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