Thursday, July 17, 2008

Of Yearly Meetings, Authority, and Disclaimers....

I just heard a rumor that there's a new idea floating around about how to neutralize a certain Friends pastor/author type that some people find really annoying. No, not me. I mean someone else whose books sell a few more copies than mine do (between us we've sold almost 2 million, five thousands books. He's sold 2 million and I've sold 5,000).

I've long known that there are some people in Western Yearly Meeting who are troubled by this fellow's theology -- especially his audacious assertion that God's love is so large that everyone will eventually find a safe haven in God's eternal presence. While that is pretty outrageous and hard for a good Christian to swallow (I mean, get serious, how could God really love someone like Hitler or the driver who cut me off this morning more than He loves me?!), this writer's theology is not the point of the post. Rather, the point is a proposed "solution" (hmmm, wasn't "solution" part of the phrase regarding how the Nazi's dealt with the Jewish "problem"?).

The solution I hear is being floated is to ask this vile offender to simply note in each of his books that the views expressed in them are his own and do not reflect the views of Friends or (especially) Western Yearly Meeting.

I think this is brilliant. It's a great idea. It helps move Friends one step further back toward the ecclesiasticism we have always embraced. It's a lot like the concordat cum originali in the front of approved Catholic books. According to the the US Council on Bishops:
The Committee on Divine Worship, a standing committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, has the responsibility for all matters relating to the Liturgy. The Secretariat of Divine Worship carries out the work of the Committee on Divine Worship, by:
overseeing the preparation and approval of liturgical books and texts and granting the concordat cum originali for publications of liturgical texts in the United States.
I suppose we could insert "General Superintendents" for "Bishops" and we'd be one step closer to Rome.

Oh wait. I guess I got that backward somewhat. The early Quakers were against ecclesiastical hierarchies and instead stood for calling people to a living experience of God. They didn't have bishops. Or superintendents.

Still, I think the idea just might work. But only if we don't stop with this particular pastor/writer. We need to make every Friends pastor do the same thing with every sermon they preach, newsletter article they write, Sunday school class or Bible study they teach -- heck, let's just make it every public utterance. "Great dinner, darling -- of course, that's just my opinion and does not reflect the view of Friends or Western Yearly Meeting."

Perhaps we could get name tags made for each pastor. Something that says, "Hi. My name is XXX. Anything I say is just my opinion and does not reflect the view of Friends or Western Yearly Meeting."

Now that I think about it, why stop with pastors. Let's add clerks, assistant clerks, recording clerks, ushers, trustees, choir members, people in the pews. I mean surely this fellow can't be the only one in the Yearly Meeting who's spouting stuff that others don't agree with.

Why, I have to admit that I've heard one or two or twenty other pastors say things that I don't believe are true -- things so bad that my wife Nancy, who is as good hearted a person as I've ever known in my life, had to get up and leave with tears in her eyes because she was so offended. And these speakers were Friends pastors. And nobody has ever, so far as I know, ever eldered them about being so far right (as opposed to this other fellow's left) that George Fox would have been classified a liberal and soft on Jesus, the Bible, and atonement in comparison.

Or maybe the solution isn't any type of disclaimer. Instead it may be time to just shut-up about the whole thing, let God defend God's self, and proclaim a little good news to a world that could use some. Would to God that we truly trusted -- dare I say "believed in" -- God enough to let that happen.

I hope this disclaimer rumor is just that -- a rumor. But then Yearly Meeting's fast approaching and there's nothing we love so much as a good fight -- good Quakers that we are. What must Jesus think?

The views expressed in this blog are Brent's, Brent's alone, and do not reflect the views of Friends, Quakers, the Religious Society of Friends, any Yearly Meeting anywhere, the local Meeting he attends, the worship-sharing group that meets at his house, Princess the dog, and the cats known as Ebony, Coal, and Grace. Nancy Elizabeth Bill also had nothin' to do with this.
PS Don't read the above as endorsement of Phil Gulley's theology (or the "dis-endorsement" of anybody else's). The point, in case you missed it, is the absurdity of censoring one whilst the ninety-and nine get to speak and do anything they please without fear of losing their recording.


Robin M. said...

