Demolishing a 320-Year-Old Meeting
At 10:58 Eastern time, Seventh Day (Saturday), Eighth Month (August) 5, 2017, at Quaker Lake Camp near Liberty, NC, Clerk Michael Fulp asked, “Do you approve?”
The assembled Friends, about 120 of them, responded with a surprisingly subdued, “Approve.”
And with that, they pressed the button that demolished a yearly meeting which had lasted 320 years.
There’s a notorious set of photos from St. Louis, of a public housing project called Pruitt Igoe, being brought down in a controlled detonation of high explosives. The story is that the project, meant to provide sturdy housing for the poor, had become toxic and uninhabitable. It could be a fitting parable for North Carolina Yearly Meeting-FUM (NCYM for short)
Such a demolition is what happened at Quaker Lake Camp that day; only in very slow motion (debris will continue falling through the end of 2017). And the true character of the event was smothered in melting margarine and gallons of sticky southern molasseslike politeness, to deflect attention from the lingering taste of gall and wormwood, the biblical bywords for bitterness and decay.
There was a veiled reference to this self-demolition in the body’s Concluding Minute, issued at the close of Saturday morning’s session, in allusions to the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, Chapter three, which speaks of a time to break down, and to cast away stones.
Yet after the button was pressed, the meeting carried on as if nothing had happened: as was standard at NCYM sessions for many years, they were then treated to a long cheery promotional report for the camp, complete with a new music video.
In the featurette, throngs of campers went singing and dancing across its green lawns, mimicing the frenetic choreography of 2016’s popular movie musical, “La La Land.”
It was clever, slick, bouncy, and landed with a resounding thud. Quaker Lake Camp (QLC) was one of the three major prizes in the struggle concluded that day, and its fate still depends on what can be retrieved from NCYM’s rubble.
The two other outcomes were:
First, the rescue of NCYM’s failed pastoral pension plan, which was made insolvent by the collapse of NCYM’s income & loss of membership under the unremitting assaults of a faction determined to purge it of “liberals.”
The trustees and committee members who salvaged the pensions deserve credit: as they pointed out, churches are exempt from the laws governing pension plans, so NCYM’s dissolution could have left the approximately 100 beneficiaries completely in the lurch.
But they managed to corral $5-plus million from reserves and asset sales, to convert the old pensions into private annuities which are set to yield about the same monthly amounts. (Important as this was, it must also be acknowledged that the pensions were always pathetically paltry: 30 years of fulltime service yielded only $450 per month.)
The other outcome, no doubt to be celebrated quietly if not in public view, was pushing the “liberal” meetings out into a new “association,” a quasi-yearly meeting which calls itself the NC Friends Fellowship. Those who demanded this purge will have their own “Authority” group, which was as yet officially unnamed.
The only remaining connection between the two will be a new jointly-governed corporation, NCYM Inc (called “The Inc” in sessions), which will manage the former YM’s endowment and distribute its earnings to the two new bodies, in proportion to their numbers (currently about 3-1 evangelical-liberal). It amounts to a sanctified ATM machine.
That leaves the camp. It is expected to move toward auto-nomy (& maybe independence), but its board will be drawn from both new associations. Originally the new QLC board was to be 50-50 from the two groups, but the evangelicals recently insisted that it be tilted their way, and they will have a majority.
Some QLC board members privately fear that the sectarian skirmishing that has now destroyed NCYM will soon migrate to QLC, with similarly dismal results. Despite official reassurances, that still seems to me a real risk. (One effect of this change is already in evidence: while the camp can be rented for family or outside group events, the latest rules forbid any weddings to be held there. The prohibition of course is to ban legal same sex weddings, but to evade charges of discrimination. Is this an omen of more to come?)
But that’s in the future. For now, NCYM’s disappearance is the new reality. The demolition was complete, but finished so quietly that my mind strayed from Pruitt Igoe to some lines from poet T. S. Eliot, in “The Hollow Men”:
“This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
Not with a bang but a whimper.”
* * * * *
Besides the reporting in these pages, a series of blog posts [ here and here ] charting the slow demise of NCYM-FUM were read widely.
And a question recurred in comments across Facebook and in other media. It was:
How did this happen??
It’s a legitimate question; and it’s one we’ve been grappling with, here and online, for three years. It’s also one this writer is feeling a bit overwhelmed at having to try to explain again and again for those who are new to the saga. Yet it’s important for concerned Friends to have answers for it.
