The Carolina “Autonomites”: What’s In a Name? What IS Their Name??

There were two problems for the “Autonomites” in North Carolina YM-FUM, when they assembled for their first meeting at Quaker Lake Camp on January 28.

One of the few things the Autonomites definitely decided was – they didn’t like their current name, the “Autonomy Group.” So that was dumped. (Goodbye, Autonomites; we hardly knew ye.)

But they couldn’t agree on different name. Which is to say, they were not at all sure of their identity. That’s the first problem.

And it wasn’t a surprising one, because what these autonomous but erstwhile “Autonomy group” Friends had in common was important, but not a lot.

They were there because either:

A. They did not want their meeting to be kicked out of NCYM. Or

B. They didn’t want to take part in such a purge.

The latest purge scheme, pushed by an evangelical hard core in the form of a proposal to split NCYM into two different YMs, was rejected at the 2016 annual session in August. Instead, the body opted to “reorganize” into two sub-associations, one for each of what was decided to be two major tendencies, under a a bare-bones NCYM umbrella.

Turning back two years-plus of repeated fundamentalist purge attempts is no small thing. But it wasn’t a highly organized effort, and otherwise, the anti-purge meetings were quite disparate: urban & rural; large & small; more liberal, less so. For that matter, even getting together was not really their idea. A reorganization committee dubbed them “Autonomy” and told them to do it.

Which may explain why, of twelve meetings represented among the forty or so Friends present, only four had formally “joined” this now nameless group. The others were “assigned” to it, willy-nilly. So most were in fact undecided and there were three that were definitely not affiliated; one was on the brink of joining the other association (currently called the “Authority” group); one that disclosed it had left the yearly meeting and was just there for information; and a third had been lumped with the “Authoritarians” over its objection.

So if it wasn’t their idea to get together, then — what WAS the idea of their getting together?  No one seemed to know, or to be able to say.

Not exactly a stampede or a groundswell. And the other part of their instructions: to decide on at least provisional operating guidelines and begin creating a clone of the existing NCYM structure, struck even fewer sparks of enthusiasm.

There was, as noted and repeated, the issues of deciding the group’s positive identity and mission; these were uncertain and left hanging. But that didn’t help much.

And then, the recommended “operating guidelines” were those in the 2012 print edition of the NCYM Faith & Practice. But there was, shall we say, a diversity of views about the value of adopting guidelines to start with, and then whether the 2012 F&P was suitable to fill the bill.

After all, the F&P contained documents like the Richmond Declaration of Faith, which had been repeatedly twisted into a creedal cudgel with which to pummel dissenters, or those seeking “autonomy”; many in the room bore the scars of such battles. Yet there were others who wanted to keep such, regarding them as at least of historical, if not present, importance.

Some thought the group should just “wing it” until a completely new F&P could be drafted; others noted that such drafting, even in non-contentious circumstances, often took years. In the end, the group reluctantly agreed to use the 2012 F&P, though they heavily qualified its use as being only for “reference and counsel,” but not as, er, authoritative. They also affirmed they would avoid focusing on “theological nuance.”

That still left the matter of committees. The NCYM Faith & Practice specifies a raft of committees and boards, many of which are allotted shares of NCYM trust fund income for their projects. Presumably the “Authority Group” was going to recreate them, and it was expected that the Autonomites would do the same.

But not many among the ex-Autonomites seemed much interested in that. For one thing, some had strong doubts about the usefulness of some of the old furniture. The Recording Committee, which grants formal ministry credentials to would-be pastors, was seen by some as more of a “Dis-cording Committee,” having loosed numerous divisive witch hunts and inquisitions upon the body. Another, perhaps even more central panel, on Church Extension, has been derided as the “Church Extinction” Committee, given its thirty-plus year record of presiding over NCYM’s drastic and steady loss of members and churches.

