July 20, 2008

North Carolina Yearly Meeting Conservative

It's taken me some time to get back on my feet after nearly three weeks of traveling among fFriends, with a quick visit with my folks' thrown in for good measure.

I've already written about my time at FGC's 2008 Gathering, so now it's time to turn my attention to what I experienced at the 311th annual sessions of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative) [NCYMC].

(Mark has already written about the sessions; I traveled to North Carolina by train with Rebecca and Kody and another Friend, Sadie (Kody and Sadie were headed to the FUM Triennial in High Point, NC). During sessions, I saw Craig once more; and I also met Richard and a handful of other regular readers of The Good Raised Up.)

For the past couple of years, I had been considering traveling to NCYMC, given my growing interest in Conservative Friends and given my experience of Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) [IYMC]. This year, I saw that the location of the FGC Gathering, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was not tooooo far from Guilford College, where NCYMC sessions were to be held, and that sessions were to begin four days after Gathering was to end. (Each year, the site of sessions moves around the state.) I felt there was an opening for me to extend my east-coast travels, and so I took advantage of it.

Ministry & Oversight Committee

The train from Philadelphia arrived about 90 minutes late, and I ended up missing all but the last few minutes of the Committee of Ministry & Oversight--a report I was very eager to hear. For one thing, I always find myself hoping that a report from such a committee would provide a certain perspective of how the Spirit is moving through the yearly meeting as a whole.

Secondly, it seems to be not-too-common a practice in meetings among Liberal Friends for Ministry & Counsel committees to provide similar reports about how the Spirit is leading and calling out gifts among Friends within our meetings. I was curious how this body of Conservative Friends might address that, given my understanding that the ministry and gifts that are called out of us are fruits of the Spirit that belong to the faith community, not to any single individual.

In addition, I have appreciated the statement that this committee had crafted in 2006, about what the threads are that "weave the fabric of Conservative Friends." The statement lifts up perspectives and practices that have Life for me personally, even though my home meeting, as a body, would likely have a hard time uniting with many of these more traditional concepts.

The only part of the committee's report for which I was present, though, was its very last bit: the clerk of the committee asked that, out of worship, those Friends who had come into some ministry, or who had come under the weight of a concern, or who had engaged in some ministry in the past year, would rise and share with the body what they had experienced.

There was no "selection" of who was to share and who wasn't. The floor was completely open to those gathered to speak for themselves about the movement of the Spirit in their own life. Even a visitor or two spoke of their experience.

After it seemed like there was to be no more sharing, the clerk invited a Friend who has affinity for the yearly meeting, and who may be seen as an "infant minister" (see Samuel Bownas, chapter III), to say a few words about his own life in service to the Spirit.

That simple act speaks volumes to me of how we might call out the gifts in one another and how we might nurture the Seed in each other, if we only accept the public invitation by those Friends more seasoned than ourselves to share what it is we carry and have been given.

Out of those few minutes I had witnessed that first evening, I had a felt-sense that this committee and its work was somewhat central in checking the spiritual grounding of the yearly meeting as a body.

Openly Christ-centered

I'll touch on language-related observations in the next section, but I want to state how clearly Christ-centered this yearly meeting is. As a matter of fact, when I called home and spoke with my partner the first or second night, I think I said something like, "These Friends are really eager to talk about Jesus!"

I never felt preached to, and no one ever came close to asking me, "Are you saved?", but if I hadn't already reconciled myself to a certain understanding of Christ, I fear I would have been hard put not to have hid in my room for much of the remainder of sessions.

It was clear to me that Friends and the yearly meeting have a deep, central, and enthusiastic relationship with Christ Jesus. During meals and breaks, many spoke of the presence of Jesus in their life as well as how Christ was moving among them in their meetings.

I remarked to my partner another time on the phone that if I had been exposed to NCYMC before having attended IYMC sessions, I likely would never have given Conservative Friends another look. My experience among Iowa Conservative Friends has been that they are more private, more inward about their faith than many of the NCYMC Friends I met, though the personal stories about their spiritual condition, the warmth, and the fFriendly greetings I've received from both groups have felt very similar and of the same spiritual cloth.

(To those NCYMC Friends who are reading, please know that the words used in no way impacted my ability to receive the greetings, hugs, love, and care I received from so many of you there. Your openness to share authentically your understanding of Christ Jesus gave me freedom to share myself authentically as well.)

