I have just returned from New England Yearly Meeting and my heart is full. It was a time of hard and close work as the old Quaker journalists would say, but the sessions were covered with Divine favor and a sweetness that was a joy to the soul.
The credit goes to God but I want to also give thanks for the faithfulness of the NEYM Ministry and Counsel Committee. After the events at the February FUM General Board meeting, the committee devoted itself to preparing these issues for sessions. It was a source of solace to me to know that there were other Friends willing to bear this burden. Last year at sessions 22 friends had been recorded as standing aside from final approval of the NEYM budget because of the money included for FUM, so the relationship between NEYM and FUM was already an issue of considerable concern. The reaffirmation of the Richmond Declaration and the reports on the strongly anti-gay devotional message given at the opening of the February General Board meeting raised serious concerns among many people in NEYM.
Ministry and Counsel held a number of special meetings to consider how to handle the issues at sessions. Working with the Presiding Clerk and the Sessions Committee, they made some modifications to our usual schedule. Rather than having the keynote address on Saturday night, the first night of sessions, they had us break into 26 small groups. In the groups we paired up with another person we did not know, or did not know well. We were given questions to answer. They started out with introductory items and ended with what are you carrying on your heart as you come to sessions? The small groups then reconvened and we went around and each person introduced their partner and told something significant that they had learned about them. There seemed to be a general sense that this got us off to a good start. People had an opportunity to make a connection with people right off and they got a chance to talk about what was on their heart.
Our theme this year was “Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary.” The Junior High Yearly Meeting led the intergenerational worship by reading a series of single sentences or phrases about how Yearly Meeting was a sanctuary for them. The open worship that followed was one of the best Sunday meetings for worship that I have experienced at Yearly Meeting. At the rise of meeting, we had our keynote speech by Duduzile Mtshazo from Johannesburg MM, Central and South Africa YM. She spoke about how she came to be a Friend and how she worked to overcome the programming to accept apartheid, that was part of her upbringing. She then talked about the struggle of Johannesburg MM to come to accept and welcome gays and lesbians.
During our Sunday afternoon business session, we heard a report on the history of sexual ethics portion of the FUM personnel policy. Sunday night, Lisa Graustein presented a short history of Friends in New England to provide background on our relationship with FUM. She had some Young Friends serve on stage as her human power point presentation. We then convened in the same groups we had met in on Saturday night and answered questions about our concerns about FUM and the personnel policy. I was encouraged at this point because I was sensing that there was a willingness to stay affiliated with FUM and be actively engaged with them about the issues.
Monday afternoon about 20 of us met to continue the discussion of our relationship with FUM. We came to no conclusions but we thought that we would meet again after the evening business session.
The initial presentation of the budget was made on Monday night. There were the normal clarifying questions that come with any budget presentation. The clerk then asked for general comments and concerns. No questions were asked at that time about the money for FUM. The questions that were asked related more to the projected budget deficit and this led into the report of the Development Committee. This segue may have short circuited the discussion of the FUM contribution. Towards the end of the session, a Friend asked, rather heatedly, where the discussion of the FUM contribution was going to happen. He had expected to discuss the issue on the floor of the meeting. The clerk pointed out that no one had raised any concerns about the money during the afternoon meeting or during the initial budget presentation but did invite anyone interested to come to the meeting we had already scheduled.
70 or 80 people showed up at that evening meeting. We started at about 9:30 and ended a little before 11:00. There seemed to be quite a bit of agitation at the beginning of the meeting but as the meeting went on, there were more voices expressing a desire to stay in relationship with FUM. While there were several people who said that their meetings had stopped giving money directly to FUM but instead directed it to specific projects, no one suggested stopping NEYM's contribution to FUM. We agreed to meet again over lunch on Tuesday to see if we could draft a minute to bring to the Yearly Meeting.
On Tuesday some 30 - 40 people met over lunch. One friend brought a draft minute stating that God loves all people equally and that NEYM had found that spiritual gifts were distributed without regard for sexual orientation and that we had been helped and strengthened by the contributions of our gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and queer members. With some modification, we united on sending this minute to the yearly meeting. We also recognized that, if we were to start speaking on these issues to other yearly meetings, that there was work that we needed to do to set our own house in order. These included seeing if the yearly meeting could unite in support of same gender marriages, exploring the nature of family, marriage and committed relationships and what it means to bring them under the care of the meeting, and to support the the Ministry and Counsel Working Party on Sexual Ethics and Spirituality. A smaller group continued to meet that afternoon drafting a minute to outline the work that the Yearly Meeting needed to commit to doing itself. Both minutes were brought to the Tuesday evening business session. The first minute was approved. The second generated considerable discussion and was sent back for further work. The major problem was that it suggestion to start consideration of a minute in support of same gender marriage was worded in such a way as to seem to assume the outcome.
The small group met again after the evening business session. We discovered at that time that the Yearly Meeting had received a minute from Connecticut Valley Quarter, two years ago on the subject of Same Gender Marriage. At the time it had been sent to the monthly meetings with no recommendations for action. We decided that the way out of our wording conundrum was to take this existing minute and send it to the monthly meetings and the quarters, this time asking them to test and season it and to bring the results back to the Yearly Meeting in 2008 for discernment and action.
Meanwhile,the clerk of Ministry and Counsel was hearing many reports of pain from members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and queer community that these discussions, while welcome, were also a source of pain for some of them. Some people did not feel that the yearly meeting was yet a safe enough place for them to be able to express the full depth of the pain that they felt from homophobia. So we added language about that to the minute as well.
We met again over lunch on Wednesday to discuss the much revised minute on commitment. The word homophobia was, as we expected, a lightning rod for reaction. We were also not clear on dropping the word because it was the word that the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and queer community used to identify their pain. We felt that dropping the word would seem to deny their experience. Once again, a small group worked well into the afternoon trying to refine the minute to express this reality but also acknowledge that this was a difficult issue and that there was pain on all sides, and that it was hard work to look at ones most deeply held beliefs.
When this came back to sessions, the discussion quickly focused on the word homophobia. The yearly meeting was as tied up by how to express all the pieces of this as the subcommittee had been. Even so, the deliberations were covered with a great sense of caring and compassion. It seemed to me that as we were struggling over the minute, we were actually beginning to do the work itself. The yearly meeting adopted the minute (with two people standing aside because they did not like the word homophobia) with a descriptive paragraph describing the difficulties that we had experienced. After that we gave final approval to the budget with only one person standing aside.
I went to Yearly Meeting this year with the intention of doing whatever I was called to do in regards to the relationship between FUM and NEYM. Although I attended all of the meetings described, I found myself saying little because the concerns I had were being carried and expressed by other people. By the end of sessions, I was exhausted but I also felt light and clear. New England Yearly Meeting has committed itself to continue in relationship with FUM. This is still going to be a difficult relationship because of the issues remaining but there is a willingness to do the work. At the February General Board meeting, I said that I was afraid that NEYM would see the actions of the board as an invitation to leave FUM. If that were the case, then by its actions this week, NEYM has firmly declined the invitation. For that I am profoundly relieved. Christopher McCandless, our presiding clerk, described unity this way: “Unity is not agreement. Unity is being girded about by bonds of love and trust even while we disagree.” God has certainly been at work within NEYM this past week. As they say in Kenya, “God is good! All the time!”