In the Northwest, the new Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends (SCYMF) is deep into its first round of recording ministers.
Five Friends have asked to be recorded. Their names & descriptions are being republished in the YM’s weekly news bulletin, for a 60-day period of “Public Comment” on their candidacies, to be followed by further discernment.
I won’t speak here of any of these individuals; I’m not really familiar with them, and this post is about policy, not personalities.
As for the policy, I wish SCYMF was considering in depth not only whether some individuals ought to be recorded as ministers, but first the wisdom of having such a category in their yearly meeting at all.
Sierra Cascades began taking shape in early 2017, after several meetings in Northwest YM were deemed “liberal” (or insufficiently evangelical), particularly on LGBT and related issues, and were abruptly booted out. (Steve Angell and I reported on the buildup to these expulsions in Quaker Theology – Issues #24, #27, #28, #30-31 & #33.)
For several months, participants in the group of banished meetings informally referred to it as “Our New Thing,” and there was an air of discovery and reinvention to the messages from its initial proceedings. Yet as it prepares for its second annual session, some familiar outlines have appeared.
The matter of recording is a major one.
There was some discussion about recording, though. To prepare, SCYMF commissioned a paper by Jon Kershner, who has a doctorate in theology and teaches at Pacific Lutheran University; “A Brief History of the Quaker practice of ‘Recording’”. (It’s online here. )
Kershner’s paper does an excellent job of summarizing this history from a favorable pastoral perspective. He, like others of this school, declares that
A common message, and a united public persona, were necessary lest internal schisms and external pressures fracture the group [of early Friends].
The persistent threat of internal division, even in the early days, and external persecution sets the stage for more consolidated and prescriptive methods of approving who was an accepted Quaker minister, and who was only a troublemaker. When Quakers started building Meeting Houses in the 1670s, at least one included a “facing bench” for the elders and a “ministers gallery.” In 1671, a committee was formed to decide what publications could be put forth in the name of Friends. The goal was to control how Quakers appeared to outsiders, and, in the process, defined what would become accepted Quaker views. As in publications, ministers were the public face of Friends and their visible place of prominence in the “ministers gallery” asserted a normative interpretation of Quakerism.
In this period we see that within the early Quaker movement were individuals who “God had raised up” to preach and/or provide administrative and spiritual oversight for the movement. Over this period the internal workings of Quakers became more regulated and systematic, which helped spread the movement and control divisive voices.. . .
Indeed, Kershner adds,
“The additional layers of recommending and certification may have moderated and consolidated the Quaker message into an approved format and content, but some Quaker ministers unleashed harsh criticism on other Quaker ministers who were perceived as ministering under their own power and pride, even if the theology behind the message was within accepted Quaker teaching.”
When pastors entered the Orthodox stream after the U.S. Civil War, there soon arose a long-running version of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies, over the Bible’s factuality and authority; evolution; and social action versus personal conversions. Kershner rightly says that,
While many today may dismiss these divisions as artificial binaries, they were very real and polarizing at the time. These issues were just as divisive among Quakers of the Pacific Northwest as they were among Christian churches in general. Like other denominations, pastoral Quakers developed new systems for approving/disapproving of ministers as a means to support one interpretation of the Quaker message and avoid contamination with heresy.
These methods included the development of Bible Schools that supported fundamentalist doctrines, and, often, separation from Quaker groups that were deemed too liberal, both Pastoral and Unprogrammed. . . . Among pastoral Friends, committees for recommending new ministers were careful to guard the yearly meeting from modernizing influences.
It is a mistake to call these conflicts antiquated “artificial binaries.” They are very much alive in large segments of Evangelical Quakerism. And in earlier times, when oversight committees were not “careful” enough in repelling those “modernizing influences,” their superiors could and did take direct action. Such action is not only an artifact of “early Friends,” it is a very prominent feature of our time, which has seen five Orthodox/Evangelical yearly meetings (so far) riven or destroyed by internal divisions since 2000. In all these disruptions, the role of the recorded classes was important, even decisive.
And Kershner’s “Brief History,” falls most seriously short in that it only obliquely refers, mainly in the passive voice, to the presence and role of this “recorded class” system in a long tragic succession of schisms and disruptions.
That is, there is a steep downside to having recorded ministers, which has left a long trail of battered and, yes, “shattered” Friends and meetings. Even in “quieter times,” these circles widely stifled creativity, hobbled intellectual freedom and depth, and, I believe, deterred much faithful witness.
In fact, based on Kershner’s paper, such actions as the sudden mass expulsions from Northwest, and the other recent YM purges, are entirely consistent with this traditional version of “good order.” Top down, arbitrary, secretive rule –that’s the way it has been, his text properly affirms, since the 1660s in England, til only two years ago, in the shadow of the Cascades.
Yet there is also, hidden in this history, the record of a basic challenge to this top-down, tightly-controlling system, followed by a struggle for its reform, and finally the choice by an entire branch to discard it.
That history, regrettably, is completely overlooked in Kershner’s work.
Promising to reform this traditional system, even while coping with being purged by it, is not a new response. When the group that became “Hicksites” were pushed out of Philadelphia Yearly meeting in 1827, their initial leadership insisted that they would preserve the recorded ministerial elite system — only they would run it better, less oppressively, than had the rival Orthodox junta.
