By Stephen W. Angell
The Fairview Minute
This eloquent minute (around which most of the discussion in annual sessions in Wilmington Yearly Meeting was based) was approved on January 15, 2017, in a small rural Friends’ church in New Vienna, Ohio. It was in response to a longstanding disagreement in that yearly meeting over a familiar range of issues including same-gender marriage, Biblical authority, and yearly meeting authority. Details will be found below about those, but, for the moment, let’s focus on the Fairview Minute.
In the body of the minute, it does not mention the Bible, nor same-gender marriage, at least not explicitly. It was pitched as a statement of how Quaker meetings should confront any controversial issue that arises. In its own way, however, the Fairview Monthly Meeting minute may speak in a more compelling fashion to the controversies that have convulsed many Friends Meetings over the past decade than any other document that has come forth during these tumultuous times.
Here is the text of the Fairview minute, in its entirety:
Same-Sex Marriage Wilmington Yearly Meeting Position
As adopted by Fairview Friends Monthly Meeting
January 15, 2017
Fairview is a diverse Monthly Meeting where a conscientious objector shares a pew alongside a veteran Marine, both seeking guidance from and with the same Spirit. We share a long history of Yearly Meeting civil rights advocacy on a trail blazed by the [Isaac and Sarah] Harvey emancipation trek to [meet with President Abraham] Lincoln and our own Louise Griffiths’ tutoring of New Vienna Gist Settlement children. We are many times more different than our rural oneness might suggest.
We are fascinated and honored by the courage it took George Fox to UN-doff his hat to an oppressive bureaucracy. We may not understand or agree with every position taken by every Monthly Meeting throughout our far-flung Wilmington Yearly Meeting, but we support their freedom to be different. We appreciate their patience with us when our independent streak looks a bit too diverse, or restrictive to their liking. This independence is the bedrock upon which a Friends Monthly Meeting is built. The Spirit is within each of us; we don’t need baptism, communion, or other external symbols. God speaks to each of us – independently – and all we have to do is listen. All of us might not hear the same answer. That is okay, we do not all need to be the same.
Many Friends Monthly Meetings and the American Friends Service Committee are more pacifist than Fairview. Rather than a difference worth fighting about (note the irony), the chasm presents an opportunity for reflection and growth. Our own Bob McCoy’s service following World War II planted a good seed about the meaning of alternative service.
Fairview supports the ability of each Monthly Meeting to chart its own course on sensitive and complex issues.
Fairview Monthly Meeting advises that the Yearly Meeting not discipline any Monthly Meeting for their stand on such issues.
Your Friends at Fairview
Fairview Friends do not yet have unity on behalf of their own meeting taking same-gender marriages under their care. But when the minority of Friends in this meeting who oppose same sex marriage broached this matter, as a possible reason not to act, during the discussion around the minute, Wayne Page, then clerk of Ministry and Counsel, asked these Friends, “Are you ready to accept that other meetings can tell us what to do?” Every Friend in Fairview Meeting agreed that no other meeting should be able to tell them what they can or cannot do. So they did come to unity on the minute you have just read.
While the Fairview Minute invites a series of footnotes for those of us unfamiliar with local Ohio history (e.g., a statue stands on the Wilmington College campus of Isaac and Sarah Harvey, local Quakers who traveled by foot all the way to Washington, D.C., in 1862 to lobby President Lincoln for emancipation of the slaves), the main message is crystal clear. The careful discernment processes of local Friends’ meetings on “sensitive and complex issues” such as same-gender marriage needs to be honored, without coercion or threat of discipline, and no matter on what side they may find themselves led to come down. This is not a new position among Friends. In the past five years, two yearly meetings, Indiana and North Carolina, have already endured separations, given disagreements on whether congregational autonomy on such issues can be respected. But rarely has it been stated so clearly and forcefully. Friends in Wilmington Yearly Meeting (whatever their views on same-gender marriage) did take notice.
So, how did this historical moment come about?
Revivals and Quaker Ecumenism
Let’s look briefly at the more than 200 years of Friends’ history in the Wilmington Yearly Meeting region. Quakers moving from South Carolina settled in southwestern Ohio as early as 1803. Monthly meetings and quarterly meetings were promptly formed, and in 1811 a white brick structure was built in Waynesville, Ohio, so that the Miami Monthly and Quarterly Meetings would have a place to meet. This meetinghouse is the oldest place of worship in continuous use west of the Allegheny Mountains (now used by Miami Meeting of Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting). Other meetings in southwest Ohio, such as Springfield (1809), were founded during this same decade.
During the split in Indiana Yearly Meeting in 1828, Friends who chose to affiliate with the Orthodox side that would eventually become part of Wilmington Yearly Meeting eventually built a red brick meetinghouse across the street from the white brick meeting-house. The Orthodox meeting would be laid down in 1942, while the Hicksite meeting continues today. Springfield Meeting continues as part of Wilmington Yearly Meeting.
