On July 24, 2015, only hours after the annual NWYM sessions had adjourned, NWYM elders communicated to West Hills Friends Meeting (WHF) that they had been expelled, or, in the elders’ term, “released,” from the yearly meeting.
This action has a long pre-history that we have covered in QT #24. WHF is a 1989 “church plant” in Portland, Oregon. It has been wrestling with the question of whether to provide welcome and affirmation for gay and lesbian members almost since its inception, particularly as new and continuing attenders frequently raised the question.
After an extended period of consideration by the Meeting’s elders, WHF approved two statements in 2008. A statement on Authority declared: “It is our experience and testimony that God works through people without regard for race, age, gender or sexual orientation.” Another statement discerned characteristics of healthy sexual relationships that would be applicable regardless of sexual orientation. They thus became part of the Congregation of Welcoming Congregations “working toward full inclusion and equality for transgender, lesbian, bisexual, gay, and questioning persons.” (West Hill Friends, “History of Process”)
They reported the results of discernment promptly to the Yearly Meeting Superintendent, but for four years, they heard nothing, except that it was not timely for NWYM to take up these issues. Yearly Meeting Clerk Tom Stave wrote that, while, for two years prior to 2012, the Board of Elders had been discussing (in private) possible clarifications to the NWYM Faith & Practice on issues of human sexuality, in general these issues had “been present below the surface in Northwest Yearly Meeting for some time, but not in a way that fosters healthy and open treatment. Not in a way that encourages trustful and respectful dialogue.” (Stave 2012, 22-23; see also NWYM 2010, 54; 2011, 57)
Let’s digress for a moment, to examine some possible exceptions to this generalization. Stave acknowledged that some young Friends in NWYM had “expressed concern” over controversial remarks by Bob Adhikary, a Friends’ missionary in Nepal who had addressed NWYM in 2009. According to Micah Bales, a visitor to NWYM sessions, Adhikary had described the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005 as evidencing the wrath of God having been loosed “on the United States for accepting sin – in particular, homosexuality.” The Senior High Epistle subsequently noted that some of Adhikary’s statements had “caused a difference of opinion among the members of our group.” The epistle of the entire Northwest Yearly Meeting quoted the Senior High Epistle on this matter. (Stave 2012, 23; Bales 8/3/2009; NWYM 2009, 21-22, 28)
During the 2008 sessions, the ministry of Tony Campolo, a Baptist minister and a well-known Evangelical Christian leader, had also addressed the issue of homosexuality, but, according to Stave, in a different way than Adhikary. (Stave 2012, 23) At that time, Campolo’s aim in addressing issues of human sexuality was to build “bridges of understanding.” He then argued for the conservative position that the Bible did not approve of gay or lesbian sexuality (see Appendix 1 for Tony Campolo’s Scriptural interpretations in respect to homosexuality). However, his wife Peggy supported monogamous, same-sex relationships, and Tony Campolo said they would discuss the issue publically and with great respect for each other’s position. On the whole, Tony Campolo has been remarkably empathetic and supportive of gays and lesbians. (Gay Christian Network; Tony and Peggy Campolo, 5/1999)
In June 2015, Campolo shifted positions, and came out in support of same-sex marriage and of full acceptance in Christian churches of gay Christian couples. “Through Peggy, I have come to know so many gay Christian couples whose relationships work in much the same way as our own.” (Campolo 6/8/2015)
We’ll return now to issues surrounding WHF. After the formation in March, 2012, of the GFU alumni group, OneGeorgeFox, the issue suddenly took on heightened urgency. West Hills Friends were supporters of OneGeorgeFox. A variety of interactions of this Meeting with the Elders of NWYM ensued, with some interactions being supportive, and others less so. Other steps also were taken, including small group discussions of issues of human sexuality at Yearly Meeting sessions, revealing diverse attitudes and opinions. (Participants in this process were advised not to let their diverse opinions disrupt NWYM Unity. As one comment declared, “If you wanna go fast, go alone. If you wanna go far, walk together.”)
There was also an effort to rewrite the applicable sections of Faith and Practice (see Appendix 2) so that NWYM’s public pronouncements on the subject could be “season[ed] … with grace.” (NWYM 2012, 8; NWYM 2013, 18) Opinions were solicited from monthly meetings in NWYM, and meetings responded with epistles stating their sense of the meeting. According to Jon Kershner, minister of McKinley Hill Friends Church in Tacoma, WA, it seems that an “overwhelming” majority favoring preserving NWYM’s present positions on human sexuality. Some meetings were divided and could not come to consensus on a response.
On October 18, 2012, a group of NWYM Elders, in a meeting with some West Hills Friends, asked WHF to reconsider their minutes of human sexuality. The latter agreed to do so, but the Spirit guided them back to the same place they had been. In March, 2013, they minuted their reaffirmation of “welcoming lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and questioning people and to honoring their relationships.”
(Note, according to the NWYM Faith & Practice, the Board of Elders is described as “a wise, discerning, and spiritually mature group of Friends who help encourage the overall, spiritual welfare of NWYM.”