And maybe they did, for a short while. But before long, internal agitation surfaced among Hicksites about rising issues like women’s rights, and abolitionism, with the specter of civil war on the horizon. And it was shortly clear that the Hicksite recorded establishment did not like such reforming notions one whit more than did their Orthodox rivals. Soon enough there began among Hicksite meetings what I have called the Great Purge: hundreds of Friends deemed to be, in Kershner’s words, “divisive voices” or “only troublemakers,” who were silenced, marginalized or disowned.
But this time many victims stayed and, pardon the expression, fought back. The long conflict that followed is detailed in my book Remaking Friends. It lasted til the 1920s, and the culmination in the liberal branch was that the top-down yearly meeting structure was toppled, and replaced by a congregational model.
In this new order, local meetings were mainly autonomous, and yearly meetings were cooperative service groups, not rulers. And as part of the change, recorded ministers, their “Select Meetings,” were abandoned and (over time) the use of elevated facing benches in meeting architecture, was largely abandoned.
Fans of this “new” model often think it brings the best of all Quaker worlds: It is not, for one thing, solely individualistic: if a Friend has a strong leading, she or she can put together a support committee and get going.
But some aren’t satisfied with that. They long for the old time religion of recorded ministers, their special status, and their”weight” (aka power). The liberal buffet/smorgasbord of action and “spirituality” seems too disorganized, not to mention given to crazy ideas. So some want to lead liberals back to the lost world of Books of Discipline, with recorded ministers, oversight committees, traveling minutes, and the return of — the favorite word for many — “accountability.”
Considering this longer view of its history, my guess is that this “renewal” is a recipe for trouble, if not immediately, then later. How much trouble will depend on two key factors: first, how determined the new reformers are; and, second — an old Evangelical reliable — sin.
Yes, sin. Here I’m obviously heterodox among liberals, where I often hear that today most such Friends don’t believe in sin. (We don’t believe in hell either; but then, we have committees instead.)
I too wanted not to believe in sin; but my own shabby, if undramatic record finally convinced me otherwise.
Besides, along the way I picked up a notion often blamed on Reinhold Niebuhr (though it’s much older), that sin is not only an individual, but a collective matter: idealistic institutions can become deeply, murderously corrupt, and in turn corrupt even their most devoted servants. You know it: systemic racism; patriarchy, homophobia. Capitalism too, particularly in its current “communist” forms.
Oh, and religion. For me the late M. Scott Peck nailed this with two compelling sentences in his 1983 book, People of the Lie:
Since the primary motive of the evil is disguise, one of the places evil people are most likely to be found is within the church. What better way to conceal one’s evil from oneself, as well as from others, than to be a deacon or some other highly visible form of Christian within our culture.
A deacon (Peck was Episcopalian); or, perhaps a minister, especially in a Friends church with a Holiness influence, where many claim to have been freed from all propensity to sin.
The sins that take deepest root under ministerial broadbrims and bonnets are among the big ones: pride; lust — mainly for power; not rarely wealth; and in more than a few (cf. the Catholic hierarchy and many megachurch leaders) — and wrath, especially against those who don’t measure up to their standards or question their doctrines and behavior. The effects may start quietly, but are cumulative, and then repeatedly calamitous. Ex-Northwest Friends should know this “experimentally.”
Among the pastoral branches, there is an associated chronic urge for just plain jobs. This has long been the case, in many churches: the ministry was a doorway into the professional classes: a divinity degree was quicker than an M.D., and less expensive than the law.
While chronicling what I call this era’s Separation Generation, in Quaker Theology #33, I have seen struggles over recording and jobs get just about as down and dirty as they can: the air was often foul with character assassination, Bible-based bullying, and covert scheming that could teach the CIA a few lessons.
In North Carolina, it ended with the entire destruction of a 320 year-old Quaker body.
The Friends who founded Sierra Cascades have their own similarly traumatic experiences to cope with. It was heartening to read in 2017 of their calling the venture “Our New Thing.”
Now, though, in this important respect it looks increasingly like a repainted model of the same old thing being rolled out. In its Bylaws, Sierra-Cascades makes clear that ministers will be recorded for life. And, again without referring to individuals, it should be evident to a clear-eyed observer, that they may be new faces, but will all face similar old temptations.
No one in my studies has summed all this up better than Lucretia Mott (my liberal hero). In an 1847 letter she wrote that,
” . . . . Long years’ reflection and observation have convinced & confirmed me in the opinion, that our Select body, as also the Hierarchy or Eceliastical [sic] establishments, & privileged orders in all sects, are the main obstacles to progress––and until the true Freedom of Christ––the equality of the Brethren is better understood, we shall do little by organizing & re-organizing.”
This from a reforming Friend who nevertheless stuck with her plain bonnet through all her 88 years. She sifted through two centuries of the old ways, fended off intense opposition from their defenders, and brought her branch indeed a new thing, yet a new thing that was in continuity with what she saw as Quakerism’s creative essence.
None of this was in the brief history that was presented to Sierra Cascades. That’s too bad. I believe it’s an example they still could learn from. Maybe they could even find in this fuller record a basis for truly new church practices which could recover some of the strengths in the old, and minimize or even avoid many of the hazards.
If I knew what the genuinely new model should be, I’d spell it out. But maybe I’ve spent too long surveying the wreckage left bobbing in the wake of the other one. And besides, there’s one who knows better, I think. Remember? Here–
Luke 5:37 No one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. 38 No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins.
I’ll drink to that.