During the Holiness revivals of the late nineteenth century, the numbers of Orthodox Friends in Southwestern Ohio greatly increased. Fairview Meeting grew out of three months’ of visits to every home in the area of New Vienna, Ohio, in 1868 and 1869 by Quaker revivalist John Henry Douglas. Fairview Friends first built a wooden frame meetinghouse, and then a brick church was built and dedicated in December 1910, almost a century after the construction of the meetinghouse at Waynesville. Other meetings in the yearly meeting also were formed as a result of these revivals, and the meetings founded during these postwar revivals tend to be more evangelical, even now, than the meetings that had been founded earlier by migrants from the South.
The founding of a Quaker college in Wilmington in 1870 helped to cement Friends’ identities in southwest Ohio, as distinct from Indiana Friends (they still belonged to Indiana Yearly Meeting. After several attempts, Indiana Yearly Meeting allowed three quarterly meetings in Ohio to form their own Wilmington Yearly Meeting. This occurred in 1892.
Five years later, another Quarter from Tennessee joined Wilmington Yearly Meeting. Some of the Meetings in the Quarter had been founded by North Carolina Friends in the eighteenth century; others had formed during the late nineteenth century revivals. But the Appalachian Mountain chain had provided an almost insuperable barrier to prevent these Friends from taking an active part in North Carolina Yearly Meeting. Easier railway connections led them to join Wilmington Yearly Meeting, even though they also lay at a distance from Wilmington Friends, and there were no Friends’ meetings at the time in the state of Kentucky located in between Ohio and Tennessee. This development tended to yoke together two distinctly different Quaker subcultures in one yearly meeting; many Ohio meetings would be more open to liberal and modernist views as time went on, whereas the Tennessee meetings remained staunchly evangelical.
Wilmington Yearly Meeting joined Five Years Meeting, later Friends United Meeting, at the time of FYM’s founding in 1902.
Many Wilmington Yearly Meeting Friends took a more favorable view of the “New Meetings” movement that came about from varying sorts of modernist impulses in the early twentieth century, than did their parent body, Indiana Yearly Meeting. As a result of this movement, an unprogrammed meeting (Campus Meeting) was founded in 1954 at Wilmington College, with Quaker faculty at the college providing important leadership for the meeting. Additionally, two unprogrammed meetings (Community [founded 1953-1968] and Eastern Hills [founded 1972]) formed and grew in nearby Cincinnati, alongside the already existing semi-programmed meeting (Cincinnati Friends). All three of these unprogrammed meetings, later dubbed “bridge meetings,” sought, and were granted, joint affiliation with Wilmington Yearly Meeting and with Indiana Yearly Meeting (Hicksite), the latter which renamed itself Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting in 1976.
The mid-twentieth century saw a blossoming of Quaker ecumenism, with fourteen different Friends’ bodies, mostly in eastern North America, fashioning reunion between 1945 and 1968 into five united yearly meetings which still exist today (Canadian, New England, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore). Many Wilmington Yearly Meeting Friends were supportive of such Quaker ecumenism. In 1958, Wilmington Yearly Meeting approved “that the Yearly Meeting actively explore greater expressions of Christian unity with Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends General Conference. It was specifically requested that the attempt be made to hold some joint sessions of the two Yearly Meetings in 1960.”
One day of joint sessions were in fact held in 1960, with both sets of Friends feeling enriched from hearing reports from Quaker visitors that they might otherwise have missed, and also hearing from each other’s Peace and Social Concerns Committees. The two yearly meetings followed up on this joint session by forming a Joint Study Committee to determine possible areas of cooperation.
Quaker ecumenism suddenly became a matter of great controversy in 1969, when three monthly meetings in Tennessee and one monthly meeting in Ohio, “alarmed over this trend” toward unity, along with two of the yearly meeting’s four quarterly meetings, wrote letters proposing that the Joint Study Committee be disbanded. On the other hand, Community Meeting in Cincinnati urged its continuance. At yearly meeting sessions that year, the clerk discerned unity, even though there was a lack of unanimity, in abruptly laying down the Joint Study Committee; the minutes acknowledge “some voices of disapproval” relating to this action. Wilmington Yearly Meeting Friends “would hope that contacts with Friends from other Yearly Meetings in our area would be cordial and that continuing conversations on our faith be planned informally”(Wilmington College 1992, 120; Wilmington Yearly Meeting minutes, 1969, pp.11-12, 17-18).
Controversy over Gay and Lesbian Issues
Concerns about LGBT issues first arose in Wilmington Yearly Meeting sessions in 1978. The Friends Committee for Gay Concerns (FCGC, later FLGC, and later still FLGBTQC), located in Philadelphia, worked diligently to stir up Quakers throughout North America to take notice of “gay concerns” in the late 1970s. In 1977, it sought recognition as a valid Quaker organization at the All-Friends Conference in Wichita, Kansas, arousing protests from evangelical Quakers that almost brought an early end to that conference (Fager and Souza 2014, pp. 100-101). But it also sought to communicate with monthly meetings in North America, and one such meeting, Friendsville Friends Church in Tennessee, was sufficiently unhappy with the letter they received from FCGC that it raised their concern with the Yearly Meeting. At Yearly Meeting sessions in 1978, the matter was surfaced in the Ministry and Counsel report. Wilmington Friends then referred the Friendsville concern to the Public Morals Committee (Wilmington YM Minutes 1978, p. 10).
