By Stephen W. Angell
Wilmington Yearly Meeting (WYM), assembled at the Friends Meeting in Maryville, Tennessee, on the last weekend of July, released five meetings (four monthly meetings and one preparatory meeting) that requested to sever connections with the yearly meeting. Wilmington Yearly Meeting includes Friends Churches in the states of Tennessee and Ohio, and the departing meetings came from both states, three from Tennessee (Friendsville Friends Meeting, Rafter Chapel Friends Church, and Friends Church Nashville Preparatory Meeting) and two from Ohio (Cuba Friends Meeting and Hardins Creek Friends Church).
It seems certain that more meetings will disaffiliate from Wilmington Yearly Meeting over the coming year. Just how many will do so, of course, remains to be seen, but by some estimates, about half (or perhaps slightly more than half) of the 28 meetings that belonged to the yearly meeting at the beginning of 2018 may decide to depart from the Yearly Meeting. The destination, or destinations, of the departing meetings, is also uncertain at this point. Wilmington Yearly Meeting is encouraging departing meetings to find or to form new yearly meeting ties, but it is also clear that many of the meetings may prefer independence from any overarching denominational connections such as Wilmington Yearly Meeting provides. The suddenness of the departures has precluded working out such details ahead of disaffiliation.
[The Fall Permanent Board meeting for Wilmington Yearly Meeting is scheduled for November in Lexington, Kentucky. By that time, the Permanent Board will consider, and presumably accept, requests for disaffiliation from New Burlington in Miami-Center Quarter; Fall Creek in Fairfield Quarter; and Friends at Ball Play and Lost Creek in Friendsville Quarter, bringing the total number of disaffiliating meetings to nine. At least two other meetings, Knoxville and Leesburg, are also actively considering requests to disaffiliate, as of late September 2018. All of these meetings are opting to become independent, at least for now.]
While momentous events and church meetings from March to July of 2018 will be considered in this article, the lack of finality to the separation process will leave this analysis somewhat open-ended. More will be clear soon, with actions on continuing requests for disaffiliation expected at a called meeting of the WYM Permanent Board in late October. (Two have been received since July 29, from Ballplay and New Burlington meetings.) But much has occurred, providing important elements of definition to the turmoil roiling in Wilmington Yearly Meeting, which we last covered in Quaker Theology #31, which came out in January 2018.
State of Society Reports
As described in Quaker Theology #31, the controversy within Wilmington Yearly Meeting has been shaped by two events. In the mid-1990s, Community Monthly Meeting, an unprogrammed meeting in Cincinnati, took a same-gender marriage under their care. Wilmington Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice implied that marriage was between a man and a woman, but nowhere did it state that explicitly.
An attempt to remedy this omission resulted in the 1997 approval of a “working document” (because there was not a sufficient sense of the meeting to change Faith and Practice) recognizing “the diversity of views’ among Friends on sexual ethics, but defining marriage as “between one man and one woman” and committing not to “bless same gender unions.”
Nobody was quite certain what standing a “working document” had within the yearly meeting, but there was little discussion over the next two decades, prior to a semi-programmed meeting, Cincinnati Monthly Meeting, holding a same-gender marriage under its care in September, 2016. At yearly meeting sessions in 2017, a minute proposed by Fairview Monthly Meeting, affirming “the ability of each Monthly Meeting to chart its own course on sensitive and complex issues,” was extensively discussed, but it met significant opposition from some Wilmington Yearly Meeting Friends, and it was not approved. At the same time, nine monthly meetings, and Friends from some other meetings, supported the Fairview minute, and thus it was clear that there would not be unity to discipline Cincinnati Friends for their holding a same-gender marriage, should that question ever be placed on the yearly meeting agenda. With this latest impasse, a separation in Wilmington Yearly Meeting seemed increasingly likely.
For the ‘state of Society Reports’ expected from monthly meetings in March, 2018, meetings were asked to respond to three queries relating to truth, relating to the proposed (but latter scrapped) theme for the 2018 yearly meeting sessions, “What is Truth?”:
1. How does your meeting live in the life of God’s truth?
2. In what ways does the truth of Christ set you free, and from what?
3. In a time of fake news, how do we as Christians discern the Truth?
Responses were received from 18 of Wilmington Yearly Meeting’s 28 meetings. The use of the term “fake news’ may suggest connecting to reliable secular news sources, at least since the term gained popularity in 2016. Campus Friends Meeting (unprogrammed, dually affiliated) offered that “we turn to trustworthy Quaker news sources such as the FCNL newsletter and web site, as well as other well-established news sources such as the New York Times.” But this was the only mention that the Times (or any other newspaper, for that matter; nor were broadcast media mentioned) received in the 18 responses. All of the meetings, including Campus, construed the word “truth” and its various synonyms and antonyms in the light of Christian and Quaker teachings and practices.
The meetings drew from Scriptures and the writings of George Fox, among other sources. Several meetings quoted passages from the Gospel of John, including John 8:31-32: “The truth shall make you free” (quoted by Dover, Fall Creek, Rafter Chapel, and Sabina meetings; this would have been the verse that the 2018 annual sessions would have focused on, had the theme relating to truth gone forward). The importance of prayer was mentioned by several. Campus Friends Meeting witnessed to “the truth of George Fox’s powerful insight that “Christ has come to teach the people himself.”
In their reports, two meetings staked out clear positions on the controversial issues being debated within the yearly meeting. Thus, Cincinnati Friends Meeting characterized themselves as “a Christ-centered gathering of seekers of Truth who have come from a variety of spiritual experiences. We are an open and affirming congregation, and a Solidarity congregation in cooperation with the Sanctuary movement.”
On the other hand, Rafter Chapel Friends Church in Tennessee described themselves as“a Bible-believing, soul-searching, God-fearing group of people that cannot permit any gay or lesbian person from holding office, teaching, preaching or having a say in the operation of the church, we will not officiate or permit a gay or lesbian union in our church, but they are welcome to attend and share their thoughts with our adult classes but will be forewarned that the Bible will be the final say in any discussions brought forth, we will love and cherish them but will also endeavor to reveal the truth of the Bible to the saving of their soul.”
Cuba Monthly Meeting (so named because it is located in the town of Cuba in Ohio’s Clinton County) did not directly address the issue of same-gender marriage, but opened their State of Society Report with their views of Scriptural authority:
“We at Cuba Friends Meeting find comfort and peace basing our lives on God’s truths as they are found in scriptures. We follow God’s leadings as confirmed in the Bible. If a leading goes against the truths found in scriptures, it would not be acted upon. The Bible is the final authority. Many would argue that God’s word is outdated and only meant as a suggestion. We at Cuba Friends Meeting would disagree. God is the same Yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” Since religious teaching is based on scripture at their meeting, “we have no need to be concerned about fake news or teachings.”
Instead of proclaiming a direct prophetic message on marriage or other issues, such as either Rafter Chapel or Cincinnati Friends, or focusing on the issue of scriptural authority, like Cuba Friends, the report from Maryville (Tennessee) Friends offered a bridging comment, in a spirit of spiritual concern, to other Friends in their yearly meeting:
“Maryville Friends are thankful for recent serious and passionate discussions on areas of spiritual concern. We are called to center down with God’s Old Testament commands, with Jesus’s words as he walked and taught on earth, and with his Holy Spirit helping us to see and hear the truth. There is a peace and freedom in knowing He cares and will guide us to understanding in His time.”