As for the place of Scripture during these sessions, Bible study was held at a reasonable hour each morning after breakfast--unlike IYMC, when it's held before an early breakfast, and unlike my own yearly meeting, which in the time I've attended has never had a daily Bible study, from what I can recall.

Over the years, I've begun to poke my head into Bible study when I've been at Quaker gatherings. Raised Jewish, my reform synagogue's version of "studying Scripture" was "reading the Torah," which consisted of little more than memorizing the Hebrew of a certain Torah passage, and reading the English translation of that one short section, in order to be bar- or bat-mitzvahed and welcomed into Judaism as a young adult. There was no "study" involved at all.

I was hopeful that Bible study at NCYMC might help "open the Scriptures" for me, but that wasn't the case. But what I did enjoy was the Bible study that was held one afternoon and convened by one of the monthly meetings. It was peer led and seemed to have a more intimate feel than the morning Bible study (the afternoon session was, after all, a much smaller group).

That particular Bible study was also based on a lectionary, a concept completely new to me. This manner of Bible study appealed to me, in the short time that I observed it, if for no other reason than it seemed to provide equal weight to the Hebrew and Christian texts and there seemed to be a willingness for more of the Friends gathered to engage in the discussion, reflection, and study.

Use of language

At the close of that first evening, and as I was greeted by familiar and unfamiliar Friends, I was struck by the language that was used so readily by the North Carolinian cousins of IYMC.

There was plenty of "thee-ing" going on, including with me by fFriends I've known either through blogging or through various meet-ups. There was also an ease among these Friends to speak of "Fourth Day evening" (Wednesday), or "Seventh Day morning" (Saturday), in addition to the more widely known "First Day" (Sunday).

The "thee-ing" and use of numbers for the days of the week stunned me at first: these practices weren't alive in my experience among Friends until these session. They were part of our past, part of the history of Quakerism.

Or so I had thought.

Instead, here it was, this peculiar use of English. And it wasn't just used for formality, such as in the minutes, and neither was it used by the weightiest of Friends. It floated in the air and off the tongues of many of the Friends gathered there.

At the same time, I felt no pressure to work to change my own speech: No one seemed to expect me to change how I spoke; no one asked me to change; and no one changed her or his own speech, either. Thee-ing and the numbered days of the week simply are a part of the yearly meeting's culture and overall gestalt.

As the days continued, I became aware, too, of the use of the word "corporate" and the phrase "corporate body."

There was, for me, a touch of implicit reverence of sorts when such a reference was made... Nearly a week after having returned from these sessions, I still find myself reflecting on the connection between language and culture, between the Conservative Friends' use of this language and their apparent awareness of themselves as a corporate body and as a part of the body of Christ. It's in such stark contrast to the way Friends in Liberal meetings speak of personal preferences, unknowingly reinforcing the invisible and secular individualism that erodes our religious society.

At another point during some social time over a meal or during a relaxing afternoon, I was part of a conversation about what it means, within NCYMC, to be an "overseer." I have known that not all meetings have laid down this term, or its relative, "oversight" (as in "Ministry & Oversight")--especially among Conservative Friends--and I was curious how Friends here would speak to this term.

Friends spoke about how an overseer within a meeting typically has a natural eye towards Friends who maybe don't yet feel connected to the meeting, or who have been going through a difficult time in their personal life.

The one Friend at the yearly meeting who I knew had been recognized as an overseer would hop up off of her chair whenever she saw someone for whom she had a concern, rushing off to greet them and see how they were doing. I never got the sense from any Friend that this particular woman's actions were unwelcome...

And then the conversation shifted to the use of the word "overseer." (Note: I wasn't the one who raised the issue.) A Friend mentioned that he (or she) had heard that a number of meetings had discontinued use of the word and its relative, "oversight." There were some guesses as to why that change had occurred, and one Friend surmised that "it was probably one Friend who complained and then everybody rushed to change it" (I'm paraphrasing here).

I hadn't intended to say anything, but given my past involvement with Friends General Conference and the early evolution of its Committee for Ministry on Racism, I felt nudged to offer what I knew of the change in usage of "overseer," at least from FGC's vantage point.

I explained that the concern about the word wasn't from just one Friend, and that in fact, as I understood it, a number of allies to Friends of Color were also part of the early conversations among FGC-affiliated meetings and within FGC's initial ad hoc committee on racism.

I went on, adding that as Friends who had ties to FGC labored with one another about the historical use of the term and the possibility of laying it down, more and more Friends--and then meetings--also considered changing the term.

