23 February 2017

Faultlines, part two

A scene from Northwest Yearly Meeting's 2013 sessions; Paul Bock (left) and Steve Fawver, and an exit sign.

If you are not a Quaker, this post may not make any sense at all. It's my personal, partial, imperfect attempt to comprehend how the scourge of disunity kicked up all over the Christian world by issues relating to same sex relationships, finally disrupted even the mellowest, most affectionate body of evangelical believers I've ever known, Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends. I didn't want to believe this day would come. If anyone could demonstrate the power of love to overcome today's worldwide trends toward division, I thought we might just pull it off. And, in the long run, we still might be able to do it, but now it will be much harder....

Looking back at the 2012 annual sessions of Northwest Yearly Meeting, I wrote,
"Grace to you," we sang, "God's great grace to you." Nate Macy was playing and leading his song as we opened the last business meeting of Northwest Yearly Meeting's 2012 sessions. We would not have been able to sing, "Perfect closure to you, perfect closure to you," because the thorny issues (specifically, same-sex relationships) were not resolved. But we had opened and faced the conversations graciously. We had absorbed the pain of some and the impatience of others -- and a variety of other strong emotions -- without buckling as a community.
I reviewed 2013 in similar terms:
Once again, we were unable to find closure on this subject, but, once again, love and courtesy prevailed. We have much work to do, because our courteous community continues to include people for whom any weakening of the yearly meeting's traditional stance represents a breaking of biblical covenant, while others find any formulation, whether addressing "sexual perversion" or "distortions of sexual intimacy," painful beyond words.

As I listened to these dear Friends today, in my head I could fill in the "other side's" response to each one of the arguments or testimonies that were expressed. However, given our yearly meeting's deep bonds of love, our increasing experience with the use of "listening groups" ahead of difficult questions, our trustworthy clerks and elders, and the discipline suggested by the Youth Yearly Meeting, I believe we can expect the Holy Spirit to break through where today we don't yet see a way.
In 2014 I still kept my positive tone.
Everyone spoke tenderly and respectfully. Nobody charged that the differences in the yearly meeting rose to the level of being unequally yoked. I felt once again that the center held, and that its voice was very strong.
The 2015 sessions passed relatively uneventfully (and I was too sick to write much, anyway!). But just after the close of the sessions, the yearly meeting elders announced their decision (PDF format) to release West Hills Friends Church from membership over that church's dissent from the Yearly Meeting's book of Faith and Practice on same sex relationships. Nancy Thomas provided wonderful insight into the elders' deliberations and some of the related pain.

In 2016, I gave up my compulsive optimism:
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?
... And at the January 2017 meeting of the Yearly Meeting's representative body, the center stopped holding, and we buckled as a community. Representatives were given no choice but to acknowledge the decision reached by the Yearly Meeting's Administrative Council earlier that month -- that, in effect, it was better to require an orderly withdrawal from the Yearly Meeting by dissenting churches than to endure a disorderly disintegration "... one, two, or four churches at a time...."

Mixed feelings:

On the one hand, I persist in my diagnosis that this whole abrupt resolution was a colossal failure, resulting from a lack of the trust that would be needed to tackle the "underlying strains" I talked about last year.

I specifically mean that we were unwilling as a yearly meeting to examine what biblical authority means to us, and why it means different things to different Friends. In my more jaundiced moments, I felt that it was more important to some influential Friends to maintain a stance as heroes of biblical authority than to grant grace to those who cherish the Bible equally but come to different conclusions on controversial issues. I cannot find any other reason to rush the process along other than the threats of such Friends to pull their churches out of the Yearly Meeting if the day of reckoning were to be postponed any longer. So: to avoid losing those angry churches, dissenters were seen as expendable.

(Friday PS: In my less jaundiced moments, I admit that I can see myself doing much the same thing -- maintaining a heroic stance over concerns I personally prioritize, such as evangelism, peace, equality.)

Credit where credit is due: I do not fault our Yearly Meeting's leaders for recognizing the crisis and making a decision that seemed, after prayer and wide consultation, to represent the best stewardship of the Yearly Meeting's identity and energy. If an immediate decision had to be made (and this was, I believe, the tacit understanding behind last summer's end-of-session deferral of the ultimate decision to the most recent midyear gatherings), then to require churches to declare their attitude to Faith and Practice was as reasonable a basis as any. Each church is free to make that declaration, whatever (as the restructure decision says) their internal disagreements might be.