So I’ve reviewed the numerous reports produced here (in Issues #26 through #29) as this process unfolded, and NCYM-FUM basically underwent assisted suicide. To my know-ledge, whatever its journalistic shortcomings, there is no other comparable record of these events extant.
[And BTW, the suicide motif was used explicitly in an NCYM-FUM memorial/campfire on Friday, August 4, after the final session opened. That is, it’s not simply a pundit’s lurid invention; it was spoken, and it fits.]
In this review, I’m abashed at how often I underestimated the lengths that some would go to achieve their goals. The drawing I borrowed from Sherlock Holmes for a blog post could have been used on several occasions. At first the aim was to purge all “liberals.” But in the end, having failed at that, it was to destroy the body. To get to this goal, their own Faith & Practice was tossed aside; mincemeat was made of honest Quaker practice; and then, repeated resort to downright chicanery; no I didn’t expect that, or figured any such attempts could be stopped; silly me.
But wait – for many, is this not also the prototype of the larger story of our time? Too many like me, over most of 2015 and 2016, kept believing what we were told daily by “experts” at polling and social-political analysis & forecasting whom we then respected, that the terrible thing looming and thickening and darkening over the entire land would not, could not possibly come to pass – “Now, now, it’ll be all right” – there would be no such tornado, or tsunami. The experts were in command; we were safe.
But beginning last November, the tsunami did happen, and the impact has not abated. The personal trauma has dulled, but not yet worn off; many of us have still not fully regained our balance.
The impact of that cataclysm is vast compared with the tiny tempest for Carolina Quakers, but it proved useful in clearing the air around NCYM. For one thing, it brought more sharply into view what I call the “Blockbuster Effect,” the stunning (to me) recognition of how little that was crucial to Quakerism, religion or life was actually at stake in this yearly meeting’s fate. When push comes to shove (as it now has), Quakers don’t really need it anymore.
For another, to me at least, the cataclysm abruptly revised priorities. NCYM’s self-destruction was largely pushed aside by bigger events: since winter 2016-2017, much more energy has gone into such things as the struggle [not yet over] to preserve heath care. I believe many others among the beleaguered “liberals” in NCYM-FUM have come to feel something similar.
And after all, those of us who labored to fend off the NCYM purge ultimately succeeded: we weren’t forced out. This is not Indiana, where the purgers purloined the name and a legal claim to being the “real” yearly meeting.
Nor is it Northwest, where a closed Establishment has condescended to its LGBT-friendly meetings, arranging to establish a toy mini-YM for them, like a mollifying sandbox for unruly preschoolers. There are welcome signs from out there that the Northwest deportees may be wakening from the spell of this faux authority, and beginning to spread their own wings.
No, Carolina is different: many liberals here, for what it’s worth, stood up for their legitimacy, foiled the purge, and gained equal standing in “The Inc.” This won’t yield much money, but it preserves the legitimacy of their identity as Quaker Christians, which is, after all, what the 320 years (and much of the purge effort) was all about.
Yes, I’m proud of us. Even that much took guts.
In a way that’s hard to articulate, NCYM’s protracted, often absurdly pathetic, dubiously holy histrionics feel related to this larger struggle. But they are not a substitute, and have also been a colossal distraction from it, one that, please God, may now be receding behind us.
A Year-End Followup
After several years of intense struggle in North Carolina Yearly Meeting, August 2017 the body went out of business, after more than 320 years. [Its “Concluding Minute” is online, and when we wrote this, copies printed on parchment, suitable for framing, were available. A copy is included on the next page, for the record.]
So, in standard American journalistic custom, we turn to the questions. Who won, who lost?
No doubt there could be long debates about possible answers, especially over who lost, and what.
But as to the other side, the outcome is quite clear. Who was the winner in the demise of North Carolina Yearly Meeting?
Why, it was – North Carolina Yearly Meeting.
That’s right, NCYM is still alive and, as far as can be determined, well.
Someone will quickly point out that I’m referring now to the other North Carolina Yearly Meeting, the one that adds “C” for “Conservative” to its name. And maybe shrug:
Ah, but that’s different.
Is it? This NCYM lays an equal claim to the “apostolic succession” of Friends in the Tarheel state going back to the same origins, not long after George Fox visited the area in 1672. Further, it has been much more careful about retaining several features of that earlier heritage.
These features were once thought of as inviolable Quaker traditions, but were long since discarded by its counterpart; and these, after all, were what NCYMC was created to “conserve.” In fact, its 2017 annual session, held in Wilmington NC on July (err, Seventh Month) 13-16, was listed in its minutes as the 320th – the same number as that of the other, now deceased NCYM.