Among numerous other duties, it is expected to:
“• Respond to crises and serve as peacemakers in NWYM, offering and implementing a process for reconciliation as needed.” [And]
“• Oversee matters of church discipline and doctrinal dispute.” http://nwfriends.org/governance/boards/elders/)
In the spring of 2013, WHF was deemed by NWYM Elders to be “out of compliance” with the Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice (especially with a 1982 statement of NWYM that had condemned homosexuality as unscriptural in very strong terms), and on July 25, 2013, was found by the NWYM Elders to be both a “noncompliant” and a “shattering” presence within the Yearly Meeting. (West Hills Friends, “History of Process;” NWYM Board of Elders, 7/25/2013)
The Elders wrote, “We recognize that this action may seem punitive, but our goal for this process is restorative – to return West Hills Friends to full fellowship and harmony with NWYM.” (NWYM Board of Elders, 7/2013b)
At the same time, the NWYM Elders handed West Hills Friends their “Draft Proposal for a Formal Process to Deal with Churches in Noncompliance with Faith and Practice.” It noted that the Board of Elders can receive from anyone an allegation of noncompliance with Faith & Practice. The Board must then investigate to determine, first, if the allegation is true, and second, “If the noncompliance rises to the level of being ‘shattering to the local church or to the YM’ as required by Faith and Practice.”
The Elders determined the answer to be “yes” to both of these questions.
In which case, the procedures then stipulated, “this determination is minuted and a Letter of Noncompliance is issued to the church including the relevant Faith & Practice process leading to substantial compliance or to dissolution of the church’s relationship to NWYM. The sub-committee has up to 2 years to effect reconciliation or to determine that reconciliation is not possible. If progress is being made, the 2 year requirement can be extended by approval of the Board of Elders. … If reconciliation is not possible, the Board of Elders issues a Declaration of Dissolution severing the church’s relationship to NWYM, including membership and removing members who serve on YM Boards, committees, and commissions. Property issues are dealt with in consultation with the NWYM Trustees, and should be handled with grace, making every effort to send them away with our blessing. … The local church receiving the Declaration of Dissolution has the opportunity to appeal the decision of the Board of Elders to the Presiding Clerk.” (NWYM Board of Elders, 7/2013a)
(Notice that this process document did not give permission for local churches, not marked for “dissolution,” to appeal on the behalf of their aggrieved sister church. That broadened basis for appeal came later, perhaps after the “release” of West Hills was announced in July 2015.)
Explaining the Elders’ finding of WHF to be “noncompliant” is straightforward. Mike Huber writes, “By welcoming LGBTQ people as full participants in the life of our meeting, WHF became out of compliance with the Faith & Practice of NWYM. I think everyone agrees about that.” (Huber, 8/24/2015)
But, if our readers find their use of the word “shattering” mystifying, rest assured that this journal’s contributors and editors found it mystifying, too. It is a relatively recent addition to NWYM’s Faith and Practice, having been approved only in 2009, as part of a disciplinary section that, for the first time, would sanction erring churches, not just erring individuals. There was no explanation of the term’s origin or specific meaning.
In our 2014 report, Quaker Theology attempted to find an explanation of its meaning and history. In brief, it seems to arise from a decades-long history of outspoken pastors and other church leaders in various yearly meetings in Friends United Meeting and Evangelical Friends Church International, attempting to compel some monthly meetings, those of which they did not approve, into submission or departure, by verbal abuse, threats of withhold yearly meeting financial donations, or leaving the body altogether, along with a variety of other means, official and unofficial. (Fager and Souza 2014)
Thus this use of the term “shattering”in relation to West Hills seems to imply that specific Friends Churches threatened to leave NWYM if West Hills was not disciplined. Mike Huber, pastor of West Hills Friends, also understands the term to have this meaning, as NWYM Elders use it: “In short, ‘shattering’ simply means that the conflict was threatening division in our YM.” (Huber, 8/24/2015) However, no communications from individual churches that make such threats have been made public.
The Portland Area Meeting, consisting of eleven Friends churches including West Hills, communicated their disagreement with the use of the word “shattering” in a letter to the Elders in November, 2013. They wrote:
We are concerned about the lack of objective criteria for the Elders to use in determining whether something is “shattering” to the Yearly Meeting. There is no definition of this word in the Faith and Practice. We are puzzled by the sudden application of this undefined term to pressure West Hills into reversing their position on an issue which they have held for quite some time and was not previously considered “shattering” by the Elders of the Yearly Meeting. We are concerned that a church might be forced out of the Yearly Meeting based on a subjective understanding of an undefined and unqualified word. (Reedwood Friends, 8/18/2015)
Reedwood Friends admonishes its fellow NWYM Friends Churches as follows:
We call upon churches who have advocated for expulsion or reorganization to cease these efforts, as these are the actions that have proven shattering to our body. … We call upon Elders to implement a process of reconciliation between those churches who feel that they cannot live in fellowship with each other. (Reedwood Friends, 8/18/2015)
Generally, it is not true that the conservative Friends churches diverge from yearly meeting policy less often than the liberal ones do. For example, as we covered in QT #24, conservative Friends churches have often excluded women from the pastorate or certain other forms of church leadership, contrary to NWYM Faith and Practice. (Fager and Souza 2014, 108) Jon Kershner notes that NWYM meetings have advocated US military intervention, something else that is in contravention of positions held by Evangelical and other Friends for centuries.