Concerned Pastors’ Letter and Mini-Yearly Meeting Response: March 2018
By early in 2018, “A Call to Responsibility from Concerned Pastors, Meetings and Individuals’ had been drafted, and in February endorsements were actively being sought from some (but not all) meetings and individuals within Wilmington Yearly Meeting, but all affirmative responses were kept confidential. The origins of this document were obscure, but Jay Schroeder, pastor of Cuba Monthly Meeting, later said that it came out from a meeting, or meetings, of Quaker pastors and others who had met after the 2017 sessions of Wilmington Yearly Meeting. Their deliberations were dedicated to talking about what ought to be coming next, for members of WYM dissatisfied with the status quo. Their statement came to be called the “Concerned Pastors’ Letter.”
The letter emphasized the urgency of finding a solution to the yearly meeting’s disagreements over same-gender marriage, either by disciplining offending monthly meetings or initiating a process of separation for meetings that could not countenance such actions conflicting with their understanding of the Holy Scriptures. The letter follows:
The Religious Society of Friends is, and from its very beginnings has always been, a Christian Protestant denomination. This is repeatedly emphasized by the teachings of George Fox and eloquently presented by Robert Barclay in his “Apology [for] the True Christian Divinity,” widely recognized as the cornerstone of Quaker Theology. Quakers have always grounded their theological beliefs in the Bible as “the unerring and inspired word of God.”
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.
If Wilmington Yearly Meeting is to successfully function as a caring body, we must share common beliefs, based upon the Word of God. The strife and conflict which has dominated Yearly Meeting operations for the past 3 decades must come to an end. This has effectively prevented us from being able to focus on other issues that we may have in common, ignoring reality and waiting for unity is both a lesson in futility and a death sentence for Wilmington Yearly Meeting.
Our Faith and Practice endows the Yearly and Quarterly Meetings with the power and responsibility to discipline Monthly Meetings that operate in conflict with approved Faith and Practice (pp. 75-79). The 1977 Faith and Practice of Wilmington Yearly Meeting (pp. 136-138) as well as the 1997 Minute on Marriage (a “Working Document”) re-emphasizes our position that marriage is the sacred union of one man and one woman. Neither of these documents have been rescinded and we reaffirm that position. Some of our Monthly Meetings have openly defied that approved statement. Monthly Meetings which feel they cannot conscientiously accept and endorse the principles set forth in our Faith and Practice should withdraw from the Yearly Meeting. If they do not, we are calling on Wilmington Yearly Meeting and its respective Quarterly Meetings to recognize this stated responsibility and use their authority to discipline or remove Monthly Meetings who openly and defiantly sanction same-sex marriage. If the Yearly and Quarterly Meetings fail to act, we are left with only one option, namely to form a new association of Friends Meetings, unassociated with Wilmington Yearly Meeting, that are Biblically based and grounded in scriptural truths. It is our belief that a split in the Yearly Meeting is preferable to the divisiveness that has been perpetuated by continually postponing action.
The time has come for us to reaffirm to the world that Quakers are Christians whose Meetings embrace God’s commandments and the teaching of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, as dictated by the Bible.
(Your signature indicating support of this document is confidential and will not be shared until all signatures are presented to the Yearly Meeting.)
ENDORSEMENT (SIGNATURE) MEETING
Parenthetically, the accusatory phrase that other WYM Friends would view the Scriptures as an “outdated historical novel” was especially jarring and hurtful to those Friends who favored toleration of meetings like Cincinnati Friends. Julie Rudd, from Wilmington Friends, writes,
“This phrase in particular hit meetings like mine pretty hard. It continues to be sad to me that we never had any sort of biblical discussion about the passages people pull out to condemn same-sex marriages. I know that it wouldn’t have made a difference to some Friends, who are wrapped in a sub-culture that condemns homosexual behavior and assume that anyone who disagrees with them doesn’t care about the Bible, but other Friends on the conservative end expressed genuine curiosity about what more progressive Friends could be thinking. And while there certainly are progressive Friends who don’t care about Leviticus and Romans, there are others of us who care deeply and have invested considerable time with the question.”
Lund was sitting beside a WYM pastor at a Miami Center Quarterly Meeting session when the Concerned Pastor’s Letter was read. At the words “outdated historical novel,” “I could almost see the gaskets exploding in his head. “I preach from the Bible every week!” he responded.” (Lund 2018).
It was then brought for consideration to Miami Center Quarterly Meeting, and then to the Permanent Board of Wilmington Yearly Meeting, which met for Mini-Yearly Meeting on March 3. Friends from Cuba Meeting brought a folder of signed letters, but none of the signatories outside of Cuba Meeting came to the Permanent Board session. Of the Ohio meetings in WYM, Martinsville, Fall Creek, and Hardins Creek Meetings approved the Concerned Pastors’ Letter (Huffenberger 2018); Dover was briefly divided (Fred Hoskins, then its pastor, had been a mover behind the letter, but other Dover members disapproved, and Hoskins is no longer at Dover) and unable to come to a sense of the meeting on it.
At the March Permanent Board Meeting, Jay Schroeder spoke on behalf of the Concerned Pastors’ Letter. After the 2017 annual sessions, it seemed fairly obvious to him that the yearly meeting was going to split. He worried that meetings that opposed same-gender marriages would simply drift away. Instead, he preferred that such Friends advocate vigorously for their viewpoint, or form a new fellowship. He wondered what the purpose of WYM is.
But most of his remarks seemed to speak to the need for a new fellowship. He felt that Friends were fairly entrenched in their positions and unlikely to change, so it was time to find a way to move on. This was a major part of Schroeder’s plea. He urged that Friends not let such disagreements fester, but deal with them decisively. Wilmington Friends need to recognize that they are not in unity. His preferred solution would have been for meetings that supported same-gender marriage (an action, in his view, that contravened Faith and Practice) should leave Wilmington Yearly Meeting and join a Yearly Meeting that shared their beliefs.
For WYM Friends who did not share Schroeder’s viewpoint on either same-gender marriage or on the urgency of a separation to resolve disagreements on that issue, there were a variety of concerns. Jonathan Goff, pastor of the Friends Meeting in Maryville, Tennessee, and son of yearly meeting Clerk David Goff, wondered why Friends were so inconsistent in disciplining meetings for actions contrary to Faith and Practice. He urged that meetings that perform same-gender marriages not be disciplined, just as Wilmington Yearly Meeting had forborne in the past to discipline meetings that refused to hire female pastors. Another area of contention within WYM, in the light of Friends’ peace testimony, has been whether the recording of ministers who are veterans of the armed services is in good order.
Other WYM Friends believed that unity was still possible, despite disagreements on issues such as same-gender marriage. Fairview Meeting Friends, whose minute to this effect had provided matter for consideration in the 2017 session, continued to urge this viewpoint on WYM Permanent Board, but Friends such as Cuba Meeting’s Schroeder had already considered their viewpoint and rejected it, and were ready to move toward disaffiliation.
To a large degree, how one resolves the issue of moving on in unity despite disagreement depends on how essential, or non-essential, a Friend considers that area of disagreement to be. This is not just a Quaker truth, but a broader Protestant truth that stretches back to the earliest days of the Protestant Reformation. For example, Lutheran theologian Rupertus (or Peter) Meldenius urged in 1626: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity” (Bainton, 1941; Numerous American denominations, including the United Methodists and Disciples of Christ, have seen Meldenius’s aphorism as encapsulating the spirit of their own denomination. [NOTE: Since this was written in late 2018, the United Methodist Church has begun what appears to be major schism over LGBTQ issues.]