Other yearly meetings, faced in the late 1970s or early 1980s with similar concerns from their monthly meetings, approved statements strongly condemning homosexuality – Indiana and Northwest, for example (Angell 2010-2011, p. 5; Fager and Souza 2014, p. 101). Wilmington Yearly Meeting was more circumspect. The Public Morals Committee, after preparation and consideration of six position papers, suggested that Friends throughout the yearly meeting “clarify their own views through study and an openness and a waiting on the Spirit” and urged that “compassion should be shown to homosexuals.” The committee did not add words of condemnation. Appreciation was expressed for the thoroughness of their attention to the Friendsville Concern, and their report was approved (Wilmington YM Minutes 1979, p. 11). This discussion did not leave a strong imprint on Wilmington Friends. Gary Farlow states that it was not on Friends’ minds when he joined Wilmington Yearly Meeting in the mid-1980s.
Over the next decade-and-a-half, “gay-lesbian” concerns were doubtless on the minds of Wilmington Yearly Meeting Friends, even reaching the floor for a brief discussion in 1990, but no definite stands were taken (Wilmington YM Minutes 1990, p. 23). During annual sessions in 1993, policies of Quaker organizations in respect to employment of gays and lesbians came up for extended discussion. It was ascertained that Friends United Meeting employed only persons who were celibate, or were engaged in a marriage between one man and one woman, whereas the American Friends Service Committee and the Friends Committee on National Legislation did not exclude gays and lesbians from employment. In fact, some Wilmington Yearly Meeting Friends were disturbed that an FCNL staff member had recently come out as gay.
A Friend from Community Meeting, a bridge meeting in Cincinnati, who had a gay son, pointed out that “God made [gays and lesbians] that way,” they had been born with their sexual orientation, and that all Community Friends were united in support of their sons and daughters, whether gay or straight. He “called for love and understanding” and felt that this should not be “a divisive issue in Wilmington Yearly Meeting” (Wilmington YM Minutes 1993, p. 15, 24-25). This was not an idle comment, but instead it presaged a series of concerted actions by Community Friends over the next few years.
A Bridge Meeting Makes Waves
In the mid-1990s, many Americans took note of the same-gender marriage issue for the first time. Courts in the state of Hawaii seriously contemplated requiring the state legislature to enact marriage laws that would enable gays and lesbians to marry. In the end, they relented and did not force such legislative action, but the threat that they would do so was enough to evoke a national response. In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), defining (and restricting) marriage as a covenant between one man and one woman. It seemed that same-gender couples would be denied the dignity of marriage, and possibly also the legal protections thereof.
Nonetheless, a number of Friends Meetings were on the forefront of granting clearness for same-gender marriages. North Meadow Circle of Friends in Indianapolis united a same-gender couple “in marriage under the care of the meeting” in 1988. North Meadow was then jointly affiliated with Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting and Western Yearly Meeting, the latter, like Wilmington, a part of Friends United Meeting. This marriage ceremony ignited a “painful” conflict with Western Yearly Meeting, leaving their “relationship with Western … very uncertain” (OVYM Minutes 1988, p. 49).
Forty meetings in Western wrote minutes or submitted letters on both sides of this issue. By July of 1988, North Meadow Friends “recognized the need to offer our withdrawal from Western in a spirit of healing and reconciliation,” and their withdrawal was approved at a special session of Western in August, with ten “tender Friends” recorded as standing aside (OVYM Minutes 1989, p. 50; Western YM Minutes 1988, pp. 46-48). North Meadow Friends remained a meeting in good standing in Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting.
Community Friends Meeting was the second meeting within Ohio Valley, but the first within Wilmington, Yearly Meetings to host a same-gender marriage under its care. Prior to their hosting this wedding, they notified the Executive Committee of Wilmington Yearly Meeting that they would undertake this wedding. They also came before Executive Committee personally. Executive Committee did not give them any response at all. Gary Farlow finds this lack of response, when one was clearly needed, a “telling” fact about Wilmington Yearly Meeting.
In their 1996 State of the Meeting Report, Community Friends observed that their action arose from “much thought and searching by the Meeting. Our deliberations culminated in a minute expressing our belief in the right of all people to pursue their spiritual bonds of commitment to the partner of their choice. Subsequently, further discussion and leading have been necessary as we find ourselves the subject of controversy within our Wilmington Yearly Meeting family. We have begun the process of sharing and listening that is required to resolve a family disagreement” (OVYM Minutes 1996, p. 79).
The calm tone of Community Meeting’s report does not begin to describe the passions that erupted in Wilmington Yearly Meeting. The controversy raged on for two years. Many members of Wilmington Yearly Meeting viewed its Faith and Practice as a document binding on its monthly meetings. This was a perspective which was not entirely shared by Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting Friends, who valued allowing monthly meetings opportunities to innovate and to try out new things along prophetic lines. In this instance, bridging two yearly meetings from different Quaker branches appeared almost impossible.
