“Shattering” Quakerism In the Northwest – Continued
Interview with Steve Angell – PART TWO
[Part One of this conversation is here.]
Stephen Angell, Associate Editor of Quaker Theology, and Professor of Quaker Studies at Earlham School of Religion, continues a conversation on his extensive report about the ongoing controversies over LGBT issues at George Fox University and in Northwest Yearly Meeting. [Hereafter GFU & NWYM] This struggle has resulted in the abrupt expulsion of one Meeting, loud protests from several others, and by many individual Friends there. In Part One, Steve discussed issues at George Fox University. [CEF are the initials of Editor/blogger Chuck Fager.]
CEF: Now let’s turn to Northwest Yearly Meeting and the events that led to the expulsion of an LGBT welcoming meeting there.
First of all, another reflection on terminology. Is “release” a satisfactory term for the decision on West Hills Friends [WHF]? The same term was used when three meetings in North Carolina YM were put out in mid-August, and that terms found to be so offensive that the YM in session loudly and successfully demanded reversal of the action. “There, at least, nothing less than “expulsion” seemed honest to Friends at large. Does this reaction resonate at all with what you learned from NWYM Friends? Or are they “comfortable” with it?
ANGELL: “Release” is not a satisfactory term. “Expulsion” or “disownment” is better. But it is complicated. For many Friends at West Hills, the expulsion does surprisingly feel like something of a release, but in spite of the yearly meeting elders, not because of them: frankly, West Hill Friends have been released from a highly unfair and onerous discipline process. Furthermore, they’re not going back. The only way that they will ever be members of NWYM again is if they are free to be themselves, without harassment or threats of discipline from the yearly meeting for their honestly held and painstakingly discerned leadings.
CEF: We can’t leave words alone just yet. The expulsion of West Hills Meeting seemed to turn on a determination that their continued presence in NWYM would be “shattering” to the larger body. Yet that term is not defined in the YM Faith & Practice or, as far as we know, anywhere else. Have you made any progress toward defining the term?
ANGELL: Well, the short answer is that everyone expects that the term is being used because some of the larger churches in NWYM threatened to quit the yearly meeting, taking their assessment money with them, if West Hills Friends were not expelled from the yearly meeting. But no such threats have been made public, so if such threats have been made, the yearly meeting is tolerating them under the cover of anonymity.
What I point out in the article is that “shattering” cuts both ways. In NWYM, Young adult Friends are not going to tolerate a yearly meeting, or monthly meetings, that does not allow for the possibility of welcoming and affirming LGBT Friends. And these young adults are the future of NWYM. The yearly meeting needs to stop worrying about “shattering,” because whatever stand is taken on these issues (and avoidance of taking a stand is also seen as a stand), some Friends are going to leave. It needs to figure out how to live with its present and future diversity in regard to LGBT issues.
CEF: Isn’t this fuzziness about “shattering” troubling, especially when such an undefined term can become the basis for expelling a whole meeting? Has there been any feedback or protest about this from NWYM meetings?
ANGELL: Yes, several monthly meetings have protested the use of the term “shattering” to justify the expulsion of West Hills Friends. Reedwood Friends in Portland has proposed that the term be clearly defined in Faith & Practice, or eliminated altogether from the document. Klamath Hill Friends says that the NWYM Elders should have given clear reasons for describing as “shattering” an action by a meeting that the Elders themselves agree is “vibrant.”
CEF: If eight meetings appealed the WHF expulsion, plus 230 individual Friends more who signed an unofficial appeal letter, what does this suggest about the state of thought and debate in NWYM on matters of sexuality generally, and LGBT inclusion in particular?
ANGELL: If you had asked this question two to five years ago, the answer would have to have been that the overwhelming majority of NWYM members opposed full inclusion of LGBT persons in their community, so the protests of individual Friends and individual meetings to the contrary would have availed little.
But you didn’t ask the question back then, at least to me; you’re asking it now. And the situation seems incredibly fluid. That eight meetings appealed the WHF expulsion, and 230 individual Friends also signed a letter of protest, suggests a growing groundswell of support for LGBT Friends within NWYM. I would predict that the groundswell will not be arrested soon.
But another subtext in the article is an important one, and it relates back to the “shattering” issue. The supportive meetings are not randomly dispersed throughout the yearly meeting. The meetings that filed appeals were all located in Oregon and Washington; and it seems that the meetings that object to West Hills are located in the third state that is incorporated in NWYM, the more conservative state of Idaho. (All NWYM meetings are located in the three states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.) While some of the individual Friends who signed the letter were from Idaho, none of the meetings who filed appeals were from Idaho.
