All humans make mistakes, and that includes Quakers. In the ideal Quaker Meeting, I imagine that a Quaker such as myself could do something wrong and a wise Elder would take me aside and say, “Susanne, I love you dearly. You made a mistake, and you have to stop doing what you’re doing. What can you do to make this right? And how can I help you in that process?”

This fantasy initially crystallized in my mind in 2002, when I first watched the Meeting I then belonged to tiptoe around Friends doing wrong. The facts of the following are all publicly known: Two Friends in leadership positions were having an affair. Most of the other Friends in leadership were aware of the affair and tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the unfaithful Friends to step out of their leadership positions until they had set things right at home. The unfaithful Friends refused, continued in leadership, and continued to try to keep their affair hidden from their Quaker spouses. These unfaithful Friends used their positions to preemptively discredit anyone they thought might expose their secret. Ultimately they were unsuccessful in keeping the secret. You can only imagine the harm that was done to the Quaker family members, especially when they realized that “everyone” in the Meeting knew of the affair. The discrediting campaign did damage in the Meeting as Friends took sides against one another and factions developed. 

My fantasy for dealing with wrongdoing emerged again during my Meeting’s deliberations this spring over a Level 3 sex offender who came to my Meeting, and several Friends’ insistence that he attend without any safeguards.

My Meeting actually did arrive at unity within a few months. From a results perspective, our process was a success. But mistakes were made within the Meeting, not by the sex offender, but by long-term Friends. One couple that was particularly determined that the sex offender be welcomed without conditions, threatened to leave Meeting if we didn’t reach the decision they wanted, used one spouse’s role on the Oversight committee (which was responsible for the process) to promote their position, including sending e-mails to the entire Meeting. As in the situation ten years ago, others in leadership in this Meeting tried to persuade this couple to act differently, but were rebuffed. I shamefacedly confess that I should have been eldered, but no Friend approached me. Thankfully, God convicted me directly in worship one Sunday, by bringing 1 Corinthians 13 to my attention. “If I have faith that can move mountains, but do have not love, I am nothing… Love is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs..” I was pierced by these words, and called everyone in leadership personally, and asked their forgiveness for being critical, instead of loving and supporting them, as I should have.     

At some point, the sex offender learned that we were working on conditions under which he could attend, and he withdrew his request from our Meeting. He now attends a Meeting that has received him without any conditions. My Meeting did reach unity on conditions for any future sex offenders who might wish to attend our Meeting, such as being chaperoned, not having access to directories, and attending only a few designated, publicized Sunday Meetings. As for our spiritual and emotional condition, I think it’s fair to say that almost every Friend felt bruised and battered by this process. Several Friends have officially resigned from the Meeting, and others are not attending much, if at all, while they discern whether to stay or leave in order to be in spiritual community.

Robert Barclay, in his Apology, dismissed the notion of “original sin”, but insisted that we have a “propensity to sin” and therefore that all humans will sin (with the possible exception of those who have been made new in Christ). So, if we accept that all of us will sin, why are our Meetings so ineffectual in dealing with sin in helpful and healing ways? Although I have spent some time above writing about mistakes that individuals made, my purpose is to outline that these mistakes were such obvious violations of Quaker process and values that the Meetings could and should have intervened. My belief is that the real failure was with the Meetings. All humans will make mistakes. It is entirely predictable that Friends will do what the unfaithful Friends in the first situation did, and the friends of the sex offender did in the second. We need to be prepared to lovingly bring each other back to good order.

What did Meeting leadership do in these situations? They observed the mistakes, tried persuasion, but allowed themselves to be rebuffed. In the first Meeting, I remember Friends saying “I’ve tried everything. I’ve talked to them, argued with them, but they won’t listen. There’s nothing more I can do!” In my current Meeting, Friends in leadership lamented lack of established models for handling this kind of situation, although they did have recommendations from several other Meetings with experience. 

In both settings, leadership felt they had taken things are far as they could when they attempted persuasion. When persuasion failed, these leaders believed themselves to be at the end of the road. I disagree, although I am the first to admit that it would not have been easy to go further. We no longer empower our leaders to take action without the wrongdoers’ consent in these kinds of extreme circumstances. I don’t think our leadership felt empowered to say with authority to the unfaithful couple, ” I love you dearly. You made a mistake, and you have to stop doing what you’re doing. What can you do to make this right? And how can I help you in that process?” Our leaders certainly didn’t feel empowered to say “You are on leave of absence from your leadership position until you have made things right with regard to your affair. What can I do to support you in this process, in addition to holding you and your family in the Light?” And we haven’t given our leadership any reason to think that, if eldered, we would gracefully accept the instruction given.

In short, I believe we must revive the practice of empowering our leaders to admonish us lovingly, and to gracefully accept discipline from our leadership.

Query for prayerful consideration:

Does our current liberal culture encourage Friends to accept limits set by Quaker leadership? Do we encourage leaders to set limits? What can we do to encourage a culture of accepting limit-setting?

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