“Sex… with Quakers”

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.)

11 Responses to ““Sex... with Quakers””

  1. 1 Sarah Jul 1st, 2006

    It’s great to hear you blog about this, Zach. I heard tons about it from my Friend Maria, and I was tickled pink when she said that she’d met you there, too, and you’d both figured out you knew me …

    To add because I can, I know that NYYM is in fact wrestling with the FUM hiring practices. I was at a NYYM retreat at Powell House just two weekends ago (the weekend before your retreat), and speculation was flying thick and fast over what’s going to come out of NYYM’s Yearly Meeting come July. I imagine (and hope, even?) that there will be something concrete coming out of there, but like you, I don’t want to see any Meeting divide over this.

    It hasn’t been my experience that the average liberal Quaker is biblically illiterate, but I’d probably agree that the average FGC Quaker is less biblically literate than the average FUM Quaker … if that distinction makes sense to you. Within the FGC, I think I see a difference in biblical literacy between the birthright and the convinced. Actually, now that I ponder it, so far every FGC Christian Quaker I’ve met has been convinced. Hmmmmm.

    Anyway. I’m happy that you met Maria, and while I’m glad that I went to the retreat that I did, and I could have only gone to one in a two-week span, I’m sad I missed this one (and the chance to see you again, too).

  2. 2 zach Jul 2nd, 2006

    Yeah, I hoped you’d be there, but we’ll see each other another time. Depending on how much money I make this month I may crash NYYM sessions for a day or two… I wonder if any other YAFs would be into that…

  3. 3 Pam Jul 4th, 2006

    you know, i just figured out that when I was having trouble with the anti-spam thing, I think it was because I wrote out the number (”ten” instead of “10″) - It always amuses me how much computers don’t know. And sometimes it worries me that we will amend our own thinking to fit a computerized thought-process better.

    None of which was my point…….

    I wish I had been at your retreat (though I think I’m too old) it sounds great (especially the food!) I am cutting my workshop at Gathering to comment on blogs, I’ve discovered that workshops in general don’t work well for me, and am trying to remain open to, well, openings about how to proceed in future years.

    Which wasnt’ my point either :)

    I’d love to know more about what you mean by “pansexual by choice” - if it’s something you’d be willing to share, either on your blog or in email to me :)

    I was on a panel about being bi or queer at my meeting a number of months ago. It was interesting because the “audience” was mostly people who go to EVERY “adult ed”, rather than people specifically interested in the topic. Polyamory came up, but we were not prepared at all - and I basically started to argue with my friend (it’s what we do) in front of everyone. (essentially, being bi doestn’ mean you’re polyamorous, but even if you were polyamorous it would be okay - but somehow we got very tangled in that!)

    I myself am pretty uncomfortable with polyamory. I am simply monogamously wired. I have never had sex with two different people in the same calendar year, not out of any form of righteousness, but simply because I don’t have it in me.

    I felt myelf to be in love with someone a few years ago who couldnt’ even really understand that. She is much more of the “anything that moves” persuasion, and, while I actually think that that’s fine in theory, our inability to communicate about it shredded my heart.

    I do think that remembering the testimony of integrity is important. To not lie to each other and to try to not cause pain.

    The woman I’m dating now is fine with sex without love, promiscuity, etc, but she seems to see value in a deeper, monogamous connection (not that you can’t have shallow monogamous connections too, but it’s not my style :)

    I fear that I’m going too far off into personal drama, so perhaps I will stop now, but like I said, I’m glad to hear that that happened. I hope we will do more of these explorations, and not just for young people.

  4. 4 Sarah Jul 5th, 2006

    I’m holding out in hope that Martin does another conferance at Powell House . . .

