Sierra Cascades YM: “Our New Thing” versus the “Same Old Thing”?

In the Northwest, the new Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends (SCYMF) is deep into its first round of recording ministers.

Five Friends have asked to be recorded. Their names & descriptions are being republished in the YM’s weekly news bulletin, for a  60-day period of  “Public Comment” on their candidacies, to be followed by further discernment.

I won’t speak here of any of these individuals; I’m not really familiar with them, and this post is about policy, not personalities.

As for the policy, I wish SCYMF was considering in depth not only whether some individuals ought to be recorded as ministers, but first the wisdom of having such a category in their yearly meeting at all.

Sierra Cascades began taking shape in early 2017, after several meetings in Northwest YM were deemed “liberal” (or insufficiently evangelical), particularly on LGBT and related issues, and were abruptly booted out. (Steve Angell and I reported on the buildup to these expulsions in Quaker Theology –  Issues #24, #27, #28, #30-31 & #33.)  

For several months, participants in the group of banished meetings  informally referred to it as “Our New Thing,” and there was an air of discovery and reinvention to the messages from its initial proceedings. Yet as it prepares for its second annual session, some familiar outlines have appeared.

The matter of recording is a major one.


There was some discussion about recording, though. To prepare, SCYMF commissioned a paper by Jon Kershner, who has a doctorate in theology and teaches at Pacific Lutheran University; “A Brief History of the Quaker practice of ‘Recording’”. (It’s online here. ) 

Kershner’s paper does an excellent job of summarizing this history from a favorable pastoral perspective. He, like others of this school, declares that 

A common message, and a united public persona, were necessary lest internal schisms and external pressures fracture the group [of early Friends].

Jon Kershner

The persistent threat of internal division, even in the early days, and external persecution sets the stage for more consolidated and prescriptive methods of approving who was an accepted Quaker minister, and who was only a troublemaker. When Quakers started building Meeting Houses in the 1670s, at least one included a “facing bench” for the elders and a “ministers gallery.” In 1671, a committee was formed to decide what publications could be put forth in the name of Friends. The goal was to control how Quakers appeared to outsiders, and, in the process, defined what would become accepted Quaker views. As in publications, ministers were the public face of Friends and their visible place of prominence in the “ministers gallery” asserted a normative interpretation of Quakerism.

In this period we see that within the early Quaker movement were individuals who “God had raised up” to preach and/or provide administrative and spiritual oversight for the movement. Over this period the internal workings of Quakers became more regulated and systematic, which helped spread the movement and control divisive voices.. . .

Indeed, Kershner adds, 

“The additional layers of recommending and certification may have moderated and consolidated the Quaker message into an approved format and content, but some Quaker ministers unleashed harsh criticism on other Quaker ministers who were perceived as ministering under their own power and pride, even if the theology behind the message was within accepted Quaker teaching.” 

When pastors entered the Orthodox stream after the U.S. Civil War, there soon arose a long-running version of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies, over the Bible’s factuality and authority; evolution; and social action versus personal conversions. Kershner rightly says that,

While many today may dismiss these divisions as artificial binaries, they were very real and polarizing at the time. These issues were just as divisive among Quakers of the Pacific Northwest as they were among Christian churches in general. Like other denominations, pastoral Quakers developed new systems for approving/disapproving of ministers as a means to support one interpretation of the Quaker message and avoid contamination with heresy. 

These methods included the development of Bible Schools that supported fundamentalist doctrines, and, often, separation from Quaker groups that were deemed too liberal, both Pastoral and Unprogrammed. . . . Among pastoral Friends, committees for recommending new ministers were careful to guard the yearly meeting from modernizing influences.

 It is a mistake to call these conflicts antiquated “artificial binaries.” They are very much alive in large segments of Evangelical Quakerism. And in earlier times, when oversight committees were not “careful” enough in repelling those “modernizing influences,” their superiors could and did take direct action. Such action is not only an artifact of “early Friends,”  it is a very prominent feature of our time, which has seen five Orthodox/Evangelical yearly meetings (so far) riven or destroyed by internal divisions since 2000. In all these disruptions, the role of the recorded classes was important, even decisive.

And Kershner’s “Brief  History,” falls most seriously short in that it only obliquely refers, mainly in the passive voice, to the presence and role of this “recorded class” system in a long tragic succession of schisms and disruptions.

That is, there is a steep downside to having recorded ministers, which has left a long trail of battered and, yes, “shattered” Friends and meetings. Even in “quieter times,” these circles widely stifled creativity, hobbled intellectual freedom and depth, and, I believe, deterred much faithful witness. 