But, while there have been complaints about this, liberal churches in NWYM have not tried to drum out conservative ones over such divergences. Kershner states, “I would not advocate excluding churches that support military intervention. But neither should WHF be excluded from the YM. NWYM, as a Christ-centered yearly meeting, can hold different views on Biblical interpretation, and how it is being expressed socially, without excluding anybody.” (Kershner, 8/14/2015)
The Elders’ disciplinary process toward West Hills struck some NWYM Friends as an unwarranted intrusion of unhealthy politics from the outside world. The Portland Area Meeting wrote in 2013 of their concern that the Elders’ process “mirrors the political allegiances of the country rather than being characterized by the priorities of the upside-down kingdom. We desire to see a process in which Jesus, rather than cultural allegiance, is truly the head of our meetings and discussions.” (Reedwood Friends, 8/18/2015)
None of the three members of the Elders’ Subcommittee that met with West Hills Friends, hailed from the Portland region, however. Two of the elders came from Idaho. The third was the pastor of North Seattle (WA) Friends. Yet West Hills Friends did not experience the Elders’ investigation as hostile. “The subcommittee and most YM Elders have been demonstrably kind and loving toward us.” (Huber, 8/24/2015)
But discussions with others in the broader NWYM community often “had too little Light and way too much heat,” reflected Greg Morgan, a WHF member and elder. “It has still been painful to listen to dear Friends in this meeting recount the vitriolic personal attacks they have suffered through and endured from those claiming the mantle of Christianity. It is beyond my capacity to understand how such attacks can be grounded in the love of which the Scriptures speak so profusely.” (Morgan, 8/1/2015)
Meanwhile, the Faith and Practice subcommittee charged with rewriting the NWYM statements on Human Sexuality reported the results of their work at the 2014 Annual Sessions, proposing the following language:
We believe that God created humans with a desire for connected community, for friendship, for family, for sexual intimacy, all of which are part of God’s good creation. We give testimony that the purpose of sexual intimacy is both for procreation and for formation and sustenance of bonds of mutual love and respect between husband and wife, which nurtures the health and stability of the family and the community. We believe, therefore, that distortions of sexual intimacy including infidelity, premarital sex, same-sex sexual acts, and pornography contribute to the brokenness of the individual and community. (NWYM 2014, 20)
The resulting discussion on the floor of NWYM annual sessions was “tender and respectful,” but NWYM Friends “were unable to come to unity” to move this language forward in the discipline revision process.
Subsequently, NWYM Superintendent Becky Ankeny proposed a five-year moratorium on revisions in the sexuality statement.
She would like us to lay down our conflict over it and spend time learning how to be loving neighbors to those in the sexual minority among us and outside us. She hopes we can be a YM where people can be who they are, where each of us, including sexual minorities, can praise God for the body and mind we have been given. ALL of us need to lay our entire identity down at the feet of Jesus. She asked that we make no “sudden movements”: specifically, that we not perform same-sex weddings and that we desist from threatening to leave. (NWYM 2014, 21)
Mike Huber notes that Ankeny’s “request for ‘no sudden moves’ included a request that Friends stop using Faith & Practice as a tool for division. … Later communications made it abundantly clear that Becky’s request was personal and informal, not the official policy for NWYM. Just as WHF rejected a five-year moratorium on same-sex marriage, others refused to extend the discernment process to five years. Her ‘deal’ had no buyers.” (Huber, 8/26/2015)
With this impasse, the question of unity or separation within NWYM loomed larger. Recognizing this fact, the Portland Area Meeting and seven local churches (North Seattle, North Valley, Camas, Eugene, Newberg, Reedwood, and Klamath Falls) all “independently affirmed that they were in consensus to remain unified despite holding differing convictions on sexual expression for gays and lesbians.” (Reedwood Friends Church, 8/20/2015)
In May 2014, same-sex marriage became legal in Oregon. In the following month, West Hills approved the following statement: “West Hills Friends stands in unity in our support for same-sex marriages and stands with our pastors when they are lead to officiate at same-sex weddings. These leadings have been seasoned by many years of discernment and by our shared life as a welcoming community.” (WHF, 6/22/2014) West Hills pastor Mark Pratt-Russum remarks that he and fellow West Hills pastor Mike Huber “wanted clarity” as to what they could do after same-sex marriage became legal in their state. An older lesbian couple in their congregation had been eager to marry when it became possible.” (Pratt-Russum, 8/20/2015) They had become members of WHF in 2011; “they are both loved and valued as ‘weighty Friends’ in our community.” (Huber, 8/26/2015)
This was not a difficult discernment process for West Hill Friends, because “our decision to be welcoming and affirming means certain things,” and one of those things was recognizing and honoring same-sex relationships on the same basis as opposite-sex relationships – and now the way was clear to do so by marriage. “But we knew going into it that it would be a problem with the yearly meeting.” (Pratt-Russum, 8/20/2015)
Mike Huber elaborates, “When the WHF Elders met with the YM subcommittee on July 29, 2014, the Yearly Meeting elders asked WHF to refrain from same-sex marriages for a year (until the expiration of our two-year process). They informed us that the two-year time frame might be abbreviated if there was a same-sex wedding at WHF.
