A woman Friend who, like me, is not age-eligible to attend the Wichita YAF Conference, has sent on the best rationale I have yet seen for the planners’ no-sex-even-for-married-couples policy for the event. She deemed the policy, “quite lovely.” So Let’s hear why, and then consider it:
“ . . . to me the Expectations speaks volumes about LGBT stuff. To put it in shorthand, the liberal end says we welcome pretty much all forms of sexual expression that aren’t harmful to self or others, and all persons regardless of mode of sexual expression. The other end says the only form of sexual expression we welcome is between a heterosexual married couple, and we welcome all persons as long as they’re not engaging in unwelcome sexual expression. Both ends say they try to welcome all persons, but not all behavior. So where’s the intersection? I think asking everyone, including those who normally feel free to have sex with one another, to ‘abstain from sexual activity’ for the weekend is really good. It’s analogous to a straight couple in an FGC meeting foregoing the privileges of marriage until gay couples are allowed to marry too.”
The strong point here is the appearance of equality the policy presents: no sex for anyone means all are treated alike in that respect.
There are at least two important aspects to this policy. We’ll take the most obvious one, concerning same sex unions, first.
If this were 2007, and the policy were being prepared for the 2008 conference (which it actually was, I have been advised by a Planning committee member; this person told me that they simply re-adopted it for 2010), this kind of “equality” would have much more surface appeal.
Let’s review: in 2007, same sex marriage was legal in only one state: Massachusetts. And a vigorous campaign to end that legal status was in full swing.
The Massachusetts Statehouse, in its once-solitary glory, circa 2007
Flash forward to 2010. It’s a different world:
The Massachusetts repeal effort failed. Same sex marriage is now legal in five states and the District of Columbia.
– Ten more states and numerous localities have legal provisions for same sex “civil unions.” (Which means that such couples can live together and do whatever they do in bed without legal jeopardy.)
– Many large corporations recognize them for benefits.
– The 2010 census included an option for counting same sex marriages.
– Even the hoary “Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell” policy of the military is clearly on the way out.
– Over a dozen countries in Europe have legally recognized same sex unions in some form, many as marriage. Australia and South Africa too.
Sure, same sex unions are still very much in dispute in the US. But they are no longer an isolated, one-state anomaly. In a mere two years there has been enormous change. A degree of change that makes the no-sex-for-anybody-because-it-might-connote-even-tacit-recognition stance, well, “quaint.” Or more plainly, obsolete. The “volumes” that it “speaks” are out of date.
This is a level of change the YAFs can hardly ignore; it’s time for them to catch up.
Now, I said there were two major problematic aspects to this version of “equality.” The other is that it also denies any recognition to heterosexual domestic partnerships. But these too are much more common, and very widely legal; also counted in the Census.
This is personal for me, because that’s my status. And recognition counts. In fact, just this week the tax exempt status of my employer’s house was called into question by local authorities because they had “discovered” that there were two of us living here, and the North Carolina law is that if anyone other than “clergy” resides there, the property can be taxed.
But as soon as I explained that the other person now living here was my domestic partner, that was the end of the discussion. The “clergy,” I was assured, can have such, and families too, without jeopardizing the tax exempt status in North Carolina.
I’m tempted to say, “Whew! That was close!” But really it wasn’t. Even in my very conservative area, this debate is essentially over. That it is not in Wichita is what is anomalous, even shocking.
Yet the only “recognition” the YAF policy tenders for all this change, and the settled relationships that are their basis, is an equality of invisibility and unspeakability. The planners expect to proceed as if nothing has happened since 2008, or many years before.
This may be good enough for some, such as the Friend who advocated for it above. She compared it to a heterosexual couple foregoing the “privilege of marriage” until same sex couples have the same option.
I’m aware of at least one Monthly Meeting which has adopted a similar stance, declining to perform any marriages until same sex couples can do so legally. That is their prerogative, but I do not think it wise or prudent as a model for our Society. One does not expand rights by giving them up. One does not end atmospheric pollution by refusing to breathe until the air is clean.
Those who are wedded to religious views that regard anything except monogamous heterosexual marriage as immoral need not approve any of the tide of change noted here. One hardly expects the YAF conference policy to go in that direction.