But while Wilmington’s Faith and Practice implied that marriage was between a man and a woman, nowhere did that document say so explicitly, thus leaving uncertain grounds for disciplining Community Friends. This latter point was a cause of great frustration for many Wilmington Yearly Meeting Friends holding to an evangelical theology.
As with the case of North Meadow in Western Yearly Meeting, most monthly meetings in Wilmington Yearly Meeting sought to weigh in on the issue, with sentiment running strongly against the actions of Community Friends in allowing a same-gender marriage. Various subordinate bodies, such as the executive committee of Ministry and Council and the Permanent Board, met to try to work out a solution. Finally, in 1997, the Permanent Board brought the following proposed minute to annual sessions:
“Wilmington Yearly Meeting recognizes the diversity of views held by Friends concerning sexual ethics, but remains committed to the traditional Quaker under-standing and practice that sexual expression is confined to the context of marriage between one man and one woman. We, as monthly meetings within Wilmington Yearly Meeting, will not bless same gender unions. We also continue to support the rights of all regardless of sexual orientation and to oppose violence against homosexual people, whether verbal or physical. One of the realities which we have to acknowledge is that ‘all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.’ Given that reality, the question faced by Christians is how to express redemptive and healing love that will draw men and women into the life of wholeness and purity which God desires for us. We believe that such ministry must combine the ‘grace and truth’ that Jesus came to bring (John 1:17).”
Weary of conflict, many Wilmington Yearly Meeting Friends were willing to embrace this statement. But the clerk of Community Friends, Franchot Ballinger, objected vehemently, inasmuch as their meeting would not commit to never again blessing a same sex union, much less acknowledging wrongdoing in blessing the one they had already conducted. On behalf of Community Friends, he stood in opposition, refusing to “stand aside” to allow the minute to go forward without his (and his meeting’s) consent.
The yearly meeting clerk, Neil Snarr, observed that “there are very kind, loving people” on all sides of the issue. Based on a suggestion from the immediate past clerk, Rudy Haag, the assembly then decided to approve the Permanent Board’s minute, but only as a “working document” (Wilmington Yearly Meeting Minutes 1997, pp. 8-9).
The most obvious problem with what appears to have been a compromise is that no one could come to agreement as to what a “working document” was. Staunch opponents of same gender marriage stated forcefully that this “working document” was now an integral part of Faith and Practice, and thus was binding on all monthly meetings in Wilmington Yearly Meeting. Other Friends in the yearly meeting begged to differ. In fact, the term “working document” had been in use in the yearly meeting, usually for some not-quite-finished product that would in fact be finished and polished and adopted formally by the yearly meeting in another year or two.
But having wearied themselves with this painful debate, Wilmington Yearly Meeting Friends evidenced notable reluctance to take up the topic of same-gender marriage again, and thus to hold that this particular “working document” still had relevance after all those years stretched the credulity of many.
Several Friends said that this is a typical pattern of response by Wilmington Yearly Meeting Friends: “We postpone and postpone. As soon as the presenting issue goes away, you cannot get Friends to talk about it.” There is a positive and practical side to this pattern of response, because Wilmington Friends recognize that there are things that they are not going to agree on, so they prefer to talk about what they can agree on.
The controversy evidently took its toll on Community Friends, as well. Several years later, in 2007, when Community Friends could find no one to represent them at Wilmington Yearly Meeting sessions, they quietly dropped their yearly meeting membership, retaining only Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting as a yearly meeting affiliation.
Relinquishing such longstanding ties was still difficult in some respects. They expressed appreciation for cherished relationships with their Miami-Center Quarterly Meeting, and asked permission for meeting members who wished to do so to continue to attend yearly meeting sessions. Still, they would be a bridge meeting no longer.
Two Decades of Gradual Evolution
This containment lasted almost two decades. These were two momentous decades during which the nation’s attitudes toward same gender marriage shifted tremendously and Wilmington Yearly Meeting’s attitudes also shifted somewhat, but with few talking about them in any forum that encompassed the whole yearly meeting. Most significantly, in 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Defense of Marriage Act to be unconstitutional, and permitted same gender marriages in all fifty states.
Wilmington Yearly Meeting Friends who had favored proscribing ceremonies that had no legal import in Ohio or Tennessee, now had faced the reality that such ceremonies were legal in both of these states, and every other state also.
While there was little discussion at the yearly meeting level (Mary Heathman of Rocky Mountain Yearly Meeting responded to the yearly meeting’s invitation by facilitating a discussion on the issue in 2015, and her views on the subject have also been published in Quaker Theology #23), there were important developments at the monthly meeting level, and elsewhere in the region.
Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting, in its annual sessions in July, 2011, finally took a yearly meeting wide position in favor of marriage equality, proclaiming that same-gender marriages “under the care of our meetings [are] just as sacred, just as valid, and the cause for just as much joy as those of any other persons” (Angell, Spring-Summer 2011, p. 8).
