Why is NC Quakerism Vanishing While Baltimore YM Flourishes?
Saw a stunning number yesterday. It was in The Interchange, the newsletter from Baltimore Yearly Meeting. It’s a number that’s especially timely for Quakers from North Carolina YM-FUM.
That number is 7000. It came up in an article by Bob Rhudy. Bob is the interim General Secretary for Baltimore Yearly Meeting.
And 7000 is now the overall membership number he reported for Baltimore YM. (or BYM).
BTW “Baltimore YM” is misleadingly named; the body now covers much Friendly turf, from the far north of central Pennsylvania through most of Maryland, DC and all Virginia.
In fact, while it’s 340 or so miles from Greensboro to the BYM offices in Sandy Spring MD, it’s a mere 50 from, say, Winston-Salem, to a lively BYM meeting in Floyd VA. And besides being next-door neighbors, NCYM & BYM are similar in age (318 and 343 years, respectively), both were visited by George Fox, and each suffered a lot in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.
The new BYM membership number caught my attention because I’d just done calculations showing that North Carolina YM-FUM’s tally for 2015. Formerly at around 7600, it just dived 1200 to about 6400, and is likely to fall some more.
This latest plunge is, of course, due to the exodus of purge meetings. But the downward trend was already well-established. Consider: in 2000 the NCYM tally was 10700. For Baltimore, in 1999, BYM membership totaled 4542.
Since then, NCYM has lost almost as many members as BYM had then. And now, BYM has more members and attenders.
That’s not all. Here’s another pair of striking numbers:
In 1999, BYM’s “Advancement & Outreach” Budget was $200; of this, the Committee only spent $80.
In 2000 NCYM’s budget for ‘Evangelism & Outreach” was $7600; and for Church Extension, $46,900 more; $54,500 in all.
Go ahead, admit it: these numbers and trends are stunning.
What, Carolina Friends might be asking, do they know “up there” that NCYM doesn’t?
I’ve attended many BYM annual sessions, been on its committees; I’ve also attended several NCYM sessions.
And my “expert” explanation comes down to this:
I don’t know.
But I have a few suspicions.
Here’s the top one: in BYM, they haven’t had any doctrinal purges.
Well– that’s not completely accurate. There was a very big one, back in 1827; Hicksites and all that. Pretty ugly it was, too.
But after pondering the impact for about 110 years, they decided maybe it hadn’t really been such a good idea, and started a process of reconciliation that culminated in the late 1960s.
Then, while coming back together, they settled on a form of YM governance that’s strongly congregational: the YM doesn’t presume to tell the meetings what to believe and who they can associate with. I suspect that’s also been important.
A third was that, even in strongly “Christ-centered” meetings, most skipped the pastoral system. Yes, several meetings did hire “secretaries” who (being men at first), were somewhat pastor-ish. A couple of larger BYM meetings still have them, but the pastoral features have devolved to committees.
This mainly non-pastoral culture is hardly perfect. But viewed from the Carolina side of the border, it has seemed to help avoid some major pitfalls, two in particular:
For one, it did not see the pastorate fill up with non-Quakers (or what I call “Quakers by employment”), too many of whom decide their meetings should become just like the community gospel church back home.
And second, it did not nurture a network of mainly males with too much free time, some of whom are almost fated to start plotting to overthrow the established YM order. This is always explained as the way to become more Godly & Christian (tho I think it’s more about testosterone), and is guaranteed to pack the benches with eager converts, donating profusely for bigger buildings and, not incidentally, salaries.
Then too, without pastor’s pay and benefits to bedevil treasurers, BYM meetings are much more economical to maintain.
Of course, without the spur of doctrinal purges, BYM’s theological landscape has become like an Impressionist painting, blending various shades of thought into what may or may not be a coherent whole. Indeed, it’s gone so far that the entire yearly meeting is, pardon my french, “dually affiliated,” with both Friends United Meeting and Friends General Conference, actively so. There have been some tensions over this, but so far BYM has made them into a constructive force, both internally and for FUM. (That’s a fascinating story in itself, but for another time.)
If there have been no purges, that does’t mean everyone in BYM is happy with its status quo. I have seen a handful of the strongly “Christ-centered’ decide BYM is too fuzzy-minded and tolerant, and move on. A few others, of a dogmatically “universalist” bent, couldn’t abide the (for them) all-too frequent mentions of Jesus, God and the Bible, and have sought safer shelter among the U-Us or the Church of the Sunday paper.
Yet, as the numbers above demonstrate, this attrition has been steadily outweighed by robust immigration.
Again, how do they do it, especially while spending a mere pittance on “outreach”?
Well one development worth noting is that, following some tensions with FUM in the previous decade, BYM decided not to split and decamp, but rather to get to know the other FUM YMs better. Thus they have sent volunteer visitors to several pastoral YMs, including North Carolina (including this month’s sessions).
I don’t know what these visitations have done for the host YMs, but for Baltimore YM the effect has been quite influential: understanding “those other Friends” better, the sentiment in BYM has become more educated and irenic — and, I think, helped them manage their own diversity better.
So perhaps that’s the one concrete suggestion for NCYM Friends to consider, in light of the numbers this post began with: the NCYM membership trend is, clearly, ruinous. So suppose NCYM were to organize volunteers to visit in BYM, to get acquainted, and to uncover, if they can, just what’s happening there to make Baltimore YM Quakerism a growing concern, instead of a vanishing one.
Such a closer look could also serve to field-test a theory of mine, based on experience in both bodies: in today’s troubled America, I contend, Quakerism has many natural advantages as a religious path, among which a salient few are: respect for women; a real, if mixed record of work against war, racial and other oppression; a healthy skepticism of creeds while maintaining definite religious roots; and more of a focus on personal spirituality and practical service than support for church bureaucracies and authorities.
I further posit that it takes much effort to blunt and obscure these points of Quaker appeal; but especially here in Carolina, it seems, some have been laboring long and diligently to efface them, with no little success.
So maybe journeys among those strange neighbors in BYM could yield some aid in figuring out how to reverse NCYM’s process of group self-erasure. At worst, the travel expenses would be much less than a pilgrimage to, say, Kaimosi or the Bolivian altiplano, appealing as these places are.
And after all, if George Fox could put up with Friends from both places, why can’t we?