  5. 5 greg Jul 6th, 2006

    i really wish i’d made this retreat, however i just got back to US last night. about the FUM hiring policy- it really is more than just a liberal concern, last year at the FLGBTQC worship sharing i heard some amazing quotes from leaders in other FUM meetings, which made me wonder/lament at how much conservative theology dominates our social discourse such that i feel constantly suspcious that others are not working toward radical liberating theologies, even fellow quakers, and am often surprised every time i re-learn that they are also struggling as i am to be consistently for love and justice. why is there so little trust (going in many directions)?
    relatedly, a close friend of mine from a fairly charismatic black church was recently telling me some crazy and amazingly positive things the minister there was saying about gay rights, so hey. its great when you find allies where you’ve been taught not to see them (

  6. 6 greg Jul 6th, 2006

    sorry, i think some creative punctuation i was using messed up the coding. luckily i always copy everything before i post…..

    its great when you find allies where you’ve been taught not to see them (sometimes taught by painful experience. i do NOT want to imply that it’s the responsibility of queers et al. to ‘open their closed minds and see they’re not so oppressed after all’ (an implication people often make about all sorts of oppressed groups which i hate), rather, it is the responsibility of priviledged groups to be vocal and explicit so that we know who is working for what).

    anyway, after last summer’s yearly meeting i felt quite at peace with the ways moving forward about FUM’s policy, but quite concerned, with you, about the work we need to do among more liberal friends clarifying our own witness re: sexuality, so i’m really thrilled there was this retreat. not just for conversation within the global quaker body, but perhaps more importantly to provide a spiritual grounding for our own young people struggling with their sexualities, and for our witness to the non-quaker world, both of which require a spiritual testimony strong enough to counterbalance the hatred, fear, and scapegoating coming from the insane spiritual depravity which has power in this country.

    as a birthright liberal friend raised attending FGC every year until he was like 14 (how did all these quaker gradations enter the conversation?) who is fairly biblically literate and becoming more so, i think about my own past. thanks to our liberal religious education and my own reading, i was familiar with a number for religious systems, but consciously chose to become more biblically literate and more “christian” (primarily from spiritual leading, but also) partly because my own queer sexuality required it of me- precisely in order to engage in this conversation with others who identify themselves with christianity. my own experience has shown me that personal engagement with the question of what is a spiritual sexuality leads to incredible growth, which i hope is magnified manyfold if we are able to move forward with this question on a communal level (within NEYM, FUM, USA, etc).

    from another point, i read a great quote on johan mauer’s blog about the difference between an older generation’s “modernist” evangelical perspective concerned with individual sin and salvation (focus on sexuality, personal conduct, etc) and a younger “post-modernist” evangelical perspective with a concern for the individual-in-society (focus on social justice, war, liberation). i think there are problems with the labeling here (older/younger, modernist/post-modernist) but it is an intersting way of understanding why certain issues have more or less weight among different groups. quakers sort of walk a balance here, following individual leadings and the personal teacher found in christ- but often to the effect of focusing on broad issues of war, poverty, etc. so in this case, i hope that we are not seduced by the current conservative use of distracting political rhetoric surrounding gay issues and individual sexual conduct (to distract from ongoing war etc), but rather, i guess, continue at our quakerly pace and consider each thing as its time comes.

    there shall be love!

  7. 7 zach Jul 8th, 2006

    Pam, I think the norm in our society that says personal details = unwanted personal ‘drama’ is part of what we’re (or at least I am) trying to get past… :)

    I probably will follow this post up with “More on sex with Quakers”, but briefly, pansexual for me means not ruling out any broad class of people or sexual practice ahead of time, and being open to all of them at least in theory. I can see myself settling down with a nice gender-conforming girl in a monogamous marriage, but I could also see myself having polyamorous relationships with people of all sorts of genders and orientations – and anything in between.

    The “by choice” part means I see this as something I’ve chosen freely, not something that was imposed on me by nature or nuture – at least in so far as anything is a free choice (which I go back and forth about).

  8. 8 zach Jul 8th, 2006

    greg, lots of the speaking my mind — one question: what was it about the comments by the FUM Friends that made you lament the way conservative theology dominates our social discourse?

    Welcome back…

  9. 9 greg Jul 12th, 2006

    that was probably unclear- i meant that the comments were so amazing and accurate and speaking to my condition (to be honest, i don’t remember at all what anyone actually said or who spoke, i just remember the strongly positive impression), and that i was surprised by this. it was my own surprise that made me consider the way i often expect conclusions or arguments grounded in theology to be “conservative” (whatever that means. supporting the status quo or something.)

    hope to see you sometime?

  10. 10 zach Jul 13th, 2006

    Yes! I’ll email you soon between frantic job-hunting and application-filling-out…

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