This had important consequences for the two remaining bridge meetings in Wilmington Yearly Meeting, Eastern Hills in Cincinnati, and Campus in Wilmington. According to blogger J. P. Lund of Eastern Hills, there was “no controversy” in his meeting about accepting the OVYM minute, although “it was uncomfortable to be dealing with two such disparate positions” held by the two yearly meetings that Eastern Hills was bridging. In 2009, Eastern Hills wrote a minute stating that it would “use the same Quaker process of support, clearness, and ceremony for any two adults wishing to be married under the care of the meeting.” By 2016, it was clear that it “would choose marriage equality over membership in Wilmington Yearly Meeting if forced to make a choice” (Goff 2016; Wilmington YM Minutes 2017).
Similarly, according to Patricia Thomas, Campus Meeting “realized that they cannot sit under BOTH the Ohio Valley Statement and the Wilmington” working document. Consequently, in 2015, during an all-day retreat Campus decided that “they would sit under the Ohio Valley Statement.” Afterward, they developed their own statement on marriage equality, one in accord with the OVYM position (Goff 2016). While there was a same-gender couple who were active members of Campus Friends Meeting for years, neither they nor a same-gender couple worshiping occasionally with Eastern Hills asked to be married under the care of either of these meetings.
There were also profound changes in many of the pastoral meetings affiliated solely with Wilmington Yearly Meeting. The members of the largest church, Wilmington Monthly Meeting, had been divided on the issue of Marriage Equality when the Working Document came about in 1997, and some of its members supported the Working Document at that time. There was a gradual evolution of views among the members of this monthly meeting, however. One who had supported the Working Document recalled how “marriage equality stopped seeming bizarre to him as the years past. Eventually, he felt that he had to give up the traditional view.”
After the 2015 Supreme Court decision, the monthly meeting revisited the marriage equality issue, finding strong support for it, and no opposition. Consequently, they decided to minute their support for marriage equality. Their website currently includes a “Statement on Equality:”
Wilmington Monthly Meeting of Friends welcomes people of all orientations and seeks to provide guidance and support to all intimate relationships that reflect the love of Christ. It is our experience that this deep love is not restricted to heterosexual relationships. Therefore, Wilmington Monthly Meeting of Friends will treat all requests for marriage equally, without regard to gender. We celebrate all unions which, after careful discernment and clearness, are found to be blessed by God.
Two other, more conservative meetings in the yearly meeting, the meetings in Chester, Ohio, and Springfield, Ohio, also underwent significant changes in that almost-two-decade period. The Chester and Springfield Meetings are pastored by Nancy and Mike McCormick, a husband-and-wife team. In 1997, they believed homosexual behavior to be sinful. But then, Nancy noted, “God started sending gay people!” Evidently liking what they found, these LGBT worshippers stayed; Chester currently has gay attenders.
Neither Nancy nor Mike experienced a sudden epiphany, only “a gradual personal awakening and opening.” Neither meeting is ready to host a same-gender marriage at this time, but Nancy and Mike personally have been given the support of their meeting clerks and ministry and counsel committees to take part in same-gender marriages, presumably under other auspices than the meetings themselves.
Campus Meeting sought approval of their minute (as follows) from Miami-Center Quarterly Meeting in the Spring of 2016:
In light of the 2015 Supreme Court decision to legalize same-gender marriages in all 50 states, and in light of the 1997 Yearly Meeting statement that “We, as monthly meetings within Wilmington Yearly Meeting will not bless same gender unions,” Wilmington Yearly Meeting of Friends reaffirms its recognition of and trust in our monthly meetings/churches to recognize marriages and perform weddings, as well as to call their own pastoral leadership, confer membership in the Religious Society of Friends through membership in the local monthly meeting /church, and conduct memorial meetings, and to dedicate children.
The Quarterly Meeting was not able to arrive at a sense of the meeting concerning this minute from Campus Meeting.
This decades-long impasse has contributed to serious organizational dysfunction in Wilmington Yearly Meeting. The decline of functionality does affect how the yearly meeting has responded to its most current crisis, which will be detailed below. Jennilou Groteval points out that “Meetings are just drifting away, and they stop supporting the yearly meeting financially and stop sending people to yearly meeting.” Some Friends wonder, “What’s the point of yearly meeting?”
A few generations ago, it is said that Friends came to yearly meeting to find a spouse who wasn’t one’s first cousin, but that has ceased to be a major purpose of yearly meeting sessions! Wilmington Yearly Meeting has an aging, declining, and poorer membership. The great deal of energy required – just to keep the yearly meeting going – generates a malaise. Then, when something important comes up, finding energy to deal with it is very hard.
The yearly meeting camp at Quaker Knoll holds the yearly meeting together to some extent, but it is underutilized. Some Friends (from both sides of the theological divide) don’t want to send their children to Quaker Knoll because of other opinions they might pick up. One Friend sums up the situation thus: “Wilmington Yearly Meeting cannot be what it was. What will it be?” The same question can be applied to the Quaker Knoll camp.