Which means, it’s the only North Carolina Yearly Meeting left standing.
Thus, the summer of 2016 also brought to a successful close the exodus they began, quietly but firmly, in 1904.
The “Conservatives” were the Friends from meetings which resisted what they called
“such departures [from previous Quaker practice] as hired ministry, congregational singing, instrumental music, pre-arranged ‘prayer meetings’, testimony meetings & etc. …”
And there’s more. They also formally objected to the adoption of the creedal Richmond Declaration of Faith and the so-called “Uniform Discipline” of the new Five Years Meeting (now FUM) which was built around the Declaration, only to see their objections ignored and silenced. (A detailed account of the roots and formation of NCYM-C is in Quaker Theology #11, online here: http://bit.ly/2hQfBS3 )
No wonder the Conservatives minuted that they were “persuaded that such . . . can only tend to lead us farther and farther from the desired unity of faith and practice . . .”
Which is to say, the Conservatives didn’t think they were leaving NCYM, but rather that the body, under misguided officers, was leaving them and the tested old ways, in favor of foreign, imported notions and practices.
So they not only “conserved” these ways, but claimed the NCYM name and history as well. And now they’ve got the name back, exclusively.
To be sure, the current NCYMC officers are not going to gloat about this, and will likely be peeved at me for even mentioning it. NCYMC long ago let go of spending energy on that old controversy; “to each their own” fits pretty well with their current Quietist ethos.
This NCYM has always traveled light: no pastors, no pastoral committees, no paid staff; no health plans or pensions; no office; no real estate. Its investment funds total in the low five figures. In many ways it is more a cycle of regular events than an institution.
And from their perspective, even to ask whether this denouement amounts to a fulfillment of Matthew 5:5 (“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”) will be thought in very poor taste. Besides which, the “Conservative” part of their culture has also evolved considerably over time (and that’s another story).
All this is very irenic. But again for the record, next summer in 2018, session #321 of North Carolina Yearly Meeting will be convened on schedule (as way opens), but there will be only one Recording Clerk writing this number in a minute book, not two.
The end of NCYM-FUM left two successor groups to define themselves and chart a future for their segments of programmed Quakerism in North Carolina. During the closing phases, the larger, more evangelical bloc was provisionally dubbed the “Authority Group,” because it wanted to exercise top-down disciplinary authority to purge a handful of “liberal” meetings, particularly for their reported friendliness to LGBTs.
These targeted meetings were provisionally named “The Autonomy Group,” because they denied that NCYM had any such top-down disciplinary power.
The “Authority Group” wanted to use the NCYM Faith & Practice as the basis for the purge; but the Autonomites pointed out correctly that the current edition contained no such provision, and moreover it did not mention LGBTs anywhere.
In late 2015, someone in the Authority group reported that the 1967 edition of NCYM’s Faith & Practice did have a top-down rule provision (as, indeed, most YMs’ books once had); but this had “somehow” disappeared then, and was absent from half a dozen subsequent approved revisions of the volume over the next 48 years.
Charging that this change had not been authorized, the Clerk declared that a shouted “voice vote” at a 2015 Represen-tative Body directed that this “disappeared” section be reinserted forthwith. Protests of this maneuver by the Autonomists were ignored. (A detailed account is in Quaker Theology #28, and online here: https://wp.me/p5FGIu-14w)
This was for many the turning point toward dissolution. Yet the Autonomites did not simply walk out. They resisted the continuing charges of inauthenticity and heresy, and declined to abandon NCYM to the other group.
At this point, enter the lawyers.
Thus, in the end, the “Authority Group” leaders came to agree that to rid themselves of the liberals, NCYM itself had to go, and it did.
Also in the end, there were two concrete items left to haggle over: Quaker Lake Camp, and the NCYM endowment of around $12 million dollars.
The camp was given a shove toward independence, but left with an evangelical-tilted board for the meantime.The endowment, in the hands of “the Inc,” will presuably quietly issue earnings checks once a year. Friends were told that under state law, The Inc is definitely not a church. Its board is drawn 50-50 from the two groups, but the fund’s earnings will be distributed based on membership, which means the Authority Group will get about 75 per cent, the liberals 25 per cent. Both groups agreed to help support Quaker Lake Camp for several years: $60,000 per year from the larger, $30,000 from the smaller.
Once the “Closing Minute” was adopted on August 5, the two groups went their separate ways; though the old NCYM-FUM technically exists through the end of 2017.
So far, this is all necessary background. What has happened since then is of more interest, and can be put in the form of another query:
Is there life after death in NCYM-FUM territory?