At the time, WHF had no plan to perform a same-sex wedding. However, the WHF Elders refused to make any commitments. In fact, they wrote this reply: “WHF Elders are deeply troubled by the inequality implicit in the request for a moratorium on marriages that would apply only to our gay and lesbian Friends. After honoring the request to prayerfully consider our position, the Elders of this meeting do not recommend reopening our discernment in support of same sex marriages.” (Huber, 8/26/2015)
On May 23, 2015, about two months prior to yearly meeting sessions, the lesbian couple mentioned above was indeed married in the West Hill Friends Church by Mike Huber. Some NWYM Friends see this as a regrettable violation of Faith & Practice, and also believe that WHF should have acceded to Superintendent Becky Ankeny’s request that member churches engage in no “sudden movements” like same-sex marriage. (Anderson, 8/18/2015) Huber writes that, after the marriage just mentioned, “We heard that at least some of the YM Elders felt ‘betrayed’ by our action. To me, ‘betrayal’ suggests that we misrepresented ourselves in some way. That’s hard for me to fathom. We’d been saying ‘We support LGBTQ people and honor their relationships’ for at least three years. In 2014, we overtly refused any agreement to delay same-sex marriage. While I certainly knew that YM Elders opposed same-sex marriages (and would not be happy about the wedding), I honestly don’t understand why some would perceive our actions as betrayal. In any case, it’s certainly fair to say that the same-sex marriage ‘became an additional point of contention between WHF and the Yearly Meeting Elders.’
“I’d like to add, however, that I personally believe WHF would’ve been expelled whether or not we had a same-sex wedding. Although today’s NWYM would never find unity around the current statement on sexuality (written in 1982), the YM Elders created a process that had one doorway to reconciliation: ‘bringing WHF back into compliance’ with Faith & Practice. I don’t think anyone expected WHF to change its sense of leading about LGBTQ folks. This point is especially important to me, because I don’t want the couple married on May 23 to think that their ceremony wrecked an otherwise plausible reconciliation. Not only would that implication be unkind, it’s simply not accurate.” (Huber, 8/26/2015)
Beginning at the 2013 yearly meeting sessions, the NWYM Elders had allowed two years for West Hill Friends to conform to the Elders’ understanding of Faith and Practice. This two-year period expired in July, 2015. The Elders did not address the issue of WHF during the yearly meeting sessions, as they said they were listening intently to discussions around sexuality during sessions.
(We note for comparison that in Indiana Yearly Meeting, between 2011 and 2013, most of the decisions relating to purging a nonconforming monthly meeting, and its supporters, took place away from yearly meeting sessions, in Representative Council Meetings. To us this indicates a pattern of not wanting open scrutiny of such actions when the greatest and most representative sampling of Friends from the yearly meeting will be present.)
On July 24, shortly after NWYM sessions had closed, and Friends were returning home, the NWYM elders released the following statement:
Recognizing that our yearly meeting is unable to embrace our current diversity, and recognizing the shattering that is ensuing, with grace and charity we sorrowfully release West Hills Friends Church from NWYM membership. It is our hope that this will free WHFC to pursue the call of God they have discerned. We record our respect for the process WHFC has followed and the sincerity of their convictions, which include their affirmation of committed same sex relationships and the decision to perform weddings. We are grateful for the respect this body has shown us as elders and for the friendships that have developed. We grieve our loss, even as we recognized the pain this community will feel at being disconnected from the NWYM of Friends. We have experienced WHFC as a strong, healthy, growing community of Christian Friends, and we know that in spite of this painful and unwanted action, they will continue to thrive, perhaps forming other connections. We nurture the hope that a reconnection with NWYM might be possible in the future.
Even so, out of love for the whole of NWYM, we sense that this is the way forward. While we respect WHFC’s convictions, we recognize that NWYM as a whole is not in any position to recognize same-sex marriages or record as pastors people who are living in committed same-sex relationships. We discern that taking no action in the case of WHFC would only cause more shattering at this point in time.
Our Faith and Practice provides a way to appeal this decision.
We recognize that as a yearly meeting, we are not in consensus over our statement on human sexuality in the Faith and Practice. We recognize that we need to do the hard work of theological reflection as Friends on the issues of revelation (including the authority of both the written and living Word of God) and human sexuality (in a broader sense than just LGBTQ issues). As elders we plan to facilitate this reflection. We need to seek and discover what God is saying to us at this time around these issues, in a spirit of humility, love and faith in a God who delights to unlock these mysteries.
