An Interview: Is North Carolina YM Out of the Woods? Or Not?

An Interview: Is North Carolina YM Out of the Woods? Or Not?

Chuck Fager is the Editor of the twice-yearly journal, Quaker Theology, which has just published a new issue (#27). In it is a major update article about the struggle in North Carolina Yearly Meeting-FUM.  Here the Editor is interviewed by the blogger behind “A Friendly Letter,” who also happens to be Chuck Fager.

Q. So there’s an updated report in the new Quaker Theology issue, about North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM) and its recent struggles. 

A. That’s right. It’s available now. And you can read it online too, here.

Q. What are some of the highlights of the article? What did you find in your reporting for it that seemed particularly revealing?

A. Several big new things came from reading the minutes of the 2014 Annual Session. (Hat-tip to the Recording Clerk for doing such a good job! So many YM minutes are so skimpy and unrevealing. But not these!)
For instance, I learned there just how aggressive the initial demands of the purge faction were. Take Todd Brown, pastor of Holly Spring (now gone). He was quite belligerent:

It is clear,” Brown said, according to the minutes (alas, they are not online), “that the only way to have peace and move forward is for those meetings that have aligned with Piedmont Friends Fellowship [PFF] and Friends General Conference to immediately separate from NCYM. Members from those meetings should resign immediately.” 

Well, Brown at least gets points for being clear. And for the record, he made this demand long before there was a new PFF-associated “yearly meeting”; the intolerable offense was any connection with the group whatsoever, no matter how informal.

Q. Were there other insights in the minutes?

A. Yes. Another “revelation” was how little respect was shown for Quaker business practice. They made repeated demands for an immediate decision to break up the YM.
We’ve already heard Todd Brown insist on “immediate resignations.” Then, from Chatham Meeting, pastor Wayne Lamb declared: “I believe we could make a decision on what has been said today. . . .[L]et’s go ahead and make the decision to split and work out the details later.” 
Of course, any honest Quaker Clerk would have demurred, because first of all, despite the outcry there was no clear unity or consensus in support of the call, and in any event, such a weighty decision should only be made after careful and sober deliberation. 
That’s what outgoing Clerk Bill Eagles said. But Wayne Lamb was unimpressed, and bluntly called for Eagles to be removed and replaced by a Clerk who would approve the split right then.
And a Friend from Pine Hill echoed: “Now is the time for action.” But why? What was the reason for the dire, can’t-possibly-wait-another-minute urgency?
This: “[S]ince people have driven up here.” 
I see; their travel plans trumped 360 years of Quaker process. Right.

Q. This is pretty intense stuff, for minutes.

A. It sure was. And one other thing: I wonder if these folks ever listened to themselves. 
Consider: A letter from Southern Quarter, where Todd Brown is from, was read, and it said of the immediate separation demand, “We recognize this solution is similar to major surgery in that it should never be the first option, but on occasion it absolutely must be the last option.” 

Q. Major surgery?

A. Yes. Only, on this makeshift operating table, the purge advocates would be the surgeons wielding the knife, while the targeted Friends, despite feeling quite healthy, and having done nothing wrong according to Faith & Practice, were “volunteered” to be the “patients,” or rather sacrificial victims; and nothing was said of anesthesia. “Absolutely” nothing.

Q. Pretty stark.

A. I guess! Imagine how such talk sounds to those on the receiving end of the proposed “operation”?
Yet the purge advocates seemed shocked and surprised that the targeted meetings did not regard this surgical metaphor as friendly or appealing. When one Friend complained that “several here today want to kick some meetings out,” Todd Brown baldly retorted that “the term kicking out is not appropriate. It is not what we are doing. A recommendation of separating is not meant to be unkind. . . .”
It isn’t? Let’s see: it is “not appropriate” to hear demands that those Brown does not approve of must “resign immediately,” as amounting to a call for “kicking them out”? And comparing Friends and meetings to so many cancerous tumors which “absolutely” had to be sliced out — somehow the targeted Friends were out of order to hear that as in any way, “unkind”?
Well, excuse them for thinking such dreadful things. 
(There was more of this to come, as described more fully in the article in Quaker Theology.) But what goes around comes around:  when the shoe went on the other foot, in August of this year, Brown and Holly Spring were not at all ready to accept being “released” by the Executive Committee as somehow different from, more polite –or “kinder” –than being kicked out, surgically amputated, or expelled. And I happen to agree with them on that point.)

