That was the name of the retreat I was just at this weekend, at the Northampton Friends Meeting, though they just provided the space – the retreat itself was organized by the New England Yearly Meeting (NEYM) Young Adult Friends (YAFs), of which I am one (and a onetime recording clerk). I and a girl named Cat cooked, to basically positive fanfare, though I feel like both the injudra and the General Tao’s Seitan were less good than they should’ve been.
The retreat title was a little tongue in cheek. The real topic was “sexuality and spirituality” – which I find a little bit hard to pin down, but it ended up working well.
The two main events were (1) hearing from Phil F., a member of a NEYM committee charged with discerning the way forward in regard to the controversial (in NEYM at least) Friends United Meeting hiring policy, which excludes anyone who is sexually active outside the context of a heterosexual marriage, and (2) having a two-hour YAF “panel discussion” on sexuality and spirituality, which for me was the highlight of the weekend.
I missed half of the talk by Phil – or rather, I was there for his talk but I missed the discussion afterwards, because I had to start cooking lunch. Basically, Phil started out with a recap of the FUM policy, including a historical backgrounder. From what I remember, the policy was put in place in the late 80s or early 90s, with NEYM representatives present, and New England Friends either didn’t notice or weren’t significantly bothered by it at the time.
What eventually sparked a controversy, he said, was when the clerk of Baltimore YM was at the 2002 FUM triennial in Kenya, and was prevented from running a planned “worship sharing” when it was realized (by whom I’m not sure) that he was gay, perhaps because FUM staff was uncomfortable with this in itself, or perhaps just because they were concerned about how poorly this might go over with the wider body of Friends present. This technically is a separate issue from the hiring policy, but this incident sparked, if I have my facts straight, discussion in Baltimore YM of FUM’s posture towards homosexuality in general, which included the hiring policy. This concern then spread to New England YM – I actually remember heard it being talked about at the 2004 sessions.
This, incidentally, is primarily a concern for liberal YMs who are a part of both FGC and FUM, of which there are only five: NEYM, BAYM, Canadian YM, Southeastern YM, and New York YM, though I’m sure there are some individual programmed Friends and Friends Churches who are also concerned. I believe Phil said there were rumbles within other YMs, e.g. NYYM, but it hasn’t been officially addressed anywhere but BAYM and NEYM.
So what are they doing about it? Well it seems that those two YM’s posture, as well as Phil’s own posture, is that we are of course concerned about being member of and giving money to an organization that discriminates in hiring against bisexuals, gays and lesbians – but that we should proceed not with anger, threats or cutting ties (à la Anglican Communion), but with dialogue, intervisitation and trying to find common ground. Which is the main thing the committee Phil is on is concerned with, I believe. (One such intervisitation among FUM Friends is going on right now, as it happens by a Friend from Northampton whose name I forget.)
While I welcome this very patient and Quakerly approach to this disagreement, I confess that I have my doubts that we liberal Friends quite know what we’re getting into, because I imagine the average liberal Quaker is probably quite unable to explain their position in the Biblical, Christian language that FUM Friends, I am presuming, require. In fact, the average liberal Quaker in my experience is almost completely biblically illiterate, unless they were a Christian before coming to Friends. More than that, I think a lot of them don’t fully understand that such a gulf of language and culture even exists; some of the YAF comments I heard secondhand from the discussion I missed reflected this.
I see this as a major obstacle. In the case of John Woolman and other Friends’ intervisitation against slavery, they and the slave-owning Friends were at least clearly co-religionists, and understood the same Judeo-Christian-Quaker language; I’m not sure same can easily be said of FUM and liberal Friends.
I hope we can avoid an Anglican-esque schism between liberal Western Quakers and conservative Southern and Western ones, and precedents from Quaker history give us some grounds for optimism. But it wouldn’t completely surprise me if we can’t. (Though I say this as someone with little experience with FUM or African Quakerism.)
The details of the YAF discussion are confidential, so I’ll just make a few general remarks.
It started out with a “panel,” which really were just a few people who volunteered to get the conversation going. I talked a little about being pansexual by choice; five other people talked about their experience. And from there, it became a lively group discussion. We talked about polyamory, bisexuality, celibacy, abstinence, sex with and without love, pornography, virginity. And while not everyone was fully comfortable with everyone else’s thoughts and experiences (or even their own), everyone was open, respectful, loving and honest.
One little observation that made me happy: in the discussion, people were using the word “person” in place of “man” or “woman,” without a hint of artificiality or forced-ness.
As we realized in the business meeting the next morning, we didn’t come to much consensus about what “spiritually led” use of one’s sexuality looks like. But we did write a minute expressing our feeling that this is an important topic that needs to be openly and honestly discussed more often in Quaker circles. (I’ll post the minute if I ever see the actual text again.)