Along these lines, WYM Friend Libbie Curry notes that when an issue paralyzed the Friends United Meeting General Board, one Friend’s recommendation was followed, namely, to decide that the issue was not important and that FUM should move on. “FUM has moved on and is doing a lot of good work around the world.”
Dana Dunsieth, clerk of Fairview meeting, strongly supported the standpoint that the matters dividing the yearly meeting were non-essentials, or minor matters. He asked whether it was really necessary that WYM Friends decide that meetings that they had fellowship with three or four times a year were getting it wrong. He wondered whether it would be better to police them, or to support them. He observed that WYM Friends have so many things that bring them together, as opposed to a minor thing that is breaking them apart. Jonathan Goff of Maryville Meeting agreed with Dana on this matter.
Jay Schroeder of Cuba Meeting, however, saw the issues at stake as essentials, and further stated that it was necessary for WYM Friends to be united on these essential issues. He pointed out that the Yearly Meeting has a youth camp (actually, two camps, one in Ohio and one in Tennessee), where WYM children should be taught what the monthly meetings agree on. Jay himself is the camp caretaker and long-time camp director of the Ohio camp. Cuba Friends have fielded complaints about what their meeting’s children are taught at camp. (This journal has previously talked about the centrality of youth camp programs, in forming yearly meetings’ identities.) WYM Friends have described their two camping programs, in Ohio and Tennessee, as “a powerful knitting agent” of the yearly meeting.
According to Schroeder, the approach of the Fairview Meeting’s minute, to tolerate other meeting’s teachings even when they are seen to be in error on such core matters as marriage and the family, takes away the whole purpose of a yearly meeting. With this comment, Schroeder gave his answer to his own question about what the purpose of WYM should be. In his view, its purpose is to remain united in its doctrinal understandings, and then to teach that doctrine to its youth. Undoubtedly some WYM Friends who understand the Holy Spirit as leading to continuing revelation may well disagree with Schroeder on this.
Whether acceptance of same gender marriage and leadership of LGBTQ individuals in Christian churches is either an essential or non-essential doctrinal matter is hardly a controversy distinctive to Quakerism. For example, the worldwide Anglican Communion has been roiled by the same disagreement (Bartel 2007).
There was also a continuing disagreement whether Wilmington Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice actually prohibited same gender marriage. The debate on this point centered on whether the 1997 Working Document on the subject is actually a part of Faith and Practice, an issue explored in Quaker Theology #30-31. Clerk David Goff, when summarizing the sense of this meeting of the Permanent Board, noted the continuing disagreement on this topic. Even though some WYM Friends still believe the Working Document is part of their Faith and Practice, Goff urged that in the ongoing yearly meeting deliberations that Friends “consider the 1997 “working document” [is] not a part of Faith and Practice.” [In this case, and in all other cases within this essay, emphases within a quotation are reproduced from the original documents.]
One Friend wrote that “we have a policy that any proposal to be brought to yearly meeting must be sent to each monthly meeting in time for it to be considered at meeting for business [that is, not just sent to select monthly meetings, as the concerned pastors’ letter was]. Alternatively, the rule is that a proposal to be brought to Yearly meeting must be sent to each Monthly Meeting in time for it to be considered by the Monthly Meeting and then by the Quarterly Meeting.” This Friend continued, “At any rate, considering the Concerned Pastors’ Letter in Yearly Meeting sessions would violate that policy. I don’t know the whole history of this policy, but it’s a BIG DEAL in this yearly Meeting.”
Rising clerk, J. P. Lund, pointed out that when Community Friends 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. Faith and Practice prescribed that Quarterly Meetings should be involved in discernment over meeting departures, and Gary Farlow urged that this prescribed Quaker process should be followed.
In ensuing months, Friends meetings wanting to disaffiliate from Wilmington Yearly Meeting generally followed this advice from Permanent Board. Some meetings, including Cuba Monthly Meeting, held clearness committees about their leadings to leave Wilmington Yearly Meeting. The clearness committees confirmed these leadings, and thus the requests for disaffiliation would be brought forward in good order to the annual WYM sessions in July. One Ohio meeting, Hardins Creek, was not able to hold such a clearness committee, but the fact that its Quarter (Fairfield) had not been functioning well for some time was recognized as an extenuating circumstance, and hence Hardins Creek’s request for disaffiliation would also be considered at WYM sessions, without any admonitions from the gathered body about any perceived shortcomings in Quaker Process.
After all viewpoints were considered, the deliberations of the March Permanent Board Meeting of WYM made separation seem a much more imminent reality for the yearly meeting. In addition to his comment about the 1997 “working document” as not a part of Faith and Practice, clerk Dave Goff made the following statements about the sense of the meeting:
Concerns of disturbed monthly meetings [should] be acknowledged and taken seriously, and we request that they declare clearly and specifically what they want the yearly meeting to do.
We need to celebrate what we’ve accomplished but consider that separation is now in our best interest.
“We can set aside the differences and not discuss them anymore, but then look for and determine the overarching purposes of the Yearly Meeting. Can we find a purpose/mission to go forward and unite us? If not, is it in our best interest to separate?
Jay Schroeder’s meeting did not wait until the next meeting of the WYM Permanent Board in order to approve a minute to withdraw from WYM. On May 6, Cuba Friends Meeting approved the following minute, which was subsequently presented for action to Miami Center Quarterly Meeting:
After much time in prayer and meditation, Cuba Friends Meeting feels led to withdraw from Miami Center Quarter and Wilmington Yearly Meeting of Friends. We value the friendships formed through the years and wish to leave as friends with no animosity or hard feelings.
Cuba Friends Meeting holds to the authority of scriptures and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Many in our Meeting feel we are being asked by some in the Yearly Meeting to accept a compromise that goes against our beliefs in order to keep peace. We feel the need to take a stand. If you don’t stand for something, you stand for nothing. The issues in the Yearly Meeting have distracted all from moving forward to build God’s kingdom.
The things of this world will pass away, but what we do for God is eternal. William Penn was advised to carry his sword as long as his conscience permits. Our conscience no longer permits us to silently accept Wilmington Yearly Meeting’s stand on marriage equality. According to our Faith and Practice, it still clearly states that marriage is between one man and one woman: but the issue arises each year at Yearly Meeting. Just because it continues to come up does not mean that those who disagree with changing Faith and Practice will compromise in order to keep peace. One of the recent themes for Wilmington Yearly Meeting states: And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that is good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. Romans 12:2. The time has come to walk away and stand firm.
We will continue to hold the yearly Meeting in our prayers. It is our prayer that some consideration would be given to a plan to share Quaker Knoll Camp (Cuba Monthly Meeting, 2018).
The Concerned Pastor’s Letter was also brought to a meeting of the Fairfield Quarter, where a version of it was approved by all of the meetings in that Quarter except for Fairview Friends. It was signed separately by representatives of all of the meetings in the quarter except for Fairfield (Lund 2018).