In fact, based on Kershner’s paper, such actions as the sudden mass expulsions from Northwest, and the other recent YM purges, are entirely consistent with this traditional version of “good order.” Top down, arbitrary, secretive rule –that’s the way it has been, his text properly affirms, since the 1660s in England, til only two years ago, in the shadow of the Cascades.

Yet there is also, hidden in this history, the record of a basic challenge to this top-down, tightly-controlling system, followed by a struggle for its reform, and finally the choice by an entire branch to discard it. 

That history, regrettably, is completely overlooked in Kershner’s work. 

Promising to reform this traditional system, even while coping with being purged by it, is not a new response. When the group that became  “Hicksites” were pushed out of Philadelphia Yearly meeting in 1827, their initial leadership insisted that they would preserve the recorded ministerial elite system — only they would run it better, less oppressively, than had the rival Orthodox junta. 

And maybe they did, for a short while. But before long, internal agitation surfaced among Hicksites about rising issues like women’s rights, and abolitionism, with the specter of civil war on the horizon. And it was shortly clear that the Hicksite recorded establishment did not like such reforming notions one whit more than did their Orthodox rivals. Soon enough there began among Hicksite meetings what I have called the Great Purge: hundreds of Friends deemed to be, in Kershner’s words, “divisive voices” or “only troublemakers,” who were silenced, marginalized or disowned.

But this time many victims stayed and, pardon the expression, fought back. The long conflict that followed is detailed in my book Remaking Friends. It lasted til the 1920s, and the culmination in the liberal branch was that the top-down yearly meeting structure was toppled, and replaced by a congregational model.

In this new order, local meetings were mainly autonomous, and yearly meetings were cooperative service groups, not rulers. And as part of the change, recorded ministers, their “Select Meetings,” were abandoned and (over time) the use of elevated facing benches in meeting architecture, was largely abandoned.

Fans of this “new” model often think it brings the best of all Quaker worlds: It is not, for one thing, solely individualistic: if a Friend has a strong leading, she or she can put together a support committee and get going.

But some aren’t satisfied with that. They long for the old time religion of recorded ministers, their special status, and their”weight” (aka power). The liberal buffet/smorgasbord of action and “spirituality” seems too disorganized, not to mention given to crazy ideas. So some want to lead liberals back to the lost world of Books of Discipline, with recorded ministers, oversight committees, traveling minutes, and the return of — the favorite word for many — “accountability.”

Considering this longer view of its history, my guess is that this “renewal” is a recipe for trouble, if not immediately, then later. How much trouble will depend on two key factors: first, how determined the new reformers are; and, second — an old Evangelical reliable — sin.

OMG! He’s Back.

Yes, sin. Here I’m obviously heterodox among liberals, where I often hear that today most such Friends don’t believe in sin. (We don’t believe in hell either; but then, we have committees instead.)

I too wanted not to believe in sin; but my own shabby, if undramatic record finally convinced me otherwise.

Besides, along the way I picked up a notion often blamed on Reinhold Niebuhr (though it’s much older), that sin is not only an individual, but a collective matter: idealistic institutions can become deeply, murderously corrupt, and in turn corrupt even their most devoted servants. You know it: systemic racism; patriarchy, homophobia. Capitalism too, particularly in its current “communist” forms.

Much uncomfortable & unwelcome truth here.

Oh, and religion. For me the late M. Scott Peck nailed this with two compelling sentences in his 1983 book, People of the Lie:

Since the primary motive of the evil is disguise, one of the places evil people are most likely to be found is within the church. What better way to conceal one’s evil from oneself, as well as from others, than to be a deacon or some other highly visible form of Christian within our culture.

A deacon (Peck was Episcopalian); or, perhaps a minister, especially in a Friends church with a Holiness influence, where many claim to have been freed from all propensity to sin. 

The sins that take deepest root under ministerial broadbrims and bonnets are among the big ones: pride; lust — mainly for power; not rarely wealth; and in more than a few (cf. the Catholic hierarchy and many megachurch leaders) — and wrath, especially against those who don’t measure up to their standards or question their doctrines and behavior. The effects may start quietly, but are cumulative, and then repeatedly calamitous. Ex-Northwest Friends should know this “experimentally.”

Among the pastoral branches, there is an associated chronic urge for just plain jobs. This has long been the case, in many churches: the ministry was a doorway into the professional classes: a divinity degree was quicker than an M.D., and less expensive than the law. 

While chronicling what I call this era’s Separation Generation, in Quaker Theology #33, I have seen struggles over recording and jobs get just about as down and dirty as they can: the air was often foul with character assassination, Bible-based bullying, and covert scheming that could teach the CIA a few lessons. 

