Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Report from New York Yearly Meeting 2011

By Wayne Williams

Being both a member of New York Yearly Meeting (Brooklyn) and a student at ESR, I was invited by the school to attend the 316th Session of our Yearly Meeting this summer at Silver Bay, NY.  While there, I provided a presence for ESR and had the opportunity to meet and engage with Friends, old and new.  When asked to submit an article about my experience for ESR’s blog, Learning and Leading, I said that I would.  Why has it taken me so long to respond?  Only recently did I discern the reason for my delayed response - I have something to say that I don’t want to say.  New York Yearly Meeting needs prayer for its future.

Christopher Sammond, NYYM General Secretary, reported a 50% loss of membership in the past 56 years.  Today’s membership is 8% less than what it was 10 years ago.  Only 32 of 53 Meetings mention new attenders in their State of the Meeting Report, and some meetings conclude that they do not have the energy to do outreach.  Many Meetings are in danger of being laid down because, as Christopher Sammond reports, “We are nearing the time when we may not have the necessary critical mass to do the work of outreach necessary to preserve many of our meetings.”  Christopher suggested that this steep downward trend could be averted only with a change in current behaviors.  He called us to carry this concern when decisions are made regarding resource allocation and programming.

Christopher spoke on the topic of agency, “the person or thing through which power is exerted or an end is achieved.”  He defined it as “the innate capacity to effect change.”  I would agree with Christopher’s assessment that we underestimate our ability to be change agents.  Often, the discrepancy between where we are and where God wants us to be can produce overwhelming feelings: inadequacy and apathy are two common responses.  However, he spoke of certain Meetings that were finding renewal and strength in unity.  However, he encouraged Friends to support individuals “on fire with commitment.  A Friend with gifts in forming community, with gifts in witness, or with gifts of spiritual depth can act like a seed crystal, inspiring those around that person to join in creating a more vibrant meeting.”  Having made over 150 visits to worship groups and meetings over the past seven years, these are the qualities he observed in Friends’ responsible for bringing fresh fire to meetings.

I’m not an expert on agency, but my belief is that the Living Christ is “that person or thing through which power is exerted or an end is achieved.”  Some Friends do not welcome such a perspective in NYYM.  The growth and spread of Quakerism in the 17th and 18th centuries was undoubtedly due to those agents of Christ.  Women and men who were filled with the same fire and commitment Christopher Sammond has observed in contemporary Friends over the years.  

My heart grieves when I reflect on the reality that today, Christ-centered Friends at NYYM appear to be meeting like a special-interest group.  I worshiped with “Christ-centered Friends” in a separate bedroom on the second floor of the Inn.  Was there no other room in the Inn?  I understand that these Friends request to worship separately from the body.  Why?  One individual informed me that her vocal ministry had been silenced in the past because, “they don’t want hear about Jesus.”  Therefore, in order to share without fear of censorship or disapproval, “Christ-centered Friends” gather for worship to speak freely and in support of each other’s witness to the Foundation of our Society.  Apparently for some Friends, Jesus isn’t even welcome at the table.

Does it surprise me that when Christ is excluded from fellowship with His people that we witness a decline in membership?  No.  Fifty-six years ago, when NYYM had 50% more members, was there such a label as “Christ-centered Friends”?  I don’t know, but I think perhaps it’s time to examine if there is a correlation between our changing theology over the years, and the current state of our Yearly Meeting.  There is room for all at our Quaker table, but let us not forget from whose table we are given our Spiritual gifts.  

My theory is that perhaps some desire to limit God-talk or reject vocal ministry that calls upon the name of Jesus because they secretly fear the change that the Living Christ in our midst can lay claim to.  Personally, as a Christ-centered member of NYYM, I welcome that baptism. I pray God gives me the courage to witness to the miracles and healing that the Living Christ can perform, and wants to perform, for each of us.  Can we open our hearts and welcome in this Light?  It’s already here…waiting.  Please keep New York Yearly Meeting, her stewards and prophets in your prayers, and support our precious agents of Christ. 

Wayne WilliamsWayne is a current MDiv student at Earlham School of Religion. He is a member of Brooklyn Monthly Meeting, New York Yearly Meeting.


  1. I've newly been attending the Friend's meeting in Austin, TX. I've been contemplating Quakerism for over 15 years. My husband's family are Quakers.

    I've really been scared to follow my leading into Quakerism and it is for this very thinking. I find it ironic that you say you make the analogy to there being, "no room at the inn". I have most always found that Christians are the ones who find it hard to accept any other forms of spiritual tradition. I also find the proselytism of Jesus to go against the foundation of Quakerism.

