Stephen W. Angell
Part I: Freight Train Bearing Down? West Richmond Friends Meeting and Indiana Yearly Meeting
West Richmond Friends Meeting in Richmond, Indiana, might seem to be an odd ground zero for the newest intra-Quaker conflict, but that is where the Meeting has found itself in the past two years, after approving a “welcoming and affirming” minute for everyone, including gays and lesbians. Located just two blocks from the Earlham College campus, it celebrated its centennial in the past year. Allen Jay, a beloved Indiana Friend who cultivated good relations with all the fractious groups of Indiana Quakers, was instrumental in its founding. Numerous luminaries, including the recently deceased Wilmer Cooper and Tom Mullen, have graced its membership list over the years. Its congregation is known for its civic engagement. The Richmond Friends School uses its facilities. A 2004 photograph posted on the Internet on a civic-oriented Wayne County website notes that “West Richmond Friends is also home to Boy Scout Meetings, play groups, adult schools, and AA Meetings.”
Many members of West Richmond were deeply involved in the process that led to the approval of this minute. Recently, I sat down with two of them, Stephanie Crumley-Effinger and Eric Dimick Eastman, to discuss the changes that the Meeting has undergone in the recent past. The Meeting went through a thorough re-examination of itself; Eric says that the process was well underway before he became a member five years ago. In 2004, the Meeting approved a new mission statement: “As a Christian Quaker fellowship, we seek to discover God’s truth, proclaim God’s love, and live our faith.”
As the Meeting continued to explore the implications of its mission, the Meeting wondered whether it should become a “welcoming and affirming” congregation. “Welcoming and affirming” churches encourage the full participation of all, so West Richmond Friends believed such a stance might facilitate the growth of the meeting. These discussions were not all about sexual orientation; indeed meeting-wide engagement on “sexual orientation” was only “objective F,” sixth on the list. Nevertheless, perhaps inevitably the controversial dimension of their welcome is that they welcome persons in gays and lesbians to their congregation. The “welcoming and affirming” statement eventually approved by West Richmond Meeting was not uni-dimensional by any means; it offered to “affirm and welcome all persons whatever their race, religious affiliation, age, socio-economic status, nationality, ethnic background, gender, sexual orientation, or mental/physical ability.” Nevertheless, in the discussions that took place both prior and subsequent to the adoption of this minute, “sexual orientation” loomed the largest and required the most careful discernment of any item on this list.
West Richmond’s process was impressive, involving much small group discussion, under the careful eye of the Ministry and Membership (M&M) committee. One issue that they looked at was the interpretation of Scriptures on this matter, and they considered various interpretations of Scriptures that appeared to deal with homosexuality. Resources that discuss the difficulties of interpreting these Scriptures are easy to find on the Internet; one superb resource is Walter Wink’s article on “Homosexuality and the Bible.” Wink makes several useful points. He finds nothing in the Bible that is at all relevant to a loving and mutual relationship between a same sex couple. He thoroughly discusses the ways that morals and ethics on many matters, including slavery, have evolved in the thousands of years since the Biblical texts were written. Theologically, he argues that Christians have always maintained the impossibility of keeping the old Hebrew laws in full and that they “reserve the right to pick and choose.”
Wink argued, “There is no Biblical sex ethic. Instead, it exhibits a variety of sexual mores, some of which changed over the thousand year span of biblical history. Mores are unreflective customs accepted by a given community. Many of the practices that the Bible prohibits, we allow, and many that it allows, we prohibit. The Bible knows only a love ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores are dominant in any given country, or culture, or period.” Wink then appeals for tolerance of differing opinions on this issue, reminding Christians that we are commanded “to love one another,” including “all of us who are involved in this debate.”
West Richmond Friends, for the most part, ended up in a similar place to Wink in this debate. They quickly found a fairly broad consensus to go ahead with a welcoming and affirming minute. There were, however, two or three Friends who had misgivings about the minute and ultimately stood aside.
According to Dimick Eastman, the major issue which was debated between this small minority of the Meeting and the majority was the issue of theological anthropology. The two or three who did not favor the approach of the Meeting as it was evolving believed that same-sex relationships do not represent the fullness of the relationships that God intended for human beings to have with each other. These Friends pointed to Where Grace Abounds, a Christian organization in Colorado that “provides support for those that are sexually broken.” According to its website, its “core issues” include sexual abuse, sexual addictions, same sex attraction, sexual anorexia, and transgender issues. However, while Where Grace Abounds seeks to heal sexual brokenness among those in both opposite-gender and same-gender relationships, the website implies that there is sexual brokenness present only in some opposite-gender relationships, while it is present in all same-gender relationships. Where Grace Abounds also posts articles on the theme of “Bible and Homosexuality,” by an instructor at Denver Seminary, but here a different conclusion than Wink’s is reached from the author’s Scriptural interpretation: “I do not believe that homosexuals should be treated as criminals; at the same time I do believe that homosexuality is sinful.” (Emig, “Leviticus 18:22 & 20:13”)
However, Dimick Eastman reached a very different conclusion on theological anthropology: He is sure that men and women living as committed partners in same-sex relationships can indeed have every bit as much fullness in that relationship as opposite sex couples. In other words, same-sex relationships are not sinful. Dimick Eastman is 37 years old; he grew up in unprogrammed meetings, mostly in Lake Erie Yearly Meeting, and West Richmond is the first pastoral Friends meeting that he has belonged to. He has known men and women in same-sex relationships as long as he can remember. Many of his friends when he was growing up happily lived in households anchored by samesex relationships: “most young people have an ‘out person’” somewhere among their friends and acquaintances. For himself, and also for a large proportion of his age cohort (as well as those younger than he), same-sex relationships are just as normal as opposite-sex ones.
On the matter of theological anthropology, the great majority of West Richmond Friends agreed with Dimick Eastman, and not with the position of Where Grace Abounds. West Richmond Friends quickly evolved toward a consensus of being a welcoming, affirming, accepting and inviting meeting toward gays and lesbians, including persons in same-sex relationships. For the sake of clarity, their statement specified that “members and attenders of West Richmond Friends meeting are welcomed and encouraged to: attend and participate fully in meetings for worship; take an active part in the life and activities of our meeting; contribute their time, talents, spiritual gifts and resources to God through our meeting; apply for and serve in positions of paid, public ministry or other positions of leadership in our meeting; test and shape their personal beliefs and daily practices and help others to do the same; invest themselves in our common efforts to improve and heal the world; and help our meeting to discern God’s will in our meetings for business.”
Still, there were areas in this discussion that were more difficult for them than others. The Meeting realized that its reception of gays and lesbians incorporated both a civil rights dimension and a sexual ethics dimension. Although West Richmond Friends reached consensus on most civil rights issues fairly quickly, they found the sexual ethics issues to be tougher. Led by their M&M committee, they wanted to look at sexual ethics with respect to everyone, including both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. But that was going to take more time, so they decided to go ahead with their welcoming and affirming minute and to look at the ethical dimensions later.
West Richmond Friends also did not have unity on the celebration of same-sex relationships. Their difficulty of finding unity on this matter is partially reflected in the minute which they ended up approving, which stated: “Neither the State of Indiana nor the Faith and Practice of Indiana Yearly Meeting currently makes provision for the marriage or civil union of same sex couples. In the absence of such legal or denominational provisions, we regard same sex couples who are in committed relationships as families.” Both Dimick Eastman and Crumley-Effinger recall that some Friends had additional reasons for being uneasy about holding ceremonies to celebrate the commitment of same-sex couples, but the lack of recognition by the state and by the Yearly Meeting were the only reasons to be mentioned in the minute.