OK, all that is on the one hand. Is there, on the other hand, a silver lining in all this? Yes. Local churches can now do, or continue doing, the work of deeper discernment of the "underlying strains" that the Yearly Meeting gave up on. In fact, local churches can follow one of a number of paths:
  • Churches that have substantial unity over the current Yearly Meeting definitions of sexual ethics can simply minute that they will continue to "align their practices with current NWYM Faith and Practice." Presumably, this state of affairs can continue for them as long as their internal understanding and the Yearly Meeting's understanding remain in alignment. I hope those churches will continue to pray and study, and continue to grow in their discernment. Nothing guarantees that their alignment with NWYM will last forever, or that dissidents within those congregations won't simply leave (either finding another fellowship or joining the growing ranks of disillusioned ex-evangelicals), but, for now it's all good.
  • Churches that have a wider range of views on sexual ethics, or on biblical authority and interpretation, can pragmatically decide to keep their practices in alignment with Northwest Yearly Meeting while their internal conversations continue. In a sense, they can take the internal contradictions that NWYM finally decided were intolerable for the larger body, and continue to endure those contradictions within the local body for the sake of the bonds of Northwest Yearly Meeting unity. There is a huge cost to this pragmatic approach: Friends who are members of sexual minorities would probably bear the painful brunt of the incongruity.
  • Churches that are already clear that their local practices cannot remain in alignment with the Yearly Meeting's Faith and Practice have now been invited to form their own new yearly meeting with help from a NWYM transition team (listed here) and compile their own Faith and Practice. I dearly hope that, first, the churches that are unable to align with current NWYM Faith and Practice will in fact have the dedication and energy to form this new body in collaboration with that NWYM transition team. Second, I hope this new body is as committed to biblical authority and Quaker discipleship as NWYM wishes to be. The task of compiling a new Faith and Practice is a wonderful chance to restate core Friends insights for a jaded world. Third, I hope that this new yearly meeting will lavish love and care on its mother yearly meeting, rejecting resentment and cynicism in favor of an enduring hope for reconciliation.
Important PS: A new yearly meeting did emerge: Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends.

Previously: Faultlines
Faith, commitment, and aspiration.

Marge Abbott's thoughts on humility from Africa.

On using the word "calling" as a spiritual trump card ... and other refreshing reminders.

Enjoy these three great reads from the Godbeat.

Perpetual war watch: Mission Unaccomplished, fifteen years later.

Myths about Vladimir Putin that might be distracting Americans from vital internal challenges.

Today is Defenders of the Fatherland Day ... umm, more like Men's Day: an interesting article on how Russia's military has more symbolic power than actual political power. Same article in Russian.

NBC News considers why some say that Norway is the world's best democracy.

Only international protests will save these Bedouin villagers from being evicted. (Is Israel the world's best selective democracy?)

Seems like the right blues for this post.


Daniel Wilcox said...


It appears that then NWYM is going the way of Indiana.

Having been a Friend (more and less) since 1967) and been a member of California Yearly Meeting when it was going through fragmenting over theological divisions in the late 80's-early 90's, I've spent many years observing and thinking and praying and being still before God on ALL of this.

My tentative conclusion is that these divisions and disagreements about sexuality, Faith and Practice, etc. really have little to do with sexuality itself.

The current controversies and problems really are only encounters which show the faultlines already within the Yearly Meetings.

For instance, some time ago NWYM gave up the conviction that being a Friend meant one shouldn't go to war, so why suddenly now are meetings upset about differences about sexuality? Surely, as serious as sexual ethics are, they are a less important than NWYM allowing, even supporting, killing other humans for one's nation!

And, then there are the deep theological fissures where the earthquakes are coming from: some Friends are turning toward Reformed theology, while others are committed to non-Reformed theology.

I think it is very weird, for instance, that this year's Meeting has invited a Reformed leader (a Presbyterian!) to speak.

