Spirit, Authority, and Northwest Yearly Meeting

August 15, 2015 § 10 Comments

Another yearly meeting has convulsed because one of its constituent monthly meetings has decided to welcome LGBT Friends fully into their communion; that is, they have decided to start marrying same sex couples. Some time ago, a number of meetings left Indiana Yearly Meeting because one of their number, West Richmond Friends Church, chose to open its arms in this way and the eldership structure of the Yearly Meeting chose to exercise discipline over the matter. Eventually, West Richmond Meeting and a number of other meetings left Indiana Yearly Meeting and formed a new Association of Friends.

Now Northwest Yearly Meeting has expelled West Hills Meeting of Portland, Oregon, for doing the same thing.

Actually, it was not, apparently, the gathered body of the yearly meeting, but the Board of Elders of Northwest Yearly Meeting who expelled West Hills. On the yearly meeting’s website, the Board of Elders is described as “a wise, discerning, and spiritually mature group of Friends who help encourage the overall, spiritual welfare of NWYM.” One of their responsibilities is to “Oversee matters of church discipline and doctrinal dispute.”

I can recommend this blog by the church’s youth minister for some information about what’s happened.

Somewhere in the confusing flurry of blog posts and Facebook posts around this event, I think I read that some meetings threatened to leave the yearly meeting if it did not dissociate itself from West Hills.

This is one of the signature forms of passive aggression among Friends, to hold a meeting hostage to your opinions or feelings. “If you do [x], then I’ll do [y].” Or, “If you don’t do [x] . . . “

When a Friend or a meeting acts this way, they are essentially pitching over the side their submission to the work of the Holy Spirit in the meeting, believing that they already know what God wants the meeting to do.

I feel that clerks faced with this kind of extortion should urge the aggressors to rethink their aggression, and if the aggressors do not reconsider their actions, the meeting should move on to some other business, hoping that the aggressors will rediscover their discipleship, their surrender to the living movement of the Holy Spirit among them, rather than submit to their fears.

For I suspect that the Friends who wanted to expel West Hills feared something. What? What was there to fear in remaining in communion with a meeting that marries same sex couples?

Because this is an evangelical Christian community, they almost certainly feared—ultimately—God’s judgment.

I suspect they also feared, in the medium term, a collective moral “slippery slope”, a gradual slide toward full communion with LGBT Friends in other meetings, a kind of infection of the impure that might ultimately spread to the yearly meeting itself. More on “purity” in a moment.

Perhaps they feared the breakdown of authority and discipline, since their Faith and Practice condemns homosexuality (see the excerpts below), and not to enforce the testimony of the book of discipline is—well, to let discipline lapse.

It’s worth noting, however, that the yearly meeting was in a process of discernment on the human sexuality section of its book of discipline when it “released” West Hills Friends Church, so the letter of the law was in place when they expelled the church, but the spirit was in question.

Ultimately, this is all about authority—the authority of scripture—or rather, of your own interpretation of scripture; the authority of yearly meetings over monthly meetings; the authority of elders over the moral lives of members; and the authority of the legacy of discernment passed down to us by past believers, especially those who wrote, edited, redacted, and compiled the scriptural canon (and the book of discipline), over the present knowledge of God’s will by a gathered body of Friends worshipping under the leadership of the spirit of Christ.

Against this latter, some Friends will argue that God’s will does not change, and so the testimony of scripture carries ultimate authority unto the present day. This raises a whole bunch of interesting questions.

For one, as I said in an earlier post, God’s will actually has changed when it comes to the definition of marriage. At least, that’s the apparent message one gets from tracking the changes evident in the Bible. So, also, with the status of slaves and of women in the Bible. And the impulse to collective violence and war. And the nature and destiny of the human soul. And the description and location of heaven and hell. And . . . well, you get the idea.

But more importantly, the Quaker experience of continuing revelation, of new light being revealed by Christ as to how to walk in this world (or continuing illumination, if you like, the experience that new light will reliably rest in biblical testimony if you read scripture in the Light in which it was written, even when it seems on the surface not to)—new light, I say, has historically opened the Quaker movement to new ways that seem contrary to Scripture on a surface reading.

The signature example for me is the outward practice of the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist. According to a surface reading of the Bible, Jesus commanded his followers to do both. Friends have followed the spiritual logic of Jesus’ teaching to its core: You must be baptized in the water and the spirit. For God is spirit and we worship in spirit and in truth. True conviction and true communion take place within the human heart. And Jesus repeatedly demonstrated a preference for truthful inward experience over empty outward forms. He even predicted the utter destruction of the ultimate outward form of his people and his time, the temple in Jerusalem.

