Chuck Fager with Jade Souza
With the schism in Indiana Yearly Meeting over one meeting’s open welcome to LGBT persons now complete, one could have thought this journal would have a break from coverage of such events.
But it was not to be. In July 2013, another American Friends church, this time in an evangelical yearly meeting, was delivered an ultimatum due to its having taken a similar public stand. The story of that church and yearly meeting has parallels to Indiana, but is also very distinct, and the outcome not yet settled. Our effort to tell that story begins with some background.
American Christianity vs. Homosexuality
In the beginning, for many conservative American Christians, homosexuality was one of those evils to which Ephesians 5:3 applied: “but fornication and all uncleanness . . . let it not even be named among you.”
But then, for American evangelical Quakers at least, came the Big Bang: a conference of All Friends in Wichita, Kansas in July, 1977. Held on a campus affiliated with an evangelical yearly meeting, many evangelicals attended.
1977 was also the year when the issue of homosexuality exploded into the public consciousness of Americans. A struggle in Miami-Dade County, Florida over the passage of a gay rights ordinance attracted national celebrities and massive media coverage. The Miami ordinance was repealed in June 1977, after a campaign spearheaded by conservative Christians; but despite the defeat, gay rights – and evangelical opposition – were on the public agenda to stay.
And when the Wichita Conference of Friends in the Americas convened a few weeks later, the issue burst upon it like a fireball. Although it had been carefully planned for several years by quiet cross-branch consultations, the plans were upended when a Quaker gay rights committee from Philadelphia surfaced and insisted on the same recognition given dozens of other Quaker groups.
Local and then regional news media picked up the story; the fate of the conference hung in the balance for days. At the center of the intense controversy and negotiations to save it was an evangelical leader, the Superintendent of Northwest (formerly Oregon) Yearly Meeting, Norval Hadley.
The Wichita conference managed to stay together (just barely). But its reverberations echoed far and wide; gay and lesbian Friends in liberal bodies were energized by the experience. (Fager, 1996, Chapter One) And soon, the pastoral and evangelical Friends yearly meetings felt obliged to swallow their distaste and speak of that which should not be named, lest anyone be in doubt about their position. Soon, the pastoral and evangelical Friends yearly meetings saw that the issue was unavoidable, and how they began to write specific statements.
The reaction included Northwest Yearly Meeting, which has churches in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. When it expressed its views in 1982, the comparisons were dire: homosexuality was lumped in with “sexual violence . . .incest, and sex acts with animals.” They added, “Friends do not accept as members those involved in these perverse practices; neither do they permit them to hold positions of responsibility or leadership in the church.”
There’s no record of any opposition to this statement. On this issue at least, opinion in Northwest at the time seems to have fit the verse from Acts 4:32 which most Christians regard as the ideal for their community life: “All the believers were of one heart and mind.”
But just as is recorded later in Acts, that unity was not to last.
Northwest Yearly Meeting Controversy
Over the next thirty years, Northwest Yearly Meeting underwent its share of internal controversy, and even conflict. In just the past decade, many of its sessions have seen extended, difficult, and sometimes unresolved labor on issues ranging from immigration; whether to quit the Friends World Committee for Consultation; and the use of alcoholic beverages. In its 2007 Epistle, the yearly meeting said, “If you have read our minutes and epistles from the past few years, you know we were deeply divided over some difficult issues.” (NWYM 2007)
While homosexuality was not among these controversies in any public or official way, there were clearly many quiet changes of heart among Northwest Friends that occurred in the three decades since the 1982 statement was adopted. Northwest Yearly Meeting?s character today is as a politically and theologically diverse body of Quaker Christians who overall present as a people who value civility, strongly dislike “inflammatory language,” but who have now reached what looks like an impasse.
During these “silent” decades, when “homosexuality” was apparently absent from the yearly meeting business sessions, it was still a concern for many members. As gay relationships became a more open part of our society, members came out and chose to leave the NWYM community, affecting Yearly Meeting families and churches. Discipline processes involving individuals and pastors, while veiled by confidentiality, were sometimes rumored to concern suspected same-sex relationships. It seems likely that in some cases they did.
There was an informal discussion group that met in the 1990s, led by several NWYM pastors with gay and lesbian individuals in Portland, Oregon, attempting to build some reconciliation, though it was, as one Northwest Yearly Meeting participant commented “largely unsuccessful”.
