Thursday, August 25, 2016

North Carolina Yearly Meeting: An ESR Visitor’s Standpoint

ESR's Steve Angell attended this summer's annual sessions of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM), and shares his reflection on the gathering:

In separate conversations, two F(f)riends that I have known for a long time, Brent McKinney and Billy Britt, greeted me warmly and welcomed me back to North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Friends United Meeting), meeting at Caraway Conference Center in Sophia, North Carolina this month (Eighth Month, 2016). I was delighted to receive their welcome. But, in all honesty, I had to admit that they couldn’t welcome me “back,” because I was attending North Carolina Yearly Meeting for the first time! Both Brent and Billy were astonished. Hadn’t they each been in many meetings with me over the years? I agreed that it was so, but this was still my first time visiting with them in North Carolina. So, with gratitude for the wonderful hospitality of Brent, Billy and many others, and even though I bring something of a practiced Friend’s eye to the occasion, these are still the reflections of a newcomer to NCYM (FUM).

On the opening night of the yearly meeting, Colin Saxton, General Secretary of Friends United Meeting, gave thoughtful and insightful Spirit-led reflections on Acts 28. He retold the story of Acts in such a way that it accentuated the similarities between the dilemmas faced by the apostles in the first century and the situation that we face in the twenty-first century.  He suggested that while today Christians from all sides of the political spectrum call on the government to help their cause, what we can learn from Acts is that it is really the church that has the responsibility to act on behalf of its own values.
The last sentence of the book of Acts (28:30) portrays the Apostle Paul living in Rome and “welcoming all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” Colin was especially struck by the fact that the last word in the book in the original Greek is one that means “unhindered.” In a physical sense, this may not have been really accurate. Colin pointed out that Paul was probably shackled to his guard as he moved about. But Paul is, as we are, unhindered in the way that really matters. If we stop blaming our problems on others, and we were to really tap into the available power of the Holy Spirit, as Paul did, what magnificent changes could we manifest in our own time?
The Clerk of the Yearly Meeting, Mike Fulp, Sr., and the Clerk of the yearly meeting executive committee, Brent McKinney, brought the gathered assembly to consider the grave issues that currently confronted the yearly meeting. As Associate Editor of Quaker Theology, I was well aware of the issues faced by North Carolina Yearly Meeting, controversies that Quaker Theology has covered in-depth over the past two years (issues #26-28). Fulp reviewed the events of the past year. Fulp noted that the Executive Committee in 2015 had released, or expelled, three meetings, Poplar Ridge, Holly Spring, (two of the more conservative meetings) and New Garden, (a liberal meeting) because of “dual affiliations” with other yearly meetings. (The terminology gets quite confusing, as there is a North Carolina Yearly Meeting, Conservative, that is “conservative” in a different sense than the strongly evangelical theological identity that is being labeled as “conservatism” in the yearly meeting sessions that I went to. Nothing in this essay should be taken to apply to NCYM-C.) Said Fulp, but “east met west,” and meetings of all theological persuasions had rejected the Executive Committee recommendation that these three meetings had to go. Since that meeting one year ago, Fulp observed, “we have heard no objections to meetings being dually affiliated,”  so the cause of the discord within the yearly meeting must lie elsewhere.
Fulp remarked on the guidance to the yearly meeting provided by a theologically diverse group of nine pastors who convened to try to find a way forward for North Carolina Yearly Meeting.  On May 9, they submitted a report to the yearly meeting executive committee, that stated “while we can celebrate much that unites us, we also recognize the issues that divide us,” including the authority of Scripture, atonement, same-sex marriage, and the nature of our Christian identity. The controversial issues are often presented as non-negotiable. After a lengthy dialogue, seven of these pastors proposed that “the only way forward is a mutually-agreed upon separation.” This proposal came with a stated hope that North Carolina Friends could stay connected at some level, but there was a need to set Friends at liberty on those things that divide them. The other two pastors dissented from these conclusions, asserting that the yearly meeting needed to find a way to stay together.
Fulp and McKinney found this proposal to be quite helpful. Consequently, the executive committee had spent several  months exploring what a separation might look like. It would be a massive undertaking, which would need to account for matters of faith, organization, property, and law. One proposal was that the yearly meeting could separate, with one successor organization focused on “authority” of Scripture and of the yearly meeting, and the other on “autonomy” of the individual meetings. To my ear, this sounded very similar to the separation that had just taken place in Indiana Yearly Meeting. (Issues #18-24 of Quaker Theology had covered that yearly meeting’s separation.)  If a separation were to take place in North Carolina, McKinney observed, he suspected  that both new yearly meetings would be a part of Friends United Meeting. Just such an outcome had taken place in Indiana three years previously.
