Carolina Quakers: One Creed? Two Creeds? Or None?
In North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM), the ongoing effort to purge liberal meetings currently takes the form of an effort to “divide” the body into two “new” YMs, (This “plan” is described in detail, with links to the relevant documents, here.)
The NCYM Ministry & Counsel has prepared a draft of the “Doctrinal Basis for Two Yearly Meetings,” which is copied in full below. A “Doctrinal Basis” amounts to a summary creed.
But these summary creeds fail to address the real points at issue in this struggle.
The M&C characterizes the two as centering primarily on “autonomy” vs. “authority”.
Here are a few preliminary notes on this formulation.
First, the note at the end of the boxed section below does point to a significant difference, but less one of “doctrine” and more one of ecclesiology, that is, the nature and governance of the church. And it is fair to characterize the liberal-minded meetings as mainly averse to top-down church rule, preferring a more congregational-centered structure, with NCYM as a cooperative association, not a ruling headquarters.
However, there is no real correlation between a congregational ecclesiology and doctrines about, say, the Bible or Jesus. A Friend, or a meeting, could be fully devoted to Jesus as savior and the Bible (as they interpret it) as inerrant, but yet resolved to maintain congregational autonomy. Indeed, just such a principle is basic to classic Baptist church structures, among whom many (though not all) are quite as doctrinally conservative as any in NCYM, or more so.
More important, this document falls short in a much more basic way, that of failing to state accurately the underlying basis of the proposed split.
This split (purge) is not really about rival conceptions of the church. Nor about the Bible. It is primarily about three other things, which need to be named plainly. Here they are:
- First, it is about the determination of some in NYCM office to rid the body of several so-called “liberal” meetings which have welcomed and affirmed LGBT persons. They are also abominated because they have loose connections with such “liberal” groups as Friends General Conference, which do likewise. Doctrinal justifications come into play only after this determination was made.
- Second, it is about the parallel desire of many to hear no more about the historic Friends Peace Testimony. However, some of the same “liberal” meetings have joined with others in vocally opposing recent U.S. wars, and continuing militarism.
By contrast, as a body, NCYM has for a long time ignored the strong and clear statements on peace in its own Faith & Practice. Yet among the handful who still take them seriously, there are some with very conservative doctrinal notions. Further, the prevalence of American flags in its meetings, and the many patriotic and war memorial ceremonies among them, indicate all too clearly how far from this the preferences of much of its constituency have strayed.
- Lurking in the background is a determination to preserve the demographic character of NCYM as part of what remains of segregated, white-dominated North Carolina culture. (Yes, I know there is a bare handful of Friends of color among NCYM’s membership, to be found in the “liberal” meetings, in which awareness of this overwhelming whiteness is higher, and more burdensome.)
Both NCYM’s history and the experience of vocal advocates for racial equality attest to NCYM’s attachment to Carolina’s persistent segregated white culture. To be sure, there are no “Whites Only” signs at the door of NCYM’s annual sessions. But look around; who the body is, and what it represents, year after year, is visible in every row, from front to rear.
In sum, NCYM is embroiled in a “culture war.” This can be illustrated from another angle in relation to two recent public issues. Most of the hard-core groups demanding a purge in NCYM are located in three NC counties, Randolph, Yadkin & Surry. In May 2012, North Carolina voted on a proposition to add a ban on same sex marriage to the NC constitution. Statewide, the measure passed with a 61% majority. But in these three counties, it racked up from 78 to 82 per cent “Yes” vote totals.
Then in November of that year, the same three counties voted against Barack Obama’s re-election by three to one, 75%-25%.
There is more such data which could be adduced. But even these few numbers underline the “culture war” character of the tensions in NCYM. The “liberal” meetings are in counties where the votes on these issues went much differently. They have their cultural influences too.
Having sat through numerous sessions debating the so-called “theological” issues, I have often felt that what was being enacted was little more than a vengeful fantasy re-run of these elections.
After all, the “Amendment” barely lasted a year before being struck down in court; and Obama was re-elected anyway. It was only after these events that the current outbreak reached the surface. The lingering resentment over these outcomes was palpable in many NCYM sessions. And the “liberal” meetings, some of which publicly opposed the Amendment (and most of whose members likely voted for Obama), were sufficient substitute targets for those (like Obama and the Supreme Court) who were out of reach.
To be sure, there are some doctrinal notions widespread in the churches indigenous to this area. One is a stated conviction that the Bible is inerrant and of ultimate authority. But like any other stance on the Bible, this one is in fact highly limited and selective about the passages which display that “authority” (such as the ones mandating death to LGBTs) while passing by others which make a divergent point (welcome to refugees and immigrants; justice for the poor; peace). This is no surprise; the Bible is full of many different, and often conflicting views and mandates; all the interpretations I have ever seen (including mine) are selective in their own ways.
Another doctrinal notion is that the church must be kept “pure,” free of contamination by “the world.” This is a once-venerable Quaker idea, which for 200 years had Friends dressing and speaking in “peculiar” ways, marrying only their co-religionists and refusing to join wars, among other restrictions. It also applied to such matters as forgoing alcoholic drinks and any sex outside a very restrictive quasi-Puritan model.
But even many of the most right-wing strongholds of NCYM have evolved far beyond that. Those who led last year’s wave of purification, the ill-fated “Way Forward,” discovered this to their shock, after they distributed a text on “Integrity” which attempted to re-impose former restrictions on alcohol and such.
That plan was shredded by a buzzsaw of opposition; it turns out that many among the most otherwise “conservative” NCYM Friends will tolerate no interference with their beer and other libations; and many could have told the drafters that these days the evangelical divorce rate is as high as (often higher than) that of other groups, and for many of the same reasons.