The only problem with this post is not its fault. It's that sarcasm doesn't play well on the internet.

I agree with you. I even agree with Gulley's theology and I'm willing to say so in public. Nonetheless, I did put a disclaimer on my blog saying that I don't speak for any organization, Quaker or otherwise.

I wonder how many people who read his books even know what Western Yearly Meeting is?

Brent Bill said...

Yes, Robin, I know and that's why I tried to paint this satire with as broad a brush as I could. I'm hoping the tone is not too sarcastic or snarky, but edgy enough that anybody who reads it understands that it's a satire in the best meaning of that word.

I even ran this by someone from a denomination that has "authority" and "hierarchy" and even in that tradition, denominational "forces" have a difficult -- if not untenable -- time "enforcing" orthodoxy (or what passes for it).

Regarding your comment about how many of his readers even know what WYM is -- the many readers really aren't the audience for this post. Instead it's those of us who know what WYM (and other Quaker organizations) is and care enough about them and their future to finally say, "Enough is enough."

merryquaker said...

I get it. I can identify with robin. . .in that, if I "screw up" (I do that from time to time), I don't want everyone else to get all sorts of heat for it. Most of all, I don't want to reflect badly on the truths I have experienced and somehow diminish them.

On the other hand, I stubbornly defend the right for some "other Friend" to step out on that wire.

Brent Bill said...

Thanks, MerryQuaker, for the post. And I hope that I don't reflect badly on the truths I have learned and hope to share with others. Rather I hope that by working with this particular piece of satire, I point out the total absurdity of a censoring situation that seems to many of us to be getting out of hand. God is not in the dock here (to paraphrase C S Lewis) nor should any particular Friends minister be. If we are going to focus on some theological disagreements with one recorded minister, we had best be prepared to do the same with each and every other recorded minister. Scrutinize every newsletter article, every sermon, every Bible study lesson to ensure Orthodoxy. And who among us is equipped to do just that? I am not. The most I can do, in some ways, is to say with Martin Luther, "Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me, Amen!"

cath said...

I agree with Phil Gulley's take on universalism, as well. And I also know that previous attempts to censor him have not been successful. I doubt if this one will be, either.

Most of my non-Quaker friends who have heard Phil Gulley speak admire his ability to tell stories and encourage spiritual thinking. They don't necessarily feel that he is an official spokesman for the RSOF.

Tempest in a teapot, I think.


Brent Bill said...

Ah, Cath, I'm afraid it's a teapot that's been tempest-ing too long. Too much time has been spent on addressing this issue rather than doing some real salvific work in world.

And, truth be told, I'm not convinced that Phil's take on universalism is correct. I'm really a pretty conservative (theologically) person. The point for me is not whether Phil's right -- or (insert name here) is wrong -- but rather that any of us called to ministry (and by that I do not mean just recorded ministers, pastors, and the like, but anybody who speaks publicly), speak the truth they have been shown. Instead of worrying about who's wrong on the left or the right, we need to affirm a gospel ministry that is evidenced by the fruits of the Spirit -- joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance. If those are evident in a person's ministry, then trust God to sort out the theology.

cath said...

I agree that this tempest has been going on too long--but that doesn't make it any less of a teapot issue for me, though.

It can be very frustrating to find people who would rather make a big deal out of one thing and avoid other, perhaps more pressing, issues.

As for Phil Gulley's take on universalism--I did not mention my agreement as a debate item re: censorship, so I hope you won't feel that I am equating the two.

We all have our spiritual truth, and I was indicating that mine fits with his quite nicely in the matter of universalism. That's all. Robin also mentioned that she agrees with Phil Gulley's theology.

Perhaps a period between my statement about universalism and my thought about censorship in my post would have made it more clear that my feelings about censorhip are not directly connected to my belief in universalism.

Meanwhile, I couldn't agree more with you about speaking the truth we have been given.


Robin M. said...

Um, new thought: maybe putting the disclaimer in all of Gulley's books would be a tool of evangelism - think how many more people would have heard of Western Yearly Meeting if that name appeared in his books! Maybe he could put the web address and other contact information as well? :-)

Johan said...