Thus, in a meeting for marriage we practice almost no outward forms. We meet in silent, expectant waiting for the Holy Spirit. We testify in our vocal ministry to the working of the Spirit in the lives of the couple and in the life-union into which they are entering. Based upon our experience of the Presence, in the room and in the people being married, we record the work that God has already done to unite them in sacred love and sign a certificate as witnesses.

Marriage is an inward working of the Holy Spirit. Can we not testify to the bonding of sacred love between Friends of the same sex? Can we not feel the presence of the Holy Spirit in a meeting for marriage when such a love is manifest?

Or do we turn to the ultimate outward religious form of our own time—the Bible—to deny this as a possibility? I am not talking about the Bible as revealed to us in the Spirit in which it was written. I am talking about a surface reading of a handful of prooftexts. I am talking about our interpretation of these texts. I am talking about carrying forward into our time from a time two and three thousand years ago of a notion of purity that Jesus expressly rejected and that Paul, conflicted as he was, rejected when it was convenient for him to do so. Christianity would not be a Gentile movement today if Paul had not jettisoned the ancient Jewish attitudes towards purity law.

So I believe that the question of authority raised by West Hills’ expulsion from Northwest Yearly Meeting comes down to a question of whether the living, revealing spirit of Christ is really our governor, the Holy Spirit that is manifest when we are gathered in the Spirit in meeting for worship, when we are following Jesus’ commandment to love one another, and when we do not let outward forms obstruct the Light of revelation.

Excerpts form Northwest Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice

Faith Expressed through Witness

18. Christian Witness to Human Sexuality

We hold that only marriage is conducive to godly fulfillment in sexual relationships for the purposes of reproduction and enrichment of life. We consider sexual intimacy outside marriage as sinful because it distorts God’s purposes for human sexuality. We denounce, as contrary to the moral laws of God, acts of homosexuality, sexual abuse, and any other form of sexual perversion (see “Human Sexuality,” p. 80). The church, however, as a community of forgiven persons, remains loving and sensitive to those we consider in error. Because God’s grace can deliver from sins of any kind, we are called to forgive those who have repented and to free them for participation in the church. [page 11]

Human Sexuality

[Added in 1982] Friends believe that the divine intent of marriage is to fulfill the emotional, spiritual, and physical needs of humankind and that only within the bonds of marriage divinely ordained can there be a beautiful sexual relationship for the purposes of reproduction and life enrichment. Adultery and fornication are sinful because they distort the purposes of God for the right ordering of human sexuality.

Friends believe that the practice of sexual perversion in any form is sinful and contrary to the God-ordained purposes in sexual relationships. These perversions include sexual violence, homosexual acts, transvestism, incest, and sex acts with animals. The sin nature is capable of vile affections when humankind rejects the moral laws of God.

Scriptures relating to these distorted and perverse forms of sexuality include Genesis 19:1-13; Deuteronomy 22:5; Leviticus 18:20, 22, 23; Romans 1:24-28; 1 Corinthians 5:1, 2 and 6:9-20. Neither in the Scriptures nor in church history have these practices been regarded as consistent with righteous living.

Friends do not accept as members those involved in these perverse practices; neither do they permit them to hold positions of responsibility or leadership in the church. However, Friends believe that the grace of God is adequate to cleanse and deliver from all sin (1 John 19; 2 Corinthians 5:17), and they desire to be tender and sensitive to all people, ready to express kindness, love, and forgiveness. See also Jude 7, 8; Colossians 3:5-7; and Revelation 2:18, 27. When the erring one has been repentant, the past should not be remembered. As Christ called and blessed those whom He forgave, so must His followers. Friends must not hinder the forgiven person from holding membership or having responsibility in the church.

Friends churches should exercise concern for their members on matters of sexuality and should discipline offenders in love and truth (see “Rules of Discipline” p. 46). [page 80]

Quaker-pocalypse—Advancement: What Can We Say?

July 17, 2015 § 1 Comment

What can we say?

. . . when seekers ask what Quakers believe? Here is one version of the answers I’ve been working on.

An “elevator speech”:

We believe that there is in everyone a Light

  • a light in the conscience that can guide and strengthen us to do the right, that can awaken us to the wrong we have done and are about to do;
  • a light that can heal us, that can strengthen us to live better lives, that can release us from our demons, make us more whole, relieve us of suffering, and lead us to redemption;
  • a light that can inspire us to acts of kindness and to creativity;
  • a light that can lead us to the deepest fulfillment and the “peace that passes all understanding” and into acts of kindness, service, and witness;
  • a light that can help transform us into the people we were meant to be;
  • a light that can open to us direct communion with God (however you experience God), both as individuals and as a community.