West Richmond’s “welcoming and affirming” minute was finally approved by the Meeting on June 15, 2008. At some time shortly thereafter, the minute was posted on the Meeting’s website. http://www.westrichmondfriends.org/affirming.htm Certainly not all meeting minutes are posted on the meeting website. However, Crumley-Effinger pointed out that it would hardly make sense to have a welcoming and affirming minute and not to make it highly visible to the public. Joshua Brown recalls that consideration of how to make the minute public was conducted in one or more of the Meeting’s committees, and based on a positive recommendation from them, he posted the minute on the Web. Meeting members differ on whether that issue was not ever brought to monthly meeting as a whole; Brown’s recollection was that it was not.
The Minute’s Aftermath
The last sentence of the “welcoming and affirming” minute stated the Meeting’s willingness “to engage in open discussion on these issues with others, and we respect the Christian beliefs and spiritual integrity of those who may not fully agree with us.”
During their discussion, West Richmond Friends gave extensive consideration to the possible reception of their minute within their Yearly Meeting. Not only were they the first Meeting within their Yearly Meeting (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 at odds with the stances on Scripture interpretation and theological anthropology that West Richmond had come to through its extensive internal discussions. 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 affirmed a long list of specific kinds of positive ministries that might be offered to individuals who “encounter Christ” and are undertaking ministry. 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 1982 and 1995 minutes, taken together as they were intended to be, were still quite a distance from the “welcoming and affirming” minute that West Richmond Friends approved in 2008. While the subject of the 1982 minute was sexual acts, the subject for the 1995 minute is more about pastoral care of, and response to, people with homosexual orientation.
Consideration of West Richmond’s minute by the Yearly Meeting would not take place in a theological or cultural vacuum. The Yearly Meeting had recently gone through an exhausting and polarizing discussion over the Quaker understanding of the sacraments, with the Yearly Meeting as a whole not feeling clear to adopt a new position that administration of the outward sacraments in Friends Meetings could be voluntary, thus leaving intact the teaching of the Richmond Declaration of Faith that baptism and the Lord’s supper are solely spiritual experiences: an “inward work” (baptism) and an “inward and spiritual partaking” (Lord’s Supper). (Faith and Practice, 30; for commentary, see Angell 2007-2008)
Many of the members of West Richmond have worked for Earlham, where, for decades, there have been sharp conflicts between Indiana Yearly Meeting and Earlham College over a variety of the college’s curricular and extra-curricular practices. Some of these conflicts have occurred with a sharp focus on Earlham’s perceived disregard for the Yearly Meeting’s scruples over practicing homosexuals; for example, in the 1990s, there was a concerted effort to block the re-appointment of certain Earlham trustees appointed by the Yearly Meeting and have them replaced by Friends who more fully embodied the views of most Indiana Yearly Meeting Friends on issues of homosexuality and sexual ethics. (Hamm 1997, 290, 339-346) As Yearly Meeting members became aware of West Richmond’s minute, there was already a mutually agreeable process underway between Earlham and the Yearly Meeting, which sought to transform the relationship between the two from one where the Yearly Meeting appoints trustees to a looser “covenanting” process, which would relieve the Yearly Meeting from an oversight relationship with a college that many Friends feel only very imperfectly represents their Quaker ideals.
West Richmond Friends had kept Indiana Yearly Meeting superintendent Doug Shoemaker informed of their deliberations, and they were prompt in informing him of the minute’s approval in June of 2008. Word of this minute was slow to spread throughout the Yearly Meeting during the following two years. Doug shared it with the Yearly Meeting Executive Committee on October 6, and the Executive Committee requested that West Richmond be contacted with its concerns and that follow up be handled by the Ministry and Oversight Committee. Joshua Brown notes, “Doug gave a full, fair and even-handed account of all of the communication up to that point. M&O allowed me to speak for a few minutes, then I was excused from the rest of the discussion, and the outcome was the first minute which M&O sent to WRF.” Shoemaker subsequently met with West Richmond Friends on Nov. 19. Delegations from Indiana Yearly Meeting have met with West Richmond Friends twice.
In March 2009, West Richmond Friends received a request from the Yearly Meeting’s M & O Committee to take its Welcoming and Affirming minute off its website. No explanation was given at the time as to why West Richmond Friends were being instructed to take the minute off of the website. West Richmond Friends were puzzled and taken aback by the peremptory nature of this communication, and they were not willing to comply with these instructions. Doug Shoemaker notes that West Richmond Friends “were perplexed by this request, and that Ministry & Oversight was perplexed by the refusal of their request.”
Some months later, in face-to-face communication between West Richmond Friends and the M&O Committee of Indiana Yearly Meeting, this first message was clarified. What had been intended to be communicated was that West Richmond Friends should take their Minute off their website, so that West Richmond Friends and others in the Yearly Meeting could more easily have a discussion about the minute. Both sides were startled, Yearly Meeting Friends by the fact that this fuller message which accurately communicated their intent was not the message that had been conveyed, and West Richmond Friends, by a dawning awareness that the first message had in fact been an invitation to dialogue rather than a peremptory command to submit to the Yearly Meeting.
Dimick Eastman and Crumley-Effinger see a parallel between the coming out process for lesbians and gays and the “coming out” of their Meeting. By putting their minute on the website, the Meeting was “coming out of the closet” and testifying to the love that Christ requires of them. Others in the Yearly Meeting who critiqued West Richmond’s position objected to their openness about their stance to be as much of a difficulty as their position itself. One Indiana Friend stated that the Meeting’s “being open about” West Richmond’s welcoming and affirming stance “is the problem.”
The Ministry and Oversight Committee of the Yearly Meeting eventually identified two major problems that many of its members had with the West Richmond minute. First, under the guidance of the Indiana Yearly Meeting minutes, it should not have allowed the possibility of membership for practicing homosexuals. Second, under the guidance of those same minutes, it should not have opened the possibility of leadership within the Meeting for gays and lesbians. Shoemaker states that the membership and leadership issues in the minute have “gained the most attention.”
But the M&O Committee also objected to West Richmond identifying “same sex couples who are in committed relationships as families.” Even though West Richmond had decided not to include same-sex marriage as part of its Welcoming and Affirming minute, Doug Shoemaker stated that some Indiana Friends still wondered if this minute was an “end run” around the Yearly Meeting’s marriage discipline, which contained gendered language indicating the Yearly Meeting’s understanding that marriage was to be between a man and a woman. (IYM 2002, 87-88, 134-137)
What West Richmond Friends decided to do was to clarify the differences between their “understanding of Christ’s call to love everyone” and the Yearly Meeting’s beliefs and practices, by providing a link, beneath their website minute, to the full text of the 1982 and 1995 minutes of Indiana Yearly Meeting, cited above.
The discussion between the M&O Committee of the Yearly Meeting, clerked by Peggy Caldwell, and West Richmond Friends Meeting, came to center on a paragraph (“Subordination,” 108C) in Indiana Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice. This is a rich section of the Faith and Practice, one that lends itself to both moderate and conservative readings. Ministry and Oversight Committee argued that West Richmond needed to “subordinate” itself to the Yearly Meeting’s guidance, as provided under the 1982 and 1994 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)
West Richmond Friends argued that the central concept of this passage in their book of discipline was the “mutual submission” of Meetings to one another. Furthermore, this passage recognizes the “validity of the prophetic voices” of Monthly Meeting. West Richmond Friends see their “welcoming and affirming” minute as thoroughly in accord with this passage of the discipline. What they are attempting to do is to exercise their prophetic voice within the Yearly Meeting, not asking that the Yearly Meeting change. Doug Shoemaker says that the Yearly Meeting is “struggling to find a balance” between the very different readings of this section of the discipline by West Richmond Meeting and the M&O Committee.
