Ninth Month (September) 29, 2014:
Years of tensions in North Carolina Yearly Meeting-FUM (NCYM-FUM), exacerbated by a steady loss of members and funds, broke into the open in the summer of 2014, and took over the agenda at the annual sessions at the beginning of September. Calls for a purge surfaced, and have already produced one group’s departure, and another meeting’s defiant vow to stay.
The conflict surfaced with a series of open letters from local meetings to yearly meeting officials, listing issues and demanding action. The letters were also sent to other meetings. (Seven of these demand letters are included with this report; links are at the end.)
The issues included the prevalence in some meetings of allegedly heretical views about Jesus, atonement, the authority of the Bible, dual membership, financial concerns, and lack of fidelity to the Richmond Declaration of Faith (or RichDec). The RichDec is a creedlike document formulated in 1887 by a conference that was a forerunner of Friends United Meeting (FUM).
The list of complaints were applied to a handful of meetings that the writers considered hotbeds of dangerous beliefs (and unbelief), as well as Yearly Meeting officers suspected of being sympathetic to the heretics:
“It is increasingly clear,” Poplar Ridge Meeting’s letter declared, that all Friends do not share our convictions about Jesus Christ.”
Among the chief (but not the only) targets are New Garden Meeting in Greensboro, Spring Meeting near Snow Camp, and Fancy Gap Friends, just across the Virginia border from the iconic village of Mt. Airy, the model for the idyllic Mayberry in the classic 1960s television series.
At the yearly meeting sessions, the rebels also took aim at the Yearly Meeting’s Presiding Clerk, William Eagles, a member of New Garden. Claims were made that he and other yearly meeting officers ignored the heresies and brushed their protests “under the rug.” “We believe it is a lack of integrity,” said the letter from Forbush Meeting, “that leads members of Meetings to keep positions on committees, boards, or as clerks where they can influence decisions without fully supporting NCYM.” Hopewell Meeting demanded that the targeted meetings should “not have any of their members serve on yearly meeting committees of any kind or as officers. This should result in immediate resignations from their members that are currently serving in those roles.”
They got part of their wish almost immediately. Although Bill Eagles was due to be nominated for a second term as Clerk (which is customary), he abruptly withdrew his name in the face of this onslaught. Eagles was replaced by Michael Fulp, a more evangelically-oriented Friend and former Clerk.
In a further response to the calls for “action” on the complaints, the sessions created an ad hoc committee, to which each Quarterly Meeting was to name delegates, to consider ways forward in response. This committee is to report to NCYM’s regular fall Representative Meeting, on November 1, 2014.
What the protesters want is clear enough: they want the “heretical” members cleared out of all official positions, and the targeted groups out of the yearly meeting. They insist that conflicts over beliefs and courses of action have paralyzed the larger body, contributed to its major loss of members and funds, and prevented it from mounting meaningful program innovations which they believe could reverse these trends.
In the last full of week of September, this campaign produced its first visible results: two letters from the “offending” meetings, mailed to all meeting clerks.
One, from Fancy Gap Friends, announced its departure from NCYM, effective immediately. The other, from Spring Meeting, took an exactly opposite stance: they were resolved to stay, and firmly rejected the charges that they had departed from the “original beliefs” of the yearly meeting.
These two statements usefully define two poles of response to the attempted purge: compliance and exodus, or standing their ground and challenging the criticisms.
Several of the insurgent groups have threatened or announced a withholding of their contributions (called “askings”) to NCYM, pending satisfactory response to their demands. In this, they are mirroring some of the targeted meetings, which have been withholding part of their “askings for years, due to differences on various issues.
A few of the complaints need further explanation. One concern is that of “dual affiliation,” and to clarify it requires getting Carolina Quaker-wonkish; bear with me:
During the late 1960s, some North Carolina Friends from various meetings and churches wanted to plan Quaker protests against the Vietnam war, but found their yearly meetings unwilling, either because most members supported the war, or because they were strongly Quietist, and didn’t want to do more than pray for peace.