All the while, Brown still insisted that, regarding meetings associated with Piedmont Friends Fellowship/FGC, he “loves them and they are created in the image of God, but for peace and unity it would be better for these meetings to separate from NCYM.” 
But whose “peace and unity” was a stake? What kind of “Love” was this? Or “kindness”? Well, can you blame the targeted meetings if these protestations rang, not only hollow, but hypocritical and abusive? I can’t.

Q. Did any of this remind you of the Indiana YM split you and Quaker Theology covered so extensively?

A. Somewhat. (And for the record, it was Associate Editor Stephen Angell who did the heavy lifting on Indiana. And you’ll want to check out his thoughts in the Comments following this post.) As far as the “we’re-kicking-you-out-because-we-love-you” rhetoric goes, that was definitely familiar. And of course we heard cries in NCYM that Indiana was some kind of model to follow. But actually, at this point, it’s the differences that are more striking to me.

Q. What differences are those?

A model for North Carolina? Maybe not.

A. There were several. For one, North Carolina had a different Faith & Practice than Indiana. NCYM’s does not give the YM power over monthly meetings, whereas Indiana’s did. Or at least it was ambiguous enough that it could be used that way by determined officials.
Which points to a second big difference: in Indiana, the Clerk and the Superintendent were determined to have their split, come heck or high water, and they got it, announcing “unity” in spite of 18 meetings being in open, firm disagreement. That was a total hijack and disgrace, but they got away with it. 
On the other hand, in NCYM, one honest Clerk was replaced by another, who insisted on having a real consensus or something like unity to take such drastic action. 
But it was never there. Never.  It just wasn’t. And pushy pastors shouting “blasphemy” and ranting about David Koresh didn’t make it so. The NCYM Clerk repeatedly told the truth about it.
Very important too, in North Carolina, unlike Indiana, the targeted meetings decided NOT to be Quaker doormats. They began speaking up for themselves early. They pushed back. They called out the bullying and abusive behavior.
There were letters written during this struggle which I hope get compiled and saved in the Guilford College Quaker Collection, because among them are some very memorable, eloquent expressions of serious, non-fundamentalist, open-hearted Quaker Christian faith. They will be well worth studying a hundred years from now. (If there’s anyone left to study them.)
Last but not least, the purgers made some big mistakes.

Q. What were those?

A. Here I’m going to be coy: read the Quaker Theology article for those details.

Q. Hmmm. So is there a bottom line here? Is NCYM “over the hump” now?

A. Well, I’m a believer in what the great prophet Yogi Berra said: “Predictions are hard, especially about the future.” 
But today I’m ready to go out on a limb and say: I think it mostly is over. Or it could be.
Consider: at this point, at least six meetings have left NCYM. They include most of the very vocal pastors and others who demanded the purge. A number of others may yet follow them; but each departure decreases the pressure for busting up NCYM.

The question now is whether the NCYM leadership can see that this storm is well along toward clearing up, and grab the opportunity that’s opening up with it. If they do, I’m hopeful they could help change the atmosphere in the body away from, “Who do we have to get rid of to satisfy the extremists,”  toward “How do we learn to follow the scriptural command to ‘bear one another’s burdens’ and act like a Christian community”?

Q. But you’re not sure about that?

lemmings-doubtsA. I’m not. That’s because there’s this “Grand Plan” out there, hanging over NCYM. It’s really left over from early last summer, and was meant as one more try to please those who wanted a purge. But why the “Task Force” would still be wanting to mollify a group that has now mostly left NCYM behind is beyond me. 
Yet that’s how the “Plan” reads and sounds. And if it’s pushed on the yearly meeting, NCYM could face another round of division and conflict, which would really be entirely unnecessary.
There are reasonable people on the Task Force and in the YM leadership. I’m hoping they’ll see the wisdom of dialing back the “Plan,” and reshaping it into a way of helping bring NCYM Friends together, rather than driving them apart again.

