Quaker Theology #29 -- Summer-Fall 2016




Back From The Brink:
North Carolina Yearly Meeting Says No To A Split

Chuck Fager


I

    North Carolina Yearly Meeting-FUM (NCYM) has ended the two-year effort to purge its “liberal meetings.”
    This seems to be the most definite outcome of its showdown annual session on August 13 and 14, 2016.
    It was a very close thing. The leadership wanted a purge disguised as a split, and the steamroller machinery was in place. They trundled it up to the brink, and teetered on the edge.
    Then they drew back.
    That was one of the two most telling items of the session.
    That, and the number 8.
    We’ll get to the number presently; first the walk to the brink. Stay with us.

II


    [For those who haven’t been following this story, reported on in detail in our issues #26-#28: the purge effort, after simmering for some years, came into the open at the 2014 annual session, with demands from several hard-core evangelical pastors that “liberal” members and meetings in NCYM should “immediately resign.” Among the issues that lit the fuse of this outburst were recent public controversies over homosexuality and same sex marriage, as well as other political and theological stances associated with opposing views on these matters. When the targeted Friends stoutly refused to leave (except for one small meeting), the insurgents continued to demand that a way be found to purge them.
    Since then, several committees have been formed to deal with this conflict; but none was able to reach anything like unity, especially on proposals to force out those derided as “liberals.” In the face of this resistance, more than a dozen evangelically-oriented meetings quit NCYM. Besides the resulting sharp drop in membership, the YM’s budget was cut in half by the loss of meeting dues. NCYM’s Executive Committee told the body in the fall of 2015 that the conflict threatened the YM’s existence, and pointed at the liberals as being the culprits. Yet by the end of 2015, there was still no resolution in sight.]