My explanation seemed to be welcome, though nothing more about the matter was said, as far as I can recall.*

Answering the queries

It seemed as though the heart of the business conducted during annual sessions was focused on reading aloud each monthly meeting's answers to the twelve queries that NCYMC includes in its book of discipline.

There are eight monthly meetings in the yearly meeting, so it was reasonable to hear from each of them. That said, it still required three separate sessions of 45-60 minutes each in order to cover four queries at a time.

The responses were read out of worship, and after all the meetings had read their response to a query, we stayed in worship for a minute or two, allowing the body time to reflect more fully on what we had just heard. In many cases, there was additional ministry or insight that was shared by Friends during that brief pause between queries. A similar process was used for reading the states of society that each meeting brought forward.

It occurs to me that some of what happens when such time is taken for these matters is that the group is brought together, hearing the words for the first time and reflecting on them as a community in the face of the session.

I can understand the temptation to "save time" and not read each meeting's response to each query, but Conservative Quakers seem to place greater value on learning about the spiritual health of their meetings through a shared, corporate experience than they do about moving quickly through an agenda.

The unexpected

The most unexpected element of these annual sessions for me was that very few reports that were presented were written. Many were given in a manner that looked like it was off the cuff, where the Friend who was giving the report appeared to speak extemporaneously and in a manner that reminded me of a Liberal yearly meeting's conduct of addressing business.

True, NCYMC is a very small yearly meeting, with about 65-80 Friends attending (not including the 20 or so visitors), and the body seemed disciplined in terms of waiting to hear one another in love and avoiding the pitfalls of personality differences. My sense is that the presiding clerk probably did not have to keep very tight reins on anyone.

But I was surprised, nevertheless. I find I am still puzzled by NCYMC's conduct at Meetings for Worship with attention to Business, which is in not at all like what I have observed at IYMC sessions.

To be clear, it is not that one way is better than another; just that the ways are different. What is similar, though, is the sense of deep love and care for one another, and the sense of striving to listen for God and yearning to be faithful, together.

I was glad to have been at 311th annual session of North Carolina Yearly Meeting Conservative. It was a reality check for me about how sometimes Conservative Friends and Liberal Friends can look and sound like one another, while at other times they look and sound completely different!

Blessings,
Liz

*From what I can tell, while IYMC seems to have laid aside the use of the term "overseer," NCYMC has not: The yearly meeting's website has a link to an essay, in pdf form, entitled "Overseer in the Usage of Friends." The 2006 essay is by Lloyd Lee Wilson, but it only covers historical and biblical references to the use of the word "overseer" and doesn't go into contemporary concerns of FGC's committee, of other monthly and yearly meetings, or of Friends of Color and their allies.

8 comments:

Linda said...

Thanks for this lovely and insightful post. It made me realize that I've overgeneralized my experience of my yearly meeting- how interesting to realize how different they can be.

Mark Wutka said...

Hi Liz!

I have been eagerly awaiting your writeup on NCYM-C! It was great seeing you there and talking to you.

When you talked about the answering of the queries, you said Conservative Quakers seem to place greater value on learning about the spiritual health of their meetings through a shared, corporate experience than they do about moving quickly through an agenda. I think you hit upon one of the key differences between NCYM-C and SAYMA (and perhaps other liberal yearly meetings), which is that seeing to the spiritual health of the monthly meetings is an important function of the yearly meeting. SAYMA has often felt like a big version of a monthly meeting, and I get a different feeling at NCYM-C.

I understand that we come from different viewpoints about Christ-centered language. What I found when I first visited there was a comfort in being able to openly talk about Jesus, without having to self-censor. It was also a relief to talk about Jesus with others who had a similar understanding that was quite different from what is portrayed in the media. I am glad that it wasn't unbearable for you, and that you did feel open to sharing from your own experience.

I was really happy to learn that Rich Square has been doing bible study based on a lectionary. I have often thought it would be a good idea, because so many churches still use a common lectionary. It potentially opens avenues for discussion with those of other denominations and to speak to those same passages from a Quaker perspective. That afternoon bible study seemed to be more like a good Friendly Bible Study, although less formal.

