|A scene from Northwest Yearly Meeting's 2013 sessions; Paul Bock (left) and Steve Fawver, and an exit sign.|
If you are not an 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.In 2014 I still kept my positive tone.
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.
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...."
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.
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.