III

    Our last report (in Issue #28) concluded with NCYM’s spring Representative session on March 4, 2016. There the “Task Group” (née “Task Force,” the latest in a series of ad hoc groups) made its second report on “The Way Forward” in the 18-month long effort to purge several “liberal meetings” from the YM. That report did not fare well; liberals did not like some proposals, evangelicals rebuffed others.
    The next Representative session was set for June, and maneuvering for it became intense, though mostly conducted more or less clandestinely. In April Yadkin Quarter produced a letter insisting that unless four of the “liberal” meetings were “brought to unity” with Yadkin’s understanding of some doctrinal passages in the NCYM Faith & Practice by November, 2016, many of its members were ready to quit NCYM. For weeks this letter’s existence was falsely denied by NCYM officials, but rumors about it still spread. Another, shorter letter from Southern Quarter called for the YM to split. (Attachment A includes these letters.)
    At about the same time, a group of nine pastors came together, on their own initiative, and decided to negotiate a settlement of the dispute. The group considered itself representative of the main trends in the YM: three “liberal,” three “centrist,” and three “evangelical.” They met privately, but with YM officials in attendance, and talked about what to do.
    It was soon evident that the real goal of at least some was to engineer a split in the YM, figuring the large majority of meetings would gather into a strongly evangelical group, with a small rump of liberals on the other; it was essentially a purge in disguise. As this agenda became clear, one of the nine pastors left the group, and another dissented strongly. Nonetheless, the other seven drafted a letter proposing such a split and submitted it to the Executive Committee. As they wrote: “The statement was made in our discussions that ‘we are going to separate in love or we are going to separate in anger.’ We choose love.” (Their proposal is Attachment B.)
    This was just what the Executive Committee (EC) leadership wanted to hear, and they wrote up their own their own proposal for a split (which is Attachment C). The EC plan closely resembled the model of the Indiana purge (recounted in QT’s Issues #18 - #24.) The EC adopted this plan for a split despite the fact that two of its members dissented, and a third not only objected but resigned in protest. Such is what passed for “unity” there.
    The EC brought its proposal to the June Representative session, and presented it as only a matter for discussion, rather than action. They added to the pressure for it by reporting that two more meetings had left NCYM, making for a total of 17 since the struggle had surfaced in 2014. The body agreed to have the EC prepare a plan for how to discuss all that would be involved in a separation for consideration at the Annual Session, set for August 13-14.
    At least, that is what some attenders were permitted to believe. Others, mainly those determined to press for a purge by whatever name, came away convinced that they could get agreement to launch the separation in August, make it a done deal, with only bureaucratic details to be worked out.
    But the EC’s actual plan, dated July 20 (which is Attachment D), was something very different from the discussion document promised in June: it was in fact committed to the launching of a split at Annual Session.
    As the July plan circulated, doubts arose, including some about the EC’s trustworthiness. To some it looked as though the plan was now being put on a fast track in a bait-and-switch move, likely in order to be able to have a split definitely underway by November, to meet the Yadkin deadline, and to make a pitch for some of the departed meetings to return to the “purified” evangelical successor.
    But pushback wasn’t long in coming. Several meetings issued minutes announcing firm opposition to a split (two such statements are in Attachment E). And there were murmurs from others.
    When the Annual Session’s main business session convened, among the items the Clerk noted was that two more meetings had left NCYM, making the total now 19. This added to the leadership’s sense of urgency to take some kind of decisive action. Some who didn’t like the idea feared that the fix was in, that the leadership would declare the split approved, Indiana-style, using the “voice vote” maneuver by which they altered Faith & Practice irregularly in November of 2015, ignoring dissent, as reported in QT #28.
    But before they moved for approval, the Clerk called for the group to break down into smaller circles, with EC members as facilitators, to ensure all members had a chance to speak, and copious notes were to be taken.
    When all this was done, and the notes were reviewed by the EC, they came to the reassembled group with a confession: they needed to consult some more, and even redraft their proposal in light of what Friends had expressed. This would, they thought, take fifteen minutes or so.
    The group huddled in a corner, and leaned heavily on the skills of Tom Terrell, an EC member and an attorney, for a redraft. They were hard at it for more than an hour.
    And when they returned again, and their new version was read, it was different. They noted that they had proposed a split. “However,” the EC acknowledged, “we did not hear a sufficiently strong consensus for unity” behind the split. (And in plain Quaker speech, and honest Quaker process, an “insufficiently strong consensus for unity” is really no “consensus for unity” at all.) But the EC still felt that something must be done. So instead they urged the YM to “reorganize” itself to accommodate the persisting differences.
    Reorganize how? In truth, they didn’t know. But they thought there was promise in adapting a model that had been floated twice in 2015, of forming two “associations” within NCYM, and maintaining the central structure as a kind of umbrella holding company. It would supervise NCYM endowments, property, and Quaker Lake Camp.
    And how long would this “reorganization” take? That too was uncertain.
    The very vagueness of this proposal was appealing to some key Friends in the body – it bespoke a humility that made for a refreshing contrast to the succession of demands and ultimatums that had battered them for so long. Representatives of two of the targeted “liberal” meetings rose to say they thought they could live with a “reorganization.” (The text of the EC minute is in Attachment F)
    What does this plan offer? For those (who are more numerous than either the “Gang of Seven” pastors or the EC realized) who are uncomfortable with the theological/cultural diversity of the remaining Friends in NCYM – and yet unwilling to go through a split, they can turn to a new association to find a congenial group to relate to (a “safe space”, to borrow a liberal phrase). That’s something they don’t feel they have in the status quo. And the liberals get an end to the purge effort.
    Further, those who find their meetings are already “diverse” need not be forced to squeeze them into a new straitjacket. The turn away from an enforced choice of “sheep” vs “goats” was underlined when a pastor asked, what if his meeting didn’t want to identify with either of the two proposed new sub-associations? Would it be able to “float free” within the YM, as before?
    The EC assured him it could, that ultimate decisions about the “reorganization” and its shape would stay with local meetings: “Within this plan of reorganization,” the minute declared, “each meeting’s destiny will be controlled and determined by the meeting itself, and each resulting organization will determine its own theological identity.”
    The Clerk announced approval. While uncertainty about specifics remained, a sense of relief was palpable.
    At the closing session on Sunday August 14, the YM message acknowledged the depth and cost of the differences that had brought NCYM to this point. But it concluded that

    “Out of the chaos and lack of clarity, in an effort to work with Love without compromising Faith, Friends approved a way to move forward. NCYM-FUM will work on reorganizing with subgroups or associations remaining under one yearly meeting umbrella. We intend to remain joined in essential ministries that are important to all, staying in relationship with each other, while we seek clarity of our theological distinctives for the groups that comprise the yearly meeting.” (Full text in attachment G)

