Four years ago today, Eighth Month 5, 2017, some Friends in North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM) got their wish:
They got rid of the “liberals” in the body.
Out went New Garden Meeting in Greensboro; Jamestown just south of there; Greensboro First Friends; and even tiny Spring Meeting, in the pastures and woods of south Alamance County, where I attend (or used to, in the Good Old pre-Zoom Days); and a few others.
Of course, there was a price: namely, they had to destroy the yearly meeting to “save” it.
It took awhile for them to realize this. Three years altogether. Beginning in the summer of 2014, they had tried to force the “liberals” out. “Surgery” they called it, regrettable, but necessary to stop the spread of a deadly disease. Anesthetics? Strictly optional.
The reasons should have been obvious to any “real Christian”: the liberals had befriended LGBTs, at first quietly, but then — when a new right-wing state government came after them, with a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage (which was already illegal– but, the zealots explained, not illegal enough). Then a couple of the liberal groups actually dared to stand up for their LGBT brothers and sisters, in front of God, the neighbors, and even, perhaps most unforgivably, in the press.
Plus they had the chutzpah to insist that their heresy was okay with their reading of the Bible, and even with their best Friend, Jesus.
If that wasn’t enough, when the demand for them & their meetings to “resign immediately” surfaced at the 2014 annual session, the liberals had the downright gall to refuse.
Some even acted like, as their families had been in NCYM meetings for generations, through ups and downs, making donations for decades, upholding testimonies as best they could, their remains laid in numerous Friends cemeteries, they actually had a right to be there.
They talked as if their meetings, some of which had come through scenes of bloody combat in both the American Revolution and the Civil War, could expect to be treated with full consideration based on their NCYM Faith & Practice.
And to rub it in, some of them pointed out that this very Faith & Practice had two features of particular exculpatory relevance. Or rather, for the purgers, it had two major deficits, to wit;
- It said nothing about homosexuality; not one mumbling word. (The same as Jesus.) And
- It did not give the yearly meeting any authority to expel monthly meetings.
Moreover, the debates on the expulsions demand repeatedly made clear there was nothing like a clear “sense of the meeting” supporting them.
“Sense of the — what??” The instigators had thought it would play out Southern Baptist style: they organized caravans of supporters, and figured to pack the hall, for a slam-dunk vote on the expulsions.
And if NCYM had been in fact Baptist, it might have worked. But that darn “Quaker process” — which the purgers accused liberals of making into their idol, rather than the purgers’ version of certain biblical passages–was really in the way. The incumbent Presiding Clerk had politely but firmly pointed this out. (They got rid of him right quick.)
So the first purge effort made a game start, but hit a wall of 317 years of tradition.
After that, it was basically trench warfare. One very low point came in a struggle over staff: the purgers wanted to control it; and when a young woman who was not quite their kind of Christian was named as Religious Education staff, they harassed her into backing out and declining the job (which then went unfilled).
Various of the hard core meetings bailed out when their deadlines for liberal expulsions were set and went unfulfilled. (NCYM’s membership had been dropping like a stone for decades anyway; the mayhem speeded up the decline.)
The effects were quick and concrete: NCYM once had a generous health insurance plan for pastors; that folded, and the remaining members were left to apply for Obamacare, which most (reflecting their local political sentiments), thought of as committing public blasphemy.
NCYM also had a (skimpy) pastors pension plan. The membership loss decimated its funding, and it collapsed too.
The blow-by-blow would fill a book (and in fact it has). But in the end, when it became clear that an honest Quaker process, and the terms of Faith & Practice, would not get the expulsion job done, both were summarily ditched. Even then, the liberals and their meetings stood by their history and faith.
So when NCYM was pressed to a cliff, and push came to shove, the purgers shoved. In the end, the only way to get the liberals out of the “building,” was to demolish the whole edifice; so be it. Lawyers were brought in, to make deals for dividing up the YM endowment, the camp and other assets.
North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM) gathered for its 320th annual session at Quaker Lake Camp on August 5, 2017. The one item of business was adoption of a “Concluding Minute” by which NCYM was put out of its misery. (It’s below.)
In a sense, both parties got some of what they wanted: the purgers were finally out from under any connection with the infidel liberals (and shed of a “Quaker process” they couldn’t control). Yet the liberal meetings had escaped expulsion, though they were left (at least temporarily) homeless. Further, same sex marriage had meantime become legal, but the sky hadn’t fallen. (Yet.)
And when all was said and done, there was an unexpected “winner”, though more of an innocent observer: as North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM) disappeared, turns out it wasn’t the last one standing.
The survivor was: North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). These were the heirs of a group of Quietist meetings which had steadfastly resisted the radical changes in NCYM as it went pastoral after the Civil War.
When the new evangelically-oriented NCYM leadership insisted that all meetings hire pastors, they left, to “Conserve” the “old ways” they considered part of Quakerism’s essence. That was 1904; and in their quiet, non-pastored Christian way, they’re still standing (& sitting); their 324th annual session was conducted by Zoom a couple of weeks ago (Zoom? Maybe they aren’t quite as Conservative as they once were).
There’s been so much water over the dam since then, it would be easy to dismiss all this as a minor tempest in a leaky teacup. Maybe it was. But step back from this debacle and it takes a prominent place among five similar splits that engulfed U.S. yearly Meetings since 2000. Whatever is going on is not simply a local dispute.
The late church historian C. C. Goen argued that a similar succession of church divisions in the 1840s presaged even worse. In his book, Broken Churches, Broken Nation, Goen asserted
… it seems plausible to hypothesize that when Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist churches divided along North-South lines (in the decades before 1861), they severed an important bond of national union; that the forebodings of their leaders and of contemporary observers regarding the probability of disastrous political consequences were well founded; and that the denominational schisms, as irreversible steps along the nation’s tortuous course to violence, were both portent and catalyst of the imminent national tragedy.
Is Goen right? A glance at the newspapers leaves the question of ominous parallels hanging.
Here’s the “Concluding Minute,” a death sentence couched in the easily euphemized phraseology of Ecclesiastes, but carried out with the unflinching efficiency of a gangland hit.
The book that tells this story in detail is Murder at Quaker Lake.