The Berea Meeting: May 2018
On May 19, twenty-three weighty WYM Friends (it turns out that all were from meetings which had no plans to leave WYM) gathered at Berea, Kentucky, in the Berea Friends Meetinghouse (Berea Meeting is a member of another yearly meeting, Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting and Association, affiliated with Friends General Conference, but it is also a convenient halfway point for WYM Friends from Ohio and Tennessee to meet), in order to continue the searching discussions about the purpose of WYM, and to discern whether the leading to work toward a loving separation was a genuine one. Goff proposed to focus the discussion on four questions:
- What is the purpose of Wilmington Yearly Meeting?
- How well are we accomplishing those purposes?
- What other purposes and responsibilities might belong to the Yearly Meeting?
- How might we better fulfill the responsibilities placed upon us?
Three venerable sources were referenced as giving substance to the question about WYM’s purpose. First was the yearly meeting’s own Faith and Practice:
“The purpose of [WYM’s ] annual assemblies is the general ordering and regulating of the affairs of the constituent bodies in the service of God and the maintenance and promotion of Christian faith, love, unity, life and practice throughout the subordinate Meetings. . . . The Yearly Meeting has authority to decide all questions of administration, to counsel, admonish, or discipline its subordinate meetings, to institute measures and to provide means for the promotion of truth and righteousness, and to inaugurate and carry on departments of religious and philanthropic work.”
As noted in the May Permanent Board meeting, these words are more than a century old, being written and adopted in 1903, as part of Five Year Meeting’s (as Friends United Meeting was known at the time) first uniform book of Faith and Practice for its yearly meetings. Friends’ awareness of the historical context in which these words were written proved significant in the ensuing discussion:
“A Friend noted that this statement is definitely a top-down order and reflects a trend of most denominations at that time. Several Friends made comments about this top-down organizational structure and about Quaker congregationally-based structure, as well as the difference between consensus and a sense of the meeting: the ability for Friends to move forward by finding a sense of the yearly meeting, not a consensus. A Friend noted that early Friends trusted the leading of the Light, the Spirit, making decisions dynamic for that time.”
Subverting existing hierarchical church structures was definitely part of seventeenth-century Friends’ modus operandi, as well as a subsequent building up of a practical hierarchy, among other reasons, to handle issues of dissension and conflict within their own ranks. While early Friends searchingly sought the leading of the Spirit as to the practical ways by which they should conduct their own church business, there were, over time, few easy generalizations about the structures that would result from their spiritual discernment processes. Such structures needed to be adequate to their present moment, not to any idealized Quaker past, so, from their beginnings, Friends have had no compunctions against adding and tinkering (Birkel and Angell 2015).
While wondering whether WYM Friends could remain in fellowship with doctrinal standards which differed from one’s personally held beliefs, a Friend unearthed and read aloud another gem from the early Quaker tradition, in this case an advice from Isaac Penington:
Even in the apostles’ days, Christians were too apt to strive after a wrong unity and uniformity in outward practices and observations, and to judge one another unrighteously in those things; and mark, it is not the different practice from one another that breaks the peace and unity, but the judging of one another because of different practices (Penington 1660; Penington 1784, I, 443).
This evocative passage from Penington probably could be seen to reinforce an understanding of different meetings holding marriages under their care according to the best results of their own spiritual discernment, especially if Quaker and Christian doctrine concerning marriage is seen as one of the non-essential items for which liberty is permitted.
At this point, however, the May Permanent Board Meeting took a turn, as David Brindle, former pastor of the Muncie Friends Meeting of the New Association of Friends and currently an attender of Wilmington Friends Meeting, stood and delivered a message in which he sought to empathize with the more conservative meetings trying diligently to preserve traditional Christian teachings relating to marriage:
A Friend observed 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.
Of all the revealing moments in the past year for Wilmington Yearly Meeting Friends, this sharing, and its reception, may have constituted the most significant moment of truth. At least it seemed so in the estimation of Clerk David Goff, an eminently fair and careful listener who had engaged thoughtfully and prayerfully messages from all sides of the yearly meeting. This sharing crystallized an understanding which would underlie all of WYM’s subsequent actions on these matters. The May minutes articulated the moment’s significance as follows:
It is clear that Biblical interpretation is at the heart of our uneasiness and distrust. 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. If it’s time to say Goodbye to one another, then let’s do it in love. If we cannot reconcile all opinions, let us endeavor to unite all hearts ” by loving God and loving Jesus.Even though we might want to focus on opportunities for fellowship and shared mission, perhaps it’s time to address how we can separate in love, with kindness and blessing.
In his clerk’s letter for the 2018 yearly meeting sessions, Goff quoted this entire passage and prefaced it with the statement that “sadly,” this was “the conclusion we finally reached in Berea.”
There followed a brief reminder that Friends’ meetings wishing to withdraw should follow Quaker process and good order. For those meetings unable to bring their requests for disaffiliation to a Quarterly Meeting, because the Quarterly Meeting was not functioning, Meetings were permitted to appeal directly to the Ministry and Counsel Committee of WYM. Then the meeting adjourned with prayer as Friends held hands in a circle.
All seven WYM Meetings in Tennessee belonged to a single quarterly meeting, Friendsville Quarter. In 2017, four of the seven (Knoxville, Ballplay, Friendsville, and Nashville Preparatory) had declared themselves opposed to same-gender marriage and in favor of disciplining the Cincinnati Friends Meeting (Angell 2017-2018). Of the remaining three, Rafter Chapel strongly shared the views of the aforementioned four meetings; Lost Creek, the meeting pastored by WYM Clerk and Friendsville Quarterly Meeting Clerk David Goff, while having written a letter to Cincinnati Friends disapproving of their action in holding a same-gender marriage, had not yet minuted, in 2017 or 2018, a position on behalf of either side of the yearly meeting controversy; and Maryville Friends, pastored by David’s son Jonathan, had no unity to differ from the contention of the other meetings in their Quarter that marriage should be between one man and one woman, but did clearly maintain that “the decision of whether to perform same-sex marriage [should] be left to the determination of the individual monthly meeting.”
Lost Creek had previously advocated withdrawal from WYM. In a July 1994 letter, Lost Creek argued that Friendsville Quarter should separate from Wilmington Yearly Meeting, because of their “perception that Wilmington Yearly Meeting had “an attitude of permissiveness to homosexual behavior” (Goff 2018). (At that time, David Goff was already pastor of Lost Creek, and a recently convinced Friend; he was formerly a Baptist.) The clerk of Friendsville Quarter, Scott Knight, replied to Lost Creek Friends that they were misinformed, that the “attitude of permissiveness toward homosexual behavior” did not exist in WYM, and, in any case, Friends in their Quarter already occupied, or were to assume, significant offices in WYM and would be in a position to ensure that did not happen. In the intervening quarter-century, the issue had arisen once more, in 2004, and again the Quarter’s decision was to strengthen its ties with WYM, not to sever them. Goff advised, “Let us not forget that twice before we have walked this path and have chosen to remain in fellowship with OUR Yearly Meeting. Let us not be hasty in severing these ties.” (Goff, July 22, 2018)
On May 20 the Quarter gathered as a Clearness Committee to determine whether Friendsville Quarter should remain in WYM. Several Friends insisted that Friendsville Quarter should disaffiliate from WYM, but others were opposed to this step. It had been hoped that the Clearness Committee would conduct itself in the worshipful fashion and open-hearted searching after God’s truth that is the desired goal of such Committees. The stance of Maryville Meeting in favor of remaining within Wilmington Yearly Meeting was the most controversial issue during the May Friendsville Quarterly Meeting sessions. Maryville steadfastly affirmed its year-old minute (dated Seventh Day, Fifth Month 2017). In its entirety, the Maryville Minute reads:
To all Friends of Wilmington Yearly Meeting,
We at Maryville Friends have been in prayer and consideration regarding the various minutes and positions on same-sex marriage and have appreciated hearing the variety of responses and thoughts they have spurred. With consideration of our own diversity on a variety of issues and the diversity we sense throughout Wilmington Yearly Meeting, Maryville Friends adopts the following minute.
