Editor’s Introduction: Divorce in Indiana – Quaker Style

Divorce is not as traumatic an experience as it once was. In fact, today most spouses resolve to part peaceably. No-fault laws and mediators can smooth the way to property and custody agreements. The results are still wrenching, but civilized, and much better for the children. Not only couples, but countries have managed this: in 1993, Czechoslovakia split into two independent republics, dividing up even the national gold reserves, without violence.

Then there’s the other kind. Among the famous, the headline buzzards circle most thickly around cases where he/she has been cheating, and often flaunting it. The outcomes are typically expensive and calamitous for some, but not always. Beyond the occasional homicide, they’ve also been known to launch bestsellers, reality shows and presidential runs.

The soap opera plotlines here are cheesy and hackneyed; but face it: Americans can’t get enough of reading, watching, and gossiping about them. Did any of you drop everything to watch

O.J. fleeing up that California freeway, with cops and choppers in live TV pursuit, as the bodies were cooling in Brentwood?

I did. Oh, hell yes.

Among lesser mortals, the path to divorce can still be the road to bankruptcy as well as abandonment and endless wrangling. But nobody beyond a secretly bored circle of friends seems to care much. It happens every day. Keeps the lawyers prosperous, and the therapists’ calendars full.

The divorce story unreeling in Indiana Yearly Meeting is currently mixing the genres: to the basic trope of family breakdown has now been added some high-tension suspense: will it end peaceably, as many have been daring to hope? Or is it like one of those Army trucks lurching down a seemingly deserted road in Afghanistan, but headed straight for a big IED lurking under the rocky surface?

As reported here earlier, the saga began when one party, let’s call them the Liberal As, came out of the closet, and told the world. The other party, let’s name them the Orthodox Bs, was jolted into action: the As were totally out of line, they said, and ultimatums were soon in the air: the As had to take it back and straighten up, or out they would go. The As were to be – this was the Bs’ favorite word, “subordinate.”

The Bs felt they had an ironclad case, undergirded by their favorite Bible verses, plus selected phrases from the yearly meeting’s mishmash book of Faith & Practice.

But then a call arose for mediation and a no-fault option: divide the family estate proportionally, maintain joint custody of the “Indiana Yearly Meeting” name, and let everybody start afresh. “Subordination” would be set aside, in favor of a new phrase, “collaborative reconfiguration.” From this came the language of Indiana Yearly Meetings, “A” and “B”, in an effort to avoid partisan labeling.

For a brief season late last year, “Reconfiguration” seemed to be gaining purchase. The Liberal As breathed sighs of relief.

But it didn’t last. By year’s end, one strongly Orthodox Quarterly Meeting had issued a minute blasting the plan. Instead, they said, the As simply had to go: the Bs were the true Quakers, and would keep the name, and everything that went with it. Others soon echoed the demand. A determined disregard for the studied sensitivity of classical Quaker process to the views of minorities was also evident; militant Bs felt they were in the majority. They had the votes, and that would be that.

This debate has continued almost continuously on Facebook, that key arena for all things social today. In the recent Facebook discussions, “Reconfiguration” has often been replaced by “Realignment” in the B postings. This is a clear echo of the similar struggle of twenty years ago, also described in our earlier reports. The 1991 “Realignment” advocates meant to divide the sheep from the goats in Indiana and elsewhere. Thwarted then, some had evidently been waiting two decades to try again, and felt this was their chance. Predictably, with this turn of sentiment, out came the favorite B scripture verses again.

The Bs’ selection of texts was almost guaranteed to torpedo a no-fault solution. Most were drawn either from Paul in his most controlling moods, or from other writers pushing the unruly Jesus movement away from its freewheeling origins into the basics of the Early Church.

The new routines and structures were copied largely from the surrounding imperial structures. Thus it’s no accident that their epistles bristle with the language of subordination and command: women are ordered to be quiet; slaves, children and other inferiors to be obedient. Above all, dissent from the new alpha male leadership is to be firmly, not to say ruthlessly stamped out. If one didn’t obey the new bishops, there were always the monsters of that new book of Revelation lying in wait just around the corner. Moreover, the emphasis on these evils as particularly female, as in the Babylon visions of Revelation, has a very contemporary ring.

Against this background, Indiana’s Liberal As had committed a double offense, and it was unclear which was the worst. One, they had affirmed that “shameful vice” of Romans 1:27, of which “it is shameful even to speak” (Ephesians 5:12).

And two, they had done so in the most public way possible – on the World Wide Web. This exposed the yearly meeting’s divided condition both to the sight of the pagans all around, and the astonished eyes of their fellow Bs in the larger non-Quaker evangelical circles in which they moved, or aspired to.