The answer is not so simple. We’ll look at one side, then the other.
“Authority” & “Autonomy” were only temporary desig-nations. So one of the groups’ first tasks was to pick an official name. The Authoritarians had gathered on June 24, 2017 at Cedar Square Friends, for a general organizational meeting. By far the longest discussion in their minutes was on nomenclature.
A Naming Committee reported that ten titles for the new group had been suggested, and their recommendation was to call themselves the F. O. C. U. S. Church of Carolina, with the initials standing for “Friends Obedient to Christ and United to Serve.”
Some liked it, others didn’t. Advocates stressed that it was pointed ahead, toward the new, and said it was time to “let go of holding to things of the past.”
(This was not a new refrain: in an earlier meeting, on April 4, pastor Mike Wall told the group that “he does not feel Traditional Friends has any modern appeal, that anything with Quaker or Friends in it has not had a positive image for the last 25 years, that if we are facing a new day we should have a new name, that our name should denote a new direction, that our name should be new and vibrant.”)
But others were not pleased that F. O. C. U. S. seemed to be leaving the “Quaker heritage” behind. And one Friend noted dryly that, “we already have a Ford Focus.”
When the Clerk asked for approval, it wasn’t there. So the issue was discussed further: the periods in “FOCUS” were dropped, but views were still mixed, “with many Friends commenting and several offering that if we weren’t able to unite on this it didn’t bode well for our future.”
Ultimately, though, the group approved calling itself “FOCUS Church of Carolina–Friends Obedient to Christ & United to Serve.”
But, then – no, not done.
When sixty or so FOCUS Friends arrived for their next “general meeting” on September 30, 2017, they were welcomed with documents headed with the name, “Friends Church of North Carolina.”
What or who was that? The group’s new Clerk, Roger Greene, attempted to explain. But what was disclosed was much more than a name: it was the opening example of how the new group worked.
Greene said that the day after the June 24 general meeting, he had googled “Focus Church,” and found there was one near Raleigh. He added that “one meeting” had then expressed opposition to FOCUS Church. So then he consulted with lawyers and some other weighty persons, and in short order, FOCUS was dumped.
Then a new set of possible names was compiled, and from this was selected the “Friends Church of North Carolina” (FCNC), very retro, but recognizable. (Evidently Mike Wall’s plea to dump “Friends” in favor of something “vibrant,”and, “new”– which he repeated four times – did not reach the right ears.)
Greene registered the revised name with the state in August. And only now, at the end of September, more than three months after the group’s decision was unilaterally & summarily overridden, was this change announced to the body.
Greene admitted all this was “probably a little departure from normal process,” and asked for belated approval of the change. A rather subdued mumble was heard.
This was, I think, a rather revealing incident. It shows that from the jump, in FCNC, the group’s decisions are subject to in-group after-hours vetoes; even a single meeting, which had as much chance to raise concerns at the general session as any other, can still, ex post facto, torpedo an approved formal decision without even having to be identified. (No doubt, it must be the “right” meeting; one suspects that means a large one, which could be expected to have substantial “input” into the group’s budget.)
The reception of this report also indicates that those who show up for the general sessions are prepared to accept such “leadership” passively, with scarcely a murmur.
The next major item was the establishment of what could be called the Pastor Protection Program: the rolling over of several committees from the old NCYM into FCNC, which together will keep pastors and their perceived welfare at the center of attention. These included a Recording Committee, a Pastors Association, a Pastoral Care Committee, a Pastor-Meeting Relations Committee, a Christian Vocations Committee, and a procedure for issuing pastors certificates and ID cards, signed by some official, plus the transfer of all those who were recorded as pastors in the old NCYM into FCNC with the same status.
There was also comment from the floor lamenting FCNC’s lack of a paid Superintendent, whose major priority would be to manage and protect the pastors’ interests. Many of these pastor-related committees had been non-functional in the old NCYM for some time, and many as yet unidentified volunteers will be required to staff them in FCNC; but their reconstitution, at least on paper, was agreed to.
Yet the matter of authority soon came up again, in the form of an “Unpaid Askings Policy.”
“Askings” are what the old NCYM called its head tax for members, collected from monthly meetings. It’s not clear how long the term had been used there, but some seemed to think it was as old as George Fox. (It isn’t. In the early Disciplines it was called, plainly, a “Quota.” In Philadelphia Yearly Meeting it is called a “Covenant.” In Baltimore Yearly Meeting, an “Apportionment.” There are other names.)
