I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. And in that also I saw the infinite love of God; and I had great openings.
George Fox, Journal, 1647
These are some of my experiences during and after the "reconfiguration" of Indiana Yearly Meeting.
December 8, 2013
An article, scripture reading, questions for discussion and suggested hymn for United Society of Friends Women International, published in 2014 Blueprints.
SEE! I AM DOING A NEW THING
Scripture: Isaiah 43:19
Hymn: You are salt for the earth*
Eighteen months ago I was wandering in a bit of a blur, in that kind of disbelief that happens when you first get bad news. It wasn't like a death in the family, but it was the possible death of something that was dear to me - of my yearly meeting. After a working group had looked painstakingly at the options open to the yearly meeting, its recommendation was for schism.
If my first reaction was disbelief, my second was dismay. Schism seemed to me to be a symptom of not working hard enough on our calling of reconciliation, whatever the difficulty. Schisms, in my yearly meeting, were in the past: 1828, 1843,1926. Surely we couldn't be about to repeat it?
There were attempts to reconcile. There were plenty of people who carried a vision of a yearly meeting that could embrace its shared history, and connect us all into something that was bigger than the sum of the parts. Despite that, it became clear that the schism would happen.
The larger two-thirds retained the name and the legal identity, and a smaller third was set off, with a negotiated settlement of property and assets, to form a new entity. It was like a divorce. The language of divorce became one of the threads running through the process. For those who, as children, had felt loss as a result of divorce, and for those who had felt powerless, as adults, to keep a marriage intact, it was painful. But for those who had experienced divorce as a liberation from abuse, or simply from a relationship that no longer had life, it was a relief. We cannot help but bring our life experiences into new situations.
People stepped forward to volunteer in the new situation. I found myself, unexpectedly, serving as clerk of the New Association of Friends (a temporary name we in the smaller group gave ourselves, since we didn't yet know who we were, or what our geographical boundary was.) Suddenly there legal and administrative practical details to focus on: incorporation, by-laws, health insurance, recording of gifts in ministry, property and endowments. Who were we? What united us - other than being 800+ shipwrecked people? We took comfort in the passage from Isaiah 43:19:
See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.
Step by step, month by month, we visited each other, worshiped together, shared meals and passed new milestones. We incorporated in the State of Indiana, and agreed a short statement of purpose:
The New Association of Friends is a voluntary association of monthly meetings, churches and individuals that supports worship, ministry and service through the cultivation of Christian faith in the Quaker tradition.
Friends Committee on National Legislation asked us to name representatives. Friends United Meeting recognized us as full members. Indiana USFW and Quaker Men chose not to be part of the schism at all. These things meant so much to us - we weren't alone. I learned, as a recipient, what a gift that those on the 'outside' can bring when they reach out to those who have lost a previous community, identity and role.
We don't yet have some things that others might think necessary, like a name, or a Faith and Practice. A name carries identity, and that is emerging only slowly. We probably can't talk choose a name until we have a geographical boundary. Our meetings are in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio, but our individual members live throughout the USA. Since we have no staff and no office - New Castle First Friends serves as our business address - and we communicate only electronically, how important is it a boundary? We are glue that connects independent monthly meetings. Does that make us more like a yearly meeting, or more like a movement? I am aware that, without intending to, we are modeling something new, which Friends in other parts of the world are watching with interest.
A Faith and Practice is another thing. We have just agreed by-laws, which give us a framework, and we have gentle, supportive and appreciative ways of being with each other, so our Practice is forming. But, as fifteen independent monthly meetings, what we can say is our 'Faith?' Whatever emerges won't be a set of binding doctrinal statements. It will be passages from the experiences of other Friends, from the first courageous generation onwards, that we will want to treasure, to inspire us to similar commitment.
It's new for me to be working in so much ambiguity. I like to know at least a year out what the plans are, even if they change. Before starting a journey, I map out a route - while being willing to take detours. So I'm growing - and finding that living into something that is emerging is fresh and exciting. It feels like sailing a very small boat, from island to island. The crew sets the course for each leg of the journey, knowing that the wind and tides will make adaptation inevitable, almost at every minute. The compass is of critical importance, but you don't travel in a straight line. When the wind hits the sails at just the right angle, it is exhilarating. Over these ten months the winds of the Holy Spirit have carried us further than I ever expected.
In addition to learning to be ok with not having all the plans and structures in place, what have I learnt over this last year? I was away from the Midwest when the yearly meeting embarked on the path towards this schism, so I can't reflect on that. But I do have reflections on the processes. One thing I know is that conflict is inevitable, but how it develops and is resolved varies, according to the intentions and actions of those involved.
When a fight is about to break out in the playground, the behavior of the onlookers is crucial to the outcome. If the onlookers egg on the combatants, they will fight. If they intervene to lower the tension, those about to fight may be open to seeing other ways to solve their differences. To borrow from popular biology, once the amygdala is aroused and the 'flight or fight' part of the brain gets going, it's too late to intervene, and the fighters may turn on the 'helpers.' Were there 'onlookers' who encouraged combat? Who we listen to, and take counsel from, will affect what happens, for good or bad.
The other complication is that we don't necessarily recognize that a conflict is going to turn into a fight to the end. I didn't. To me, there was always conflict at the yearly meeting sessions. The question was simply WHAT would be the issue of contention, not WHETHER there would be contention; so I didn't realize that this conflict was going to be different, until the train had left the station.
