Quakers, or, as many prefer, members of the Religious Society of Friends, are, by reputation, a peaceable people. But that has not kept Friends from disagreements that have ranged from vigorous to ferocious. Of the issues that have divided Friends in the past two centuries, none has been quite so intractable as same-sex relationships, especially same-sex marriage.
There have probably always been gay and lesbian Friends, but it was not until the middle of the 20th century that even a few Friends began to question openly the traditional belief that any sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage was sinful. By the 1970s, some Friends were openly aligning themselves with the emerging gay liberation movement. In the 1980s, some Quaker congregations (some Friends call their congregations churches, others meetings) determined that it was proper to celebrate same-sex marriages, even while recognizing that they would be of no legal force.
While some Friends saw this as simply carrying on long-standing Quaker concerns for marginalized groups, others were horrified by what they saw as an official embrace of sin. The decentralized Quaker system of governance complicated the issue. Friends have no one central authority, and even though a small group, are extremely diverse. Most Friends in Indiana are part of the largest international Quaker organization, Friends United Meeting, and are divided into the Indiana Yearly Meeting and Western Yearly Meeting of Friends. For Quakers, the yearly meeting is the ultimate authority on earth. (The geographic dividing line between the two yearly meetings runs through Howard County — Sycamore Friends are part of Indiana Yearly Meeting, while others belong to Western.) Moreover, Friends do not make decisions by voting. They instead seek the will of God through finding unity, a kind of spiritual consensus in which the majority does not force its will on the minority.
Both yearly meetings have found themselves torn by this issue. At least four times in the past quarter century, Western Yearly Meeting found itself threatened by divisions when congregations conducted same-sex unions. The result of the controversy was the departure of a number of congregations, dissatisfied either by the yearly meeting’s refusal to embrace gay rights or by what they perceived as temporizing with sin.
Indiana Yearly Meeting, of which I am a member, dealt with the controversy differently. In 1982, it committed itself to the position, refined in 1995, that same-sex relationships were contrary to the will of God. Some members strongly disagreed, and the issue bubbled up from time to time. Often the focus of controversy was Earlham College, which until 2010 was affiliated with the yearly meeting and where most students and faculty openly rejected the yearly meeting’s judgment.
In 2008, West Richmond Meeting, after considerable discussion, adopted what has become known as a “welcoming minute.” It said that it would treat same-sex couples in committed relationships just as it would treat married same-sex couples, and would not automatically bar gays and lesbians from leadership positions. Indiana law being what it was, it would not conduct a same-sex wedding. To many, this was a measured statement. But to many others in Indiana Yearly Meeting, it was an embrace of sin. They insisted that the yearly meeting use its authority to force a retraction or expel West Richmond. Otherwise, they would leave the yearly meeting, lest God hold them accountable for compromising with sin. And some Friends, while they disagreed with the West Richmond position, were willing to “live and let live.”
After wrestling with the issue for three years, in 2011 Indiana Yearly Meeting determined that it was a symptom of broader, more fundamental differences about the authority and interpretation of Scripture and where power should reside. Generally, Friends upholding traditional views wanted a yearly meeting with authority to uphold those views. Other Friends, some sympathetic to the West Richmond position, others not, preferred a more congregational system. So, after considerable debate, and with deep reservations on the part of some Friends, the yearly meeting began a reconfiguration. About 70 percent of the membership have chosen to affirm being part of an Indiana Yearly Meeting committed to the 1982 statement and with power to enforce it. The rest have begun to form a New Association of Friends, committed to historic Quakerism, but leaving decisions on how to affirm that commitment to the individual congregations. So same-sex relationships have shown their power to divide even people devoted to conflict resolution.
Thomas D. Hamm is professor of history and director of special collections at Earlham College in Richmond. He was a member of Indiana Yearly Meeting’s Reconfiguration Task Force. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.