Thus over time, what activist gay attorney Paul Southwick says came to pass even in NWYM: “Because more and more people are coming out. So everyone has someone they know who is gay now. Even in the last 10 years this has changed. For me, growing up in an evangelical home, I didn’t know a single gay person. Now when I talk to young people, everyone knows someone.” (Southwick)
Most prominently in the wider world of Friends, recorded minister Peggy Parsons and traveling minister Alivia Biko left Northwest Yearly Meeting in 2004 to start Freedom Friends Church (Salem, OR). Freedom Friends has become well-known in Quaker circles as a Christ-centered GLBTQ-affirming church that represents an uncommon version of Quakerism– as they describe it,”semi-programmed, lightly pastoral, and socially progressive”, and with what can be described as an evangelical flavor.
As these notes indicate, yearly meeting sessions are far from the whole story. All around them, and across the nation, despite continuing opposition from conservative political and religious forces, gay rights have made steady progress, as marked by the number of states (fifteen or sixteen, depending on court action) where same-sex marriage has become legal.
It is now evident that not only has diversity come to Northwest Yearly Meeting, but the “silent decades” have also ended. Or at least, the issue has surfaced, and will not go away soon. In fact, it surfaced twice.
It first appeared in 2008, in the West Hills of Portland, but went almost unnoticed for almost four years.
“For over 12 years, the WHF [West Hills Friends Church] Elders labored to produce a statement about human sexuality, which could be included in our meeting’s Advice and Queries. Whenever they realized that they were not making progress, the Elders set the matter aside to work on other things. . . .
“Eventually, the Elders came to realize that they wanted to make two distinct statements. The first was indeed on the topic of “Human Sexuality” In that statement, we express the characteristics of healthy sexual relationships regardless of sexual orientation. In the second statement, on “Authority,” we declare: “It is our experience and testimony that God works through people without regard for race, age, gender or sexual orientation.” The meeting as a whole approved these two recommendations in 2008.
“We consider our discernment process to be a success,” the statement affirms. But it wasn’t pain-free: “Some people left the meeting because we were not quick enough to embrace gays and lesbians as full participants in the life of the community. We know that one family left because of our final decision.”
In 2010, West Hill joined the Community of Welcoming Congregations, an interfaith association of groups in the region working toward full inclusion of LGBT persons. They also reported what they had done to yearly meeting officials. For a long time, they say, they heard little from Northwest officials beyond, “the yearly meeting is not ready for this conversation,” and West Hills is “not the only church talking about this.” West Hills was content to wait for the right moment when the Spirit moved to begin that wider conversation. (WHF)
That moment came in March of 2012, about twenty miles south of West Hills, in Newberg, Oregon.
LGBTQ Club not Recognized at George Fox University
Newberg is home to the Northwest Yearly Meeting offices, and an affiliated retirement center. It is also home to George Fox University (GFU), an evangelical school which many in the yearly meeting regard (with proper Quaker humility, of course) as the jewel in their fellowship’s crown. GFU is frequently rated as one of the “Top Ten Christian colleges” in the nation by such as Forbes magazine. It has a seminary and was also the first among U.S. Quaker colleges to establish a peace center. It even has a U.S. president as an alum (Herbert Hoover).
What GFU did not have was a recognized campus LGBT club. It still doesn’t. But at the end of February 2012, Common Ground, “a student-run organization that represents and serves the LGBTQ community at George Fox University,” wrote a constitution, and soon applied for recognized club status on the GFU campus. That application was denied, but the group kept meeting, at a nearby non-Quaker church, and quickly gained visibility. A second application for recognized campus club status, in October 2012 was also denied; but the group continues to meet, off-campus. (Common Ground) Why the rejection? The best explanation, if an elliptical one, likely comes from the GFU Student Handbook section on “Student Organizations and Clubs”:
“As a Christ-centered community, the existence and activities of all clubs and organizations are ultimately authorized by the Student Life Office and must be consistent with the values, lifestyle expectations, Christ-centered commitments and community policies found in the Student Handbook . . . .”
