By Dortha Meredith
John 15 tells us that God is the vinegrower. Jesus is the vine. We are the branches. God is the gardener, tends the vine and the branches. Jesus is the vine. We are the branches that bear fruit. The sap that runs through the vine and the branches is Love. We are called to Love God our gardener, love Jesus and ourselves so that we can love our neighbor. So far this sounds quite simple. But as human beings we soon discover that life isn’t that simple. In fact, it rarely is. Let me illustrate that with a situation that has been on my mind over the past several months.
There has been a lot of talk about authority and submission in discussions between Indiana Yearly Meeting and its Monthly Meetings in the past few years. It is a topic that comes up from time to time – it seems especially when one or the other is in disagreement with actions the other has taken. A few years ago there was a small group of meetings who wanted the yearly meeting to change our Faith and Practice to allow meetings to use the elements of water and bread and wine (probably really grape juice) in the sacraments of baptism and communion. Before that, there was a movement within the yearly meeting to state that homosexuality was a sin. Recently, a question has arisen and has been accompanied by an argument between some Meetings and the Yearly Meeting about whether the Monthly Meetings should submit to the Yearly Meeting or whether the Meetings and the Yearly Meeting should submit mutually each to the other.
Surrounding all this is the question about authority and who has authority over whom. What does authority mean? Our Faith and Practice says this about authority: “The Yearly Meeting exercises such power and authority granted to it by its members in annual session.” To me this says that whatever power and authority the Yearly Meeting has is granted by its members. There is mutuality built in here.
Our Faith and Practice also cites this on the topic of subordination: “Subordination as used in this Faith and Practice does not describe a hierarchy but rather a means, under divine leadership, of common protection between IYM and its Quarterly and Monthly Meetings. It is a relationship among Friends ‘submitting themselves to one another in the fear of God’ (Ephesians 5:21). In the spirit of Christ who ‘humbled himself and became obedient unto death’ each member, each monthly meeting, each quarterly meeting and the Yearly Meeting submits to each other in the love of Christ. Subordination is the assurance that no monthly meeting is alone, autonomous or independent.
“Thus Monthly Meetings recognize the legitimate role of the Yearly Meeting in speaking and acting for the combined membership. Likewise the Yearly Meeting recognizes the freedom of Monthly Meetings and the validity of their prophetic voices. Each needs the other in order to be strong and vital, and both need the mediation of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
I think there is room for love to grow in an environment where there is mutual respect – that acknowledges divine leadership that speaks to individuals as well as organizations. That speaks of submitting to one another in the fear (awe) of God.
I should not leave you with the impression that everyone in Indiana Yearly Meeting interprets our Faith and Practice the same way I present it here - and that is the cause of recent conflict and disturbance in the Yearly Meeting. Some folks think that authority is one dimensional and top-down; whereas Quakers have traditionally organized themselves in the opposite direction from the bottom up - beginning with the Monthly Meeting and ending with the yearly meeting. As it is stated in the front of our book of discipline, “Indiana Yearly Meeting is a uniting of Monthly Meetings who have come together to work and witness in the name of Christ. We seek to do cooperatively the tasks which can best be done together.” The Yearly Meeting is established to do what individual meetings cannot do alone.
Without love, the whole question of authority becomes slavery. We can submit to each other if we love and trust each other. Mutual respect creates an atmosphere of trust that allows love to flow. We must allow God the gardener to tend our vines and branches so that we will bear fruit for a hungry world.
Dortha Meredith is a recorded minister in Indiana Yearly Meeting and has served as pastor at Williamsburg Friends Meeting. She also has been a member of team ministry at West Richmond and First Friends. She is now retired from Earlham College where she served as director of the Newlin Center for Quaker Thought and Practice and as Exec. Sec. of the Peace Studies Association. She also worked at Friends United Meeting with Harold Smuck in Wider Ministries.