A Second Same Gender Marriage in Wilmington Yearly Meeting
When the crisis over same-gender marriage recurred in Wilmington Yearly Meeting, it was not spearheaded by a bridge meeting, but instead by a semi-programmed meeting in Cincinnati.
When the Marriage Equality issue first arose in Cincinnati Friends in the 1990s, the meeting was not immediately moved by the Spirit to embrace it. Cincinnati Friends supported the Working Document in 1997. But (a familiar story by now) LGBT Friends soon thereafter began attending Cincinnati Friends, and the meeting embraced them. By 2005, they declared themselves to be an Open and Affirming Meeting. By 2014, they had felt the need to state more explicitly their position on same-gender marriage. In March, 2016, they approved and minuted their support for Marriage Equality, stating that the Meeting “would consider marrying anyone from among their members, regardless of sexual orientation.”
Unlike Eastern Hills, Campus, and Wilmington, the other meetings in the yearly meeting that had embraced Marriage Equality, in Cincinnati Meeting a lesbian couple promptly requested that their marriage be taken under the meeting’s care. One of these two women had been attending Cincinnati Friends since 1999, and both had been worshiping with Cincinnati Friends for some time. After the appropriate clearness process, it was clear to all that the marriage was in right order, and this couple was married by Cincinnati Friends in September, 2016.
After almost twenty years, this marriage re-ignited the issue of the authority of Wilmington Yearly Meeting, and leadership began to discuss how to move forward with integrity and good order. Every monthly meeting was notified of the same- gender marriage at Cincinnati Friends, and again, the Yearly Meeting began collecting statements from its various monthly meetings.
The Fairview minute arrived in the yearly meeting office, on January 15, 2017. Cincinnati Friends minuted its support of the Fairview Minute on February 12. Campus Friends approved a similar statement on March 4, that it “desires to remain in fellowship with all monthly meetings in Wilmington Yearly Meeting regardless of their stance on same sex marriage.” Wilmington Monthly Meeting had also sent in such a minute. The Sabina, Ohio, Meeting also discussed and approved the Fairview Minute in March, as did the Ministry and Counsel Committee of Wilmington Monthly Meeting. Also in March, Springfield Friends minuted their conviction that “each Meeting should be permitted to make its own decision concerning this matter.”
In May, Chester Friends approved a minute echoing the language that Campus Friends had submitted to the Quarter the previous year:
“Chester Monthly Meeting recognizes and affirms the autonomy and responsibility of each monthly meeting to call their own pastors, confer membership, recognize marriages and perform weddings, conduct memorial services, and dedicate children.”
Eastern Hills Meeting forwarded its 2009 minute declar-ing support for marriage equality. In an undated statement, Maryville Friends Meeting in Maryville, Tennessee, recommended “that the decision of whether to perform same-sex marriage be left to the determination of the individual Monthly Meeting.”
But not all Wilmington Yearly Meeting Friends agreed with the Fairview minute. In February, the Knoxville Monthly Meeting of Friends reaffirmed the 1997 Working Document. Citing passages from Leviticus, Romans, and I Corinthians in order to bolster their view that “the practice of homosexuality is a sin,” Knoxville Friends drew the following conclusions:
“If an individual meeting or group of meetings were to declare that the Spirit had led them to an action or belief contrary to the plain teaching of Scripture, then, as well-intentioned as they may be, we cannot support or give credence to their action or belief. To do so would undermine the authority of Scripture and lead to a breakdown in Biblical faith.
Therefore, we are unable to support the right of any Monthly or Quarterly Meeting within Wilmington Yearly Meeting to engage in the practice of performing any marriage ceremony outside the bonds of traditional marriage. Based on Biblical revelation, we understand that to be between one man and one woman.”
Similar statements, although of varying lengths, came from Friendsville, Tennessee, Friends in March; Living Word Friends in Nashville, Tennessee, in April; Fall Creek Friends in Highland County, Ohio, in May; and Ballplay Friends in Tennessee in July. Along these lines, the Ministry and Counsel Committee of Friends in Cuba, Ohio, declared simply that “Wilmington Yearly Meeting has the right to discipline any Monthly Meeting on any issue that is contrary to Faith and Practice” (Wilmington YM Minutes, 2017).
Some meetings were unable to come to a unity on any response to the Fairview Minute, or to the overall crisis in the yearly meeting. For example, Xenia Friends discussed the Fairview Minute shortly before the yearly meeting sessions in August, but declined to take any stance. Gary Farlow observes that “the tenor of the discussion was that we would prefer to talk about something else.”
In 1997, a large majority of monthly meetings in Wilmington Yearly Meeting, and their members, had been opposed to same-gender marriage. While not unanimous, the 1997 “working document” had expressed the views of a substantial majority. Twenty years later, the latest collection of monthly meeting minutes painted a much different picture, of a yearly meeting far more closely divided on issues surrounding same- gender marriage. Nine meetings had expressed support for the Fairview Minute advocating local autonomy for monthly meetings to marry those couples that they discerned clearness to marry. Of these nine meetings, four are willing to marry a same-gender couple.
