In Carolina, Strange Bedfellows & Battle Lines
In our last post, we reported that North Carolina Yearly Meeting-FUM (NCYM) officials had taken steps to ensure calm at the impending annual sessions. They will open on Friday, September 4, at a YMCA camp in the western Carolina mountains.
But late yesterday, that plan went up in smoke.
To recap briefly: on August 20, NCYM’s Executive Committee (EX Comm) abruptly expelled three local meetings. (Details here and here.) The notice of expulsion said the meetings could appeal the action at the YM annual sessions.
But then on August 27, as reported here, the ExComm reversed itself and declared that appeals would NOT be heard at the YM session. That would come later, either in November or next March.
This was too much for the Quakers at 2100 West Friendly Avenue in Greensboro.
That’s the home of First Friends Meeting.
First Friends has an establishment air about it: located near the corporate center of what used to be Greensboro’s thriving textile industry, it’s “First Friends” the way others are “First Baptist” or “First Methodist.”
But the glory days of Greensboro’s vintage industries are long past. And amid the turbulent and noisy scene of North Carolina YM over the past year, First Friends Meeting in Greensboro has been notable for its low profile and subdued stance.
By rights, it should have been near the top of the target list of those demanding a purge of “liberals” who followed “false doctrine.” First Friends’ soft-spoken pastor, Deborah Seuss, not only supports same sex marriage, she has performed some. And their website, under ‘What to Expect,” makes plain that their “Quaker faith and practice are built upon our personal experiences and shared convictions, rather than doctrinal creeds.” But a creed is exactly what the purgers want to enforce.
Yet First Friends has been seeking a “middle way” in the controversies of the past year. It issued no response to the spate of letters demanding banishment of NCYM’s few gay-friendly meetings. Its staff focused on quiet, behind-the-scenes contacts with some prominent members of the purge-oriented meetings.
About the most “public” statement before this week was a sermon Seuss gave on June 21 of this year. (Full text here.) In it she said:
Jesus prayed that his followers may be one. Yet, like so many before us in so many different Christian denominations, our state gathering is spiritually divided. We are not one. We who preach peace are fighting among ourselves.
Forgive us, O God. . . .
And while I think Friends in all of our meetings (churches) want to love one another, we have failed. And instead, some have questioned other’s integrity and we have had spats over theology. While I believe differing opinions are fine, in our disagreements in our wider Quaker denominational gatherings, we have often been unkind to one another. Hurtful words have been uttered. . . .
“For our more theologically conservative Friends, our diversity of belief is a genuine stumbling block. And I get it. So let me emphasize: this is not light versus darkness or good guys versus bad guys, etc. For the most part, these are our fellow Quakers who like us and even love us, but simply feel like they can not continue to remain yoked with us.
Which brings me back to my first words: May God forgive us. For I believe that somewhere along the way, we all haven’t maintained the relationships that could have seen us through these theological differences. . . .
What I do know is that it is time to stop our theological spats. Because the world needs all of us, conservatives and progressive alike, to do the work of Jesus, who called us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the orphans, and work for justice. And friends, I am hopeful because we worship a God who forgives our brokenness, wipes away our sin, and calls us into new life together.
So, let us pray for wisdom.”
– – – – – –
Actually, I didn’t think much of this sermon at the time. It was way too close to a “plague-on-both-your-houses” kind of moral equivalence, which seemed to me quite false.
Sure, all Friends in NCYM are sinners. But not all had bashed and battered NCYM officers and staff out of their posts; not all had demanded a purge of meetings with different theologies. Not all had been threatening to leave if they didn’t get their way.
Even so, this was still the First Friends outlook at the crucial Representative Body session, six weeks later on August 1, when all meetings were called on to state their preference among five options for the YM’s future. That day, First Friends declined to pick any of the five, offering hope for prayer and reconciliation instead.
Indeed, Seuss’s sermon could have been repeated word for word two weeks ago.
But that’s ancient history now.
The expulsions on August 20 shocked many NCYM Friends beyond those in the three expelled groups. But it sent previously prayerful, compromising, forgiveness-obsessed First Friends right over the edge. And from there to the barricades.
On August 31, its Ministry & Counsel session approved and then issued a letter that is nothing short of a Quaker call to arms. As I write, the astonishment is still spreading, not only at what was said but at who has said it.