IV

    Despite the uncertainty about how NCYM will now evolve, the end of the two-year crusade to purge “liberals” is definite. (That’s not to say future purge efforts could not happen. These outbreaks seem to have a cyclical character; they’re a kind of organizational bipolar disorder. But for now, the purge has been set aside; and in our judgment, that’s a big deal.)
    As this reality sinks in, there may be some more departures. At least one meeting, Cedar Square, sent their representative to the annual session to read a letter filled with a tired rehash of bible quotes about the infiltration of false apostles and prophets, workers for satan and the anti-christ, etc., who all had to be condemned and steered clear of. Little attention was paid to this missive, even though presumably it is a prelude to departure.
    And others? Asked about the likely reaction from meetings in Yadkin Quarter, which issued the November deadline, the group’s Clerk said that some would likely accept the new stance, and some might not. (Which fulfills the timeless insight of the prophet Yogi Berra, that “predictions are hard, especially about the future.”)
   
V

    Why did the EC back away from the split?
    The process remains somewhat mysterious; here are some speculations:
    First of all, at the annual session the EC was confronted, not by a conveniently packaged group of four scapegoat “liberal” meetings to dispose of, but objections from, by an informal count, at least ten. Not that a large group has suddenly “gone liberal”; but more than one Representative agreed with the concerns raised by the dean of NCYM pastors, Wade Craven of Randleman Meeting.
    Craven’s meeting is in the heart of Southern Quarter, where split sentiment has been strong; yet he has been there for fifty years, and along the way, he said, his thinking on many matters has evolved. Perhaps most important, he saw clearly that his own meeting was “diverse” about many matters, and deciding whether to join a split would likely stir up discord in the congregation – and why should they subject themselves to that? (The same sentiment was behind the other pastor’s question about whether his meeting would be obliged to join one of the new “associations”; that decision would also be difficult and divisive; so why make it?)
    In sum, a decision to split NCYM would export conflict into many meetings which did not have or want it, regardless of what they thought about liberal notions in other places. There was indeed no “consensus” to accept such an export.
    The wonder here is that it took the EC so long to get this message. After all, for two years, one ad hoc committee and task force has followed another in an effort to square the circle of the demand for a purge met by the targets’ doughty refusal to buckle. The urge to follow the Indiana plan, of twisting Quaker process to silence opposition and force it through, was clearly strong; but in the end, it did not prevail. Perhaps the key EC members remembered just in time that the Indiana purge was initially aimed at a single meeting, and it ended by driving away seventeen.
    Even in the weeks between the March and the June Representative sessions, the EC had had ample opportunity to discern the lack of “consensus for unity.” After all, their “Gang of Nine/Seven” pastors proved a bust, indeed a fiasco, coming up with a proposal that did not fly, and which was rejected by two of their own number. That outcome was not at all a “consensus for unity”; but they didn’t want to see it. Then in the EC itself, two members strongly dissented from the split idea, and another resigned in protest. Same deal.
    Finally, when the chorus got loud enough at the annual session, it seemed to sink in. Does that attest to the power of repetition? Sheer exhaustion? Or perhaps grace?
    Whichever, they have now given themselves a chance at–if not a new start, at least a new chapter. The “reorganization” conversations will begin with one major advantage: the purge threat will be absent. Without that sword hanging over them, who knows how differently the protagonists/antagonists might be able to hear each other? Might they discover things on which they agree (in practice they have); or even to peaceably agree to disagree?
    There are no guarantees. The urge for splitting and self-destruction could surface again. Yet if they do manage to change the climate of interaction, then perhaps NCYM Friends can begin to address the second major item mentioned at the beginning, the important and portentous number 8.
    That figure emerged on the last day, in the report on the Young Friends program at the annual session. The “youth pastor” speaking for them noted that there were many fun activities and amenities available at the summer camp where they were gathered, and the YFs enjoyed them – all eight of them on hand.
    Hearing that number jerked this writer to full attention. Eight? Ten minus two? Eight was the total number of teenagers who could be enticed or inveigled to show up?
    It was not so long ago that this YF turnout was well in three figures. And for that matter, the number 175, in the NCYM Epistle, added punch to the arithmetic. That’s how many attended the 2016 annual session overall. In 2013, only three years ago, the minutes record that attendance was in excess of 400, more than twice as many. The number of YFs was not broken out, but I well remember seeing large numbers of them.
    These numbers were not official until after the session approved the “reorganization” minute. One wonders if the EC saw them coming; or rather, not coming.
    Yet this collapse should have been no surprise. After all, the main topic of conversation in and around NCYM for two years has been: how can we make people go away? It’s hard to imagine an atmosphere more likely to turn off and alienate people of all ages, particularly anyone who feels spiritually vulnerable and is seeking freedom to explore and establish their own religious identities.
    A conversation about this among the diverse Friends who choose to remain in NCYM as this “reorganization” takes shape, has a chance to be very different. Only a chance; but that is more than they have had in a long time.

