By Chuck Fager; with material edited and adapted from previous issues of Quaker Theology.
I – Background
It’s not easy – in fact, impossible – to pick a starting date for what I call the “Separation Generation” in American Quakerism. My personal preference is July 1977, when the first major interbranch conference in decades, gathered in Wichita, Kansas, nearly blew apart over the surfacing and demand for recognition by gay men.
That was surely a dramatic moment. Others might home in on the “Realignment” struggle of 1990-1991, with its undercurrents of panic over feminist Wicca and (nonexistent) Satanism (Both Wichita and “Realignment” are recounted in my book, Without Apology.). Realignment’s goal (not yet realized, but which some still hope for) was the ripping apart of the umbrella group, Friends United Meeting (FUM), which once straddled these lines.
But others could leapfrog over that, back as far as 1957 when much of Nebraska Yearly Meeting demanded to be “set off” as a separate group, which became the evangelical Rocky Mountain Yearly Meeting. Or further to the years 1926 to 1937, which saw secession from FUM’s predecessor, the Five Years Meeting, by the evangelically-oriented Oregon YM (1926). That same year brought a fundamentalist schism in Western and Indiana YMs, from which came Central YM; and then, in 1937, the departure of Kansas YM, also evangelical, from Five Years Meeting.
Or even return to 1904, when North Carolina, an Orthodox group, saw an exodus by its monthly meetings which had rejected the YM’s shift to leadership by paid pastors, with programmed worship and the related new “Holiness” theologies. The exiles named themselves North Carolina YM (Conservative). In Iowa, a similar division in 1877 had produced Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative), and planted the seeds of an independent Quakerism on the West Coast.
That’s not to mention the earlier Conservative (or Wilburite) separations, beginning in 1854, or the contemporaneous Progressive Friends insurgency among Hicksites. And behind them all, dim now after nearly two centuries, remains the cataclysm of 1827-1828, when most American YMs splintered into Orthodox and Hicksites.
I don’t want to go back that far, though; 1827 and the Wilburite separations have been chronicled extensively, and some of the best Quaker historians have tackled the “Holiness”/pastoral rise. Moreover, there were similar controversies within and among groups that stayed in the Five Years Meeting through most of the twentieth century. Besides, the profusion of initials and labels sprouted amid the doctrinal and organizational weeds is dizzying; I’ve studied it for years, and am still only moderately confident I know what they all mean.
So here we’ll fast forward again, skip past Wichita and “Realignment,” to land in western Indiana, home of Western (Indiana) Yearly Meeting, in 2003, with the spotlight on a pastor named Phil Gulley. His ordeal, in this summary, marks the beginning of what I call the Separation Generation. Like the blooming of the Titan Arum, one of the largest, most acridly malodorous of blossoms, its vapors spread widely.
I – The Hunted Universalist
Phil Gulley was pastor at Fairfield Friends, near Indianapolis. Supplementing his day job there, he had built a successful side career as the author of “Front Porch Tales,” a fast-selling series of down-home, amusing stories of life at a fictionalized version of his church world. It was like a Hoosier version of Lake Wobegon, published by Multnomah Press, an evangelical house in Oregon.
But then in 2003, he showed Multnomah a nonfiction manuscript, to be titled, If Grace Is True, co-written with another Indiana pastor, Jim Mulholland. In it the pair explained how they had once accepted the standard version of atonement theology, in which Jesus died for the sins of all humans, and salvation consisted of accepting this belief, and adopting Jesus as one’s “personal savior.” Those who didn’t come to this conclusion would burn in hell forever.
But as adults, life experience, more study and reflection had moved them to abandon that schema, for one of “Universalism,” the belief that in the end, a just God would save every human.
Universalism was, in fact, an old idea, but in the rough and tumble of competing Christian theologies, it had long been sidelined in favor of scenarios that featured a divine judgment of all, with an eternity in a lake of unending fire for those who did not pass muster.
Multnomah was old-school about this, and dropped the new book, and Gulley, like a burning piece of toast. The book was published by the more progressive Harper San Francisco.
We discussed its ideas in QT #9, in a detailed review, and won’t repeat that here. The response to If Grace Is True is what we’re interested in.
Many Indiana Friends shrugged it off: maybe they didn’t agree with its theology, but whatever. That was between the authors and God. But some pastors, and Western YM’s co-superintendents, Steve & Marlene Pedigo, along with some staff of Friends United Meeting in Richmond, Indiana, differed sharply. Gulley & Mulholland were not only wrong, they contended; their ideas were dangerous, and intolerable. No one who publicly advocated them should be permitted in a Quaker pulpit.
Through the summer of 2003, at least, the FUM Quaker Hill Bookstore in Richmond was declining to stock the book for its heavily Quaker clientele. When they refused to send any copies for the United Society of Friends Women International convention that year, Gulley & Mulholland showed up at the meeting with one hundred and fifty copies direct from HarperSanFrancisco, which they autographed and gave away. And in the same issue of FUM’s Quaker Life magazine, with a very negative review, the bookstore ran a full page ad, prominently featuring Chicken Soup for the NASCAR Soul, and Armageddon, the latest in the apocalyptic “Left Behind” series of novels.
Soon a push was on to strip Gulley of his “recording,” the credential issued by Western YM to those deemed qualified to be pastors. Most of the brickbats were aimed at Gulley, who was the more well-known. Committees gathered, boards deliberated. Twice recommendations came to the floor in Western YM, proposing to rescind Gulley’s recording, which would have forced Fairfield Meeting to fire him.
Both failed, because there were many Friends who spoke up in strong opposition to the heresy hunt, and the presiding Clerk affirmed the evident lack of unity. The dissenters said clearly that Gulley’s personal beliefs were not the YM’s business, and his employment was between him and Fairfield Meeting (which, by the way, liked Gulley and wanted him to stay).
But several pastors and the co-superintendents were not prepared to take “No” for an answer. In the end, several evangelically-oriented meetings left Western when it became clear that Gulley would be allowed to stay. The Pedigos were soon let go as well. The key figure in this outcome was a Clerk, Jim Crew, who perceived and staunchly affirmed that there was nothing like unity supporting the purge proposal.
At this writing, Phil Gulley is still pastor at Fairfield Friends, and still writing. But the aftershocks of the campaign against him reverberated across Indiana for years.
