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


  1. My biggest question at this point, which has been discussed at the FUM level for a number of years, is what happens at the local Monthly Meeting. Will this create divisions and splits within a Monthly Meeting as to which Yearly Meeting to join. I can imagine that a majority of Monthly Meetings may be torn, if not asunder at least to the point of loss of some members. It would seem that it some ways a Monthly Meeting "split" would be more of a legal issue as to property, etc. than about property that is essentially already "shared" between Western and Indiana YM.

  2. Thanks for both this clear and concise report and your accompanying thoughts, Margaret. You give much to sit in prayer with. Carl Williams

  3. How is this playing out generationaly? I can't imagine this will take more than a quarter century to reconcile if the broader demographics hold.

  4. I have seen this sentiment to break-away both close-up and from afar. I never understood how property came into the hands of the yearly meeting. Many meetings here in the West have no property , no fiscal chains binding a meeting to an administrative, if not spiritual, authority. And we like it that way. What concerned me was a sentiment among rural churches was the application of a pseudointegrity of a political definition of "family values" to the detriment of equality and peace. I was taking coursework on sexuality and ministry at E.S.R. a decade or so ago. i inquired about official IYM thoughts about transgender seekers that come to worship and wish take part in the life of the meeting. The response was "What's transgender?" How can we offer the peace of Christ to all with the unspoken exception of same sex couples and those gender surgically modified? We seem to think if we can claim ignorence our hypocrasy will not be held against us. What I experienced while visiting with rural InYM churches was a palpable fear of change, progress, higher education and the foundations laid by George Fox.