The relevant policy is the one directly preceding the one on clubs, titled “Sexual Purity. Its specifics are very terse, seemingly in line with the concern about what is not even to be named; but nonetheless unmistakable. They include as “unacceptable behavior”:
“– An unmarried student involved in a sexually active relationship
“– A married student involved in a sexually active adulterous relationship”(GFU-1: Sexual Purity)
The policy does not, however, prohibit making a safe space for discussion and support of those who might be drawn to same-sex behaviors, which raises an interesting point regarding freedom of expression and association. The Common Ground constitution has as its Number one goal, to: “Create a safe space where LGBTQ students and their peers may comfortably ask questions and confidently express themselves.” And as its 7th and final one, to: “Facilitate constructive dialogue concerning spirituality, and Christianity in particular, as it relates to issues surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity.” Neither of these (or the other 5 goals) advocate sexual acting out, married or unmarried, as part of Common Ground’s program. Thus it is not easy to see where they violate the “Sexual Purity” dictates. (Common Ground)
At almost the same time that Common Ground submitted its first club application, on March 1, 2012, a much more visible event occurred. In fact, it seems no exaggeration to call it a bombshell:
An open letter was sent to the GFU administration, and posted on a new website, from a group calling itself “One George Fox” (OGF). The group described itself as “LGBTQ and Allied Alumni of George Fox University.” The letter is worth quoting at some length:
“To the George Fox administration, its Human Sexuality Committee, the Board of Trustees and the Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends: Like heterosexual people, most of us have a very basic human need for the emotional intimacy and physical affection that comes from a committed relationship. Consequently, making acceptance of LGBTQ people within the George Fox community contingent on celibacy is not loving or responsible. We are not asking for permission to live ‘a promiscuous gay lifestyle.’ We want a spouse. We want a family. We want romance! And we deserve a community that accepts us and will nurture our relationships and our families. We are building that community now through our alumni group, OneGeorgeFox. The students are also building that community through a student group called GFU Common Ground.
“Some people will probably respond to this letter by telling us that we are free to pursue that community, but not at George Fox. That position denies reality. We are George Fox. We are part of this community. We have great friendships here. We spent years studying and learning about ourselves while at George Fox. We also carry the name of our alma mater with us on our resumes, professional bios and publications. Moreover, a place like George Fox should be open to reexamining long-held beliefs, particularly when there are significant numbers within that community who are harmed by existing policies and who hold different beliefs. The George Fox community has always contained LGBTQ students. Our hope is that we can be part of creating change within our community, so that LGBTQ students can come to George Fox to study, to worship and to serve, in a safe and affirming environment.” (OGF)
The OGF letter and the group’s attractive website showed signs of careful preparation and public relations skill. Two of the chief organizers were Darleen Ortega, a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals, and an attorney, Paul Southwick – both GFU graduates. Ortega is the first Hispanic and woman of color in that position; she is also a member of a NWYM church, North Valley Friends, where she has served as a youth leader.
The OneGeorge Fox letter got Northwest Quakers’ attention; indeed, some say it hit a kind of panic button across the NWYM pastoral network. Besides the local impact, it was part of a broader effort that saw similar LGBTQ-supportive groups appear the same year at several other major evangelical schools: The Biola Queer Underground in California (the school’s name is a shortened version of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles); OneWheaton, at the Billy Graham-oriented Illinois school; and perhaps most stunning, BJUnity, at the legendarily fundamentalist Bob Jones University in South Carolina. (Inside)
The university soon issued a reply to the letter, which said in part:
“George Fox University seeks to order its community life around the values and ethics we believe God has given us in the Bible and we rely on its teachings. Those who join our community agree to live consistently with these teachings.
We believe that God has intended sexual relations to be reserved for marriage between a man and a woman. We recognize that this belief may be in conflict with the practice or vision of the larger culture, as Christian beliefs have been in other times and places. Yet we hold to the historic Christian position on this issue while being respectful of those who disagree with us.” (GFU-2)
On March 20, 2012, the Oregon Public Radio network ran a lengthy segment discussing One George Fox, with Southwick and the president of Common Ground sparring with a dean and professor at GFU. (OPB) The Huffington Post also published a blog about OGF. (HuffPO)
During the radio session, Southwick asserted that the university administration had warned GFU faculty that any public support of OGF, including signatures endorsing its letter, would constitute a violation of their employment contracts. The GFU dean, Sarah Baldwin, did not deny the charge, and this “gag rule” has been confirmed from other sources. (OPB)
By that time too, the group and its call was a topic of heavy email traffic among Northwest pastors, evoking expressions of “deep feelings,” in which much “disunity” was revealed, according to a report by NWYM Clerk Tom Stave. (Stave)
Soon enough, the extent and tenor of this traffic and talk made clear that, ready or not, the time had come for a full engagement by the Yearly Meeting, in session, with the issues involved (or perhaps re-engagement, if the 1982 and 1987 statements are taken as a starting point), however painful and risky the process might be.
Painful and risky? One pastor, Bill Moorman of Lynnwood Friends in Portland, took on this aspect, posing the question, “Why can’t this be a safe conversation?” His reply, in part:
“This cannot be a safe conversation because the stakes are high. Any conversation that has the potential for division, separation, or even just mutually exclusive outcomes will be inherently unsafe. . . . This conversation matters and even the future focus of our Yearly Meeting is at stake; that is risky. That is unsafe. And for what it is worth, this conversation is no more “safe,” in that sense, for those with whom you disagree. . . . We are coming from very different places, value wise. Yet, I hope we don’t follow the pattern of the culture wars around us: all of us feeling like victims, all of us claiming the others fired the first shot. Instead, I think it helpful to know that none of us get to claim sole victim status here.