Jim Mulholland went a different way: within a few years he left the pastorate and then religion entirely. In 2013 he published a book, Leaving Your Religion. To a large Indiana audience, he described his recent thinking thus:
“He once thought there were many paths up a mountain. Now, he has learned the many ways to walk away from it. ‘There is so much to explore,’ he said that night, ‘when you follow the trail down the mountain and out into the vast expanse of unbelief.’”Jim Mulholland Finds It Hard to Believe
II – Indiana: How one became many
While Phil Gulley was still being hunted in Western YM, another outbreak surfaced across its “border” in Indiana YM (IYM). On June 15, 2008, West Richmond Friends Meeting, after much study and consideration, approved a “welcoming and affirming” minute, and it was soon posted on the meeting’s website.
It was the “public” posting of their minute that got West Richmond in trouble. The Indiana Yearly Meeting (IYM) Ministry & Oversight (M&O) Committee came to them and insisted that they, first, take the minute off their website, and then revise it so it was “in harmony” with IYM’s statements on sexuality, particularly one adopted in 1982 and updated in 1995.
During their discussion, West Richmond Friends had given extensive consideration to the possible reception of their minute within their Yearly Meeting. Not only were they the first Meeting within IYM (composed entirely, or almost entirely, of pastoral Friends Meetings) to approve a “welcoming and affirming” minute, but the whole yearly meeting had previously approved statements on homosexuality that were very different:
In August, 1982, over the objections of some Friends present, Indiana Yearly Meeting minuted its sense that practicing homosexuality was sinful:
“Indiana Yearly Meeting believes homosexual practices to be contrary to the intent and will of God for humankind. We believe the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures witness to this (Leviticus 18:22; Leviticus 20:13; Romans 1:21-32; I Corinthians 6:9-10; I Timothy 1:9-10). We further believe that, whatever our condition of sinfulness, forgiveness, redemption and wholeness are freely available through our Lord Jesus Christ. (I Corinthians 6:11; Ephesians 1:7).”
Thirteen years later, the Yearly Meeting approved an “additional minute on homosexuality” that added details and nuance to the barebones 1982 minute. This new minute acknowledged a “diversity of beliefs” within the Yearly Meeting on Scriptural interpretation. It affirmed that God can “heal the wounds of sin” and “desires wholeness for all and offers unconditional love and grace.”. . . The Yearly Meeting also called “for the fair treatment of homosexuals and their full protection from physical and verbal violence.” The yearly meeting statement even had its own form of a welcoming affirmation, noting that “sexual brokenness . . . affects us all,” and as “each person is encouraged to remember his/her own condition before God and his/her inadequacy to minister apart from God’s grace,” so “we welcome all people to our meetings to worship and join in becoming fully devoted followers of Christ.”
The discussion between the M&O Committee of IYM and West Richmond Friends Meeting came to center on a paragraph (“Subordination,” 108C) in Indiana Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice. Ministry and Oversight Committee argued that West Richmond needed to “subordinate” itself to the Yearly Meeting’s guidance, as provided under the 1982 and 1995 minutes.
However, a close reading of Section 108C shows that hierarchical subordination is not all that is intended by that section of Faith and Practice:
“Subordination . . . does not describe a hierarchy but rather a means, under divine leadership, of common protection between Indiana Yearly Meeting and its Quarterly Meetings and Monthly Meetings. It is a relationship among Friends ‘submitting themselves to one another in the fear of God.’ (Ephesians 5:21) In the spirit of Christ who ‘humbled himself and became obedient unto death’ each member, each Monthly Meeting, each Quarterly Meeting and the Yearly Meeting submits to each other in the love of Christ. Subordination is the assurance that no Monthly Meeting is alone, autonomous or independent. Thus Monthly Meetings recognize the legitimate role of the Yearly Meeting in speaking and acting for the combined membership. Likewise the Yearly Meeting recognizes the freedom of Monthly Meetings and the validity of their prophetic voices. Each needs the other in order to be strong and vital, and both need the mediation of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” (Faith and Practice, 98-99)
Some describe this passage as a “rich statement.” To this writer, it is phony baloney word salad, that can mean nothing or everything: it’s also putty in the hands of the powerful. For instance, IYM had recently had a major internal controversy when it was established that some of the more evangelical meetings were openly defying the body’s Faith & Practice by conducting “outward ordinances” including water baptism and communion services. These were “sacraments” for many other churches, but IYM, as most other Quaker groups, had prohibited them. The offending meetings were admonished but not disciplined.
On the other hand, West Richmond was cut no slack. IYM’s Clerk, Greg Hinshaw, and the Superintendent, Doug Shoemaker, were determined to bring West Richmond to heel or see it gone.
Part of West Richmond’s problem was that it was a “college meeting,” located just a few blocks from the campus of Earlham College. Although Earlham was Quaker-founded and had produced numerous weighty Quaker scholars and leaders, it had also long been controversial with more evangelical elements of IYM (in 1920, several Earlham faculty were even subjected to a heresy trial, over their Bible interpretations and openness to evolution. They were acquitted, but clashes periodically recurred; more recently, many were about alleged sexual looseness and putatively leftwing politics.)
M&O demanded that West Richmond take down and reconsider its welcoming minute. They did reconsider it, but reaffirmed their conclusion, and left it on their website. By 2011, IYM authorities put them on notice that their membership in IYM was at stake. But by then, the situation was changing; West Richmond was no longer alone. As Steve Angell reported that year:
“Among the unofficial opinion that I’ve been sampling . . . the degree to which authority is emphasized over and over again [by IYM authorities] leads even some meetings that have not had consideration of any formal affirmation of gays and lesbians to wonder if [the] yearly meeting . . . would be poking around in their affairs. To monthly meetings throughout our history, such a prospect has always seemed quite alarming and frightening. Historically, one of the reasons that so many Friends ended up in the Philadelphia Hicksite Yearly Meeting (about two-thirds) rather than the Philadelphia Orthodox Yearly Meeting (about one-third), was the tendency of the latter toward inquisitorial process. A prominent feature of the 1827 yearly meeting session, at which the separation occurred, was an initiative by the Orthodox to set up a visiting committee to visit all monthly meetings in order to initiate a purge’ and root out all ‘unsoundness.’ Many monthly meetings thus affiliated with Hicksites in order to preserve their freedom from inquisition, and not so much for deep theological reasons. Could history be repeating itself here? . . . .”
The extent of this pushback may have surprised the authorities; but it did not deter them. They attempted to maintain a veneer of “civility”, by rebranding the purge as a “Deliberative/Collaborative Reconfiguration.”
At the showdown meeting, in October 2011, According to [West Richmond’s then-pastor] Josh Brown’s count, 25 IYM Friends spoke in opposition to [the “reconfiguration”], and only 21 spoke in favor of it. . . . A former clerk of IYM said that the culture of her monthly meeting was different from that of West Richmond, and separation would be the best thing. Despite the Clerk’s prior admonitions against prepared statements, a mere four statements in favor of [“Reconfiguration”] in the afternoon occupied more than one hour of the Rep Council’s time. Repeatedly, proponents of [“Reconfiguration”] stated that “some issues are deal breakers;” for some, it was West Richmond’s permission for gays and lesbians to assume leadership in the Meeting. . . .
Toward the end of the session, after a period of prayer, Hinshaw, the IYM clerk, stated that it was his sense of the meeting that [the “reconfiguration”] was approved. This precipitated an hour-long procedural wrangle. At least ten Friends, mostly from the host church, Friends Memorial Church in Muncie, stood, with the request that their names be recorded in opposition to the minute. They also refused to stand aside.
Hinshaw cited IYM Faith and Practice to bolster his view that the approval of the minute would be valid, despite some Friends taking such a strong stand against it. Not all Friends were happy with this construction of the Friends’ business process. . . . .
In the end, IYM authorities got rid of West Richmond – but more than a dozen other meetings left, essentially in solidarity, even if many were not in agreement with their welcoming minute. The purge was finalized at the yearly meeting sessions in July 2013. Superintendent Doug Shoemaker celebrated its completion in a newsletter to meeting that declared,
“Many of us regard the successful reconfiguration of IYM to be a miracle and hope to build on this miracle to move forward,” he writes. He also notes that “We enjoy a greater theological unity in IYM now than any of us have ever experienced.”
Such “unity” is hardly a surprise, as those for whom it was a different experience had been forced out and silenced. Reactions from the expellees were starkly different.
On January 27, 2013 approximately 120 ex-IYM Friends gathered at Richmond First Friends Meetinghouse to begin picking up the pieces. Writing about that event, Margaret Fraser described her experience of us:
“. . . an image is coming to me of having been in a catastrophic event. It is as if my home, along with others in the neighborhood, has been destroyed. We are traumatized, in occasional disbelief that it could have happened. With repeated realization come unexpected tears. But as we look around, we see that we are all alive, all safe. We can’t rebuild in exactly the same place, but we have been given land and materials to build a new community. Most of us have not built before. We simply lived in our old houses. So we are going to have to identify gifts and skills that exist among us, and many of us are going to learn new skills. . . . .”
Stephanie Crumley-Effinger who was West Richmond’s liaison to IYM through these years, read Shoemaker’s gloating letter. She had seen something different from a miracle:
“The day after that meeting, over e-mail came the late January edition of The Communicator, [IYM’s Newsletter] containing the item about the Executive Committee retreat. It took my breath away. (And I imagine it was even worse for those who were/are more opposed to the separation than I ultimately came to be.) It came across as the aggressors/victors rejoicing about the split. This rubbed salt in the wounds, reopening them just as they are beginning to heal. I return to the analogy of the person who reluctantly assented to a divorce because their spouse was dead set against the marriage continuing – it was as if the separated spouse took the kids on a vacation, then wrote about what a terrific time they had and how wonderful it was to be just them without you. It throws the discarded spouse back into the rage, abandonment, etc., that s/he has been working hard to overcome and heal. . . .”
Former Earlham College president, Doug Bennett, a member at West Richmond who blogged frequently about the schism, put it candidly and concisely: “our Quaker world hardly seems intact” or unchanged, he wrote. “We are now outcasts from Indiana Yearly Meeting.”
Since then, many of the expelled meetings have come together in a very loose network, called the New Association of Friends. The group has not been quick or clear in building new institutions. It may well be that, in the second decade of the 21st century, they don’t need much structure beyond periodic fellowship gatherings.
III – Northwest Yearly Meeting Shatters Itself
The same month that Indiana’s purge became final, Northwest Yearly Meeting (NWYM), gathered in Oregon, faced with its own similar crisis. One might think this odd, because NWYM was born as an evangelical body; it had left what it regarded as the compromised, crypto-liberal Five Years Meeting (later FUM) in 1926, almost 90 years before. It had a Board of Elders that was in firm command of its structure. And as far back as 1982, its stance on homosexuality was clear and stark:
“Northwest Yearly Meeting, which has churches in Oregon, Washington and Idaho, expressed its views in 1982, [and] 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 Acts also records, the “one heart and mind” euphoria lasted only two short chapters, unity in NWYM was not to last. . . .” Over time, change crept into NWYM like mold in a damp climate.
In an almost eerie parallel with West Richmond Meeting, half a continent away, in the same year its welcoming minute was posted on the web, a NWYM meeting in Portland, Oregon did much the same: West Hills Friends adopted not one but two minutes:
“. . . (O)ne on “Human Sexuality,” and the other, on “Authority.” The bottom line was plain:
“It is our experience and testimony that God works through people without regard for race, age, gender or sexual orientation.” The meeting approved these two minutes in 2008, and they were posted on the Meeting’s website.
“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.”
But unlike Indiana YM, the initial response from Northwest YM authorities was – silence. West Hills had sent their minutes to the NWYM office, but the response they got back amounted to: “the yearly meeting is not yet ready to have this conversation.”
Yet change kept coming. In 2011, while Indiana was preparing its putsch against West Richmond, Congress repealed the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy which had forced LGBT persons in the military into the closet or out of uniform, and in September the ban on LGBTs in the military was lifted.
[Perhaps the most important results of this repeal was what did not happen. The year before, the Southern Baptist Convention, still the largest U. S. Protestant denomination, loudly prophesied in a resolution that ending “Don’t Ask” would mean the doom of the U.S. military:
“Military recruiting will be crippled because: (1) those segments of the American population most represented in the armed services are also those segments most likely to have moral convictions against homosexual behavior, (2) a great many of those who have served in the military since 1993 say they would not have served if required to live on intimate terms with open homosexuals, (3) should current law be repealed, a large percentage of currently serving military personnel say they will not reenlist or will end their careers early, and (4) should current law be repealed, many parents will not entrust their sons and daughters to superiors who require them to live on intimate terms with open homosexuals . . . .” [NOTE: Nine years later, none of that has come about.]
