28 July 2016


Bob and Sue Henry. Bob is pastor at Silverton Friends Church.
Thanks to Bob for permission to publish his sketch notes.
Photo taken at today's banquet to honor newly recorded
minister Alice Maxson and outgoing superintendent Becky
At our just-concluded Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends Church annual sessions, we spent over four and a half hours discussing whether or not to approve the Yearly Meeting elders' report, which included its decision last year to release West Hills Friends Church from membership in the Yearly Meeting. (Background page one on YM site, background page two on West Hills site.)

During this week's sessions, Ken Redford, clerk of elders, described how his analysis of the groups involved in these discussions had changed. The two groups aren't just advocates for affirming same-sex relationships on the one hand, vs advocates for a position opposing such relationships on biblical grounds, on the other. Ken now makes a different distinction, one that resonated with many Friends at the yearly meeting sessions. In his view, one group consists of those who may hold either of these preceding views but can co-exist in one body with those holding the opposing viewpoint ("we can agree to disagree") and, in contrast, the other group consists of those who simply cannot agree to disagree -- those for whom affirmation of same-sex relationships is "a bridge too far." For the latter group, such acceptance would be a "shattering" violation of the Yearly Meeting covenant as described in our Faith and Practice, and as such, would subject the local church involved to the Yearly Meeting elders' process provided for such violations.

Last year's decision, by the elders, was announced just after the end of the annual sessions and was quickly appealed by eight churches, although not by West Hills itself. The decision (in the form of the letter that the elders sent last year to West Hills Friends Church) was included in this year's booklet of reports for the annual sessions. A letter from the Yearly Meeting's Administrative Council, distributed at the start of this year's sessions, explained,
The Administrative Council acknowledges that approval of Board of Elders report would result in the decision to release West Hills Friends remaining in effect. If the members in business session do not reach consensus around the Elders' report, several outcomes are possible, such as the following:
a) Refer to the Representatives for a final decision to be reported back to the business meeting.
b) Refer to the Representatives for consideration and recommendation to the business meeting.
c) Refer back to the Elders for consideration, or
d) Another leading from the Holy Spirit.
Although the statements made by Friends on the floor of the sessions didn't differ remarkably from previous years, there was a tender spirit throughout these long hours. Clerk Brad Holton frequently asked for periods of silence or singing, and was scrupulously fair in his clerking. Even so, the tension was high. Many Friends of more conservative leanings felt betrayed that the elders' years-long process of discernment and resulting decision were in effect being nullified, while those on the "agree to disagree" side continued to express hope (sometimes in strong terms: "I will not approve the decision, and I will not agree to step aside") that West Hills could remain in membership. In odd mirror-image conversations between the sessions and at lunch, I heard each side talk about the politicking that the other side was doing -- that was in fact the most discouraging thing for me to hear as the background noise of a community supposedly committed to the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

Brad Holton allowed the business session to continue an extra hour and a half beyond the scheduled end of business. The cross-trade of irreconcilable statements continued to the end, after which he had (as I saw it) no choice but to go to the list of options in that letter and announce that the Administrative Council and the representative body would continue to work on an outcome at a later date.

I have two very contradictory impressions. Conservatives (that is, Friends whose understanding of biblical interpretation opposes any same-sex behavior, as well as those who believe that the plain language of today's Faith and Practice should settle the matter, whatever changes might occur in the future) saw the elders doing a long, hard, mutually respectful process of discernment with West Hills Friends, leading to the decision to release that church -- which moreover did not appeal the decision within the 30-day deadline. The stream of objections from those who could agree to disagree, as represented in the appeals from other churches, and the business-meeting discussions, should not have affected the outcome unless they could obtain unity around the liberal viewpoint, which was clearly not going to happen. I understand why those conservatives were unhappy to contemplate yet another half-year or more of delay, at least, with no clear end in sight. Who would not be frustrated in a similar position? It was no wonder to me that some left the sessions in a cynical or separatist mood.

As concerns the plain text of Faith and Practice and the procedures outlined in it for "shattering" instances of non-compliance, I felt that the can't-agree-to-disagree group had governance process on their side. But from a systemic viewpoint, the more liberal (agree-to-disagree) side also had a valid argument: there is no unity today in our yearly meeting on the sexual ethics portions of Faith and Practice, and using those portions to force an outcome somehow feels artificial. "It's a permanent solution to a temporary problem," said one Friend. My own metaphor: removing the canary doesn't make the mine safer. West Hills' non-compliance is symptomatic of a faultline that runs through many churches and even families, a faultline that itself threatens the future of Northwest Yearly Meeting but hasn't been given adequate attention or even definition. Is sexual identity and behavior the main issue, or is it our understanding of biblical authority and the authority of Yearly Meeting structures and documents? All of the above? And, most importantly to me, why didn't our process seem trustworthy enough to earn the patience required to tackle these underlying strains?

Faultlines, part two: the restructure.

Internet Monk: Wendell Berry and the "politics of mutual estrangement."

New York Review of Books: Which Europe? Conference of European Churches: What future for Europe?

Why are so many black Americans killed by police?

Russia and America, it's time to talk face to face.
Today, it makes sense to examine the possibility for direct conversation “over the barriers” between Russia and the US — if only because the level of mutual distrust, both genuine and as shaped by media outlets, is almost as great as it was during the Cold War.

Blues dessert from the late Magic Slim, performing in Brazil.


Daniel Wilcox said...


Thank you for a very lucid, moderate account of this very controversial issue.

You wrote, "West Hills' non-compliance is symptomatic of a faultline that runs through many churches..."

To quote Huck Finn, "Ain't that the truth?"

My wife and I were members of a meeting in California Yearly Meeting before it went through years of controversial disagreement with Friends United Meeting. When CYM officially supported nuclear weapons at our yearly meeting and our local meeting hired a fighter pilot for minister, we left the Friends. We became Mennnonites/Anabapists--me wrongly thinking that a change of denomination would help us find the true church.

But then came the 'battle' within the Mennonites over same sexuality. At the time I was committed to the conservative view, saw the behind-scenes-politicking (as a leader, engaged in some of it myself), observed a facade and concern for unity rather than truth be the main focus. A few years later, I was a member of Pacific Yearly Meeting (the opposite from CYM), when it became clear that nontheism was becoming a center point! Etc.:-(

Sorry for the longer comment, but I wanted to give a little backdrop to my response:
Based on my experience of 55 years in churches (including being youth minister, leader, Bible teacher, etc.), it would seem to me that there can be unity with minor points of disagreement, but on major points--theology, ethics, not.

Look at the issues of slavery among Friends, of war, of the Holy Spirit's primary guidance versus a literal interpretation of Scripture.

I say this, even though now I support same sexual marriage.

Nancy Thomas said...

Thank you, Johan, for the clarity of your reflections. I find them helpful in sorting through the swirling emotions following yearly meeting. I'm wondering now if, rather than the question, "Can we agree to disagree?", we might ask, "Can we agree to stay together through this dark period of not yet knowing God's leading for us?"

I believe the testimony of the Scriptures that God delights to reveal divine mystery to us, including the mystery of God's will, as well as aspects of theology. But we really have no indication of a timeline for this revelation.

At any rate (slow or fast), thank you for your thoughtful contributions.

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Daniel and Nancy. The answer to your question, Nancy, may partly depend on the quality of our prayer-based pastoral care for the many people who don't know how to answer -- and for those whose answer comes too quickly.