Many years ago, I was bit of a purist. That rather stifling position was shaken out of me in 1991 as I was confronted by Friends of vastly different perspectives at the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) gathering in Honduras. There, I was opened up, particularly by my encounters with Evangelical Friends whose lives had been transformed by welcoming Jesus into their hearts. I remained fixed in my essentially universalist point of view, but my understanding was both broadened and deepened by new perspectives that I had not taken seriously before. Now, Quakers purists, whether liberal or conservative, might read me out of the meeting because of my participation in a Magadi, a Tswana tradition that is absolutely out of step with Friends testimony of equality.
It is one thing to encounter differences in the context of a multi-cultural FWCC event, where people come ready to recognize and respect foreign ideas. Welcoming such differences into your yearly meeting, your home, is something else. How do you even define who you are if you embrace such differences? Those who yearn for uniformity and purity cannot make a comfortable home is such a setting.
The yearly meeting epistle beautifully articulates the controversies expressed in the yearly meeting session:
We disagree about the nature of the authority of Scripture. We disagree about how to balance the witness of Scripture with the witness of the inward experience of God. We disagree about the authority of the Yearly Meeting over Monthly Meetings. We disagree about the continuing nature of revelation.
However, what this does not capture is the broader cultural context in which we live. In this context, both sides in the yearly meeting controversy are profoundly conservative:
- We care about the institutions in our society. We want to preserve them, strengthen them, and make them meaningful to the present and the future. Otherwise, we would not even bother with Wilmington Yearly Meeting.
- We want to pass on to the next generations the ethical and moral codes that guided our forefathers. Moreover, we want to transmit to our children the spiritual inspiration that underlies these codes, so that they become not a mere collection of rules, but the foundation for a full and vibrant life.
- We read and study the Bible with an intensity that we accord no other book.
- We look to the writings of early Friends for inspiration and understanding.
- In particular, we care about marriage. We think that human sexuality is best expressed within a covenant relationship, which, with Divine assistance, will last a lifetime. Our meetings take seriously the opportunity to celebrate the beginning of such a relationship and the responsibility of bringing it under our care.
Yes, there is a cultural divide in this country, and it is evident within Wilmington Yearly Meeting. However, this reality is not just a problem to be solved: it is an opportunity. Can we build on the love and respect for each other that we have gained over the years? Can we build on all that we have in common to bridge this divide? What is the significance of the Peace Testimony if we cannot even deal with our first world problems with love and respect?
Clearly, some within the yearly meeting want their old meeting back. However, even if they were to prevail, it would not be the same. Those few Conservative Friends who adhere to plain speech and plain dress in the this century are very different from those in the 18th century whose tradition they are preserving. The cultural context matters. We cannot avoid it; we can only choose how we address it.
My own vision for the yearly meeting is that it continue intact, that we continue to engage each other with compassion and respect, and that we hold our disagreements in our hearts, fully acknowledging them, but refusing to disengage, knowing that God will be with us. It’s a tall order.