By the spring of 2012, same sex marriage was legal in six states, and federal courts were ruling against state bans on it more and more frequently.
And in that spring. West Hills finally did hear from the NWYM elders. Maybe the yearly meeting was still not ready for this “conversation”; but the “conversation” was ready for them.
Just across the street from the NWYM offices in Newberg, Oregon stands George Fox University GFU), a school which many NWYM Friends consider the jewel in their institutional crown. Evangelical from top to bottom, GFU was undisturbed by agitation for LGBT presence or rights – until March of 2012.
Then a group of alumni and former employees suddenly surfaced with a call for GFU to recognize LGBT students, staff and issues:
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 was signed by many former students and former faculty. (Sympathetic current faculty kept mum; endorsing the letter would jeopardized their jobs.)
Dear George Fox University Community,
We are the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and allied alumni of George Fox University. We are called OneGeorgeFox and we have a message of hope.
To LGBTQ students and those experiencing same-sex attraction: You are not alone. Your feelings and desires are normal and natural. And God loves every part of you, including your sexual orientation and gender identity. Many of us, just like many of you, never heard these truths while growing up or while at George Fox. Many of us felt isolated, confused and compelled to fight our same-sex attractions. However, in our post-George Fox lives, we learned to face the realities and complexities of our true selves and to live happy lives and enjoy healthy relationships that are consistent with our sexual orientations. Life gets better. And there are people, including people of devout faith, who care about you, who want you to live a free, honest life, and who will walk with you on the sometimes-scary journey toward authenticity and wholeness.
To the broader George Fox community: There are many LGBTQ people that are part of this community. Treat us with respect. Treat us as fully human. Don’t make fun of us. Instead, stand up for us when you see us being bullied or harassed. We are human beings just like you and share similar hopes and dreams. We want to fall in love with someone. We want to have a family. We want to feel safe. To learn more about us, ask us questions. And listen. . . .”
Following up the letter, on March 14, 2012, according to GF graduate A. J. Mendoza:
“ . . . a historic thing happened. Students and alumni gathered in Newberg and stood during chapel, with shirts carrying a message that shook the campus to its core.
‘God loves you gay or straight. I am a safe person.’
It was that simple. This was no grand coordinated scheme to undermine the moral fabric of society. Together, we did what we could that day to ensure that no person would walk away from that chapel feeling alone and without hope.”
The issue was now joined. But we’ll leave the campus struggle for LGBTQ visibility and legitimacy at GFU to one side for now. Our focus is on what happened in Northwest Yearly Meeting, which was much affected by the surfacing of “that which was not to be named” at “their college” across the street.
The initial recipient/target of NWYM’s response was West Hills Friends. The Elders asked the meeting to “reconsider” its affirming minutes. West Hills did so, and like West Richmond Friends, reaffirmed them.
In May 2014, same sex marriage became legal in Oregon. As former pastor Mike Huber recalls it,
“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 [of reconsidering their official statements on sexuality]). 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)
A year later, in May 2015, a lesbian couple was in fact married in West Hills. A month after that, on June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage nationwide. The following month, Northwest Yearly Meeting held its annual sessions.
“On July 24, 2015, only hours after the annual NWYM sessions had adjourned, without prior notice, NWYM elders communicated to West Hills Friends Meeting (WHF) that they had been expelled, or, in the elders’ term, ‘released,’ from the yearly meeting.”
There was, of course, an uproar, exacerbated by anger at the Elders’ chicanery, in waiting til the Friends at the annual sessions were on the way home to drop their bombshell.
NWYM rules allowed for appeals of such decisions, not only by the group expelled, but by other meetings. A total of eight meetings filed formal appeals asking that the expulsion be rescinded. In addition, an informal letter supporting the appeals gathered 230 individual signatures. A great many supporters of rescinding the expulsion were younger adult members.
The appeals were to be dealt with by NWYM’s Administrative Council; but the Council deadlocked, and the deadlock remained through 2016.
In January 2017, these tensions came to a head when the YM leadership abruptly laid aside the deadlock and announced a unilateral purge of several meetings that had adopted LGBT-affirming positions or minutes, or expressed solidarity with West Hills Meeting. The leadership framed this as a compassionate decision to “help” the expelled meetings to form a yearly meeting of their own. Here came again the whiff of Titan Arum, the stench of an outlook which can’t simply expel the dissenters, but has to patronize them with prattle about love and compassion while pushing them out the door.
The decision largely mirrored a letter from a hardline faction declaring that unless deadlock broke and the affirming groups were purged, NWYM faced “disintegration.”
The cry of “disintegration” was propaganda; what it meant was that several homophobic churches would quit NWYM if the affirming ones were allowed to stay. But of course, then the affirming groups would have stayed; they wanted to. So the leadership caved to the purgers, evidently figuring that a “purified” body would be more institutionally viable. (That is to say, the hostage takers got the compassion; the inclusive churches got the boot.) NWYM sweetened the deal by agreeing to let the expelled churches keep their buildings and bank accounts, if they accepted the departure schedule.
The expulsion plan was ratified at the 2017 NWYM annual sessions, with a deadline of midsummer 2018 for completion. A group of 80 or so of the “ejected” Friends soon gathered and began planning a successor body, tentatively referred to as “Our New Thing.”
In short order, the new group’s pattern of development resembled the trajectory of the exiles in Indiana. On the one hand, there was much vague talk about becoming a “radically inclusive” new body, boldly inventive and radically different from NWYM. On the other, the outlines of a NWYM pastiche, but just smaller and more friendly to LGBTs, soon began to appear: the group named itself Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends, and much of the paraphernalia of a typical pastor-centered structure was soon taking shape.