M&O has maintained that if there is a need for a “welcoming and affirming” minute at West Richmond Meeting, meeting members should first go to the Yearly Meeting to try to get the Yearly Meeting to achieve clearness on a new policy concerning gays and lesbians. West Richmond Friends, however, never gave much consideration to the Yearly Meeting option. They believed that initiating discussions at that level would be a waste of time, because there were so many Friends who were so strongly invested in the current Yearly Meeting policy on homosexuality. But they also felt that the lack of fruitfulness of bringing a minute to the Yearly Meeting floor at this time did not entail the need for them to abandon their concern. Instead, West Richmond Friends felt called to adopt a prophetic stance, even within the Yearly Meeting, if necessary. Crumley-Effinger observes that “John Woolman was not stopped in his witness because of corporate unclearness about slavery” in his own yearly meeting, or in others that he visited.
Thus, in the aftermath of West Richmond’s approval of this minute, a third theological topic was engaged. In addition to Scriptural interpretation and theological anthropology, West Richmond Friends – indeed, Indiana Yearly Meeting as a whole – found itself engaging questions of ecclesiology. In many Christian denominations, the decision-making process is clear. The ultimate decisions can be made by bishops (in denominations that are “Episcopal”), or by councils of elders or “presbyters” (in “Presbyterian” denominations), or by “synods” of church members (Lutherans are often organized in this way), or by congregations (in “Congregationalist” denominations). Of course, there are many hybrid formats. Among members of the Religious Society of Friends, which claims to find unity in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it is sometimes difficult to discern a coherent ecclesiology. Friends have different preconceptions or interpretations of what the Holy Spirit calls for. (E.g., Cazden, 6-40). West Richmond appears to be arguing for an approach to Friends’ polity, or ecclesiology, which emphasizes the congregations’ role, while not denying the importance of larger decision-making bodies.
The concept of “subordination” has a long, interesting history in Friends’ disciplines. An early Indiana Yearly Meeting (Orthodox) book of discipline, published in 1839, counseled that “The connection and subordination of our meetings for Discipline are thus: preparative meetings are accountable to the monthly; monthly to the quarterly; and the quarterly to the yearly meeting. So that if the yearly meeting be at any time dissatisfied with the proceedings of any inferior meeting . . . such meeting or meetings ought, with readiness and meekness, to render an account thereof when required, and correct or expunge any of their minutes, according to the direction of the superior meeting.” Very similar language, unambiguous in its meaning, could be found in most or all Orthodox and Hicksite books of discipline throughout the nineteenth century. Thus, the classic method of Friends’ ecclesiastical organization bears a strong resemblance to the synodal or presbyterian models.
Indiana Yearly Meeting’s language on subordination changed in 1900, when the Five Years’ Meeting released its uniform book of Discipline for the Orthodox Yearly Meeting. That committee, on which Rufus Jones served, discarded the above language for a statement that emphasized, in good social gospel fashion, the responsibility for the Yearly Meeting to work for the Kingdom of God on earth, while being considerably less precise on the concept of subordination: “The Yearly Meeting has the power to decide all questions of administration; to counsel, admonish, or discipline its subordinate meetings; to institute measures and provide means for the promotion of truth and righteousness and to inaugurate and carry on departments of religious and philanthropic work.” That language remained unchanged in Indiana Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice for over eight decades.
The discipline revision committee formed in the 1980s sought to clarify the uniform discipline language by specifying that the subordinate bodies to the Yearly Meetings were the Quarterly and Monthly Meetings, but soon found itself facing a storm of criticism, led by Friends in Spiceland Monthly Meeting, a wellendowed meeting that, according to Tom Hamm, does not fit into any neat ideological boxes. Spiceland Friends felt that the Monthly Meeting was not a subordinate, but rather a coordinate or equal body, to the Yearly Meeting. On the other hand, there were those, including the Yearly Meeting’s lawyers, who argued staunchly that the word “subordinate” needed to remain in the book of discipline. The resulting language as cited above, first approved by Indiana Friends in 1986 and unchanged since then, was an obvious compromise, a hybrid of synodal and congregationalist approaches, of a kind common in books of discipline across the Quaker spectrum by the late twentieth century. The new discipline, and the 1985 Yearly Meeting minutes on the deliberations over discipline revision, contained detailed instructions as to when it was appropriate for the very rare circumstance of the Yearly Meeting’s intervention in a Monthly Meeting’s affairs.
The 1985 minutes indicate that Indiana Yearly Meeting may intervene in a Monthly Meeting’s affairs to uphold essential principles, such as Friends’ spiritual conception of Baptism, but not in the case of purely social concerns, such as a Friends meeting giving insufficient attention to the peace testimony. (Minutes of Indiana Yearly Meeting, 1985, 11, 90)
West Richmond Friends held several called Meetings as it labored with the M&O Committee’s response to its “welcoming and affirming” minute. In its report to the 2010 sessions of Indiana Yearly Meeting. Peggy Caldwell, reporting for the Ministry and Oversight Committee, was sharply critical of West Richmond Friends:
“Ministry and Oversight has labored with West Richmond over concerns regarding their ‘Welcoming Minute.’ They asked them to remove the minute from their website hoping that it could be revised in such a manner to be compatible with the positions on homosexuality held by Indiana Yearly meeting. With deep concern they recognize that West Richmond Friends Meeting has chosen to not submit itself to the guidance of Indiana Yearly Meeting Ministry & Oversight. They are concerned that this unwillingness to act in subordination jeopardizes the relationship between their meeting and the yearly meeting. They are prayerfully considering what further steps may be appropriate and necessary concerning West Richmond.”
In the ensuing “extensive” discussion during the 2010 yearly meeting sessions, there was concern over the sharp, even threatening, tone of the M&O Report on this matter. A personal letter from the pastor of a neighboring meeting, West Elkton, was read, on the desirability of Friends being “inclusive rather than exclusive, . . . followers of Christ’s example, dedicated to loving one another and avoiding actions and attitudes which hurt others.” At the same time, there were meetings that disapproved of West Richmond’s minute. It was also clear that many Friends were not familiar with the minute, so that more time was needed to have an informed discussion; this was at least partly by design, because M&O had tried to keep the matter quiet.
The M&O Committee was charged with continuing to labor with West Richmond “in tenderness and love.” The Yearly Meeting clerk, Greg Hinshaw, in summarizing the sense of the Meeting as he discerned it from this difficult discussion, drew points from both sides, the M&O Committee and from West Richmond. He used the relationship descriptor of “mutual submission” favored by West Richmond (“all of us have a mutual submission to one another”), but made clear that that descriptor carried at least some of the connotations being advanced by the M&O Committee: “When we independently make decisions in a local meeting without regard to the ramifications for the larger body, we often get into messes.”
Hinshaw concluded, “We are not going to be well-served to keep having the same discussion over and over because all of us have deeply held convictions so things will not change. God is the only One big enough to change those issues.”