The NWYM Elders attempted to square the circle by delivering a controversial, divisive decision in a tender tone, one that was careful not to foreclose possibilities of reconciliation and reunification. Nancy Thomas, one of the elders, wrote, “We [elders] went into yearly meeting week mindful of the differing perspectives we represented, matching the whole gamut of positions in the wider yearly meeting. But throughout the week we managed to proceed with love and respect for each other. And we did indeed come to a new place. We found we could not find fault with WHF for not ‘being in compliance’ with a section of Faith and Practice that the yearly meeting no longer holds in consensus. . . . We came to the language of ‘releasing’ WHF out of our growing respect for the way these brothers and sisters were moving forward, our desire for their spiritual prosperity and our hope for a future reconnection.” (Thomas 8/1/2015)
While the good intentions for the use of the word “release” are evident in Thomas’s blog post, it is still an odd usage, given that “release” (in Friends’ parlance) generally means a divine leading that is shared by any individual involved, as well as all radiating circles of Friends’ community, and is therefore something that is acted on out of a sense of the broadest possible unity. A Quaker pastor, for example, is often known as a “released Friend.” And while unprogrammed Friends do not have pastors, they will sometimes release one of their members for a ministry supported by the whole meeting community.
I have made several attempts to interview members of the Board of Elders about their decision, all unsuccessful.
West Hills Friends Church (with an average attendance of 130 persons weekly, although somewhat fewer in the summer) had a “varied” response to the Elders’ letter, according to Pratt-Russum: “There are congregation members who have grown up in the yearly meeting, who have relied on the yearly meeting, and for them, the decision was extremely painful. It felt like a family split. On the other end of the spectrum, many LGBTQ members in our congregation had looked at NWYM as an oppressor, and for many of them, the decision came as something of a relief. For other LGBTQ Friends, it was painful because they were once again being told that they are not welcome at the table. The majority of the members of the church fall in the middle and feel all of these emotions.”
They responded also to the statements of affirmation in the Elders’ letter: West Hill Friends “have listened to the Spirit of God for a long time, and the yearly meeting honored the process we went through in its letter.” Pratt-Russum summarizes, “There is heartbreak all around, for many, many reasons. We’re doing our best to surround our LGBT Friends with love. We reassure them that nothing has changed about how we – or how God – loves them. The bottom line is that we’re OK – nothing’s really going to change.” (Pratt-Russum, 8/20/2015)
The relationship, over two years, of the NWYM Board of Elders with West Hill Friends has come under considerable scrutiny in the weeks following their action. Those critical of the Elders’ decision to “release” West Hill Friends have pointed to what the relationship of the Elders with WHF was not. WHF was never formally taken under the Elders’ care, as it would have if it had been deemed a dysfunctional meeting. Indeed, the Elders found WHF to be “a strong, healthy, growing community of Christian Friends.” (Hillsboro Friends Church); May all the Friends’ meetings in NWYM and elsewhere be worthy of such high praiseཀ
All acknowledge that what the Elders were attempting to do with WHF was unprecedented, uncharted territory, and no one has a neat description for it. Perhaps we can say that the Elders were attempting to negotiate a sharp conflict in Quaker beliefs and testimony. WHF had come to clarity on a Quaker testimony to welcome and affirm LGBT Friends. Other meetings were divided on the subject of “welcoming and affirming.” Still other meetings and other Friends (one could include some members of the Board of Elders here) were generally agreed that they should be “welcoming” and “nonjudgmental” toward LGBT people in their midst. (Anderson 8/18/2015) But they also had clarity, in regard to human sexuality, that only heterosexual relationships, in the context of marriage between a man and a woman, were divinely approved, based on their Biblical interpretation and understanding of Quaker precedent.
Huber (who emphasizes that he is only speaking for himself in what follows) characterizes the position of those who want WHF to leave NWYM as follows:
In NWYM, there are people who sincerely believe that integrity requires them to oppose any step away from clearly condemning all homosexual behavior. Those who hold this position are not ignorant. They know there’s a difference between behavior and orientation. Some of them have openly repented of speaking about sexual minorities in ways that are carelessly hurtful. They have searched their hearts and believe the Bible requires them to reject all sexual behavior that falls outside straight, heterosexual marriage. As they see it, God will not allow them to remain in an organization that cannot speak with one voice on this issue. From this perspective, ‘agreeing to disagree” is tantamount to apostasy. (Huber, 8/24/2015)
In the face of such clashing testimonies, the Elders felt it necessary to negotiate the best possible solution to preserve the unity of the yearly meeting. Jon Kershner believes that “the Elders discerned the will of the Yearly Meeting as best they could and came to a painful decision.” While he does not blame the Elders for their interpretation of Quaker process, he does look forward to the increased transparency that may result from other NWYM meetings becoming engaged in the appeals process. (Kershner, 8/14/2015)
While the elders were undoubtedly wise in making an attempt to speak to the entire range of NWYM’s very diverse constituencies, the intense flurry of reaction on social media (especially the Northwest Yearly Meeting YAF Facebook page, a public group, and NWYMunity.com, an ad hoc website) indicates that their attempts to find middle ground have largely failed with some important yearly meeting constituencies, especially Young Adult Friends in NWYM, arguably the yearly meeting’s future.
According to some estimates, while NWYM Young Adult Friends may vary in their views on welcoming and affirming LGBT people, the vast majority of YAFs favor preservation of yearly meeting unity, and oppose the expulsion of West Hills Friends. John Price, a NWYM elder, posted comments on the NWYM YAF page, assuring young adults that they were being heard, but because of the confidentiality that is asked of the Board of Elders, he could shed little light on the Elders’ decisions. A frustrated YAF wondered why the Elders are so willing to sacrifice transparency for the sake of confidentiality.