  2. The role of Jesus in the world has been a mystery for a great many years. Too many times his name has served as a figurehead for causes quite contrary to what he taught-- and it hasn't been clear (aside from extremely unChristian schemes of personal "salvation") why we owe him loyalty... (except for love, which he continues to inspire in a great many! But "I really like what this guy is saying!" doesn't readily translate into "This is what I need to do." Particularly since we're apt to read our own misconceptions (and customs) into his words.

    Instead of 'King of the World', people think we have a nice Teacher. This looks like a substitute teacher, who can't stop us throwing spitballs. Whom we don't need to listen to. Whose teachings we imagine to be either platitudes, or "too challenging."

    Introduce someone into this context-- who interprets his relation with God as a relation with 'Jesus'. (Or uses the same words about the imaginary friend who tells him to kill people, usually wholesale ala GW.) Same words, different 'things' == 'confusion.'

    And the opposite phenomenon: different words for same 'thing.' Many people encountering the Spirit of Christ, not necessarily thinking of that as 'Jesus'. While having this be our only problem would be great!-- It does confuse and disconcert too many Christians. Also, it leads to people thinking they can get by without chewing and digesting the words and meanings of Jesus. Maybe missing some fine points that would otherwise be a big help!

    Prayer, yes! But it needs to be more than a few people's prayers; God is inclined to give people what they want rather than what somebody else wants for them. Prayers for mutual understanding, that God's deeper purposes can be more readily agreed to...

  3. I adhere to the notion that Jesus is central to Quakerism. Thank you for the post.

  4. Wayne - I wish you could experience one of the days of discernment, if NYYM is still having them. I became a convinced Friend in NYYM, and I am Christ-centered. Although while I lived there, I was not very involved in the business, and I knew other Christ-cetnered Friends had your experience, I was incredibly sheltered to always find a place, in my meeting and with other Friends, where my authentic Christ-centered language was heard.

    Angela (Anj) York Crane

  5. Really interesting article and I hear the truth in your observations about NYYM at our Summer Sessions.I too have been troubled by this concept of 'Christ-centered Friends' as something different from the majority of Friends. Even more saddened though by the reality of out Yearly Meeting that creates a need for that distinction.

    I think the fear of change really is paralyzing us in NYYM.It keeps us from growing as Monthly Meetings and as a Yearly Meeting.It keeps us from fully embracing and supporting the gifts of those in our Yearly Meeting and it keeps us divided.

    I think these fears can go hand in hand with the fear of God-language especially Christian God-language but I think our fear of change goes deeper then that. I've met plenty of Christ-centered Friends in the Yearly Meeting who are very resistant to change because it would mean letting go of the way our Yearly Meeting has been doing things for X-number of years.

    My experience has been that we are by and large really, really afraid of continuing revelation in this yearly meeting and I find that deeply sad. We are afraid of doing new stuff. We are afraid of being radical or rocking the boat. We are afraid of doing something,seemingly, crazy on faith alone.

    I don't know what the answer is and just pray to God that we don't adhered to our fear to the point were, as a religious community, we no longer exist.

    In Fellowship,

  6. I was in that upper room at the Inn at NYYM Summer Sessions and, well, from my experiences of NYYM and the wider community of Christ-centered Friends, the number, maturity, mutual connectedness, and commitment of "out" Christian Friends in NYYM seems to be growing. Maybe in a few years we'll need larger quarters. But, as God wills. Even if we were dwindling, losing hope and dying off I'd say, with Job, "What? Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?" God may have some larger good in mind, as I've often thought as I've watched the darkness seem to deepen in the surrounding culture and its political and economic institutions. But as George Fox famously wrote to the Lady Claypole, "looking down at sin, and corruption, and distractions, you are swallowed up in it; but looking at the light that discovers them, you will see over them." And as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image." We're called to live hopefully and not be discouraged. The will of the Almighty is being done, carrying out the best possible plan, and who can stop it?

    John Edminster
    New York City

  7. Friend, thank you for sharing what the Lord put on your heart. There is indeed a power in the living Christ working within a group. This is the power which enabled Quakerism to move from a single voice crying in the wilderness of 17th century Britain to a powerful movement. There is no other source of this power.

    I pray that Friends who feel that living power will live in that power and allow that power to speak through them in whatever ways it will, regardless of how those around them do react or are feared to react (very often, the squelching of the Spirit is done out of fear out of what might happen, not what actually happens).

    I generally found that when I edited what the Lord gave me to avoid wording I thought Friends would reject, the messages failed to have power. I sometimes found when I delivered what I feared would be a message that would turn people off, sometimes the Friends I most expected to reject them were in fact moved by them. The Lord knows far better than any of us what is appropriate for any given situation.

    Sometimes Friends who have been captured by the power of the Living Christ will work within existing Friends bodies, sometimes in groups of Friends set apart, and sometimes in settings not bearing the name of Friends. However the Lord calls, follow.

