Indiana: a fresh schism in the making, or an old break refractured?

I hope Friends everywhere are paying a little attention to what is happening in Indiana Yearly Meeting, a Quaker schism in the making.  And as the ground trembles in Indiana, I hope Friends everywhere are praying for us to find God’s way through this.

Nearly every North American yearly meeting has some schism in its past, some episode of disagreement, laced with bitterness perhaps, then separation into separate, smaller bodies.  Some of these successor groups thrive more than others.  Occasionally they reunite.  Always, the lesions and scars of these separations linger in the memories of some members. 

More important -- and to shift metaphors -- the schisms of the past work like yeast in the present, sometimes creating healthy tensions that help deepen the worship life of all, but sometimes preparing the way for future separations. 

In the present, a yearly meeting can turn its face away from its schism history, actively forgetting there ever were separations. Where is there a yearly meeting Faith and Practice that recounts its schism history? (Yes, there are a few.)  Where is there a yearly meeting website that provides links to neighboring yearly meetings, now separate but once vital parts of the yearly meeting?  Thank goodness we have historians who chronicle the separations, but generally you have to search for the history to find it; we don’t treat it as essential knowledge. 

This past October 1, Indiana Yearly Meeting’s Representative Council approved a minute calling for “deliberative/collaborative reconfiguration.” They accepted a recommendation that “Friends of Indiana Yearly Meeting commit ourselves to a year-long process of seeking a future that honors each other's consciences and understandings of scriptural guidance, and that is life-giving for all our monthly meetings.”  We committed ourselves, that is, to seeking a way to separate that would be planned, integrity affirming and loving for all.

What is the emerging schism all about?  The October 1 Minute named two primary roots: differences over the interpretation and authority of scripture and differences over the authority of the yearly meeting to discipline monthly meetings.  The Minute also spoke of differences in world views and differences that wound.  Not mentioned but certainly the precipitating issue is the decision of one monthly meeting (West Richmond) to declare itself a “welcoming and affirming meeting” regardless of sexual orientation. 

A Reconfiguration Task Force working over the past nine months sketched two alternative yearly meetings (“A” and “B”) and asked monthly meetings to choose between these two.  I’ve posted copies here and here.  I recommend Friends read these two documents and weigh them against their own understandings of being Quaker. 

Monthly meetings have until early September to indicate whether they are inclined more to “A” or more to “B.”  Twenty meetings have so far written letters. Of these, 12 clearly indicate a preference for “B,” the choice that sees scripture as the final authority in all matters and would have the yearly meeting able to discipline monthly meetings that stray. Just one monthly meeting opts for “A,” the choice that sees scripture as divinely inspired but not the sole authority, and that would see the yearly meeting as an organization of mutual accountability rather than subordination. The other seven call for no separation. 

So is there a schism in the making? On one view, there is no unity around the idea of a deliberate separation.  On another view, separation will happen in some fashion – if not planned and deliberate, then unplanned and ragged. 

I’ll offer three thoughts to focus the attention of Friends elsewhere on what is happening in Indiana. 

(1) The roots of schism are revealing for Friends everywhere to consider: these are not issues unique to Indiana Friends, and they have driven schisms in other times and places. The questions face all of us. On scripture, certainly there are widely differing views among Friends.  Are we enriched by these differences, or held back in our spiritual growth by hearing them? On yearly meeting authority, certainly there are divergent understandings of how big a tent Quakerism should be. Friends have been reluctant to insist on creeds, but do we draw any lines? If so, how and why?

(2) Schism in one yearly meeting affects schism in others. The history of schism in the Religious Society of Friends shows that schisms that start in just one yearly meeting often spread to other yearly meetings. The issues may seem idiosyncratic but rarely are. 

(3) Love is always the answer. Schisms usually happen when we lose sight of the healing and unifying power of God’s love. The schismatic urge may be driven by determined efforts to be faithful, but the challenge is to remain confidant that others are also seeking God’s will, too. 

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Comment by Marianna Boncek on 8th mo. 2, 2012 at 10:31am

I came across your post this morning when I was thinking about the divisions among Friends. I find the latest divisions deeply painful. I do agree with you, that Friends lose sight of Love. I am also deeply troubled by the movement towards the lack of tolerance in Friends. I am not a Christian. I do not recognize any authority over that of the Spirit. I have worship shoulder to shoulder with men and women who are staunch Bible Christians and we never had any problem with each other because we focuses on Love.  I am concerned that more and more Quakers believe their private inspirations are the "Word of God". Luckily, I belong to a meeting in which I feel personally nurtured. I think we need to keep the lines of love open. I know what is right for me, but it's would be scary if I started to preach my own personal message as what is right for all Quakers. 

