Meeting at the Center

This article is adapted from a plenary speech at the 2011 Friends General Conference Gathering.


want to talk about the fears and divisions within our Religious Society of Friends. I will begin with the differences between Friends General Conference, Friends United Meeting and Evangelical Friends in North America. When I became General Secretary of FGC in 1992, I was not very familiar with either FUM or Evangelical Friends. I knew, or thought I knew, they were really different from us, much more Christ-centered and Bible-based, they had something called the Richmond Declaration of Faith (a creedal statement), and they did not accept lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transexual, or queer (LGBTQ) people. I didn’t think that I needed to know a lot more.

But in my first year as General Secretary, I was invited to lead an interest group at the FUM Triennial Sessions. Then I attended my first annual retreat for superintendents (of FUM and EFI yearly meetings) and general secretaries (of FGC yearly meetings and organizations). And I was carried into a new Quaker world in which Friends regularly read and discussed scripture, offered vocal prayer, and praised the Lord Jesus Christ. We were each assigned to a "prayer partner," and sent off for an hour to pray for each other. When my partner prayed aloud for me, clearly recognizing some important issues in my life, I knew we were in a sacred space. And then it was my turn, and I offered my prayer for him. We became friends, and we continued to support and pray for each other for many years.

Fast-forward to 2007: I attended the Friends World Committee for Consultation Triennial in Dublin, Ireland, where I met Bainito Wamalwa, a 38-year-old Friend from Kenya. We felt much respect for each other, developed a friendship, and in 2008, I arranged for Bainito to attend the FGC Gathering in Johnstown, Pa., where he got to know many FGC Friends. He then asked me and Gretchen Castle to come to Kenya in 2010 for a meeting of the board of something called the Young Quaker Christian Association of Africa, for which Bainito served as clerk. He wanted us to conduct three days of board training with this group of approximately 20 young adult board members.

That was a rich experience. Bainito and the board are part of a new generation of Kenyan Friends. With their cell phones, access to the Internet, and more formal education than many of their elders, they seem more open to new ways. And Gretchen and I delivered. We led a three-day strategic planning exercise, starting with vision and a mission statement, moving on to major goals, and by the end, developing specific objectives and implementation plans. This, of course, was a highly interactive process which the two of us facilitated, with full group brainstorming, intense small group discussions, reports to the large group, refining, honing, and reaching a sense of the meeting—and tons of flip charts. I’m not sure these young Kenyans had ever seen a flip chart before.

By the end, the group was excited and proud of themselves. They had radically re-conceptualized their organization, developed a plan for restructuring, and agreed to move toward becoming an independent body (they have been nominally under the office of the FWCC— Africa Section). In the final evaluation, one young man explained, "We were pleased that two American experts were coming to teach us about being a good board. We brought our notebooks and pencils. We knew you would lecture each day, and we would take notes, and we would learn things. We have never experienced anything like this before in our lives. It is so exciting."

In addition to the YQCA board meeting, I spent several days with the students and faculty of Friends Theological College in Kaimosi, and later traveled with FUM staff Eden Grace, Sylvia Graves, and John Muhanji to Turkhana. Turkhana is in the north of Kenya, bordering the Sudan, and what an experience that was. It’s desert— rock, gravel and heat, with a few scattered trees and very little else. Most of the people live off their goats and, occasionally, camels. Friends started missionary work there in the 1950s, and now it’s all done by Friends from other parts of Kenya. With Eden, Sylvia and John, we visited many small Quaker groups. Piled into a beat-up van, we followed rocky tracks, then veered off into the desert, searching for particular groups of Friends.

Some of these groups had very simple churches—a roof and brush walls, in one case. And some had no building at all. In those cases, we found 50 or so people—mostly women and children— waiting under large trees which provided shelter from the very hot sun. They sang, and often danced, for us, and we brought our messages. Most lived in tiny thatched huts, and in some places, women and children had to walk several miles each day to get water, then return to their village carrying forty pounds or more of water in large jugs on their heads. For many, the simple contributions provided by FUM are extremely important—a well here, sand-water filters there, a simple school where almost all the students board because their homes are one or several days walk away.