While there are also some meetings in Washington and Oregon that oppose welcoming and affirming LGBT Friends, the major opposition seemed to be coming from Idaho. And two of the three Friends on the Elders’ Subcommittee were from Idaho. The third was the pastor of the North Seattle meeting in Washington, and WHF pastor Mike Huber found it significant that North Seattle Meeting was one of the eight meetings that filed an appeal of the WHF expulsion.
CEF: NWYM’s Superintendent has repeatedly appealed for quiet and a “moratorium” on discussion or efforts to revise the NWYM Faith and practice sections on sexuality, which are quite heteronormative and restrictive. Have these appeals succeeded, in your view?
ANGELL: No. I appreciate that Becky Thomas Ankeny, the Superintendent of NWYM, is in a difficult situation, and would like to have time to find some middle ground that could lead to a “sense of the meeting.” Whether, in our polarized American culture, middle ground is attainable, is a vexing question in and of itself. One of the meetings protesting the expulsion of West Hills, Reedwood, referenced in its appeal a minute of the Portland Area Meeting that the Elders’ process “mirrors the political allegiances of the country rather than being characterized by the priorities of the upside-down kingdom” of Jesus.
So, if a sense of the meeting is attainable, it should not be some watered-down version of politics imported from somewhere on the very wide political spectrum. But that question aside, no one in NWYM seemed happy with the thought of not talking or doing anything about issues of human sexuality over a five-year moratorium period. Mike Huber says that if Ankeny was offering a deal to NWYM, “her deal had no buyers.”
CEF: What do you know about the timetable for dealing with the WHF appeals?
ANGELL: They seem to be taking their time with this. At their September 12 meeting, the NWYM Administrative Council met to establish a process for consideration of the WHF appeals. The Administrative Council will meet again this month (November). It has not yet established a timeline for its decision, although it has noted that West Hills will stay a part of NWYM until December 31, 2015.
I would expect a decision from the Administrative Council before the end of 2015.
CEF: I want to ask you about the future — which of course none of us knows. But educated guesses are permitted.
So, first, what’s your sense of the odds that the expulsion of WHF will be reversed? Or do you think it’s likely to be upheld?
ANGELL: Nobody on the Administrative Council has been talking to me about this. I really don’t know what they’ll do.
CEF: If the expulsion were reversed, what are the odds, as you see it, that West Hills would be willing to return to NWYM?
ANGELL: This is really the key question. I do not think that West Hills Friends will be willing to return to NWYM. One member tells me that the only way that they would seriously consider returning was that if they were released from the disciplinary process altogether and they were accepted as they are, with the LGBT welcoming and affirming process that they have already discerned. The possibility that the Administrative Council will come up with any proposal like this, frankly, seems to me to be slim or none.
Thus, what really seems to be underway, best as I can make out, is an amicable attempt to sort out all the property and other issues, resulting in a friendly separation of NWYM and West Hill Friends late in 2015 or early in 2016.
CEF: If the expulsion of WHF is upheld, what in your view are the odds that there will be more expulsions from among the meetings that were supportive of West Hills?
ANGELL: I share [WHF pastor] Mike Huber’s hope that this will lower the temperature in NWYM and lead to more productive conversations in the yearly meeting over issues of human sexuality. I really don’t like what I’m about to say, but, on these issues, timing may be everything. The prophetic meeting that speaks out too soon gets hammered. Those who follow more calmly in the wake of this traumatic event may be able to work out some meaningful institutional change.
Quakers have seen this kind of dynamic play out over the issue of slavery 250 years ago. Most early opponents of slavery, such as Robert Southby and Benjamin Lay, who spoke out before their meetings were ready to condemn slavery, were disowned for publishing their views without the permission of the meeting. But in the wake of Southby and Lay, came anti-slavery reformers like Anthony Benezet and John Woolman, able to fashion a sense of the meeting to strengthen the discipline as it dealt with slaveholding. And they did obtain permission to publish their writings.
The Elders of NWYM may have had this dynamic in mind, when they stated their hope for a possible reconciliation of WHF and NWYM some time in the future.
CEF: And finally, did you get a sense that some of the more traditional/evangelical meetings are getting ready to leave NWYM, as several have left North Carolina recently?
ANGELL: No, any rumors relating to this have been kept under wraps, at least as much as I can find out from a couple thousand miles of distance. My sense is that Ankeny and the Elders, with their concerns about “shattering,” have been doing everything in their power to prevent more departures. After West Hills leaves, they very much want to see no other meeting leave. Whether they will be successful in this endeavor remains to be seen, of course.