We Quakers have experienced this light as the Light of Christ, as Jesus Christ himself, as the Spirit of Love and Truth, as a Presence in our midst, as that which has gathered us as a people of God and continues to guide our meetings and the Quaker movement into the future.

In this Light, through this Light, God is always trying to reveal to us the way of love and peace and truth. In this Christ-spirit we are sometimes gathered in our worship into a joy-filled ttanscendental communion with God and with each other.

That’s my “elevator speech,” a quick answer to a deep question. But of course, we can say a lot more than this. So here is a more fully developed presentation of Quaker “beliefs”.

Six Quaker essentials

The Light. We believe that there is a principle in every person (often called the Light, the Seed, “that of God”) that can know God directly and that yearns for this intimate communion.

  •     Because we experience the Light inwardly, we do not practice many of the outward forms that other religious communities practice; we do not rely on outward sacraments for God’s grace.
  •     Because the Light is universal, we believe that all people are equal in God’s sight and this informs how we treat them.
  •     Because we all have access to the Light, we have no professional clergy that are thought of as intermediaries between God and the individual worshiper. But we have not laid down the clergy itself; rather, we have no laypeople, for all of us are potential ministers. We believe that God can and does call each one of us into service or ministry directly and in various ways, most commonly, to speak from the Spirit in our meetings for worship. And for this, we need no special education or ceremonial ordination, but only attention to the promptings of the Spirit and a willingness to be faithful to the call.
  •     This, in fact, is the essence of Quaker spirituality: to be open always to God’s guidance and to listen always for God’s call into service, and to answer the call faithfully when it comes.

The gathered meeting. Ever since the 1650s when Quakers were first gathered as a dedicated people of God, we have felt that the same Light and Spirit that dwells within each individual also loves and guides us as a community.

  •     Just as we believe that each individual can enjoy a direct relationship with God, so also we believe that the same Holy Spirit leads the worshipping community.
  •     Thus many of our meetings hold our worship in waiting, expectant silence, turning our full attention toward God and leaving off any outward liturgical forms like the Bible readings, collective prayer, hymn singing, and prepared sermons that are featured in most religious services. We worship in utter simplicity in order not to crowd out God’s direct voice or drown out the still, small voice within each of us.
  •     However, many Quaker meetings hold “programmed” worship that is more like other protestant churches, with hymn singing, Bible readings, prepared collective prayer,s and sermons. These meetings feel that these outward forms help the meeting commune with God.
  •     We also conduct the business of the meeting in meetings for worship under the direct leadership of the Holly Spirit, having no professional human leadership or hierarchies. We have a number of distinctive community tools to discern God’s wish for us.

Continuing revelation. We believe that direct communion with God means that God is still teaching God’s people.

  •     God’s revelation did not end with the Bible; rather God is always trying to reveal to us the way of love and peace and truth.
  •     Thus, in answer to God’s continuing revelation over the centuries, we have laid down the outward practice of the sacraments, we have always recognized God’s prophetic inspiration of women ministers, we have struggled against slavery, and, in some yearly meetings, we fully welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people into our fellowship, even though the Bible seems to some on the surface to condemn homosexuality, condone slavery, deny women’s role in ministry, and require outward sacramental practice.
  •     And we remain open to new light, expecting that God will intend further changes for us in the future.

“Let your lives speak.” We believe that God calls us to live our inner faith in outward practice, to live our lives as testimony to the Truth that has been awakened within us, leading us to alleviate suffering, injustice, and oppression, and to amend their causes. As a movement, we have come to unity on a number of stands of conscience, which we call our “testimonies,” and we seek to be open to new truth as to how we should live, as individuals, as a faith community, and as a society.

Love. We believe that “love is the first motion,” as we say, the commandment by which we should live our lives—that we should love God, love our fellow human beings, and love the creation we share with all other living things.

Direct experience. While “What do you believe?” is an important question, one that deserves a clear and straightforward answer, Friends often focus on a rather different question, one posed by George Fox in the 1600s and from which I derive the title for this little series on Quaker beliefs:

  • “You will say, ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?”
  •     In other words, even though we do have a distinctive set of beliefs, Friends try to focus more on experience than on doctrine. For us, the essential question is: what is your experience of God? And we seek to ground our religious lives on what we have ourselves experienced, rather than on the inherited experience of others, however valuable that tradition might be.


Each of these core beliefs can be unpacked further to get into all of the other beliefs and practices that distinguish Friends, which I have only just touched upon here. That’s for a subsequent post.

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