Friday, July 29, 2011

Indiana Yearly Meeting, July 21-24, 2011

This past weekend, I had the joy of attending Indiana Yearly Meeting at Quaker Haven Camp near Syracuse, IN. Indiana Yearly Meeting consists of pastoral meetings in Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan. Indiana and Western yearly meetings share Quaker Haven, the lovely 160-acre camp and retreat center on a lake, and summer sessions include campers from both yearly meetings.

Worship was spirited and Jan Crouch, from Bear Creek Meeting, provided music at the piano. Jan Wood, Director of Good News Associates, spoke about reconciliation among Friends with differing theologies. The attendees met in small groups to discuss the theme, “God has a dream”, in reference to the book God Has a Dream: a Vision for Our Time by Desmond Tutu. We discussed our dreams and God’s dreams for ourselves, our meetings, and the yearly meeting. Threading these discussions was the theme of discerning between our own impulses and God’s will.

The yearly meeting heard reports on new ministry among Hispanics in Indianapolis and two monthly meetings that joined Indiana Yearly Meeting. Visitors from several organizations came to speak, including Friends Fellowship in Richmond and Friends United Meeting. FUM brought several Kenyan Friends as visitors and there time in a separate session to ask them questions and hear about the work FUM is doing in Kenya. There was a particular awareness of the famine in Somalia, as there are now many refuges in northern Kenya. Kenyan Friends see the refugee camps as an opportunity for humanitarian work.

A major business item at the yearly meeting was related to conflict over West Richmond Friends's welcoming and affirming minute. IYM has a 1982 minute condemning homosexuality as a sin. A later 1994 minute acknowledges a broad spectrum of opinion among Friends on this issue, but affirms the 1982 minute. A few years ago, after a long process of study and discernment, West Richmond Friends approved a welcoming and affirming minute. Some other monthly meetings and individuals fear that WRF’s minute will be seen as speaking for all Quakers or for all of IYM. These members see IYM as having authority over monthly meetings to create unity on certain issues. Alternately, others claim that monthly meetings may have a “prophetic witness” to the yearly meeting (a term drawn from Faith and Practice), and have a policy in contrast with IYM.

This has, you might imagine, led to continued tension in the Yearly Meeting and this spring a task force began exploring options to move forward. IYM and the task force acknowledged that things cannot continue as they are. Last weekend the task force presented their report and laid out four models for the future of IYM. They were honest in saying that each has advantages and dis-advantages. The first is to move to a more Congregationalist structure, where the yearly meeting speaks to, but not for, individual meetings. The second is to apply Faith and Practice consistently on this issue and others. The third is disciplinary action against West Richmond, although not necessarily requiring the meeting to withdraw its minute. Finally, the task force recommended splitting the yearly meeting intentionally, giving meetings the opportunity to choose between different ecclesiastic or theological options. The task force recommended model 4. Individuals of the task force agreed that this was the only viable way forward that they see, but seem to disagree about whether this is the best option. To quote a task force member, “We brought [the recommendation] to the yearly meeting trusting that wisdom would prevail.”

The discussions sidetracked into scriptural debates, and the clerk wisely re-focused the meeting on the central issue: We know that we have differences in theology and scriptural interpretation.What do we think about the options the task force has laid out for us? I scribbled down some quotes as people spoke passionately on the issue. Several people expressed a desire to remain in fellowship with WRF (“As a family, divorce is the last resort”, “If we split, how are we going to minister to those we think are in need?”, “I feel as though we’re deciding whether to cut off our left foot, or our right foot.”) They acknowledged that their own meetings had diverse opinions on this issue, or explained that they felt the yearly meeting benefited from diversity. Others insisted that West Richmond is going a different way than their meetings and that they wished to part (and remain) F/friends (“sometimes in love, you need to draw lines”, “you’re going in another direction, and I can’t go with you”). One begged WRF to withdraw the minute in hopes that this would quiet tensions. The monthly meetings will be discussing this in the next few months and there will be a fall meeting to make a decision about the way forward.