Hi, Brent and all. This is a fascinating and worthwhile conversation. But before we get too sentimental about the freedom enjoyed by early Friends (centuries before superintendents were thought of!), remember that George Fox and other early Quaker writers were censored by their fellow ministers and elders, and that a special committee of the young London Yearly Meeting took it upon itself to discern these writings' public acceptability.

I would not want to set up any equivalent now, unless somehow there were a very trustworthy process involved--some credible guarantee that prejudice and politics would not creep in.

Brent Bill said...

Of course Johan is right about Fox et al doing their "fact checking" work. I guess I still see that group as a gathering of weighty Friends called (emphasis on called) to do that work and less of an attempt to keep one or two people in line (although the name James Naylor comes to mind. ;-)).

And Robin's idea of a disclaimer as a sort of reverse sort of evangelism is just subversive enough that it might work. In all seriousness, though, the thing I worry about as a Quaker who writes is that some folks read my work and want to find a place that practices the kind of Friendly faith I write about and then can't find a Meeting/Church that fits my description of silent waiting, minding the Light, or looking for way opening. But that's a whole 'nother dilemma, as we say in the Midwest.

Brent Bill said...

Regarding the "disclaimer" at the end of my post (The views expressed ... and do not reflect the views ... Princess the dog, and the cats known as Ebony, Coal, and Grace. Nancy Elizabeth Bill also had nothin' to do with this.), I checked with Princess (the Great Pyrenees) and she said she agreed with the sentiment of the piece. She added that if the Friends wanted a problem to deal with, they should come do something about the coyote that keeps teasing her. "That's a real issue," she said.

The cats also weighed in, expressing their complete disinterest in the matter since it didn't directly involve them and noted that one Quaker in particular would be in big trouble if they didn't get some canned cat food soon.

merryquaker said...

You know this a very good subject in general. I would love to learn a little more about how others handle it.

I struggle with the "poster child" for Quakere issue. I mean, even choosing a blog name like "Merry Quaker" was difficult. On one hand, how can anyone know/benefit from my faith if I don't tell them what it is and how it guides me. On the other, the act of visibly acknowledging the "Q" automatically makes everything I say or do a representation of that faith.

I'm human. I screw up. I'm a Quaker. But, Quakers are so seriously diverse. I have strong opinions. I speak them boldly. I also hold them lightly and change when I see the need to. I'm a work in progress and for anyone tuning in, you've caught the program somewher in the middle.

I suppose I want things "both ways." I want my successes to bear that wonderful "Q word." But, when I miss the mark I don't want that to be interpreted as a Quaker issue.

I've been wrong many times before. I suspect I'll be wrong many times to come. However, just this moment, I may happen to be right.

Jeanne said...

Not being a member of Western Yearly Meeting and not knowing the pastor you were talking about until I read Robin M.'s comment, and not being aware of any controversy around Gully outside of Indiana. Or Illinois. Or some such place. And having thought that controversy to either be long over or well on its way to over...

I read your post as satire.

I think sometimes people in the middle of the stuff satirized have a hard time seeing satire for what it is. I think of the reaction Jonathan Swift got to his Modest Proposal. The folks being criticized knew exactly that they (or their actions) were being criticized and didn't take well to Swift's words.

Keep on writing, Brent Bill. I don't kneed to know WYM or the minister to get what you're saying and apply it to situations with which I'm familiar.

THAT's a mark of good satire.

Brent Bill said...

Thanks for the affirmation that the satire works, Jeanne. And MerryQuaker I know what you mean about being a "public" Friend. It is an awsemome calling and deserves being entered into with reverence and humility. And it is one reason I don't write as an "expert" telling people what to do or think, but rather write as a fellow pilgrim who may have learned a thing or two along the way that others might find helpful -- the same way I find things other people tell me helpful.

Still, it would be a good discussion to have in this new day of electronic communications and the ease with which we can make our opinions, thoughts, concerns, and the like known.

Thanks to everyone who's shared!

ellen michaud said...

Sometimes I wonder if we Quakes treasure silence so much not because it's where it's easiest to meet God, but because it's the only state in which we can truly love the Quake next to us. Blessings to you all...

David H. Finke said...