Monthly meetings were already taking it upon themselves to separate themselves from the yearly meeting if they deemed the yearly meeting to not be acting with sufficient urgency on the issues of Christian identity as set forth by the pastors’ group and many others. Prior to the yearly meeting, the departures of 17 meetings had already taken place from North Carolina Yearly Meeting. At the yearly meeting sessions for which I was present, two more departures were approved. These meetings all sent letters and had their own reasons for leaving, but all but one (Fancy Gap) who had gone were theologically on the conservative (or evangelical) end. They took their financial contributions with them, leaving a rather large hole in the yearly meeting budget. But what concerned Fulp and McKinney the most was that 14 more meetings are threatening to leave. (The most obvious evidence for this was a recent letter from the Yadkin Quarter of NCYM. Ten such meetings were signatories to a letter, dated fourth month, seventeenth day, 2016, that stated, “Many Monthly Meetings have already left the Yearly Meeting and many more are ready to leave if unity in our theological beliefs is not accomplished soon.”)
McKinney noted that if a separation were to take place, that it would not preclude a reunion some time later. He reached across the world to Africa for a precedent for his hopeful remark. In the early 2000s, Tuloi and Nandi yearly meetings, both located in Kenya, had reunited, and McKinney, who was present, could remember the great joy in this reunion. (There have also been geographically closer reunions, that went unmentioned in this context; between 1945 to 1968, several yearly meetings in the eastern United States and in Canada reunited, to form the present-day New England, New York, Philadelphia, Canadian, and Baltimore yearly meetings. These five yearly meetings of Friends, while absorbing some Orthodox Friends, are today predominantly liberal in their theologies. So these examples may not appeal to North Carolina Friends affiliated with Friends United Meeting, who trace their identity to the Orthodox branch of Quakerism.)
A draft of a “procedural plan for separation into two yearly meetings” was presented by Brent McKinney. The yearly meeting did not approve this draft. Each meeting would have had to “choose alignment with their preference for one of the two yearly meetings,” by a preliminary deadline of November 5, 2016, and a final deadline of June 3, 2017. The plan detailed a process for dividing assets and working on two books of Faith and Practice for the two successor yearly meetings. There was not extensive discussion of this draft on the yearly meeting floor. Instead, there were seven different breakout sessions, at which all members of North Carolina Yearly Meeting were invited to speak, and at which careful notes were taken on newsprint posters, so that the Executive Committee could refer to them in their luncheon meeting immediately after the morning session.
Some of the comments presented a challenge to the more liberal meetings: “How are you a Quaker and not a Christian?” “Why do some teach theology not in Faith and Practice?” Experiences stretching back several decades formed a pretext for a separation for some: “I started as a Quaker in 1978. First, North Carolina Yearly Meeting made me want to leave, but I stayed. A few years later, some kids at my meeting went to Quaker Lake Camp, and they were ridiculed for believing in Jesus as the messiah and the only way to salvation. The kids did not go back. At the Representative Body in 1978, meetings were coming forward speaking against atonement.” Some urged that those meetings without a strong belief in Scriptural and yearly meeting authority should leave voluntarily: “Our meeting is one [that favors] authority, and we have been waiting over a year. No one wants separation, but if there are those that do not believe the same, they should go elsewhere.”
There were others who defended the current makeup of North Carolina Yearly Meeting and stoutly denied that there was any need for separation: “We are stronger because of our diversity.” “Meaningful worship can occur despite differences.” “We should seek ways to become more tolerant and work together to be more accepting.” “Responsibility rests on everyone to work for the unity of the body of Christ.” Someone asked, “how do we speak to the world if we can’t reconcile?” Another person confessed, “we have lacked skills in conflict resolution.” “We must find common ground in love.” Support of mission work, such as North Carolina Friends’ work with the Choctaw Native Americans, Friends Disaster Service and Jamaica Yearly Meeting, was one instance of common ground that was often cited.
Some mentioned concerns about difficult issues, such as homosexuality, that weren’t being addressed. “Our group did name a few times  the issues of homosexuality. It’s still an underlying issue.” “The issue of homosexuality is tied in with the issue of Biblical Authority.” “It is time we have a very frank discussion about homosexuality.”