One of the Authority group’s grievances against the liberal meetings was that some had withheld part of their “Askings”, either in protest of various grievances, or from applying different bases for calculating the amounts due.
Such selective tax payments are, of course, a direct challenge to yearly meeting authority; and the FCNC leadership was determined to put a stop to it.
So. “To ensure integrity, fidelity and Unity,” a draft “Unpaid Askings Policy,” was passed out. It specified that in FCNC “The only acceptable reason for unpaid askings will be financial hardship.”
Further, a meeting may not simply claim hardship, it must apply for the status, like an indigent applying for welfare. A committee of FCNC will then investigate and determine if the meeting is deserving.
If the meeting is denied, but still doesn’t pay, this
“will result in the meeting being inactive for 12 months, for a period of reflection. During this inactive period, members of this local meeting will not participate on any FCNC committees or any other leadership capacity.”
Following the 12-month suspension,
“if a resolution has not been reached (i.e., complete payment of delinquent dues) it will be deemed that said meeting has resigned its membership from the FCNC.” [Quotes from the printed draft.]
In discussion, someone pointed out that the term “Askings” didn’t fit this new policy, because the sums assessed were by no means being “Asked” for, but mandated, under penalties of suspension and expulsion.
Alternative terms were proposed, and “Financial Obligations” was settled on, then substituted throughout the draft, which now became the “Unpaid Financial Obligations Policy.”
The rationale here was clear, yet the policy initially had the air of slamming the barn door after the horses have escaped. After all, the main targets of ire about unpaid “Askings” in the past three years were some of the “liberal” meetings.
But now they were all gone, out of reach. So was this hardline policy really necessary?
Perhaps it was. Later, in discussion of the FCNC budget, Michael Fulp, Sr. rose.
Fulp was the last Clerk of the defunct NCYM, and was no shrinking violet in that post, but he spoke now in a much more truculent tone. He charged that there were as many as “a dozen” meetings on the FCNC roster “who have paid none or minimal dues,” and “didn’t seem to care if they were in or out of the group.”
A dozen, out of 30 or so total? (For that matter, nine more meetings, nearly a third, were absent from the session. These are not very hard data, but they suggest something less than high morale.)
Well. Maybe there’s trouble bubbling in the purified FCNC stream? Fulp went on to say that there were even representatives from some of these scofflaw meetings sitting right there in the room at that moment. “You all got to pay up!” he loudly scolded.
The possibility of new internal unease came up again, when pastor Eric Morrison asked about procedures for inviting meetings that left NCYM to return. He said he had talked to people from a couple of those meetings, and they first wanted to know if there would now be definite procedures in place for disciplining meetings that “don’t follow Faith & Practice or Scripture.” (Remember, the existing Faith & Practice, in several editions for fifty years, has said nothing about such top-down rule, or homosexuality.)
Clerk Roger Greene did not rise to the bait: he quickly deflected this sally, replying vaguely that it would be referred to a committee to “develop.”
And along with holding back funds, maybe even new doctrinal troubles could be simmering: after all, there are dozens of intra-evangelical controversies about the Bible & various doctrines; they don’t stop just because you bounce all the “liberals.” We already saw what happened to the group’s first officially-approved name.
Some readers may even recall that from one of the larger meetings that left, there had been a serious proposal for a compulsory doctrinal “audit” (aka Inquisition), by which every single NCYM meeting would be interrogated for its doctrinal soundness on various points, with expulsion as a penalty for stubborn “unsoundness.” (Details are at this link: http://wp.me/p5FGIu-Ez )
This might sound extreme, but the proposed process for dealing with those out of “compliance” would have been quite similar to the suspension/expulsion mandated by the newly adopted “Financial Obligations” enforcement policy. It sounded as if only a similar procedure about the Bible and theology would mollify some of the departed dissidents.
A first step in that direction was soon taken, again by Eric Morrison when the budget was considered. A barebones tally, with only $170,800 in “Askings”/obligations, it included a list of “affiliated organizations” to which FCNC would make token donations of $100 each, from Friends United Meeting, to the Friends Committee on National Legislation, to the Quaker Earthcare Witness.
Morrison said there were two groups on the list he had problems with, and couldn’t approve donations to them; he did not name them.
The Clerk took a suggestion from the floor to withhold all those donations and refer them to a committee, which will take comments and review the groups, reporting sometime in the spring of 2018.
