I was a part of a religious body of churches—something like a regional denomination or collaborative partnership—called the Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends (NWYM).
A year ago, that organization determined that my congregation and several others were no longer welcome. It determined certain kinds of people were no longer welcome.
We were purged.
Despite feeling frustrated, bewildered, and disappointed in a number of people in light of this purge, I’m fine. But being “fine” is a luxury, reflecting my privilege. Many others affected by the purge are not fine. They may not be fine for a long time.
I would not say I have suffered. Other than whatever relatively minimal suffering comes from being an empathetic listener. Or from watching people bully others or develop ever-tougher litmus tests of who’s in and who’s out (and who seemingly diagnose their “toughness” as a righteous pursuit or protection of truth). Or from witnessing a train-wreck but being unable to help, either because I lack the power to do so or because I lack the courage.
But I do wish to add my voice to the chorus of lamenters, even though what I see is limited. So take it with a grain of salt.
This purging organism is at once evangelical and Quaker. The NWYM of Friends emphasizes some core evangelical concerns—the authority of the Bible, the centrality of the cross, and the importance of a vibrant personal relationship with Jesus, to name a few. Yet it is (was) also noticeably Quaker (quite often in practice, sometimes only in lip service or aspiration), advocating for peace and nonviolence, incorporating some degree of contemplative silence in gathered worship, and approaching group decision-making as a thoughtful and prayerful discernment process best facilitated by good listening and loads of humility.
I imagine what I say here will be mostly deflected by the purging organism. Which would be good, if my remarks are off-base, but unfortunate if they are on point.
Nevertheless, I write. Partly out of a compulsion to name what I see. To draw what is hidden in the darkness out into the light. To present a counter-narrative to the narrative embraced by many in the NWYM who make sense of their experience as faithfulness to God, who can’t see the dangerous thing their beloved organism has become. And to present a cautionary tale to my peers, lest we, the purged, replicate this purging in the new organisms we create.
My congregation and others like it who are welcoming and affirming of LGBTQ+ individuals were purged. Individually speaking, allies of LGBTQ+ individuals have been purged. Most importantly and tragically, LGBTQ+ individuals themselves have been purged, and have few safe spaces to go to find refuge from a world that, with shining exceptions, actively seeks to purge them.
This fracturing of the NYWM has at times been called a “restructuring” or a “releasing,” which we, those cast out, often reference with smirk-y faces but despondent hearts.
Because, as we—the exiled—know, it was a purge. We were purged for the sake of “purity.” We were a disease. We needed to be cut out.
What is the nature of this disease? There are many ways to name it. The purging organization might call it sin, heresy, apostasy, cultural accommodation, among other things.
I would name it in a couple ways. Theologically and historically speaking, I would call it something like a progressive turn in several churches, involving both retrieval and creation.
What is being retrieved are some of the elements of the Quaker tradition we may have neglected. Its tradition of activists for equality and social justice (people, incidentally, often not appreciated by the Quakers of their time). Its belief in the goodness of all people (rather than the more evangelical tendency to emphasize “badness”) that undergirds its peace testimony and concern to make space for all voices. Its emphasis on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, a Spirit of Love that transcends not simply the Bible but our understandings of the Bible (there’s a difference!).
What is being created mirrors, to a degree, trends in mainline (and some evangelical) churches. A desire to rally more around shared practices than doctrines (e.g., how we imitate the love of Jesus, not just how we make meaning of Jesus’s death). The ambition to confront and eradicate racism, homophobia, and sexism (and welcome the full participation of those who are not white, straight, or male in the life of our congregations and ministries). An ecological concern emphasizing care for the land but also, by extension, the people most harmed by human degradation of the land. An approach to Scripture more conversant with the resources of contemporary textual criticism and contemplative reading methods.
But humanly speaking, this “disease” was people. People who once called the NWYM home, who grew up in this extended family, so to speak. People who have been punished over and over again simply for being. People who were at one point seen as kind, reliable, faithful, and caring and then, upon coming out, were seen as dangers, their character suddenly suspect because of who they love. People who had to sit through countless hours of people debating whether or not their love and self-understanding were “acceptable,” debates that many of them experienced as a message that they were unworthy of God’s love. These people, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and anyone “diseased” by supportive association with them (like myself), were purged.
Being purged was not devastating to me personally. Disappointing, yes. Foolish, even. But not devastating. My emotional attachment to the NWYM was thin, as a relative newcomer. I simply did not have the history to mourn its breakdown. I hurt for the people hurt by it. But I had little drive to fight for the NWYM, though being a good friend and pastor compelled me to support the resistance of others. Many of these people have now let go, choosing to direct their finite energy elsewhere.
There are a lot of “nice” people in the NWYM, many of whom I’m sure would pick up the tab at lunch or volunteer at the local soup kitchen or who are fabulous parents to their children. But I also see a lot that troubles me, among these nice people. At least among the pastors and vocal representatives of these churches, to whom I have more exposure. Why is it that nice enough people, thrust together toward a common end and united by a common fear, so often become a whole different animal as a group—and often a rather frightening one?
