Quaker Theology #29 -- Summer-Fall 2016
Back From The Brink:
North Carolina Yearly Meeting Says No To A Split
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.
[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.
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.]
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
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
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
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
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
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)
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.”)
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
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.
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
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
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
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.