In the five months since Yearly Meeting sessions, West Richmond and the Yearly Meeting M&O Committee have indeed stayed in communication. In order that the other meetings in the Yearly Meeting understand clearly where West Richmond stands and why it approved its “welcoming and affirming” minute, West Richmond sent a letter, signed by its clerk, Rich Sinex, and dated December 5, 2010, to their “brothers and sisters in Christ” in all the other meetings in the Yearly Meeting. They carefully described their “extensive process of discernment,” and explained that they felt their position was harmonious with the 1995 statement’s exhortation: “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 each meeting is responsible to determine the ministry roles of those who attend.” This key passage in the 1995 minute has never been mentioned by IYM M&O.
West Richmond Friends affirmed their intention to follow the teaching of Jesus that “Whatsoever you do to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you do unto me.” (Matthew 25:40) They disclaimed any intention to change Yearly Meeting policies or practices. They offered to engage in “direct, caring conversations” with any Indiana Friends who “feel concern, discomfort, and hurt about our minute.”
Then they moved to addressing the theological issues at the heart of the discussion. They quoted the last three sentences of Section 108C (see above), including the commendation of Meetings’ “prophetic voices.” They assured Friends that they “treasure the Bible” and “have paid attention to” the passages cited in the 1982 minute, but that “different approaches to interpretation of the Bible are deeply held, and we do not want to be in dispute about them. We are, however, very happy to have conversations with those who understand scripture differently from us to share about why we have these different understandings.”
In closing, they plead for a strong continuing relationship: “Finally, we ask Friends to remember that evangelical Christians with a family member who discloses that he or she is gay or lesbian do not necessarily reject or disown that person, despite the conviction that s/he is wrong, but treasure the person as a beloved family member anyway. As Indiana Yearly Meeting Friends consider their relationships with us, we hope that those who believe that West Richmond, as a member of Indiana Yearly Meeting family, is wrong in its position will model their response on families who stay in relationship with their gay/lesbian family member.” These questions have implicitly been raised by the witness of West Richmond Friends: What does Friends’ testimony of unity mean? Can we stick together as Friends, even when we have profound disagreements on a matter that many may feel is a vital aspect of our corporate witness, implicitly trusting that continued searching for divine leadings over time may bring us to a greater sense of the Light?
In the same month that this letter was sent out, the U.S. Congress passed the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” regulations for its armed forces, and President Obama signed the repeal into law. This coincidence was of interest to West Richmond’s pastor, Joshua Brown, as he notes that the Spirit-led prophetic stance of his Meeting is becoming increasingly mainstream in American culture.
There has been other correspondence on this issue in the early weeks of 2011. Another meeting in Indiana Yearly Meeting has written a letter in support of West Richmond, sent to all other meetings in the Yearly Meeting, vouching for the carefulness of their discernment process. Peggy Caldwell, writing on behalf of IYM M&O Committee with two members of her committee standing aside, has reiterated the concerns of most committee members with West Richmond’s actions appearing “to value individual liberty and leading over corporate accountability,” and asking for a timely response from other monthly meetings. The Yearly Meeting office expects to receive several more letters from monthly meetings in response to Caldwell’s request, and the matter will be taken up again at the M&O Committee Meeting on March 5, 2011.
What happens then is unclear. Shoemaker states that West Richmond Friends seem to feel that a “freight train” is bearing down on them, but what he sees is that the M&O Committee doesn’t have clarity at this point about follow up steps. He still hopes that West Richmond Meeting and M&O Committee can come to an agreement prior to Yearly Meeting. Shoemaker is correct, however, in intimating that West Richmond Friends anticipate, or fear, that their welcoming minute will be a major item on the yearly meeting agenda this summer. If that happens, a lively discussion is probable. Shoemaker observes that “large numbers of Friends care passionately” about the issue of West Richmond’s minute, and that the issue is “building in momentum.”
As West Richmond’s minute has only been approved, at the time of this writing, for a little more two years, during which it has found it necessary to vigorously defend its minute much of the time, it may seem premature to ask what the effect of the minute has been. But West Richmond Friends speak very positively of its im-pact, even in the short time since it has been approved. It is true that there has been no avalanche of new members. But Eric Dimick Eastman notes that it would have been hard for him, and others of his generation, to remain a part of the Meeting, if this “welcoming and affirming” minute had not been approved. “I wouldn’t have felt comfortable staying.” Many current attend, and former attenders have expressed gratitude for this minute. A particular gift was the ministry of a gay Earlham School of Religion graduate, David Zier, in the summer of 2010. Zier, a member of the Metropolitan Churches of Christ (MCC), wished to support West Richmond in its stand by choosing the Meeting as the place for meeting the requirement for internship hours for his denomination.
In recent decades, many monthly meetings and yearly meetings, not just West Richmond Monthly Meeting and Indiana Yearly Meeting, have sought the Light of Christ on how to minister to those of differing sexual orientations. For example, the website of Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns lists 241 meetings throughout the world that have approved minutes affirming their willingness to oversee same-sex marriages. Behind each of those minutes is undoubtedly a story about the meeting’s deliberations, and more of these stories need to be told and preserved. Undoubtedly, many of these stories have profound spiritual and theological implications, as the consideration of West Richmond’s “welcoming and affirming” minute has impelled Friends in that meeting, and the Yearly Meeting, to examine issues of Biblical interpretation, ecclesiology, and theological anthropology, among others. Conflict may indeed lead us to a place of deeper spirituality, as all Indiana Friends are recognizing the power of prayer, and calling us to partake in it on their behalf.
Part II. Train Wreck Alert: Western Yearly Meeting
The recent decade has also been eventful for the other Friends United Meeting Yearly Meeting located mostly in Indiana, i.e., Western Yearly Meeting. We have reported on the travails of Western Yearly Meeting in these pages previously. (Gulley, #16, Fall-Winter 2009; Angell, #14, Summer-Fall 2007-2008; Fager, #9, Fall-Winter 2003) However, the conflicts in that Yearly Meeting are not letting up. When one talks to persons holding positions of responsibility within Western Yearly Meeting, the words “tired” and “exhausted” are heard often, because the sources of conflict there are debilitating and seemingly never-ending. People are “damaged” and “scared,” said one person familiar with the yearly meeting. Another said the events seemed reminiscent of those leading up to the Hicksite-Orthodox split in 1827-1828.
Some urge taking a long view. In 1991, the General Secretary of Friends United Meeting, Steve Main, proposed a realignment of FUM into evangelical and liberal organizations. Although Main’s proposal was rejected, and Western Yearly Meeting offered no support for it at that time, similar proposals have come to life in the two decades since, and Western Yearly Meeting’s present co-superintendents, Steve and Marlene Pedigo, have strongly encouraged them.
The retirement in 1993 of a popular, long-serving Western Yearly Meeting superintendent, Bob Garris, is mentioned by one WYM Friend as a watershed event. In this view, Garris was able to transcend the theological battle lines and bring WYM Friends together. Then again, the cumulative challenges of the past two decades may have been more than even Garris could have held together.
Between 1988 and 2001, four monthly meetings in Western Yearly Meeting have sanctioned and held same-sex marriages, to the horror of theological conservatives in many other monthly meetings. All the monthly meetings that sanctioned same-sex marriages were unprogrammed, dually affiliated with a Friends General Conference Yearly Meeting (either Ohio Valley or Illinois). It is probably no surprise that the opposition to these same-sex marriages arose among mostly pastoral meetings, evangelical in their theology, with a sole affiliation with Western Yearly Meeting. An Administrative task force in 1997 stated unambiguously that “it is mutually understood that no meeting within Western Yearly Meeting holds the authority to conduct a same-gender union.”