The practical difficulties involved in separation loomed large for many, especially if it involved a division of assets. Some feared that a division would endanger the yearly meeting’s missions and its Quaker Lake Camp. “How will we support ministries like Quaker Lake Camp if we don’t stay together?” “What about the superintendent? Will there be one over both?” “This feels like a divorce which would include division of assets. I have a concern about legal battles.” “I have a concern about the sanctity of North Carolina Yearly Meeting endowments.” “How do we address those who have borrowed money from endowment funds?” “If we divide, we’ll lose significant financial assets. Is it worth it? Will missions outreach suffer?”  
Choosing between two new yearly meetings would be difficult for many: “How would I choose? I embrace both sides.” “Trickle-down splits in Monthly Meetings, and families, are a concern.” But others pointed out the dangers of continued inaction: “We have many meetings prepared to leave. We are at the point that we need to take action, or we will die and wither.” “I have a concern that if we don’t do something, meetings will continue to leave.”
As the Executive Committee looked over the set of comments, it most likely was evident to them that there was not a sense of the meeting, or even a preponderance of opinion, on behalf of proceeding with the separation plan as they had outlined it before the breakout sessions, or of forgetting about separation altogether. Some of the commenters in the breakout session must have anticipated this difficulty, because some were searching for middle ground between these two rather polarized options. “I believe that a split has occurred, but I have a vision of an umbrella, one where everybody belongs.” “I do not want to split, but we definitely need to reorganize.” “Have we considered reorganizing on a quarterly meeting basis based on theological affinity?”  “Can we survey the Meetings around foundational issues and form Quarterly Meetings and Yearly Meetings around philosophical similarities?” These comments recognized a need for monthly meetings to have more fellowship with meetings with similar affinities, but seemed to avoid the difficulty of a division of the Yearly Meeting’s substantial financial assets.
It was this last set of comments that provided the core of the Executive Committee report when the yearly meeting reconvened in general session in the afternoon, and it was the Executive Committee’s turn to report on the results of the breakout groups. What they proposed in the afternoon was a reorganization that would be focused on reconstituting quarterly meetings largely or wholly on lines of theological affinity. They proposed that North Carolina Yearly Meeting operate as a shell, and that there be two associations under this shell, or umbrella. The idea had surfaced before during the yearly meeting’s last two years of turmoil. The Umbrella Plan was Option One of three options that had been presented at June 2015 meeting of NCYM’s Representative Body; when the meetings had the opportunity to express themselves on the merits of these three options (later expanded to five), only five of the 70 meetings in NCYM had preferred this Option One. But no consensus had developed around the other four options either. 
And at this late hour, the umbrella plan looked more appealing. A Friend from First Friends Greensboro asserted that it was “everybody’s second best choice” and a “pretty good plan.” A Friend from Winston-Salem Meeting found the proposal “intriguing.” A Friend from New Garden mentioned the heartfelt advice from Allen Jay, a venerable Quaker forebear who died in 1910, who wrote in his autobiography that “separations never brought more people to Christ.” A Friend from Randleman Meeting, however, complained that the new proposal was “very vague.” A Friend from Deep Creek Meeting cautioned that North Carolina Yearly Meeting cannot afford to “hemorrhage any more meetings.” Even some members of the Executive Committee seemed cautious. Would this more limited proposal really solve the yearly meeting’s problems?
On behalf of the Executive Committee, Tom Terrell drafted a minute that read as follows:
Over the past 319 years, the North Carolina Yearly Meeting has never been without a time when we debated who we were as Christians and as Quakers and the steps that we should take to fulfill the missions of Christ on earth.
As the years have become decades and the decades have become centuries, the multiple views and competing positions in this discussion have moved farther apart. The challenge of bridging our differences has become an increasingly daunting task.
In recent years, the chorus of voices concerned about our differences has risen, and we have labored diligently to find a way to maintain our unity of purpose, our unity of worship, and the unity of our corporate body.
Managing this conversation has become a regular task of the Yearly Meeting’s Executive Committee, to the exclusion of other work for which we have been appointed. After many meetings, and after long and prayerful discussions, the Executive Committee concludes that matters within our Yearly Meeting are moving too swiftly for us to assume a posture of organizational inertia.
In just the past year, 19 of our 72 meetings have left the Yearly Meeting and two meetings have been laid down. A diverse group of ministers has asked the Executive Committee to recommend a structured pathway to separation. Southern Quarter has united in asking that we consider taking steps toward division. And we have been informed that several more meetings will leave the Yearly Meeting if action leading to reorganization or division is not quick and decisive.