The apparent lesson from this experience, which was that evinced by the “liberal” meetings, was that our task is to learn to live and let live. The “Way Forward” authors learned this lesson as far as sex & booze goes. But they were not having it as far as the “liberal meetings” were concerned.
The “Doctrinal Basis” draft does not address any of this. It is much easier to lift a few passages of the Bible, insist they are “inerrant” and use them as cudgels for homophobia, or other “abominations.” For that matter, there are many bloody passages which can be turned into a celebration of war. (And yes, again in the background, more passages extolling the duty of slaves and servants to obey their “masters,” and for believers in the benches to submit to those “in authority.”) Yet these are by no means the only threads in the biblical tapestry, the only voices in its cacophony.
The same can be done to Jesus: he can be turned into the exclusive savior, the keeper of the secret password to heaven, which all must learn and repeat with appropriate gestures [“every knee shall bow”] to be “saved.” And those in authority know what that password is (and when it changes, which it has). But in the texts, Jesus is actually a much more elusive (and interesting) figure, who chronically hung out with the wrong people, repeatedly tweaked the establishment, and reserved his most vehement denunciations for the religious authorities and all their mummery.
Moreover, church structure does not determine the degree of rigidity about divisive issues: in the most top-down hierarchy, even popes can (and have) chosen to live with internal diversity in many areas. (E.g., the Catholic church firmly teaches that capital punishment is wrong, but popes continue to tolerate Catholic governors presiding over executions.)
So to my mind, the proposed doctrinal division set out below misses the key points of contention in NCYM. And it makes one other mistake which for most of the “liberals”, and even some theological conservatives, cannot be overlooked: it is the fact (often cited here) that the NCYM Faith & Practice says several times that it is NOT a creed.
Thus the effort to take a few passages from it and use them as a battering ram to push out “liberals” who have other cultural-political views violates a venerable part of the Yearly Meeting’s own tradition and commitment.
Already, voices from “non-liberal” meetings have pointed this out. One hopes they will do so with steadfastness and emphasis when this “doctrinal basis” is openly debated.
Another way to put this is, between “Doctrinal Basis” (i.e., creed) A, and “Doctrinal Basis (i.e., creed) B, the traditional and proper Quaker choice is:
None of the above–No Creed At All. Like the book says.
FROM: NORTH CAROLINA YEARLY MEETING ON MINISTRY AND COUNSEL
TO: CLERKS OF MONTHLY MEETINGS ON MINISTRY AND COUNSEL*, PASTORS, CLERKS OF MONTHLY MEETINGS AND EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE MEMBERS
Attached is a copy of the document entitled, “Doctrinal Basis for Two Yearly Meetings”.
Please read carefully and discuss this document among yourselves. This document will be a part of the discussion at the annual meeting of Ministry and Counsel on Saturday, August 6, at Deep Creek Friends Meeting [NOTE: Since Changed to Harmony Grove Meeting] at 10:00 a.m.
As the yearly meeting considers a proposal to separate into two yearly meetings, we need to have each step bathed in prayer. We will continue to seek God’s guidance for each and every step.
The first step in this process is to determine what doctrines divide us from each other. Ministry and Counsel has been assigned the task of making a recommendation in this regard. So please come prepared to discuss this proposal on Saturday, August 6, at Deep Creek Friends. [NOTE: Since changed to Harmony Grove Meeting]
On behalf of North Carolina Yearly Meeting on Ministry and Counsel,
Hugh Spaulding, Clerk
*Clerks of Monthly Meetings on Ministry and Counsel: Please distribute this letter and the enclosed/attached document to all members of your Monthly Meeting on Ministry and Counsel.
DOCTRINAL BASIS FOR TWO YEARLY MEETINGS
(Autonomy or Authority)
Early Friends basically answered the question, “What is a Christian?”
“Christians will always be led inwardly and unmediatedly (without mediation) by the Spirit of God dwelling in them, and that this is a standing and perpetual ordinance both to the Church in all ages and to every individual member.”
“Every true Christian has the Spirit of God dwelling in him.”
“The inward calling of God by his light in the heart is necessary for membership in the universal or catholic Church.”
“To be a member of a particular church of Christ, not only is this inward work indispensably necessary, but also profession of belief in Jesus Christ and in the holy truths delivered by his Spirit in the scriptures.”
“The inward work of holiness and the forsaking of iniquity are necessary in every respect for becoming a member of the Church of Christ.”
(Barclay’s Apology in Modern English edited by Dean Freiday, pages 36, 174, 175)
Within North Carolina Yearly Meeting there are two perspectives regarding Barclay’s response. Our differences center on the person of Jesus Christ, the authority of the Holy Scriptures, and, to a degree, the authority of the Yearly Meeting.
Emphasis A Freedom/Autonomy
Emphasis B Authority
1. The emphasis is upon Jesus as Teacher.
1. The emphasis is upon Jesus as Savior.
The Holy Scriptures are subject to the Holy Spirit and, should a seeming conflict arise, the Holy Spirit provides the final answer.
2. The leadings of the Holy Spirit never contradict the Holy Scriptures and, should a seeming conflict arise, the Holy Scriptures are a trustworthy source of the Truth because they are inspired by the Holy Spirit.
3. The Holy Spirit reveals new truth to believers who are open to such a leading.
3. The essentials of faith are settled and the Holy Spirit only gives new insight into established doctrines.
In a real sense, the focus of one group is autonomy or freedom. The other is more receptive to authority — authority of Scripture and authority of the gathered body.
Perhaps these concepts of autonomy and authority can form the basis for our defining Yearly Meetings in which each of our monthly meetings could find a life-giving home.