Sunday, December 19, 2010

North Pacific Yearly Meeting Contemplates Affiliation with Friends General Conference: Big or No Big Deal?

Friends in North Pacific Yearly Meeting are considering affiliation with Friends General Conference. To do so it would be the first time that this yearly meeting has identified itself  with one or another of the existing domains into which the Society is divided.

The fascinating history of how it came to be a defining characteristic of this yearly meeting to be non-affiliated is too complicated to go into, here.  It is enough here to say that this came to be and that there was a reason for this that should be considered in this process.

The forerunner of North Pacific Yearly Meeting, the College Park Association of San Jose, California, was intentionally organized not as a meeting but as a California corporation.   Setting themselves aside  from the recently created divisions and domains within in the Society, and describing themselves as an  independent and unified body,  Joel and Hanna Bean, and those gathered with them, intentionally refused to recognize the legitimacy of these divisions.   They lived in the hope (in the sense of that word that is a synonym with "expectation") that these divisions, bitterly pried open among Friends over less than 100 years by remarkably "un-Quakerly" behavior one to the other, would be closed and Friends would again be united in a single Society.  Open to correspondence with all domains, they identified themselves with none of these above any of the others.

At least at first, College Park had no members, as I understand it, but was a gathering of those whose membership in the Society was grounded in monthly (or quarterly) meetings in those other domains.   Those who attended, whether by conviction or by the necessity occasioned by the spiritual isolation consequential to their westward migration, did not jeopardize their standing in their Orthodox, Conservative, Hicksite or Evangelical Friends meetings by worshiping at College Park--all were welcome in a gathering that was not a part of any of these domains.

Eschewing organizational affiliation (while maintaining individual affiliations) was part of the re-unifying vision of those who founded College Park Association of Friends and it remains a part of that same vision to some in North Pacific Yearly Meeting, today.  Any single domain pursuing re-unification is seen as trying to displace the others and absorb them, trying to "win" the doctrinal struggle rather than overcome it, entirely.

That complicates the question of affiliation, today, for some in North Pacific Yearly Meeting.

Some believe that the connections that have forged, gradually, patiently, with some Friends in other domains of the Society, who were similarly led to reach beyond their own hedges, will be strained if, by affiliation, our yearly meeting lays down it's "neutrality" and appears to settle, officially, into one domain or another.  It is that stated independence, these Friends believe, that makes it possible to straddle the divides, so to speak, until they close beneath our feet.

Perhaps these Friends are mistaken.   Perhaps affiliation will not change the actually identity of this yearly meeting, in its own eyes or those of the Society, at large.

After all, it my impression that, charitably, fewer that 1 in 10 among us has any idea of why North Pacific Yearly Meeting is unaffiliated today and how this lack of  affiliation is (or was) an intentional  "peculiarity" (in the sense of "being set aside for a particular purpose") of this gathering.  It cannot be said that standing aside from identification and the vision of a re-unified Society is uppermost (or anywhere, for that matter) in the minds of Friends today.

Those among us anxious to affiliate believe, insofar as they are even aware of this historical peculiarity, that North Pacific Yearly Meeting has already settled firmly into what is called the "Liberal" domain and that the vision of a reunified Society is as unimportant as it is un-understood among us.  Frankly, many in this yearly meeting are not at all inclined to find unity with Friends in (at least some) of the other domains of which they have a rather dim understanding, one at least as dim as that of those in those other domains have of us.  Many of us are as self satisfied in our divided condition as most other Quakers seem to be. 

Then, too,  development of College Park Association of Friends, and of the congregations that grew up in the West and associated with it, into Pacific Yearly Meeting and then into North Pacific and Inter Mountain Yearly Meetings may well have gradually amounted to the establishing of a whole new domain within the Society.   Holding to waiting worship--as opposed to the programmed worship that predominated on this side of the Continental Divide at the close of the 19th Century--those of us who came after Joel and Hanna Bean have definitely morphed into gatherings made up of Friends difficult to distinguish from some of those in the East identified as Liberal.   I attend meetings in the East frequently enough to know how similar we are and many among us, here, are surprised to learn, if ever they do, that those at the  roots of our yearly meeting actually held an Orthodox, not a Hicksite, faith and practice.

If all that is so, is the "independent" and "unified" nature of our yearly meeting little more than a largely  un understood fiction?

Did the very act of becoming a yearly meeting (something those we claim as our "founders" intentionally did not do) actually amount to stepping off of the "neutral" ground upon which they stood?

Does North Pacific Yearly Meeting still carry the Beanite leading to welcome all Friends, regardless of their doctrinal beliefs, and in so doing keep alive the expectation of a re-unified Society?  Or are we open to only Liberals, now--whatever the many things that label appears to mean among us.  Are we uninterested in the challenges involved in coming to terms with our history of bitter division and are we satisfied with our prospects within an exclusivistic future?  It does appear that for us, like so many Friends today,  the direct transforming experience of Christ/Spirit/Light is not a strong enough commonality to hold us together in the face of differing rationalistic, propositional  beliefs and doctrines.