This afternoon the Executive Committee listened attentively to the questions raised and the comments made during morning breakout sessions. We know much more now than we did prior to annual session regarding the beliefs, the fears, the anxieties, and the aspirations of represented meetings.
However, we did not hear a sufficiently strong consensus for unity, and therefore we return to you, as your Executive Committee, seeking approval of the plan as broadly outlined at this morning’s session, but with a focus on reorganization rather than separation.
Based on the collective suggestions made in each of your groups, the plan may look differently as we take measured and considered steps toward a reorganized body. At each step, our recommendations and decisions will be made according to your input and approval, and they will be taken in a manner that respects the needs and interests of all members of our Yearly Meeting.
We know that there are questions to which we do not yet have answers and that there is now and will later be uncertainty, but as we acknowledge our depleted ranks and consider the rising volume of dissatisfied voices, we conclude that our only reasonable option is to work towards reorganization in whatever form it takes. Within this plan of reorganization, each meeting’s destiny will be controlled and determined by the meeting itself, and each resulting organization will determine its own theological identity.
In the face of these many unknowns, and in the Spirit of the same Christ that brought us together 319 years ago, we ask this body to approve the plan presented this morning, but with a focus on reorganization into two groups.
Approved this 13th day, eight month, 2016.
Mike Fulp, Presiding Clerk, North Carolina Yearly Meeting
While this minute presented a clear statement as to how the Yearly Meeting had arrived at its present crossroads, and also provided a clear statement as to the proposed path of “reorganization” going forward, it was a more general minute than what had been presented in the morning, and also more general than the main thrust of the Executive Committee recommendations as presented in the afternoon. It did not completely commit the Executive Committee to the umbrella plan, although that was the path that had garnered the most support at yearly meeting sessions.
I had to leave yearly meeting sessions early in order to return to Indiana for the start of a new school year, so this is where my knowledge based on personal observation ends.
But the reporting of Chuck Fager corroborates the strong place that the reconstituted umbrella plan plays in the thinking of the NCYM Executive Committee.  In particular, the Yearly Meeting Epistle, approved after I left, gave prominence to the umbrella plan:
The gathered body continued to listen to Friends’ concern about the direction of the yearly meeting, of whether or not to split, going our separate ways based on some arbitrary definition of “who we are.” We heard a call for tolerance of others, meetings that seek to live the Love of God differently in service to their community. We heard that “we are already divided.” Nineteen meetings have left the yearly meeting, and others are considering leaving the yearly meeting. We are splintering. Friends began to ask “Is intentional division better than unorganized splintering?” Everyone struggled to understand “authority” and “autonomy” and how to understand our life together in Christ. Is it better for NCYM-FUM to die to allow for a resurrection of a new organization? Could we serve Christ better if we reorganized our yearly meeting, our quarterly meetings, and our committees and ministries? Concerns were expressed about “Do we love one another, as Jesus teaches?” We were reminded of the words of Allen Jay over 100 years ago, “Separations have never brought one to Christ.”
Due to theological differences, several meetings indicated that they would leave if the yearly meeting does not divide. Several other meetings spoke out against division. Out of the chaos and lack of clarity, in an effort to work with Love without compromising Faith, Friends approved a way to move forward. NCYM-FUM will work on reorganizing with subgroups or associations remaining under one yearly meeting umbrella. We intend to remain joined in essential ministries that are important to all, staying in relationship with each other, while we seek clarity of our theological distinctives for the groups that comprise the yearly meeting.

So this visitor was heartened. A hasty separation seems to have been averted. And North Carolina Friends sought compromise. The desire for more fellowship with Friends who share a similar theology may be able to be met through a reorganization of Quarterly Meetings. A difficult division of yearly meeting assets was avoided, at least for the time being. Perhaps, when I get welcomed back to North Carolina Yearly Meeting next time, they will be discerning a movement of the Holy Spirit to reunite with other meetings in their state. The yearly meeting epistle ends with the observation, “We came here asking ‘Who has God called us to be? What has God called us to do?’ We continue to discern these answers.” May this discernment continue to lead North Carolina Friends to a blessed place of peace and unity. I am grateful for the opportunity to have witnessed this small part of their journey as a yearly meeting.

Stephen W. Angell is Earlham School of Religion's Geraldine Leatherock Professor of Quaker Studies. His most recent book, Early Quakers and their Theological Thought: 1647-1723, is available here

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