Closer to Each Other Than Language Allows

Photo by Claire Phipps –

People think of Quakers as loving, peaceful, friendly types (our full name is, after all, the Religious Society of Friends).  And we are all of those things. We’re also human—full of imperfections, confusion, and fear. We don’t all see things in the same way, and our history shows that sometimes those differing views have torn us apart. This week, one branch of the diverse tree of Quakerism—Indiana Yearly Meeting—is considering such a break. For those Friends, the issue that is dividing them is homosexuality.
I’ve just returned from my own North Pacific Yearly Meeting (NPYM) annual gathering. For five days, Quakers from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana worshiped, sang, and played; remembered Friends who died last year and welcomed newcomers; learned about local, national, and international Quaker efforts to promote peace and justice; and reconnected with old friends and made some new ones.
For many, these annual gatherings are a time to take a break from life’s daily demands and to renew spiritually. With the theme of “Listening in Tongues,” we were encouraged to “prepare ourselves for seeing, feeling and hearing unaccustomed perspectives with the tenderness we would wish for our own.” Our Friend-in-Residence, Benigno Sánchez-Eppler, urged us to listen beyond words, beyond the “limited monolingual comfort of our own monthly meetings,” for the similarities of our common Quaker ancestry. We heard from Friends in Pullman-Moscow Meeting that listening in that way can be healing. They reported that as they’ve dealt with conflicts in their meeting, “We are closer to each other than language allows.”
We faced our own challenges with language that separates us as we considered whether to affiliate with Friends General Conference (FGC). After a year of examination of what “affiliation” would both require and offer, we still stumble over that word as well as what it means to be an “independent” yearly meeting.  We decided to discern further over this next year, setting aside the idea of affiliation and instead exploring what kind of  “relationship” we want with the varied branches of Quakerism, including FGC.
As we left our gathering last Sunday, another branch of Quakers in the West, Northwest Yearly Meeting, began its annual session. Their agenda was to include consideration of the current state of affairs in their Yearly Meeting in the area of sexual ethics and same-sex relationships. As with Indiana Yearly Meeting, these conversations likely were fraught with conflict, just as they were twenty-five years ago in North Pacific Yearly Meeting. It took us eight years, but in 1993 we came to unity to revise our Faith and Practice to state that Quaker meetings could take the relationships of same-sex couples under their care (translation of Quaker-ese: same-sex couples could get married) following the same processes as for heterosexual couples.
This week, Indiana Yearly Meeting (IYM) has been considering a split as a way to deal with its members’ differences regarding not only same-sex relationships but also the full participation of gays and lesbians in the life of their monthly meetings and churches.  I first learned of IYM’s proposal to separate into two groups in an article by Stephen Angell in the June/July 2012 issue of Friends Journal. Angell outlines the timeline of the “Indiana Yearly Meeting Schism” there as well as in the Winter/Spring 2012 issue of Quaker Theology – The Impending Split in Indiana Yearly Meeting.  From my reading, it appears that differing views on homosexuality are being cloaked in questions about the authority of the Yearly Meeting over individual meetings.
I’m holding these Friends from Indiana Yearly Meeting this week as they meet to discern how God is leading them.  I hope they can, as Benigno suggested, listen to differing perspectives with the tenderness they would wish for our own.
And I hope that NPYM can do the same as we explore the nature of our relationships with the wider world of Friends. 


  1. Great post. I do not at all understand what the fuss is about same sex love and marriage- it has never made sense to me, but it's a huge controversy in Judaism and Islam as well. It's sad that this issue is divisive even among the Friends, but I guess it's endemic to the major religions. But it doesn't need to be an issue, and that's what we need to keep on explaining. Thanks again and peace out!

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