I love the "thee-ing" I hear amongst NCYM-C Friends, although I do chuckle when I hear "thee" used to refer to a group of people, where it becomes a simple substitute for "you" instead of a preservation of the distinction between 2nd person singular and plural pronouns. I can't really use "thee" in the way most Conservative Friends do because I feel I am forcing myself to use bad grammar - both from subject-verb agreement (Friends use the 3rd person form of a verb with thee instead of 2nd person) and for using the wrong case (thee is an objective pronoun but is used as a subject, which would normally be "thou"). I imagine that if I felt called to take up "theeing and thouing" that I would have to use "art" and "hast" as well.

Thank you very much for your insights!

With love,
Mark

Liz Opp said...

Linda -

I hope you'll say more at some point, here or elsewhere, about what you mean by having "overgeneralized" your experience of yearly meeting. But if my words helped clarify something for yourself, I'm glad.

Mark -

I was so glad to know that you, Ceal, and Kristi were going to be at sessions. I think it helped me stave off the panic that comes on the heels of the question "What the heck do I think I'm doing, going to a completely different yearly meeting?!?"

Being at NCYMC sessions also reinforced for me how important intervisitation is: I see more of the whole Religious Society of Friends; I reflect more fully on experiences I've had at my own meeting and elsewhere; and I consider more deeply the treasure that Quakerism has to offer.

Blessings,
Liz

Bill said...

Liz,

I can see a greater comfort level with Jesus and his ministry, hence his role in quakerism over the years within your writing, and am curious as to whether or not you have read N T Wright's "Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense"?

If read this and can place yourself in the era of a second-temple Jew during the time of "Acts", I think you will find it compelling.

regards,

Bill

quakerboy said...

Liz,

I am just getting around to catching up on the blogs. What a treat it was to have thee...er, you :-)...visit our YM.

NCYM(C) is an interesting group. While it is openly Christ-centered, Friends who find Truth in other paths are also welcomed. In our Monthly Meeting, we enjoy the fellowship of Jewish brothers and sisters, those who follow Vedanta, etc.

I suppose that I do support the Christ-centered language in our YM. The main reason is that it gives us a common tongue with which to speak of the Holy. And, too, ya know you're in the South and Southern culture seasons who we are and the way we worship.

One of the more wonderful things about NCYM(C)is the acceptance of gay and lesbian Friends. What a joy it is to be able to worship and develop spiritually without worrying whether or not I am a fully accepted part of the community. The best compliment I can give my YM is that I forget that I am a gay man. I'm not the token "gay guy" in a liberal Meeting. Nor am I the "gay guy" that has to constantly "fight" for his right to even be present in an evangelical Meeting. I am just Craig...Friend Craig...and that radical equality in the Quaker tradition is one of the best gifts that NCYM(C) is able to give.

Again, good to see thee...big hug your way.

Love and peace,
Craig

Anonymous said...

Liz,

I appreciated reading your reflections of your visit with NCYMC. In particular, you have been able to vividly describe some of the details about the experience both in terms of actions and sensibility. Plus, you can directly compare NCYMC with IYMC, another YM that takes the label of Conservative. I am glad you were able to visit (along with me since I am still a "visitor" to this community that is very much a spiritual home for me) and I am thankful that it seems to have been a trip that in some small way has deepened your life.

If you or your readers would like another perspective of NCYMC, the latest issue (Volume 5) of the Journal of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative) has been published in hard copy and is also available on the web at http://www.ncymc.org/journal/ncymcjournal5.pdf -- at the end of the journal is my off-theme article.

With prayers of peace and love,
David P

Liz Opp said...

Bill -

I'm not sure how I missed your comment last month. Sorry about that!

I haven't read "Simply Christian"; thanks of for mentioning it.

Craig -

Thanks for taking the time to catch up with your blog reading and for commenting here. You've consistently affirmed the ease with which you can be out as a gay man within NCYMC, which I think also eased me into my visit among Friends there.

And extra thanks to you and S. for getting that great quilt to me!! Even though I ended up getting a cold anyway, at least I was able to get some SLEEP because I finally was able to get warm enough at night!

David P -

What a surprise to read you here! Thanks for commenting... and especially for sharing the link for the most recent NCYMC Journal! I had forgotten to look for that in the few weeks I've been home, and I look forward to reading it.

Blessings,
Liz

Liz Opp said...

Here's a corrected link and URL for the Journal that David P wanted to make available:

http://www.ncymc.org/journal/ncymcjournal5.pdf

The text of the URL that David included in his comment, above, is correct, but the link itself is not.

Thanks, David, for pointing this out.

Blessings,
Liz