Beside the Volcano in Indiana: What I’m Learning About Schisms Among Friends

September 7, 2012

Ever since I became a Quaker in my mid-30s I’ve been aware of past schisms among Friends and wondered about how they came about.  Those were idle musings so long as the schisms (Hicksite/Orthodox, Gurneyite/Wilburite, etc.) were matters of the distant past, but now as a member of Indiana Yearly Meeting I’m experiencing a potential schism in the making.  It’s a little like seeing a volcano erupt having only ever seen extinct ones.

In a few days, we’ll have the final recommendations of a Reconfiguration Task Force charged by the Yearly Meeting’s Representative Council to develop a plan for a “deliberative/collaborative reconfiguration.”  Representative Council will consider this recommendation on September 29.

As I wait for that recommendation, here are three things I think I’ve learned: observations about past schisms that seem germane to this fresh, potential one.

(1) Schisms are manifestations of a living faith.

Whatever our hopes and expectations, our faith can’t stand still.  New leadings will arise that some will see as fresh understanding of God’s will and others will see as deviation from the truth.  Some will be energized by the new leadings, and others will recoil in dismay.

We can’t know in advance, however, whether a new, prophetic leading is authentic or whether it is just wrong through and through.  It is reckless ever to assume we have arrived at a final, changeless understanding.  We will always need some way to allow prophetic leadings, and some way to sift through them.  Schisms happen when our ways of sifting through these new leadings break down.

Put another way, schisms arise when someone tries to build a secure bulwark against change.  That doesn’t mean every new idea is right; it simply means that schisms are a last ditch, inevitably failing effort against the movements of a living faith.

In Indiana, the main fresh leading is that homosexuality is no sin.  The recoil is an assertion that we must insist upon a traditional reading of the Bible.  The conflict plays against an unnamed fear, the recognition that Quakerism in Indiana has been declining for decades.

(2) Schisms start with elites, and may be healed by them.

Yes, there are elites (leaders, official and unofficial) even among Friends, and schisms start with them.  It is elites who have the fresh leadings, and elites who strongly feel the impulse to recoil.  Many others are prepared to accommodate some variety in worship, faith and practice until they are encouraged and prodded by leaders to see that variety as unacceptable.

Someone once remarked about the Hicksite/Orthodox separation that “the whole division could have been avoided if eight or ten key Friends had kept their big mouths shut.” Yes, sometimes silence is golden.

But silence in the face of conflict is also likely an ineffective way to stop the movements of a living faith.  Those who find themselves with leadings from God need to share them, and others need to hear them and weigh them.  It’s not silence we need from leaders.  And it’s not tolerance either.  Rather, what we need in our leaders are three things:  an understanding that conflict is inevitable in human affairs; a generous-hearted trust that others, too, are acting and speaking with integrity; and a humble recognition that one likely doesn’t know the whole truth.

Friends have a special ministry to the world that conflict can be addressed without resort to war.  Can we find our way to an understanding that conflict can be addressed without resort to separating ourselves from others?

Past schisms among Friends have been provoked by leaders but they also have been healed by them.  Sometimes that healing touch means the schism never happens.  Too often it has taken a new generation of leaders.

(3) Schisms require some governance fiddle.

My earliest wondering about schisms was about how they could ever occur given Friends governance practices, our commitment to acting in unity through attending to our business in worship.  If we have to act in unity, how can we divide?

I think the answer must be that somewhere, somehow in each schism there has been some forcing, some deviation from our best governance practices.  We have divided by not finding unity – or declaring “unity” when there was none.  Will that happen in Indiana?

Arguably the intention of those who proposed a “deliberative/collaborative reconfiguration “ was to find a way to separate that would be comfortable to all.  The Reconfiguration Task Force sketched two different, alternative successor yearly meetings (A and B), and asked each monthly meeting to declare itself for one or the other.  What has emerged in the letters from monthly meetings are two large groupings, one that declares for “B”, and one that urges that there be no reconfiguration at all.

We are seeing that the drive to reconfigure is not emerging from two groups pulling apart from one another, but rather one group in the yearly meeting wanting greater clarity and conformity, and another group valuing staying together even in the face of some divergence of worship, faith and practice.  Which group is larger?  Does it matter among Friends?  Both views have many adherents. The group seeking greater conformity has largely been the one declaring the current situation untenable; the group wanting IYM to stay together is only recently finding its voice.

Can schism come to Indiana Yearly Meeting with this division revealed in the 50-odd letters from the monthly meetings?  Some would have it the decision has already been made: that it was made when the yearly meeting charged the Reconfiguration Task Force in the fall.  That was not, however, the understanding of many at that meeting of Representative Council.  They believe they were approving a charge to a committee to seek a plan that the yearly meeting could then weigh – seeking unity.

Stay tuned: in a few days we will see the plan; the volcano is rumbling.



About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
This entry was posted in Beliefs, Quaker Identity and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Beside the Volcano in Indiana: What I’m Learning About Schisms Among Friends

  1. Pingback: The Road Back from Indiana to North Carolina | River View Friend

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