It is also clear that the patience of some NWYM YAFs is not unlimited. One who posted on the YAF page had transferred her church membership to the Disciples of Christ Church months previously, because she could not wait any longer to be part of a welcoming and affirming congregation. Other spoke openly of their growing disaffection and anger. (NWYM Young Adult Friends)
That same month, almost two thousand miles east, the Mennonite Church USA, another pacifist, strongly Christ-centered denomination, had approved on July 2, by a vote of 581 to 228, a “Forbearance Resolution” modeling a way of “grace, love, and forbearance” for dealing with disagreements over issues of human sexuality. They did so while affirming, on the same day by a 473-to-310 majority, their traditional stance that marriage is to be between one man and one woman. (Schrag, 7/3/2015) Even so, they found unity in the following statement:
We acknowledge that there is currently not consensus within Mennonite Church USA on whether it is appropriate to bless Christians who are in same-sex covenanted unions. Because God has called us to seek peace and unity as together we discern and seek wisdom on these matters, we call on all those in Mennonite Church USA to offer grace, love and forbearance toward conferences, congregations and pastors in our body who, in different ways, seek to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ on matters related to same-sex covenantal unions. (Mennonite Church USA, 7/2/2015)
Considerable open protest built in NWYM against the Elders’ actions. To many, it seemed unfair that West Hill Friends was being judged to be “out of compliance” on matters of human sexuality, when NWYM “had already begun discussion of possible changes to the Faith & Practice statement on human sexuality and it was clear that there are different leadings.” Many meetings had presented letters to the 2014 NWYM sessions confessing their lack of unity on matters of human sexuality, and thus many Friends recommended that NWYM refrain from deciding the status of WHF “until such time as the Yearly Meeting comes to unity on when to exercise forbearance rather than discipline for differences of interpretation of the Faith & Practice and the Bible.” (NWYM Unity, 7/29/2015)
A protest letter embodying these arguments was sent to the NWYM Administrative Council with the names of 230 signers, from 25 meetings; a large proportion of the signers are younger Friends. While the protest letter lacked official standing as an appeal, NWYM officials said they would read it and take it into account. (Bock, 8/24/2015)
NWYM Friends who support WHF have been finding other meanings for the powerful “shattering” metaphor. Richard Evans, a Korean War veteran and a West Hill Friends member, prayed that “God will not allow the ties that have bound us for so long to be shattered by intolerance for differing interpretations of scripture.” (Evans, 7/14/2015)
Jon Kershner, minister at McKinley Hill Friends Church in Tacoma, WA, suggests that there are destructive behaviors in his yearly meeting that might need to be shattered: “My conviction is that there is room in NWYM for West Hills Friends and the valuable ministry that they provide. It is also my conviction that if any group can shatter the tired narrative of purity by schism, self-righteousness by exclusion from community, it is NWYM.” (Kershner, 7/28/2015)
It has been noticed by many that the Board of Elders’ decision to “release” West Hill Friends was, in itself, shattering. (Kershner, 8/14/2015; Reedwood, 8/18/2015) Various NWYM Friends have proposed that the word “shattering” be specifically defined in Faith & Practice, or be entirely eliminated from that document. (NWYM YAF, 7/31/2015; Reedwood, 8/18/2015) Klamath Hill Friends straightforwardly asserts that “we strongly feel there should have been reasons given for their describing the action concerning a leading of a vibrant meeting as ‘shattering’ to the yearly meeting.” (Klamath Falls, 8/23/2015)
NWYM Faith & Practice allows for the elders’ decisions to be appealed to the yearly meeting’s Administrative Council within 30 days, or, in this case, by August 23, 2015. Only local churches may appeal. As West Hill Friends considered appeal possibilities, they held an August 9 listening meeting. According to Mark Pratt-Russum, “our elders were tasked with making a sense of the meeting, and they will bring a recommendation to our business meeting on August 23 that we should not appeal.” He added that Friends there are “scratching their heads,” wondering why the window for appeals is only 30 days. “There is no way that a congregation as varied as ours could draft a letter of appeal in 30 days.” (Pratt-Russum, 8/20/2015)
Even so, eight meetings did file appeals within the 30 day period. Among them, Hillsboro (OR) Friends and North Valley (Newberg, OR) Friends appealed the Board of Elders’ decision, in letters dated August 12, 2015; North Seattle (WA) Friends and Camas (WA) Friends appealed four days later, Reedwood (OR) Friends six days later; and Klamath Falls (OR) appealed on August 23. Eugene (OR) and Spokane (WA) meetings have also appealed. (Fager, 8/25/2015) A group from Silverton Friends (OR) (not the whole meeting) appealed on August 20. Newberg (OR) Friends seriously considered an appeal, but in the end did not achieve a sense of the meeting to do so. The North Seattle appeal is notable, especially given the fact that its pastor was a member of the Elders’ subcommittee that met with WHF for two years.
Hillsboro, North Valley, Camas, and Reedwood, all located in the metropolitan Portland area, emphasized that Friends’ unity does not mean unanimity. Friends’ meetings can agree to disagree and remain in unity, even on matters as momentous as human sexuality.