Maryville Friends Meeting recommends that the decision of whether to perform same-sex marriage be left to the determination of the individual Monthly Meeting. Likewise, we recommend that Wilmington Yearly Meeting not take any disciplinary action towards any Monthly Meeting regarding its position performing, or not performing, same-sex marriages.
We are blessed in scripture with a beautiful example of how the Christian church can disagree on a deeply divisive issue regarding their relationship with God and each other in Acts 15. Through the work of Paul and Peter, the Gentile and Jewish Christians could move forward in love of one another. Despite never coming to agreement, the Church was able to continue in love, focusing on what unites rather than what divides. Likewise, we recognize the diversity and strong disagreement throughout Wilmington Yearly Meeting on same-sex marriage and want to remain in unity and love with all of our fellow Monthly Meeting Friends.
In the aftermath of the May 20 clearness committee, a letter was drafted to take to the entire Friendsville Quarter when it next met two months later, on July 22. In case it was approved, it contained signature lines for all seven of the meeting clerks, including the clerk of Maryville, to sign:
Friendsville Quarterly Meeting after much soul searching and openness to the leading of the Holy Spirit in full recognition of the Holy Scriptures has gathered in unity of action to rescind its membership in Wilmington Yearly Meeting of Friends. This decision came about in a spirit of love and concern.
We believe that we cannot move forward in unity with those in Wilmington Yearly Meeting who do not acknowledge the whole bible as being the inspired word of God and who do not hear or heed the counsel and guidance of the Holy Spirit as a reflection of scripture and God’s true nature. We cannot, in good conscience, be part of a community that believes there is a grey area which should be maintained for those who do not wish to choose black and white (Rev. 3:15-16 & II Tim. 4:3-4). We believe that the Holy Bible, as interpreted by the Holy Spirit (II Tim. 3:16), to be the only proper judge of controversies among Christians.
We in the Friendsville Quarterly Meeting feel we cannot be an effective witness to a fallen world if we do not bear witness to the truth. We feel convicted that the only way to see souls turn to Christ is by being faithful to God’s Word and sharing that word unerringly. For these reasons we rescind our membership in Wilmington Yearly Meeting effective as of June 29, 2018.
While assuring Tennessee Friends that this letter would be “given a hearing” at the upcoming Quarterly Meeting, Goff vigorously took issue with the supposed factual basis for much of what was included in the proposed letter. In reference to its opening paragraph, he wrote that his
“hope and prayer is that it MAY YET happen at Quarterly Meeting, but the Clearness Committee failed completely to accomplish holding a meeting that personified soul-searching and openness to the Holy Spirit, unity in action, or a spirit of love and concern. Instead the meeting was characterized by anger, closed-mindedness, and a divisive spirit” (Goff, Jun. 29, 2018).
He summarized the results of the May Clearness Committee for Friendsville Quarter as follows:
Most of those present were not interested in a LOVING separation from Wilmington Yearly Meeting. There was little or no concern for proper Quaker practice. Many of those who were chosen to represent their Meetings simply wanted OUT!
There was no unity of action as to where Friendsville Quarter might go for attachment to another Yearly Meeting, or for forming one of our own. Rather my perception of the spirit of the meeting was verbalized by one Friend who said, “We don’t want ANYBODY over us.”
The majority of the Meetings participating were determined to cast out Maryville Friends, without any hearing or consideration. There was even some idle chatter about laying Maryville down. Up to this point, there has been no action on the part of Maryville that merits disciplinary action according to Faith and Practice.
When the Quarterly Meeting finally met on July 22, it soon became apparent that Friendsville Friends had no unity for any action by their Quarter. As clerk of the Quarter, Goff compiled a full report on the meeting. He noted that
“FQM Disaffiliation is NOT APPROVED due to opposition from Maryville Friends. No unity could be found on this issue. Furthermore, there was a matter of order related to the proceedings of Lost Creek Friends which made their approval of FQM Disaffiliation questionable.”
While the Lost Creek representative did express approval of WYM & FQM disaffiliation on the floor of the July 22 meeting, the matter of possible WYM disaffiliation had never come to the floor of Monthly Meeting at Lost Creek. Consequently, their representative’s expression did not appear to be in right order. Goff explained the reasons for Lost Creek’s reluctance (as of July 2018) to act on the matter as follows:
Lost Creek has refused to participate in the anger and bitterness resulting over this issue and is determined to pursue its mission of outreach without any division of their Meeting at this time. Therefore, no written statements, other than the Cincinnati letter, have been forthcoming. Their Ministry and Counsel has been UNITED in the stance that this divisive issue will not be allowed to divide and destroy Lost Creek. Therefore it has been handled by Ministry and Counsel and has not come to the floor of Monthly Meeting. For the present time, Lost Creek will remain a part of FQM & WYM until clearly led by the LORD to another path. That MAY include an affiliation with another body, perhaps moving to Evangelical Friends rather than WYM and FUM, but if so that step will be made in love, and in the Manner of Friends. It should be noted by any who would object to their stance, that Lost Creek is the only Meeting to step out and directly address their concern with their behavior to Cincinnati Friends Meeting. That action, though it did not accomplish the repentance desired, was handled in a manner appropriate for a Friends Meeting (Friendsville Quarter 2018).
(Goff himself has been undergoing significant life transitions. In July, he retired as pastor at Lost Creek after 25 years of service. At the same time, he was retiring from his secular job as a teacher. He was in the process of stepping down from the post of WYM Clerk, effective at the end of 2018 sessions on July 29. While rising WYM Clerk J. P. Lund will likely continue Goff’s emphasis and approach at the yearly meeting level, the advent of a younger generation of leadership at the monthly meeting level seems likely to result in some changes at Lost Creek, with one possibility being more assertive opposition to meetings like Maryville that are inclined to tolerate other meetings in WYM that are holding same-gender marriages under their care.)
Each meeting did have a chance to state their position on the matter of disaffiliation from WYM and Friendsville Quarterly Meeting. The representatives from three meetings had instructions from their monthly meetings to disaffiliate from WYM before the end of the month. The meeting representatives had been authorized by their monthly meetings, and the Friendsville Quarterly Meeting approved their pleas to disaffiliate. Those three meetings were Nashville Friends Church, Friendsville Friends Meeting, and Rafter Chapel Friends Church.
Ballplay and Knoxville Friends were prepared to leave WYM at that time if the entire Quarter departed in unison, but did not have clear instructions at that moment as to how to proceed, given Maryville’s wish to remain affiliated with WYM. One week later, on July 29, while WYM was still in session in Maryville, Ballplay would subsequently approve a minute of disaffiliation, but because of the timing of their request, WYM was unable to act on Ballplay’s request at its annual sessions. That will have to wait until October. Despite having no authorization from the Monthly Meeting for their stance, the representatives for Lost Creek also spoke on behalf of disaffiliation. No action was taken at this Quarterly Meeting, but “it can be expected that they will withdraw” at a later time.