In North Carolina, it ended with the entire destruction of a 320 year-old Quaker body. 

North Carolina Yearly Meeting – FUM, death certificate.

The Friends who founded Sierra Cascades have their own similarly traumatic experiences to cope with. It was heartening to read in 2017 of their calling the venture “Our New Thing.”

Now, though, in this important respect it looks increasingly like a repainted model of the same old thing being rolled  out. In its  Bylaws, Sierra-Cascades makes clear that ministers will be recorded for life.  And, again without referring to individuals, it should be evident to a clear-eyed observer, that they may be new faces, but will all face similar old temptations. 

No one in my studies has summed all this up better than Lucretia Mott (my liberal hero). In an 1847 letter she wrote that,

” . . . . Long years’ reflection and observation have convinced & confirmed me in the opinion, that our Select body, as also the Hierarchy or Eceliastical [sic] establishments, & privileged orders in all sects, are the main obstacles to progress––and until the true Freedom of Christ––the equality of the Brethren is better understood, we shall do little by organizing & re-organizing.” 

This from a reforming Friend who nevertheless stuck with her plain bonnet through all her 88 years. She sifted through two centuries of the old ways, fended off intense opposition from their defenders, and brought her branch indeed a new thing, yet a new thing that was in continuity with what she saw as Quakerism’s creative essence.

None of this was in the brief history that was presented to Sierra Cascades. That’s too bad. I believe it’s an example they still could learn from. Maybe they could even find in this fuller record a basis for truly new church practices which could recover some of the strengths in the old, and minimize or even avoid many of the hazards.

If I knew what the genuinely new model should be, I’d spell it out. But maybe I’ve spent too long surveying the wreckage left bobbing in the wake of the other one.  And besides, there’s one who knows better, I think. Remember? Here–

Luke 5:37 No one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. 38 No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins.

I’ll drink to that.

12 thoughts on “Sierra Cascades YM: “Our New Thing” versus the “Same Old Thing”?”

  1. I fully agree with our Quaker commentator in his strictures against recording ministers; there’s no doubt in my mind and spirit that it is a damnable practice and its introduction anywhere should be resisted by all right-thinking Friends wishing to preserve the practices of the earliest Friends, those of the 1650s.

    But I also firmly reject his use of the verb “pushed out” to describe the exodus of those who would become known as “Hicksites” from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1827. They were not “pushed out”; they left voluntarily and established what became a new Philadelphia Yearly Meeting at a conference at Green Street Meetinghouse in the city of brotherly love at the end of yearly meeting week in April.

    Our commentator’s case is strong enough without compromising it with misleading verbiage. And it would be strengthened further by reference to the disownment of one Hicksite leader in Wilmington, Delaware, Benjamin Webb, only two years later at the instigation of the new yearly meeting’s clerk, Benjamin Ferris and one of the Hicksites’s central champions, William Gibbons. Webb had to be dealt with because his championing of the views of the notorious free thinkers Fanny Wright and Robert Dale Owen represented “a ball that has rolled beyond our reach.” That’s often a danger when those in charge have begun to “excite the younger and inexperienced part of society to free inquiry.” Interested readers and can follow these developments in my book on the Great Separation, Quakers in Conflict.

    1. Larry is the primo historian on the Separation of 1827. Yet I dare to suggest that “pushed out” has some figurative value in this quick thumbnail. The soon-to-be Orthodox Establishment in Philadelphia & elsewhere) were, as far as I can see determined to be rid of the Hicksites, one way or another, and making the business sessions intolerable for them did the trick. Then after the Hicksites walked out of the 1827 YM session in despair, — the Orthodox enforcers started a clean-sweep purge, with elders & ministers going around to Hicksites’ houses and imperiously reading letters of disownment to them. That purge constitutes a “push” in my book, tho I haven’t written a book on the 1827 unpleasantness. Larry is also right about how the disownment of Benjamin Webb, only two years after the Separation, shows that troubles with the new Hicksite power structure began very soon after its formation. Read his book!

  2. Thanks, Chuck. This is a helpful history and commentary about returning to or continuing the practice of recording ministers. I would like to make clear the distinction between nurturing and supporting “ministry” which we has often been a forgotten or cast away practice of Friends. I think this has been lost due to confusing it with the practice of recording ministers. Could you comment or write about these practices and how they may be similar or different?

    1. Joan, I don’t feel familiar enough with “nurturing ministry” efforts to describe them here. Perhaps you could do that?
      I get a continuing trickle of private messages & emails with inquiries about Quakerism. I respond to these as best I can. But it isn’t a “program,” and not under any group’s auspices or oversight. I hope these interactions are “nurturing,” but wouldn’t be prepared to hang out a shingle on it. Was something like that what you were referring to?