Through these experiences, and through many rich conversations with FUM staff and pastors, I gained a whole new picture of Friends United Meeting. I know there are problems, conflicts, and administrative problems within the Kenyan yearly meetings. And I know that few Kenyan Friends are open to lesbian, gay and bisexual people. But I also understand that, through these ministries, FUM is engaged with people and communities that are, by our standards, desperately poor. I saw that many were sustained by a deep faith, and out of this faith they served others. I felt that these are my sisters and brothers. And I found myself wishing that, somehow, FGC Friends and meetings could find more ways to build loving relationships with people and communities from much more diverse backgrounds. I came to see this as a real strength of FUM. I believe this is the kind of love and service to which we are called.

The Path of Forgiveness

Now I’m ready to tell another story—this time about the event that led to my being asked to speak on the topic of reconciliation. Last year, the Superintendents and Secretaries Retreat with the heads of FGC, FUM and Evangelical Friends organizations was held up the road from here, in Eldora, Iowa. Arthur Larrabee and I had agreed to plan and facilitate it. Months in advance, we were contacted by Lon Fendall and Jan Wood, Evangelical Friends from Good News Associates in Oregon. Several years ago they initiated something called the "Quaker Reconciliation Project." They describe their work as "Putting an end to our own Quaker splits…to find how God is working among us now." They asked to be included in our retreat in order to lead an exploration of reconciliation among these three branches of Friends. So they joined us at Camp Quaker Lake.

After a couple hours of talk, Jan— the Evangelical Quaker facilitator—got up from her seat, walked across the room, and got down on her knees before Sylvia Graves, General Secretary of Friends United Meeting. Realizing that something important was about to happen, we all gathered round the two of them, holding them in prayer. Then Jan, speaking on behalf of Northwest Yearly Meeting, asked for Sylvia’s forgiveness, because Northwest had been the first yearly meeting to break with FUM (in 1926), and thus precipitated a series of defections from FUM that led to the formation of Evangelical Friends Church International. Jan remained on her knees, with Lon Fendall and Colin Saxton, for 10 minutes, and we all felt the love they were conveying.

When Jan returned to her seat, a discussion began about the splits and hard feelings between Evangelical Friends and FUM. This was an important exchange. But slowly, a concern grew within me: What is FGC’s part in all of this? No one was talking about the tensions between FGC Friends and FUM. Of course, I am particularly aware of our serious differences regarding our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. But following the model Jan had set, I sought to open myself to understanding what responsibility I might have for exacerbating the divisions.

I began to reflect on the kind of attitude I have held about very Christcentered Friends. I respect them and their faith. But I have also felt a kind of superiority, something like "It’s nice that you believe all that, even though it’s not true." I knew this was not consistent with the way of love.

Finally, I pulled myself to my feet and approached the nearest FUM Friend. I stood in front of her, took her hand, and said, "I want to ask your forgiveness for an attitude that I have often held about you FUM Friends. Although I learned long ago to appreciate the deep faith you have expressed, I know that I have felt, deep inside, that I have "grown beyond" that kind of faith. This has involved a kind of intellectual elitism, and I believe that many FGC Friends may have similar attitudes. I suspect it must feel arrogant, or patronizing, and I am deeply sorry for this. I have learned a great deal about faith and God’s work in our lives from my visits with Christ-centered Friends, and I deeply respect your faith."