So, are we easy that our character and orientation in North Pacific Yearly Meeting, as individuals and a gathering, is today fundamentally different from those of our dimly understood "founders" in that it does not hold up unity among Friends as a vision?  Are we confident going forward with our sense that the Beans were heroes of "toleration" (which many tend to translate as "anything goes" so long as it comes in the guise of our own image) and that the fractured condition of the Society presents no problem for us?

By affiliating with Friends General Conference (or any of the "umbrella groups" or "gospel orders" that exist in the Society) are we endorsing and validating the divisions among Friends and settling into a home in one of those domains, or have we already done that such that affiliation would be little more than a recognition of the reality of our condition?

This is, as we discuss and seek the leading of the Light about the benefits and costs of affiliation, something we should at least listen for in our seeking.   Notwithstanding the possibility that the vision of independence and unity that we inherited, and the policy based on it, might seem "obsolete," it is also possible that this vision is actually just stuck away in the attic of our Quaker consciousness where few of us have ever come across it, let alone been contended with as to its implications for our integrity, our community, or sense of equality and harmony--as well as the future of the Society.

There was a reason, then, that those who came before us recognized in this independence a leading the Light had for them.  Rachel Hicks--although not among them--expressed their mourning and their motivation. She eloquently lamented the way Friends had rendered themselves largely impotent to affect the condition of the world because of the outcomes of the bickering over belief that would take, from the time of her writing, two decades run itself out and leave Friends divided and alienated from one another.

"And now, as I write this, after years of reflection and observation of the effect of promulgating opinions and doctrines not essential in themselves, especially on the mission of Christ in that prepared body, I am confirmed in the belief that it tends to unprofitable discussion and controversy, and often to alienation of love for one another...and [that] we should have remained a united people of great influence in the gathering of nations to the peaceable kingdom of Him who was ushered into the world with the anthem, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men!

         Rachel Hicks
         (New York:  G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1880) p. 39

How long will the Society of Friends last in this divided condition?  Can any claim that, except where it exists as a certain strain of Protestantism (and lives by the credo on the mast head of a 19th Century newspaper, "Christian First, Quaker Second"), the Society has a dynamic a presence in the world? (Actually, of course, that masthead meant "Protestant First, Quaker Second.")

Are we comfortably living out, in our self satisfied way, the legacy of, as it is written, those who divided a house and maintain it in such a condition?

Perhaps our general ignorance of what "independence" and "unified" was about is an indication that the Light is not showing Friends that leading toward unity, any more--new light and all that.

Perhaps, on the other hand, the endurance of that leading toward unity in the hearts of some (in and outside our yearly meeting) is an indication that darkness, as it is also written, may temporarily blot out much of the Light, but never completely displaces it.

It seems unlikely to me that Friends in North Pacific Yearly Meeting share the vision of unity that independence was intended to foster.   I would just ask whether, in laying that vision down, we might at least mention it in passing, understanding it and intentionally leave it behind.  

It is sometimes difficult for me to understand how the process of spiritual transformation that almost every Quaker I meet says is at the heart of our faith and practice could really lead a gathered people into such a fractured and inconsequential condition. 


Micah Bales said...

Thank you very much for this post, Timothy.

This is the first time I have heard a Western Friend explain clearly the reasoning behind PYM/NPYM's remaining unaffiliated with Friends General Conference (when, for this outsider, there seems to be little difference between Western Friends and the rest of the Liberal-Unprogrammed world).

You have deepened my understanding.

Micah Bales
The Lamb's War

ben said...

Calm down.

RantWoman said...

Hi Timothy

THANK YOU for this post. I started to reply and the reply got too long and needed seasoning so it's a link below.

One of our longtime members recently posed the question "the world is hungry for what Quakers have. Why are people not banging down our doors? It is really interesting to me to be having that conversation in our Meeting at the same time as the one about affiliation with FGC.

I decided just to start with more queries for now and give myself the option of posting my personal thoughts at another point.

Jim Flory said...


Thanks for this fine summary. I moved to the Northwest in 1994 from the Midwest, where I was active in Northern Yearly Meeting. NYM is a relativley young Yearly and I was present in its formative years. This is the first time I have read a clear summary of what Independent Western meetings see as their unique continuing contribution.

Heather Madrone said...

Friend Timothy,

I'm a member of Santa Cruz Monthly Meeting of Pacific Yearly Meeting and I would dearly love to speak with you about the origins of West Coast Quakerism, the “peculiarities” of our form of Quakerism, and many other things. I am embarking on a project to document West Coast Friends (starting with Hannah Bean), and I want to understand what it is that we do and hold that is uniquely ours, and to give West Coast Friends our own unique voice. So often, we are seen as a degenerate form of East Coast Quakerism. I believe that we are something other than that, and that our history has given us valuable insights to share with the rest of Quakerism.

You can contact me at heather at madrone dot com.

Thank you, Friend, for considering this.