Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Report on the Division of Indiana Yearly Meeting

By Chris Sitler

On October 1, 2011, the Indiana Yearly Meeting Representative Council met in a called session at Friends Memorial Church in Muncie Indiana to consider the report of a Task Force that had been appointed to consider possible ways the yearly meeting could respond to tensions between West Richmond Friends and the Ministry and Oversight of IYM regarding a welcoming statement that West Richmond had adopted. Among other provisions, the statement declared that West Richmond would be a welcoming and affirming congregation to homosexuals.

Members of the Yearly Meeting Ministry and Oversight began deliberations with West Richmond over the conflict between the statement and the yearly meeting’s minuted statements regarding same-sex relationships.

At the July yearly meeting sessions the Task Force had recommended a separation, known as Model #4. After discussions on the floor of the yearly meeting, the task force reconvened at a later date to  define their recommendation which became known as Model #5, a collaborative realignment in which various parties would be represented in the process of establishing a new alignment of Indiana Yearly Friends into two bodies.

When I was still quite new to Quakerism, I was fortunate in that historian Tom Hamm was a member of the meeting I attended, First Friends, New Castle, Indiana. Having Tom teach the membership class session on Quaker history was a real joy. He did an excellent job distilling the 300+ years of Friends history into a one hour class.

Of course, the class included to-the-point descriptions of the splits that have occurred in North American Quakerism. That day the terms Hicksites, Gurneyites and Wilburites were introduced to me in a way that made historical sense. I also learned about the holiness Friends of Central Yearly Meeting, Anti-Slavery Friends, Waterites and others. I learned about Friends United Meeting, Friends General Conference, and, what was then the Evangelical Friends Association as well as Conservative Friends. To his credit, Tom made all of this clear to me. Having majored in history as an undergraduate, I was in my element listening to him lecture. While the overarching themes that Tom presented in clear, precise terms were enough for a foundational understanding of the separations, further study would bring out nuances that were not immediately evident.

Likewise there are nuances to the events of October 1, 2011 at Friends Memorial in Muncie, Indiana that years from now may be glossed over in Quaker history classes, not because of any attempt to cover them up, but because a full understanding would take a semester’s worth of work. My personal impression is that there are three general groups within the yearly meeting. Those that fully agree with the West Richmond welcoming minute, those that disagree with the West Richmond minute and feel it is in the words of one Friend “a deal breaker” and those that disagree with West Richmond but wish to keep in fellowship despite the disagreement.

It was the movement of this last group in particular that seemed to lead the Yearly Meeting (through Representative Council) towards the adoption of a collaborative realignment known as Model #5. A year-long process, the model seeks to bring forth an alignment of two new yearly meetings along certain theological and perhaps cultural lines.

Many who hoped for unity came to realize that the rift in the yearly meeting was deeper than just a question of where one stood on West Richmond’s welcoming statement. Although there were and still are those on all sides who will still point to that issue as THE issue that lead to the split, more and more of the representatives became convinced that the rift over the West Richmond statement was a symptom of even greater social, cultural and theological differences that have been pulling Indiana Yearly Meeting apart for many years.

Some seek a greater unity of theology within the Yearly Meeting that would place Indiana Friends squarely within the wider body of Evangelicalism. Others envision Indiana Friends as being more similar to other mainline Protestant denominations where a wide spectrum of theological points of view are held and the diversity and tension between those viewpoints brings forth new possibilities.

Historically, particularly during the Quietist Period, Friends tried to maintain a hedge, keeping outside cultural forces at bay. But eventually social, cultural and political forces that began beyond the walls of their meetinghouses had a way of forcing some tough decisions that often led to rancorous splits. Forces from the wider culture are at play now and like animals before an earthquake, we sense the ground moving below our feet. The sense of the meeting was that a division is inevitable, but rancor is not. Will we live into something new without some of the extremes that have plagued separation in the past when contending clerks would physically fight over the minute book to claim legitimacy? That depends upon our willingness to approach the year ahead with humility and patience and to be touched by the better angels of our nature.

A 2006 graduate of ESR, Chris Sitler is the pastor of Dublin (IN) Friends Meeting.  His bachelor's degree is from Hanover College (IN) where he was a double major in History and Communication. He is the husband of Penny Rutherford Sitler and the father of Daniel and Mariah Sitler. He is also a competitive Scrabble player and enjoys hiking.

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