Hi, Folks --

I am actually a member of Western YM, via my membership in 57th St. in Chicago (dually affiliated with Illinois YM). But living in Missouri these last dozen years I haven't been able to be at WYM's annual sessions for a while.

Last year, hearing that "The Phil Gulley matter" was coming to the floor of the YM via an Executive Committee recommendation that, rumor had it, amounted to a move to de-frock Phil (had he a frock), I wanted to find out what happened.

6 months later I finally got my own copy of the MinuteBook, and could read for myself (one has to know how to decode these things) the proceedings, and the outcome that the clerk discerned that there was not unity with the recommendation about Phil. (There had been disputes, apparently, as to what constituted a proper clearness committee as contrasted to a stacked kangaroo court.) Phil's congregation, it seems, has stood with him staunchly through all the brouhaha.

I remember being at annual sessions when Phil was "recorded" (as near as we in WYM come to ordination) via the report of a subcommittee of the "Board on Christian Ministry & Evangelism" on which I had been serving. It was a real love-fest. At that point, increasing numbers of folks were coming to realize that Phil's gift for easy-going but spiritually-pointed humor and his narrations from the mythical church/meeting that sounds in many ways like most of ours, was a tremendous outreach/evangelism tool. Local Friends had minuted their desire that he be recorded (which they've never rescinded), and they were there in droves to see the completion of the process.

Now if Phil had just been spinning out front-porch yarns, I guess that would have been OK. His church has been attrracting lots of new folks, and "church growth" is a hot item in Western. But when he got specific about the workings of God's Love, I guess he went too far for some folks who, truth be told, are closer to the Fire-and-Brimstone variety of Evangelical Protestantism than they are to classic Quakerism. That really made me sad. It's made lots of folks sad, too -- some of whom have simply taken a walk.

One of my happy images of Phil, from 5 or 6 years ago, was that he and a co-author buddy of his came to Western and just set up some easy chairs outside the camper where he made himself available near the Yearly Meetinghouse there in Plainfield, Indiana. I think he was actually GIVING away some of his books to those who showed an interest. I thought at the time: what a neat way to handle controversy! He didn't post 95 theses on the church door and take on all comers. And at that point, he hadn't yet been called up to the Diet of Worms (church historians will note my intended reference) to answer for his apparent heresies. He just was there to answer people's questions and have some friendly chats. No gauntlets being thrown down, just books and autographs and hearty jokes being given away. Oh yes, I think he had been asked to preach the headlined Sunday Sermon on one of those occasions --- he was rapidly rising to the top of the charts, and might even have been joining that elite group of writers who can make a buck or two, instead of having to subsidize their own publications.

(I've lost track of how often folks in mainstream Protestantism will say to me, "You're a Quaker! Do you know Phil Gulley? or Richard Foster?" I sense it's akin to the influence in the larger world that Elton Trueblood and Rufus Jones had... and it's just possible that any of those folks were thought to embody Quakerism, though I don't know whether any had adopted an Official Disclaimer.)

As I like to tell fellow liberals elsewhere in the midwest (or further afield when I get there), part of the genius of Western Yearly Meeting is that historically it has really been centrist, in terms of politics and theology of the old Five Years Meeting connection. It has tolerated a handful of unprogrammed/liberal meetings such as mine -- even invited me to give a keynote talk there once (copy on request) while at the same time containing meetings whose leadership comes from Church of God/Anderson Indiana, rather than ESR. The Weslyan influence is a far greater challenge to WYM's Quakerism than are currents of Unitarian/Universalsim. The latter is a problem others of us have.

Sometimes I think the real divisions in WYM don't have to do with theological universalism vs. send-'em-to hell faith statements. Rather, the significant divides are between those from small town Indiana and those from The Big City (including greater Indianapolis -- hardly on a par with Sodom, Gomorrah, or Babylon). Or, those who are all related by genetics or marriage, and those of us who are first-generation Quakers.

But, I've been delighted to say, we have managed to get along with each other, learn from each other, stay in each other's homes, share in workshops and worship-sharing with each other. AND, it's frequently a strain and a culture-shock from both directions, which we tolerate and grow from.

Those, I think, are some of the dynamics behind the current "heresy trial" movement as some have characterized it. Up to know, WYM has been its own little ecumenical movement in Quakersim, and has brought some of its learning into the larger circles of FUM and FWCC.

