By Micah Bales
This past week, Friends gathered from across the eastern United States for the annual sessions of Ohio Yearly Meeting. OYM is one of three Conservative(1) Yearly Meetings that remain in the United States. At the turn of the twentieth century, there were seven. However, because of a great decline in membership and several mergers with non-Conservative Yearly Meetings, only Iowa, North Carolina and Ohio Yearly Meetings remain as standard-bearers for the Conservative stream of Quakerism.
Among the three remaining Conservative Yearly Meetings, Ohio Yearly Meeting has been particularly tenacious in conserving the distinctive doctrines and practices of the Quietist Period(2) of American Quakerism. The theology of Friends in OYM largely lines up with that which is expressed in Barclay's Apology. A large minority of Friends have chosen to dress "plain" (somewhat similar to the Amish or conservative Mennonites). Vocal ministry in our meetings for worship is unrehearsed and (we hope) led by the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit. Spoken ministry usually draws heavily on Christian tradition and the Scriptures.
My wife Faith and I became involved in Ohio Yearly Meeting through Rockingham Monthly Meeting, which meets near Harrisonburg, Virginia - about two and a half hours away from our home in DC. We began attending there on a monthly basis in the fall of 2009. What drew us to keep coming back despite the distances involved was the clear Christian witness of the Meeting and the love, care and spiritual maturity that we sensed among the members. Faith and I were looking for a Quaker Christian community, and it seemed that God was opening the way for this among Friends at Rockingham.
This was our first Yearly Meeting session as members, and it was a particularly intense year for Ohio Yearly Meeting. Along with many other Christian bodies, Ohio Yearly Meeting is wrestling with its understanding of human sexuality. Our struggle as a Yearly Meeting began last year, when Salem Quarterly Meeting brought a suggestion to revise our Book of Discipline (Faith and Practice) to - among other things - define marriage as being "between one man and one woman." This elicited a strong reaction from many Friends. The matter was tabled and forwarded to Stillwater Quarterly Meeting - OYM's larger Quarter, and the one where Rockingham Meeting is a member.
Stillwater Quarterly Meeting instructed its Monthly Meetings to consider and share their response to the suggestion from Salem Quarterly Meeting to alter the Discipline. After consideration by the Monthly Meetings, Stillwater Quarter drafted a corporate response to be forwarded to the Yearly Meeting. Friends in Stillwater Quarterly Meeting were not in unity to revise the Book of Discipline. Friends had a sense that we as a Yearly Meeting did not yet have the full picture, and that we need Christ to guide us into the fullness of truth in this matter.
As one might expect, we spent a lot of time praying at our annual sessions this year. There was deliberation during three business sessions about how we could faithfully engage these difficult questions together as Christ's Body. I have detailed this process on my personal blog - here and here.
Ohio Yearly Meeting was unable to come to unity on our sense of how or whether God has ordained same-sex romantic relationships. However, we were in agreement that "Friends of all perspectives are equally committed to the Lord." This is no small matter when dealing with a question that has and continues to divide Christian bodies around the world. Friends in OYM recognized that we have not yet been shown how to move forward together as a community on questions of sexuality and marriage. Nevertheless, it is our conviction that the Holy Spirit that Jesus sends us will lead us into all truth as long as we are faithful in waiting upon the Lord and submitting ourselves to him.
There is a strong sense among many of us in Ohio Yearly Meeting that there is a "third way" that we have not yet seen. We believe that our God is one of order, not of disorder(3) and that if there are different, strongly held convictions in the body, that there must be some amount of truth in both of them. What we still lack is the complete openness and submission that would clear the way for Christ to lead us into the fullness of his truth.
And yet, despite our disagreement on these very important issues, we do sense a deep spiritual unity that surpasses our human understanding of what unity should mean. We disagree, yet we know that the Holy Spirit is present in our midst, binding us together as Christ's Church. We are in spiritual unity, though outwardly we are in disagreement. This is a mystery of Christ's work in the body. If we choose to be faithful to his teaching in our hearts and in our midst, I do believe that Jesus will lead us out of our faulty human understandings and into the clarity that comes from repentance and purification by the Inward Light of Christ.
1. Conservative Friends "conserve" many aspects of the Quietest-era Quaker tradition, including unprogrammed worship, explicitly Christian faith and various traditions and folkways that have largely been discarded by the wider Religious Society of Friends. For more information on Conservative Friends, see the QuakerMaps description of Conservative Quakerism and The Conservative Friend.
2. The Quietist period ran from the mid-1700s to the early 1800s.
3. 1 Corinthians 14:33