The remaining monthly meetings hold a range of views. Some pastors have stronger views in opposition to same-gender marriage than do most of the members in their meetings. Six meetings advocated the use of church discipline for any meeting that married a same-gender couple in contravention of the 1997 working document. The irony, of course, was that they advocated discipline for violations of a stand that no longer represented the clear majority of Wilmington Yearly Meeting’s monthly meetings and their members.
Also significant is the geographical breakdown of the responses. Of the nine minutes supporting local autonomy, all but one came from the meetings in Ohio. Of the six minutes opposing local autonomy and advocating the use of church discipline against those conducting same-gender weddings, all but two came from the meetings in Tennessee.
There were two days of discussion at yearly meeting sessions on the Fairview minute, the first in small groups and the second in the whole body. There was no interest in addressing the topic of separation, nor was there agreement on a process for moving forward. Dave Goff, clerk of the Yearly Meeting, asked representatives of the meetings that would not agree to the Fairview Minute, “What works for you?” He often did not obtain a clear response to that question.
The discussions have been, on the whole, quite civil. There were a very few Friends, in opposition to the Fairview Minute, who yelled and ranted from the rear of the assembly, but other Friends on all sides of the issue were restrained and did not respond to the ranters in kind. Overall, however, some Friends found these yearly meeting sessions “exhausting,” as they were “not always in good order.” The 2017 minutes record the results of the discussion this way:
Dave Goff, Presiding Clerk, gave the following sense of the Meeting:
“There is a lot of love between us; there are many relationships we value. We do not want to divide, but we cannot come to an accord on the Fairview Minute. Therefore the Fairview Minute is not approved. We continue to function on the only statement which has received approval, and that is the 1997 statement that marriage is between a man and a woman. Though it was, apparently, approved as a “working document,” it still stands as our only official statement as a body.”
The closing epistle, written by Julie Rudd, Dan Kasztelan, and Jonathan Goff, and approved by the whole Yearly Meeting assembled gave this summation of the discussion:
“The emotional weight of this year’s session … lay in our joint discernment around Fairview’s Minute. We found, laboring together on this question, that we could not come to unity.
Some of those who spoke to the question shone the Light of Truth on the deep differences that divide us. We disagree about the nature of the authority of Scripture. We disagree about how to balance the witness of Scripture with the witness of the inward experience of God. We disagree about the authority of the Yearly Meeting over Monthly Meetings. We disagree about the continuing nature of revelation.
While acknowledging these disagreements, we affirmed our love for the fellowship. We heard friends share their deep love and appreciation for one another, the relationships that have formed over the years, and the unique place Wilmington occupies as a ‘middle of the road’ Yearly Meeting. Is it, in fact, part of our witness that we continue to meet together despite our differences?
Yet there were some who felt that these disagreements hamper our trust in joint efforts like our camping program. Others thought that our ability to work together in efforts like Friends Disaster Service indicated that our trust can grow through common work. We asked some troubling questions: If we are not in unity and do not see way forward, will continuing in organizational fellowship become more harmful to us than helpful? Can we trust one another in joint work when we cannot agree on what to teach our children?
One Friend expressed frustration with the design of the discussion, noting that it seems like, once again, we’re just kicking the can further down the road (Wilmington YM Minutes 2017).”
J.P. Lund, a blogger who regularly attends Wilmington Yearly Meeting sessions, including this year’s, felt that the epistle was incomplete, in the sense that there needs to be steady reminders of all the things Wilmington Yearly Meeting Friends hold in common. Of this year’s sessions, he wrote:
“Beforehand, I had no illusion that we would magically heal the divide. I hoped that people would say what was on their hearts, and would listen to each other with the respect, the dignity that Friends of differing views should accord each other. Friends did that.
Whether this loose organization can continue to exist in its present form is questionable, but continuing to meet year after year without addressing the pivotal challenges of our time seems pointless, indeed lifeless. This year, the dissonance remains unresolved, but at least it resonated! I believe this to be a positive step.”
In addition to the 2017 Epistle’s “beautifully articulate[d]” contention that Wilmington Yearly Meeting Friends disagreed on the authority of Scripture, continuing revelation, and like matters, Lund discerned these tenets that those Friends all held in common:
“We care about the institutions in our society. We want to preserve them, strengthen them, and make them meaningful to the present and the future. Otherwise, we would not even bother with Wilmington Yearly Meeting.
We want to pass on to the next generations the ethical and moral codes that guided our forefathers. Moreover, we want to transmit to our children the spiritual inspiration that underlies these codes, so that they become not a mere collection of rules, but the foundation for a full and vibrant life.
We read and study the Bible with an intensity that we accord no other book.
We look to the writings of early Friends for inspiration and understanding.
In particular, we care about marriage. We think that human sexuality is best expressed within a covenant relationship, which, with Divine assistance, will last a lifetime. Our meetings take seriously the opportunity to celebrate the beginning of such a relationship and the responsibility of bringing it under our care.”