So the activist Friends came together outside their meetings to carry out various peace actions. From this initial collaboration came an ongoing informal cross-branch network called Piedmont Friends Fellowship, or PFF for short.
PFF is a Quaker version of what computer techies call a “workaround,” a way of achieving objectives outside of established structures, while leaving the structures in place. After the Vietnam War, several meetings joined PFF, and the group asked to join Friends General Conference, the liberal Quaker association, and was accepted.
PFF as work-around has been helpful to, say, some members of New Garden Meeting in Greensboro. New Garden is a pastoral meeting officially connected to NCYM-FUM, which is not part of FGC. While there have long been tensions between New Garden and the Yearly Meeting, there are also longtime ties, especially of family – New Garden has been in place since before the American Revolution. It maintains a large cemetery adjoining its meetinghouse which contains the remains of many generations of Friends of various outlooks, now abiding amicably in the reconciliation of the deceased. Finding unity to leave NCYM would be very difficult in New Garden, if only for sentimental reasons.
But PFF’s nebulous structure (it was not a yearly meeting, even though it held annual sessions of a sort) did not require New Garden to leave NCYM. Yet through this PFF connection, some Friends from New Garden and other non-FGC meetings who wanted to be involved with FGC work, but did not want to leave their meetings, were enabled to serve on FGC committees and even as clerks.
(A similar tie developed between Durham NC Meeting and PFF, though Durham was and remains a member of North Carolina Yearly Meeting Conservative, which is unprogrammed but NOT part of FGC. This Conservative Yearly Meeting’s interesting history is one we will leave for another time; but curious readers can find a brief account here.)
If all this is not entirely clear, that’s about right. And it will get more complicated shortly. PFF now is considering plans for part of its structure to become a Yearly Meeting; member groups could opt out of the yearly meeting part, and simply stay in the PFF part. (And no, I don’t understand it either.)
In any case, what’s this PFF “work-around” got to do with the current uprising in NCYM-FUM?
This: the protesting meetings consider any connection with FGC Quakerism hopelessly heretical and beyond the pale: “The mere fact that these [targeted] meetings have dually affiliated with with other organizations confirms our belief that these meetings have drifted from the founding beliefs of NCYM . . . .” [Poplar Ridge] They want such “dual affiliation” prohibited and banished.
Both Fancy Gap and Spring Meeting have been affiliated with PFF. Fancy Gap’s withdrawal letter decried what it said was “a fundamental change within North Carolina Yearly Meeting over the past years, as it has chosen a path that we think has turned the body further and further away from Quakerism in thought, conduct, execution of business, and most grievous, in Spirit.”
Thus, “with a profound sense of sadness,” Fancy Gap announced that “With this notice we officially withdraw from the body that has for so long filled our business agendas, burdened our hearts, and sapped our energies.”
On the other hand, Spring Meeting was calmly defiant. In their letter, sent out to NCYM meetings the same week, they wrote:
“Regardless of the efforts by some to enforce either strict conformity or separation – which only serves to divide, to ostracize, to cast out – our meeting chooses instead to remain a member of this yearly meeting, to seek harmony, not division. We do not consider differences of beliefs among us as threats, but as opportunities for spiritual growth in a world of God-created diversity. We shall remain. We seek to speak truth to power, and to act by the Golden Rule, after the example of Jesus Christ.”
Further, they freely acknowledged their membership in PFF, calling it an informal bridge to other kinds of Quakers, and said, in effect, “So what”? They also pointed out that their meeting was organized around a Quaker religious outlook older and quite different from that of the RichDec, which they called “a fairly recent document,” not written until Spring had been settled for more than a century. Further, they asserted, the RichDec was “produced by one faction within the Society with the intent to enforce conformity by that faction, with the result of creating more disunity within the Society that remains to this day.”