Skirting along the edge of the scriptural issues here (and I recognize that these are not in the least bit small, but are simply not resolvable in a blog format, or in fact possibly at all), what are your thoughts about the possible ways forward? Do you see any other creative options? What is a good balance of diversity and commonality in a yearly meeting? What is the purpose of a yearly meeting? What, if anything, does this say about the larger project of forming connections across branches of Friends? Is splitting a way to remain F/friends and possibly even strengthen connections? If a split occurs, what will happen to meetings within IYM where there is a diversity of opinions about homosexuality?

Please take a moment and pray for Indiana Yearly Meeting, that they may be able to corporately discern the best way forward for them. 

Valerie Hurwitz is Director of Recruitment and Admissions at Earlham School of Religion. She lives in Richmond, Indiana and serves as choir director at West Richmond Friends Meeting.


  1. I know most Friends view any division of a Yearly Meeting as some kind of disaster. It seems to prove that Friends aren't really listening to God, because if they were they wouldn't be hearing such different messages. The divisions that prompt the talk of separation are the problem really. Staying together has the advantage of compelling both sides to continue to ask themselves if they perhaps might have misheard God. If the groups divide there's a much greater chance that each group will permanently harden in their views and stop trying to listen. On the other hand, I have often felt that most Yearly Meetings are too large to be real spiritual communities. Smaller Yearly Meetings have much to recommend them.

  2. Holding all in the Light in this discernment.

  3. The key question may be, What is God's purpose for Indiana YM? I wonder if Indiana YM Friends are really in unity about this. If there is a commonly agreed purpose, any difference in views could be evaluated in terms of whether it inherently makes it significantly more difficult to work together for that purpose. The real question would be whether a meeting with divergent views on some issue remains united with the YM purpose and able to move forward on it. If so, that different view wouldn't seem to be a major problem.

    Friends often seem reluctant to tackle this major issue of purpose/mission, which seems to me key. In the larger issue of FUM and the 5 dually affiliated YMs which all now generally share the WRF view on homosexuality, I for a long time tried to get Friends to focus on the issue of whether the 5 YMs shared FUM's Purpose, rather than on the issue of homosexuality. My personal feeling was that the YM I was a part of (& have since left to join another church far more in unity with FUM's purpose) did not generally agree with FUM's purpose, and therefore should withdraw. It never seemed to me that the issue of same-gender relationships itself should be that divisive if there were unity on the Purpose. I see no reason why FUM's purpose can't be forwarded together with Friends having divergent views on this issue. But Friends generally didn't want to talk about Purpose, but about homosexuality.

    So in the IYM discernment, I would be asking whether WRF shares a common purpose with the rest of the YM.

  4. I am a member of a monthly meeting in a dually affiliated YM - our monthly meeting has struggled with our relationship with FUM. I wonder if the issues around homosexuality can really be separated from 'Purpose'? For gay and lesbian Friends (and their friends),being authentically welcomed and affirmed in their faith community is so central... Imagine someone asking - if this is the Body of Christ, do I belong? If this is to be the Blessed Community, do I belong?
    My hope during your time of discernment is that individuals with different views will find opportunities to be in personal relationship with one another.

  5. I agree with Bill that meta-questions like 'purpose' are the real questions, not hot-point questions like homosexuality. One of these 'meta-questions' is how you define and practice your culture of eldership.

    Eldership has two sides, that of nurture and that of discipline. In its role as elder, any meeting has a responsibility to nurture its members and their gifts and a responsibility to protect the meeting's worship and fellowship from behavior that threatens either one.

    Things are more abstract for the yearly meeting than they are for a monthly meeting. The members are meetings, not individuals. Given the abstract nature of corporate worship and fellowship in the context of the yearly meeting, how do you perceive threat to either one in the actions of a monthly meeting? How do you practice discipline? Suppose we use the monthly meeting's eldership of individuals as an analogy. Then, a monthly meeting’s decision is somewhat analogous to an individual’s vocal ministry in meeting for worship.

    A monthly meeting’s behavior, when minuted, represents ‘vocal ministry’ within the larger body. Presumably, that that decision has been tested corporately in the light of Christ’s spirit. We would, on the analogy of vocal ministry, assume that the ministry is Spirit-led. If we perceive a threat in this behavior to either the yearly meeting’s worship or its fellowship (I think we’re talking about worship here)—if we question whether the decision is Spirit-led—we are then called to exercise a corporate gift of the spirit—the gift of discerning spirits—to determine whether the meeting’s prophetic ministry is of God, or (I suppose) of Satan.