In May 2018, Sierra-Cascades held its “inaugural annual session. In a letter to attenders, their Clerk, Cherice Bock, spoke of the lingering PTSD of what they had been through, in terms quite familiar from the responses above by Indiana “outcasts” too:
From the Clerk’s Welcoming letter to S/CYM Friends, May 18, 2018: https://www.scymfriends.org/minutes-1/
“It is with joy that we gather, but also with pain and sadness for what didn’t work out. I find myself coming to this session feeling excited and happy to be with you all, and feeling joyful about this community we’re creating, and also with a deep sadness that the Quaker process that we believe and hope in did not work. I carry that as a heavy burden this weekend, that we care about listening to the Spirit together . . . but to put it plainly, sometimes it feels like our Quaker way failed in our yearly meeting. That is a hard place to be coming into this session from.
I want to acknowledge that we are in a space of asking question of ourselves, and of God, and of our community. Is this Quaker thing something that is really going to work?
. . . I know that many of us share this burden of doubt and sadness. Many who are not here and have trouble coming to sessions are feeling a weight of pain because Quaker process did not work and it’s hard to trust that it will go any better in the future.”
Here are some of the questions the group continues to labor with:
- Why are we joining together instead of going our separate ways? What holds SCYMF together? (Examples: Common beliefs/theology? Relationships? Friends’ testimonies? Other?)
- How should we make decisions that affect the whole of SCYMF? (Examples: refer all decisions to the yearly meeting as a whole? Choose reps to make some or all decisions? Let a specified group make urgent decisions? Other?)
This too is familiar, but reimporting the pastoral-but-nicer model faces some serious “headwinds,” as the business journalists say. The strongest “headwind” is the rapidly eroding membership and hence financial base for such pastor-centered groups. While all too many pastoral types are like climate change-deniers, sure they can find a safe cool spot, there are some in Sierra-Cascades who acknowledge this. It was well-expressed in a recent book blurb by Barclay Press, the publishing house started by NWYM which is now technically independent:
“The North American Christian church of the early twenty-first century finds itself in a period of decline. A growing percentage of young adults are not entering the front doors of churches while at the same time older and previously dedicated Christians are leaving. Reasons for the rise of the Nones and the Dones have been well-documented: they have found the institutional church to be increasingly irrelevant to their lives; they want to be part of an engaged and interactive community rather than members of a passive audience; they are sick of judgmentalism and exclusion; they question the efficacy of churches spending 85 percent of their budgets on buildings and pastoral salaries; they are not in accord with political/ideological stances of their churches or denominations; they are disinterested in serving organizational structures; or they simply no longer believe the doctrines taught by the churches in which they grew up . . . .”
In addition, there is what I have dubbed “the Blockbuster Effect.” Blockbuster was a video rental chain that at the turn of the century seemed in complete command of its market, peaking at 9000-plus stores in 2004. But as the video rental market moved toward streaming services, Blockbuster failed to adapt. Its decline was precipitate: the chain was bankrupt by 2010, and as of early 2019, of the 9000 stores, only one survives, in central Oregon.
Similarly, technical and economic changes are peeling off and miniaturizing and making portable ever more functions that yearly meetings used to provide. Take, for example two of the once-most crucial: pension plans and health insurance. Meetings which want and can afford to pay a pastor can easily make such arrangements on their own. Then there is the credentialing function: local meetings can offer legitimate credentials for, say, hospital chaplaincies (which, with their regular paychecks drawn from the seemingly bottomless moneypot of our bloodsucking healthcare “system”), are rapidly becoming a leading career path for the pastorally inclined.
But for those not seeking paychecks from churches/meetings, I can imagine a scenario not long hence in which “Yearly Meeting” is concentrated into a smartphone app: With this, Friends can skip the office, most of the staff, and (almost all) the pomp.
Where does real engagement with this awareness lead startup churches? Who knows? But so far it’s been much easier to talk about being “boldly and radically new” about this or that, than to produce genuinely “bold,” “radical,” “new” – and viable replacements. Self-definition, and self-support are still wide open questions.
Bottom line: those who threatened “disintegration” of Northwest YM unless LGBT affirming groups, and those who questioned authority were expelled, got their wish. And many of those ejected are still grappling with what it means to start a new Quaker body when most of them didn’t really want to do that, and the institutional basis for the old pastor-centered structure is collapsing.
IV – North Carolina: Is There (Quaker) Life after Death There?
At 10:58 Eastern time, Seventh Day (Saturday), Eighth Month (August) 5, 2017, at Quaker Lake Camp near Liberty, NC, Clerk Michael Fulp asked, “Do you approve?”
The assembled Friends, about 120 of them, responded with a surprisingly subdued, “Approve.”
And with that, they pressed the button that demolished a yearly meeting which had lasted 320 years. . . .
The end of North Carolina Yearly Meeting-FUM left two successor groups to define themselves and chart a future for their segments of programmed Quakerism in North Carolina. During the closing phases, the larger, more evangelical bloc was provisionally dubbed the “Authority Group,” because it wanted to exercise top-down disciplinary authority to purge a handful of “liberal” meetings, particularly for their reported friendliness to LGBTs.
These targeted meetings were provisionally named “The Autonomy Group,” or Autonomites, because they denied that NCYM had any such top-down disciplinary power.
The “Authority Group” wanted to use the NCYM Faith & Practice as the basis for a purge of liberals, especially the handful of meetings that had openly expressed affirmation for LGBT persons. The purgers’ claim was that these meetings:
- had violated the Bible’s “clear teachings”;
- had also transgressed the YM’s Faith and Practice; and
- the 1877 “Richmond Declaration of Faith” included in Faith & Practice; and
- further, their affirming statements were repugnant to many YM authorities.
But the Autonomites rejected these charges, and pointed out, quite correctly, that:
- the Biblical texts relating to LGBTs were very much debatable, and Jesus had said nothing about such; further,
- the NCYM Faith & Practice likewise did not mention the word, anywhere.
- Neither, for that matter, did the Richmond Declaration; indeed, the Declaration’s section on marriage does not even specify the gender of the partners. And
- NCYM’s Faith & Practice nowhere gave the YM authority to judge and discipline member meetings as insubordinate, on doctrinal or any other grounds.
This struggle surfaced explosively at NCYM’s annual session in 2014. For three years thereafter, a largely self-selected cabal repackaged and repeatedly tried to push through their demand that “liberals” and “universalists” had to leave, now. There were many ugly scenes, and occasional cries that NCYM should “Follow the Indiana plan”; but one after another, these schemes were rebuffed. [This journal reported extensively on these events and arguments, in Issues #26 through #31.] More than a dozen of the strongly evangelical meetings quit NCYM, one at a time, as the repeated purge efforts faltered. Others threatened to bolt; yet by any semblance of fair Quaker process, there was nothing like unity in support of a purge.