The last of these same-sex marriages, by Evanston (IL) Monthly Meeting in 2001, came after this clarification had been agreed upon, and thus was convincingly portrayed by many as out of the good order of Friends. Western feels the same tensions between congregational authority and synodal authority that exist within Indiana Yearly Meeting, although the conflict in the latter is much further developed. In an American culture where politics became more sharply polarizing during the 1990s and thereafter, these tensions gathered even more force.
Three of the four monthly meetings that performed same-sex marriages have either voluntarily withdrawn, or have been forced to withdraw, from Western Yearly Meeting. These congregational separations do not afflict just one side of the theological spectrum within the Yearly Meeting. Both evangelical and liberal meetings have withdrawn from the yearly meeting during the past decade. Perhaps learning a lesson from the nineteenth century separations, the Yearly Meeting has neither contested the property rights of the monthly meetings leaving, nor has it engaged in any court actions regarding these separations. It seems likely that if Indiana Yearly Meeting experiences any separations, of West Richmond Friends or of any other meeting, the same pattern will hold. But this loss of meetings who are discontented for various reasons does nothing to build the sense of unity that has always been at the heart of Friends’ ecclesiology and spirituality.
But the most important issue that has convulsed Western Yearly Meeting in the most recent decade is the issue of doctrinal purity. This issue is often posed in regard to a single personality (Should the ministerial recording of Phil Gulley be removed?), but Western Yearly Meeting ministers and members often insist that the issue of doctrinal purity transcends any single individual. As an example, let’s consider a passage from the most recent Annual Message of Western Yearly Meeting’s two co-superintendents, Steve and Marlene Pedigo:
“Healthy churches gather, inspire, and equip leaders to grow spiritually and work together for the mission of the church. When the integrity of the church is compromised, the identity of the church is shifted. There seems to be at least three alternate models for the identity of Western Yearly Meeting. The first model is a Humanistic Para-church Organization that invites people to join in ‘good works.” The second model is a Syncretistic Quaker Club, focused on happiness and love. A third model is the Quaker Foundation that raises funds, manages assets and disburses financial resources. Healthy churches do include service, fellowship and stewardship, but they also include worship of the Christ Jesus as our Lord and Savior. . . . Although all people are welcomed to worship with the church and we each grow at our own pace in our spiritual journey, the leadership of Western Yearly Meeting must be committed with integrity to work together as the church of Christ Jesus. As Friends we do not swear an oath to a creed, but leaders are called to serve together to fulfill the purpose of Western Yearly Meeting of Friends Church and support the approved Western Yearly Meeting of Friends Church Faith & Practice, 2005 Edition with clear transparency and full disclosure.”
In other words, the superintendents would like to apply the Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, or more accurately, their interpretation thereof, as a measuring stick to determine who is and is not fit to serve the Yearly Meeting. If that is not a creed to which, as they observe, Quakers are opposed, it comes very close. Steve and Marlene Pedigo, who for many years had pastored a Friends’ mission among African-Americans in Chicago, a mission that inspired many, intensified this pursuit by many of Western Yearly Meeting’s evangelical Friends, when they became co-superintendents in 2005, but again, this quasi-creedalism did not originate with them. It is best seen as a conflict that transcends personalities.
If the conflict in Western Yearly Meeting is not, as I am arguing, primarily one founded on personalities, it is definitely one with two strong parties, with perhaps a small group with some weighty Friends in the middle. If we are not to refer to these parties as “pro-Phil-Gulley” or “anti-Phil-Gulley,” what labels would best work? Gulley’s supporters are united in wanting to tolerate diverse theologies within their yearly meeting, but they are by no means united on which particular theology is most persuasive. The range of theology among the ranks of Gulley’s supporters ranges from very liberal to quite evangelical.
Gulley’s opponents want the yearly meeting’s leaders, including its recorded ministers, to witness more faithfully for a theology drawn from the yearly meeting’s Faith and Practice, including three documents included in the text: George Fox’s Letter to the Governor of Barbados; the 1887 Richmond Declaration of Faith; and the Essential Truths. The Pedigos’ impassioned pleas for greater purity of doctrine, however, do not seem to speak for everyone, even within their own yearly meeting faction.
In the broader American context, the militant pleas for purity that characterize the Pedigos’ appeals are generally a telltale sign of fundamentalism. However, that is not the label that either Phil Gulley’s opponents in Western Yearly Meeting, nor the critics of West Richmond’s welcoming minute in Indiana Yearly Meeting, seek to embrace. They would like to claim the label of “Orthodox,” or more specifically, “Gurneyite Orthodox.” That might imply (in my view, erroneously) that the Gulley supporters are heretics!
However, it is not clear that either the Gulley supporters or the West Richmond welcoming minute supporters are ready to cede the label of “Orthodox” to those who differ. Those well posted on their Quaker history, such as Stephanie Crumley-Effinger, point out that there have been many significant developments in the 180 years since the Orthodox party first formed in Quakerism. These include the revivalism of the late nineteenth century and the modernism of Rufus Jones and others, developing within the Orthodox branch of Quakerism early in the twentieth century. There may well be different flavors of Orthodoxy, say, a progressive Orthodoxy and a more conservative Orthodoxy, but all sides of these debates have a plausible claim to Orthodoxy. One reason that the Western Yearly Meeting debate, and Quaker debates going back two centuries, keep getting labeled in terms of personalities is the lack of concise descriptors for the theologies held by the various sides.
If the issue in Western Yearly Meeting is not Phil Gulley’s recording per se, it is the doctrinal purity of anyone who might wish to hold a Western Yearly Meeting recording. April Vanlonden, who describes herself as a “Bible-toting Gurneyite,” is one person who entered the recording process early in the decade. She received her Master of Divinity degree through her studies at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis (a well-regarded school sponsored by a mainline Christian denomination, the Disciples of Christ) and the Earlham School of Religion (which Western Yearly Meeting holds a trustee relationship with, a relationship with which Western Yearly Meeting has been more comfortable than Indiana Yearly Meeting).
When Vanlonden entered the recording process, she felt that she was treated in a distinctly unfriendly fashion. She traveled long distances to meet with the committee, which only found brief times to meet with her. “No one even offered me a drink of water when I sat down.” She was asked to re-write the Richmond Declaration of Faith in her own words. The Richmond Declaration is a long and, to many, impossibly turgid document. In Vanlonden’s words, she “walks more easily with the Richmond Declaration than many.” Nevertheless, not only was this a daunting and onerous task, but she also objected on principle, as it seemed to her to be basing one’s ministry on a creedalism alien to Quakerism. Then the clerk of the recording committee took her recording file to his home and lost it.
In tears, Vanlonden contacted the clerk of Western Yearly Meeting, Mary Lee Comer, a kind-hearted and weighty Friend, asking whether she should withdraw from the recording process. Firm in her reassurances, Comer intervened on Vanlonden’s behalf with the Committee. Her file was found, and Vanlonden’s name was brought forward to the August, 2004 session of Western Yearly Meeting, and her recording was approved.