So this blight had to be eliminated. “If your eye offend thee,” urged one of the more hyperbolic sayings in the Synoptic gospels, “tear it out.” Between the versions in Mark and Matthew, the mutilationist fever climbed: chopping off errant feet and hands was added. Even more ominous were the strictures of 2 Corinthians 6: “Touch not any unclean thing!” For “What fellowship has Christ with Satan?” “Be not unequally yoked . . .” and so forth.

In short, the offenders were not simply to be expelled, but stigmatized, branded, and shamed in the process. Some Bs insist they have no such intention (remember the earlier talk by Yearly Meeting leadership that the Bs were really only “helping out” the As by preparing to expel them); but whatever their private feelings, the words of their perennial scriptures defy and subvert such protestations every time they are repeated.

The shame and shaming themes of their scriptures are clear: they are text, subtext, and context. Their weight on the process is almost irresistible, as two millennia of heresy hunts and inquisitions attest. A few voices have called for a refusal of this outcome in Indiana, seeking to stay in communion with each party. But if one were to break the Discipline and make a bet, the odds would favor the A’s expulsion.

Nor would that be the end. Barely will the dust have settled when the victors will seek to sweep the whole incident under the body’s venerable rug of denial and forgetting.

The importance of this conscious amnesia is confirmed by that other internet era fixture, Wikipedia. Its entry on Indiana Yearly Meeting celebrates the body as being nearly untainted by open conflicts: “many Quaker yearly meetings have suffered serious divisions in their history,” it declares, but “Indiana Yearly Meeting has suffered no serious fractures and only three minor divisions . . . which gave the yearly meeting a reputation for being both moderate and evangelical.”

This self-generated “reputation” is a remarkably myopic assertion, for the list of events it elides is long and, to outside eyes, often other than “minor.” Lift a corner of the rug, and the detritus of a jumble of conflicts and scandals obtrudes. They are as old as the purging of abolitionists, including the legendary “President of the Underground Railroad,” Levi Coffin, from any office, which led to a schism in 1842. Then there are the repeated assaults on faculty and policies at Earlham College, over evolution and biblical criticism more than a century ago, to horror at its friendliness to the unnameable abomination only a few years hence, and much more in between. Nor can one pass by the as yet unwritten record of involvement by Indiana Quakers with the mass resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan there in the 1920s. Indeed, the notorious leader of the Hoosier women’s Klan, Daisy Douglas Barr, was an Indiana Friends pastor.

Nothing serious here? Numerous other episodes could be added, but would take us too far afield. Even this much will suggest how the public character of the As offense threatens this carefully- maintained facade, which makes their infraction the more intolerable.

Yet in fact, the rug’s corners rarely get lifted. Should the militant Bs achieve their goal, they can probably count on short memories among most of their adherents–and among the Liberal As as well. Beyond a handful of well-worn anecdotes of often dubious provenance, Quaker history is not widely popular among Friends at large, excepting a scattering of mostly harmless scribes. In a few years, only an aging handful would likely be able to explain why there was a rump association around Richmond and perhaps a few other places.

This tide of shaming could, in theory, be stemmed. The As have biblical texts of their own, to serve as a standard. A central one is from Galatians 6, the charge to “bear one another’s burdens, for in this you fulfill the law of Christ.” What more obvious burden is there among American Friends today than our entanglement in the divisive “social issues” of our time?

But such pushback would take backbone and even heroism (plus, let’s be candid, a lawyer of their own for backup); none of which seem to be much in evidence among the As. Conflict avoidance sometimes looks as if it may be Liberal Friends’ central tenet, the core of a rigid, if unwritten creed. The main visible exception to this observation in Indiana is the witness of Doug Bennett, the recently retired president of Earlham College. With admirable clarity and dogged persistence, he has been deconstructing the arguments of the Bs point by point, particularly on the IYM Facebook discussion page. He has done this while declining to take the bait and meet invective with invective. But so far his is a lonely voice, and his tenacious reasonableness seems to be falling on deaf ears.

Thus the likely prospect in Indiana is for one more church divorce, certainly tacky, but with nothing like the morbid appeal of O.J., the lurid smarm of politicians dallying with aides while their wives lie ill with cancer, or the mesalliance of someone named Kardashian and an athlete–was he a football player?

Stephen Angell’s detailed reports are thus far the main independent account of this process. If there’s a chance for Friends to learn from history – an optimistic notion for which history offers scant and mixed support – these, we believe, will be a worthy and useful resource. Meantime, we will wait to see whether Indiana Yearly Meeting can hang onto to Galatians 6 and become the Quaker Czechoslovakia, or careen into a spectacle more suited for 2 Corinthians 6, and Jerry Springer.

– Chuck Fager

Leave a comment