In fact, I retain my membership at 57th St. rather than the logical thing of transferring to Columbia, Missouri, PRECISELY so that I can claim to be part of Western, and thereby of FUM -- for all the disagreements I could readily find with folks in either or both of those fellowships. It's a matter of "the delicate balance," and feeling that the venture is worth the effort.

One more thought (and I apologize that I don't have the primary document in front of me): The day after the Phil Gulley matter came inconclusively before the yearly meeting's annual sessions, the Presiding Clerk bespoke an apology which was minuted. He regretted that he hadn't been wise enough to prevent Friends from behaving in such unproductive and unFriendly ways. He ruled that the matter was laid over until folks would be in a better spiritual condition to treat it worshipfully as a matter of business in accordance with Divine Guidance. I hope that I have such courage and insight when/if I'm ever called on to preside over a similar fracas.

Friends in Western, you continue to be in my prayers. And I know God is with you... with wisdom, humor, healing, and the gift of faith that you will be Rightly Led.


(David H. Finke,
Columbia, Missouri)

Brent Bill said...

Thanks, David, for your insightful comments and sharing these thoughts with us. The shifting tides of opinion are always interesting -- and obviously fickle.

I should note that a very reliable source has told me that the "rumor" that started this whole blog is just that -- a "rumor." No basis in fact. I hope that's true -- in fact, HOORAY.

But I still think the topic of who gets to speak or not speak (or write or not write) is worthy of serious consideration. Perhaps we can continue that conversation in the near future...

Laotzu42 said...

I’m certainly no theologian or expert of any sort. In fact I’m just learning about Quakerism and have very happily stumbled on your website.

Am I being too naive in thinking that some of the issues people have with Gulley’s theology is that they feel they’ve “played by the rules” and are entitled to a reward. So, why should someone who didn’t “play by the rules” get a reward or be given God’s grace? Kind of like the son who stayed home in the prodigal son parable.

I grew up in a very “fire and brimstone” church that preached salvation through fear and guilt. I couldn’t get my head around a God that had such “conditional” love for his children. These doubts and others eventually drove me away from the church.

As a parent this feeling has only grown stronger. I feel my love for my children is pretty unconditional. Shouldn’t God’s love be the same for HIS children?

Over the last year or so I’ve started finding my way back to Christianity because I’ve discovered that there are people out there who feel as I do. That is better to love than hate. Be full of joy and not fear, and that if my love for my children is great, how much greater must God’s be for his?

As we live in Mooresville, my family and I have attended Fairfield and the congregation is in no way a bunch of left-leaning elites. They are hard working Hoosiers with deep, DEEP roots in the community, and an unwavering commitment to each other and God.
If Phil Gulley’s message speaks to them, then it seems like there must be something there for all of us to hear.


Anonymous said...

I never realized that any Quaker body, or traditional Christianity (Church Fathers, etc.) disallowed the possibility that every human would be saved. I would have to read Gulley, but the issue appears to be: "No, you can't take away my satisfaction that my neighbor is going to hell." As long as we accept that 'judgment' is in God's hands, speculation whether any person or no person is damned is only speculation.

This question opens up another fun theological question -- one that would make a lovely paper or book: "Is fear of punishment an effective tool to bring people to salvation?" The difficult part of the paper would be defining salvation. One thing for certain: any conclusion would be controversial.


I respectfully disagree with Robin M. The sarcasm played wonderfully for me. I wish you wonderful luck with your book. I would like to 'point out' that there was a tradition of submitting books to committees for endorsement as late as the 19th century -- back when publishing, or marrying without permission was grounds for disownment... so, unfortunately, your sarcasm is a little close to the truth in the 'age of Quietism.

Brent Bill said...

Thanks Jeff and Michael David for your comments. Jeff, I think you may be on to something about the folks who "played by the rules." I also think that it has to do with HL Mencken's suggestion that Puritanism was based upon the sneaking suspicion that someone somewhere was having a good time. I think the same goes for some of these Friends. Faith is pretty serious stuff and Phil and some others seem to be having a good time.

