Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
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.