So obviously, the process had to go.
The demolition came at a session in late 2015: someone in the Authority group reported finding a1967 edition of NCYM’s Faith & Practice that did contain a top-down subordination section (as, indeed, most YMs’ books once had). But this provision had “somehow disappeared” (the insinuation was this had happened stealthily and without sanction) and it had then been kept out of half a dozen subsequently approved revisions of the volume over the next 48 years – still without being noticed.
Agreeing (without evidence) that this change had not been authorized, the Clerk declared that a shouted “voice vote” of the Representative Body directed that this “disappeared” section be reinserted in Faith & Practice forthwith. Protests of this blatantly unscrupulous maneuver by the Autonomites were ignored. (A detailed account is in Quaker Theology #28)
Also ignored were the detailed procedures spelled out in Faith & Practice itself for revising the document, specifying a lengthy deliberative regimen of study and discernment that would take at least a year. The 2015 “restoration” was rammed through in ten minutes.
This shocking power grab was for many the turning point of the struggle. It became clear to the beleaguered liberals that, as some exegetes would say, the text was pretext. The integrity of the NCYM officers was exposed as a sham; the fix was obviously in.
Yet the Autonomites did not simply walk out. They kept resisting the continuing charges of inauthenticity and heresy, and repeatedly, often eloquently declined to abandon NCYM to the other group.
At this point, enter the lawyers.
The purge faction still wanted an Indiana solution: an NCYM, purified of “liberals.” To make a long story short, in the end they couldn’t get it. The liberal meetings, some nearly 300 years old, had just as much Quaker pedigree and heritage as anyone else. They spoke up and issued eloquent statements of faith that pushed back against the accusations of violating nonexistent rules and being tools of the Anti-Christ and suchlike. “Authority Group” leaders ultimately came to agree that to rid themselves of the liberals, NCYM itself had to go; and it did.
Also in the end, there were two concrete items left to haggle over: Quaker Lake Camp, and the NCYM endowment of around $12 million dollars.
The endowment was transferred to a newly-formed foundation, NCYM Inc., known as “The Inc.” Under NC law, The Inc. is not a church; it has no members, clergy, or worship services, only a board and a part-time bookkeeper. The board includes equal numbers of liberals and evangelicals.
Like other foundations, The Inc. will manage the endowment and distribute it earnings. These will be distributed based on membership, which means the evangelicals will get about 75 per cent, the liberals 25 per cent. As for the camp, both groups agreed to help support it for several years. But it was given a shove toward independence, and left with an evangelical-tilted board for the meantime.
Once NCYM’s “Closing Minute” was adopted on August 5, the two groups went their separate ways.
Both could claim a kind of success: the evangelicals were now rid of the liberals: because The Inc, was not a church, they were no longer “unequally yoked with ‘unbelievers.’” Yet liberals had fended off the NCYM purge. They were left institutionally homeless, but had not been forced out. This was not Indiana, where the purgers purloined the name and a legal claim to being the “real” yearly meeting.
Nor is it Northwest, where a closed Establishment condescended to its LGBT-friendly meetings, staging a nauseating spectacle of offering to establish a toy mini-YM for them, like a mollifying sandbox for unruly preschoolers.
No, Carolina is different: many liberals here, for what it’s worth, stood up for their legitimacy, foiled the expulsion efforts, and gained equal standing in “The Inc.” This won’t yield much money, but preserves their legitimacy as Quaker Christians. Which is, after all, what the 320 years (and much of the purge struggle) was all about.
I admit it, I’m proud of the Carolina liberals. Three years of resistance took guts, and made an impact.
Further, despite all, there is still a North Carolina Yearly Meeting. In the Introduction above, we pointed out that in 1904, a group of NCYM meetings which rejected the change to a pastoral system, “Holiness” theologies, and programmed worship, set out to conserve the traditional Quakerism they thought was NCYM’s essence. They were Quietists, after all, so their departure was more low-key than some of the scenes depicted in this later round. But they stuck to their witness.
They also clung tenaciously to the name: North Carolina Yearly Meeting, with (Conservative) tacked on parenthetically, as well as to the two-plus centuries of its nonpastoral ways.
And now, another century-plus later, the meek have for once inherited the earth, or at least the small part where the name NCYM was found. In the summer of 2018, the 321st annual sessions of North Carolina Yearly Meeting were convened as scheduled; but there was only one of them.
V – Wilmington Yearly Meeting: We’re splitting – Now, Smile!
Like several other affiliates of Friends United Meeting (FUM), Wilmington Yearly Meeting includes meetings that are pretty much all-evangelical, others that are remnants of Mainline Protestantism, plus a few that are downright liberal. Elsewhere in this issue, Steve Angell reports in detail on the tensions there. As of early 2018, this body included 28 meetings in Ohio and Tennessee.
But centrifugal forces that paralleled those in the other groups described here had been building. They focused on a double complaint: first, that a few meetings had moved toward affirmation of LGBT persons; and secondly, that several other meetings, which did not share these affirming views on sexuality, nevertheless advocated a “live and let live” stance. They prioritized preservation of the YM community in the midst of such differences as the proper Christian Quaker response.
The dissenting meetings declared that such tolerance was a sellout, false to the Bible and contrary to WYM’s Faith & Practice. In the summer of 2018, their patience exhausted, several evangelical meetings said that if the affirming groups were to be permitted to stay in WYM, then they wanted out.
One such Friend from Knoxville, Tennessee wondered why the meetings who were changing doctrine on marriage and Biblical interpretation were not the ones that were leaving. In other words, she felt that the meetings that affirmed marriage is between one man and one woman should be the one to retain the name of Wilmington Yearly Meeting.
For those familiar with midwestern Quaker politics, it was apparent that this was not going to happen. The Clerks were firmly of the “live & let live” outlook, and at the controls of the Yearly Meeting. They also insisted on maintaining an upbeat tone:
[J. P.] Lund, the incoming Clerk, made this clear:
“the Wilmington Yearly Meeting that will emerge from this season of separation will still have diverse views on same gender marriage and Biblical authority, and “will consist of meetings that have chosen Christian fellowship over dogma, the Gospel of Love over the letter of the law.”