“indicated no desire to withdraw from either FQM or WYM. They have chosen not to sacrifice their Meeting by forcing a decision on an extremely divisive issue that they are not yet ready to make. They have NOT endorsed Gay Marriage, and contrary to what some have stated in a hateful disparagement, they do hold to the authority of the Scriptures. For them, however, Jesus Christ is the lens through which all Scripture must be studied and interpreted (Hebrews 1:1-3). Therefore, Maryville Friends Meeting remains a part of both Friendsville Quarterly and Wilmington Yearly Meeting.”
In regard to Friendsville Quarterly Meeting, the unwillingness of Maryville Friends to separate themselves from Wilmington Yearly Meeting made it very difficult or impossible for other Tennessee Friends churches to maintain their affiliation with the Quarter. FQM Friends, for the most part, had a very negative view of Maryville’s stance on the matter, and a strong desire not to be associated with them any longer. Expressions relating to the presence of Maryville making it impossible for Friends Meetings to remain in FQM came from the representatives of Friendsville Friends Meeting, Ballplay, Knoxville, Nashville, and Rafter Chapel. If so led by God, Lost Creek might also withdraw from FQM at a future time. All of this is quite awkward, and far from the neat severance of FQM from WYM envisioned by the authors of the abortive letter to WYM that was conspicuously not approved at these sessions of the Quarterly Meeting.
FQM has some financial assets, and some equitable division must be made of those assets. In other yearly meetings where separations have occurred in the past five years, careful negotiations about the division of those assets have occurred prior to separation. That financial concern seems less important than the act of disaffiliation itself, at least to some of the departing meetings in WYM. The meetings that are disaffiliating have made it clear that “it’s not about the money,” and they have left the “equitable management of these resources ” in the hands of those who remain” (Lund 2018). To be clear, then, the Friendsville, Nashville, and Rafter Chapel Meetings, by seeking disaffiliation from WYM, also were seeking (and, within a week’s time, would achieve) disaffiliation from Friendsville Quarterly Meeting also.
The matter of continued affiliation or disaffiliation with WYM was not the sole matter that was scheduled for consideration at the FQM meeting. Monthly meetings could bring their own minutes to the floor of Quarter, and ask for the Quarter’s consideration of their minute. If the minute was approved, it would then be brought to the attention of yearly meeting. Maryville Friends had written and approved a strong minute relating to gun violence, and this was briefly brought forward for the Quarter’s consideration. Due to at least one objection, the Quarter did not approve Maryville’s gun violence minute, but it was considered anyway on the Yearly Meeting floor on the following weekend and approved, so it did become an official WYM minute, and it has been posted at the Wilmington Yearly Meeting website.
What does it say? Opening with a 1660 statement by Quakers that “utterly den[ies] all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons,” Wilmington Yearly Meeting recommends to the states of Tennessee and Ohio and the United States government,
“ban of the sale and purchase of semi-automatic rifles; when such weapons are seized after their use in a crime they be destroyed ; ban of the sale and purchase of high-capacity magazine, as well as bump stock accessories ; close the ‘gun show loopholes’….; create a National or State-level registry for any future firearms sales and those which already exist….” We also support calls for greater mental health resources.” Read the whole statement here.
2018 Annual WYM Sessions
Four days after this eventful Friendsville Quarterly Meeting, Wilmington Yearly Meeting convened for its 2018 sessions at the Maryville Friends Church. Numerous Ohio Quakers made the trek across Kentucky to join Tennessee Friends at this gathering at Maryville. WYM annual sessions are really a grand occasion. The Maryville Friends Church was packed on the opening night of sessions as an all-black local group of actors gave a riveting performance about the experience of African Americans who, in the mid-twentieth century, worked in the local Alcoa plant and lived in the company town. Many of Maryville Friends’ non-Quaker neighbors attended this performance. It was an example of very successful community outreach.
In other years, a wildly successful program like this would have been the leading news to come out of WYM. Or perhaps the main news would have been the indefatigable efforts of these Friends to raise money for a school in Puerto Padre, Cuba. (In general, Friends’ mission efforts in the country of Cuba and elsewhere have strongly united Friends from across the theological spectrum in FUM yearly meetings such as Wilmington, whatever Friends’ views on marriage are.) At any rate, these very worthy efforts were overshadowed by the other events of the weekend.
WYM Friends also have a tradition of having a lecture concerning matters of Quaker faith, and another lecture on matters relating to peace. Eric Ginsburg, a member of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative), gave an inspiring talk on “the process of peace,” building in part on his experiences lobbying for the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Some of Ginsburg’s remarks seemed just at applicable at the yearly meeting level, as at the national or worldwide levels:
I suggest that a greater peace is achieved not in resolving the immediate disagreements that confront us, but rather in creating, committing to, and maintaining a continuous level of respectful discourse that allows us to raise concerns, to acknowledge conflicts, and to approach them as positive opportunities for constructive change. To do so, we must be willing to take the initiative in reaching out to others, not to foreclose further discussions when we sense that an impasse has been reached, and to invite others as collaborators rather than adversaries in the search for alternative solutions and paths to productive working relationships.
The theme of the Yearly Meeting was Matthew 22:36-40, concerning the two great commandments, first to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and second, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Morning Bible Study led by Patricia Thomas gave us the occasion to explore these verses from a variety of different angles, and allowing for much valuable small group discussion on them. Led by Thomas and Goff, love became a central guiding theme for the 2018 sessions. As the closing epistle stated the matter, “We were reminded in our Bible studies with Patricia Thomas that we cannot love God without loving one another: these two commandments must hang together. Likewise our clerk, David Goff, called upon us to engage in business sessions while remembering the great commandment to love God and love one another as we have been loved by Jesus.”
Thomas also noted that there are 613 commandments (or “mitzvah,” to use the Hebrew term) in the Old Testament, and there are many that Christians no longer regard as significant and worthy of being obeyed, such as the commandment against wearing clothes with mixed fibers (Leviticus 19:19, in the verse immediately following “love your neighbor as yourself”). Certainly, over the years most Christians have changed their evaluation of Scriptural passages in both Testaments that permit slavery, or forbid divorce, for example. Over the coming decades, will the passages that condemn homosexuality come to be downplayed or disregarded similar to other passages that no longer speak to modern Christians and Quakers?
Consideration of requests to disaffiliate was scheduled for one day, Saturday, July 28. The clerk anticipated that the yearly meeting deliberations on the matter might take until 5 PM. In fact, they did not take that long; all of the requests to disaffiliate were granted by early afternoon. It was this observer’s opinion that this worshipful deliberation at annual sessions was somewhat anticlimactic, likely because the crucial discussions had mostly taken place earlier: in Mini-Yearly Meeting in March, at the Berea Permanent Board Meeting in May, and at Friendsville Quarter the week prior to yearly meeting sessions. Indeed, this observer was briefed on the likely outcome of the meeting upon arrival in Maryville, and there weren’t any surprises. Or, as the Yearly Meeting epistle later described the situation, WYM Friends knew “at the rise of Yearly Meeting we would be diminished” by the time sessions had concluded.