    I will assert the truth in my experience of the Biblical injunction not to neglect meeting with one another - and the one another means believers. So I urge each believer to find at least one another to meet with regularly in the name and power of the Living Christ. When believers have tried to work within the larger body without meeting as believers, too often in my experience their witness becomes weakened. We need one another.

    In the long run, what happens to institutions such as NYYM is not what is important. What is important is that you be faithful and allow the Spirit of Christ to work through you. Whatever gatherings and institutions are appropriate will be nurtured by that.

  8. I’ve been pondering the causes of decline in Quaker membership, too. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting membership is also declining, as is New England’s, I think. I don’t think it has too much to do with theology, though, but rather with our experience—or rather, our lack of experience.

    One can’t help but feel that our decline has everything to do with the vitality of our religious experience. If liberal Friends knew what to say when people inquire about Quakerism or what to teach our children, if we knew what membership (rather than just attendance) meant, if the fellowship was warm and welcoming, if the vocal ministry was really alive with God’s love and guidance (and by “God” I mean the Mystery Reality behind or within our religious and spiritual experience, whatever that experience is), if Friends with gifts of the spirit were recognized and nourished, and especially, if most meetings were being palpably gathered in the Spirit fairly frequently, word would get out. People who came to meeting would stay and I suspect that they soon would join.

    But when was the last time you experienced a gathered meeting in your home meeting? How long had you yearned for it since the last time it happened?

    All these things manifest from the presence of God in our midst. What we lack is the presence of God.

    The God who gathered us as a people initially was Jesus Christ, as Bill Samuel says. But many of us have no experience of Christ. Some of us, myself included, have some experience of Jesus, but that experience does not call us into relationship with him as the fulcrum of our faith. Some of us, myself included, have negative experience of Christ, or at least, of Christians. Some of us, myself included, have deep religious or spiritual experience outside of the Christian and Quaker traditions. Are these experiences illegitimate because they do not follow the traditional Christian template? And who’s to blame for this diversity of experience? On the face of it, the blame lies on the clearness committees for membership that have let so many non-Christians in. But would we want to finally become a creedal religion, after all?

    And are we non-Christian Friends to blame for not experiencing Christ? Is Christ himself to blame? Or has he come to us all after all (or at least to those of us who have had transforming religious experience), but simply without his nametag on? Bill Samuel says that Christ is the only source of the power that has gathered Friends into a vital movement. He is, of course, correct. My question for today’s liberal, largely post-Christian Quakerism is: Can we, in our own time, be gathered by any other power? I suspect not.

    The polyglot of diverse religious experience among our members, comingled with no religious experience at all, or even hostile experience among our members—all these sources of spiritual power (and anti-power) trying to coexist in a meeting for worship must perforce result in a dilution of our collective religious experience. How can we expect gathered meetings in such an environment? Add to this the press of the world’s cares and demands, which will inevitably make it hard for any individual who is trying to practice the kind of regular spiritual devotion and discipline that could bring them into the Life—these powers and principalities of the world will tend to quench the spirit and resist the raising up of ministers and elders and healers and prophets among us.
    Meanwhile, here we all are, sharing and worshipping, in love and fellowship, mostly, and trying our best. And declining. . .

  9. Wayne, have you experienced any disapproval for Christ-centered vocal ministry? If so, do you know why that Friend(s) was uncomfortable?

  10. Do we know if the monthly meetings in NYYM (such as Farmington) where "God-talk" is more welcome are not suffering this decline? I am a member of Rochester (NY) Meeting, where one does not hear much about God or Jesus but where I have used these names myself on occasion and heard them used by others and am unaware of any resultant godless eldering by anyone.
    Ken Maher

  11. Steven, we might look to the Sikhs for a model of how a religious community based in diverse faiths might develop. Their holy book has writings from Hindu and Muslim sources, in addition to those from Sikh gurus. Their prayer services and meals are open to those of all faiths.

  12. Ken, that's a great question! Rudy as well...

    I have to say writings like this make me really sad, that there are people that think that kicking me out (or I don't know, brainwashing me I guess) is what will save the society of friends.

    I also really resonate with what Stephen says. And I would add that I am most intrigued and moved by those Christians who seem to believe that Christ's love is powerful enough that I am encompassed in it, even if I fair to recognize it as such.

  13. "My theory is that perhaps some desire to limit God-talk or reject vocal ministry that calls upon the name of Jesus because they secretly fear the change that the Living Christ in our midst can lay claim to."