Comment by Christine Manville Greenland on 8th mo. 2, 2012 at 6:07pm

Doug, thanks for the reflections... Perhaps the story of the whole of Christianity is that of division... but then, there are also divisions among our Jewish and Muslim neighbors

Where I stand is in prayer for those whom I love in Indiana Yearly Meeting. It is not up to me to do anything more than do my best to become the best possible disciple I can be. For this I must use my community, Scripture, and the Spirit of the Living God. These are not contradictory.  There was a Friend in my yearly meeting who felt that his position in the yearly meeting meant that he was obligated to outline what Quakers believe... not that it's all the same... What are our core beliefs?

Although this makes me somewhat nervous because of the diversity of beliefs in an admittedly liberal Quaker setting, I admit to having a dreadful time trying to articulate what I believe. It's even more difficult to live the faith with integrity.

Comment by Adria Gulizia on 8th mo. 2, 2012 at 9:59pm

Hi, Doug. I think this piece is very interesting, and I have to agree with a lot of what you said. My impression of Indiana YM is that the MMs within it actually enjoy a great deal of unity, especially compared to some other YMs. It seems a shame that, when so many MMs don't want a split at all, they should still have to do so.

That said,  I find it interesting that you should hold this view of the schism ("Love is always the answer. Schisms usually happen when we lose sight of the healing and unifying power of God’s love."), while at the same time applauding the fact that most Friends tolerate divorce ("[We] tolerate divorce when people have honestly tried, but failed, to make a marriage work.  Then what we ask of them is neither reconciliation nor a life of celibacy.  Instead we ask of them to seek enduring intimacy again."). I actually think that we should urge reconciliation (we should also have a much more rigorous clearness process) and that divorce is wrong and sinful, as well as incredibly destructive to the health, finances, and ultimate life outcomes of all involved. That said, maybe the MMs that want schism are just trying to seek spiritual intimacy with those with whom they share true fellowship, having tried and failed to reconcile with those with whom they do not.

Comment by Doug Bennett on 8th mo. 3, 2012 at 1:27pm

I don't think I applaud toleration of divorce.  I have tried to make sense of why we do, even in IYM, tolerate divorce, and yet allow divergent views of homosexuality to divide us.  The New Testament is much clearer about divorce than homosexuality.

Comment by Adria Gulizia on 8th mo. 3, 2012 at 2:16pm

Doug, sorry if I read you wrong. I read:

"One possibility is to admit that we have simply been weak and wrong in this matter.  On this possibility we should acknowledge that we have accommodated ourselves to practices that are sinful, and we should recommit ourselves to taking the Biblical guidance fully and seriously...There is another possibility, one that begins by asking the purpose of the Biblical instruction against allowing divorce and remarriage.  Surely that guidance is intended to discourage wanton lust and instead to focus our sexual desire on one person to whom we have a steadfast commitment."

Something, perhaps your use of the word "we" or perhaps your use of the word "surely," led me to perceive an acceptance and even approval of the second world view. Again, sorry if I did not understand you aright.

Comment by Marianna Boncek on 8th mo. 3, 2012 at 2:22pm

Many people, myself included, do not recognize the Bible as God's final authority on earth.

Comment by Adria Gulizia on 8th mo. 3, 2012 at 2:27pm

Marianna, I don't know if your comment was in response to mine, but I don't know that anyone who has posted here takes the Bible as God's final authority on earth. I certainly don't, reserving that place for the ongoing guidance of the indwelling Christ. Thankfully there is nothing "final" about it - God keeps leading those who will listen.

Comment by Aaron J Levitt on 8th mo. 5, 2012 at 1:43pm

Is a schism necessarily a failure of love? Or is it the turning from love to anger and harsh judgment that makes the divergence of paths a "schism"?

Comment by Will T on 8th mo. 14, 2012 at 10:28pm

I find the timing of this schism interesting.  When I served on the FUM General Board, it seemed to me as if a lot of the divisions in that organization were the results of various yearly meetings, both liberal and conservative,  projecting their unresolved issues onto FUM.  When the FUM General Board made a conscious decision to not split, schisms started appearing in Western YM and Indiana.    I know that correlation does not mean causality.  But it gives me something to ponder.


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