How much further will this housecleaning go? Well, my deep sources in the body have indicated that there are those in FCNC who, for instance, harbor deep doubts about the rigid homophobic views that have been spread around like toxic coal ash during the recent years of struggle. And these leaks are corroborated by poll data about how evangelical groups are losing appeal to young adults. And there may also be views about the Bible which do not conform to the widely touted insistence on total infallibility, with all its young earth creationism and other dubious aspects.
So will there be a rush among the meetings which had quit NCYM to join (“rejoin”?) FCNC? Wait and see. Greene did not sound sanguine about the prospects.
But never mind: some of the longtime pastors said they had a remedy for reversing shrinkage: outreach & evangelism. They asked that endowment funds in the budget targeted for church extension be allowed to accumulate for about three years, to finance a big church planting project. And to start the process, they proposed to bring in a “church multiplication” expert from Barclay College in Kansas to lead an intensive “kickoff weekend” next spring.
Clerk Greene was for it: “If we don’t grow, we die,” he said. The outreach work, he said, may be the FCNC’s most important mission: everything should support it. He asked for approval for the plan. He got it, but it came as another subdued murmur.
Indeed, the somber mood that morning deserves closer attention: if the doors had burst open then, or at any point in the three-hour session, and a SWAT team had rushed in, to arrest anyone showing signs of enthusiasm, they would have gone away empty-handed. If there was any excitement and exhilaration among this group, they left it at home.
And now to the Autonomites.
Most of the new yearly meetings in the U.S. are the result of a convergence of interests among independently growing local meetings, looking for wider fellowship and connections to national/international Quaker bodies. Folks get together, tentatively at first, then finding the connections congenial and useful, grow them into something formal.
This is not what’s happening to the post-NCYM Autono-mites. Their experience was more like this:
Some folks went to a meeting of a club they were members of; several were descendants of generations of club members.
But at the door they were met by a large, redoubtable doorman, who put up a big hand, the flat palm blocking their way, and said, with an effort at sounding apologetic that didn’t quite ring true: “I’m sorry, but you can’t come in here. You’re not part of this club anymore.”
They reacted with consternation; some were indignant: “But I’ve been a member here all my life; my parents & grandparents too!”
The doorkeeper shook his head. “Yes, I know,” he said, “but that’s all over with.”
Then he smiled. “But don’t worry – we’ve arranged for a new club just for you. It’s down that side hallway, third door on the right. You’ll be fine there. More, er, at home. Really.”
He wasn’t budging, so the folks, after some hesitation, started down the hall, and opened that strange third door.
Inside, they were surprised to find some other folks, who also turned out to be newly ex-members of the old club.
Some in the room were acquainted, others not. Of those they knew, some they were close to, others not so much. And they were all looking at each other in a state of confusion.
A man got their attention by tapping his spoon on a glass: “Friends,” he announced, “we’re here to organize the new club.”
We are? Many wondered. That’s not what we came here for. Whose idea was this? And what sort of club are you talking about?
Forgive this little fable. But it does evoke the uncertainty that the ex-Autonomites have grappled with: they didn’t want a new club. They wanted to stay in the old one, patch it up, work things out.
Yet here they are, and there’s no going back: the old club has folded.
In real life, a few have drifted away; others still might. But those who decide to stay, at least for now, are confronting a whole new list of unanticipated questions. After all, even though they come from somewhat similar backgrounds, all they really have in common is that they have been forced out of the old club, against their will. That’s not nothing; but such solidarity is strictly negative. Now they need to find out how far it extends, and decide on some positive steps:
But what kind of club are they to make, these who didn’t want to start a new one at all? How? On what basis? And what will they call themselves? (They did agree that nobody liked “Autonomites.”)
With considerable discussion, but not rancor, they settled on a new name: the North Carolina Fellowship of Friends (NCFF); and they have stuck with it.
They have also held several general meetings, in which they considered what kind of body they wanted to be. Numerous issues remain to be worked out.
Their Clerk is Frank Massey. He was once General Secretary at Baltimore Yearly Meeting, and more recently on the staff at Guilford College, in addition to being pastor at Jamestown, one of the meetings targeted for purging from the old NCYM.
Massey insists that he doesn’t seek anything like the top-down structure that the “other body” is pursuing. Even though NCFF rejected “autonomy” as part of their name, he believes the group wants to maximize autonomy of member meetings as a key principle.
This aspiration pervades a draft “Identity Statement,” which was presented on September 23, briefly discussed, and then sent out to local meetings for discussion and feedback. Its main thrust is here:
North Carolina Fellowship of Friends is a non-creedal, cooperative fellowship of Friends meetings rooted in traditional Quaker teaching, gathered under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, and guided by our vital practice of seeking God’s presence and activity today. While our meetings differ in many ways, we do the best we can with the Light we have today to be open and inclusive to anyone who would like to journey with us. Our mission is to affirm the autonomy of each member organization to pursue God’s peaceable Kingdom on Earth as put forth in their individual mission statements. . . .