The Hillsboro appeal letter concluded as follows:
We at Hillsboro Friends Church recognize the unique light Northwest Yearly Meeting offers to the world. As Christ-centered Quakers, we have every means in place to offer a third way to a world that often sees “yes” or “no.” While that light has flickered, we don’t yet believe it is out. As demonstrated in the New Testament, Jesus silenced the loudest voices, gave voice to the silenced, and bridged gaps that had existed for generations. That same light of Christ is the light that shines in us, and we at Hillsboro Friends have seen what that light can do. Together, Northwest Yearly Meeting can do great things. Divided we will be forced to use our energy for lesser objectives. We ask for all our churches to remain in unity even while we cannot remain in unanimity. If a church chooses to leave, we wish to seek reconciliation, but ask for amicable separation if that is the final result.
The North Valley letter included these queries, which the meeting first sent to NWYM in June 2014:
What is the intent of the “What Friends Believe” chapter of Faith and Practice? Is it intended to be prescriptive and thus play the role of gatekeeper and accountability for compliance? Or is it intended to be descriptive and thus play the role of describing who we are as a Yearly Meeting community? If the intent is descriptive, the statement on human sexuality would need to reflect the breadth of the community.
[We understand] that we can be unified as one body without being in complete agreement on all matters. This is the difference between unity and unanimity. How does this understanding inform our process and help move toward an outcome that has integrity?
We are united in our belief that God speaks to and leads God’s people.
We are willing to continue talking and listening, to wait for the Spirit to lead us into truth, even if it takes time and requires patience.
We invite Northwest Yearly Meeting to join us in this work.
These meetings noted the incongruity of removing West Hill Friends for its minutes regarding human sexuality while the yearly meeting itself manifested ongoing deep divisions on such matters. Hillsboro requested that they “be reinstated as a full and active member of the Northwest Yearly Meeting family, and, to that end, that neither they nor any other churches be removed over issues on which the Northwest Yearly Meeting … remains divided.” North Valley noted that removing West Hill Friends from yearly meeting membership “is to lose a vital voice in our corporate discernment work and sends a concerning message to those who hold a conviction that is different than that which is currently expressed in Faith and Practice.”
Klamath Falls Friends wrote that “removal of West Hills Friends Church during [the five-year consideration period proposed by Superintendent Becky Ankeny] feels like a betrayal of trust.” Camas Friends stated that they “were deeply saddened and troubled by the decision of the board of elders to remove West Hill Friends Church from our Yearly Meeting. We believed that such a decision is destructive of the unity of our Yearly Meeting and hurtful to those who hold diverse views on human sexuality, especially those who identify as LGBTQ.”
These meetings raised a variety of concerns related to Friends’ business process. They note that the Faith & Practice empowers the Board of Elders to discontinue a church when the church experiences significant problems, but the Elders themselves found West Hills to be “a strong, healthy, growing community of Christian Friends.” So that would suggest that West Hills be continued, not the opposite. Another provision describes a local meeting as coming under the care of the Board of Elders when it “is out of compliance with Faith and Practice in a way that is shattering to the … Yearly Meeting community,” but West Hills was never formally placed under the care of the Board of Elders, so it is questionable that this provision is applicable to their case.
Hillsboro suggested that “such a weighty decision as removing a church from our fellowship be brought to the floor of the annual sessions,” and noted the Quaker ideal that Yearly Meeting power should be exercised by “all members of the Yearly Meeting” as led by the Holy Spirit. Spokane Friends concurred, stating that “if the Elder’s [sic] decision had come as a recommendation to the floor of Yearly Meeting, the lack of consensus surrounding it would have been apparent to all.” (Fager, 8/25/2015) Eugene Friends agreed with these points, although with six Friends standing aside from the decision.
The documents under which the Board of Elders proceeded are all very recent in vintage. North Seattle Friends observed that a key Board of Elders document, which was made available to NWYM Friends (outside of the Board of Elders) for the first time in 2013, (NWYM Board of Elders, 7/2013) “was not distributed widely, … was not transparent to the wider Yearly Meeting, and … was not vetted by any group outside of the Elders.”
If Northwest Yearly Meeting acquiesces in the “release” of West Hill Friends, one question that arises is “Who’s next?” if the Holy Spirit leads a local Friends meeting to take a bold stand in an area where there may not already be yearly meeting unity. This thought was articulated by Reedwood Friends:
“The unprecedented removal of one church from our fellowship on this basis is a threat to many other churches who are discerning what faithful witness looks like in their own ministry contexts, both around sexuality and other matters.” (Reedwood Friends, 8/18/2015)
Mike Huber elaborates this point:
Personally, I don’t think expelling us will end the conflict. Although WHF is the only meeting that has clearly articulated a position that is out of compliance with Faith & Practice, there are plenty of individuals in NWYM who think like we do. I don’t think NWYM could find unity around the current statement in Faith & Practice – with or without WHF in the room. Many of those who are appealing the Elders’ decision are asking the yearly meeting to wait until there is newfound consensus on this issue (and suggesting that, “Let’s agree to disagree” might be the basis of that consensus).