Nevertheless, [Julie] Rudd [of Wilmington MM] asked,
“How well are a bunch of moderate to progressive Friends going to do in a YM where there are fewer and fewer people to challenge us on our crap? It becomes very easy to conflate Christian truth with cultural certainties. I’m sorry on the one hand, to be in a YM full of people who increasingly look and think like me, because I need those challenges. On the other hand, many Friends on the more conservative side stopped really showing up a long time ago, so their formal absence may not be all that noticeable.”
Good points; but those preparing to depart were disinclined to serve as the liberals’ on-call therapists, or to echo the happy talk. A letter from several of their pastors said:
Living the Christian life requires not only a belief in the forgiving, redemptive, and saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, but also living in obedience to God’s commandments and the teachings of Jesus as set forth in the Holy Scriptures. Wilmington Yearly Meeting has become increasingly tolerant of constituent Monthly Meetings openly endorsing practices that are in direct conflict with Biblical teachings. As a result of this tolerance, it has become impossible for us to remain in meaningful fellowship with those Meetings who try to define God’s Word as an outdated historical novel.
Clerk J. P. Lund repeated that when Community Friends [an affirming meeting in Cincinnati] chose to leave Wilmington Yearly Meeting in 2007, the separation was made in a very loving way. He felt the same loving process was needed now, if separation was to recur. It should follow Quaker process and it should be done in a very gracious and loving way.
That was his view. A newcomer offered another slant to illuminate the split. He felt there was more than personal pique involved:
“A Friend [David Brindle, commented on] his experience with those who take a literal view of the Bible; he came to understand that they deeply and sincerely believe some things will endanger their immortal souls. As much as they may want to reach out in love and understanding, their fear of losing that immortal soul makes it impossible for them to do so.
If those who are less literalist in their understanding of the Bible “hear” and understand this, it makes a difference in the conversation – because that is the real issue. Those with more progressive understandings of scripture must accept that Friends in meetings where the Bible is interpreted literally are not willing – or able – to unite with a meeting that conducts a same sex marriage, or even a meeting that does not condemn such a marriage. [Emphasis added.]
[The WYM Permanent Board Minutes from May 2018 concurred]
:“Wilmington Yearly Meeting consists of Friends who take a Biblical literalist point of view, and those who do not. Those gathered expressed the desire to work together, even though we don’t always agree on interpretation of scripture. However, because there are Friends in our yearly meeting who cannot remain in fellowship with those holding other points of view related to scripture, it is time to consider moving toward separating peacefully and lovingly.”
As this issue went to press, only 19 meetings were listed on WYM’s roster, down from 28 a year earlier.
VI – WRAP-UP
Is it possible to step back and make any larger sense of this sad succession of splits? What precipitated it? Who won, who lost? And with the Wilmington breakup, has it finally played itself out?
The wisdom of the renowned seer Yogi Berra abides: “Predictions are hard, especially about the future.” But some reflections are possible, even if only for historians to wrangle over.
One: As to why now? An answer is that “now” is largely irrelevant. In the Judeo-Christian stream, splits and schisms are old, old news: About 900 years before Jesus, the nation of Israel split into two rival kingdoms. The Hebrew scriptures describe other episodes of internal strife, even civil wars. Then in the New Testament, both Jesus, Paul, and other writers warn repeatedly against “false teachers”, “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” “those who would divide you,” etc., as present, active threats.
For that matter, even the first generation of Quakers, often viewed as the “Golden Age,” suffered through serious divisions, over such burning issues as whether and when men should wear (or take off) hats in worship.
So one plausible explanation of these five schisms is a shrug and an offhand, “Stuff happens.” Quakers are fallible, sinful humans; their organizations are imperfect too. Church conflicts are an abiding reality. Change is often disruptive and uncomfortable. (Many other platitudes could be added, and are true enough even in their banality.)
Two: it’s these times. Most U.S. readers will have noticed that this country is in serious internal disarray; a few observers have spoken darkly about the risks of civil war. Many of today’s contested issues involve questions that are more than civil or legal: when does a fetus become human? What is marriage? What is gender? Is permanent warmaking a national duty? Should the state be carrying out official executions? American churches both reflect these conflicts and feed them; the Religious Society of Friends is emphatically not exempt.
Three is, “What goes around comes around.” There seems to be a periodic character to American Quaker schisms; sort of a recurring fever. It’s not an exact cycle, like solar eclipses. It’s more similar to tornadoes: for years they’re just a breeze, or touch down somewhere else; and then, at least since 1827, every twenty years or so a substantial one bears down on Quaker country. Why? (Computer models are working on it.) Perhaps a generation is enough years for some Friends to forget what a sordid mess such schisms make; and still others can carry grudges that long, and seize a chance to act on them.
Four: Politics. Is it a coincidence that in North Carolina, the pro-purge constituency is concentrated in three counties, which voted against Barack Obama, twice, by three to one, and voted for his successor by nearly identical margins?
My answer: no coincidence. Nor is the strong likelihood that in the LGBT-friendly meetings the voting results were skewed the other way.
Some very astute political scientists have pointed out that our larger society is self-sorting into increasingly isolated and often mutually hostile cultural/political bubbles. The Carolina experience certainly corroborates that thesis.
And it suggests a footnote: liberal YMs may view the agonies among Pastoral Friends with bemusement, or even a sense of self-satisfaction, considering themselves beyond all that.
But here’s a caution: watching some very liberal meetings in recent years tearing themselves up over issues of real and rumored racism suggests that the old jibe about liberals’ penchant for forming circular firing squads has by no means been banished. Such Friends are advised.
Five is, with a hat tip to Bernie Sanders, “Follow the money.” Since the 1960s, membership and donations have declined in many formerly large and affluent “Mainline” denominations. But even among loyal church members who stayed, middle-class incomes have come under increasing economic strain. Add to that the relentless departures of the Nones & Dones. Thus donations diminish as jobs get scarcer, college tuition and healthcare costs rise, and retirement prospects dim.
Evangelicals escaped the numerical losses for a few decades, and never stopped crowing abougt it. But now even their behemoths like the Southern Baptist Convention have been losing hundreds of thousands per year. For any church with paid clergy, such loss of members and their money means loss of jobs for pastors, ministers, and church bureaucrats.
