An open letter on Friends United Meeting affiliation
We finally crafted a minute that was cautiously and wearily approved in the wee hours of the morning. It stated that we would lay down our formal membership in Friends United Meeting for a discernment period of two years. At the end of those two years, if we did not find unity to rejoin, our affiliation would be permanently laid down. That was two years ago-- which means that at this April's annual sessions, we will revisit the issue once again, and presumably make a more-or-less-final decision.
To say that this has been weighing on me doesn't quite communicate the extent of my preoccupation. I have been worried, frightened, frustrated, and deeply concerned about this issue for the entirety of the past two years. Then, last week, the presiding clerk of FUM's general board circulated a letter he had received from the superintendents of five large, fairly conservative FUM-affiliated yearly meetings in the United States, referring to "current undercurrents [in FUM] that erode unity and undercut important ministry" and requesting that the board form an immediate, specific plan for confronting those issues. Since reading that letter, I have all but stopped sleeping.
When I lie awake at night-- thinking about this unsettlingly ambiguous letter, about my beloved yearly meeting, about Friends United Meeting as a whole-- I often find myself writing letters and scripting conversations in my mind. In these imaginary communications, I explain to Southeastern Yearly Meeting, my Quaker family, why I, a transgender, queer, unprogrammed young adult Friend who couldn't talk un-ironically about Jesus until I was almost out of high school, am aching for us to maintain our relationship with Friends United Meeting.
First, let me say that this position is a huge transformation from what I originally felt and thought when our FUM membership became a live issue. As a queer person who has experienced a vocational call to religious service, FUM's personnel policy seemed to me not only wrong in a general, moral sense, but also personally painful. I didn't see much reason to stay in an organization with such a discriminatory policy-- particularly since, as far as I could see, we didn't have much of a relationship to begin with. Growing up in SEYM, I was unaware for years that such a thing as programmed Friends or Friends United Meeting existed-- despite the fact that they constitute the majority of Quakers in the world today. I was shocked when, probably in my mid-teens, I discovered that my ultra-liberal yearly meeting was actually a member of Friends United Meeting. It didn't make any sense to me, mostly because I was embedded in the "us and them" mentality of a culture, in Quakerism and beyond it, that sees Christianity as a monolithic entity of socially-conservative fundamentalism.
The deconstruction of those us/them categories is one of the reasons I long for us to have a fully engaged relationship with Friends United Meeting. As long as we are members of FUM, they (Christians, programmed Friends-- whoever) cannot be "the other." If we begin to think of them that way, our illusion will be shattered by the individual relationships that are facilitated by institutional affiliation. I don't mean to say that our cultural and theological differences across branches are superficial; I believe them in most cases to be quite profound. But over the past few years, I have made some wonderful connections with Friends from solely-FUM-affiliated meetings, and I have seen that they are my spiritual kin. They are people like Terri, the wonderful, warm staff person whom FUM has sent to our annual sessions for the past three years, who has become a beloved part of our community. Or like my friend Cheryl, who is in a committed lesbian partnership and has labored for years with her FUM-affiliated yearly meeting to have them endorse the recording that her monthly meeting has given her as a minister. Or like my friend Betsy, who loves Jesus, preaches like wildfire, and just opened a store in her town dedicated to eco-friendly living. FUM, like Christianity as a whole, is far from being a monolith-- but we will never know that if we don't maintain meaningful individual and collective relationships within it.
But wait-- we have lots of Christians in our yearly meeting! We can learn these lessons from them, right? Which brings me to my next point. I had no idea how theologically diverse my yearly meeting was, until we started talking about our relationship to Friends United Meeting. I don't think this is a coincidence. Our discernment process has asked deep questions: Who are we, in SEYM? What do we believe? What language do we/should we use? Is Christianity a part of our identity as Friends, and if not, what is our relationship to a Quaker movement that has seen itself through several centuries as primitive/restorationist Christianity? Simply having these questions posed, and held firmly in our collective consciousness, opened up space for Friends in our yearly meeting to speak their most authentic spiritual language. Suddenly we were talking about the Bible, asking each other about Jesus. I experienced a new depth and richness in our worship, as we became more comfortable hearing each other's truth spoken on its own terms. It was struggle that pushed us to be more honest with one another, and I fear that, should we decide to give up on the challenge of authentic relationship with FUM, we will slowly go back to the way things were. Our spiritual language will shrink back to a tight, sterilized collection of un-offensive words.