I proceeded around the room and apologized, in similar terms, to each of the FUM and Evangelical Friends. This was a very tender time. We ended the session soon after I returned to my seat. Several Friends spoke to me, expressing appreciation for what I had done. But it was only a month later that I really appreciated the impact my apology had had. An FGC Friend forwarded to me a message that one of the FUM Superintendents had sent to members of his yearly meeting. This is what he wrote:

Dear Friends,

Do you find it ironic that the Society of Friends, an historic peace church, has so much conflict in its history? Our heritage that boasts many positive chapters also includes painful divisions that have resulted in the need for us to align under banners such as FUM, FGC, and EFCI. We’ve nearly exhausted the alphabet in our quest to differentiate ourselves from "other" Friends, and many are likewise exhausted by the continuing tension between folks with differing understandings of what it means to be Quaker. . . .

Some differences are reflective of differing cultures, styles and preferences…. Other differences, however, are deeper, reflecting core beliefs and values that may be mutually exclusive. What should be our response be to these differences?

Last week I was with leaders from each of the major branches of Friends in North America. As we discussed "reconciliation," a leader from Friends General Conference (FGC) movingly addressed the superintendents present from EFCI and FUM, seeking forgiveness for attitudes in his circle of Friends that were unholy.

I don’t think it’s even remotely likely (or wise) for EFCI and FGC to merge as a result, but all of us assembled together sensed that something powerfully healing was happening right in front of our eyes.

I’m beginning to understand reconciliation in a new way. It doesn’t have much to do with changing my mind (compromising). It has plenty to do with changing our attitude (seeking and extending forgiveness). What would reconciliation look like in Indiana Yearly Meeting?

I will admit that I had to read that sentence about seeking forgiveness for attitudes in his circle of Friends that were unholy a couple times. That isn’t language that I am accustomed to—but once I listened to it, I understood it. The attitudes that I had apologized for are "unholy" because they are not consistent with divine love. They undermine the creation of the blessed community.

I have given much thought to the larger picture. I believe that FUM’s discrimination against LGBTQ people is wrong, sinful. Many years ago at another Superintendents and Secretaries retreat, I shared the story of my brother’s coming out as a gay man. My story was received with respect, though certainly not with agreement. But this was not the time to tell that story again. When we apologize to someone we have wronged, it does not work to add conditions. In the long run, I believe that the relationships of love and caring that we build with one another make possible the sharing of our own understandings in ways that can move us all forward in the Light.

Before moving on to the final part of my talk, I want to read excerpts from the letter I received last October from a member of the Gathering planning committee, asking me if I would consider speaking on this topic. She wrote:

I have a sense that you have been transformed by your moving experiences among Quakers in Kenya—Quakers whose spirituality manifests itself so differently from that among liberal Friends….[And] your experience at the Superintendents and Secretaries meeting, where you were led to apologize to more orthodox Quakers for your liberal arrogance, again spoke of a great change from the plainte often implied by many liberals that "they" are so rigid in their theology; if only they would "evolve" to our Universalism….

[I suggest that] you share your recent experiences of "meeting at the center"…. We meet at our spiritual centers. This is not about compromise of our respective dogmas, or even about coming to unity concerning the actions that are now threatening to make deeper schism between liberal and orthodox Friends. We meet in that which is holy; we find action from that place, which is divine…. Can we (and they) forgive? And forgive again? Without losing our center?

So I want to state clearly: I do not believe that we should pull farther away from FUM and Evangelical Friends. We are all part of the same Quaker family. We are called to love one another, and to be reconciled to one another. I also believe that many FUM Friends do not support the FUM personnel policy. And of course, there are plenty of LGBTQ Friends in those yearly meetings. We should not break our relationships with FUM. Among other things, deepening the splits within our North American Friends community would undermine the opportunities we may have to offer a clear but caring witness about this very important matter. We would not be living love.

Bruce Birchard

Bruce Birchard is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting. He recently retired after 19 years of service as General Secretary of Friends General Conference. He has been encouraged to develop the entirety of "Meeting at the Center" into a Pendle Hill pamphlet. This is an excerpt from "Meeting at the Center: Living Love and Reconciling One to Another," Bruce Birchard's plenary address at the 2011 Friends General Conference Gathering of Friends held in Iowa.