  3. Merton in “Inner Experience” is very clear, and repeats it in different works multiple times to maker sure it’s clear, that our primary moral authority is what he described as “the inner spirit infused with God” (his capitalization and non-capitalization). Put that perspective into community and that’s Quakerism, from its earliest days until now.

    Anyone, even those who do not accept our inner spirit as the primary moral authority, get to call themselves Quakers. Even a brand of oats does. That doesn’t make them spiritually Quaker. Historically it’s interesting that certain groups who don’t share the central Quaker characteristic want to call themselves Quaker. It makes for interesting books full of object lessons about what happens when one attempts to put anything other than our inner spirits, in community, in charge.

  4. Having staggered from position to position in the pastor/no pastor controversy, I think your post is right on target. Being raised in a Methodist mission church in Western PA, the Conservative Baptist Association, the Southern Baptist Association, Independent Baptists, Christian and Missionary Alliance and finally in the two persuasions of Quakerism, I think I can assert that every form of Christianity is fraught with problems. I’ve read that there are thirty-eight thousand Christian denominations in the world. That alone drives me into hysterical fits of laughter trying to figure out who is right and who is wrong. Then, I completed a residency in Clinical Pastoral Education in a major trauma center covering just under a thousand beds and a war zone-like adult and pediatric Emergency Department when on call.
    That experience cast bright lights on the terrible fact that most pastors are useless to their congregants in times of crisis with or without an M.Div. Upon moving into the world of Hospice for the last twelve years of my working life that opinion was confirmed through experience. Added to that, that the modern pastor focuses on doctrinal purity, fund raising and administrative duties capped off with hours upon hours of negotiating church politics. I concluded that without decent training, pastors are not much more than NGO administrators served up with a twist of dogma and a spritz of megalomania. What a mess.

  5. As the Assistant Clerk for SCYMF, this was the first reference I saw to this document which was released two years ago, so the weight and influence you ascribe to the document is a bit overstated especially in terms of our upcoming yearly meeting. While I agree with your critiques in terms of addressing the problems of pastoral ministry (which I would argue exist in both programmed and unprogrammed meetings), in all fairness that wasn’t part of the stated purpose of the document, which was to simply discuss the practices origins and development and ends with the call: “A reconsideration of recording processes and purposes could be beneficial alongside new views of the roles of yearly meetings in facilitating ministry.” Which seems to me pretty far from the wholehearted endorsement you are claiming exists.
    There is a common misunderstanding of the role of authority in American religious cultures: namely that authority by nature operates coercively through hierarchical means. I would argue that for those of us in roles of authority in SCYMF the role of authority is not about dominance, or being “in charge”, but is to support. In Jesus words: 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave. Matthew 20:25-27 NRSV
    The hierarchical thought is turned on its head, and this teaching of Jesus has been my guide as a recorded minister. (Which you will note resulted in my ouster from a pastoral role in the NWYM which also saw authority as a force for domination.) The problem is not that there are or were named leaders, but that there aren’t/weren’t systems put in place to maintain those leaders’ accountability to a non-dominating mode of authority.
    Another thing to note is that pastors in SCYMF are a subset of those who are recorded: “Those who have a public ministry that is empowered and congruent with the spirit of Friends, may be Recorded as a Friends Minister.” https://www.scymfriends.org/friends-ministers This is intentionally open ended.
    So while I get and agree with some of the reaction, I feel that there is overreaction in your piece (probably stemming from the traumas of watching and going through so much pain) that required my response to correct the misperceptions present in your analysis of our processes.

    1. Hi Gilbert George, thanks for your input. I think the main difference between what you wrote and what I have asserted comes into focus in this statement. You wrote: “The problem is not that there are or were named leaders [in Northwest YM], but that there aren’t/weren’t systems put in place to maintain those leaders’ accountability to a non-dominating mode of authority.” I think I understand that, but my reckoning with systemic sin is more sweeping. William Penn put it this way: “Governments, like clocks, go from the motion men give them, and as governments are made and moved by men, so by them they are ruined also. Therefore governments depend upon men rather than men upon governments.” Penn was speaking of secular (& all-male) governments; but I believe we could add “women” & substitute “churches” for “government” and be as accurate. For the liberal branch, the conclusion was that the recording system was inherently corrupt and corrupting, and the safest way to limit its propensity for damage was to eliminate it. Now, I think that, despite my Libertarian friends’ hopes, we are stuck with having a secular government, and must limit its damage as best we can. But in a church, we are not thus bound. The liberal branch of Friends seems to have gotten along reasonably well without the recording system, and I would not change that emphasis. Yet to be sure, Liberal Quakerdom still has its own problems and institutional sins, which I have written about in other posts. Here I’ll mention only one, perhaps the most stubborn, namely the widespread disbelief in institutional sin (except, of course, in other institutions), with exceptions only for matters that can be rephrased (or “rebranded”) in words that end with “ism.”