No sooner was it read, than a sticky question popped up, namely – which set of “traditional Quaker teachings” is NCFF rooted in? For instance, as we saw earlier with NCYM-Conservative, for 200 years, “traditional” Quaker teaching in NCYM flatly forbade paid pastors; but most of the new NCFF group have them. Same goes for music in meeting. And there’s a lengthy list of other long-standing, aka “traditional” Quaker “teachings” which have been discarded by the meetings starting this new group. So what is this “Traditional” Identity, exactly? (Okay, try approximately?)
There was no answer to this, except to hurry up and buck the statement out to the local meetings for review. But the query points to the group’s plight, as suggested in our opening fable: NCFF members are not here because they developed a common plan based on mutual understanding; they were pushed. Now they’re feeling their way.
There was no “trouble” over this question in the NCFF sessions; but as was soon clear, there is still lots to sort out. In fact, the next effort at a common stance has likewise proved stickier than one might have thought:
One of the main charges against the “liberal” meetings in the recent troubles was that they have affirmed LGBT persons and relationships, including same sex marriage. And indeed, some have, and have said so in public.
But not all, and not all in the same way. Still, now that they were out from under the purge effort, it was proposed at an early meeting, last May, that they adopt an anti-discrimination policy which would cover issues of sexual preference and identity.
It seemed that everyone was for this. And yet, as of late December, no such statement had been settled on.
First, there was a jurisdictional point: in keeping with the principle of autonomy, any such policy would apply only to NCFF corporate actions, committees or staff. Otherwise, it would override local meeting autonomy and thus open the door to top-down rule.
A draft was brought in to the September 23 session. It stated:
“The North Carolina Fellowship of Friends (NCFF) is committed to providing an inclusive and welcoming environment for all member monthly meetings, churches, affiliated organizations, and individual members. NCFF will not discriminate on the basis of race, color, gender, gender expression, age, national origin (ancestry), disabil-ity, marital status, sexual orientation, or military status, in any of its activities, ministries, or employment.
Additionally, NCFF will take affirmative action measures to ensure against discrimination.”
But rather than approval, this was met with a request that it be redrafted, and put in the form of a (Traditional Quaker?) query. So it will be tweaked some more and another draft is supposed to be offered in a session early in 2018.
The extended discussion over the “Identity” and “anti-discrimination” statements underline the reality of diversity within the NCFF constituency. For instance, there are those in the group who seem to imagine that NCFF can be more or less a duplicate of the old NCYM, only with some softer edges, and friendlier to LGBT people.
Yet this old model comes down to corporate-style evan-gelism: the YM collects money (and some volunteer labor) from members; hires staff (usually pastors) to organize and run “ministries”, which center on “missions,” some far away, some nearby. The goal of all is multiplication: new members, new pastors, new “ministries,” new churches, new YMs. And the mode is top-down.
But others in NCFF have a deep libertarian streak, and strongly oppose anything like a clone; they want a bottom-up rethinking of the structure. Their model, though more intuitive than clearly laid out, is flat, non-corporate and congregational – meeting centered and volunteer-staffed. The central structures would be minimalist and non-directive, as described in the Identity draft: cooperative, driven by leadings and concerns, not by a hand-me-down roster of standing committees from the old NCYM Faith & Practice.
Let common NCFF efforts, they argue, arise, be financed and driven by the active concerns of those at the bottom, and be project-centered. Let local meetings handle their own affairs to the maximum degree. Let NCFF facilitate grassroots initiatives and cooperation. (Really, it’s not a new idea.)
NCFF is likely to be best at promoting fellowship among the meetings and members. It made its first attempt at that with a morning long “All Friends Gathering” on November 11 in Greensboro NC, on the theme, “Recognizing the New.” About 60 Friends attended, and the session was devoted to small group discussion, considerable input from pastors and would-be pastors, lunch, and worship. The mood seemed more upbeat than that of FCNC, but there were many similar concerns voiced about numbers of members going down, while the average age of members was going up. While they were relieved to be away from all the controversy and bullying, it was by no means clear that NCFF is developing a new structure that’s either viable or appealing to a wider population.