So no wonder there were doubts about recreating them. And beyond that, many YMs today operate with minimal superstructure and some with no staff at all. So besides specific committee dysfunction, was that kind of YM even needed anymore? It was a good, tough question.

The session’s convenor, Mark Farlow of Jamestown Meeting, explained that part of the instructions to the group were that it was to at least appoint a Nominating Committee to select its officers, which would thus make it “real” under the reorganization blueprint. The other committees would be needed eventually because, among other things, to receive disbursements from designated NCYM endowment funds.

The mention of money also proved touchy. There were meetings present which have strongly expressed their antipathy to joining any contest, overt or covert, for NCYM funds, preferring to leave that to the umbrella YM committee charged with overseeing their safety and disbursement.

After picking a few for a temporary Nominating Committee, and setting a date for another meeting in March, the now nameless group was about to adjourn when Wade Craven rose to speak.

Craven is the dean of NCYM pastors, having served at Randleman Friends for more than 50 years. He is also something of a reformed evangelical, and a maverick. His meeting was assigned to the Authority group, but he says they have rejected that label, and the whole reorganization project. And he chastised the Friends present for gathering under the “autonomous” label, but then, in his view, bowing down repeatedly to the demands of a divisive and misguided YM leadership, which was still pressing for what he saw as amounting to a barely-disguised split.

When he told YM officers that his meeting rejected both new categories, Craven said he was told, “That train has left the station.” Maybe so, he said, “But what if there’s a trestle missing down the line. There could end up being a train wreck.”

This stern eldering hung in the air as the ex-Autonomy group dispersed. But the reference to the missing trestle hinted at the other problem that dogged the session, though it remained almost entirely unspoken:

It was the fact that NCYM’s extended agonies have for many been almost entirely overtaken by outside events that pose what is increasingly seen as becoming a very tangible, national emergency.

In the past month, concerns over civil liberties, healthcare, courts, voting and justice, increasing threats of war, assaults on the rights of women, minorities and science, and more, have come to the fore with an intensity not seen in years. Many in that room at bucolic Quaker Lake Camp, and more who did not attend, were keenly aware of these, and are scrambling feverishly to respond in ways that make sense for them. Many meetings are also under its weight.

In this atmosphere, who really has much energy left for haggling over names of subgroups in a yearly meeting that is collapsing into irrelevance? How much time will Friends have to spare for replicating useless committees when immigrants are being hunted, and their health care is at grave risk?

Driving home from the meeting, these thoughts nagged at me. I took NC Highway 62 across swaths of rolling farmland. It seemed quiet enough, unless one looked closer: here was a gravel driveway protected by not less than five different full-size Confederate flags. There was a sign for the the winning presidential candidate, swaying in solitary triumph. Yonder was the Nathanael Greene Elementary School. Greene was born and raised Quaker, and disowned when he joined the American Revolutionary army; he became one of Washington’s favorite generals, and fought battles near here.

And then came the Alamance Battlefield, where in 1771 a ragtag band of insurgents called Regulators, tried to take on the militia of a repressive colonial governor; they lost. Near the interstate there was a half-built megachurch, in the boxy half-movie multiplex-half Wal-Mart style.

And every few miles I saw another yellow yard sign that said, “Thank you, Jesus.” These have been spreading across much of rural NC and adjoining states, and I figured they were part of a church project. Google soon yielded the data: they were indeed produced by a teenager in Asheboro NC, under the aegis of a longtime member of his church, a former NC state legislator, now a major Republican lobbyist at the state capitol. They were members of Hopewell Friends Meeting.

Hopewell. In late October Hopewell issued a letter demanding that the NCYM “reorganization” be reversed at the November representative session and replaced by a formal split, or they would leave NCYM by the end of 2016.

Well, there was no reversal of the reorganization plan at the November session. 2016 is gone, and so is Hopewell. As Wade Craven was told, that train has left the station, trestle or no trestle.

But like Hopewell’s signs, the troubles remain, both for NCYM, and the world outside.

Thank you Jesus, indeed.

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