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A Matter of Unity

By Colin Saxton, FUM general secretary

I just returned from Kenya where we celebrated the addition of Chebeyusi Yearly Meeting as an associate member within Friends United Meeting. Do you know that there are now 31 yearly meetings in our global fellowship! This means, of course, there are thousands of local churches/meetings and hundreds of thousands of individuals who form this community. From Annapolis to Xenia, Jamaica to Ramallah, Nairobi to North Carolina, Cuba to California, and Toronto to Tongaren… FUM is a world-wide collection of Quakers being gathered in Christ, in community and for mission.

As I have said several times in my first year as general secretary, the global nature of FUM is both our greatest strength and our greatest challenge. The breadth and diversity among us can spark a deeper obedience and understanding of what it means to be the people of God — if we will let it. The same breadth and diversity can provide us an opportunity to impact the world together in incredibly significant ways — if we will seize it. But the very same opportunities also challenge us mightily as we struggle, at times, to understand one another, negotiate our differences, and humble ourselves long enough to discern Christ’s leading for the whole.

These challenges are very real. Though we don’t need to fear them, we do best when we are mindful of them and remain intentional about the way we nurture relationships and communicate with each other. Engaging one another and actively investing in one another around what we do have in common helps us handle the tensions and questions that might otherwise distract or divide us.

In his letter to the editor (see page 36) in this issue of Quaker Life, Phil Gulley raises the concern of marriage equality. Friend Phil asks, “Is our fear of dissension and division so great and our trust in one another so meager, we cannot discuss one of the more pressing moral issues of our day?” He goes on to say, “It is long past time we sat down and talked. That is what healthy families do.”

The reality, of course, is the conversation is already going on. Across FUM, local meetings/churches and yearly meetings are discussing this matter, sometimes in healthy ways other times not. Since the yearly meeting is the organizational level in which Friends make statements about their particular Faith and Practice, it is not surprising that across the broad span of 31 yearly meetings there is a wide range of perspectives on this (and other) topic.

FUM, as many of you know, is a lightening-rod for some people when it comes to same-sex issues. Our personnel policy has a section which affirms the civil rights of all people and does not limit employment on the basis of “sex, race, national origin, age, physical disability, or sexual orientation.” At the same time, the employment guidelines define appropriate sexual expression in the context of a heterosexual marriage in order to encourage fidelity, discourage polygamy (which is a real matter in a global community) and in recognition that the wider FUM community is not in unity around same-sex relationships.

I hear about this personnel policy a lot in my role as general secretary. I hear from local meetings and churches who have labored hard and long to find unity within their small community. Friends write to let me know they either stand with or oppose the FUM personnel policy and to offer prayers for the larger community, that one day we will be united around this and other concerns. Alongside these tender letters, I also hear threats about what groups may do if FUM does or does not change the employment policy.

In each case, I try to respond and remind Friends that FUM is a big, global community. The organization, and the personnel policy, is governed by a board which has representatives from all of our yearly meetings. In addition, I share how impressed I have been with the FUM board since I began serving here. They have labored hard and long around this topic. I have seen tears shed over the concern. Above all, I have watched people of differing opinions seek to listen deeply to each other and to Christ, seeking to do what is faithful for the whole of FUM. I’ve also heard and seen their commitment to keep listening to one another and to God.

In this issue of Quaker Life, we are focusing on “unity.” Originally four articles were submitted that addressed the process of achieving unity concerning the IYM reconfiguration and/or the question of same-sex relationships. As we considered these articles we decided to follow Phil’s advice and offer the medium to hold a conversation. Therefore, you will find only quotes from these articles and links to a conversation you can join online if you are interested.

Our hope, especially as we move into the future, is that Quaker Life will be a source of inspiration and information for you. In addition, I think you will see an increased focus on the magazine being a practical resource for individuals and local communities.

Part of the work still needing to be done within FUM is nurturing and intentionally building relationships across the broad spectrum. We need to learn one another’s language, practice listening deeply, and understanding another’s point of view and experience. Without this active effort, it is my experience that Friends are quick to walk away from each other when conflict arises or differences are exposed.

At the same time, Phil Gulley’s concern is real. We do need avenues to talk together about important issues. We should not let our fear of dissension or division hinder us from addressing issues that may be central to our sense of knowing and following Christ.

What I sometimes wonder about us, however, is whether or not we are the kind of “healthy family” Phil Gulley also describes? Are we committed enough to the family to stay engaged through conflict? Will I be as committed to the well-being of all the members, as I am to my own needs and desires? I think these are important questions, because how we answer them tell us something about how ready we will are for these conversations.

With the four articles, we elected to put them online and create an avenue for discussion. For those not interested in or ready to engage this conversation with others in FUM, let me encourage you to simply pray for those who are. Ask Jesus to help Friends find “light” rather than just generate more unnecessary “heat” around this topic. For those interested in reading further, check out the links and participate as you feel called and are able to be helpful.

My hope is the conversation will be redemptive rather than destructive; that it will cause Friends to move toward one another and Christ rather than move away from one another; and that it will be one that adds life and vitality to the work and witness we are called to do within Friends United Meeting.

  • Doug Bennett

    Well posed, truthfully and tenderly. Bravo!!

  • Bill

    It’s great that you’re facilitating this conversation.

    I’m curious about the rationale for the policy. How does defining “appropriate sexual expression in the context a heterosexual marriage” discourage polygamy or encourage fidelity any more than if appropriate sexual expression was defined in the context of any faithful, non-polygamous marriage? Why does the marriage have to be between heterosexuals, in order to discourage polygamy or encourage fidelity? Are you suggesting that the policy isn’t based on a belief that homosexuality is per se immoral or sinful? That seems a much more plausible explanation for it.