So... what about the personnel policy? We were advised early on in our discernment process that we should not choose to remain affiliated with FUM in order to change the policy. To carry such an agenda would only frustrate us, and everyone else in the organization. The personnel policy is not changing anytime soon-- not with the level of divisiveness that this issue currently carries in U.S. yearly meetings, nor with long-overdue efforts to more fully include African Friends in FUM's governance structures. But I believe that it will change, sooner or later. Sooner, if the Friends serving on the general board are given opportunities for loving, non-confrontational fellowship and service with LGBTQ Friends and their allies. Later, if we all leave. Hearts and minds change through relationship, not rhetoric. No one will re-evaluate the personnel policy because we withdraw. They might re-evaluate the personnel policy because we stay, and appoint brave and faithful people to the general board who can be open about their identity as LGBTQ or allied while focusing their attention and energy on FUM's powerful service work (instead of pushing, or being perceived as pushing, an agenda that detracts from that work). There are already people doing this work of transformation-- serving openly on the board or in leadership positions in constituent yearly meetings, sometimes without ever mentioning the personnel policy directly.
And the work of FUM is worth being involved in. Having heard from those who are serving as staff and volunteers of its various initiatives, I have come to believe that FUM is doing important, transformative, and faithful work in culturally sensitive ways, and that work needs to continue as long as we are clear that God is leading us to it and it has relevance for those served. From educational and medical initiatives like Kaimosi Hospital and Ramallah Friends' School, to support for Kenyan Friends' peace initiatives over the past year, the work that I see FUM engaged in is, I believe, part of what Friends are called to in the world. Unlike Friends General Conference, which understands its purpose as service to North American Quakerism, FUM is committed to manifesting Quaker faith through an embodied, outward-focused commitment to a transformed world. The work is powerful and precious.
Finally, I hope you will forgive me if I pull a card (to use a rather un-Quakerly metaphor). It is the card of youth.
There is a broad, and I think growing, movement of Friends who are drawn to, and deeply invested in, cross-branch relationship building. Much of this energy is centered in young adult Quaker communities. My generation-- or at least, a large and energized subset of it-- is not interested or invested in the kind of isolationism at best, spiritual one-upmanship at worst, that has characterized intra-faith Quaker relationships since we started splitting into factions in the first half of the nineteenth century. We have been holding conferences and gatherings that reach across theological, cultural, and organizational lines. We are also holding a question in our hearts: How is God going to use the Religious Society of Friends... the whole Religious Society of Friends? Is there some vision, some wholeness, to live into?
Personally, I see each of the branches of Friends carrying a piece of the original message of the Quaker movement-- and a piece of Quakerism's potential for a spiritually vibrant future. I believe that everything we do to create and maintain authentic, deep relationships among the different branches of Friends is a step toward a more vital Quakerism. Because I carry this conviction, I am proud to be from a dually-affiliated yearly meeting-- and sad and scared that we may cease to be one, and others may follow in our wake. I wouldn't be so invested-- or experiencing such anxious insomnia-- if I didn't think this is a critical historical moment for Friends. What one yearly meeting does for unity or disunity in a single meeting for worship with attention to business can affect Quakerism for centuries to come-- just pick up a Quaker history book and trace the impact of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting annual sessions in 1827, the year of the Hicksite-Orthodox split.
I want to live out the next 60-70 (God willing) years of my life in a Quakerism that is committed to deep seeking, to dialogue, to relationships that challenge the people who are in them. I want to give that to my children and grandchildren. Long after the personnel policy is a dead issue, the fruit of our commitment to dynamic engagement, fellowship, and spiritual bridge-building (or the absence of that commitment) will be manifesting in the quality and vibrancy of religious life in Quakerism. It is to that ultimate goal that I hope we will turn our attention and focused discernment.