Going “Conservative” With North Carolina Quakers

A few weeks back, I attended North Carolina YM Conservative. It’s a VERY small group — in the business sessions I was in, there were an average of 30 NCYMC Friends, plus about ten visitors. (By contrast, my home YM, Baltimore, typically gets nearly ten times as many attenders; and Philadelphia more like 20x; even South Central YM, where I visited in 2009, was several times larger. An observant visitor can spot three or four Friends there in some approximation of plain dress.

This very small attendance reflects the makeup of the YM: one big Monthly Meeting (with 100 or so First Day attenders), two other fair-sized MMs (30-60); then six more that range from ten or so to five or less. (In our Fayetteville NC MM, six is a pretty good turnout.) NCYM is a very modest body of Friends.

Moreover, the two largest MMs, and a few of the smaller ones, are essentially liberal groups, a la FGC, with plenty of folks who are doubtful or downright skeptical of being “Christ-centered,” but coexisting with more Christian folks in relative peace. Similarly, some of these same MMs have no interest in recording ministers, which is one of the Conservative Quaker hallmarks, maintained by the oldest MMs. Indeed, the largest MMs are also affiliated with FGC via another anomalous local structure called Piedmont Friends Fellowship. (Don’t ask; it would take pages more to explain that.)

This broad internal diversity can give visitors a skewed impression of the YM. At its sessions, some Conservative procedural customs are carefully observed, particularly the separate meeting of Ministers & Elders, plus the ritual reading, in full, of each MM’s written responses to all 12 of the YM Queries [E.g.: #4. Do we assume our rightful share in the expenses of our Meeting? Do we regard our time, our talents, and our possessions as given us in trust, and do we use them freely for the needs of others?] (Ditto for their State of the Meeting reports) All this takes up most of two or three sessions, punctuated by frequent use of Christian terminology. But while there is respect for these customs and the history they embody, the present reality is much more complex than they make it appear to the untutored.

I wondered about all this, and how it was managed, but understood better when an astute plain Friend explained to me that NCYM is CONSERVATIVE but not WILBURITE.

Newcomers will have to look up some of the context; but the basic idea is that the Wilburite YMs (mainly Ohio today) emerged during John Wilbur’s lifetime, and with long, often bitter controversy. North Carolina, by contrast, “came out” in 1904, long after Wilbur was gone, and much more quietly: they left the old NCYM when the new pastoral leadership insisted that ALL MMs had to hire a pastor; the Conservatives held fast to the idea of the “free Gospel ministry” (i.e., no pastors), and simply moved on.

A 19th century silhouette said to portray an unidentified Friend. So it might be John Wilbur; but probably not.

The legacy of this quieter kind of separation, combined with its contemporary diversity, have produced some distinctives that have not always set well with some of their Wilburite brethren. Some years back, for instance, a delegation came from Ohio Conservative YM with a minute condemning homosexuality, which they urgently called for NCYMC to endorse.

But no such thing was about to happen; the largest MMs would not have stood for it, and such declarations are not the style here in any case. The Ohioans were shocked and departed in distress. Which didn’t mean that NCYMC is a pro-gay stronghold; I’d characterize the sentiment as live and let live, and keep clear of such needless strife. (Tho its Book of Discipline describes the “Friends Understanding of Marriage and Family Life” without specifying any gender identification for couples entering that state. The parallel section in the Ohio Conservative YM Discipline is similarly phrased, but specifically identifies marriage as “The union of a man and woman,” which “is not to be undertaken lightly.” )

Besides the extended readings of the Query answers, and routine matters such as the budget (about $15,000), and hearing the usual bevy of Quaker alphabet soup organizational reports, NCYMC also regularly hears from a longtime visitor from New Jersey who conducts a prison ministry there, bringing letters and stories.

Three items were unique to this year’s sessions: one was the proposal to appoint an ad hoc committee to consult with the “Other Body” (the much larger pastoral NCYM-FUM) about ways to collaborate on the Other Body’s designation of 2010 as the “Year of Peace.”

The Conservatives have no “action committees,” such as Peace or Social Concerns; such matters are left to MMs or alphabet soup groups. But the Other Body was essentially asking for help, as very little has been done to enact the year’s theme, so an ad hoc group was appointed by NCYM-C to see how way might open.

Secondly, two nascent independent “Christ-centered” worship groups, one from South Carolina and the other from Maryland, approached the body about the possibility of affiliating from a distance. Ohio YM Conservative does this, but NCYM-C had not previously done so. There was occasionally intense discussion in a special Representative Group about the notion, with considerable skepticism being voiced about the wisdom of the suggestion, as feeding the seed of schism in other YMs, a role which some found repugnant. No other action was taken, except to point out that Monthly Meetings had autonomy in the matter of establishing subordinate worship groups, and that visitors to the YM were welcome.

The third anomaly, more visibly striking, was that the Conservative YM’s 2010 theme was “Spirituality and the Arts.” This was particularly noteworthy because it was the Conservative YMs that held on longest to the 200 years of official Quaker antipathy to arts in just about all their forms.

[NOTE: The boxed quotes below are from Beyond Uneasy Tolerance, a booklet published by the Fellowship of Quakers in the Arts in 2000, which follows the evolution of Quaker attitudes to the arts via one hundred quotations arranged in chronological order. Several of the quotes were read in the NCYMC discussion.]

Early Quaker Views of the Arts
Some Early Quaker Views of the Arts

Yet here was a panel of Quaker authors, including a plain Friend, talking animatedly about writing and esthetics and the drastic reversal time had wrought in Friendly attitudes. Then the next night another panel of “Conservative” Friends gathered to show their artistic work, from intricately colorful quilts and paintings to playing “Amazing Grace” on a musical saw.
Quaker Quote on the Arts, 1873

That background noise I heard was probably John Wilbur turning over in his grave. This was NOT your granddaddy’s Conservative YM. But its lineage remains visible, and there is continuity of a kind.

I wonder about the future, though. The MMs with the handful of plain Friends and the longest Conservative pedigree are in serious decline, and who knows how long they will last? The larger MMs seem to be quite healthy; but for all their respect for the Conservative heritage, if they wind up carrying it on, my guess is that the YM will be evolving into something rather different.

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