    How does the yearly meeting exercise the gift of discerning spirits in such a case? Do you interview those who were present at the meeting when the minute was discussed and approved, to try to determine whether the meeting really was gathered in the Spirit? Or do you simply assume that a meeting that reaches a decision contrary to the testimony given the yearly meeting in the past (in this case, minutes condemning homosexuality) must of necessity have been out of the Spirit? If you acknowledge that a monthly meeting’s decision might be prophetic witness, how do you test that witness in discernment?

    Finally, our tradition once was to use Matthew 18 as a guide for bringing gospel order to individuals thought to be walking disorderly. Does this simple but elegant 3-step model still work for us, and, if so, can it not be applied corporately to the discipline of a meeting? This would at lest provide a framework for action that might help prevent some hurt and disorder in the course of the discipline. (It’s worth reminding ourselves that, in Matthew's presentation, once a decision for expulsion had been made, the expelled party was to be “as tax collectors and sinners” to the saints—that is, they are the people on whom your own evangelism focuses most intensely, just as Jesus focused on tax collectors and sinners with special attention himself. They are not pariahs to be cut off and shunned, but lost sheep to be wooed back into the fold. If they then reject your gospel, perhaps you would then leave town, shaking their dust off of your feet.)

    So meta-tasks involved in a process of corporate discerning of spirits regarding a monthly meeting’s prophetic ministry seem to me to be:
    1. Try to determine, if possible, whether the meeting was in the Life when it made its decision.
    2. Clarify whether testimony given the yearly meeting in the past should ever be tested anew.
    3. Clarify what touchstones you would use to test a new leading that seems contrary to previous testimony, and clarify their relative importance.
    4. Once you are clear about these questions, test the testimony of the meeting.
    5. Once your discerning has named the spirit behind the meeting’s decision, apply (if necessary) gospel order according to Christ’s teaching in Matthew 18.

  6. I'm going to take this opportunity to say something I didn't say clearly enough some fifteen years ago, when my home meeting was grappling with the then-paralyzing issue of same-gender unions: a marital or domestic-partner bond is essentially about love and faithfulness, not sex.
    That bond usually involves an exclusive sexual relationship, but not always; I know that there are celibate marriages within the Society of Friends. And it is conceivable that Jesus Christ might call two celibate men, or two celibate women, to form a domestic partnership for the sake of sharing custody of children and/or jointly owning property -- a two-person monastery, in effect.
    That admitted, a Friend convinced that all homosexual acts are abominations might with a good conscience bless a same-gender union with every good wish for the mutual faithfulness and love underlying it, while warning the two parties against the temptation to justify sinful acts, praying that the Holy Spirit would lead them into separate beds and keep them there.
    I myself would welcome such a blessing on my own marriage, whether it were a straight one or a gay one (and here I'll keep the reader guessing which mine is); the Friend's prayer to avoid justifying sinful acts might help protect us from the temptations to be lazy, to speak harshly to each other, to nurse grudges, to cheat on our taxes, or to indulge sexual fantasies that would be sins if acted out in reality. What marital bond is without sinful temptations!
    John Edminster, New York City

  7. Thank you so much, Valerie, for your excellent summary of your experience of and reactions to IYM's annual sessions, and for your call to pray for IYM. Thanks also to the several f/Friends who have commented so thoughtfully. I agree that deeper questions of Friends' understanding of God's purpose are key...

  8. Whenever there is a major cultural change, the question of "Did we hear God correctly before and if so, how could God be saying something different now?" comes up. For example, this happened with Friends and slavery. John Woolman didn't have an easy time of it. He had a leading (I believe an authentic, prophetic leading) to speak to Friends about freeing their slaves. Many Friends believed that God approved of slavery, and that, as long as they were "good" slaveholders, they were doing the right thing. They saw John Woolman as upsetting God's established order.

    Corporate discernment in a time of social and cultural change takes much work over a long period of time, as we examine how we got to where we are and the social, cultural, and political forces that have shaped us. Friends of good will will differ along the way.