Spring added that more than a decade ago they gave up employing a pastor, “choosing to adopt a tradition of Friends’ worship that more closely resembles the historical manner of Friends.” Because of that change, they had deducted from their “askings” payments to the yearly meeting a portion of the funds which they deemed went to “the funding of ʻpastor’s benefits.’” But they had “faithfully and consistently paid the . . . portion of the Yearly Meeting’s ʻaskings’ that are not associated with the pastoral system . . . .”
“We do not demand conformity of others,” Spring concluded, “nor do we seek to be bound by expectations of conformity by others. We place little significance in professions of faith. We ask only to be judged by our actions.”
The abrupt exit of Fancy Gap is the second concrete success of the purge effort (the forced withdrawal of the yearly meeting’s incumbent Clerk was the first); with its departure, Fancy Gap is now out of the picture.
Spring Meeting is another matter. Recognized as a part of NCYM since 1773, it is not easy to foresee how its refusal to leave can be overcome. There is currently no provision in the NCYM-FUM Book of Faith and Practice for expelling a local meeting, or for that matter, to enforce doctrinal conformity.
And at first blush it may be hard to imagine some inquisitorial NCYM-FUM committee entering its white clapboard building, interrogating members and attenders on their theologies of the incarnation, atonement, the nature and authority of scripture, or gauging the range of attitudes toward the Richmond Declaration of Faith.
Even if that happened, there would then be the matter of computing a scorecard. What if, for instance, Spring’s members’ views varied? Suppose some were strong on the RichDec, but “weak” on the Bible; some devoted to Jesus, but hazy on substitutionary atonement; or vice versa? It is even harder to imagine the members and attenders at Spring, mild-mannered as they are, submitting to such a cross-examination.
Are such things done among Quakers?
Yes they are, though many Friends prefer not to think about this part of the Society’s history.
Just such interrogations were conducted in the 1880s and 1890s in the once-notorious case of Joel and Hannah Bean. The Beans were Quakers from Iowa who became the godparents of liberal unprogrammed Quakerism on the west coast of the U.S. They were twice presented with lists of detailed doctrinal questions by the new revivalist rulers of their home yearly meeting in Iowa, to which they had to submit specific written responses.
When some of the Beans’ answers were deemed insufficiently orthodox by the elders, their meeting was laid down, their status as ministers revoked, and finally their membership vacated. (They kept on meeting anyway, independently, and they were soon granted membership in Bean’s childhood meeting in New Hampshire. Thus, even though the Beans were residing in California, they regained Quaker “legitimacy.” And before long their meeting became the DNA of independent liberal Quakerism in the far West.)
That was in another century. But it is still the case today in many evangelical institutions, including some Quaker-founded colleges, that all employees are required to sign creedal statements of faith, renewable periodically, to retain their jobs.
Will some similar process come about as a membership test in North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM)? We should begin to get a sense very soon, by November of 2014.
Certainly, the sentiment is there in several quarters. For instance, Plainfield Meeting in Siler City was especially insistent. In its letter, it said the meeting was forthwith going to deposit all its “askings” donations into an escrow account, which would not be paid to the yearly meeting “until we feel that NCYM has not only addressed the concerns but DEALT with these concerns as well.” [Note that “dealt” was in larger, bold type, all caps, italicized and underlined: a five-fold emphasis. It would sem they mean it.]
This situation is develop[ing rapidly. We will be monitoring developments as fully as we are able, to keep our readers informed.
Poplar Ridge Letter: https://afriendlyletter.com/files/Poplar-Ridge-Friends-NCYMFUM.pdf
Pine Hill: https://afriendlyletter.com/files/Pine-Hill-Friends-NCYM-08-3024.pdf
Fancy Gap Withdrawal Letter: https://afriendlyletter.com/files/Fancy-Gap-Quit-Letter.pdf
Spring Meeting “Stay Put” Letter: https://afriendlyletter.com/fles/Spring-Letter-Stay.pdf