The parking lot during annual session of Wilmington Yearly Meeting, some time ago.
F/or those unfamiliar with the loose structure of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), let me begin with an orientation. Local Quaker meetings gather for worship every Sunday and for business roughly every month; they are called monthly meetings. These are organized into yearly meetings. regional groups which assemble every year for worship, fellowship and business. Yearly meetings are generally dividedinto smaller groups that meet four times a year, called quarterly meetings. Thus, Friends organized themselves using time and geography. There are national and international organizations as well, but to the extent that there is any authority outside the local meeting, it resides in the the yearly meeting. Most yearly meetings have their own statements of faith and practice, sometimes called the discipline, which describe both spiritual testimonies and practical procedures. Most Friends do not have a creed.
As the Religious Society of Friends in the United States began to fracture in the late 1820s, things became more confusing. There are now four main branches of Quakers and a number of independent yearly meetings as well. When the schisms began, the outside world would have had difficulty telling the branches apart. Over the years, different branches absorbed different outside influences, and now you might have trouble seeing what they have in common.
The meeting that I belong to, Eastern Hills, is a bridge meeting, affiliated with both Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting and with Wilmington Yearly Meeting. Ohio Valley traces its roots to the Hicksite side of the schism that reached Indiana Yearly Meeting in about 1830. Its local meetings meet in open, waiting worship, usually with long periods of silence broken with a few short messages, spoken from the heart by anyone present. Wilmington Yearly Meeting lies on the Orthodox side of that schism. Most of its meetings for worship have a pastor, who brings a prepared message every week. Most have at least a period of open worship. When the meeting now known as Eastern Hills decided to formally organize, it looked at the Faith and Practices of the two yearly meetings and decided that it was feasible to affiliate with both.
Wilmington Yearly Meeting consists of 28 local meetings scattered among two quarterly meetings in southwest Ohio, a quarterly meeting in east Tennessee, and nothing in Kentucky. When the underground railroad was active, the association between the meetings in the Tennessee foothills and the free state of Ohio made good sense. In the current day, it seems awkward.
However, the geography is not the main problem. This yearly meeting barely functions. One of the Ohio quarters does not meet, and quite a few meetings do not participate in yearly meeting activities, apparently having no need for the yearly meeting. Like other volunteer organizations, most of the work is done by committees, and in this yearly meeting, most of the committees do not work. One exception is the Quaker Knoll Camp, which is owned by the yearly meeting; this facility is being well cared for. Elsewhere, there is a serious question as to whether there is enough energy in the yearly meeting to make anything happen.
When Community Friends Meeting, another bridge meeting, took the marriage of two women under its care in the late 90’s, there was plenty of energy. Suddenly, the session was overflowing with angry Friends, many demanding that Community be disciplined. The clerk and some Friends tried to bring the session into right order, and referred to the yearly meeting’s discipline. One pastor angrily threw the book of discipline across the room, saying that what he cared about was the Bible.
Later, the Permanent Board, essentially a representatives meeting, came to a resolution: they adopted a “working document” that states “We, as monthly meetings within Wilmington Yearly Meeting will not bless same gender unions.”
This gets into the subtleties of Quaker process. Friends strive to conduct business in accord with God’s purpose. The goal is to reach unity, something beyond a secular consensus. When a group of Friends adopts a minute, that statement represents everyone in the group, not just the majority. Since we hold that the divine speaks through individuals, one person’s voice is taken seriously. If someone in the meeting feels strongly that an action is in error, then the action is not taken. By tradition, Friends can, it they wish, “stand aside”: in this case, they are not convinced the action is right, but allow to the meeting to move forward.
Even with a number of Friends standing aside, the Permanent Board was unable to come to unity on the above statement. Community Friends would not stand aside for a statement that said, in essence, that they had erred in marrying two members of their meeting. The board ended up coming up with the term “working document”, so that they would be able to do something. Nobody knows exactly what a working document is, but the term implies that it is a work in progress, subject to further revision. However, having gotten to something vaguely resembling a resolution, they put a lid on it and did not bring it up again.
Several years later, Community Friends found that none of its members wanted to actively participate in Wilmington Yearly Meeting. They quietly withdrew their affiliation with Wilmington.
Meanwhile, the cultural shift continued. Gays and lesbians became more visible, even in relatively rural areas. As one pastor said, “God started sending gay people!” Meetings that had not been in unity on the issue of same gender unions came to clarity, and others shifted their position.
Inevitably, a meeting violated the 1997 working document. Cincinnati Friends had an opportunity to bring two people together into a covenant relationship under its care. This was God’s work. There was no question of putting the yearly meeting’s working document first.
Fairview Friends responded to the controversy with a minute concluding:
Fairview supports the ability of each Monthly Meeting to chart its own course on sensitive and complex issues.
Fairview Monthly Meeting advises that the Yearly Meeting not discipline any Monthly Meeting for their stand on such issues.
Thus, there are two issues: marriage equality, and local autonomy. Logically, this allows for four groups:
- Meetings that endorse marriage equality and insist that meetings in their faith community adhere to the same standard. There are many Quaker meetings that would hold this position, but none in Wilmington Yearly Meeting.
- Meetings that define marriage as between one man and one woman, that teach that homosexual activity is sinful, and that insist the meetings in their faith community do the same. This is the position of the 1997 working document, and a plurality of monthly meetings support it.
- Meetings that have endorsed minutes supporting marriage equality, but wish to remain in fellowship with the yearly meeting despite the disagreement on this issue. There are a handful of meetings in this group.
- Meetings that think marriage should be limited to one man and one woman, but do not want to break the yearly meeting apart over this issue. This is the position of Fairview Friends, though its minute does not explicitly address its position on marriage equality.
Before the session, David Goff, clerk of the yearly meeting, asked the monthly meetings to come prepared to state their position vis a vis the Fairview minute. Almost half of the monthly meetings support the Fairview minute to some extent. Clearly, unity is not going to be achieved around any proposal to discipline Cincinnati Friends for violating the 1997 working document.
A substantial proportion of the yearly meeting is ready to split over this issue, following the example of North Carolina and Indiana. However, my own prognostication (a silly word) is that the yearly meeting will stumble along for several years, though not quite as it has done in the past.
The lid has been blown off. It might indeed lead to a schism, but it does not have to.