Reflections on the conversation thus far
This has turned into quite the discussion. I have been letting the conversation here go on more or less without me. I have needed to take some time to reflect more on events that happened in Kenya and also some of the comments that have been posted here.
First of all I think that Ron Bryan has presented a bit of a straw man argument. He said, speaking about the Richmond Declaration, “Many have suggested we should change it or do away with it, so everyone can do as they see fit.” I suggest that there are other motivations at work. One is an understanding that the foundation of Quakerism is the direct experience of God and the direct, inward teaching of Christ and the Holy Spirit. This is not everyone doing what they see fit.
The reluctance of some yearly meetings to endorse the Richmond Declaration is not a new thing or just a reflection of the current trends among Friends. In New England it was the Guerneyite yearly meeting which did not endorse the Richmond Declaration in 1887. To the best of my understanding it never endorsed it from then until we reunited in 1945. The reservations were not necessarily about the content of the Richmond Declaration, but about the entire idea of trying to reduce Quakerism to a form of words. There were concerns that the Richmond Declaration would be used as a creed and as a way of enforcing doctrinal unity and forcing out people who disagreed with it. There certainly have been cases where such reservations have proved to have been justified.
Now I do not deny that there have been times that I have looked at the state of Quakerism and have found myself with the words from Isaiah and the music from Handel in my head, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way.” But note the key first word in that quote, all. The liberal flock of individual sheep wandering around without an obvious center may seem to fit that description. However it seems to me that the seemingly more cohesive Evangelical flock is heading off together in a direction away from the original understandings of Friends.
Because human beings have what appears to be an almost unlimited capacity for self-delusion, our leadings and teachings need to be tested against our current community and also our historical community, the cloud of witnesses. This historical community includes the written record of Friends who have preceded us and, of course the Bible. If there is one God and God leads us today as God led people in ages past, there should be a consistency between that record and our leadings today. When some meetings in Indiana Yearly Meeting started practicing water baptism and outward communion the response was to start a dialog on what it means to live sacramentally. Why can there not be a similar dialog across FUM on other issues where our understandings diverge?
The second place where I disagree with him, and this is a more fundamental difference, is this. He says, “It is still necessary, in my opinion, to have a guiding statement that puts us as a Religious Institution squarely in the camp of Biblical Christians.” The problem I have with this is that it assumes that there is only one way to be a Biblical Christian. I base my Christianity on the Bible and my experience of God working in my life. But I have come to very different positions on some things than Ron has. There is a fundamental question that needs to be answered. If we are going to test our leadings against the Bible, what do we do when we have conflicting interpretations of what the Bible means. In a recent email my daughter said, “I'm still struggling with the idea of Very Religious people not understanding that loving everyone is a very Biblical idea, and that people who claim Jesus as their go-to guy can miss the boat on so many of his messages.” I will be the first to admit that I miss the boat myself on many things. I console myself sometimes that I appear to be in good company because all of the Twelve seemed to have missed the boat on numerous occasions. If loving everyone is a Biblical idea, can everyone include Friends we disagree with? “But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.” (1 Cor. 8:12) Can we take the lesson from 1 Corinthians 8 about forbearance for members of the church whose understandings may be at different levels and apply it to the family of Friends? Again, this is an area in which we are all walking around with veritable lumber yards in our eyes.
At the same time I am pained by some Friends, even some from my own yearly meeting, who seem to me to be saying, “Let's withdraw from FUM. We don't want to have anything to do with those Evangelical Friends.” It was painful for me when I felt similar sentiments expressed about liberal Friends and their yearly meetings and it is painful to hear liberals saying similar things about Evangelicals. When I see comments to the effect of, “Maybe we should leave, most of us are not Christ centered anyway,” I am greatly saddened. First of all, the basic assertion is not knowable at this time. To my knowledge no one has done a study of the relative numbers of Friends in New England with various theological beliefs. More importantly, the quantitative approach belies our history as Friends. Traditionally, Quaker decisions are not made by a counting of votes. If there are significant reservations expressed, the good order of Friends would suggest that the decision should be held over. This did not happen in the decision to endorse the Richmond Declaration. This was one of the things that made this such a painful experience. It felt as if the concerns of the dual-affiliated meetings were of little importance and in fact that the dual-affiliated yearly meetings themselves were of little importance to the rest of FUM. Even if it were true that most Friends in New England are not Christ centered, it doesn't mean that we can dismiss so cavalierly those that are. It is precisely when we are in a majority that we need to be extra careful. The way we behave when we have power is critical. This is what the prophets said repeatedly. This is what Nathan told David. This is what Jesus meant when he said that as we do to the least of these his children, we do to Him.
I am concerned about what this latest round of divisiveness reveals about our current spiritual condition. It seems to me that we are letting our hearts become hard and our necks stiff. This is true across the theological spectrum. This is not a spiritual condition I find much support for in the Bible. I am also concerned about the long term effect on a number of Friends institutions. There are some who maintain that FUM would be better off if it were more focused theologically. The more evangelical yearly meetings would more than make up any lost income. This is possible but the current conditions of FUM as an organization is fragile enough that the loss of talent and income that major withdrawals would entail might be a sufficient short-term blow that FUM couldn't continue for the long term.
I am also concerned about what a withdrawal would do to the dual-affiliated yearly meetings. I fear that it might turn out to be divisive there as well. I have heard people talking about the option of the “amicable divorce.” I just caution people that an amicable divorce does not mean a pain free divorce. More than one messy divorce started out with the best of intentions of being amicable. As hard as it may be to stay together, we should not kid ourselves about how hard it would be to separate as well.