“We stink as a denomination (and perhaps a culture) at being able to have difficult discussions. We are quick to say of those with whom we disagree that they are evil, irrational, or stupid, and probably mostly the former. . . . Even if we do not find unity, even if we end up splitting, let us at least learn to frame the issue in ways that all sides would agree on, and clearly delineate our differences, so that we have the right discussions.” (Moorman)
George Fox University is governed by its own board; and while Northwest Yearly Meeting appoints several board members, the school’s policies would be determined on the campus, not in the yearly Meeting. But there was another group, within the body’s jurisdiction, that had already taken a similar course to OneGeorge Fox, and a second spotlight was soon pointed back toward Portland. And the long quiet that had surrounded West Hills Friends Church’s welcoming policy turned suddenly to a very loud, cacophony.
Splitting Quaker Meetings Over Homosexuality
“Some in our yearly meeting are alarmed to find themselves in a conversation about same-gender relationships,” says the West Hills Friends’ history of this period, with no doubt deliberate understatement. “Some perceive questions about welcoming gays and lesbians to be an intentional disregard of Biblical authority. For some, it is a shock to discover that one church in the yearly meeting has already declared itself, (WHF)
One very outspoken critic has been Gar Mickelson, formerly Associate Superintendent of Local Outreach and Pastoral Care for Northwest Yearly Meeting (2008-2011), and former pastor at Hayden Lake-Anthem Friends Church in Idaho. He has suggested withdrawing from Northwest Yearly Meeting and forming a new Yearly Meeting.
We interviewed Sandy Wild, Director of Women’s Ministries at Anthem, about this. She said that Mickelson’s views are not representative of Anthem today. “[Gar] was very vocal and adamant, but he is no longer with us. So maybe we got pigeonholed in the Yearly Meeting because of that.”
Now, she says, the pastors are in unity that “We have no statement on homosexuality. We just want to love everyone…We don’t want to have statements and be divisive. It cuts people off from the gospel, and our bottom line is bringing the gospel to people.”
She also pointed out that the Yearly Meeting’s current approach to disciplining churches can cut both ways–adding that there has been talk of disciplining Anthem over differences with Northwest Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, due to the church’s ban on women in leadership roles. Wild says the church openly preached and enforced the ban for over 40 years. In Anthem’s case, however, discussion with the Yearly Meeting never moved to a formal discipline process.
Wild said there have been changes on this issue in the past three years, since the merger between Hayden Lake Friends Church and the younger Anthem Friends, which also brought pastoral leadership changes. Current lead pastor, Chris Lauri, came from a 15-year ministry to skateboard and snowboard youth. Sandy Wild says Lauri brought a different approach to women in ministry than previous leaders.
“I’ve been doing the work of a pastor for 16 years, but under our former pastor women couldn’t be pastors. We couldn’t have that title,” Wild says. “I was honored every year as part of the team but never given that title. Our new pastor asked ‘Why is Sandy Wild not a pastor?’…Last year Chris submitted my name to Yearly Meeting Elders to be a [recorded minister]. It was very sweet. I’ve been here for 16 years. And this was a very uplifting thing for me.”
Though Wild says she feels the change is significant, and that more is coming, there are still no women on Elders at Anthem. “Yet,” she emphasized. (Wild)
Moreover, Sandy Wild is still not listed as a “pastor” on the Anthem website, or in the yearly meeting church directory, as of January 2014. Further, in a three-year archive of Anthem’s online sermons, none were given by Wild, or any other female, though another Yearly Meeting member described preaching as Sandy Wild’s “greatest gift”.
And while Wild, speaking on behalf of the pastors, stated that for Anthem “our bottom line is that we have no statement”, the Anthem Elders appear to view the matter differently. In the spring of 2012, they sent a letter to yearly meeting officials, which reads in part:
“The Elders of the Hayden Friends-Anthem merger have grave concerns regarding what we see as a lack of unity between certain NWYM churches and individuals with the clearly stated NWYM Faith and Practice clauses regarding human sexuality. We all know that a house divided against itself will not stand. As a result of our concerns, the Hayden Friends-Anthem Elders make the following suggestions:
“The Elders of the Hayden Friends-Anthem merger agree that all persons serving in leadership positions on Yearly Meeting Boards, Yearly Meeting Staff, and/or leadership positions where there is influence over NWYM youth should each be willing to sign a statement supporting and upholding the current position on human sexuality as stated in NWYM Faith & Practice.