But the words of the 2004 FGC minute, quoted here before (and which, we hope, their heralds in Wichita will remember and stand up for this time around), apply: “We will never go back to silencing those voices or suppressing those gifts.”
Marriage, whether same or mixed sex, and whether formalized in law or not, is one of those gifts. Silencing and suppressing their presence is no longer good practice, if it ever was.
To underscore these reflections, let’s shift gears and consider a real-life parable, which starts with a question:
How are inter-branch Quaker events like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre?
Bear with me; this is important. Last First Day I heard a talk by a sociologist about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and how it “operates.”
The church, a major pilgrimage destination, is on a site traditionally viewed as where Christ was buried and from which he rose. It’s been demolished and rebuilt several times as various wars and empires came and went. For the last several centuries, the church has been occupied, or “occupied,” by no less than six different church groups.
Not in succession, one after another.
At the same time. Right now, today.
Five of them are Orthodox and variants: Eastern (or Greek) Orthodox; Armenian Apostolic; Coptic Orthodox; Ethiopian Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox. Plus a large Catholic presence, in the form of a Franciscan community. (More on this here.)
Christ’s burial and rising are just about the only thing these groups have in common. They are theological rivals, each claiming to embody the “true” meaning of the events there, each regarding the others as schismatics or heretics.
Further, they are hugely divided by culture. Even among the four “orthodox” groups, languages and liturgies vary widely; they can’t understand each other.
So how does it work? How can they possibly get along?
The answer is, they do — and they don’t.
The groups have staked out various pieces of turf in the church and its grounds. They follow an intricate schedule of prayers and liturgies, each in carefully delimited sections of the inner sanctum and at times specified to the minute. Slots are also allotted for pilgrim visits (which is where the money comes from).
Much of the time, pilgrims can see this complex “dance” taking place in relative order, like some sort of strange old-fashioned mechanical timepiece, a set of custom-designed cuckoo clocks, with various bells, whistles and figurines jangling and clanking and parading when the successive hourly chimes ring out. It must be intriguing to watch.
But this kabuki ballet is also enacting an ongoing set of conflicts. While often in a kind of stasis, they are never static, or settled. The rival churches frequently try to encroach upon each other’s prayer times and spaces, and the resulting shoving matches and fistfights are not so rare; sometimes the Israeli cops, and ambulances, have to be called.
As I heard all this described, I got this eerie sense of deja vu all over again. The languages might be strange, the liturgies foreign – but the whole jostling-and-elbowing-in-the-name-of-God bit was all too familiar. All too familiar.
Quakers are like that. Even to the fact that some of our sub-sects barely speak the same language when it comes to matters of religion, ethics or politics. (This condition is masked by our common use of English for lesser matters such as “Do you want fries with that?”). However, our jostling and shoving matches have a characteristically passive aggressive coloration, including a chronic unwillingness to admit that they are happening.
Our “Holy Sepulchre” is the notion of authentic original Quakerism: the physical site is less charged, but could be Pendle Hill in England; or perhaps Firbank Fell.
We haven’t struggled over a particular place. But the evidence is plentiful in the record, if you’re prepared to look, of struggles for control over the “authentic” and original Quaker faith:
From the day in 1828 that Ohio Friends rioted in the Mt. Pleasant Meetinghouse, tossing each other out the upper floor windows and smashing the clerk’s table to toothpicks, while the farmers from round about looked on, swigging their homebrew whiskey and laughing.
Or, a couple decades later, in the struggle over slavery within the Society of Friends, as recalled by Elizabeth Buffum Chace of Rhode Island:
“Several persons, in various parts of the country, were forcibly carried out of the Friends meeting for attempting therein to urge upon Friends the duty ‘to maintain, faithfully their testimony against slavery,’ as their Discipline required. A few meeting houses in country places, had been opened for the Anti-Slavery meetings, whereupon our New England Yearly Meeting adopted a rule that no meeting house under its jurisdiction, should be opened except for meetings of our religious Society.”
There is much more, down to our own day, including several vivid episodes I have myself witnessed, been in some measure party to, and/or chronicled. Indeed, I often think that one can hardly claim to be a fully-credentialed, mature Friend today, unless she or he has been denounced as an agent of Satan, or at least a racist, by another.