My educated guess is that members in the 'wayward' meetings have very different views of God and reality than the 'objecting' meetings.

All of this has me deeply depressed. For I have looked to NWYM for years as a light in a dark world.

Johan Maurer said...

Hello, Daniel! Thanks for commenting.

Which yearly meeting invited a Presbyterian to speak at YM sessions? At our 2016 sessions Miriam Adeney spoke, but none of her excellent messages were particularly skewed in a Reformed direction. She was basically telling stories of genuine discipleship's cross-cultural appeal. Miriam knows Friends well, which of course helped her convey her message in an appealing way.

Concerning Northwest Yearly Meeting's attitude to the peace testimony, of course the strength of the commitment varies from meeting to meeting. On the yearly meeting level, I can't think of another yearly meeting that takes peace as seriously. The Yearly Meeting makes sure that each church is aware every year that January is peace month, with peace education materials and a devotional booklet made available throughout the yearly meeting. No speaker at the annual sessions has cast doubt on this part of our witness.

You are probably right that there are different ways of understanding God and reality. I'm sad that patience has run out for a tender yearly-meeting-wide exploration of those differences, from which we could have learned so much, and which would have helped us understand generational differences as well.

I refuse to give up. The members of the transition team are very qualified to make the restructure process a generous and friendly one, from which (I hope) a loving relationship between the older and newer bodies can be built.

Unknown said...

Greetings, Johan, from half a world away.

Like you, I had such great hopes that NWYM could do this work. Now, in the aftermath, when it's just too late, I wonder if we could have done things differently. I watched people on both "sides" present their reasons & questions for and against the various options and decisions... and that's where it stopped. I heard Friends from Idaho express concern over what they tell Greenleaf Friends Academy families, over what lawsuits might come their way if they DON'T do same-sex weddings when sister-congregations allow them, and so on. Perhaps there was a good way to help these Idaho Friends address these problems/questions, but no one did. I heard progressive Friends almost BEG to know which churches were threatening to leave, but that info was always "confidential" -- and I used that as an excuse not to look farther; but couldn't I have taken more initiative, guess even!, and reached out?

In short, we wasted precious time in large groups (annual sessions, MidYear Boards, called gatherings) speaking AT each other rather than making the effort to speak TO each other. We stopped having those great listening groups during annual sessions; I don't know why.

Would it have made a difference if we'd honored Jesus's words to leave our gift at the altar, go and make things right with individual sisters and brothers first, then return and offer our gift? Maybe. Maybe. I wish more of us had tried.

Because I'm convinced that we fail at these tests when we fail at obedience to the teachings of Christ. I love Quaker faith and practice precisely BECAUSE it comes the closest to that obedience.

So we failed badly at our Christian witness, and put to shame the one prayer of Jesus that was actually for US, for those who would believe in Him because of the witness of His disciples, that we would all be one, just as He and the Father are one. And it was an epic fail of Quaker practice, this giving in to time pressure by Unnamed Sources who were not willing to wait together. What I saw in the Elders' 2015 decision, and the AC's 2017 decision, was the best possible compromise-to-achieve-consensus. It was loving and gentle and done in good faith, but it was compromise/consensus rather than Quaker discernment.

Tomorrow (25 Feb) is the first gathering of the Friends who expect to be leaving NWYM, with any other interested folks (including those who plan to stay in NWYM) equally welcome. It will be at Hillsboro Friends, and we have only a gently-set agenda: we will gather as one to listen, trusting the Inward Teacher will lead us. No guest speakers, no experts, no Rabbis or Fathers. We don't know if we will be led to form a new yearly meeting. We don't know if there will be some grief and anger to face, or if (as has happened for me personally) we are all ready to turn and face a new direction, to anticipate that God will be doing a new thing in and through us. We will have three hours to worship and process together, and then share a meal.

Please pray for the gathering tomorrow; it feels important to me that we start off this New Thing with a good foundation. And pray for NWYM. Maybe someday...

Your f/Friend, Julie P., West Hills Friends, Portland.

Johan Maurer said...

I'm writing this on the train to Moscow, heading to Moscow Friends' meeting for worship. The gathering at Hillsboro will be at the center of my prayers.

Thank you for your words and your honesty.