Whatever this organism has become, it’s not any kind of “home” for me. I want something different from a community of churches who gather together physically and virtually throughout the year for mutual support in our spiritual journeys.
I want to be a part of a truly Quaker community. One committed to the full integrity of its tradition. If you are not Quaker but a different kind of Christian, maybe you can still relate through your own desire to see your own tradition become more truly what it ought to be—more truly Catholic, Lutheran, Foursquare, more New Testament-y, etc.
I want to be a part of a community that practices a deeply Quaker spirituality more than a community that can rattle off a list of famous Quakers you know or reference Quaker practices like they are trinkets on a shelf rather than transformative paths toward the Holy. Toward Love.
I wish some of the NWYM congregations would drop “Quaker” or “Friends” altogether and be real with themselves about what they are. Then again, I suppose this is what religious traditions do—argue over what beliefs, values, and practices best honor and sustain the tradition. Maybe the purgers and the purged really are both being Quakerly, and I just find some ways of being Quakerly deeply troubling.
I want to be in a community where women are truly included and valued. I received mixed messages on female leadership in my two+ years pastoring in the NWYM. There are some women in leadership, but not many. Actually, many of them—lead or solo female pastors—were among the purged, too.
Some NWYM women identify as co-pastors with their husbands. While I am extremely hesitant to question their self-identification, I do worry that in some cases this is a bit artificial, not reflecting the more subordinate role expected of them in actual practice.
And then some women are told they are pastors even when they don’t want that label. My wife most certainly does not want to be called a pastor, and so cringed and resisted when a well-meaning NWYM individual insistently told her that she was a pastor, thinking it a radical affirmation of equality but failing to see that naming someone in a way they don’t want to be named can actually be more oppressive than radical.
I think women, through no fault of their own, have less power than advertised in this “old boys club” organism. That’s silly. And unhealthy.
I want to be in a community where people love and respect, not abuse, the Bible. Just as we can control people, so we can control the Bible, seeing what we want to see. We can be afraid that if we open the door that says “Genesis not science” or “legitimate Biblical contradictions” or “Jesus was being literal about prioritizing the literally poor” then we’ll discover things from which our faith won’t recover.
I want to be with people who love the Bible but aren’t afraid of a “thick” or deep reading of it. People willing to set aside a shallow understanding of the Bible and see it for the beautiful, messy, life-giving entity that it is. It’s not that I disagree with NWYM folks about what words are in the Bible, but about what they think the Bible is. I believe the Bible is an inspired pathway toward Truth, toward God, but certainly not a bias-reinforcing, status-quo-maintaining weapon.
I want to be in a community that dialogues openly and excludes nobody. In the NWYM, transparency and inclusive process were discarded in favor of backroom meetings and expedient, rash decisions. People were eager to “win” and take down opponents more than listen with respect and grace. Some business meetings had an illusion of openness masking a predetermined course of action. Quaker process, meant to make space for all voices, was controlled in a way that silenced many. You might say, given this exclusion of voices, that it wasn’t really Quaker process at all.
I want to be in a community that affirms LGBTQ+ people. The NWYM could not do this. But they also seemed unable to avoid making this the single biggest “sin” issue—being LGBTQ+ or being an ally of these people—of which Christians ought to be wary. I could be wrong, but when I hear phrases like “succumbed to culture” or “let’s restore healthy relationships” or “God’s angry about sin” spoken by NWYM individuals in various positions of leadership, I can’t help but assume that these are code words. Code words for a trendy “sin” to decry. Code words clarifying which people to push away.
I accept my place among the purged. There are other matters that demand attention. Because while an organization may be dying, so are many of the people whom straight white American Christian males (like myself) feel they must dominate, subjugate, and purge.
Like, literally dying. Dying because society—and the Church—is not making space for them through our votes, in our hearts, or by being willing to relinquish the things to which we feel entitled, whether that be a gun, a fuel source, or a vision of marriage that we are used to, for the greater good.
Some of you reading this may not have much connection to Quakers in the Pacific Northwest. But you may recognize parallels to American Christianity at large or your own religious experience in particular. Something new is certainly emerging, but something that actually feels very old.
And the core message of this new/old something is that people matter. Every one of them. Especially the ones who’ve been treated as though they don’t matter.
But this new thing won’t emerge without pushback, without equal and opposite reactions, as is evidenced by things like the Nashville Statement. I learned this fundamental truth in my high school physics class.
And the reactors and purgers aren’t doing these things because they’re protecting God’s truth, I don’t think. I think they’re doing these things because they are scared. John says the antidote to fear is love (1 Jn 4:18). But love can be a scary thing, often requiring more than we are prepared to do or give or be.
I don’t know how to make sense of this purging other than as, on multiple levels, a tragic failure of love.
Purging can be useful, if it means I eliminate what keeps me from true flourishing. But if I rip out something integral, beautiful, and crucial—out of my personal identity, out of my denomination, out of my country, out of my planet—that’s not really purging at all.
It’s more like self-destruction.
