Welcome to the New Association of Friends

by Dr. Bruce Arnold

Quakers have been watching, with various degrees of dismay, the slow slide of Indiana Yearly Meeting towards schism. Like a slow train wreck, this process has taken years. It has not been certain what would happen.

Briefly put, the impetus for this split dates back to a 2008 decision by West Richmond Friends Meeting to be a welcoming and affirming congregation for gays and lesbians. They allow GLBT folks to be full members, and by full they mean that no program, no position is barred to anyone on the basis of sexual orientation. (The full statement can be found here.

This caused a serious problem within Indiana Yearly Meeting, of which West Richmond Friends has been a part. IYM passed a minute in 1982 which states unequivocally that “Indiana Yearly Meeting believes homosexual practices to be contrary to the intent and will of God for humankind. We believe the Holy Spirit and Scriptures witness to this (Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:21-32, I Corinthians 6:9-10, I Timothy 1:9-10).” (Doug Bennett, past president of Earlham College, discusses these scriptures in his essay “Five Snippets”.)

As if the discussion of how to view homosexuality was not enough, another theme emerged during the lengthy discussions. Must West Richmond bow to the authority of the Yearly Meeting? Or could each Meeting determine its own views, like the congregationalist denominations such as the United Church of Christ or most Baptist churches? In other words, were the local Meetings coordinate or subordinate bodies to the Yearly Meeting?

I’m not going to give the whole history of the debate. It has been covered very well by Stephen Angell in Quaker Theology  in issues 18-22. More information can be found elsewhere, including further essays by Doug Bennett and others.

Now, the new shape of the Society of Friends in Indiana, western Ohio and Michigan is taking form in the New Association of Friends. Having held their first meeting in January 2013, they are still going through the organizational phase. There are many decisions to be made. It is not all hard work, though. They have scheduled a family camp for the Memorial Day weekend, and will have a picnic after the business sessions on June 30.

I pastored an Indiana Yearly Meeting congregation in the mid-1980s for a couple of years. This Monthly Meeting is one of the founding Meetings of the New Association. I also have friends who remain in IYM. In some ways, it is very sad to me that it has come to this.

It didn’t have to be inevitable. I can easily imagine ways in which this split could have been avoided. Acknowledging the Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light in everyone, that the true light which enlightens everyone has come into the world, really means “everyone”, would have been a good place to start. Sticking to ancient Friends’ practices of seeking that Light on all decisions, rather than making choices based on doctrine, dogma, or what George Fox called “notions,” would have been another. Recognizing that West Richmond Friends might have been offering a prophetic voice to IYM, rather than an errant and defiant one, would have been a third.

But people being what people are, this is where we’ve gotten.

I welcome the New Association of Friends into the world. Already, 13 Meetings have affiliated with it. It seems more arrive every week. I expect that they won’t all be from IYM, either; Wilmington Yearly Meeting has its own internal conflicts, and some of their Meetings may find the New Association to be a better fit.

Whatever the case may be, I pray sincerely that IYM may find its way forward without falling victim to the Scylla and Charybdis of further dissension and hemorrhage on the one hand, and doctrinal rigor mortis on the other.

And I pray that the New Association will take its place as a healthy, hearty new thread within the Quaker tapestry.

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