Frankly, I’m not sure that “agreeing to disagree” is a viable option. (Huber, 8/24/2015)
Reedwood Church also called for more patience and a better process of conflict resolution, as many churches are unclear exactly how to engage in ministry in these rapidly changing times:
We acknowledge that there are some local churches across our Yearly Meeting that are “out of compliance” with Faith and Practice. The integrity of our Yearly Meeting has depended upon patience and forbearance in these conflicts. We call upon Yearly Meeting leadership to model a consistent ethic and process of resolution where compliance with F&P is in question. (Reedwood, 8/18/2015)
On August 23, the deadline for appeals, West Hills Friends approved a minute of gratitude for “extended words of love, encouragement, and support” offered on their behalf by many within the NWYM community. Their minute, however, stopped short of lodging an appeal on their own behalf. They hoped that “relationships” between West Hill Friends and NWYM would continue in “life-giving” ways:
We are grateful to all who have extended words of love, encouragement and support to our community in the face of the Northwest Yearly Meeting Board of Elders’ decision to release/remove West Hill Friends from membership in our yearly meeting.
We are heartened by voices from within NWYM who say that our yearly meeting will be diminished by our absence. We hope that the reflection and discernment of those who have been led to appeal this decision will be received and held in a way that bears good fruit for NWYM.
We have been steadfast in our commitment to and participation in NWYM over the three years of investigation and discipline for our noncompliance with NWYM Faith & Practice.
With this new landscape, we find that as a community, we need to listen again for the guidance of Spirit.
In coming together to hear what rises around the NWYM Elders’ decision, we found that the allowed 30 day window does not offer adequate time for our community to come to unity in Spirit-led discernment on the question of appeal.
We note that we may be led, in time, to speak into this situation in new ways.
We note that membership and relationship are not identical, and hold hope that with or without membership, relationships between the people of West Hill Friends and NWYM will continue and evolve in new and life-giving ways. (West Hill Friends, 8/23/2015)
The Administrative Council planned to meet on September 12 to establish a process for consideration of the appeals over the West Hills “release.” This process will be shared with the Yearly Meeting. The Administrative Council aims to make a decision by the time of its November Retreat. (Northwest Yearly Meeting YAF, 8/28/2015)
This issue of Quaker Theology will go to press prior to the NWYM’s Administrative Council’s response to these appeals. Pratt-Russum observes that “if the yearly meeting asks WHF to rejoin, it is too early to say whether we would accept.” (Pratt-Russum, 8/20/2015)
When asked for further comment on the appeals themselves, Ankeny writes that “I am not free within myself to comment” on these events. (Ankeny, 8/24/2015)
Mike Huber would sum up the story this way:
It would make a compelling narrative to describe the churches that threaten to leave NWYM as “bullies.” Believe me, over the last few years I’ve learned that people really want a “bad guy” to justify their outrage. However, I’m not sure there are any bad guys in this story. The genre is tragedy, not summer blockbuster. . . .
Although expelling WHF won’t end the conflict in NWYM, maybe it will lower the temperature and allow for a more productive conversation for those who remain. (Huber, 8/24/2015)
TONY CAMPOLO: AN EVANGELICAL CHRISTIAN THEOLOGIAN’S EVOLVING VIEWS ON THE BIBLE AND HOMOSEXUALITY
1999: “Romans 1:26-27 makes it clear that any homosexual sexual activity is contrary to what the Bible allows.
“We can argue over this interpretation or that interpretation, but we must take the church very seriously. The fellowship of believers called the church of Jesus Christ has stood from the time of Christ to the present day, and I believe it speaks with authority. For almost 2,000 years, the church has read Romans 1 in a particular way. People who knew the Apostle Paul personally have written about what Paul meant when he wrote those verses.”
2015: “Rest assured that I have already heard – and in some cases made – every kind of biblical argument against gay marriage. . . . Obviously, people of good will can and do read the scriptures very differently when it comes to controversial issues, and I am painfully aware that there are ways I could be wrong about this one.
“However, I am old enough to remember when we in the Church made strong biblical cases for keeping women out of teaching roles in the Church, and when divorced and remarried people often were excluded from fellowship altogether on the basis of scripture. Not long before that, some Christians even made biblical cases supporting slavery. Many of those people were sincere believers, but most of us now agree that they were wrong. I am afraid we are making the same kind of mistake again, which is why I am speaking out.”
Excerpt from NWYM Faith & Practice, “What We Believe”
Christian Witness to Human Sexuality: We hold that only marriage is conducive to godly fulfillment in sexual relationships for the purposes of reproduction and the enrichment of life. We consider sexual intimacy outside marriage as sinful because it distorts God’s purposes for human sexuality. We denounce, as contrary to the moral laws of God, acts of homosexuality, sexual abuse, and any other form of sexual perversion (see “Human Sexuality,” p. 80). The church, however, as a community of forgiven persons, remains loving and sensitive to those we consider in error. Because God’s grace can deliver from sins of any kind, we are called to forgive those who have repented and to free them for participation in the church. Northwest Yearly Meeting, Faith & Practice (7/2012), p. 11.
All internet links were active as of 8/18/2015, or as of date of posting, if subsequent to 8/18.
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