For people of faith, there is always a dilemma of how much to be 'in the world, but not of it.' Many of Friends' struggles in the past were about that. However much we try, the world's ways do affect us. The culture that surrounds Friends in the U.S. today is raucous, triumphalist and judgmental. In addition, the assumption in marketing is that, based on one or two indicators, people can be placed into entire lifestyle categories, with their social and political 'preferences' assumed. This may be effective in selling goods and services, but it can be toxic if it is used to put each other into labeled boxes. We have to be able to step back and observe when we are bringing such ways into our faith life. I'm not saying avoid them - just notice when it is happening, so that we don't act unthinkingly.
Our Friends' organizations must serve the purpose to help us know, worship and serve God. If conflicts over organizational life, quite apart from doctrine, distract us from that purpose, we have to make changes. My own view is that it is not part of our polity as Friends, coming out of the radical stream of the Reformation, to be servants of a structure. The structure must support work of congregations. But not everyone agrees. Some of us want a yearly meeting to exercise authority over member meetings.
There were, in our history, three attempts to split the yearly meeting by creating a new, northern one, centered on Marion, and keeping the old one, based in Richmond. So perhaps many of us have been trying to uphold something that only existed in our hopes and imaginations. Perhaps there never was a shared vision of what it meant to be a part of the yearly meeting, or if it was lost one day, no-one noticed.
Some of us were committed to doctrinal uniformity, others were comfortable with paradox, and saw God's realm as a big tent, full of surprises. Some of us thought that there was one right way to read scripture; others of us thought that it could bring forth something fresh with each reading and reflection. The problem with these differences is that they are not like tastes in music, or food, or TV programs, where negotiation and compromise can be applied. Those who embrace cultural and theological diversity can quite easily welcome those who are different from them into the big tent. However, if uniformity matters to you, too much variation from it is unsettling, or even threatening. It may be possible for a yearly meeting to have different kinds of Bible study carried out simultaneously, but if there really are major differences in the identity of what it means to be a faith community, those wanting greater uniformity start drawing lines. People start sitting with "their own" during meals. "Parking lot conversations" may become the major form of real communication. Once the topic of conversations becomes, on a regular basis, about people who are not present, you know that conflict has escalated.
Whether in gangs or nations, for reconciliation to take place, there has to be a commitment to it. People have to come to the table, either because they are open to "sharing space" with those who are different from themselves because they think it is the right thing to do, or because they are weary of violence and loss, and want a different future for their children and grandchildren. I have now concluded that this doesn't translate into church life, particularly when some parties think that they are going to have to answer to God as to why they were in fellowship with those who they perceived as sinful. In the U.S. in particular, there is always the option to begin a new church or denomination. So once separated, it can take generations (if ever) to come back together.
There's good news in this difficult experience. When something happens to us that is not our choice, we still have a choice about how to react. One is to choose not to be a victim. Some people develop a whole Identity around having been abandoned or deserted, but after a while, they are not good company. Most of us who are now out of the yearly meeting didn't want schism, but were powerless to prevent it. For everyone, it takes energy to rise above what has happened; just to accept that something did happen, that there are losses, but they don't define us, and to move on.
Another choice is to back off from being "right," and just accept that when there are many different perspectives about many different things, that's what they are: differences, some of which carry life-or death intensity. When the yearly meeting superintendent said we had reached a crisis of conscience, from which neither group, that cared equally deeply could shift, that felt accurate to me. Once you have accepted that analysis, you can choose the action. People are not going to be converted from a passionately-held position in the heat of the moment.
From my standpoint, the processes of formal separation have been marked with a lot of respectful "this is how I see it - what do you think?" conversations between the representatives of both bodies. The financial and property settlements have been without surprises, and I hope that this care and integrity are laying good foundations for both organizations as we each look to the future.
Help us, God, to have to courage to speak up when truth needs to be spoken.
Give us the courage to reach out in support of those who have suffered loss.
Help us to be instruments of peace and justice, even when we are afraid.
Remind us, dear Lord, when we forget, to trust you as our guide, even when we feel we are in the wilderness, because you are always doing something new.
Questions for reflection
1. Have you ever been an onlooker to a conflict that was brewing?
If so, did your contribution intensify it? Or diffuse it?
2. Have you ever had the courage to speak up, when you thought that issues were being ignored or 'papered over?'
If so, what was the outcome?
3. Are there situations where you are holding onto a sense of having been wronged?
4. In what ways do you consciously try to follow in the footsteps of the Prince of Peace, whatever the cost?
About the author
Twenty years ago Margaret Fraser took an unpaid sabbatical from her position on the management faculty of the University of Brighton in England to attend Earlham School of Religion. While at ESR, she had a clear leading to serve Friends in the U.S.A, so she resigned her position and completed her M.Div. She served as Dean of Pendle Hill and Executive Secretary of Friends World Committee for Consultation, Section of the Americas. She has two daughters, two sons in law and a granddaughter. She is a member of Friends of the Light, in Traverse City, Michigan, and currently Clerk of the New Association of Friends.
* Text and Music, Marty Haugen, © 1986 G.I.A. Publications, Inc. The Hymnal: A Worship Book Prepared by Churches in the Believers Church Tradition, #226