4 thoughts on “Purged”
Thank you Matt. A breathtaking lack of love has characterized this “purging.” Having watched it unfold over nearly ten years I have seen the struggle and the pain of those who have tried to respond in love in order to stay in community. As Quakers we have a fundamental belief in that of God in all creatures. How can anyone then judge another’s leading reached through prayerful discernment? You write with grace, clarity, respect and eloquence. Thank you.
Doesn’t the crux of this matter come down to the question of how, or to what extent should Quakers make room for others’ voices? I understand the complexities behind the decision to affirm or not affirm the LGBTQ voice, but there are many voices. Should Quakers make room for non-monogamists, radical right-wing or radical leftists, Muslims, Buddhists, New Age, Universalists, etc. Obviously this list could go on & on…
Matt, you have explained the situation very well. But there is a deeper conflict at the root of everything, one which you briefly touched upon, but which is hidden and overshadowed by the more public conflict.
The root of NWYM’s purge and split is a conflict over biblical interpretation. There are those who hold that what has been passed over the decades, even centuries, from mouth to ear, from teacher to student as “right” biblical interpretation is now canon. This historical biblical interpretation passed from generation to generation, is the same mechanism that found support for American slavery in scripture. That same mechanism condemned interracial marriage and divorced individuals, barring them from membership or positions of authority in the church.
Today, most of those older interpretations of scripture have been largely discredited, but they still hold sway in some circles. The mechanism survives most strongly and widely, however, in the condemnation and persecution of LGBTQ+ people. None of these ideas have any verifiable roots in the thoughts expressed by Jesus Christ or the authors of the bible. They are constructs erected to protect their own fearful authors.
One might ask from where these fears arise. I believe they arise in the hearts of people who give lip service to their identities as Christians, and who are more interested in the acceptance of other self-styled Christians than they are in God’s acceptance.
A real relationship with God comes at a price. That price is the commitment of one’s life, loves, and goods to following the leadings of the holy spirit. Early Quakers understood that price and willingly accepted the bargain. But for some, the price is too high. Having the holy spirit whispering advice and admonition into one’s ear all day long is inconvenient. It throws a wet blanket on human plans and pleasures. Some want a God that can be stored on the shelf and brought down only when needed to justify some contemplated wrong. Thus they put their faith entirely in a book. The book can be opened when it’s convenient. It can be closed when it’s inconvenient. It can be put on the shelf when we would rather not hear God’s advice or admonition. But most importantly, it can be made to say what we want it to say. And further, we can all agree that it says what we want it to, and pass that along to our children and newcomers. One person, awakening from being submersed in this system, told me that these things that were taught were questioned no more than that the sun rises in the east. And indeed, questioning these teachings is grounds for dismissal from the flock, from the society into which one was born.
In some circles, the bible has been elevated to a position on the holy trinity, and the holy spirit relegated to the role of a parrot repeating only approved and memorized doctrine consistent with the approved historical biblical interpretation. Anything else is “from the devil”.
This has enabled a turning away from early Quaker principles, such as equality of men and women before God, the peace testimony, and silent worship. It has allowed early Quaker values to be discredited as fantasy and personal notions. Ongoing revelation has become a dangerous idea. There are those in NWYM in positions of authority who discredit George Fox as misguided, and who advocate against early Quaker values, justifying themselves as being believers in scripture, rather than mystics. The oppression of women in the church is a fact in NWYM. The disregard of Quaker peace testimony is also a fact. Top down authority is not merely tolerated, it is demanded.
There is a substantial number of people in NWYM who desperately want to be appreciated and accepted by other Evangelical denominations as “real” Christians. Of course this end requires them to purge themselves and their organizations of those who accept non-approved interpretation of scripture. Of course they need to purge themselves of LBGTQ+ people and those sympathetic to their plight. This is the very public, hot button issue upon which our split was based.
But let us not confuse the symptoms with the disease. The skin rash is very visible and painful and causes us to cry out in pain. It is not imaginary. LBGTQ+ people, and those who love and support them have been injured and are in pain and mourning. But the infection causing this rash is deeper and less visible. And until we recognize and treat it we will make slow progress with the more visible issues.
We who are forming a new yearly meeting that is committed to following the leadings of the holy spirit in the tradition of Fox, Fell, Woolman, Fry, and other early Quakers need to be aware of the dangers of falling into the convenience and self-justification promoted by the idea of “God in a book”. God did not stop speaking to human beings 2000 years ago. God speaks to us now, today, continuously. We have only to resolve that we will listen and do our best to follow.
Thank you for this Matt! Your experience brought up a lot of memories for me. My wife and I were purged from a congregation and tradition we’d grown up in. We’re both so much happier and healthier now, but I am often surprised by the way the pain resurfaces.
A therapist helped me process the transition through the metaphor of a tree releasing its seed to the wind–a departure like this can be a new beginning, an opportunity for something beautiful and new, an expression of our truest nature released from the darker shades of the past.
Blessings on your search for a fully-authentic Quaker community! Please let us know if, when, and where you land! 🙂