23 November 2017

"Becoming the church we dreamed of" part two

Happy Thanksgiving! (Fall in southwestern Oregon -- Valley of the Rogue State Park, last Sunday.)
(Part one.)

Yearly Meeting: a definition
(from quakerinfo.org)

Yearly Meeting refers to a larger body of Friends, consisting of monthly meetings in a general geographic area connected with the same branch of Friends. This body holds decision making sessions annually. The term "yearly meeting" may refer to the annual sessions, to the body of members, or to the organizational entity that serves the body of members. For most purposes, a yearly meeting is as high as Quaker organizational structure goes. Each of the 30+ yearly meetings in the U.S. has its own Faith and Practice, and there is no higher authority in the structure of the Religious Society of Friends, although yearly meetings network with each other through branch associations and other Friends organizations.

[Also see wikipedia's definition.]

Eugene Friends Church and other Friends participating in the formation of Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends are considering some Big Questions. We were in Medford, Oregon, last Sunday, so we missed the Eugene Friends Church worship service in which people contributed their answers to the first question right during worship.

Here for easy reference are the two questions:
Why are we joining together instead of going our separate ways? What holds Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting together? (Examples: Common beliefs/theology? Relationships? Friends' testimonies? Other?)

How should we make decisions that affect the whole of SCYMF? (Examples: refer all decisions to the yearly meeting as a whole? Choose reps to make some or all decisions? Let a specified group make urgent decisions? Other?)
I love the idea of inviting responses to these questions during worship. It is a wonderful way of expressing the importance of covenant and community -- and of transparent process. Has anyone else done something similar?

Exercises like this are also a good opportunity to reconsider the whole concept of a "yearly meeting" in an era where its usefulness is no longer taken for granted.

A couple of years ago, Micah Bales asked, "Is it Time to Get Rid of Yearly Meetings? " (My response: "Yearly meetings, myth and reality.") Just last summer, I had another long discussion about these themes with some Friends with ties to both Northwest and North Pacific yearly meetings. One Friend pointed out two important trends:

First, yearly meetings may be evolving from a model based on geography and shared history, to a model based more on shared theology or ideology. This trend goes back nearly two centuries, if not longer.

Second, a crucial function of those wider bodies -- mutual accountability and particularly the role and preparation of elders -- is weakening in the old system and is being at least partially replaced by more informal processes and by new institutions such as the School of the Spirit.

I don't want to pour cold water on any sorts of experimentation that might help renew Friends discipleship and provide love and accountability for local Quaker meetings and churches. But I still love the old concentric model that I described in the "myth and reality" post. Maybe one reason it seems less attractive is because we've just taken it for granted rather than deliberately investing our enthusiasm and commitment.

In some cases, maybe we've over-bureaucratized yearly meetings and routinized business rather than expecting our gatherings to serve as the forum where we ask each other whether Truth is prospering in each of our local settings, and how we need to coordinate with each other to meet the needs in places where our testimonies are being challenged. As we consider a world full of spiritual, social, and economic bondage, are we too busy maintaining our systems to consider these challenges creatively? Can we make room for new partnerships between the old yearly meeting-as-forum and new initiatives? Two generations ago, such partnerships included the New Call to Peacemaking and Right Sharing of World Resources. What are today's experiments in partnership?

I have heard of a couple of yearly meetings that have experimented with a radically simplified agenda -- if only for one annual session. How did it go? I was present for one such experiment, a carefully planned session of Iowa Yearly Meeting FUM at which most routine business was set aside to consider whether to remain in Friends United Meeting. This example was a response to a specific crisis, but maybe at another time and place, the sheer urgency of focusing on the needs of people who have never heard of us would be "crisis" enough.

The Iowa example brings up another huge problem: local Friends have come to associate "yearly meeting" (the annual gathering as well as the ongoing structure) with conflict and church politics. I've heard this complaint in many places. We might be too busy arguing instead of figuring out together how to build our prophetic and healing presence in the world. We desperately need to restore the ability to extract value from conflicts and diversity instead of hiding or suppressing them.

We also need to learn how to deal with those among us who actually (perhaps subconsciously) love conflict and are too fond of being partisan heroes.

I'm not ready to give up on the yearly meeting as an institution worth preserving and re-energizing. The simplicity of the concentric structure has a huge advantage, as long as its processes are prayer-driven and transparent. A yearly meeting serves as a clear and constant and public access point into the web of relationships that is the Quaker family beyond the local church.

Ideological and programmatic associations may come and go; they may focus on specific initiatives; often, they may be the long shadows of gifted individuals. In the meantime, the yearly meeting can keep plodding along, not seeking to out-dazzle its partners, but cherishing relationships, channeling resources, and providing mutual accountability for those initiatives, and always asking, does Truth prosper?

My responses to the "big questions" are based on my love for this traditional concentric organization of the Friends church. The church is nothing more or less than the people who have -- now and throughout history -- gathered around Jesus, learning what it means to live with him at the center, and helping each other to live that way, including its ethical consequences. This learning and mutual support, and our desire to make this kind of community accessible to others who would be blessed as we have been, are the elements that connect us. No matter how far beyond the local church we go on the organizational chart, God remains at the center.

When we make decisions that affect the individuals, and (in the next level of connection) our member churches and meetings, those decisions ought to be made by people we can trust and hold accountable, and to whom we've granted authority to hold us accountable for our commitments.  We choose these people based on the spiritual gifts we see in them, and on our experience of their trustworthiness, not on their social status. I like the way Eugene Friends are instructed concerning decision-making at meetings for business: everyone may attend and contribute, but the presiding clerk looks to members and active attenders in discerning when a decision has been reached.

Our leaders and representatives can make decisions on our behalf when necessary, but basic decisions on faith and practice should, sooner or later, be ratified by all committed participants in the meeting or yearly meeting. And the default question remains, "What does God want to say and do through us?"

This is the church I dream of becoming.

An appeal for Christians in the Middle East: Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, meets with Patriarch Kirill in Moscow. (Thanks to fulcrum-anglican.org.uk for the reference.)

Street-naming as political theatre: In Washington, DC, local politicians are considering renaming a section of Wisconsin Avenue -- the section in front of the Russian embassy -- Boris Nemtsov Plaza in honor of the assassinated opposition leader. The desire to embarrass is blatant and (to my mind) just plain stupid. However, instead of making its predictable objections, the Russian foreign ministry could have neutralized all that scheming by simply deciding to treat the whole thing positively: "Thank you for honoring our former cabinet member and vice premier, tragically cut down in his prime!"

How did 1917 change the West?
Russia and America have spent the last 100 years as mirrors held up to one another, revealing in excruciating detail both the loftiness of our ambitions and our frequent failures to live up to them. Indeed, our almost ubiquitous failures to live up to them. Russia and America – and perhaps the west more broadly – have constructed their contemporary selves with clear and abiding reference to one another: the American way was American because it was the rejection of the Soviet way, and vice versa.
Jamie the Very Worst Missionary describes the Church for All Cynics. Jerry Jones on The Challenge of Thankfulness. Finally, Laurel Shaler with Three Tips for Generating Gratitude.

"Do Lord (Way Beyond the Blue)"

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