Q. All this is in the Quaker Theology report?

A. (Chuckles) Well, actually there’s a good deal more. Better read it to find out. And get your meeting to subscribe to the print version. There’s nothing else like it.

Q. Oh, one more thing — what about for readers that are new to this story? Where can they fill in some background?

A. Good question. And we’ve got answers. They can start by looking at Quaker Theology’s Issue #26, from last spring. And then #27, the new one. After that, track back in these blog posts til March 2015, and follow the posts from there forward. There are no other sources anywhere near as extensive.

4 thoughts on “An Interview: Is North Carolina YM Out of the Woods? Or Not?”

  1. Similarities and Differences between the Purge Mania in North Carolina Yearly Meeting and Indiana Yearly Meeting
    In this post, Chuck asks why the situation in North Carolina Yearly Meeting turned out differently than the separation (or “reconfiguration”) in Indiana Yearly Meeting, a separation which I chronicled for Quaker Theology in six essays between 2011 and 2014 (QT #18-22, 24). I more briefly covered similar dissension in Western Yearly Meeting in QT #18.
    I agree with most of Chuck’s points. I don’t agree that the dissenters in IYM acted like “Quaker doormats,” and I know they don’t see themselves that way. In any event, yearly meetings like North Carolina and Northwest had the advantage of seeing the purity mania play out in both Western Yearly Meeting and Indiana Yearly Meeting before having to decide how to approach their own internal dissension.
    Specifically on Indiana Yearly Meeting, I see more of a mixed picture. Some of the key differences between Indiana Yearly Meeting and North Carolina Yearly Meeting are as follows:
    First, the leaders of the purge in Indiana Yearly Meeting were far more patient than those in North Carolina Yearly Meeting. Plenty of mean and hurtful statements were hurled at those who were seen as transgressing the purity boundaries on the yearly meeting floor. Some leaders of Indiana Yearly Meeting performed questionable actions behind the scenes in an attempt to hasten separation, or to increase the numbers of meetings that would stay within IYM; not all of these could I report on in my coverage of Quaker Theology, often because those who were targeted by such questionable actions did not want them covered. In any case, questionable and underhanded tactics often backfired.
    But, in general, the purge process in Indiana Yearly Meeting was aided by the interest in Yearly Meeting leaders in devising some sort of procedure that would give some appearance of legitimacy to their actions. This meant, among other things, that time had to be handled flexibly. There were fewer demands on the yearly meeting floor for separation to occur “immediately.” And, to the extent that such impatience manifested itself, IYM leaders were able to keep it under control as long as their newly devised procedures had a good chance of working. And, from the purgers’ point of view, these procedures did work in the long run.
    Second, in order for their newly devised procedures to work at all, the purgers had to include credible leaders of the dissenters within the yearly meeting in their process and to give them key roles. Chuck’s account of Indiana Yearly Meeting downplays the role of the IYM Task Forces, neither of which was composed solely of purgers. The First Task Force gathered statements from IYM’s 64 monthly meetings. (These statements were similar to those I analyzed at length in QT #20). So information gathering was done upfront, and that info gathering made reasonably clear that a majority of meetings in IYM favored separation to one degree or another. What gave the procedure any degree of credibility at all was that the Task Force Recommendations did not just come from the purgers, but represented a unanimous report of the Task Force, and it was based on information gathering.
    Third, in IYM there was no leadership in opposition to the purge until very late in the process. In order for the purge to have been halted, there would have had to been concerted leadership to halt it by several meetings in 2011, when the purge mania picked up steam. There wasn’t. Many of the meetings that ended up in the New Association were deeply divided in their response to the purge efforts in 2011. It wasn’t until the following year, when the seeming unstoppability of the purge became clear, that something resembling a concerted opposition to the purge developed. This was too late to stop the purge. The second Task Force had to engage in hard and strenuous negotiation in order to make the purge as least destructive as possible for the dissenting meetings. Deep division in meetings is different from being “doormats.” However questionable the procedures devised for the Indiana Yearly Meeting separation, no monthly meeting could responsibly act until it had a sense of the meeting among its own members. For many meetings that sense of the meeting arrived very late.
    It’s not a lot of fun to write about these things. These events were sad. On the whole, there was a reasonable amount of civility involved in the process, more, possibly, than occurred during some phases of the Great Separation of 1827-1828, at least as I read that record. But some results aren’t all that different. Real and important differences may have been honored by the separation, but people are grieving on all aides. And the sadness and grief don’t go away, not easily.

