Big Change for Small Change: Baltimore Yearly Meeting & FUM — Part 1

NOTE: This post is somewhat “inside baseball,” mainly dealing with Baltimore Yearly Meeting and its relationship with Friends United Meeting. But it may be of interest to some others who are concerned with questions of church governance, challenging religious homophobia, and managing conflicts in church groups. Much of the background is assumed in this initial post, but will be filled in as we go along.

While I missed the 2010 annual sessions of Baltimore Yearly Meeting (BYM — my home Quaker community), I’ve read through the 2010 minutes (and attachments), and heard informal reports from a number of attenders. And even while far away that week in Eighth Month, BYM, its community and deliberations were much in my thoughts and prayers — and yes, my opinions.

I was especially interested in two matters, the resolution of the accounting mess that left BYM with much less funds than we thought; and the relationship to FUM, including the matter of funding. I’ll concentrate on the BYM-FUM concern here, because it will be on the agenda of BYM’s Interim Meeting at its October 15 , and appears to still be be unresolved.

The proposed minute on FUM funding will be dealt with presently. First let me describe what I’d like to see at BYM’s Interim Meeting this weekend, when this topic comes up:

A celebration.

That’s right, a jubilee — maybe even a party, with cake.

Why? What’s to celebrate?

Easy: the plain fact that our witness to FUM since 2004 has been the most successful and productive social justice action I have seen BYM Friends take in thirty-plus years of involvement. We should be (humbly) proud of how much it has accomplished, and congratulating our corporate selves for making it happen and sustaining it so long.

How has our witness to FUM been positive and productive? Let me count some of the ways:

1. For once, a Liberal Friends body actually stood up to homophobes and homophobia. We didn’t just write a toothless minute and sulk, then keep paying, codependently enabling the abuse of our and other members. Instead, we pushed back. BYM has shown REAL leadership on this whole front. That puts us in the forefront of Friends groups, and we should brook no belittling or demeaning of this signal fact.

2. Almost immediately, our stance of action and not just talk shifted the balance of forces in FUM. BYM thereby did the heavy lifting for more timid groups that could only write milquetoast letters of concern, and keep on paying for homophobia. Let them explain that if they can; our conscience, for these years at least, is clear. And beyond that, we created the space for actual change to begin.

3. Then our witness helped fill that space with real and substantial IMPACT. Early on, for instance, FUM actually carved out exceptions to the homophobe policy to meet our objections (in part).

4. This response and others showed that BYM’s witness had put the advocates of homophobic policies and attitudes on the defensive. For instance, the Kenyan pastor who extolled the killer Biblical text from Romans 1, discovered, much to his amazement, that he had to apologize dfor endorsing the idea that gays should be killed. (Would that this idea had thereby been banished; but it has not, so there’s still much more to do.) FUM then adopted a strong minute against hateful actions and preaching against LGBT persons (though it still maintains the homophobic personnel policy.)

5. Within our own ranks, this witness produced the Intervisitation program, which is a big success. I’ve been a fan of this work since Day One, and helped set up the very first visit.

6. One of the most significant results is as yet the least visible. The FUM board has now agreed to change the basis of the organization, dropping the pretense of being a denominational judicatory with some kind of authority over member YMs, and shifting to being an association of autonomous bodies. This ought to be the biggest structural change In FUM’s 110 year history, among other things opening the way to freeing us (and the other liberal FUM YMs) from the chronic accusations that we don’t really belong because we’re not “Christian” enough for someone or other. Face it: we made that possible.

7. And there’s more: even while not paying general dues, BYM reps to FUM have made important, high-value contributions to the group, guiding the way toward reorganization, internal fiscal reforms, and raising awareness of the critical matters of public and legal homophobia in Kenya and other African countries. It’s not too much to say that this witness, and their work, if they keep at it, could end up saving lives.

8. Our witness also brought heightened visibility to the ongoing problem of chronic mishandling and theft of FUM funds in its programs, especially in Kenya. In my view this issue is unresolved and deserves even more attention. But largely as a result of the space created by BYM’s challenge, it is now out in the open, as part of the FUM reform agenda.

All this was achieved in the face of a general financial crash and BYM’s own internal fiscal crisis; that’s some very big bang for some very small bucks.

And it’s not finished: I believe that our reps need to keep the pressure on. For instance, they should ensure that the new General Secretary is liberal-friendly, and willing to work around the homophobe policy, to keep the momentum of change going. This is no small matter; the homophobe-bibliocrats could make choosing her successor their last stand; if so, our reps should hold firm. (Actually, it’s hard to imagine who would want the General Secretary’s job; but that FUM’s problem.)

With this record, if BYM Friends now feel that our ground-breaking witness had evoked enough progress within the FUM orbit that we could resume general payments, and there was unity on that, then so be it.

But either way, we ought to be celebrating these years of witness and the landmarks they have produced.

Yes, definitely cake. Maybe even funny hats.

Somehow, though, that’s not the sense I get from the proposed minute that was debated at annual sessions and will be coming back before Interim Meeting this weekend. We’ll take up that text in the next post.

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