A “Blockbuster” Report: “Streaming Quakerism” Is Coming to Carolina

A “Blockbuster” Report: “Streaming Quakerism” Is Coming to Carolina
I wonder if the Guinness Book of World Records has a category for “The Quaker Faith & Practice That Has Been Reaffirmed The Most Number of Times.”
If it did, North Carolina YM-FUM would be a top contender for it. 
At the YM’s Representative Body session on March 5, the F&P was reaffirmed twice, or three times — or, well, I kind of lost count. And that even after the Clerk told the group that they didn’t need to do so again, because they’d already done it (several more times) over the preceding year. Or two. 

 Even so, Friends were making sure.

 Though it turns out that not all “reaffirmations” are created equal. Indeed, the one on the table March 5 was quite different from its predecessors. And some thought, maybe not in a good way.

 The next most recent one, first sent out to all Monthly Meetings late last summer, read like this: 
All Monthly Meetings SHALL approve or reaffirm NCYM Faith & Practice which DIRECTS us to the Holy Bible and includes documents prepared with much care and prayerful guidance, such as the Richmond Declaration of Faith, which PRESENTS our CORE SPIRITUAL BELIEFS in a CLEAR, concise manner.
Affirmation of Faith & Practice as our guide does not establish a creed. 
Please explain any difficulty the monthly meeting has with this request. (Emphasis added.) The full text of this report is here.
But in the meantime, it seems that not a few meetings did express some “difficulty” with this formulation. So it was tweaked and retweaked and came out last Saturday looking like this:
“Monthly Meetings of NCYM shall ENDEAVOR to follow the most recent revision of Faith and Practice that further SPELLS OUT our faith and AIDS US as we put our faith into practice. Furthermore, our Representative Body deals with and approves issues we should also ENDEAVOR to follow.” (Emphasis added.) Full text of the March 5 report here.
Stay with me now, for a brief lexicographic detour:
The first version “Directs us,” i.e., commanded; 
The second urges us to “Endeavor,” i.e., (per Webster’s), to try, attempt; strive; aspire to; etc.
The first said that F&P “presents our core spiritual beliefs.” 
The second says it “spells out our faith and aids us . . .” 
“To spell out”; among numerous definitions, this one seems to fit best: “to discern or find, as if by reading or study”; 
And then, “aids us,” i.e., helps, assists, supports.
To be sure, one can always quibble over words; but it seems clear that the second, March 5 version is much milder and less directive than the first. 
So in fact, while it was approved (or, um, affirmed/reaffirmed, whatever), the March 5 version did leave some unsatisfied. That’s because they wanted the authoritative version. Indeed, they wanted an even more authoritative declaration, and set of decisions from the March 5 session, than the original promised.
How do we know that? Because representatives from two meetings rose late in the day to announce that their meetings would be leaving NCYM shortly, because the “disciplinary judgments” (i.e., a purge of liberal meetings) they wanted from the session had not come about.
The two meetings, Cedar Square and Mount Carmel, include over 400 members, and contribute about $40,000 to the NCYM annual budget. Their departure will hurt.
Moreover, there were distinct rumblings from a couple of other meetings that sentiment there was running in the same direction, though no actual announcement was made. 
This writer also knew a purge was still being sought because a NCYM insider recently acknowledged the fact. Even though the loudest purge advocates had already pulled out of the YM, there were unspecified others who had “indicated” they would likely join the exodus unless liberal meetings were “disciplined” according to “core beliefs”; which amounts to being expelled.
So the Task Group (they changed their name from “Task Force,” explained their clerk, because “we have no FORCE of any kind”) was trying to steer NCYM like a small boat across a passage beset by sharp cross-currents and deadly shoals and reefs. As one member said, “we tried to write this in ways that would not split things.” By Saturday’s end that had seen only limited success.
“Reaffirming” the F&P, especially the revised text was easy, but unsatisfactory to some. And another Task Group proposal which had stayed the same in the revision —  a ban on “Dual affiliation” — quickly ran aground.
The ban was aimed at one meeting, New Garden, the YM’s largest and arguably its most liberal. A year ago New Garden joined the newly-formed “Piedmont Friends Yearly Meeting,” a liberal body much more of a loose a network than the traditional FUM-style of top-down, corporate model structure; at this point Piedmont doesn’t even have a Treasurer.  As New Garden explained its action in a letter to the Task Force:
For us, the Monthly Meeting is central, but we do not wish to be insular. While some New Gardeners have found meaningful relationships and connections to service opportunities through NCYM-FUM, for others, Friends General Conference is a better fit. In affiliating with Friends General Conference through Piedmont Friends Fellowship and Yearly Meeting, New Garden Friends were recognizing that fact. We did not seek to part ways with NCYM-FUM. 
PFF’s logo. (By the way, the building in the photo does not belong to PFF. Nor does the land.)
New Garden also pointed out (again) that there was no ban on such dual affiliation in the F&P (& still isn’t). None of the other liberal meetings has joined the new Piedmont YM, but at least three are part of its founding Piedmont Friends Fellowship, which is even looser. These and several other meetings made clear on Saturday they were very strongly opposed to banning a meeting from taking New Garden’s course, as a way of following the local group’s leading. 
The ban, in short, hit a wall. The Task Group clerk said it would be sent back for more work. 
There were two other Task Group proposals, which can be dealt with briefly: One was headed “Integrity,” which we have noted was originally quite long, detailed, and restrictive in terms of personal conduct, from sex to smoking and sipping alcohol. The Task Group clerk said this section had received the most feedback of any; and to judge from the revision, “pushback” would seem to be a more accurate term.
The original (which can be read here) was copied from a minute adopted by the YM in 1990, and it ran to 178 words, with five subsections. The revision had been slimmed down by 87 per cent, to an aphoristic 22 words, to wit:
NCYM Faith and Practice provides direction for how we should STRIVE to lead lives of integrity, peacefulness, equality, and service to others.
(Lexicography again: “Strive”: see “endeavor,” above.)
Finally, the Task Group offered a plan to steer disputes over doctrine and social issues away from the yearly meeting floor, by directing meetings to take any grievances they had with other meetings directly to the other meeting first. It was called “Restoring Gospel Order.”
Response from the liberal meetings was guarded, but they seemed willing to negotiate: for instance, there were suggestions for adding mandates that formal mediation be included in this new process.