Vanlonden was approved for recording in the same session as two male graduates of Earlham School of Religion were also approved, and one of the thoughts recorded in the minutes was “commendation of ESR, for all three candidates are ESR graduates.” In truth, however, not all persons in Western Yearly Meeting are supporters of ESR. There is, indeed, strong support for ESR, among many liberal, conservative, and evangelical members of Western Yearly Meeting. The trustee relationship between WYM and Earlham is on strong footing. When monthly meetings in WYM hire ESR graduates, there is great satisfaction among these local meetings in their integrity and the good preparation that these ministers have received. But among some evangelical Friends in Western Yearly Meeting, there is a perception that Earlham School of Religion is too liberal, and Steve and Marlene Pedigo recommend that aspiring ministers from their yearly meeting receive their training from the staunchly evangelical, remote Barclay College in Haviland, Kansas, rather than ESR. ESR graduates sometimes feel under the microscope from some persons in the Yearly Meeting hierarchy.
Since Vanlonden received her recording in 2004, the control over the recording process has been tightened further, and Friends who don’t meet the theological litmus test of the recording committee and the yearly meeting superintendents have a very difficult, if not impossible, view of discerning any road to recording, or indeed, to receiving any ministerial credential. Those who aspire to be recorded in Western Yearly Meeting are now required to sign a statement of faith. In the past, a Western Yearly Meeting pastor who was not recorded could receive a “Ministry Certificate” from the Yearly Meeting office, but the Pedigos refuse these Ministry Certificates to anyone who is not a recorded minister or is in the recording process. The Pedigos counsel pastors not in the recording process to obtain letters attesting to their ministry from their monthly meetings. The non-approved pastors in Western Yearly Meeting resort to whatever strategem they can think of to provide proof of their ministerial status, including using credentials issued by prior, non-Quaker, churches they have served.
It is in these contexts that it is best to think of the controversy over Phil Gulley’s recording, which has lingered most of the decade, but erupted in full force on the Western Yearly Meeting floor in 2007 and 2009. Phil Gulley, a graduate of Christian Theological Seminary, developed a career as a best-selling writer of Christian short stories during the 1990s. He was sought after as a speaker for both Indiana and Western Yearly Meetings in 2001, e.g., leading the devotions prior to the Western’s Administrative Council in March, 2001. The minutes record that Gulley “told us about a group of Baptists, Catholics, and Quakers working together today at Westside Bait & Tackle Shop to distribute food to the poor. It is a good thing if you have too much money to give it to the poor. He stated we are an opinionated and diversified people, always with a difference of opinion, but where Christ is lifted up, there will be love.” (Western Yearly Meeting 2001-2002, 66)
In our issue #16, Gulley reminisced about how his embroilment in controversy in Western Yearly Meeting began with a statement to an interviewer that was seen as questioning the divinity of Jesus, but in fact was meant to emphasize the great importance that Jesus’ life and example had for him: Jesus “was a monotheistic Jew who did not see himself as divine. He saw himself as a rabbi, probably a prophet. . . . But I certainly understand the personality of God through the person of Jesus. That is, I believe God’s priorities were also Jesus’ priorities, and those priorities were to care for the poor and the marginalized.” (Gulley, Fall-Winter 2009)
The controversy really took off after Gulley published a theological book, If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person, in 2003, espousing a Universalist theology.
Besides salvation, the list of theological issues that have surfaced in the recent conflicts in Indiana and Western Yearly Meeting, must include Christology. The pro-purity forces in Friends United Meeting Quakerism today want to specify that all Quakers in good standing must believe in the divinity of Christ. Furthermore, they maintain that there should be a separation (sometimes the phrase “redemptive separation” is used) between those who believe in the divinity of Christ and those who don’t.
What this simplistic rhetoric masks is that there are many kinds of Christologies within Quakerism, and within Christianity generally, that explain the divinity or the special character of Jesus in diverse ways. “Low” Christologies see similarities between Jesus and the rest of us; Jesus, like everyone else, is filled with God’s light and spirit, but Jesus was more filled with God’s light and spirit than others. “High” Christologies emphasize the awesomeness of Jesus’ divinity; in the words of the fourth-century Nicene Creed, Jesus is “very God of very God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father.” Without delving too deeply into the details here, either kind of Christology can be supported convincingly with appeals to Scripture. Orthodox Christianity has tended to emphasize the High Christology contained in the Nicene and other creeds. Early Quakers made use of both High and Low Christologies, but rejected the idea that any of the church creeds, including the Nicene Creed, were binding among Friends.
Orthodox Quakers in the past two centuries have often differed greatly about what the Quakers’ non-creedal tradition means, with the modernist faction of Rufus Jones and others holding to a very robust view of Quaker non-creedalism. Jones’s views of Jesus were generally in line with Low Christology. Nineteenth-century Quaker revivalists like David Updegraff and their heirs, however, generally held to a High Christology. In short, there has never been broad agreement in Quakerism, or even in the Orthodox branches of Quakerism, as to what kind of Christology is best, and that aspect of Friends’ belief has generally been left up to an individual’s conscience. (Musser and Price 2003, 92-97; Barbour and Frost 1994, 32, 62-63, 206-212, 227, 239-240)
Gulley attempts to cover these details much more simply and personally in his reflection upon the controversy: “If I use any divine language in regards to Jesus, I tend to use the language of my Quaker tradition, which talks about ‘that of God in all people.’ This understanding allows me to celebrate God’s presence in Jesus, while affirming that same divine reality in others. Perhaps Jesus lived more fully in this presence than most, but within everyone exists the potential to live as he did. I realize this distinction isn’t sufficient for many Christians, that they will insist on the unique divinity of Jesus, but this Christian believes the same God which so enlivened Jesus also enlivens others. Unfortunately, such hopes, when voiced aloud, are often silenced or scorned.” (Gulley, FallWinter 2009)
Attempts to rescind Phil Gulley’s recording lasted about eight years, from about 2001 to 2009. We will focus here primarily on the 2009 events, but a brief summary of events prior to that point would be helpful. The Western Yearly Meeting Board on Christian Ministry and Evangelism met in 2002 with Phil on the complaints received and reported to Yearly Meeting Executive Committee that “we find no evidence that Phil has lost his fit and usefulness in the ministry . . . nor does he meet the criteria set forth . . . as the basis for rescinding his recording.” The Board was not overly concerned about any divergence in Phil’s theology from the Richmond declaration, noting, “Western Yearly Meeting of Friends adopted the Richmond Declaration as a standard, not a creed.” (Western Yearly Meeting 2002-2003, 9-11) Other Friends, however, were of a different opinion than CM&E; thus, in March 2003, WYM’s Executive Committee advised Gulley that “we find some of his stated beliefs to be out of harmony with Faith & Practice, and he is urged to make his public teachings sensitive to Faith & Practice.”
Gulley’s recent books have not figured too prominently in the discussion. The accusations laid against him in WYM have centered more on his alleged denial of the divinity of Christ than the Christian universalist theology that he and co-author Jim Mulholland have explicated in their books. Still, it is undoubtedly true that Gulley’s move away from publishing short stories (where his generous and tolerant theology was merely implicit) to publishing theology (where his ideas must be made explicit) was a factor in how he was regarded in Western Yearly Meeting. When Gulley announced his intention to co-author a book on Christian universalism, his evangelical publisher (Multnomah Press in Oregon) instantly dropped him, and Gulley went from a beloved author to persona non grata among evangelical Christians rather quickly.
Still, the well-regarded press Harper San Francisco picked him up and published his theological works, and, as an author whose works sold well and who is not dependent entirely on his pastorate for an income, Gulley could absorb the brunt of criticism knowing that, whatever the outcome, his livelihood would not be imperiled. Thus Gulley would not walk away from his pastorate, which he loves, nor from his recording. One reason he stayed was because, if he gave in, others more vulnerable might be exposed to the onslaughts of the pro-purity faction within the Yearly Meeting. Others in Western Yearly Meeting have cautioned that one ought not overlook the powerful psychological forces that afflict all of us in our humanness from time to time. One WYM Friend felt that the efforts to rescind Gulley’s recording “began as a case of jealousy when some folks have more public success than others!”