“The Elders of the Hayden Friends-Anthem merger agree that the nominating committee for NWYM should immediately put into place measures that would screen out persons not willing to sign a statement upholding the current position on human sexuality as stated in NWYM Faith & Practice. . . . .” (Hayden/Anthem)
Wild later told us she was unaware of this letter. This proposal has not yet been brought to the yearly meeting sessions, as specified by its formal business procedures.
Quaker Schism Over Homosexuality Progresses
Meanwhile, in Portland: “At West Hills Friends, we have felt the backlash of those who reject our position,” they stated. “Some have suggested that we have ‘broken covenant.’ Some have suggested that we would have more integrity if we left the yearly meeting. Some accusations have been harsher still.” (WHF)
But the responses from other churches, if tilted toward the negative, still spanned a fairly broad range. As Superintendent Becky Ankeny told us, “Churches above 100 probably have diverse sets of opinions, but churches under 30 tend to think more alike. That makes sense. But it isn’t a rural-urban split, and it’s not a young-old split–it just cuts across almost every demographic.”
This diversity is shown in the minutes that have surfaced. The Portland area churches, for instance, tried to stake out a middle ground. In a March 2013 minute they said,
“We . . . commit ourselves to each other under the care and nurture of the Holy Spirit. When disagreements arise, we will not position ourselves on opposite sides of an issue, but will stand with each other on the same side of a line, with divisiveness, rancor, enmity, and the like on the other side, recognizing them as the enemy of our being united in Christ. Our way forward to unity will be to wait together in the fear of the Lord, in humility of heart, in sobriety of judgement, in tenderness, meekness, coolness, and stillness of spirit until the Lord makes His will manifest.”(Portland)
West Hills did have at least a few vocal defenders. From down near the California border, Klamath Falls Friends, whose motto is “Joyfully Subversive,” sent in a proposal that the Faith and Practice section on sexuality be revised to delete references to homosexuality and change “marriage between man and woman” to “committed partners.” (Klamath)
From Camas Friends, across the Columbia River from Portland in Washington, came a minute which said, in part:
“We don’t want to see West Hills subtracted from the Yearly Meeting. They are part of us and we want to honor the process of discernment that they have labored through, even if not all of us are in unity with where they landed. We understand that some churches are discerning whether or not to leave the Yearly Meeting. If, indeed, some churches discern that they should leave the Yearly Meeting if West Hills remains, it raises the question: What causes the yearly meeting to support the discernment process of some churches, while seeking to discipline the discernment of others?” (Camas)
But more typical was a stiffly polite letter from Jon Boehm, Clerk of Cherry Grove Friends in Battleground, Washington. He wrote, in part:
“. . . [W]e are distressed to find that people in leadership within our yearly meeting churches are signatures to OneGeorgeFox. We are even more distressed to find that one or more of the churches in our covenantal community are in breach of the basic position in Faith and Practice. To our understanding, they openly accept committed homosexual relationships as an acceptable lifestyle within the blessing of their church. . . . It is one thing to collectively participate in a listening process where we gather input from our brothers and sisters in Christ, listen to the guidance of the Spirit, and examine the direction of Scripture. It is quite another to bypass Friends process and implement a dramatic shift in theology.” (Cherry Grove)
Sifting through the criticisms, West Hills was philosophical, but dogged: “Although these voices can be hurtful,” they wrote, “we remain committed to Northwest Yearly Meeting.”
But how committed the yearly meeting is to West Hills soon became open to question. After intensive discussions at the 2012 annual sessions, members of the NWYM Board of Elders met with West Hills Friends several times, going over their understanding of the Bible and the details of their welcoming policy. Then in October, the Elders told them that some of their policy statements were “out of compliance” with the Northwest Faith & Practice, and asked them to reconsider the “language around same-gender relationships.”
West Hills Friends agreed and over several months conducted their review. In March 2013, this review culminated in a minute, in which,
“West Hills Friends reaffirmed its commitment to welcoming lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and questioning people and to honoring their relationships. Our support for LGBTQ people is the result of God’s activity among us, and we will be faithful to that leading.”
In a gesture toward “peacemaking” with the Elders, they moved a statement on sexuality from one place on their website to the archives. The operative sentences of the statement are, “We believe that human sexuality is a gift from God. With that gift comes the responsibility to be thoughtful stewards of our sexuality.” It elevates monogamous marriage, but does not prescribe it as a divine mandate, or explicitly condemn other forms of expression that are consensual and non-violent. Further, while the location of the statement was changed, its status as representing WHF’s views was not.