    1. Steve is the expert on the Indiana purge, and his comments are very informative. And what I make of the sessions is that they were a travesty of “Quaker process.” I’m not sure if this is a difference here, but I also stick to my statement that the Indiana YM leadership was determined on the purge outcome from the beginning (I think that had something to do with the “patience” displayed; the fix was in, and they knew it); and further, that notwithstanding the task force reports, they rolled over substantial and widespread dissent from their action at the key business sessions to formalize their predetermined result.
      It’s also my sense that they did not expect so many (18) meetings to leave their “purified” YM when all was said and done. After all, when they launched it the campaign was aimed at only one meeting, West Richmond. Then it broadened to include anyone who stood up for West Richmond; and my recollection is that several meetings who were not even particularly supportive of West Richmond left out of disgust at the purge effort.

  2. I believe the North Carolina departures and the Indiana Yearly Meeting schism are much more alike than different. I speak as one who was a member of IYM during the time of the schism, one who opposed the separation, but was nevertheless cast out.

    Calling those who were cast out of IYM ‘doormats’ is neither accurate nor constructive. Indiana Yearly Meeting had largely come apart at the seams slowly but thoroughly over several decades before the formal separation. Those who were eventually cast out had long ago ceased to find IYM a useful organization and devoted their energies elsewhere. The formal separation ratified a drifting apart years in the making. That is different from North Carolina.

    But that difference is political, if you will, and the huge similarity is theological. (I’d think QT would be especially interested in theological issues!) The yeast in both these FUM situations is the growing adherence to biblical inerrancy on the part of some Quakers. In this, they follow the lead of many other evangelical Christians. This drift towards Biblical inerrancy has been accelerated by the hiring Bible college graduates (usually with little experience of Quakerism) as pastors in many FUM churches.

    What’s wrong with Biblical inerrancy and how that dangerous doctrine has crept into Quakerism is much too large and complex a topic for these comments. How Quakers view the Bible, today and in the past, would be a wonderful subject for QT to explore. Suffice it to say it has been the elephant in the room in both Indiana and North Carolina (and Northwest and Iowa and …..).

    1. Hi Doug–

      First off, thanks for weighing in. And I can say that “Quaker Theology” would be very interested in an informed history/theological analysis of the growth and issues associated with biblical inerrancy, in Indiana and other American Quaker groups. When can we look forward to seeing one from you?
      As for North Carolina, my own thinking has been increasingly drawn toward giving serious weight to sociological and even political factors associated with these theological tensions. For instance, almost all of the inerrancy-oriented groups in NCYM are located in areas that are overwhelmingly rightwing in politics (indeed, “rightwing” is a rather mild descriptor; more than one of the members of the U.S. House who are currently at the center of internal disruption and extremist disorder in that body represent these areas). In addition, the areas are virtually all white, and can be accurately characterized as places where the Nixon-Reagan era “Southern Strategy” of catering to residual segregationist sentiments (carefully repackaged as “dog-whistle” euphemisms) has been very successful.
      I’m as interested in theology as the next one; but it is overwhelmingly clear that in the NCYM context, the insistence on the Bible as “final authority” is extremely selective, and has very specific political/social agendas connected to it, such as absolutizing certain verses about killing those who engage in homosexual actions, in order to use them against other Quaker groups, from areas that are more influenced by Democratic-progressive & multiracial considerations. These connections are seldom spoken of openly, but with a little fact-gathering, they leap into the foreground, and then don’t go away.
      I don’t know the comparable context in Indiana well enough to tease out these factors there; however, the overall trend of recent political events in the state certainly adds to that impression.
      It’s a good and tough question here to ask, which is the tail being wagged and which is the dog wagging it? I go back and forth myself.

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