With the arrival of the new co-superintendents Steve and Marlene Pedigo in 2005, there was a renewed attempt to rescind Gulley’s recording. As we reported in issue #14, the Executive Committee brought to the floor of Yearly Meeting in August 2007 a proposal to rescind Gulley’s recording. After studying Gulley’s writings and other information, the Executive Committee in 2007 had concluded that Gulley was “in substantial disunity with WYM Faith and Practice” and thus “concluded that he was no longer in good standing as a recorded minister of Western Yearly Meeting.” However, “after much discussion and various expressions of opinion, . . . the clerk did not sense that the meeting could either approve or disapprove” the rescinding of Gulley’s recording. (Western Yearly Meeting 2007-2008, 11-12)
In January 2009, the Board of Christian Ministry and Evangelism met with Phil Gulley. Three theological issues were highlighted in the Board’s summary of the report: the divinity of Christ, the nature of the atonement, and Easter.
On the first, “Phil acknowledges that he once believed in the Deity of Jesus as God’s only Son, as taught in Scripture and in our Faith and Practice, but that his ideas have evolved to the point that he doesn’t accept the unique, exclusive Deity of Jesus. He calls himself a Christian, though, because he believes that Jesus was fully infused with the Spirit of God and that He is the fullest representation of what God wants us to be and as such provides the Path to God. Further, each of us can be infused with the Spirit of God, too, and be children of God.”
In articulating this classic Low Christology, Gulley implicitly raised a theological issue dear to the hearts of most liberal Quakers, the issue of continuing revelation. Continuing revelation is affirmed in Western Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice: “Human understanding of truth is always subject to growth. . . . While fundamental principles are normal, expressions of truth and methods of Christian activity should develop in harmony with the needs of the times.” And: “The canon of Scriptures may be closed, but the inspiration of the Holy Spirit has not ceased.” (Western Yearly Meeting 2005, 11, 13)
As Friends, we are expected to grow in our knowledge of truth and of the love of Christ. That is the kind of growth that Gulley describes in the passage above. If we are truly faithful in that regard, how can it be said that we no longer have a place in ministry? Are we really better off not sharing the truths which Christ’s Light has communicated to us, because it is safer and it will not offend others whose understanding of spiritual truth may differ from ours? If we are thus reticent, we are not living up to the example of Quaker forbears like John Woolman who dared to challenge the entrenched pro-slavery orthodoxy which had regrettably found a home in eighteenth-century Quakerism. That is not to say that Gulley is right; it is merely to say that thoughtful and loving deliberations and discussions on issues that are raised during the process of continuing revelation benefit everyone in the Society of Friends, and can enable Quakers as a whole to live into a fuller revelation of God’s truth. While it is probably true that all Quakers allow some role for continuing revelation in their theology, it is probably also true that evangelical Quakers tend to see some danger in continuing revelation and want to circumscribe it carefully, whereas liberal Quakers tend to be more welcoming toward continuing revelation.
Suffice it to say that this was not the stance toward continuing revelation that most members of the CM&E Board adopted in 2009. Reversing its stance of seven years earlier, the Board “recommends the rescinding of Philip Gulley’s recording due to his substantial disunity with Faith and Practice, particularly as regards the Deity of Christ Jesus and the atonement.” However, this minute was far from unanimous: three Board members requested that their disapprovals of this minute be recorded, and two others stood aside. (Western Yearly Meeting 2009-2010, 11-12)
When this minute reached the Yearly Meeting floor on Saturday, August 1, 2009, discussion occupied most of the day, including a special business session in the afternoon. The discussion was extremely emotional. One participant remembered that, to him, it seemed like the participants in the Yearly Meeting were almost equally divided, with the supporters of Gulley sitting on one side of the room, and Gulley’s opponents sitting on the other side of the room. The minutes only hint at the contents of what was an extremely tumultuous, even disturbing session:
“The Clerk stated that he was seeking ‘a way forward.’ Suggestions heard included approving a minute stating that some of Philip Gulley’s views vary from those of Faith & Practice, choosing three elders to make the decision, setting the issue aside for now and waiting on a resolution, and a separation of the yearly meeting. After more painful discussion, the Clerk stated that he was unable to gain a sense of the meeting or a way forward. He called the question of approving the rescinding of the WYM recording of Philip Gulley. Because there was no unity, the recommendation was not approved and Friends are still waiting until the Holy Spirit comes upon us.” (Western Yearly Meeting 2009-2010, 12-13)
One Western Yearly Meeting Friend on the pro-tolerance side was heartened because “this is the FIRST time in years that a strongly controversial issue has been dealt with without violating Quaker business process.” Many Friends felt that WYM had fallen into a culture of de facto voting. For example, at the Fall Administrative Council in 2002 where Evanston Friends Meeting had been “released” from membership in Western Yearly Meeting, thirty Friends were minuted as not in unity with the decision. Of these thirty, eleven had been willing to stand aside, and nineteen had been unwilling to stand aside. Many Friends felt that this quasi-vote taken over Evanston’s departure had set an unfortunate precedent, and they were glad when in 2009 that precedent was not followed in the issue over the proposed rescinding of Phil Gulley’s recording.
The bitterness erupted anew in the Yearly Meeting on the afternoon of the closing day, Monday, August 3. Over strenuous protests from Gulley opponents, the clerk, Jim Crew, made clear that the proposed minute regarding Phil Gulley was terminated. A visitor from Baltimore Yearly Meeting, Mary Lord, addressed the conflict evident in the Yearly Meeting: “Peace is possible, although it may require help. The greatest indicator of success is whether people want peace; and in gathered meetings when the path can’t be found, the path is one that hasn’t been seen yet. There is a path, and I pray you can find it.”
The leaders of the pro-purity forces wasted no time convening a meeting to examine their options, and they gathered at Plainfield on the following Friday, August 7, 2009. The Pedigos were present, as was the WYM Christian Education director, Katy Palmer, and at least ten pastors of other meetings in the Yearly Meeting. Steve Pedigo spoke of his anger and upset at criticism of his job performance as Yearly Meeting superintendent, and he felt that he deserved much stronger support from the yearly meeting pastors. Pedigo remarked, “I do not believe in tolerance.” Many of the pastors present expressed their support for the Pedigos.
The other purpose of this meeting was to plan a division of Western Yearly Meeting. It was proposed that an independent yearly meeting be created, and that local meetings who dissented from the previous week’s action could have dual affiliation with both Western Yearly Meeting and the new Yearly Meeting. The unstated premise was that this would be a transitional stage providing protection for a meeting’s assets prior to its leaving Western Yearly Meeting altogether. Some were in favor of leaving Friends United Meeting altogether, and possibly exploring a new relationship with Evangelical Friends International.
However, some influential Friends in Western Yearly Meeting who had strongly opposed Phil Gulley’s recording wanted no part of this new strategy, and thus were not part of this propurity party, or at least dissociated themselves from it at this crucial stage. Among the persons who want no part of separation from Western Yearly Meeting are Bill Clendening, pastor at Plainfield; Bill Medlin, pastor at Noblesville; and Wayne Carter, a retired pastor and weighty WYM Friend.
