Thursday, August 27, 2009

Grieving a Loss

Brent Bill, in Holy Ordinary, posted some thoughts on events in Western Yearly Meeting. I encourage you to read his post, and then my response here.

Yes, Brent, what's going on among us in Western is not pretty.

I want to suggest another way of seeing the current events in the Yearly Meeting.

When I was called to pastor at Plainfield, the search committee sent me a copy of Faith & Practice and asked me to indicate my agreement with it. The “Faith and Thought” section is a description of orthodox Gurneyite Quakerism with roots in the Richmond Declaration (it is online at: I felt at home with it. The Yearly Meeting also made other decisions at the time that seemed to reinforce this basic understanding of who God is, who Jesus is, and how faith is experienced.

As I became part of Western I discovered different understandings of Faith & Practice. One of the more popular is the “Chinese menu” approach. In a traditional Chinese restaurant, you pick an item from “column a” and maybe two items from “column b,” and if your party is big enough they throw in the egg roll. Faith & Practice for some is a set of options to choose from, depending on one's theological preferences. The decision during Yearly Meeting sessions was, in many people's eyes, a de facto endorsement of Faith & Practice as “Chinese Menu.” Faith & Practice is not intended to be a “paper Pope” but it seemed to no longer even be a good description of who we are.

There are some sore losers, but most of the people I am talking to who are unhappy are grieving a loss. There is a feeling that we have let go of an important part of who we are. This is not a new thing among Friends. We have a long history of defining ourselves by what we let go of. Some things, like dress codes, are let go of because they get in the way of being good news for all. Sometimes, though Friends have let go of things at the heart of who we are and that are essential parts of that good news.

For me, integrity in the Yearly Meeting needs to include being who we claim to be. If our description of who we are is not accurate, then the action of integrity is to propose changing it. Instead, I hear people defining and redefining words and phrases in order to “proof-text” a preference. If a person wants to see a Yearly Meeting organized around theological diversity or any other basic principle, then that proposal needs to be presented to the body for action. Then Quaker process can do its work.

About the meeting on Sunday, August 30. I think it is very appropriate for people who are grieving a loss to gather together to look for a way forward in that loss, and that is my understanding of what is going on. Last year, some people in the Central area also gathered in meetings to look for a way forward in affirming who they were in Western Yearly Meeting. At the time I did not hear anybody calling that a threat to the integrity and authority of the Yearly Meeting.

The quotation from Edgar Dunstan challenges us to “define, with such clarity as we can reach, precisely what it is that Friends of this generation have to say that is not, as we believe, being said effectively by others.” As I see it, that is what is going on here.