But several more hardline meetings wanted nothing to do with the idea. They insisted that the Yearly Meeting should indeed handle such matters, mainly by purging “unrepentant” offenders. And such “disciplinary decisions should be based on “core beliefs,” that is, a view that certain doctrinal passages in F&P  have a creedal effect (despite the document’s several statements that it is NOT to be a creed) — and other additional rules, such as a ban on welcoming or marrying those in same sex relationships, which F&P does NOT contain. (See image above about “core beliefs.”)
Nope; the “Restoring Gospel Order” effort was a no-go. It too was sent back to the drawing board.
Along with all this back and forth there was one more difficult matter: strong objections were voiced to the body’s having rammed through in its previous session in November, a “rediscovered” section of F&P which had been absent from the publication for nearly 50 years, by what amounted to a voice vote. (Full text of this “rediscovered” text is here.) This maneuver, critics said, with considerable warmth, made a hash of “Quaker process,” replacing it with what one critic called “Baptist politicking,” which robbed NCYM of moral authority and integrity. 
As one representative said, “You’re telling us to follow F&P, but you’ve violated that same document to do it. Where’s the ‘integrity’ in that?”
Nevertheless, the YM Clerk stuck by his decision that the “lost” section,” which gave the YM authority over all “subordinate meetings,” was properly accepted. But that matter is not settled. And in the March 5 session, there were no attempts to repeat the “voice vote” procedure.
The upshot is that come June, when the Representative body gathers again, meeting representatives will be confronted with yet another chapter in this long-running NCYM-FUM soap opera/reality show/zombie apocalypse.
Or will they? How many will want to keep going on with it? 
Now a step back: what appears to be underway in NCYM is more than doctrinal squabbling; it rests on a process of increasingly radical decentralization, much of which seems inescapable.  I think it could be better compared to the rise of the internet and its “distributed systems” of access.
A 1950s UNIVAC computer with its human support staff. All its technology would take up less than the space available in a typical smartphone. The object at lower right is what was known as a “typewriter”; and that’s another story.
Here’s what I mean: I remember when computers were huge devices, which filled climate-controlled rooms, could only be operated by specially-trained technicians, and cost a fortune. If one had computer work to do in those days, one bought an expensive  time-share on the machine, and got in line to turn in one’s data for processing.
But that was another century, another millennium; it’s almost all gone. Now, we have smart phones which can do much of that computing (and lots those dinosaurs couldn’t) in the palms of our hands; tens of millions of us can afford them, and tablets, and laptops, which we operate on our own (after a bit of training by a knowledgeable teenager).
This is true of both hard-core evangelicals, and the mushiest liberals alike. And we all surf an internet which includes giants like Google and Amazon, but has no headquarters, no president or pope; no center. (“In those days, there was no [internet] king in [online] Israel” –with apologies to the Book of Judges.)
Now look back at NCYM-FUM. One thing many of the 14 meetings which have left are discovering is that, with the organizational equivalent of a good laptop, they do not really need a yearly meeting. If they have enough active members (and it does not require hundreds), they can do most of what a YM structure used to do, for themselves, or contract with others to do it:
>> If you want a pastor, raise enough money for the paychecks and hire one; who needs a blessing from a YM committee that’s under the thumb of an unfriendly faction? 
>> You want a summer camp? There are various ones you can rent or join with. 
>> You want Bible study? There are 57 varieties out there, in all media formats. 
>> You want to keep up with social issues? Hundreds of groups stand ready to help out, from right to left and in between. 
>> And if you want to do things with other like-minded folk, look around, check Facebook; you can find them, and do it, without signing any creeds (unless you want to).
As they become more aware of this, more meetings, of various outlooks, are asking themselves: “Why do we put up with all this hassle from NCYM? What does it give us that we want, need, and can’t get elsewhere?” 
The answer is, less and less and less. As this realization sinks in, my sense is that more meetings will not submit to being expelled by some committee (or stay “unequally yoked” with what they regard as pagan liberals), but rather simply wander off, following their leadings to the resources that are readily available in more compact, portable and affordable forms, minus the old expensive  intermediary structure. 
Put another way, what is the future for a yearly meeting, when it looks increasingly like a Blockbuster Video store? 
Blockbuster_logoRemember them? When movies were all on VHS tapes (you kids can look that up), Blockbuster flourished and we stood in line to search out our favorites at its 9000 stores (and when they didn’t have our favorite, we were out of luck). 
But Blockbuster went bust more than five years ago. Nine thousand stores – “Poof!” There was nothing wrong with it; except that the world changed, and all its customers changed with it. Movies are still here, of course, but now being streamed to and watched on those same phones and tablets and other non-tape gadgets, and with a much greater selection at our media-besotted fingertips.
So: are we entering the age of “streaming Quakerism”? 
Stepping back from all the hassle in NCYM-FUM over who believes what about the Bible, Jesus and marriage, can it be that what’s going on beneath the surface is the miniaturization of yearly meetings, a shift that makes ever more of what local meetings need available piecemeal from outside, through their various networks, electronic and otherwise, drastically diminishing the need for offices, paid staff, and supervisory pretensions?
And in this changed setting, maybe the YM of the future does look more like the new Piedmont Yearly Meeting: a loose, free association, associating freely with others, helping set up events for fellowship, learning and worship, when and how the members want to do that.
I’m not saying that “streaming Quakerism” will herald some golden age; the devil will find lots of ways to do his dirty work within it. But change happens; a mere decade ago, Blockbuster was king; now, without a shot being fired, its kingdom is gone.
Which reminds me of one other item of business from the March 5 meeting, not a decision but of some importance: the Personnel Committee announced the launch of its search process for a new CEO for NCYM. Currently called a Superintendent, they decided to rename the post as  General Secretary. (Asked why, the committee clerk indicated it was a step toward re-branding the post — and it’s a change that doesn’t cost the YM any extra money.)
When I heard this announcement, I got a queasy feeling. Such job searches in NCYM have long been one more arena for factional power struggles, and have produced a number of incumbents determined to preserve the outdated and burdensome structure that pays their salary. And we’ve had enough of that. 
But more, I felt sorry for the successful applicant: for him or her, it’s most like being chosen as captain of the Titanic. 
Or rather, more to scale: as the manager of a Blockbuster Store, circa 2010.
Come on in, Friend. (But keep thy resume handy.)