VI

    As the “reorganization” conversations get underway this autumn, there are a number of items that will loom large. None is insoluble; but none can be safely ignored. Here’s our first-cut list:
   
    1. Devolve the recording of pastors. For years the NCYM Recording committee has been a locus and flashpoint of factional maneuver and struggle. Its work has sown long-festering grievances and resentments, and has hardly assured a high quality of hires. So enough is enough. Delegating that task to local meetings, as the Baptists do, would likely be the safest option; or leaving it to the associations.
   
    2. Loosen the grip on Quaker Lake Camp. Reports from staff and board make clear that to survive, QLC has to become more autonomous and greatly broaden its marketing effort. When NCYM’s YF turnout drops below ten at annual session, the body can hardly hope to fill the camp. While QLC can still maintain some loose ties with NCYM, autonomy is its future, if it’s to have one.
   
    3. Watch the money, and use most of it for pensions. Just as NCYM’s shrinkage means there are fewer youth to send to camp, it has also left many fewer donors to support the fund for retired pastors. But seeing this obligation is met is something that most Friends can agree on. Thus much of NCYM’s income needs to go there, to fill its huge funding gap. Yes, pension checks are not as exciting as glitzy new mission projects; but it only seems that way, until you need the checks.
   
    4. Also about money: keep the NCYM “holding company” a bare bones operation; if there’s extra funds after overhead and pensions, divide it proportionally, and let meetings and their associations organize and support their own cooperative projects. That will also avoid many needless conflicts.
   
    5. When a new General Secretary is hired, make sure (and make public) that she/he is committed to the reorganized YM project, and not some poser with pockets full of hidden factional agendas.
   
    6. Keep the reorganization process open! Resist the chronic temptation to get a few selected “insiders” (especially pastors) together to hash things out privately. Make sure instead that rank and file members see and hear what the Executive Committee is doing, while they’re doing it, not just every three or six months in settled, take-it-or-leave-it packages. Let’s not waste the lessons of the “Gang of Nine/Seven” fiasco, the expulsion explosion of September 2015 or the other failed committees, which are 1) there is no such spiritual elite group in NCYM; and 2) there are no shortcuts around the laborious work of building real “sufficient unity” for a genuine Quaker “consensus.”

    7. That business of the “instant revision” of Faith & Practice in November last year to make the YM supreme over local meetings – maybe it can now be quietly left on hold? After all, the EC has just gone on record, with group approval, guaranteeing meetings autonomy about what to do with the reorganization. If the committee  means it, that’s a practical rollback of that provision; which is a good idea.

    8. Don’t panic about the disappearance of young people. But don’t give up, either. Face it: it will take time to get over two years of a YM agenda devoted in fact to driving people away. If NCYM recovers and gets past that, there’s some more bad news to swallow: most even relatively “happy” churches are losing young people too. The number of alarmed analyses of this exodus can crowd your bookshelf and stuff your email inbox; consultants are lined up to fill your weekends with high-priced seminars and workshops about it, and snake oil quick fixes are priced like EpiPens – except at least the EpiPen actually works. Yet there are some church groups that are growing and holding on to youth. Are you ready for the list? Mormons, Amish, very Orthodox Jews, and some Muslim groups. Growing. Could NCYM learn something and maybe adapt some “best practices” from them. I doubt it will be easy.

    9. Finally, don’t lose your nerve. No doubt at least a few more meetings will likely depart rather than accept the body’s decision. Swallow hard, and let them go. Then if some claque of hardliners comes with another ultimatum, quietly hand it back to them and move on; NCYM has other, better work to do.   
    As the EC’s minute says, there will likely be more ideas and concerns come up. And there are no guarantees of success. But at least this time, we can end a report on a cautiously hopeful note.

Attachments here.