Quaker Theology #30/#31

An Increasingly Familiar Story:
Northwest Yearly Meeting Expulsions & Sequelae

Chuck Fager

    We’ve also been following the growing tensions in Northwest Yearly Meeting, out west (see Issue #24:  Issue #27  ; and Issue #28 ).
    In January 2017, these tensions came to a head when the YM leadership announced a purge of several meetings that had adopted LGBT-affirming positions or minutes.  The leadership framed this as a compassionate decision to “help” the expelled meetings to form a yearly meeting of their own.

    However, the decision largely mirrored a letter from a hardline faction declaring that unless the affirming groups were purged, NWYM faced “disintegration.”
    The cry of disintegration was propaganda; what it meant was that several homophobic churches would quit NWYM if the affirming ones were allowed to stay. But of course, then the affirming groups would have stayed. So the leadership caved, evidently figuring that a purged body would be more institutionally viable. (That is to say, the hostage takers got the compassion; the inclusive churches got the boot.) They sweetened the deal by agreeing to let the expelled churches keep their buildings and bank accounts, if they accepted the departure schedule.
    The scenario was ratified at the 2017 NWYM annual  sessions, with a deadline of midsummer 2018 for completion. A group of 80 or so of the “ejected” Friends soon gathered and began planning a successor body, tentatively referred to as “Our New Thing.”
    In short order, the new group’s pattern of development soon resembled the trajectory of the “Autonomites” in North Carolina: on the one hand, there was much vague talk about becoming a “radically inclusive” body, boldly inventive and very different from NWYM; on the other, the outlines of a NWYM clone, but just smaller and more friendly to LGBTs, soon emerged: the group named itself Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends, and the paraphernalia of a typical pastor-centered structure is rapidly taking shape.
    But the tension has yet to be resolved.  Early in 2018, the group will gather to address what the Clerks called in their December 22, 2017 newsletter,  “The Big Questions”

namely:

#1. Why are we joining together instead of going our separate ways? What holds SCYMF together? (Examples: Common beliefs/theology? Relationships? Friends’ testimonies? Other?)

#2. How should we make decisions that affect the whole of SCYMF? (Examples: refer all decisions to the yearly meeting as a whole? Choose reps to make some or all decisions? Let a specified group make urgent decisions? Other?)

    These questions echo those which remain unresolved in the NC Fellowship of Friends group. They reflect the fact that the NWYM rejects, like the banned club members in the “fable” from North Carolina, did not plan to start a new group, in fact spent much effort trying to avoid doing so. Beyond an openness to LGBT folks, that foiled intention is what they have in common. What else there might be is yet to be discovered.

    The NWYM [almost] clone model is an appealing fallback for some, particularly those who have vocational aspirations (i. e. are looking for jobs). And their rapid movement toward importing pastoral protection features (looking very similar to those being clung to by the evangelical Friends Church of NC) looks nearly reflexive. But that way lies top-down rule, and it seems a fair guess that many Sierra-Cascades Friends have had quite a bellyful of that.

    This too is indeed familiar, but reimporting the pastoral-but-nicer model faces some serious “headwinds,” as the business journalists say. The strongest “headwind” is the rapidly eroding membership and hence financial base for such pastor-centered groups. While all too many pastoral types are like climate change-denying Republicans, there are some in Sierra-Cascades who acknowledge this. It was well-expressed in this recent book blurb by Barclay Press, the publishing house started by NWYM which is now technically independent:

“The North American Christian church of the early twenty-first century finds itself in a period of decline. A growing percentage of young adults are not entering the front doors of churches while at the same time older and previously dedicated Christians are leaving. Reasons for the rise of the Nones and the Dones have been well-documented: they have found the institutional church to be increasingly irrelevant to their lives; they want to be part of an engaged and interactive community rather than members of a passive audience; they are sick of judg-mentalism and exclusion; they question the efficacy of churches spending 85 percent of their budgets on buildings and pastoral salaries; they are not in accord with political/ideological stances of their churches or denominations; they are disinterested in serving organizational structures; or they simply no longer believe the doctrines taught by the churches in which they grew up . . . .”

    In addition, there is what I have dubbed “the Blockbuster Effect,” which is peeling off and miniaturizing ever more features of what yearly meetings used to provide. (Click here for more. ) For instance, pension plans, or health insurance: meetings which want and can afford to pay a pastor can easily make such arrangements on their own. Meetings can even offer credentials for hospital chaplains (which, with their regular paychecks drawn from the seemingly bottomless moneypot of our healthcare “system”), is rapidly becoming a leading career niche for the pastorally inclined.

    I can imagine a scenario not long hence in which “Yearly Meeting” is concentrated into a smartphone app: touch it and up pops a menu: Minutes; other reports; calendar; donate button, join an online committee, study or worship session, send a message the Clerk; find Bible or other quotes to ponder; etc., etc. With this friends can skip the office, most of the staff, and (almost all) the pomp.

    Where does real engagement with this awareness lead startup churches? Who knows? But so far it’s been much easier to talk about being a “radically new” this or that, than to produce a genuinely novel and viable replacement.

    And for Sierra-Cascades, there’s yet a third Big Question, another that’s very familiar to Carolina Quaker observers; it is:

    What about the old church camp?

    For Sierra-Cascades, that means Twin Rocks Camp, on the Pacific coast about two hours west of Portland.

    As is often the case, there are many with warm memories of camp sessions there. But NWYM kept control of it, and has produced a document regulating access to it by “former  members” of NWYM. This document has been the subject of lengthy, intensive, and as yet unresolved discussions.

    What’s the sticking point? Well, a small-print footnote jumped out at me, to wit :

“5 As a show of respect for members of TRFCA [Twin Rocks Friends Conference Assn.], former Members will hold couples conferences at locations other than Twin Rocks.”

    In North Carolina’s Quaker Lake Camp, the parallel rule is: no weddings at all can be held there. Why not? Because they might be same sex weddings, which are, of course legal.

    And “couples conferences” are presumably gatherings where “couples” may be housed together. But some might be, you know, same sex couples, and they might, um, shut the door and do, well, you-know-what.

    So it should be no surprise that the third “Big Question” for the rejects is, as they put it, “discerning whether or not non-NWYM churches will hold kids and youth camps at Twin Rocks Friends Camp in summer 2018 . . . .”

      After all, it may be “a sign of respect” to TRFCA for events welcoming & housing same sex couples to stay away. But what kind of sign is that for the same sex families with kids?

    One might as well post notices that say, “As a sign of respect for those who still hold to Oregon’s founding principles, all people of color will vacate the premises by nightfall.” Would that be troublesome? Would that spark a lot of discussion? One hopes. And good luck to the group when the “couples” discussion item comes up.

    So. Those who threatened “disintegration” of Northwest YM unless LGBT affirming groups were expelled have got their wish. And many of those ejected are grappling with what it means to start a new Quaker body when most of them didn’t really want to do that, and the institutional basis for the old pastor-centered structure is collapsing.

    Interesting times, Friends. Interesting times.

<< Contents