And what about pastors? Here some very tricky issues emerge: for more than a century, the old NCYM was a pastor-centered structure, both in its central activities, and in the monthly meetings. As can be demonstrated by a comparison with NCYM-Conservative, the church culture and institutional paraphernalia is quite different without pastors.
Furthermore, there is little argument that the centrality and activity of pastors fed much of the old NCYM’s pathologies, and chronically exacerbated points of conflict. For instance, most pastors with seminary training obtained it in evangelical or even fundamentalist institutions, with militantly anti-liberal outlooks.
Further, in the past several decades, a succession of abrasive controversies in NCYM centered in the Recording Committee substantially undermined its credibility. Factions there repeatedly attacked candidates for purported heresies, particularly anything that could be put under the headings of “liberalism” or “universalism.” (A sample of one of the uglier persecutions, that of the late NCYM-pastor Willie Frye, is online here. )
But at least one former member of the Recording Committee suggested that it could now be run efficiently and tolerantly by NCFF, presumably because the militantly evangelical sectarians wouldn’t be there. And this message was heard in the “temporary committee” on the Recording (and Care) of Gifts in Ministry,” which reported discussion of the idea that
There may be a need for a standing committee in NCFoF. It was noted that NCYM had four committees: Recording, Pastoral Care, Pastor-Meeting Relations, and Christian Vocation, and that a NCFF Committee, possibly under the name of “Ministry and Vocation” could provide resources to Monthly Meetings in all four areas formerly covered by NCYM committees.
But there was strong pushback against this idea (and some, to be candid, came from me.) The counter was that the NCYM Recording Committee’s problems were less individual than systemic, and NCFF would be better served to have no such committee at all.
Why not? Because there would always be potential points of difference; personality clashes could be (and have been) as divisive as doctrinal differences. Further, the very role envisioned for this new committee, overseeing “vocational discernment, accountability groups, continuing education opportunities, mentor partnerships, and counseling resources,” etc. would make it a key steppingstone to, and element of, top-down rule.
Instead, it was proposed to make recording a congregational matter: those meetings which want pastors can have them. And they can record them, hire and fire, and provide pay and benefits. The pastor is their employee, let her or him be their business. Pastors who want “accountability groups” etc. can organize them informally.
Yet this shift of emphasis was very new in this group, maybe shocking to some. Most of their meetings have had pastors for generations; most of those have been vetted through the old NCYM Recording Committee (some with scars to prove it).
And many Friends sensed a truth here: moving pastoral matters to local meetings will alter the congregational and associational culture. Pastoral yearly meetings are pastor-centered. If pastoral relations move to meetings, that system will be, to some extent, de-centered. Some pastors may not like that. The discussion is far from finished.
But the issue is important, and I would contend, crucial. If NCFF’s operating principle of congregational autonomy is to be maintained, this is where the rubber will meet the road. Those familiar with the non-pastoral, unprogrammed yearly meetings can testify that the group culture is different without a guild of full-time paid “professionals” at its center, whose paychecks and job tenure are in the body’s hands.
Moreover, it is not news that the membership base for supporting Quaker pastors is rapidly shrinking, in NCFF, FCNC, elsewhere in U.S. Quakerdom, and in many other American denominations. More and more congregations will soon be obliged to give up pastors, at least as a full-time proposition.
How different can it get? In the Southern Baptist Conven-tion (the largest U. S. Protestant denomination), the trend to “bivocational” pastors – those who work a full-time secular job, and do ministry work “on the side” – are already the “new normal,” i.e. a majority. [ Details are here. ]
For that matter, the American Catholic church has seen a sharp decline in the number of priests as well, even while attendance has been increasing overall.
Pastoral-nonpastoral: I don’t insist that one system is intrinsically better, though I have my preference. The key point, rather, is that NCFF is setting out to encompass what is likely to be a growing variety of arrangements; some meetings with full-time pastors; some part-time; some without. In which case, the main responsibility for meeting staff ought to rest in the meetings which will be paying them and making the personnel decisions, including recording.
As noted earlier, propping up that old pastoral system is already the top operational priority for the Friends Church of NC, and frankly, it looks like an expensive, uphill slog. Since its pastors’ jobs are subject to the same erosion as the Baptists and those in other larger denominations, it’s not hard to imagine that the burden on the central structure will grow over time.
As tensions fed by these changes increase, internal stress will also deepen. Indeed I believe something like this has just played out in the fracturing and disappearance of NCYM. For the health of NCFF, this dynamic should be kept off its agenda.
What’s the alternative? We have just witnessed it: there were two NCYMs; one carried the burden of the pastoral system at its center; the other didn’t.
Which one is still standing?