager to work together. Women’s groups like the USFWI delight in working together on projects. Many Friends with special interests or ministries would be strengthened by each others’ presence. Pastors, recorded ministers and Friends in public ministry especially benefit from conversation, study, and prayer together.

What makes a good quarterly meeting – or a good small yearly meeting – work?

  • Number of meetings – somewhere between 2 and 10 monthly meetings feels right. More would make it difficult to know or care about each other.
  • Size of the group – again, somewhere between 100 and 500 Friends makes a diverse group with plenty of energy and individual gifts, but small enough to form a network of relationships.
  • Budget – a quarter should have real, and not just ceremonial power to handle money. For its own needs, a quarter budget could start quite modestly – $3 or $5 per member should be adequate for speakers, social events, and financial assistance.
  • Leadership – this a key “missing piece” in many failed quarterly meetings, where the person who becomes clerk is often the last person to refuse the job. A good organization recruits leaders, instead of letting leadership happen accidentally. And a good organization creates and maintains a core of dedicated and motivated people who make the group a priority.
  • Worship – people really respond to a good meeting for worship which speaks to their hearts and minds. Planning ahead and setting this up every time needs to be the #1 priority for the leaders.
  • Program – a group like this can get by with one business meeting a year to set priorities; a couple of gatherings a year for education, fun and fellowship; and one gathering a year set aside for a retreat or specialized workshop.
  • Ministries – depending on the size of the quarter, it can support simple one-time work projects, longer-term relief efforts, or something as ambitious as a Quaker school or ministry in a nearby prison. One of the key ideas here is that Friends in the quarter have a meaningful ministry together – we need to undo the idea that only the yearly meeting is big enough to do ministry.

A smaller group like this is much better positioned to provide help in times of conflict, or to encourage intervisitation. Recorded ministers can easily move back and forth as they are needed to help nearby meetings. A group of local meetings like this is the ideal size for Friends to get to know each other and work together.

Quarterly meetings were one of our greatest tools for building the Society of Friends; they can also be one of our greatest tools for re-building it as well.

+     +     +

* – OK, full disclosure: Several elderly Friends have told me that back when Friends only married other Friends, that quarterly meeting also served an important (unofficial) purpose as a place where young Friends could meet potential spouses and go courting!

The questions we ask. . .

For more than 300 years, one of the most distinctive things about Friends has been that we have not had a creed. Instead, we ask questions. Whether they are called “queries” or “questions for spiritual growth”, we have found it more effective to ask people to think instead of telling people what to do.

Rather than saying, “Do this, do that,” Friends ask, “Have you thought about this or that issue? Have you reflected carefully on how you live your faith?”

Many meetings read one of the queries at the start of each monthly meeting. Unfortunately, we don’t usually take the next step and take time to discuss them in depth. In the old days, this was one of the main purposes of meeting for business – meetings reflected on the queries and provided written reports on their struggle to follow God’s leading faithfully.

Like anything else, the language of the queries can easily become stilted and old-fashioned. And as the queries are revised, they tend to become longer. Quakers also have a bad habit of using the passive voice (“Are meetings held regularly?”) rather than stating questions in an active way (“Do you make meeting one of your top priorities?”)

Too many times, Friends ask questions which make us feel guilty, rather than feeling encouraged to change.  We need to ask challenging questions in a more inviting way.

And every so often, we need to dust off the queries, make them sharper, and re-tune them for the coming generation.

Here are some re-phrasings of traditional queries which should give you the idea:

  1. Is meeting a priority for us, and not just another “extra” stuck onto our week? Do we expect God to guide us in all parts of life, and especially in our life together?
  2. Are daily thanksgiving, daily communion, and daily awareness of God’s presence a part of our lives? Do we have an active sense of life as an adventure with God?
  3.  Do we seek the living Word of God, whether from the Holy Bible, the Holy Spirit, or the holy community? Is our ministry holy? What real, spiritual growth do we see in each other?
  4.  Are unity and healing dynamic concerns for us? How do our actions contribute to reconciliation?
  5.  Is God truly present in our homes and in our lifestyles, in our work and in our times of relaxation? What choices do we make?
  6.  Do our personal and meeting priorities reflect the fact that children are especially beloved by God, and not just nuisances to be dealt with so that we can get on with more “important” concerns? What do we teach our children?
  7.  Does God have anything to do with the choice and practice of our vocations? How does God influence our business dealings? Do fantasies about money exert a destructive influence on our lives?
  8.  Do we avoid abusive behavior in our lives, whether of ourselves or others? Are we truly free from gambling, alcohol and drug abuse, addictive behaviors of all kinds? Do we in any way misuse God’s creation?
  9.  How do we live out our calling to be responsible, active citizens? Do we work for the good of our society, and do we refuse to go along with our society when it would be contrary to the leading of God? Do our lives reflect our concern for truth, fairness and justice?
  10.  Do we have a reverence for all life, and do we struggle to bring that reverence to bear on all aspects of life?
  11.  Do we live in the awareness that there is only one humanity, and that all of us are made in the image of God? Do we practice any kind of discrimination or prejudice? Do we look for active ways to reduce suffering, poverty and misery in the world? What are we doing to set people free?
  12.  Do we live in that peace and power which take away the occasion of all wars? Are we mindful of our calling to share that peace and power, and not just talk about it?

There are many other questions we want to ask ourselves. Let’s keep them sharp, and let’s keep them positive — and let’s use the queries to change our own lives and our life together.


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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