Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sore Losers or Good News?

Sore Losers?

Well, that title may be a bit harsh, but then it seems harshness is the rule of the day for Quakers in this part of Indiana – at least those who have any affiliation with Western Yearly Meeting. And I have resisted writing on this subject hoping that harshness had had its day and was a thing of the past. But something happened yesterday that so disturbed me that I felt I needed to write – even if it’s just for me.

My own affiliation with that body is unofficial (at this time) but long. I am not a member of a Meeting that belongs to Western Yearly Meeting, though I attended one for eight years that is a member of Western Yearly Meeting. I am a former staff member of Western Yearly Meeting and wrote the narrative for the Yearly Meeting 150th anniversary.

As many Friends know, this Yearly Meeting has been the scene of a fair amount of rancor around a certain issue the past few years. It looked as if it would all come to a head at this summer’s Yearly Meeting sessions – which is one reason I decided to attend an arts and faith conference 1,500 miles away. Not because I’m a coward, but frankly because I wanted the geographic distance as an assist to spiritual distance – I wanted space to hold the yearly Meeting in prayer. To pray for people on both sides of the issue, for wisdom for the clerk, for God’s will to be done (not mine), and for Christ’s love to prevail.

James 5:16(b) says, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much,” so I was hoping that the fervent prayer of this (not-so-righteous) man might at least avail a little. I received daily reports about the progress of Yearly Meeting from people I trust and admire. And I heard that there was a fair amount of tension and disagreement but that the clerk, by and large, did as fine a job as possible in allowing people to be heard, to hearing what people were saying, and to forming a sense of the Meeting – which, as I understand it, was that there was no unity on this controversial issue and so no action would be taken.

In other words, it sounded like Quaker process – as outlined in Faith and Practice – was followed. The Yearly Meeting met in session, discussed and prayed over this issue, sought God’s will and moved on. Now I understand that some people would not be happy, no matter how this turned out (though they should be if Quaker process was followed) because it meant they “lost” – if you want to put in terms of winning and losing (which I think is ludicrous – who would win in this situation).

I thought the point of Quaker process was partly to trust the wisdom of God being transmitted through those gathered for Meeting for Worship for Business.

Evidently I was wrong. Before Yearly Meting was over someone who, in my opinion, should have known better based on their position in the Yearly Meeting, tried to raise the question on the floor of Yearly Meeting. After the Yearly Meeting had moved on to other issues.

Still, I hoped this issue at last would be put aside and the Yearly Meeting could then get on to doing something really important – such as speaking the Christian Quaker witness to a world that is hungering for Good News – not stories of Quakers wrangling with each other. Is that wrangling what Jesus had in mind as He hung upon the cross? I somehow doubt it.

What finally swayed me to write was the recent Plainfield Friends Church e-newsletter which reported that the Meeting had a approved a minute that said, Plainfield Friends Meeting affirms the Western Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice-2005 Edition, and will continue to faithfully follow it as a description of what we believe and how we are to work together as a meeting and Yearly Meeting.

That is a fine minute. I have no problem with that. But I do have a problem with the statement that proceeds it – “We are concerned that at the 2009 Yearly Meeting Sessions there was an unwillingness to uphold basic principles in our Faith and Practice concerning the deity of Christ and atonement through Christ.

That seems a pretty strong statement. It’s an accusation against other people of good faith, basically saying that other people were unwilling to uphold Faith and Practice. Yikes. That really bothers me. If I said those words I would be saying, “I have the right answers and the right thinking and however faithful you might think you are, you are wrong, your understanding of faith is wrong, your faith is false, and you…” You, you, you… Me, me, me.

Where is God in this? What would Jesus think? Where is the Holy Spirit at work – no fruits of the spirit evident in that statement.

And I found the next part of the newsletter even more upsetting. Titled “Looking for a Way Forward in Western Yearly Meeting” it says “There are a number of meetings and individuals in Western Yearly Meeting who are concerned that we failed to follow Faith and Practice in some of the actions at Yearly Meeting this year. Some even see a loss of integrity and authority seriously damaging the Yearly Meeting….People are looking for ways forward in what has become a divisive situation.”

It then announces a meeting to discuss this need for a way forward. A way forward to what? It’s not a way forward as a Yearly Meeting to my thinking – it’s a way forward of a particular way of thinking theologically, to the exclusion of those who think differently. The clue is that phrase “that we failed to follow Faith and Practice in some of the actions at Yearly Meeting this year.” It seems to me that Faith and Practice was followed – at least so far as Quaker process is concerned. And just because my way or your way wasn’t the way things turned out, doesn’t mean the process wasn’t followed. Indeed a meeting such as the one that is being held does more, in my opinion to harm the integrity and authority of Yearly Meeting. The Yearly Meeting is not the staff. It is not a few leaders. It is the people called Quakers of the various constituent Meetings gathering under Faith and Practice, following its procedures for how to conduct business, and seeking God’s will together. The authority and integrity of the Yearly Meeting is not threatened by actions taken together in a Meeting for Worship for Business as part of the annual sessions. It is threatened when those who disagree with an outcome raise a hue and cry about needing a “way forward” for their way of believing.

