Closer to Each Other Than Language Allows

People think of Quakers as loving, peaceful, friendly types (our full name is, after all, the Religious Society of Friends).  And we are all of those things. We’re also human—full of imperfections, confusion, and fear. We don’t all see things in the same way, and our history shows that sometimes those differing views have torn us apart. This week, one branch of the diverse tree of Quakerism—Indiana Yearly Meeting—is considering such a break. For those Friends, the issue that is dividing them is homosexuality.


I’ve just returned from my own North Pacific Yearly Meeting (NPYM) annual gathering. For five days, Quakers from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana worshiped, sang, and played; remembered Friends who died last year and welcomed newcomers; learned about local, national, and international Quaker efforts to promote peace and justice; and reconnected with old friends and made some new ones.


For many, these annual gatherings are a time to take a break from life’s daily demands and to renew spiritually. With the theme of “Listening in Tongues,” we were encouraged to “prepare ourselves for seeing, feeling and hearing unaccustomed perspectives with the tenderness we would wish for our own.” Our Friend-in-Residence, Benigno Sánchez-Eppler, urged us to listen beyond words, beyond the “limited monolingual comfort of our own monthly meetings,” for the similarities of our common Quaker ancestry. We heard from Friends in Pullman-Moscow Meeting that listening in that way can be healing. They reported that as they’ve dealt with conflicts in their meeting, “We are closer to each other than language allows.”


We faced our own challenges with language that separates us as we considered whether to affiliate with Friends General Conference (FGC). After a year of examination of what “affiliation” would both require and offer, we still stumble over that word as well as what it means to be an “independent” yearly meeting.  We decided to discern further over this next year, setting aside the idea of affiliation and instead exploring what kind of  “relationship” we want with the varied branches of Quakerism, including FGC.


As we left our gathering last Sunday, another branch of Quakers in the West, Northwest Yearly Meeting, began its annual session. Their agenda was to include consideration of the current state of affairs in their Yearly Meeting in the area of sexual ethics and same-sex relationships. As with Indiana Yearly Meeting, these conversations likely were fraught with conflict, just as they were twenty-five years ago in North Pacific Yearly Meeting. It took us eight years, but in 1993 we came to unity to revise our Faith and Practice to state that Quaker meetings could take the relationships of same-sex couples under their care (translation of Quaker-ese: same-sex couples could get married) following the same processes as for heterosexual couples.


This week, Indiana Yearly Meeting (IYM) has been considering a split as a way to deal with its members’ differences regarding not only same-sex relationships but also the full participation of gays and lesbians in the life of their monthly meetings and churches.  I first learned of IYM’s proposal to separate into two groups in an article by Stephen Angell in the June/July 2012 issue of Friends Journal. Angell outlines the timeline of the “Indiana Yearly Meeting Schism” there as well as in the Winter/Spring 2012 issue of Quaker Theology - The Impending Split in Indiana Yearly Meeting.  From my reading, it appears that differing views on homosexuality are being cloaked in questions about the authority of the Yearly Meeting over individual meetings.


I’m holding these Friends from Indiana Yearly Meeting this week as they meet to discern how God is leading them.  I hope they can, as Benigno suggested, listen to differing perspectives with the tenderness they would wish for our own.


And I hope that NPYM can do the same as we explore the nature of our relationships with the wider world of Friends.

*photo credit:  Claire Phipps - 



Views: 113

Comment by Isabel Penraeth on 7th mo. 28, 2012 at 9:26pm

"From my reading, it appears that differing views on homosexuality are being cloaked in questions about the authority of the Yearly Meeting over individual meetings."

"I hope they can, as Benigno [Sanchez-Eppler] suggested, listen to differing perspectives with the tenderness they would wish for our own."

I am glad thee included this statement on listening to differing persectives. Certainly "differing views on homosexuality are being cloaked in questions about the authority of the Yearly Meeting over individual meetings" from the perspective of Doug Bennett and Stephen Angell and then adopted by thee based upon their persuasion. But students of Cultural Cognition of Risk Theory would understand that the authority issue is actually central to the entire worldview of those who see gay marriage and homosexual behavior as a "risk" to social stability, and that it is really not fair to describe it as a cloak or disguise. 

I dislike seeing Friends fall into the trap of not only second-guessing other Friends' motives (which is the habit of people with conflicting worldviews whose perspectives they find it difficult to adopt) but assuming the worst, that they are somehow disingenuous about their concerns or fabricating a false concern. 

Cultural Cognition of Risk posits four cultural (US) worldviews based on the "group-grid" taxonomy.

This group-grid taxonomy outlines how differing cultural worldviews view the risk to society of different issues, including abortion, gays in the military, HPV vaccinations, gun control. I discuss more on my thoughts about this there here.

Friends of the more egalitarian viewpoint, where many liberally-minded Friends might feel at home (a viewpont which Angell and Bennett seem to express in their writings) will find it difficult if not impossible to credit "hierarch-communitarian" statements on issues such as authority, homosexuality and abortion. But hierarch-communitarians have very deep and culturally coherent views on authority that are not a side issue but part of the whole package of who they are and how they view the world. That egalitarians don't share those concerns or include them in their worldview does not invalidate them, but it does make it difficult for them to credit them with the importance other Friends might place on them.

I think Joshua Brown's (at "are we friends") recent blog post on "What About the Other Options" and the responses to it show the difficulty of coming up with solutions in such a fraught discussion. I think he offers a reasonable way forward that allows everyone to give expression to their values, honors Quaker tradition, and acknowledges the breaches. But one look at the responses shows how hard it is for people to accept the expression of values they don't agree with even when moderated by including some they do. If Friends can't do violence to their conscience by being part of a yearly meeting that doesn't accept homosexual marriage and homosexual behavior, then the split must happen, because Friends' tradition is clearly on the side of not-change over change. 

It is one of the challenges for Friends with an egalitarian-communitarian viewpoint that in the ways of Friends, the status quo remains until everyone is in unity for change. That means that the slowest-to-change Friend with the oldest-fashioned views and values can (and probably will) hold up progress for the entire meeting or church. Having to wait for unity means chaining the communal witness to the least progressive (and from the egalitarian viewpoint, least virtuous) viewpoint. That is a difficult place to be, and one that is spectacularly frustrating to the progressively-minded egalitarian.

It also is easy, from the egalitarian viewpoint, to perceive that the only ones who really need to listen are those who are resistant to change. As someone who likes to think about these things, I regularly contemplate the whys and wherefores of Friends' handed-down wisdom: that we should wait for the slowest and slow down the fastest. And that all should wait in that {sometimes quite terrible} tension together seeking unity. It isn't an accident and I don't think it is a mistake. But I do think it is terribly, terribly difficult.


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