Some Friends spoke vigorously in opposition to disaffiliation. Dana Dunsieth, Clerk of Fairview Meeting, declared, “We are lessened by people leaving.” Turning to face the representatives of the meetings that were leaving, he stated, “We (Fairview Friends) don’t want you to go. We care about you. We don’t think that disagreement over scriptural interpretation is a reason for leaving.” He said that he stood in opposition to the disaffiliation minutes, but also that he would stand aside, and let the disaffiliations go forward.
Bill Medlin, pastor of Jamestown, speaking for himself and his monthly meeting, deplored how small snippets of the Bible were taken out of context in the WYM discussions over the previous two years. “We need to consider the whole Bible.” In particular, he urged that the first epistle of John spoke to the condition of a Christian community divided in similar ways to how WYM is split now. Love was a central theme of John’s corpus, e.g., John 3:11: “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning that we should love one another.” Recalling Acts 15, he affirmed that the “Holy Spirit calls us to unity and togetherness, not to separation.” Medlin stated that he had no intention of presiding over a same-gender marriage, but he believed that marriage is a matter for monthly meetings. Like Dunsieth, he opposed the disaffiliations but was willing to stand aside.
A Friend from Knoxville 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. This occasioned some response from the Friends whose meetings either support same-gender marriage or tolerate the ones that do. A Friend from Cincinnati Meeting questioned such assertions from the angle of Biblical interpretation. From their origins, Quakers have never been conventional Biblical literalists. Citing Robert Barclay, he noted that Barclay had affirmed that the Holy Spirit was the primary authority, and Scripture only a secondary authority. Indeed, all sides in the WYM Friends controversies had borrowed insights from Barclay and other early Quakers.
Another of the departing Friends, Rona Qualls from Friendsville, feelingly laid out the case for her meeting’s disaffiliation from WYM:
“Our meeting is no longer a part of this body, but I felt led to be here. We came to this decision from a place of sadness, not of hate. We have been struggling with this for many years. When we have hired non-Quaker pastors, we have always been careful to teach our pastor Quaker ways.
”Until the law on same-sex marriage was changed, we didn’t want to cross this bridge. But we can’t be a part of letting each meeting be autonomous on the matter of marriage. We can’t concede autonomy to other meetings so that they can engage in sin. Civil unions are fine, but when it’s a matter of my faith, it’s different. What happens in the church with which I affiliate (making clear here that by church, she meant the people, not any building) must be a reflection of my beliefs.”
Friends on all sides of the conversation found the moment to be very sad. It was a widely shared emotion. A Friend from Xenia Meeting and Ada Chapel noted, “Xenia is grieved by the separation. We will not stand in the way, and we want to remain friends.” WYM Office Administrator Donne Hayden shared, “This is a sad day, but we may be able to serve God better separately than together.” Rising clerk J. P. Lund affirmed, “Integrity may lead appropriately to disaffiliation. It makes me sad, but I also acknowledge that it may be the best way forward.”
For each of the five disaffiliation minutes approved, the Clerk David Goff had the final word. Goff allowed that the discussion had been a struggle for all of WYM. “Meetings are responding the best they can with the Light that they have. We must be careful not to judge one another.” He gave each departing meeting a heartfelt blessing. Disaffiliation came within a careful framework of advice and blessing. Departing meetings had been urged to find other fellowship and association relationships, for purposes of mutual support and accountability. The wisdom of many years of experience by weighty Friends would indicate that it is healthier for Meetings to be associated in fellowship with one another. Though Wilmington Yearly Meeting is not in a position to demand that disaffiliating Monthly Meetings find a place of fellowship, Goff stated, we urge you, by the Love of Christ, to not try to be an independent Meeting, but to find a new body with which to find fellowship and oversight.
And the process was designed to leave open the door for reconciliation and reunion, should that ever be possible. “Any Meeting that chooses to walk away at this time will be welcomed back with open arms if there happens to be a change of heart.”
By mid-afternoon on Saturday, all of the disaffiliation minutes had been approved, and similar to the 2013 sessions of Indiana Yearly Meeting where a similar separation was approved, the Friends who were part of the departing meetings left.
The Yearly Meeting Epistle summarized Saturday’s deliberations in this fashion:
As we considered, by turn, the requests of five Meetings to disaffiliate with the Yearly Meeting, we were covered by a spirit of love and humility. Mixed within that worshipful love for God and brotherly love for one another, however, was deep grieving. How do we reach an understanding of what has happened to us? What do we do with our shared history? How do we part ways with kindness, forbearance, and blessing? As one Friend said, “I want to grab you around the knees like a child grabs a parent and hold on to you, but this desire is out of love. I will not stand in your way.”
During the initial discussion about the idea of disaffiliation, we were challenged several times to remember that disunity and division are tools of the Accuser of the Brethren. We were called to self-examination, to reflect on what spirits we are allowing to lead us, to repent and to turn toward love.
As John Jeremiah Edminster reminded us in our Friday night lecture on The Everlasting Gospel Preached by George Fox, “the big thing about living the self-surrendered life under the Cross is that Christ who calls us to it also empowers us to live in it.”
In the act of mourning our separation while blessing our disaffiliating Meetings, Friends surrendered our desire to lecture and judge, to make our own special points, to win over other Friends. We agreed that Biblical interpretation is at the heart of our uneasiness and distrust, and that we are not able to come to the same place in how we read the scriptures, or in how we view the autonomy of the Monthly Meetings and the authority of the Yearly Meeting. This is evidenced by our disagreement regarding the proper Christian understanding of marriage.
Both those remaining, and those disaffiliating, acknowledged that each group was acting with integrity, for a deeply-held commitment to faithfulness, striving to live the faith of Friends as they had learned it. Perhaps if we had been more surrendered to Christ’s teaching, division could have been avoided. But there was also a strong sense among many that the long years in which we have waited but withheld trust, waited but avoided facing our disagreements, has drained life from our body, both in our individual congregations and corporately as the Yearly Meeting.
Those Monthly Meetings whose disaffiliation from Wilmington Yearly Meeting was approved and blessed include congregations from all three Quarterly meetings. We pray for a successful future in ministry for Cuba Friends meeting, Friendsville Friends Meeting, Friends Church Nashville Preparatory Meeting, Hardins Creek Friends Church, and Rafter Chapel Friends Church. We also realize that there are several other Meetings which are in a discernment process regarding their own affiliations. We hope to maintain ties of friendship, and are open to future re-affiliation.
Our presiding clerk, David Goff, implored those who are leaving to commit themselves to finding fellowship and accountability within some other Friends body. Our rising clerk, JP Lund, committed himself, on behalf of the Yearly Meeting, to assist in any way possible those Meetings which desire to organize themselves into a separate body.
It was painful to watch some dear Friends, representatives of disaffiliated Meetings, walk out the door as we continued in business.. . .
We find that we are also engaged, ourselves, in the work of rebuilding. In previous years, much of our energy has been spent avoiding conflict, managing conflict, and praying and working for resolution and transformation. Our sadness at saying goodbye to those who could not in good conscience stay is joined with our hope that we will continue to be shaped and conformed into the image of Christ, our Teacher and Lord.
Summary and Analysis
This Wilmington Yearly Meeting separation is the latest in a wave of divisions that have roiled North American pastoral meetings in the first two decades of the twenty-first century. In addition to Wilmington, Western, Indiana, Northwest, and North Carolina Yearly Meetings have been affected also.
