Will T. returned from Friends United Meeting's recent General Board meeting in Kenya with a troubling load of impressions that he faithfully posted on his weblog under the title, "Back from Africa with a broken heart."
I was not at the General Board meeting, but so much of what he wrote felt so similar to the struggles a generation ago between some Friends in the "FUM-only" yearly meetings and some Friends in the "united" or "confederated" yearly meetings that also belonged to the more liberal Friends General Conference. My first thought was, "Oh, no, not again," and I had to remind myself that these systemic issues are hardly ever cleared up once and for all.
Among its many other wonderful qualities and shadowy sins, FUM is still paying for the decades it spent trying to pretend that it was truly "united," served by a staff and a leadership caste that, by and large, was highly invested in presenting the best face to each end of the spectrum, trying to be good friends (and actually succeeding miraculously often) with people who were often not friends with each other. Among the survival tactics: publishing a magazine that was as inoffensive as possible, therefore hardly ever carrying any substantial news, and publishing two lines of Quaker curriculum, Living Light and Living Word, for a market that was so small that it could barely sustain one.
The theological civil war known as "realignment" (which I briefly summarized in my comments here) was precipitated by a number of crises, including the embarrassing spectacle of a Triennial (1987) that almost could not unite in adopting a Christian self-description, and the controversial adoption of a sexual ethics policy. I became general secretary just as some of the passions of realignment were cooling off. The first board meeting of my seven years at FUM adopted a purpose statement that, for once, defined FUM not as an organization in charge of keeping everyone "United" at any cost, but as an association of Friends whose functional unity was grounded in a programmatic purpose. Friends could opt in or opt out of involvement with FUM, not on the basis of whether there were other Friends somewhere in the FUM community whose beliefs or folkways would trigger their allergies, but on the basis of a shared commitment to evangelism--energizing and equipping Friends "through the power of the Holy Spirit to gather people into fellowships where Jesus Christ is known, loved, and obeyed as Teacher and Lord." In any case, FUM's success would be based on what it did, and whom it attracted in that service, not on being inoffensively winsome to everyone in order to preserve its core organizational conceit. Furthermore, those who did not share its purpose would presumably not have the leverage to sabotage that purpose.
It's not that balancing acts of linguistic symbolism were entirely given up: "Teacher" is a valid and powerful metaphor for the work of Christ, but it's a metaphor that is more associated with the liberal side of the community, whereas "Lord" is decidedly not. Nevertheless, the adoption of this simple purpose statement was a liberation for the staff and board of FUM. In a time of shrinking tolerance with traditional denominational bureaucracies, FUM no longer had to have a department to carry out every conceivable denominational function, anxious to balance each "orthodox" function (for example, missions) with a "liberal" function (peace and social concerns). Instead, we simply needed to ask ourselves how any given assignment related to the energizing and equipping of Friends for evangelism.
The other huge advantage of this purpose statement was its outward orientation. I love William Temple's assertion that the church is the only association that exists primarily for the sake of its non-members, but FUM's balancing acts and intermural struggles were taking energy away from that priority. It was wonderful to have permission again to remember that, while we jockey among ourselves, "the world is dying for lack of Quakerism in action." (Hugh Doncaster.)
So that's a bit of what was behind my "not again!" sinking feeling as I read the report from the FUM Board. I wrote several lengthy contributions to the comment section of Will's post, and seriously considered crossposting those comments here. I think the things I said there were important to get on the table, and I very much appreciated the loving give and take provided by Will, Marshall, and others.
But as I got ready to do that crossposting, a heaviness came over me. Being a Friend is not a matter of finding just the right combination of subtle ideas, Bible verses, and snippets of Robert Barclay, tastefully presented with the right blend of content and process. Being a Friend doesn't depend on mastery of a rhetoric, or on finding the verbal Holy Grail (borrowing here from Larry Ingle, I think) of Quakerism's unique intellectual and spiritual genius. Somehow, being a Friend is still a light and agile thing, a joyful and first-generation thing, a sprite in a community of sprites among the lumbering elephants of religiosity. (Okay, so I get a little carried away!) It's wanting and hungering to be as close to Jesus as possible; it's trying to be around others with that same yearning; it's trying to help each other live that way; it's trying to work out, in community, what the ethical consequences are; and it's working on keeping the doors of access open, so that there will always be people who are in the first generation. Not that those who have gone before are unimportant; but they're companions, not ancient Chatty Cathys with soundbites playing on endless loops.
Righteous links: Speaking of evangelism, try to top this: Shock and Agape. And from the realm of cinematic evangelism, here's "A Tale of Two Movies." I don't know whether I'll see either film (Facing the Giants and Stranger than Fiction), but I enjoyed reading Tim Jackson's review.
In 2002, I met and listened to an incredible Australian guitar player named Fiona Boyes, whom Pinetop Perkins (present at the same Waterfront Blues Festival) acclaimed as a worthy successor to Memphis Minnie. To my delight, a Fiona Boyes clip landed in YouTube land, and without further ado--see for yourself if Pinetop is right: