By Linda Daniel
I have been asked to describe the process by which Friends Memorial Church in Muncie came to unity on how we regard non-heterosexual relationships. I’m struggling to find a starting point.
The monthly business meeting at Friends Memorial Church did not actively participate in the early discussions of whether or not to affirm gay/lesbian relationships. To most members in our meeting, it is unclear when that discussion started, as we were not actively involved in IYM committee meetings. Until we began discussing the four models of realignment/reconfiguration in September 2011, there had been no mention of West Richmond Friends or their website at our monthly business meetings. So, I suppose the reason I struggle to find a starting point is that Muncie missed the starting point.
When we joined the discussion in 2011, many older members saw the West Richmond controversy and IYM reconfiguration discussion as the latest “hot button” issue in a long history of differences. Several thought the discussion would end with IYM predictably intact, agreeing to disagree. For some, it was not fully clear if the issue was one of hierarchy or homosexuality. For other members at Friends Memorial, the discussion of reconfiguration was simply not a priority, and life went on as usual at the meeting.
To fully understand how our monthly meeting was able to agree to disagree on an issue that eventually divided the yearly meeting, it is necessary to explain the social context of our meeting. The culture of our meeting is a bit idiosyncratic, but it is this culture that serves as the backdrop for how we live out our Quaker beliefs.
Our monthly meeting is a well-oiled machine when it comes to working together. Our annual rummage sale, annual Simple Gifts Bazaar and monthly food pantry are the best examples of this meeting characteristic. In fact, we are at our best when we are working together toward a specific outcome. Our Centennial Celebration in 2008 was a sight to behold. Our preference is to be task-oriented and to work toward a common goal, rather than sit and discern a divinely-inspired plan. You see, we usually already have a plan.
OK, I wrote that with tongue firmly planted in cheek. We do a fair amount of silent waiting as well. In all honesty, though, the first cultural characteristic that defines our meeting is that we work well together when there is a clearly defined purpose.
Another unique aspect of our meeting’s culture is our high percentage of educators that teach a wide assortment of learners -— from kindergarten through graduate school -— some retired and others still working. In addition to the organizational skills that are essential to teaching, educators in public settings tend to have relatively high tolerance of differences.
Acceptance of individual differences among all students is important in an educational setting. With some of the older, retired teachers in our meeting, there is a practice of that old adage, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.” When I first joined Friends Memorial, I attended a Sunday School class that was composed mostly of 80 and 90 year old women. Every Sunday after meeting, I played cards with three of those dear, elderly women, all retired school teachers. I never once heard them gossip or say an unkind word about anyone.
These qualities -— working well together, acceptance of individual differences, and for the most part, tender manners with one another -— provide the context in which we can safely explore even the most controversial subjects. This closely parallels reasons we are all Quakers: we believe that there is “that of God” in all people; we adhere to the practice of equality in relationships; we promote peace and even when we disagree with one another; we speak with respect toward one another as we try to discern the will of God. This was most apparent in the first discernment meeting when we openly discussed private beliefs and feelings about non-heterosexual relationships.
During that initial meeting, several members felt led to speak. Some members stated clear beliefs that marriage should be restricted to heterosexual couples. It was suggested that marriage should be held as a sacred trust between one man and one woman. One member expressed concern that we would definitely lose at least one college-age member by taking a formal position against homosexuality. Others suggested that with an anti-homosexual stance we would not be able to attract young seekers. It was noted that the issue of homosexuality is a non-issue in contemporary youth culture. A couple of high school-age sisters quoted Lady Gaga, “I was born this way.” Others noted that Jesus was silent on the issue of homosexuality. He condemned divorce but not gay/lesbian relationships. Queries were asked. “What would Jesus do?” Suddenly, that wristband question had new meaning when asked by an octogenarian who lost her homosexual son to AIDS several years ago. Further queries were asked. “Would Jesus use a homosexual male rather than a Samaritan in his parable of the good neighbor?” Some were silent. Throughout our discernment meetings it became very clear that we have a diversity of thought in our monthly meeting. Also, because of the respect we demonstrated toward each other, it was also clear that we love each other. We are Christians and we are Quakers.
This is not to say that we do not have hurt feelings at times in our meeting. There are heated moments in committee meetings, and occasionally tense moments occur in our monthly business meetings. We don’t always resolve the hurt in spiritual or healthy ways. There are times when our meeting functions like a dysfunctional family. But the key word is family. In fact, our motto is: “We are more than Friends, We are a family serving God.” And about that motto -— like any good Quaker meeting, we argued endlessly, but respectfully, about the correct placement of the comma, replacing the comma with a semicolon and the use of capitalization in the middle of a sentence. We are not above “jot and tittle” feuds.
In the end, perhaps the family-like quality of Muncie Monthly Meeting is what helped us to agree to disagree about non-heterosexual relationships. We could not define ourselves according to Category A or Category B as encouraged by the Reconfiguration Task Force. Choosing either category would have forced us to judge our family members in a hurtful way. We weren’t willing to hurt one another in order to fit into a category defined by others. We did not discern the dichotomy forced upon us as spirit-led. We stood together as a meeting, promoting spiritual truth and God’s will as we understand it. We agreed to abide by Jesus’ command to love one another and we agreed to leave judgment to God.
Linda Daniel has been the Clerk of Muncie Monthly Meeting of Friends Memorial Church since January 1, 2013. She has been a life-long Christian and a convinced Quaker since October 2005. Recently, she spent an entire $100 Amazon gift card on books written by Elton Trueblood.