The Western Area Meeting (equivalent to a Quarterly Meeting), convened at Georgetown Meeting, one of the Meetings that would soon petition to withdraw from WYM, sent a minute to the Fall, 2009, Administrative Council, affirming unity with the WYM Faith and Practice, affirming “faith in the deity of Christ Jesus and the need for atonement as Christians,” and insisting that WYM “monthly meetings and leadership . . . be in unity with Faith and Practice.” Those not in unity should separate. The discussion of this minute provoked the usual polarized reaction. Some Friends perceived that “the core beliefs of WYM are being bombarded” and “Faith and Practice is not being followed by our leaders.” Other Friends felt that “Faith and Practice is being made into a creed” and WYM Friends face a “challenge in not becoming Pharisees.”
In July 2010, Plainfield Friends Meeting approved a minute that was a plea for unity within WYM: “We seem to have lost our sense of Mission, direction, and spiritual empowerment because of the amount of time and energy required in dealing with the issues brought before the Yearly Meeting. We sincerely believe that God is not calling us to conflict and division, but rather to renewed affirmation and re-dedication to bringing the message of Hope in Christ, which has been the message of Friends ever since George Fox heard the voice saying, ‘There is one, even Jesus Christ, who can speak to thy condition.’
“We recognize that there is a variety of theological interpretations and experiences within our fellowship because God has not created us mindless nor without feelings. These differences may be challenging, but they need not destroy us. The spirit in which we approach our differences may be as important as the differences themselves. It may be here where we triumph or where we fail our Lord. Across the spectrum, our usual approach has been to ‘dig in our heels,’ to raise our voices, to close the circle of our fellowship, or to believe that God is expecting everyone to conform to ‘my own’ partisan position. Perhaps God’s love and grace are greater than our expectations. Unfortunately, the limitations of our own human abilities prevent us from perfect understanding of God’s Truth and Love, which come to us through our Lord Jesus Christ. Because God ‘cuts us a lot of slack,’ can’t we also ‘cut our Christian Brothers and Sisters a lot of slack?’ And, let the Eternal God be our judge, rather than trying to be the judge of one another?”
Plainfield Friends asked that WYM Friends commit themselves “to remember our Lord’s command to love one another, even as Christ has loved us; to remember the Scripture declares all who are in Christ belong to one another, that we are to bear one another’s burdens; to commit to finding ways to respect one another, remembering that Christ dwells within us . . .; to commit to remaining in fellowship with one another.”
On the last point, it is clear that a number of meetings were not able to maintain a commitment to fellowship with one another. In the past two years, at least nine meetings have sought some sort of withdrawal or separation from Western Yearly Meeting. The withdrawal of the following monthly meetings have been approved by the WYM Administrative Council; in Fall 2009, Irvington Meeting; in yearly meeting sessions in July 2010, Vermilion Grove; in Fall 2010, Georgetown, Ridge Farm, Hinkle Creek, and Westfield Meetings.
Of these six meetings, only Irvington members were staunchly in favor of Phil Gulley (Gulley had pastored at Irvington prior to his present pastorate at Fairfield Meeting). The other five meetings had all figured in the opposition to Gulley. Most notable among those five is Westfield Meeting, pastored by WYM’s cosuperintendent, Steve Pedigo. Westfield is interested in joining Indiana Yearly Meeting, the other FUM body in the state. It is not known yet if Indiana Yearly Meeting will accept this request from Westfield. Irvington had 54 members; the other four meetings have a total of 524 members.
In addition, three meetings, Paoli, Bethel, and Amo, have asked for dual affiliation with another yearly meeting. Dan Smetzer, pastor of Paoli Meeting, has personally filed papers of incorporation for a completely new yearly meeting. The WYM Administrative Council has only approved “to research the request and to send a letter to the meeting as to what they expect concerning membership in Western Yearly Meeting.” These meetings comprise an additional 193 members. Altogether, the nine meetings that have requested either withdrawal or a change in relationship constitute 771 members, or nineteen percent of Western Yearly Meeting membership as of 2008.
The negative impact of this turmoil is evident in the numbers: in 2000, there were 63 monthly meetings in Western Yearly Meeting. In the past decade, more than one-third of these (22) meetings have withdrawn, been laid down, are being laid down, or are seeking a change in relationship. At its peak membership in the 1890s, Western Yearly Meeting had more than 16,000 members; in 1962, it was down to 12,528; in 1982, 9116; in 2002, 5024. Depending on how one counts Paoli and the two smaller Meetings, the current membership of Western Yearly Meeting is either 3440, or 3245, in approximate terms.
How these very recent changes, whether accomplished or still in progress, have affected Western Yearly Meeting is somewhat dif-ficult to say. Some meetings are dissatisfied, because they feel that the wrong meetings have withdrawn from WYM. Of this group, some still seem committed to stay within WYM, despite their members’ disgruntlement. But other departures may well be ahead.
The status of the Yearly Meeting leadership is also unclear at this writing. Katy Palmer, from now-departed Westfield Meeting, who had served as Western’s Director of Christian Education, has already resigned her position. Her report seems almost apocalyptic in channeling God’s wrath: “Like the foolish man who built his house on the sand; we have whittled away the foundation, which is Jesus Christ; the foundation this Yearly Meeting was originally built on and we’ve replaced it with the idolatry of money and power, of Quaker history and culture, and of the façade of unity. This organization is sinking and God will not honor the work as long as we attempt to be the Church without our precious cornerstone . . . our sure foundation . . . our true vine . . . Jesus Christ.” Sadly, Palmer’s leadership of the Christian Education program seems, among other things, to have swayed many of the youth to opposition to Gulley, and these youth did not handle it with any more grace than did many of their elders. The pressing need for healing from these conflicts is evident in all age groups of WYM.
As of this writing, Steve and Marlene Pedigo are still co-superintendents of Western Yearly Meeting. But the irony that Westfield, the meeting they pastor, has withdrawn from the selfsame Yearly Meeting is lost on no one. The Pedigos’ contract runs out in 2011, and the Yearly Meeting procedures call for a thorough review, with evaluations of the Pedigos requested from all monthly meeting clerks and pastors, and those in the Western Yearly Meeting leadership structure. Some of the feedback that will be gathered by the Executive Committee will undoubtedly be highly critical. With the withdrawal of some of their staunchest supporters, it is possible that the feedback gathered will be somewhat more critical than it would have been otherwise. Indeed, Valley Mills Meeting has already approved and made public a minute declaring flatly that it “has lost confidence in the leadership of the co-superintendents. The co-superintendents were hired to facilitate the Meetings with reconciliation. Instead, we have witnessed division, discord, dogma, secrecy and distrust within the Yearly Meeting, as evidenced by the numerous Meetings leaving Western Yearly Meeting within the last few years. Our Yearly Meeting must heal and find a way forward, and this will not happen under their leadership. We recommend that the Yearly Meeting begin the process of selecting a new superintendent as soon as possible.” (Friendly Voice, Jan. 2011, 4)
However, the Pedigos undoubtedly still have some supporters in WYM, as well. As to how all of this pans out, stay tuned to this journal.
I asked April Vanlonden, lifelong member of Western Yearly Meeting, to look into the future for her Yearly Meeting, and also to share her hopes for WYM. She responded, “For a while Western Yearly Meeting will appear to be dead or dormant. Western Yearly Meeting has forgotten how to dialogue about much else. They missed out on a lot of Quaker spirituality as a corporate body. My hope is that conservative and liberal Friends will begin to talk to each other in true respect.”