Accordingly, Lund devoutly hopes that there will be a future of his yearly meeting that will allow it to continue as a whole body without any separation:
“My own vision for the yearly meeting is that it continue intact, that we continue to engage each other with compassion and respect, and that we hold our disagreements in our hearts, fully acknowledging them, but refusing to disengage, knowing that God will be with us. It’s a tall order.”
As has been frequently chronicled in the pages of Quaker Theology, within the past decade a number of American pastoral yearly meetings have had a large number of monthly meetings relinquish yearly meeting connections, or have undergone a formal separation, or both, because of a variety of theological and cultural issues, foremost among them the degree to which LGBT persons are welcomed. The struggles of North Carolina, Northwest, Indiana, and Western Yearly Meetings readily come to mind. Will Wilmington Yearly Meeting join these ranks? It currently stands at the precipice.
For all of its current difficulties, the culture wars have not raged as fiercely in the middle-of-the-road Wilmington Yearly Meeting as elsewhere. For example, in Wilmington’s parent yearly meeting, Indiana, the decision of West Richmond Friends Meeting to become welcoming-and-affirming precipitated a crisis that resulted in a “reconfiguration,” or separation.
Numerous meetings within Wilmington Yearly Meeting have become welcoming-and-affirming without provoking this kind of extreme critical reaction from more conservative monthly meetings. As we have seen, the great respect that monthly meetings within this yearly meeting have for each other had long been manifested in an enormous reluctance to discuss the issues of authority of the yearly meeting, the authority of scripture, or marriage equality.
Many Wilmington Yearly Meeting Friends devoutly hope that their yearly meeting does not become contaminated by the divisions in other yearly meetings. There seems to be little appetite among any of these meetings to push any other meetings out, not even attempts to push out the four who have already identified themselves as welcoming-and-affirming. Wilmington Yearly Meeting Friends hope their yearly meeting can become an example of how Friends can work through these problems. This general perspective is shared widely by clerks of many of the monthly meetings. The present clerk of the yearly meeting also does not want to preside over a division. It is more likely that monthly meetings would just drift off, than there would be a formal separation. If that happens, it is probable that some of the smaller monthly meetings, with high proportions of elderly members, would simply dissolve.
The late-breaking news is that the present clerk of Wilmington Yearly Meeting, Dave Goff, citing family issues, has decided that he will decline re-appointment to his position. No successor has yet emerged to step into this challenging office. Obviously, what happens next depends at least in part – perhaps in large part – on who is the next yearly meeting clerk. Other events – Will there be other same-gender weddings in any of the monthly meetings in the near future? There is none scheduled at present – may also influence the near future of Wilmington Yearly Meeting.
Many Wilmington Yearly Meeting Friends hope that the yearly meeting can return to consideration of the Fairview Minute, or something like it, and come to unity on it this time. One Friend stated. “I don’t think that it is so urgent that things must be decided before next year’s sessions, as long as conversations continue in a civil fashion, and continue in the monthly meetings.”
During 2017 sessions, Clerk Goff asked Wilmington Yearly Meeting Friends to continue to have good conversations with Friends on the other side of the issue. There was reluctance among many to go along with the clerk’s most reasonable request. One Wilmington Yearly Meeting Friend, however, decries the reality that “we have neglected our ministry to each other for a generation.” This would be a great time for Wilmington Yearly Meeting Friends to break with previous custom and seek out searching conversation on matters on which they initially disagree. They could end up finding a way to preserve and strengthen their yearly meeting by doing so.
Wilmington Yearly Meeting. Minutes.
Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting and Western Yearly Meeting. Minutes.
Websites of Community Friends Meeting, Eastern Hills Friends Meeting, Cincinnati Friends Meeting, Wilmington Friends Meeting.
J. P. Lund. Life, Music, Religion: Whatever Grabs My Attention. [Blog] Jplund.wordpress.com. “Wilmington Yearly Meeting 2017.” August 7; August 9, post and comments; August 11, 2017.
David Goff. “Reflections on Gathering at Cincinnati Friends Meetinghouse 4/30/2016.” http://www.quakernews.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/GATHERING_CINCINNATI_FRIENDS.pdf
Partners in Education: Wilmington College and Wilmington Yearly Meeting of Friends. Wilmington Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, 1992.
Scott Knight, Robert McNemar, et al. Celebrating the Past, Claiming the Future: A History of the First One Hundred Years of Wilmington Yearly Meeting. Wilmington Yearly Meeting, 1991.
“Text and Responses: ‘Quakers and Homosexuality Press Statement,’ from Friends Church Kenya: Response by Mary Heathman,” Quaker Theology #23 (Summer-Fall 2013): 55-58.
Stephen W. Angell. Reports on the separation in Indiana Yearly Meeting and the formation of the New Association of Friends. Quaker Theology #18-22, 24 (2011-2014).
Chuck Fager and Jade Souza, “Northwest Yearly Meeting and ‘Shattering’ Conflict: Chapter One,” Quaker Theology #24 (Winter-Spring 2014).
Private communications from Julie Rudd, J. P. Lund, Patricia Thomas, Mary Ellen Krisher, Jennilou Groteval, and Gary Farlow.