  6. It really does come down to when and whether Friends should be “pushed out” doesn’t it. We have so much problematic history, so we hesitate. Good.

    But an equally sound case can be made that we need more pushing out.

    Quakers also have a historical problem with members and leaders who sexually abuse others. It has in the past been very hard for Quakers to deal with this. “Pushing out” or accountability in some form was needed and apparently not in the capacity of Friends to deliver.

    Accountability covers many sins, not only sexual abuse. It can surely be used to oppress and has. But its presence supports – both the individual who offers leadership and ministry and the community as a whole.

    1. Setting and enforcing boundaries has often been hard for Quakers of various varieties. I’ve reported on incidents of pedophilia involving meeting staff or volunteers a number of times. I’ve also looked at other kinds of crimes, mainly involving money. Money & sex — two of the most important three areas of sin. The other is power. Among Friends, abuses of power cover a spectrum; one that I’ve followed into a pretty bad place is the power to cover up other evil.

      Some examples, starting with sex, mainly abuse of children. In the 1980s, I began “A Friendly Letter” (or AFL) as an independent print newsletter, which ran monthly for 133 issues, more than ten years.

      Three of those issues dealt with incidents of pedophilia in meetings, and how the meetings reacted. All were liberal & unprogrammed. Their responses were not the same: one meeting’s leaders dawdled until the police intervened and arrested the volunteer First Day School teacher who had molesting meeting children. The other meeting’s leadership called the police themselves as soon as the misconduct was uncovered, and the volunteer was quickly arrested and jailed. Then the meeting disowned him.
      These cases are described in AFL #49, #76 & #81. You can find PDFs of those issues at the AFL website here:

      #49:
      https://tinyurl.com/y46hq24m

      #76
      https://tinyurl.com/y5f8ffrs

      #81
      https://tinyurl.com/y5wc8y8f

      Now let’s turn to money. In the late 1990s, two similar Ponzi scams were discovered among Evangelical Friends in the West and Midwest. The two perpetrators had been trusted members and visitors to several yearly meetings. Between them they stole more than $35 million, mostly the life savings of elderly church members. Finally they were caught, tried, convicted, and each served several years in federal prison. Some of the stolen money was recovered, but much was lost.

      The thefts were bad enough. But another part of the story shocked me even more: the behavior of the Superintendents of five pastoral and Evangelical yearly meetings (or YMs), all of which were victimized. None of these five stole any money. But they were all guilty of gross failure to detect, challenge or stop the looting; most defended the schemes until the authorities stepped in.
      No sex here. And no money stolen by church leaders But here’s where the power comes in: the five Superintendents privately conspired to cover up losses form their yearly meeting funds with quiet transfers from reserve accounts, then made sure that the whole matter did not come up in the floor of any of the YMs, and did not show up in their minutes. It was a coverup that has been in pace since then, twenty years. Only one Superintendent openly confessed to his YM that he had been suckered into supporting the scheme and resigned. The other quietly slipped away later.

      Soon I was asked by a weighty Friend to investigate and lift the cover off this affair. I spent several months of intensive research & travel, attended the trial of one of the perps, and produced a lengthy report on the while mess, called “Fleecing the Faithful.” That report, in full, the length of a small book, and it is online in full here, at no charge: Fleecing the Faithful: https://afriendlyletter.com/fleecing-the-faithful/

      What does all this have to do with “pushing people out” of Quakerism, and whether that happens often enough these days. And what doe these questions have to do with whether recording ministers would support structures that could contain or prevent such often criminal behavior?

      In my experience, the answer to that last question is a clear NO. There may be other reasons to record ministers, but as a crime preventative, it did not work at all well in these very substantial criminal matters. All the negligent Superintendents were “recorded”; most of the other YM officials they duped, or were duped directly by the scammers, were recorded as well. One of the arguments made in these comments is that recording ministers gives Friends models of good or godly behavior. Well, good luck with that. Real temptation and real sin are not deterred by the shiny pieces of paper given to the recorded ones or the handbooks rattling on about “accountability.”
      There is much more in the way of financial misconduct that I could go into here; but this should be enough for now.

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