While it is too early to say exactly what yearly meetings or associations will come out of Wilmington’s troubles, we have noted that some monthly meetings and Friends’ churches have eschewed any overarching body such as a yearly meeting and have claimed their independence from such structures. This has happened in all of the previous separations in this century.
In other cases, new yearly meetings and associations have also formed as the old yearly meetings divide. The majority of the meetings in Indiana and Northwest Yearly Meetings stayed in yearly meetings by the same name, while fifteen meetings departing from Indiana Yearly Meeting formed the New Association of Friends, and five meetings departing from Northwest Yearly Meeting formed the Sierra Cascades Yearly Meeting. In North Carolina, the only remnant left of the defunct North Carolina Yearly Meeting is a nonprofit corporation that holds property and endowment. Two new groups, not officially called yearly meetings, have emerged: the Friends Church of North Carolina and the North Carolina Fellowship of Friends. This journal has covered in multiple articles and essays all of these divisions.
Jay Schroeder, pastor of the Cuba Monthly Meeting, is strongly invested in finding new yearly meeting or associational ties for disaffiliating meetings. Building an association or yearly meeting among some or all of the disaffiliating meetings will be hard work, and there will be several obstacles to overcome. J. P. Lund, from his vantage point as rising clerk of WYM, is one who encourages disaffiliating meetings to fashion their own yearly meeting, or to find an existing yearly meeting with which to affiliate, but he worries that these departing meetings have
“differences that could easily impede them getting together. Meetings that agree on same sex marriage have very different views on the importance of the distinctively Quaker aspects of their Christian witness, and even on their approach to scripture. I can imagine disagreements over water baptism, which is practiced by Rafter Chapel, or “young earth creationism” ” driving a wedge between these meetings. As history has shown, once you try to establish an orthodoxy, it is difficult to stop making it ever more narrow” (Lund 2018).
As we have seen, there have been many moments of truth, both for Wilmington Yearly Meeting Friends and other yearly meetings that have undergone controversies and division. Truth itself often seems elusive. As in the story of the blind men and the elephant, one’s apprehension of the truth is often based on where and how one grasps at the truth. But the separation in Wilmington Yearly Meeting, sadly, is not fake news. These differences in apprehending the truth, and also in prioritizing what it is that one apprehends, have real-world consequences for Friends.
Lund writes that 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” (Lund 2018).
“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.”
Are yearly meeting, as overarching and synodal models, outmoded in the twenty-first century? Chuck Fager has made the case in these pages that many Quaker yearly meetings are experiencing what he calls the “Blockbuster Video Effect,” in which many former yearly meeting functions have become obsolete or outsourced (leading, in Blockbuster Video’s case, to the chain’s shrinkage from 9000 stores to, as of the early 2019, only one), and may disappear entirely, because the diminished organization has failed to adapt to changes in the sector of the culture or the economy in which they find themselves (Fager 2016). Chuck is on to something with this analogy, even if it is not exact, inasmuch as yearly meeting structures are diminishing, but not disappearing altogether as in the case of Blockbuster.
Some elements of yearly meeting structure have been hotly contested. In every case mentioned above, including Wilmington, the yearly meeting book of Discipline, or Faith and Practice, has been subjected to widely varying, even seemingly incompatible, interpretations. Not only the formulation but also the prioritization of doctrines found in Faith and Practice have become difficult issues.
During mostly forgotten schisms of the mid-twentieth century, from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, when monthly and quarterly meetings were separating from Orthodox yearly meetings that were reuniting with their Hicksite counterparts, proposed changes in their yearly meeting books of Faith and Practice to make reunion feasible were front-burner issues, long before controversies over same-gender marriage had emerged into the Quaker collective consciousness (Angell 2017). So, in this respect, there may indeed be more continuity than change in the current controversies in Orthodox yearly meetings.
On the other hand, other elements of yearly meeting structure have increased in importance. Every one of the new yearly meetings has taken care to put up its own website. This should be no surprise, as websites have become a chief means of communication and networking in the twenty-first century. Wilmington College has been an important part of WYM outreach in southwest Ohio, but like many small colleges, it is struggling in the twenty-first century.
Youth programs continue to be an important part of yearly meeting identity, including for Friends who have been part of WYM until the latest separation. Present and former WYM meetings’ minutes and other communications continue to highlight concerns about working out details of how summer youth camps might continue in the yearly meeting’s current fractured state.
Looking at broader cultural context, the heart of the new era of Quaker separations, extending roughly from 2011 to 2018 (under this timeline, with Western Yearly Meeting’s discord over the recording of one of its pastors being a precursor), embraces the era of the Tea Party ascendancy among Republicans, and then Donald Trump’s campaign for President and the beginning of his Administration. It also embraces the 2015 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges that resulted in the legalization of same-gender marriage nationwide.
It is difficult to draw any direct connection from these notable outside events in the broader American culture to the specific disagreements among Quakers. Inasmuch as Quaker worship, through the business process or in other contexts, is understood as listening to God as God speaks through the Light of Christ found within each one of us, one would not necessarily expect to find direct influences from the broader culture, as Quakers seek to commune with and to learn from that God that transcends culture. But, as we gain more distance from these momentous events, the broader connections, both direct and indirect, may become clearer. We eagerly await the Quaker memoirs and further blog posts coming from those who have been most involved in this fascinating and Quaker-world-changing series of events.
Angell, Stephen W. “The Dog that Did Not Bark: Yearly Meeting Reunifications in North America, The Case of Canada’s Yearly Meetings.” In Chuck Fager, An Early Assessment: U.S. Quakerism in the 20th Century. Durham, NC: Kimo Press, 2017.
Angell, Stephen W. “Wilmington Yearly Meeting: Another Yearly Meeting Schism?” Quaker Theology 30/31 (2017-2018): 27-47.
Bainton, Roland H. “The Struggle for Religious Liberty.” Church History 10 (June 1941): 95-124.
Bartel, T. W. “Adiaphora: The Achilles Heel of the Windsor Report.” Anglican Theological Review 89 (2007): 401-419.
Birkel, Michael and Stephen Angell. “The Witness of Richard Farnworth: Prophet of Light, Apostle of Church Order.” In Stephen W. Angell and Pink Dandelion, eds., Early Quakers and Their Theological Thought, 1647-1723. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Fager, Chuck. “North Carolina & Northwest Yearly Meeting Updates.” Quaker Theology 28 (Spring-Summer 2016).
Friendsville Quarterly Meeting of Friends. “Clerk’s Report on Disaffiliation.” July 22, 2018.
Huffenberger, Gary. “Several Churches Leave Wilmington Yearly Meeting over Same-Sex Marriage.” Wilmington News Journal, July 31, 2018.
Lund, J. P. “Wilmington Yearly Meeting 2018: The Schism Begins Anew.” Jplund: Life, Music, Religion, Whatever Grabs My Attention, August 5, 2018. Wilmington Yearly Meeting 2018: The Schism Begins Anew
Penington, Isaac. The Works of the Long-Mournful and Sorely-Distressed Isaac Penington. London: J. Phillips, 1784.
Rollman, Hans. “In Essentials Unity: The Pre-History of a Restoration Slogan.” Restoration Quarterly (1997): 129-139.
Wilmington Yearly Meeting. 2018. Advance Reports for the 127th Session.
Ongoing coverage of yearly meeting controversies and separations by Stephen Angell, Chuck Fager, and others, in Quaker Theology 9-31 (2003-2018).
Private communications from J. P. Lund and Julie Rudd.