Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Friend in Residence: Christopher Sammond

By Valerie Hurwitz

This past week Chrisotopher Sammond, General Secretary of New York Yearly Meeting, visited ESR as our Friend-in-Residence. He spoke at many events, including our Common Meal, Peace Forum, joint worship on Friday, and a Friday afternoon workshop. When I sat down to write this post, I intended to focus on his Peace Forum presentation, but my thoughts ranged wider than that so I’ll comment on a number of the Friend-in-Residence activities I participated in. Christopher Sammond is widely knowledgeable; from the traditional seminary education he got at United Theological Seminary in Minnesota to his long history with Friends, and he had a lot to share with ESR this past week.

First, Indiana Yearly Meeting’s Representative Council meeting last Saturday is very much on our minds here. (You can read Margaret Fraser’s thoughts on the meeting here). While Indiana Yearly Meeting no longer appoints Earlham trustees and our formal relationship with them has changed significantly, West Richmond Friends is only a few blocks from ESR and has been (along with First Friends and Clear Creek meetings) a spiritual home for many residential students. Christopher Sammond, being part of dually affiliated FUM-FGC yearly meeting, has a particular vantage point being able to see trends within the liberal branches of Friends, as well as within FUM.

During a lunch with faculty on Wednesday, Christopher spoke both about trying to sustain liberal Friends and also about forming working relationships with other members of FUM. Christopher spoke about New York Yearly Meeting and the need for liberal Friends to reflect theologically. He drew a distinction between religious/spiritual experience (which he says NYYM does very well in its unprogrammed meetings) and being able to reflect communally on what is going on during these experiences and articulating one’s own theological beliefs. This does not necessarily lead to dogmatism about specific theological doctrines (although it certainly can). Christopher wants to encourage unprogrammed Friends to reflect on their experiences in meeting and develop their vocabulary of theological concepts in order to better do so.

Christopher has also worked with the FUM board, and the discussion turned to relationships among yearly meetings as they try to form a vision of FUM’s purpose and mission. Christopher could name many examples of having worked individually with superintendents and other representatives from less liberal yearly meetings, but noted that it often felt difficult to gain unity among the board as a whole. Christopher’s reflections on relationships within FUM came full circle during the West Richmond Friends meeting this past Sunday where a member stood and shared a joy. She had attend the FUM board meetings over the weekend and found an amazing feeling of Friendship and an absence of conflict. Let’s pray that FUM continues along those lines.

At Peace Forum on Thursday, Christopher spoke about being effective as Peace activists. He finds the practice of spending long hours during yearly meeting business sessions of crafting a minute of concern on a particular topic to be not effective in changing the world. (I laughed a little at this, having seen the process of laboring over each word on a minute a few times now. Not being Quaker, however, I can have a great deal of patience for a business practice that isn’t mine.) Christopher joked that, “the walls of every room in Congress could be papered with minutes of concern from Friends”, but acknowledged that sometimes this is part of an important process of clarifying identity and an outlet for anger and powerlessness.

Christopher instead believes in the power of individual action being contagious and encouraging. He mentioned the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting “Called to Action” program and the Quaker intentional village project occurring now in New York Yearly Meeting. Christopher and the attendees also discussed the Occupy Wall Street protests happening now, which have spread around the country. Christopher point is that we need ask ourselves “How have we acted to create the Kingdom?”, not defend, but create.

On Friday, Christopher spoke in joint worship on Luke 18, the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee praying in the temple. He encouraged us to be wary of our own sense of righteousness and see the ways in which we are the Pharisee, proclaiming how much better we are than others. After lunch, Christopher shared a workshop with us, focused on reading the parables of Jesus. It was a quiet sunny day and we sat in Quigg (the worship room), sharing the conclusions and connections we drew from specific parables. I was reminded of a theologian who commented that Jesus must have spoken in parables to avoid dogmatic certainty among his followers.

The name of the theologian escapes me, but the workshop was a reminder to read the Bible imaginatively and the joy of reading it communally. This post has come out a little scattered, as the week included many events. Christopher also carries a broad range of concerns that address many issues among Friends, from programmed to unprogrammed to larger structural issues within FUM and FGC. Hopefully this is good for thought for you and an update on how we’re doing at ESR!

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.

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