As in other industries, such budget and job cuts breed internal strife. In the church business the same goes, as more wannabe pastors compete for fewer slots. In religious settings, such tensions easily curdle into scapegoating and heresy hunts: “Our churches/meetings would be thriving again (and I’d have a secure pulpit gig), if it weren’t for YOU and YOUR KIND . . .” I’m confident that if a careful tabulation was made of employment trends in the areas where these five Quaker splits occurred, there would be a significant correlation between the growth of the “precariat” and church upheavals.
Six: Imperialism (aka “The Great Commission): Perhaps you have seen the internet meme of Jesus knocking on a door. A Voice balloon from within says, “Who is it?” “It’s Jesus,” he answers. “Let me in. I’m here to save you.” Another inside balloon asks, “Save us from what?” Jesus answers, “From what I’m going to do to you, if you don’t let me in.”
I understand that many generations of missionaries have firmly believed they were doing a great favor to potential converts, helping rescue them from burning in Jesus’ eternal lake of fire. And for too many, backing up their evangelism with imperial economic and military force, not to mention warmed-over Victorian sexual, social and racial mores, was not too great a compromise; in fact, often part of the deal.
Seven: chicanery. In these five schisms, it was common to hear such things as “Quaker process” mocked and derided as outmoded cultural artifacts, minor but potentially demonic idols, and see them repeatedly treated as roadblocks to be kicked out of the way of the ever-advancing gospel, or the preservation of threatened theological & moral (usually sexual) “purity.”
Such duplicity surfaced nakedly from the beginning of these years, in Western, where the superintendents and their allied pastors repeatedly refused to accept the accurate determinations by honest Clerks that there was no unity for their effort to purge Phil Gulley. In Indiana, an effort designed to surround and squash a single upstart meeting ultimately faced more than a dozen others ready to back up dissent from the authorities’ expulsion diktat by following it out the door. Yet the Clerk blithely declared “unity” behind the expulsion, and that the objectors could be, and were, ignored.
In the Northwest, the underlying sleaziness of that YM’s rulers’ machinations brought the stench of titan arum, also called the corpse flower, with every one of their fake smiles. In North Carolina, a provision of Faith and Practice, abandoned almost half a century earlier, was dug up, barely dusted off and rammed through, collapsing a revision process explicitly designed to take at least a year into less than an hour. In this case their “success” came at the cost of the yearly meeting’s survival.
Only in Wilmington was the fact of division formally respected; but even there, the Clerks’ admonitions that everybody keep a happy face about the rending of the body rang hollower with every repetition.
Doug Bennett, a former president of Earlham College, was wise to this pattern. As he delicately put it in a post in October, 2012:
“Schisms require some governance fiddle.. . . somewhere, somehow in each schism there has been some forcing, some deviation from our best governance practices. We have divided by not finding unity – or declaring ‘unity’ when there was none.”
Bennett then asked, “Will that happen in Indiana?”
He soon had his answer.
In some cases, particularly Indiana and Northwest, the “fiddlers” got their way. In North Carolina and Western YMs, they faced pushback, which to some of them looked and sounded like blasphemy. But in the U.S. today, it’s a pushback world, especially on all that reheated Victorian stuff.
From this wreckage, one persisting weakness in what is called “Quaker Process” sticks out, and calls for reexamination: what to do about Doug Bennett’s “fiddles,” which I would call Clerk Misconduct. I have not seen a Faith and Practice which includes a provision for challenging or limiting the damage done by Clerks who show partiality and determination to ignore meaningful dissent to ensure their preferred outcome. Such malfeasance, which amounts to organizational treachery, is frequent enough, not only in these cases but others, that I urge concerned Friends to address it, and begin exploring alternatives.
Eight: Last but nor least, we mustn’t neglect today’s catchall villains: the Millennials. More and more, I’m told, they’re spiritual but not religious, prefer avocado on their toast, have left all the churches and moved to Brooklyn, etc. As the authoritative study of the subject concluded:
“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room.”
The lead investigator of that study was Plato. Oh wait – the quote is actually from a student researcher named Kenneth John Freeman, in his 1907 dissertation, summarizing complaints about youths by various ancient writers. But whatever; 1907 is close enough to freshen the jibes.
One growing impact of the Millennials’ presence, and their new technologies, is what I called the “Blockbuster Effect,” a failure to adapt to technical and cultural change which was fatal. How many Quaker yearly meetings in the U.S. are headed in the same direction?
One feature of smartphone technology may be a harbinger: a great many functions have been miniaturized and packed into pocket-sized devices. I can foresee a time when most YM functions subsist mainly as apps:
Press the icon for a popup menu: then, reading Faith & practice, Quaker journals or newsletters, checking schedules, messages to committees, talking to Friends, hymns, sermons or lectures; making a donation, joining a worship session – practically everything except sharing fellowship F2F (er, face to face) — but this too can also be organized via social media): all this is, or soon will be, but a click or two away. Some of these features are already increasingly available in that form, though not yet as organized. Even I, who am not advocating this path, must admit that I now spend much more time reading, writing, talking and learning about Quakerism online than I do in my actual, much cherished monthly meeting.
I hear occasional complaints about all this: committee meetings (or worship) are not the same online; discussions can get out of hand; trolls can intrude; online networks are not “real” community, it’s just not as “spiritual.” It’s different.
Yes it is, especially for older Friends, like me, whose experience began pre-internet. And I expect that regardless what some of us of a certain age think, it’s going to get more different. Yet I don’t think Millennials (and their children) will object; if their monthly (or yearly) meeting largely takes form as an app, it will likely seem “natural.”
But maybe there will be a reaction: some will leave to form a North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Even More) Conservative: Eschewing phones except for emergencies; bound by discipline to communicate all Quaker matters mostly by letter (i.e., pen to paper, in envelopes, sent by postal mail), or in person. Does this seem far-fetched? Well, there is one active Conservative meeting in NC still using outhouses. (I’m told these are very eco-benign; but I don’t visit often. What if it rains while I’m there? Also I’m not a fan of the spiders. So call me a wuss.)
Will meetings-as-an-app be “better”? Will they be less vulnerable to future waves of schism? I doubt it; fallible human nature will still persist.
But if deleting an app could avoid even some of the grief and trauma produced by the Separation Generation, perhaps that would be some small improvement.
No, looking back at this record, it would be a large one.