3 thoughts on “A “Blockbuster” Report: “Streaming Quakerism” Is Coming to Carolina”

  1. This saga has been distressing to read over the past few months – the power struggle between New Garden and FUM. It’s a clear demonstration of the dangers of hierarchy, and why there needs to be a lot more listening and a lot less telling. Seems to me to be reflective of the perpetual political dramas that infect North Carolina as a whole. It also reinforces our decision to move far away after living for decades in the state. What does any of this have to do with the Love of God? What a joy to be free of the drama.

  2. Is the next step “Why have a monthly meeting?” All the members and attenders are not in agreement on all social issues; not all members and attenders share spiritual core beliefs or personal practices of faith; some may question whether meeting decisions (reached either by the individual not being present, or not willing to stand in opposition) are in agreement with their thinking . Why not just contact a few congenial F(f)riends by internet and meet at someone’s home for Meeting at a convenient time? Would this be the next step of “streaming Quakerism?”

    1. Well, we’ll see; from what I see and read on social media, I expect there’s already a growing population of Friends who relate mainly virtually. I’m not in a position to say that’s bad; better some interest than none, in my book.
      And monthly meetings are not safe from the kind of “my-way-or-the-highway” attitudes that are dividing NCYM-FUM and some other YMs. In which case, either Friends work it out, put up with it, or move on, individually or in company. I know of numerous meetings that were started because some Friends became dissatisfied with one meeting, and went off and started another. Such “multiplication-by-division” does not always produce a formal schism/purge, or go into the YM history as such. And for me it’s not bad.
      But there is another form of this, where abuse and toxic behavior happens, victims are silenced and run off, and then we hear pompous cries of “Let The Healing Begin!” (Because all the bodies are buried and the evidence has been stuffed under the rug.) That’s bad, and whether formally or informally, such groups can include me out.

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