I also think, and this is just my opinion, that there's no small part of jealousy involved. After all, Fairfield is growing and reaching people -- how many of his detractor's Meetings are doing the same?

And Michael David's question "Is fear of punishment an effective tool to bring people to salvation?" is a good one. An even better one might be "Is fear of punishment an effective tool to bring people to an experience of God?" I do find it sort of amazing that the people who are solidly in favor of Hell and against universalism, are so content to debate theological issues whilst sitting comfortably in a pew instead of rushing around like crazy trying to get the lost "saved." Either they don't fully comprehend the consequences of such a stand or just don't really care that people are going to be damned, since they aren't spending every waking minute otu trying to save them.

But then I suppose there's one or two or twenty inconsistencies between my faith and actions.

jack flash said...

If a former east-coast Quaker (defected to the UCC) can comment:
It never ceases to amaze me how much effort people put in "defending" an all powerful God and saving the people of God from dangerous ideas (like forgiveness and redemption).
If God trusts us enough to give us free will and free thought, can't we be trusted enough to use them no matter who's theology whe're reading?

Brent Bill said...

Ah, Jack Flash, that's a good thought. Perhaps we don't really believe in free will. Perhaps some of us are really closet Calvinists -- happy that we're the elect and pretty sure nobody else is.

L. Whisler said...

Oh, how I have greatly missed Friend David Finke and his timely wisdom.

If I may inject a bit of history...I think the roots of this go way back to the early 1980s and a particular problem that Western Yearly Meeting had with a particular meeting that landed them in the State Supreme Court with the ruling that the Yearly Meeting had the authority to decide this or that. Going into the details of that court case will send us down a road in a completely different direction, and I for one don't want to go there.

Up until that time, life in Western YM was the bucolic one David describes where Friends of many different persuasions got along amicably, with friendly relations fostered by Wise Ones such as Victor Guthrie, and my Dad who was clerk back then, and others who were willing to live with some differences because the Kingdom and our similarities were more important. That aspect of WYM was important and defining - and I really like the idea that we could be defined by our willingness to live amicably with divergent views.

As an adult I participated in leadership of the yearly meeting during some of the significant change. While I still retain my WYM membership, I have very different feelings having seen the changes take place before my eyes and after, now that I live in the cheap seats 500+ miles away.

It's still difficult to say exactly where things went off track. Partly some monthly meetings pushed too hard on some issues. Partly some people in the YM were unwilling to continue to tolerate divergent views. Partly we had a leadership vacuum in a couple of key areas. Partly we had some people who were maybe too interested in administrative aspects of leadership and not enough in spiritual aspects. Mostly, though, we forgot what really matters about living in the Kingdom - that we love God and love others first and foremost.

Institutions have life cycles just as do individuals. WYM just celebrated 150 years. While I was sad that I couldn't attend, I was also strangely ambivalent. It's not the same place as David described and as was such a formative (I think...?) influence on me as a young person.

The best thing that can come from the current controversy is a renewed conversation about Kingdom living. That's easy to say from the cheap seats.

L. Whisler
laurelwhisler at yahoo dot com

Brent Bill said...

Hi Laurel -- I agree with a lot of what you wrote, especially the phrase "Partly we had some people who were maybe too interested in administrative aspects of leadership and not enough in spiritual aspects." I would probably have worded it a bit stronger -- perhaps more worried about the power that comes with leadership and not enough about the service that should be it's core.

That latter part made writing the 150th history section very difficult -- how to end a story that in the past few years has been one of major decline in vitality. I hope the questions at the end of that section will engage enough people at a deeper spiritual level and that we can then move on to actually living a faith instead of arguing what that faith is, looks like, acts like, etc.

John said...


Thank you for this post! We are having similar theological conversations at Englewood Friends Meeting (part of IYM).

Personally, I completely harmonize with Gulley; Friend speaks my mind :) I hope this controversy doesn’t bring any Meeting “closer to Rome.”

I am glad that you disagree with censorship-even if you don’t fully (or partly) agree with Gulley.

This post is well written and funny-I should pick up a copy of your book.

In The Light,


jim said...

Never met a Morman, JW, nor a Satanist that was not a good sincere person;
simply bewiched. Very sad to hear of the direction your leadership has allowed you to move as Friends.