We face a cultural divide in this country: urban vs. rural, conservative vs. progressive. This divide, exacerbated by provocateurs who gain notoriety through ridicule and open hostility to those on the other side, is not just political. It reaches into the heart of our religious institutions, where it is brought to a head by the issue of same sex marriage. Here, differences in dogma become concrete, affecting how we treat people. Do we welcome homosexuals into our fold as healthy, whole people, offering them the same covenant relationship that heterosexuals have for fulfilling their sexual desires, or do we work to help them overcome their sinful urges, trying to mold them into something that better fits our understanding of God’s plan.
The Religious Society of Friends has been confronting this for a long time. Currently, it is leading some parts of the society to break apart, following a tradition of schism that reaches back almost two centuries. The issues separating Friends are many, but the knife’s edge is what one side calls marriage equality, the other, an abomination before the Lord.
Wilmington Yearly Meeting was almost blown apart in 1997 when a local meeting took the marriage of a same sex couple under its care. Since that time, the yearly meeting had put a lid on it, avoiding the discussion to the extent possible. This allowed time to pass, but dissipated the vitality. Recently, I worked to pry the lid open, succeeding so far as to bring Mary Heathman to the 2015 sessions for a extended workshop on human sexuality. That same year, the Supreme Court upheld the right of same-sex couples to marry. Last September, another local meeting took under its care a marriage between two women. Avoiding the issue further became impossible.
Fairview Friends Meeting, a rural meeting generally thought of as conservative, adopted a minute urging the yearly meeting to accept local autonomy in dealing with such issues, in essence, embracing diverse points of view within the yearly meeting. The yearly meeting clerk decided to make this minute the focus of this year’s session.
Predictably, there was no resolution. We did not even agree to disagree. Strong emotions were expressed. Nobody backed down, or changed their tune, but nobody played provocateur. People treated one another with respect, with love.
At the close of meeting, we expressed this love by rising in unity to honor and give thanks for the service of Ruth Brindle, who had just been laid off from Wilmington College as curator for the Quaker Heritage Center, and then for Doug Haag, who is ending his service to the yearly meeting as Executive Secretary. Afterwards, we shared a meal together, not clustering into our little subgroups, but sitting and catching up with one another, without animosity.
Beforehand, I had no illusion that we would magically heal the divide. I hoped that people would say what was on their hearts, and would listen to each other with the respect, the dignity that Friends of differing views should accord each other. Friends did that.
Whether this loose organization can continue to exist in its present form is questionable, but continuing to meet year after year without addressing the pivotal challenges of our time seems pointless, indeed, lifeless. This year, the dissonance remains unresolved, but at least it resonated! I believe this to be a positive step.
This is the first post of a series. I hope to be able to fairly present the issue as seen by each side. Moreover, I hope to articulate the value of remaining in fellowship with one another, despite our strong disagreements. Perhaps in this one sleepy corner of the Quaker world, we can plant the seeds of peace.