“One young Friend in Massachusetts had written a very earnest, open letter to Friends, in remonstrance for their pro-slavery position. He was universally condemned by all the powerful influences of the Society.Talking with one of the most influential members at our Yearly Meeting, who expressed strong condemnation of this young man’s presumption, I said, ‘But is not what he says true?’ And the man replied, ‘Well, thee may be sure, it will certainly kill him as a Friend.’”
Friend Elizabeth, thee nailed it there, for sure!
More typically, though, our struggles go on with a certain faux gentility, and one of the gravest offenses against this propriety is to state clearly what is going on. As Chace said, totally nailing it:
“No belief in Papal infallibly was ever stronger in the Catholic mind, than was the assumption, not expressed in words, that the Society could do no wrong . . . .”
Despite many protestations to the contrary, this spirit has been quite often detectable in the efforts at cross-branch communication. From one angle they can be legitimately viewed as noble efforts to reach across barriers and speak to those strangers who somehow bear the same name of “Friends.” Yet from another – and here again, the evidence is plentiful – they repeatedly have included attempt to draw the new circles so that certain tendencies are still left out or made invisible — as, for instance, critics of the Wichita YAF policies have been banned from the self-described “quakerquaker” site, while supporting messages there are still permitted. As the old elders used to say, what goes around comes around. Ironic.
On the other hand, there are sorties from these outsiders to elbow their way in, claim some small piece of turf, and then defend it, or if possible expand it.
Today this jostling centers on two major sets of concerns: those related to sex, and those related to godlessness.
It bemuses me to ponder that these are the current sticking points. There could be, and once were, other flashpoints among Friends: war, for instance. In the late 1960s, New England Yearly Meeting spent something like fifteen hours straight in agonized debate over whether to send a token sum to the AFSC for war relief on both sides in Vietnam.
Or the use of alcoholic beverages. Paying taxes of certain sorts. Opposing slavery (as opposed to pretending to oppose slavery).
Contemplating the current matter of the Wichita YAF Conference and its list of expectations, one is tempted to look back at the reports of Friends being carried out of meetings for denouncing slavery and sigh, “Those were the good old days.” In 2010, mere matters of life and death on the grand scale barely merit a mention.
(If anyone can find a place on the Wichita YAF conference schedule for consideration of the US militarism which has spawned two current wars, legitimized torture, recruited more terrorists than Al Queda, eats up most of our taxes, is the biggest emitter of carbon, and generally threatens the world’s future, please let me know; I can’t find it. But no matter; Osama doesn’t like Speedos either.)
Instead, we are reduced to squabbling over whether attenders should be permitted to wear tank tops, or to say “damned” (unless it is part of the sentence, “if you don’t accept Christ, you’ll be damned”); or whether even married sex must be proscribed, lest some same sex couple (or perhaps an intersex unmarried one) might actually privately do the deed; or by not doing it but retaining the option, thereby gain some implicit shred of tacit recognition. The circle must still be drawn to keep them out, and all midriffs covered. And meantime, please, don’t raise criticisms of this out loud. The public arena is for promotion. Send your concerns and criticisms along in private.
Yes, this kind of rulemaking for Quaker adults in the Year of Our Lord 2010 can hardly help but bring a blush of shame to a grownup cheek. Are these really the matters that must be spelled out to make inter-branch conversation possible? Can anyone actually imagine that this represents progress? Or that it is other than aggressive against significant segments of the potential constituency– silencing voices and suppressing gifts?
Then returns the image of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Under its dome, tomorrow, or perhaps even as you read this, the Franciscans may be duking it out with the Armenians, or the Copts (again), over whether one or another prayed two minutes past their allotted hour, or pushed three inches too far onto the Greek Orthodox turf.
Most often these scuffles are minor; so maybe tomorrow the Israeli police will not need to be called. And the pilgrims will still come in at their appointed time, to light their candles and tremble at what they think they see, and feel in the air. (Must keep the dollars or drachmas or euros trickling in.)
And somewhere in the holy of holies, at the heart of it all, a stone slab lies heavy and silent, yet bearing in every molecule the whole point that underlies and might someday transcend all the skirmishes and brawls.
I suppose if whatever of Christ remains in the church can withstand the shameful antics of the Christians that inhabit it, perhaps it can even encompass this folly of ours, over sites not even on the map.
That such an encompassing could be possible, would say a lot for Christ. That it is undoubtedly necessary – what does it say of us?