    I recommend J.B. Libanio's book, *Spiritual Discernment and Politics,* which he wrote for Latin American Roman Catholic religious communities using corporate discernment to decide how to spend their energy in service. He argues that, without an understanding of the social, cultural, and political realities, corporate discernment will be short-circuited.

    I think that we Friends are in a time of deep change and that this is an opportunity for spiritual deepening as we wrestle with the issues before us. May we rise to the challenge of listening to one another deeply, doing the hard work that is before us, listening for God in our midst, and loving one another through it all.

    Thank you, Valerie, for your excellent summary and your call to prayer for IYM. Your blog post reaches far beyond IYM.

  9. Christine Hadley SnyderAugust 1, 2011 at 11:13 AM

    As a basic Quaker principle is that of continuing revelation and the recognition that our life is a spiritual journey, why should we be so harsh on those within our Religious Society who may be at a different place on the journey?

  10. "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Abolitionist and Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, c. 1850
    (later frequently used by MLK)

    "That Justice is a blind goddess
    Is a thing to which we blacks are wise.
    Her bandage hides two festering sores
    That once perhaps were eyes." Langston Hughes, 1923

    "Justice delayed is justice denied." attributed to both William Gladstone and William Penn

    As a lesbian who left the Society of Friends after 45 years because of the FUM personnel policy I will let the above quotes speak for me. Blessings on the members of West Richmond
    Meeting for the courage of their discernment.
    Let their light illuminate the hearts of others
    to help them see that we are all God's children and all equal.
    Margaret Hart

  11. "And oh, how sweet and pleasant it is to the truly spiritual eye to see several sorts of believers, several forms of Christians in the school of Christ, every one learning their own lesson, performing their own peculiar service, and knowing, owning, and loving one another in their several places and different performances to their Master, to whom they are to give an account, and not to quarrel with one another about their different practices. For this is the true ground of love and unity, not that such a man walks and does just as I do, but because I feel the same Spirit and life in him, and that he walks in his rank, in his own order, in his proper way and place of subjection to that; and this is far more pleasing to me than if he walked just in that track wherein I walk. Nay...I cannot so much as desire that he should do so, until he be particularly led thereto, by the same Spirit which led me. And he that knows what it is to receive any truths from the Spirit, and to be led into practices by the Spirit, and how prone the fleshly part is to make haste, and how dangerous that haste is, will not be forward to press his knowledge or practices upon others, but rather wait patiently till the Lord fit them for the receiving thereof...
    The great error of the ages of the apostacy hath been to set up an outward order and uniformity, and to make men's consciences bend thereto, either by arguments of wisdom, or by force; but the property of the true church government is, to leave the conscience to its full liberty in the Lord, to preserve it single and entire for the Lord to exercise, and to seek unity in the light and in the Spirit, walking sweetly and harmoniously together in the midst of different practices."--Isaac Pennington, 1659
    Romans 14:4 --"Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

  12. As a life-long Quaker, and an avid student of scripture, it's interesting to me that there is so much discussion about homosexuality. Why is it that we focus on homosexuality and not the other 599 sins listed in scripture? If we're going to be purists why don't we write declarations against fat people, gossips, and those who are divorced. (If you want to look up the sins listed in scripture here is a website that lists 600 sins mentioned in scripture.

    My personal thought is that the real definition of sin is: it's what other people do. We focus on condemning others rather than looking introspectively at ourselves. How many more times can Quakers split? Are we going to eventually fit our meetings into phone booths because the only people we can agree with is ourselves? One of the many gifts Quakerism has to offer the world is an ability to work with diversity. If you read our history, we listened closely to God individually and collectively. It seems to me we are much better talkers than listeners these days.

    My understanding of God, and the radical Jesus I love is that I am not the gatekeeper of the kingdom of heaven and I am not the determiner of who enters hell. My calling is to spread the radical message of Christ to one and all, and leave the rest of it to God.

  13. re Friend Becky's question,

    One obvious difference is that homosexual sin is the only sin that claims (sometimes loudly) not be a sin. If we had more pedophilia pride marches, adultery coming-out parties, and incest rights activists, we would hear more talk pro and con about those behaviors.

    Personally I am not interested in knowing what consenting adults do in private. Some of them seem quite interested in telling me, however.

    My yearly meeting does have advices against gossip and divorce.