By the beginning of the annual sessions of 2013, West Hills was advised that it was in serious jeopardy. Its position was not only “noncompliant,” but could be considered “shattering” to the yearly meeting, a determination calling for disciplinary action T hat judgment was to be made by the end of the annual sessions. And on July 25, 2013, West Hills Friends were handed a letter advising them that their position was indeed considered a “shattering” one and that the Board of Elders would undertake to “restore” the church to compliance, within two years.
A subcommittee of Elders was appointed to conduct this process. At the first meeting, West Hills Friends were advised that “changing Faith & Practice or seeking to heal the perceived “shattering” without a change in our church’s commitment to welcoming LGBTQ people is beyond the scope of their purpose. From the perspective of the Subcommittee, only a change in WHF’s sense of leading can lead to reconciliation.” (WHF)
Despite the Yearly Meeting leadership’s stated aim for the 2012 sessions “to create productive, ongoing process, to build our trust and respect for one another, and to make plenty of room for Christ to work with us,” (Stave) the actions of the Elders point to a starker situation:
West Hills has been given an ultimatum: rescind your welcoming declaration and policies within two years, or face expulsion or closure by the yearly meeting. In the latter case, the yearly meeting is authorized to claim all church-owned “real and personal property.”
A Quaker Congregation Welcoming to Homosexuals
After receiving the “shattering” letter, West Hills took a daring step: it put that letter, and a detailed account of its dealings with the Board of Elders, on its website for the whole yearly meeting, and the world, to see. “We believe that we have acted in good faith at every step,” their history says more than once. “Throughout the process of becoming a welcoming congregation, we’ve communicated openly and honestly with Superintendents and Elders.” (WHF)
Yet the Elders’ findings make no charge that West Hills Friends arrived at their position clandestinely or dishonestly. It is the substance of their stance which has put them on the road to expulsion, not the process by which they established it.
The incongruity of these statements illustrates an underlying conflict of values. West Hills Friends seems to be asserting that a discerned conviction, communicated honestly, should not be considered “shattering,” even if done out of unity with the Yearly Meeting’s processes or the Faith and Practice. The Elders don’t agree; and under the 2011 revision of NWYM’s F&P, it’s their call, and they have the authority to intervene. Indeed, the 2011 revisions could work effectively to grease the skids for their ouster.
To understand the key features of this revision, it is helpful to leave the Northwest for the Midwest briefly, and examine some recent struggles in other yearly meetings. We will glance at two: the effort to banish Indiana Quaker pastor Philip Gulley from Western Yearly Meeting, and the just-concluded schism, dubbed “reconfiguration” in Indiana Yearly Meeting.
Besides his pastoral work, Phil Gulley enjoyed several years of success as a writer of folksy tales about amusing characters inspired by people he had met and ministered to. His publisher, Multnomah Books based in Oregon, promoted his work effectively through “Christian” bookstores.
But in 2003, when Gulley wrote a nonfiction book, If Grace Is true, in which he espoused a universalist theology, Multnomah dropped him like a theological hot potato, and Gulley moved to the more liberal-oriented Harper One Books. Three times thereafter, proposals came to the floor of Western Yearly Meeting to strip Gulley of his recording credentials due to “heresy”; and all three times pushed strongly by the former Superintendent.
But in the face of loud and sustained objections, the Clerk properly determined there was nothing like unity in support of the effort. These objections didn’t necessarily convey agreement with Gulley’s evolving theology; rather, they were standing up for leaving him be, accountable to the meeting which paid his salary, and putting a stop to yearly meeting heresy-hunting. In 2009, after the third and final rejection, a handful of strongly evangelical-oriented meetings left Western in protest; the Superintendent soon left as well. As of this writing, Gulley remains a credentialed pastor, at Fairfield, Indiana Friends Meeting, where has served since the early 1990s. And he continues to publish. (Fager, 2003, 2009)
The story in Western was one of the mpts to banish an unorthodox pastor from above. In Indiana, the problem was an entire local Meeting, West Richmond Friends, which, like West Hills, adopted a “welcoming” stance toward LGBT persons, announced it on the meeting website, and declined to rescind it as demanded by the yearly meeting leadership. In this case, the ultimate outcome was a full-blown purge, completed in July 2013. Packaged as a “reconfiguration” by its advocates, headed by the Superintendent and the Clerk, it resulted in the departure/expulsion of more than fifteen of its member groups. (See the article elsewhere in this issue by Stephen Angell on the last phases of this schism; earlier reports are in QT #18-#22.)
