Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Unbinding ties

Friends outside the US are often baffled by the tendency of yearly meetings here towards schism. The Hicksite/Orthodox separations of the 1820s, the Gurneyite/Wilburite, and later Holiness and Evangelical separations among the Orthodox are part of our history, as are some of the later reunifications which occurred when the grandchildren could not understand what the grandparents had been quarreling about. Last week I was present when a little more of that history was made, setting in motion a schism that may reach further than the boundaries of one yearly meeting. 
The Representative Council (which functions at the Indiana Yearly Meeting’s decision-making body when the yearly meeting is not in session) met in Muncie, Indiana on October 1 to “help the yearly meeting in its discernment of a way forward regarding our current tensions.” The outcome was the choice of “Deliberative/Collaborative Reconfiguration.”

A task force of members has been laboring to present the issues and to offer guidance. Part of their work has been to name issues, holding up a mirror to this diverse yearly meeting. They presented four options to the yearly meeting sessions in the summer, with a recommendation for model #4 - “Division and Possible Realignment.” Friends were not ready to have this as the only option to be considered at the October Representative Council.

Taking into account feedback after yearly meeting sessions, the Task Force met again and modified option #4. A new option #5 was sent out. This was worded “Deliberative/Collaborate Reconfiguration.” The outcome would be essentially the same - schism - but included provision for a yearlong process of seeking a future that honored each other’s consciences and understandings of scriptural guidance.

The task force pointed out deep differences, ranging from how Friends regard, interpret and use scripture, differing world views, and differing identifications: those who identify most closely with the wider Religious Society of Friends and the other Peace Churches, and those who identify most closely with other Evangelical churches. It acknowledged deep disagreements on the yearly meeting’s authority over congregations. It asked meetings to discern if they wanted to be part of a yearly meeting that has authority over subordinate meetings, or if they wished to be part of a yearly meeting that is a collaborative association. After the period of discernment, meetings would be expected to state their preference for the yearly meeting to which they would wish to affiliate. Model #5 included inviting neighboring Western and Wilmington YMs to join this process of discernment.

The process would involve appointing a new task force to clarify implementation and determine how to share responsibilities for Friends Fellowship Community, FUM, Quaker Haven Camp, White’s Family Services, and to address legal issues such as meetinghouse ownership.

There were proposals from the floor to continue to work towards reconciliation, and models of family life and family systems theory were used both to make a case to stay together and work through differences, and to separate (as “healthy self-differentiation.”) However, the sense of the meeting was that staying together locked in conflict was distracting the work that churches and meetings felt called to do, and possibly inhibiting them from being fully authentic. Out of this, Representative Council took the decision to separate, as recommended in model #5.

A few personal observations. Care had been taken to frame the Representative Council meeting as a meeting for worship with an earnest desire to seek God’s will for the yearly meeting. From the choice of hymns to the Penrose’s painting of The Presence in the Midst projected onto the wall throughout the session, it was a gathered meeting and I know we were being held in prayer from many different places, as well as those of us who had attended with the single intention to hold the whole process in prayer.

I heard “new light.” For instance, among our “deep differences,” some of us derive energy and greater connection to God when encountering Difference; others are discouraged by it. But above all, I think I heard weariness over protracted conflict, fear of further loss of numbers if the decision were delayed, and a deep desire not to inhibit the ministry of others.
I also heard from a member of the task force that while we might get along “ecumenically” we could not get along “denominationally.” I take that to mean that respectful dialogue and friendship is possible between people in different faith traditions, when each is speaking out of a clear sense of their own identity, and not asking the other to be more like them. This is also the basis of effective interfaith dialogue. It makes sense to me in the context of my work, professional and volunteer, with FWCC. However, as a member of the yearly meeting, it is harder to wrap my head and heart around it. Indiana Yearly Meeting was my door into Friends in the US eighteen years ago. West Richmond Friends Meeting became my faith community, but my circle was wider, especially through accompanying Young Friends to visit other meetings within the yearly meeting and through attendance at yearly meeting sessions.   To unravel the tapestry that is this yearly meeting - to pull out threads that were put in in the earliest days to be monochrome is heartbreaking.

While I expect that there will be suggestions that those churches and meetings that prefer a more collaborative polity could join existing FGC-affiliated yearly meetings, I believe that this would not be an appropriate option, since most if not all of our meetings are Christ-centered, semi-programmed and pastoral, which can present problems to some (but not all) Friends who are not. So during the year of discernment it is likely that a “shadow” structure may emerge for a new yearly meeting or association, and it may work as part of, or alongside, the Indiana Yearly Meeting task force.

The decision to separate was not without challenges in the afternoon to both content and process, and not without deep grief. The proposal to sing Blest Be the Tie that Binds did not sit well with those who were feeling ties torn apart, and was quietly dropped. While it may prove to be the best decision in the circumstances, the ties are not simply “fellowship” but deep ties of history, generational connection and, above all, identity. Grief is appropriate

Friday, June 17, 2011

Salt and Light in Ulster

Grange Meeting dates back to 1660, when families in the area between Moy and Dungannon, County Tyrone, joined the Religious Society of Friends in response to the preaching of Robert Turner. There are reports of Friends from Grange being imprisoned in Omagh in 1729 for refusal to pay tithes (taxes to the Established Church.) Arthur Chapman, Quaker historian, estimates that in the first half of the 18th century, over 2,000 Irish Friends migrated to Pennsylvania, and of those, 41 were from Grange, the greatest number from any meeting in the north of Ireland.

A century after the founding of Grange Meeting, the local landlord and occupant of the castle in Richhill (formerly Richardson’s Hill) 11 miles away in County Armagh gave land to Friends for a new meetinghouse and burial ground there. Richhill was known for its linen markets, a town on the stagecoach route from Belfast to Armagh, with connections to the west of Ireland. American Friends Job Scott and Thomas Scattergood are known to have worshipped at Richhill, and John Wesley visited the town several times.

Grange and Richhill remain thriving meetings, and together they form one Monthly Meeting. Last weekend, with more than sixty others, I attended a lively all-day session of Ulster Quarterly Meeting, held in the creeper-covered meetinghouse in Grange. Last night was the chance to revisit Richhill, for the Monthly Meeting on Ministry and Oversight, where I was the invited speaker.

My sojourn among Irish Friends has offered many opportunities for home visits. Yesterday I had tea with Gray and Elsa Peile. Gray told me that he had been at the Young Friends conference in Oskaloosa, Iowa, in 1949. He had served in the Friends Ambulance Unit in China during the Second World War and went to Iowa to meet up with some American Friends he had known in China. Elsa had been a representative at the 1967 World Conference in Greensboro, North Carolina.

After roast chicken, apple crisp and many cups of tea, we went to Richhill where I talked about the impact of world conferences on raising up new generations of Friends ready to take on responsibilities and educating all of us more about the global span of Friends. I suggested that they identify those who might not have thought of applying open places to go to Kenya, but who might show gifts in ministry or future promise. We talked about ways in which meetings could raise funds to make it possible for open place holders to attend, and also raise extra money to support the travel costs of Friends from the global south.