After admitting that until now, “we have prefer[red] to seek truth together in community worship than to engage in published debate,” First Friends let the dogs out:
[T]he time has come when we are compelled to state clearly and immediately our dismay and overwhelming sense of betrayal by the recent actions of the Executive Committee of North Carolina Yearly Meeting. The Executive Committee has issued an edict purporting to direct that three Monthly Meetings are expelled from North Carolina Yearly Meeting. . . . .
First Friends rejects this purported action of the Executive Committee. The Committee has exceeded its authority and has damaged (if not destroyed) the attempts to foster positive approaches to the conflicts in NCYM. To the extent the Executive Committee claims to have acted to expel Meetings, this action is without authority and therefore should be accorded no weight. At most, the Committee should be considered only to offer its advice – advice which, frankly, we believe should be utterly rejected.
The organizational chart for NCYM indicates that the Executive Committee is under the direction and supervision of Representative Body, and that Representative Body is under the direction and supervision of the Yearly Meeting. Despite this, the Executive Committee has attempted to elevate itself to the top of the chart, despite the clear fact that Representative Body and NCYM have not yet reached unity about whether a process for expulsion should be a part of NCYM. The fact that this was done mere days before North Carolina Yearly Meeting annual sessions makes it all the more disheartening.
If the Executive Committee’s action were not bad enough on its face, it has been compounded by the effort to thwart reconsideration of it. The Committee’s original resolution clearly stated: “This action . . . may be appealed to and is subordinate to the North Carolina Yearly Meeting at its next annual session.” Since that time, we have received word (albeit, not from any official release or statement) that any such appeal will not be considered at annual sessions, but will be delayed until the next meeting of Representative Body. This is totally unacceptable for a broad variety of reasons:
It violates explicit assurance of the original Executive Committee resolution. The Committee has already forsaken Quaker process; by failing to honor its own express promise.
Holding other business prior to consideration of this concern denies the expelled Meetings the true right of their appeal. They have been promised a timely appeal; if NCYM takes up other business prior to considering this matter, it is giving undue effective weight to the Executive Committee’s action and is denying, without recourse, the expelled Meeting’s right to involvement in the affairs of the Yearly Meeting.
Any business done without the input and involvement of the expelled Meetings will be conducted under the false pretense of the invalid expulsion. All business conducted in this way shall be out of Gospel Order and utterly without claim to being a valid activity of North Carolina Yearly Meeting.
There can be no greater reason to hold NCYM annual sessions than to discuss the important matters facing NCYM. Put simply, this matter is an urgent and immediate crisis. There will be no other issue more on the hearts and minds of attendees. It would be utter folly to pretend otherwise.
First Friends respectfully submits not only that this matter must be considered at the coming annual sessions of North Carolina Yearly Meeting, but that it must be the absolute first matter of business to be considered. No other business rightly can be conducted before this issue is duly considered. [Emphasis in original.]
And thus they have thrown down the gauntlet. Sources at the meeting told me they expect a large delegation to be in attendance when the YM session opens, ready to advocate assertively against what they see as injustice piled on injustice, and the unjust agenda built upon it.
Oh — and they won’t be alone. As this post was taking shape, Spring Meeting issued a much briefer minute, endorsing First Friends’ stance and stating their objection to the ejections. Spring Friends have often spoken up for holding the YM together and preventing a purge during the past year; but their minute sounds quite mild compared to today’s First Friends firebrands. Several from Spring are also expected to be on hand for the sessions as well.
We have heard that other meetings may join in, but can’t yet confirm that.
What will the yearly meeting officers do now? Plans have changed before. They might well change again.
And thus we have the makings of a very unexpected kind of alliance, or at least an intersection at the sessions beginning Friday. An urban, gay marriage-supporting liberal meeting plans to plead the cause of two fundamentalist-oriented, anti-gay rural churches — which have been agitating to get rid of all such urban, gay-marriage supporting liberal meetings.
And I have thus far neglected to mention New Garden Friends Meeting, First Friends’ larger Greensboro sister meeting, and the principal target of the purgers from the start. They too are now in the same corner with their fiercest fundamentalist critics. They have been told they can attend the annual session, but not speak or take part in business.
Their responses, only released on September 1, is straightforward:
“New Garden Friends Meeting . . . rejects the Executive Committee’s offer of “release” . . . . New Garden rejects the purported establishment of a rule against dual affiliations as done without authority and rejects the application of that rule to New Garden as done without authority and contrary to Faith and Practice and the proceedings in Representative Body. New Garden requests that the Executive Committee reconvene immediately and rescind its action. . . .” [Full text here.]
What will come of this unexpected nexus?
Friends, you can’t make this stuff up.
Or maybe you could. But who would believe it?