Dismissing D. Elton

October 1, 2012

Saturday was a long day at Farmland Friends Church.  Indiana Yearly Meeting’s Representative Council gathered there to consider, in a meeting for worship for business, the recommendation of a Reconfiguration Task Force about whether and how the yearly meeting ought to divide itself.

As weary Friends began their drives home late in the afternoon, no schism had been approved, but all knew in their bones we were several steps closer.

I found myself thinking about what might have been the choice of D. Elton Trueblood, a weighty Indiana Quaker of earlier decades.  I thought especially about what he would have thought about how the Bible had become the battleground in this debacle – and how far many Friends had drifted from his understanding of the Scriptures.

The discussion during the morning and early afternoon largely repeated the messages in letters than more than 50 of the 64 monthly meetings had sent to the Task Force.  Many of those letters supported separation, and chose Yearly Meeting B, the option calling for greater authority in the hands of the yearly meeting to discipline monthly meetings that are judged to stray.  But many of the speakers at Farmland echoed the messages from about a dozen monthly meetings that were opposed to any separation.  They called instead for reconciliation.  Representatives from two or three meetings voiced their choice for Yearly Meeting A, an association more of mutual accountability than of hierarchical subordination.

At midafternoon, the presiding clerk asked for approval of the separation proposal.  Dozens of the seventy-odd representatives voiced support, but fourteen were opposed.  A few later indicated a willingness to instead be recorded as standing aside, but at least nine remained opposed.

A revised proposal will likely come back to Representative Council in November.  Why might it win approval then?  Because many are tired of conflict, but also because the larger faction in Indiana Yearly Meeting made it clear that reconfiguration will happen in some fashion or another.  If the reconfiguration proposal is not approved, and soon, then monthly meetings will leave on their own, throwing the yearly meeting into disarray.  The suggestion is that the minority will find themselves in an even more difficult predicament if they stand against reconfiguration.

Even more striking to me were the repeated assertions from this larger faction that theirs was the grouping that truly adhered to IYM’s Faith and Practice, and that truly followed Scripture.  Those who could not fully accept F&P and could not fully accept the Scriptures should leave.

No monthly meeting in IYM sees itself as out of step with Faith and Practice, however.  In declaring itself a welcoming and affirming meeting, West Richmond Friends took great care to explain how it was speaking only for itself, and how its following a prophetic leading was consistent with IYM’s Faith and Practice.

On the Bible, the larger faction in IYM has come to think that one must follow all the Scriptures in detail and specificity.  The Task Force description of Yearly Meeting-B around which the larger faction has coalesced characterizes the Bible as “historically accurate,” a claim that leaves me stunned.  Biblical foundationalism has come to dominate IYM, pushing aside Fox’s epiphany that “Jesus has come to teach His people Himself. “

This now-dominant view of the Bible was not D. Elton Trueblood’s understanding.  In The People Called Quakers (Friends United Press, 1966) he wrote:

“The words of the Bible are good words, but they are not superior to the Eternal Word, from which they came. The best way to use the Scriptures is to employ them as a means by which we are led into the same spirit which impelled those who first gave them forth.“(p 79)

Trueblood revered the Bible and was impatient with those turned away from it.  But he also was unhappy with those who urged the Bible as the sole way to know God’s ways and God’s will.  He wanted neither “an irreverent neglect” nor a “bondage to literalism.” Trueblood continued:

“There is no harm at all in seeing that the various parts of the Bible are vastly unequal. Otherwise we would see no distinction between the law and the gospel. We are not bound to believe that God is bloodthirsty and vindictive simply because some of the ancient Israelites thought that He was, or that marriage is a less noble state than celibacy, because that happened to be the view of the Apostle Paul (I Cor.7:7,8). Fortunately we need not be limited to the alternatives of neglect and idolatry. It is possible to be deeply appreciative of the Scriptures without being bound by them. We arrive at this point when we see clearly that they are valuable, though not primary. What is primary is Christ as Present Teacher. “(p 79)

West Richmond Friends has come to believe that Christ as Present Teacher has led the meeting to view homosexuality as no sin, despite three passages from the Apostle Paul and two passages in Leviticus.  For this West Richmond Friends is being hustled out of Indiana Yearly Meeting.  Likely other meetings will be pushed out, too.

I can only think D. Elton Trueblood would have been dismayed to find himself set outside the bounds of acceptable belief in Indiana Yearly Meeting as well.

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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).
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