George Fox, 1647
What is important about community? When does corporate action become a testimony? What is the prophetic duty of a monthly meeting to the Religious Society of Friends? These questions absorb me as I contemplate the past year and a half, during which I shared clerking responsibilities for a process that ultimately concluded in the writing and distribution of an epistle on the loving inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons in the life of Adelphi Monthly Meeting.
I don’t think there is anything as powerful as the conviction that the Lord speaks directly to our condition. The communities we create must have a comparable responsibility to minister to the condition of all our members. Like the Society of Friends at large, Adelphi Monthly Meeting is a diverse assembly of women and men, adults and children, families and individuals, the currently able-bodied and those less so, all from a variety of races and ethnicities. We strive to be inclusive, welcoming and supportive to everyone who desires to share our spiritual and corporate life.
Adelphi Monthly Meeting approved a minute affirming same-sex marriage in 1991. The first same-sex marriage under the care of the meeting was celebrated in 2006. In 2009 our meeting supported a Friend and her family through her gender transition as she claimed her wholeness as a woman. These are events that stand out because they are special.
The true meaning and joy of community, however, lies in the mundane. We take the safety and comfort of our meeting for granted. All of us, straight, lesbian, gay and transgender, worship together and carry out the committee work of our meeting. We raise our children and minister to one another in the wide variety of ways that the Spirit leads us. We share our joys and our sorrows. We squabble and we reconcile. Our children grow into open, accepting, loving adults. It is the very ordinariness of our lives together that is the greatest gift. Twenty years of experience with these issues confirm that the Light shines equally brightly in us all.
In the spring of 2011, Adelphi’s Meeting for Worship for the Conduct of Business charged an ad-hoc committee to explore how we could best express our tender concern for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Friends in the wider Quaker world. As the committee labored to discern and articulate the Divine will, we gradually understood that we were being led to an affirmative witness, to testify before all Friends that when we embrace that of God in everyone, including the full spectrum of sexual orientations and gender identities in our meeting, our worship deepens and our community is enriched.
In retrospect it seems obvious that the core of our witness must be two decades lived together in everyday community. I suppose that once a way opens, the clarity of revelation often appears self-evident. But the committee struggled for a long time. The adrenaline of hurt, anger, frustration and impatience often overwhelmed us. Personality conflicts and other tensions burst out at unexpected times and in unanticipated forms. It was patient prayer and expectant silence that carried us through. Our faith in the Spirit and our conviction that humbly waiting upon the Lord would be rewarded allowed us to gradually lay down the passions that were standing in our way and instead follow the still, small voice that was our guide.
This was the most profoundly Spirit-led committee work I have ever experienced. God’s unconditional love was tangibly present among us as our witness to an inclusive community gradually crystallized.
Once the committee had drafted an epistle, we began a broader process of discernment. The document was distributed and discussed broadly within the meeting, including in First Day school classrooms. In addition, the committee met with the presiding clerk and the general secretary of our yearly meeting and shared the text with other trusted Friends who have traveled widely in the ministry. Most agreed that the urgency of our leading must be our compass, but several also cautioned that the topic was tender among many Friends and that our message might be a cause for further disturbance and divisiveness.
Again, we prayed and listened for the Spirit to guide us. We did our best to prune the remaining expressions of anger and hurt from the text without losing the clarity of our message. Finally, with conviction, but also with trepidation, we posted the epistle to our website and mailed copies to every monthly meeting in the United States for whom we could find an address, and several meetings abroad.
Over the last nine months we have received a variety of responses. Most meetings voiced support. Others told us that our epistle had stimulated thought and discussion. Some meetings rejected the message.
Sending a letter is merely the first step. Words on paper can be cold and may not convey the richness or nuance felt inside. The warmth and understanding of communication — of communion — come from being together in person, speaking from the heart and listening attentively. Already the epistle has provided opportunity for conversation; we hope to carry such conversation forward.
Many of the queries from the 40 Days of Prayer for the Future of Friends continue to challenge me as I reflect upon Adelphi’s epistle. One to which I keep coming back is, “Am I working for the unity of Friends as part of the body of Christ? Am I doing anything to drive Friends apart?” I hope our epistle has not deepened rifts. If receipt of our letter caused other Friends distress, they have not communicated this to us. Nonetheless, it was a risk we took knowingly, convinced that a message of love is never amiss. I trust Joshua Brown’s commentary accompanying Day 24: “. . . if we are faithful, if we are honest and if we refuse to deny each other, God can lead us together.”
Ultimately, I believe Adelphi proceeded in good gospel order. I know in my soul that the epistle speaks truth. I know that Adelphi’s experience of an inclusive community is a blessing. I know our message came from the Spirit, though we may have expressed it imperfectly. I know we were called to bear witness. And I know that my meeting, straight, lesbian, gay and transgender together, is being faithful to the scripture that commands:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. — Matthew 22:36-37
Adelphi Monthly Meeting’s 2012 Epistle on Inclusion can be found at http://adelphifriends.org/info/epistle-inclusion.htm.
Adelphi’s 1991 Minute on Lesbian and Gay Relationships (including a chronology of the process that led to its approval) can be found at http://adelphifriends.org/info/lesbian-gay.htm.
Adelphi’s epistle committee can be reached at inclusion@adelphi friends.org.