I find this all very sad. Very sad. It misses the point of our mission as Friends in this world – one that was well articulated by Friend Edgar Dunstan –

The early Friends were fully assured that they had a message for all men – not merely that one or other of their testimonies was specially relevant to their own time, but that message in its totality, in its wholeness, was God’s good news for all sorts and conditions of men...’Have you anything to declare?’ is a vital challenge to which every one of us is personally called to respond and is also a challenge that every meeting should consider of primary importance. It should lead us to define, with such clarity as we can reach, precisely what it is that Friends of this generation have to say that is not, as we believe, being said effectively by others. What, indeed, have we to declare to this generation that is of sufficient importance to justify our separate existence as part of the Christian fellowship? …Have we ‘good news’ for them?

Have we good news for them? Not at this rate. Who wants news of Quakers – peaceable Friends of all people – fighting amongst themselves.

To quote the Quaker theologian Homer Simpson, “Bah. Meh.”

-- Brent


Bill said...

Brent was kind enough to give me a heads up about this post, which touches on some things I have done and been involved with as pastor at Plainfield.

I have posted a response at Meeting Jesus / Finding Peace rather than take up a lot of space in Brent's Comment box.

Brent Bill said...

I appreciate Bill's post and encourage you to read it on his blog. Bill is a wise, good, and thoughtful man.

Nate said...

Since this Sunday's Meeting is wide open and is looking for "a way forward" I would suggest that those who felt that the Faith and Practice statement either did not reflect their perceptions or was otherwise more restrictive than they would like to see should attend the Meeting with the idea that a way forward would be to initiate a change in the statement.

Liz Opp said...

Here is the comment I left on Bill's post:

It's clear to me that Friends on all sides of the issue care, and I certainly don't know what is or has been involved, since I am not a part of Western YM.

But just as in a marriage that has hit a rocky spell and both partners need time to reach deeply into their faith in God, I would want to know to what extent Friends are willing to sit in the discomfort for a while, let go of any hoped-for outcome, and invite the Spirit in, to be close, and to show everyone a Third Way?

It's a rhetorical question so no need to answer. I just wonder if God is starting to break through to a number of yearly and monthly meetings, because there are a number of issues and topics that are creating pain and even outrage...

We are all one. You are all in my thoughts and prayers today.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Comrade Kevin said...

When you let your emotions get in the way of cool logic, then regrettable displays like this come to light. I happen to think that a lot of this harshness is born of a frustration that reform never happens as it should in any form, so best to reinforce one's point of view harshly. Either that, or they believe that the way things are changing is ill-thought-out and unnecessary. Many think they're resorting to tough love and never one contemplate that they might be coming across otherwise.

And when the stress of the many problems swirling around us only makes this response worse, then responses like this are common.

Scott King- Atlanta GA said...

Quaker process doesn't take priority over being in unity of faith as the meeting for business is conducted. We must know and believe in He Who leads us, and His Lordship over the Meeting. I think it is an error to put respect for "the process" ahead of the unity of faith!

Brent Bill said...

Ah, well, Scott King, while I am more hesitant than you to name what is "error" and what is not, I will say I think that you are wrong in that you missed my point.

I'd say Quaker process does take priority over being in unity of faith as the meeting for business is conducted because that process is rooted and grounded in seeking the Will of Him Who leads us -- and not in the will of those who would lead us in the way they think is right or slavish adhereence to certain sections of a book that is revised every so often.

Quaker process is about trusting that we are not the only ones who might be led by God, but that others who faithfully seek Him -- even if they do not think exactly as we do -- may have a word from God that we need to hear and obey. Unity does not consist in my way or the highway among Friends -- it consists in seeking the will of God as the people of God. And that's what Quaker process is about.

So I -- even if in error -- will respect the process because it is how we live out learning God's Will for our time and place and circumstances. The process led Friends to work toward the abolition of slavery and other unpopular issues. The process is not God -- but points to God and God's will and can be trusted in so far as we are willing to say God may speak in voices other than those who agree with my thinking.

If we do not do that -- then unity of faith is farce. It merely means unity of thought and not unity of faith in the Living God.

anj said...

How can true unity of faith be found if we do not honor Quaker process? It is not about logic, or emotion, it is about discerning a Godly outcome, seeking the Will of God, in this time, at this place. If Friends chose not to stand aside or stand in the way of the sense of the Yearly Meeting and then to come back questioning that sense, seems to me, yes I think will say it, egregious behavior. How can we come to true unity, how can we be Light to the world, if Friends will not engage in Quaker process with honesty and integrity?

Having said that, I understand I do not know the situation of which you speak, and rather than speaking to that situation, I am speaking for my love of what Quaker process brings to our witness as a people.

anj said...

Sorry Friends - after reading Bill's post, and then slowing down and reading Brent's, I see that there was no sense of the meeting, so I jumped to conclusions in my naming of egregious behavior for why I named it. Coming off a very rich and full committee weekend, with a new return to Quaker process for the committee, I was tender to the subject and failed to listen well.

My love for Quaker process in coming to true unity in discerning the Will of God stands.

I apologize if my poorly written words add any fuel to the fire, and I pray that the fire will burn to purify, not destroy.

Brent Bill said...

@ang -- well, I would say that there was a sense of the Meeting. That sense was that there was not approval of a certain recommendation that a Yearly Meeting committee had put forward. So the sense of the Meeting was, as I understand, to lay the matter aside and move on to other business.

But that is just my understanding.