Following the 2017 yearly meeting sessions, I expressed the hope that “perhaps in this one sleepy corner of the Quaker world, we can plant the seeds of peace” and that “the yearly meeting … 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.” At the time, I still thought it possible that that the yearly meeting would keep together. This is a lovely sentiment, but it is not to be. Five meetings have now officially disaffiliated with Wilmington Yearly Meeting, and more will do so in the year to come.
The reality is that the differences among us are significant enough to justify the separation. As stated in the yearly meeting’s Epistle:
the long years in which we have waited but withheld trust, waited but avoided facing our disagreements, has drained life from our body, both in our individual congregations and corporately as the Yearly Meeting.
The immediate cause, which one side calls marriage equality and the other, an abomination before the Lord, is but the sharp edge of a far deeper conflict, manifest in disagreements over the authority of the yearly meeting and the autonomy of the local meeting, but fundamentally rooted in the approach to scripture.
One side is expressed in a draft “Minute of the Fairfield Quarter Regarding the Issue of Same Sex Marriage”, a minute strongly disapproved by Fairview Friends, but signed separately by several monthly meetings. It declared the Bible is “the inspired and unerring Word of God,” that same gender marriage is “in direct conflict with Biblical teachings,” and concludes that it is “impossible to remain in meaningful fellowship with those Meetings who try to define God’s word as an outdated historical novel.”
I was sitting beside a pastor at a Miami Center Quarterly Meeting session when an earlier version of this document was read. At the words “outdated novel”, I could almost see the gaskets exploding in his head. “I preach from the Bible every week!” he responded.
Regardless of what you think of the theology underlying the Fairfield Minute, you can have some empathy for the situation that the these meetings find themselves in. They have remained steadfast in their beliefs, as the culture around them has changed with astonishing speed. It was not that long ago when no meeting in the yearly meeting would have even considered taking the marriage of a same gender couple under its care. Now, all around them, gays and lesbians have come out of the closet and demanded their place in the sun. To maintain a credible witness to the world, these meetings need to make a clear stand. Although nobody is disciplining them, or forcing them to leave, they believe they have no choice. They feel victimized.
It is important to acknowledge the depth of the emotions, the source of the anger that is sometimes expressed. I have heard references to Jezebel:
But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality .… (Revelation 2:20, ESV )
I have heard people testify about what they might face on Judgement Day if they have not been steadfast in teaching Truth. This is not a matter for discussion or compromise; it is a matter of the sanctity of the immortal soul.
In July, Friendsville Quarterly Meeting (in Tennessee) considered withdrawing from the yearly meeting as a body. One meeting, Maryville, disapproved. Almost immediately after the meeting failed to reach unity on this action, Rafter Chapel Friends Church withdrew from both the quarterly and yearly meetings, followed closely by Friends Church of Nashville (a preparatory meeting) and Friendsville Friends Meeting. Three other meetings had not come prepared to act if the whole quarter did not secede, but they will probably follow suit. Only Maryville expressed the intention to remain with the yearly meeting. The quarter discussed a possible arrangement which would have allowed Maryville a dual affiliation of some sort, tethered to both Wilmington Yearly Meeting and whatever organization the other meetings in Tennessee form. This was rejected. The meetings that are withdrawing do not want to be tied in any way to a meeting that does not condemn same sex marriage.
The position of Maryville Friends Church illustrates the complexity of the theological space. They oppose same sex marriage. However, they also reject breaking the fellowship over this issue. Bill Medlin, pastor at Jamestown (in Ohio), expounded the point of view during the yearly meeting session, referencing the experience of the early church as described in Acts. These ideas made were summarized in the Epistle:
we were challenged several times to remember that disunity and division are tools of the Accuser of the Brethren.
From a practical standpoint, the complex arrangements that took years to work out in Indiana and North Carolina appear not to be an issue for Wilmington Yearly Meeting. Any entanglements between the property of the local meetings and the yearly meeting have been resolved; the local meetings own their property free and clear. There is a camp, Quaker Knoll, owned by the yearly meeting. There are also some funds managed by the yearly and quarterly meetings. However, for the local meetings that are withdrawing, “It’s not about the money.” Working out equitable management of these resources will be left in the hands of those who remain.
We tend to simplify things, preferring a simple binary choice over the complex reality. There are significant differences among the meetings in Tennessee that are considering disaffiliation, differences that could easily impede them getting together. Meetings that agree on same sex marriage have very different views on the importance of the distinctively Quaker aspects of their Christian witness, and even on their approach to scripture. I can imagine disagreements over water baptism, which is practiced by Rafter Chapel, or “young earth creationism”, which I have heard mentioned informally, driving a wedge between these meetings. As history has shown, once you try to establish an orthodoxy, it is difficult to stop making it ever more narrow. The danger that I see is that those meetings which leave Wilmington Yearly Meeting do not successfully establish a relationship with another Friends organization. These meetings would then lose both the fellowship and the accountability that Friends’ traditional structures provide.
As the rising clerk, I have offered to do whatever I could to assist those meetings succeed in what they want to do. However, so far, these disaffiliating meetings have expressed a desire to be entirely rid of the yearly meeting. I suspect they will not want any interference in their affairs, however well intentioned it might be.
The Wilmington Yearly Meeting that emerges will be smaller. It will still be diverse, including a range of views on same gender marriage and Biblical authority. It will consist of meetings that have chosen Christian fellowship over dogma, the Gospel of Love over the letter of the law.
I need to conclude with a blessing:
The Lord bless thee, and keep thee: The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. Numbers 6:24-26 (KJV)