In the Indiana struggle, the key organizational issue was the rdination of local meetings to yearly meeting authority. The Indiana Faith & Practice is ambiguous on this point, and the previous practice has been even more so. But in this case, a determined leadership got their way.
What has all this got to do with Northwest’s revision of its Faith & Practice? Consider the timing here:
The Gulley case was first argued unsuccessfully on the floor in Western Yearly Meeting in 2007. West Richmond posted its welcoming minute in 2008. And reportedly, many eyes in Northwest were fixed on both, as the events unfolded.
Viewed in this broader context, the major changes to Northwest’s Faith and Practice in 2009 have dramatically altered the way such situations will be handled, and by whom. In summary, the changes would (page references are to F&P-NWYM, 2011):
- Make even more explicit the yearly meeting’s ultimate and total authority over local meetings. (p. 25)
- Delegate enforcement of this authority to a Board of Elders, which often operates privately or even confidentially; (p. 47)
- Create a new category of “shattering” offenses, but with no definition of the term, no criteria for invoking it, and no standards of equity in its application; (p. 33)
- Put all a church’s property on the line in a conflict with the Elders (p. 33); and
- Limit appeals of adverse decisions by the Elders to another subgroup, that is nominated by the Elders, without any further review by the yearly meeting in full session. (p. 67)
The proposals were first presented in 2009, and brought up for decision at the 2011 session. The proposal on authority was rephrased but not altered in substance; then it and the other provisions, on Elders intervention, “shattering”, and the revised appeals process were approved as proposed.
Questions about “Shattering”
These provisions, particularly the one about “shattering,” raise several pressing questions, among them:
- What does “shattering” mean?
- How is it identified? Are there degrees of it?
- How can such a standard be applied equitably?
In our review of other books of Faith & Practice and Disciplines, we did not find the term listed anywhere else. The closest to it was in that of the Evangelical Friends Church-Eastern Region, which provides that “If any church manifests such lack of unity and love as may lead to disruption,” the Evangelistic, Pastoral, & Extension Board (EP&E), along with the Superintendent, can “take the control and management of the church until such time as it sees fit to return it to its regular plan of operation.” (Emphasis added.) “Disruption” is not further defined.
The objective is “a satisfactory settlement,” as determined by the Superintendent and the EP&E board.
And if a church were dissatisfied with their decision, the appeal process is simplicity itself: there is none. (EFC-ER, Sections #1208.g; #1249-#1251)
So whether “shattering” or “disruption,” the result could be much the same. But outside of books of Faith and Practice, we did find the term “shattering” used in one of the recent yearly meeting conflicts, that in Indiana Yearly Meeting over the decision of West Richmond Meeting to announce its welcoming status.
As reported in Quaker Theology #19 by a participant in the negotiations over the body’s fate, the task force examining alternatives was finally convinced that without the (involuntary) departure of West Richmond and its like-minded meetings, “that there might be a ‘chaotic shattering’ of the yearly meeting.” Exactly what this “chaotic shattering” might have looked like was not explained. Instead, they got a schism which was relatively non-chaotic, but hardly less than shattering.
But perhaps there are other ways to scope out the unexplained meaning of “shattering.” Because in the American Quaker schisms of the past century, especially those involving evangelical groups, there is a distinctive and oft-repeated pattern: differences, ultimatums, and then some “resolution,” very often involving group departures.
Thus, for instance, in the 1920s, Oregon yearly Meeting’s leadership was dissatisfied with the personnel and the doctrinal character of the Five Years Meeting, and when it became clear that they could not change it, they left. Same for Kansas (now Mid America YM). In the late 1950s, what became Rocky Mountain Yearly Meeting demanded release from Nebraska YM and its connection through the Five Years Meeting to the National Council of Churches; the NCC was then seen by many evangelicals as run by Communists or the Anti-Christ, or both. (McIntyre) In the early 1990s, California Yearly Meeting, now Evangelical Friends Church Southwest, undertook to bring about a “realignment” of Friends United Meeting in accord with its doctrinal views; and when that didn’t happen, they too left. And we have already reviewed the push against Phil Gulley in Western, plus the latest Indiana purge.
Given this long, recurring history, the pattern is easily recognizable: Several vocal pastors and other outspoken church members form a caucus, pick a target, based on issues which can be doctrinal, social or political, and insist that either those people go, or they will leave, and take their churches and donations with them.
Such “disruptions” happen often enough that the Evangelical Friends Church Southwest candidly specifies in its Faith & Practice (p. 50) that church property titles are to be held by the denomination, because that “discourages hostile takeovers, insuring that Friends churches remain Friends.” (EFC-SW)
The Northwest F&P is not as forthright. Yet given its statement on authority, the Elders could just as legitimately intervene with the churches which are threatening to leave on the basis that their talk of schism is as “shattering” to the yearly meeting as doctrinal disagreement, and instruct them to live with the differences. This could be called a Galatians 6:2 option, “bearing with” the burden of political, cultural or theological diversity, and working it through patiently to a new “sense of the meeting that is not the result of power struggles and schism. One could even argue that such threats of exodus are more likely to “shatter” the body. West Hills, by contrast, has repeatedly declared its loyalty to NWYM.
The issue of equity likewise looms large. In the 2011 Faith & Practice there are two statements condemning homosexuality. But there are also in it no less than seven declarations, dating back as far as 1887, specifying that the equality of the sexes, in church and out, is an integral part of the yearly meeting’s Quaker Christian testimony. (pp. 2, 10, 13, 20, 23, 81) Yet Anthem-Hayden Lake has been openly defying them for four decades, and still is, without consequence.Such widely disparate treatment brings to mind Leviticus 19:15: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.”
How can “shattering” be defined and applied to meet this biblical standard, when it is functionally being defined as, “if someone threatens to leave over it, that makes it ‘shattering”?
While these queries simmer, what of George Fox University, with its faculty under “gag order”, and Common Ground still excluded from campus recognition? The pressure for change there continues: the letter from One George Fox is still circulating, and now has well over 400 signers, including notable former GFU professors.
The letters and minutes cited above reveal multiple tensions pulling Northwest Yearly Meeting in various directions today. In contrast to some other struggles in the world of Friends, however, it appears that yearly meeting officials want to avoid a “Western” or “Indiana” type scenario. Is another way possible?
“I hope so,” says superintendent Becky Ankeny. But, she admits, “These are high stakes. To get these folks together will take an act of God.”
References & Links
Angell, Stephen W. Reports on A Schism in Indiana Yearly Meeting. Quaker Theology, Issues #18-#22; #24 http:// www.quaker.org/quest
Camas Friends Church, Letter to NWYM Elders, 9/23/2013.
Cherry Grove Friends Church, Letter to Clerks of NWYM Churches, no date.
(Circa Spring 2012)
EFC-ER: Evangelical Friends Church-Eastern Region. Faith & Practice, 2013 Edition:
EFC-SW: Evangelical Friends Church Southwest.
Faith & Practice:
F&P-NWYM: Faith & Practice, Northwest Yearly Meeting, 2011 Revision:
Fager, Chuck. Without Apology: the Heroes, the Heritage, and the Hope of Liberal Quakerism. Kimo Press, 1996.
Fager, Chuck. Review of “Gulley, Phil, and Mulholland, James. If Grace Is True, and Ballou, Hosea, A Treatise On Atonement. In Quaker Theology, #9, 2003:
Fager, Chuck. “Update & Preview, Philip Gulley, Western Yearly Meeting, And An Excerpt from His Forthcoming Book,” in Quaker Theology, #16, 2009: http://quakertheology.org/issue16-gulley01.htm
GFU-1: George Fox University, “Sexual Purity”,
Hayden/Anthem: Hayden lake Friends Church & Anthem Friends, “Statement By The Elders,” no date (circa Spring 2012)
HUFFPO: Davis, Ron, “Evangelical Universities, Gay Students and Faculty Freedom,” Huffington Post-Religion, 04/13/2012
Human Rights Campaign:
Inside: “No Longer a Silent Minority,” Inside Higher Education, December 17, 2012:
Klamath Falls Friends, Notes on Minute
McIntyre: “Remembering the Ministry of the Reverend Dr. Carl McIntyre: An essay suggesting that the National Council of Churches was both Communist and part of the plans of the Antichrist: http://www.carlmcintire.org/booklets-acccVnccc.php
Moorman, Bill. “Why We Don’t Get It”, no date (circa late 2012)
NWYM, 2007: Epistle. http://nwfriends.org/epistles/nwym-2007-epistle/
OGF: One George Fox: OGFU: http://www.onegeorgefox.org
OPB: Oregon Public Broadcasting. “Sexuality at George Fox University.” Think Out Loud, March 20, 2012:
Oregon: Freedom to Marry:
Portland Area Friends Churches, Minute, May 18, 2013.
Southwick, Paul. Interview with Jade Souza.
Stave, Tom, “Introductory statement,” Monday, July 23, 2012
WHF: WestHills Friends, “History of Process”:
Wild, Sandy. Interview with Jade Souza.