    This actually almost made me cry, and not with joy. The one person I know who *really* *canNOT* stand to hear "God talk" was abused by people who spoke frequently and powerfully of God for her entire childhood. It strikes me as MUCH more likely that the root of problems with "God talk" is along those lines (and of course there are plenty of gays and lesbians, and others, who were not raped or beaten by people professing to love GOD, but were nonetheless told essentially that God hated them through their entire childhoods)

    I believe it is possibly for anyone to be afraid of the power and risk involved in having a truly open heart. Perhaps *some* of those people experience that block as a block against Christ, but I have certainly met plenty of people who love talking endlessly about God who are not that open, and people who are staunch atheists who are. I think perhaps the ones holding us back are those who would exclude some of us from what they see as Christ's love, just because we do not recognize it in the same way they do.

  14. It's curious that non-theist Friends and Christ-centered Friends both occasionally experience a sense of intolerance (or at least discomfort from not being fully accepted) in our Religious Society of Friends. Perhaps we should work together to promote a wider norm of embracing and enjoying one another's theological differences and diversity. I embrace and respect my friend John Edminster's deep commitment and the value I see him draw from his faith. Although I believe the natural world is all there is, and that it is enough indeed, I accept his supernatural (in a non-pejorative sense: "above or beyond the natural world") religious experience and find no threat or discomfort in hearing his counsel or his ministry in Meeting for Worship when it draws on his Christian experience and perspective. Nor, I would guess, does he find my godless perspective a challenge to his faith, yet we are both deeply Quakers. How shall we support other Friends to move past whatever leads them to criticize or be offended by us?

    -Dave Britton

  15. I nearly posted when this first appeared, but decided to season my comment further. The conversation in the meantime is helpful in knowing how to minister.

    I desire to minister to all Friends, indeed all people I meet, of a universal love that embraces Jesus, Buddha, the Goddess, and atheism. These four traditions have spoken to me repeatedly during my life. In Jesus, I first learned from the church into which I was born of nonviolence, healing, ecstatic religious experience, and a grand narrative from Adam to the New Jerusalem. From the Goddess I learned that what we name as "god" is not tied to any gender, and that liberating humanity requires the necessity of liberating us from male domination. From Buddha I learned of releasing the ego from itself and plunging into compassion. From atheism I learned to love the universe itself as a physical process and to love humanity in its bodily material reality.

    Liberal Quakerism is almost unique in its potential to embrace such a grand universalism. This may make persons who see only one path as ultimately true uncomfortable, whether Christian or atheist. However, all these paths and more each have a vital contribution to make to humanity's future.

    On a more pedestrian note, Illinois YM where I hold membership has grown slightly since 1969 with ups and downs over the decades. We are diverse, though most would seem to be liberal Christian. I haven't polled the YM, but I know that atheists, pagans, and Buddhists are included, even if sometimes with difficulty. We are working on our direction, with waiting worship at our center.

  16. Leftistquaker, I really love your second paragraph.

    We can find insights into our condition from every tradition. There are spiritual gifts, and dangers, everywhere. (Nihilism is the danger of the secular; despising Creation is the danger of the religious.) You wonderfully outline the gifts of the traditions most influential on Friends today.

    Dave, I'm a God-centered (though not Christ-centered) Friend, and I don't feel threatened by either nontheist, pagan, Buddhist or Christian Friends. So it is hard for me to understand Friends who are. I don't know what to do to help those Friends, like Wayne and the abused friend of earthfreak, except to hold them (and all of us) in the Light.

    earthfreak, I hope that Wayne doesn't envision either kicking people out or brainwashing them. He unfortunately does sound like he is saying that non-Christ centered Friends are to blame for decreasing numbers, and it is hard to put another construction on his remarks.

    Ken, I can't answer your question about Farmington NY Meeting, but my family spends part of the summer near there and we have worshiped there a few times (the last time was a few years ago though). It was a really wonderful meeting. The last time I saw an item in the news about them, they were trying to rebuild the old Hicksite meetinghouse across the road that has fallen into ruin - yes, after the big split, they had meetinghouses almost directly across the road from each other! There is a lesson there for us, somehow...

  17. Oh, Friends, thank you for your comments, feedback, and ministry. I have it in my mind and heart to carefully and prayerfully consider your words. You have given me both encouragement and challenge.

    I need to clarify that I wish neither to brainwash nor kick anyone out, and it grieves me that my words could be constructed to infer that, as Rudy pointed out, "that non-Christ centered Friends are to blame for decreasing numbers." I am not saying this! And I ask for your patience as I seek and struggle, awkwardly, to put language on what is written on my heart.

    I desire to minister to all, Friends or not, and I desire to embrace the diversity that both withers and thrives on the branches of Creation.

    Although I yearn to see our Society thrive again in this country, Thy will be done...

    I intend to respond to your important questions and concerns after I am further seasoned through prayer, worship, and perhaps a clearness committee.

    Thank you Melissa, Forrest, Diane, Angela, Anna, John, Bill, Steven, Rudy, Ken, Pam, Dave, leftistquaker, and those who remain tacit yet engaged in this important discussion. Please hold me in the Light.