Sitting with the Question (1989-2008)
West Hills Friends held its first "public" meeting for worship on March 5, 1989. We were one of five NW Yearly Meeting churches planted at this time. From those earliest days, some who came to visit our church asked whether or not gays and lesbians would be welcome in our fellowship.
Then, as now, prominent Christian leaders loudly proclaimed their condemnation of the "homosexual lifestyle." Many of the people who came to visit West Hills Friends wanted to know if we shared those views. During those first years, people didn't necessarily ask about gays and lesbians because of their own sexual orientation; they asked because they knew that they would never feel truly welcome in a place that didn't welcome everyone.
We soon realized that our yearly meeting's statement on homosexuality (as written in the Faith & Practice) was a barrier to building relationships. As a meeting, we agreed that the statement was poorly worded, but we had no clarity on what we would say instead. For roughly a decade, we agreed that Christ would have us welcome everyone, and took no further action to resolve our different perspectives on same-gender sexuality.
As the years progressed, the framework for this discussion shifted. People who were very dear to us identified themselves as gay. Not only did we love these Friends as members of our spiritual family, we knew them to be deeply Spirit-led people with clear gifts of ministry. This was no longer a front-door question; it was a question that went to the very heart of our community.
Does God prohibit all same-gender sexual relationships? Even when this question landed at the heart of our community, we could not agree on an answer. We delegated the task of discernment to our Elders. We trusted that the Elders would eventually find unity, and that their process would be a model for the rest of us. For over 12 years, the WHF Elders labored to produce a statement about human sexuality, which could be included in our meeting's Advice and Queries. Whenever they realized that they were not making progress, the Elders set the matter aside to work on other things. From time to time, the Elders invited people from the meeting to express their individual leadings and concerns. Since Elders typically serve a three-year term, those who labored in this work changed over time.
A Sense of the Meeting Emerges (2008)
Eventually, the Elders came to realize that they wanted to make two distinct statements. The first was indeed on the topic of "Human Sexuality." In that statement, we express the characteristics of healthy sexual relationships regardless of sexual orientation. In the second statement, on "Authority," we declare: "It is our experience and testimony that God works through people without regard for race, age, gender or sexual orientation." The meeting as a whole approved these two recommendations in 2008.
We consider our discernment process to be a success. During the dozen years of active listening, we were careful to treat every person with love and every concern with respect. Rather than force an outcome, we gave room for the Spirit to work among us. We allowed for long periods of seasoning and discernment. Even so, we acknowledge that the process did not work for everyone. Some people left the meeting because we were not quick enough to embrace gays and lesbians as full participants in the life of the community. We know that one family left because of our final decision. We mourn for those who left, but remain deeply grateful for the palpable sense of God's guidance that we experienced. Without God's help, we could not have done this at all.
Communicating with NWYM (2008-2012)
Superintendent Colin Saxton made the reasonable request that we keep him fully informed during our discernment process. He wanted to make sure he was equipped with the truth, so he could answer any rumors that arose. We were happy to honor this request. When we made the decision to welcome gays and lesbians as full participants in the life of our community, we immediately informed Colin. Colin informed the yearly meeting Elders.
For two years, we waited for the yearly meeting Elders to communicate with us. As we waited, we repeatedly heard, "The yearly meeting is not ready for this conversation." We heard, "WHF is not the only church talking about this." We heard, "There is not unity among the Elders on this matter." After our own 12-year process, we were not disheartened by further waiting. Our experience at WHF has made it clear to us that a healthy process takes time.
We also understood that there was still work to do in our own meeting. There's a big difference between wanting to do something, and knowing how to do it well. We needed training to better extend the welcome that we felt in our hearts. In 2009, we created a committee for this purpose. This committee eventually became known as "Welcoming Ways." It remains a vital part of our community.
We were eager to learn what other welcoming churches had already discovered. To this end, we joined the Community of Welcoming Congregations in 2010. As you can read on their website: "The Community of Welcoming Congregations (CWC) is an Oregon and SW Washington interfaith ministry and advocacy organization working toward full inclusion and equality for transgender, lesbian, bisexual, gay and questioning persons. Our work brings together people of faith who believe in the inherent dignity and worth of every person." We have been very grateful for our connections with CWC, and the guidance they have provided.
In 2011, Welcoming Ways invited Colin Saxton and Becky Ankeny to meet with us. At the time, Becky was clerk of NWYM Elders and nominated to be our next Superintendent. After this gathering, Becky invited Welcoming Ways to meet with yearly meeting Elders during annual sessions. We wanted the Elders to know about the successful process we had enjoyed at WHF, and to offer ourselves as a resource to the Elders as they discerned how to facilitate a conversation at the yearly meeting level. At that gathering, we reiterated our commitment to NW Yearly Meeting. We provided Elders with a handout on the history of our process, and a statement of our core values as embodied in our version of the Benedictine Cross.
Welcoming Ways sent another letter to yearly meeting Elders before their midyear gathering in January, 2012. In our letter, we advocated starting the work of pastoral care for LGBTQ Friends and their families, even before we adopt a policy.
In their reply, the Elders stated, "YM Elders with consultation with the AC have been working on a framing document on the broad and inclusive topic of Human Sexuality. This is in response to West Hills and others in the Yearly Meeting. The purpose of this framing document is to help us (the whole YM) to begin the discussion about Human Sexuality in entirety." Once again, we accepted the wisdom of waiting for the conversation to proceed according at the pace set by Elders.
Crisis and "Broken Covenant" (2012-2013)
In March of 2012, an alumni group called OneGeorgeFox wrote an open letter to school administrators and to NW Yearly Meeting, asking for acceptance of LGBTQ students. Some voices in NW Yearly Meeting spoke against what they perceived as a willful disregard of Biblical teaching. At West Hills Friends, we embraced the work of OneGeorgeFox and the on-campus student organization, Common Ground. We continue to believe that their call for dialogue is healthy and appropriate.
After our support for LGBTQ people became common knowledge, some Friends accused West Hills Friends of "breaking covenant" with the rest of our yearly meeting. This accusation was made online prior to July and again during an official forum at yearly meeting sessions. In response, West Hills Friends wrote our original History of Process. We believe that we have acted in good faith at every step. Throughout the process of becoming a welcoming congregation, we've communicated openly and honestly with Superintendents and Elders.
During yearly meeting sessions in 2012, although we faced some hostility, we also found reasons to be grateful. During annual sessions, the Administrative Council of NW Yearly Meeting organized "worship sharing" groups around the topic of "human sexuality." Often, these gatherings were tender and loving, even when they revealed our different perspectives. We saw God's hand at work in the process. That same week, yearly meeting Elders made an important announcement: They were committed to the basic position of Faith & Practice, but wanted to "season it with grace."
In August of 2012, a pair of yearly meeting Elders began visiting our meetings for worship each month. Tom Stanwyck and Elenita Bales assured us that their involvement was intended to deepen the relationship between West Hills Friends and the Elders of NW Yearly Meeting. We have enjoyed welcoming these dynamic Elders into the life of our community.
In addition to our meetings for worship, Tom and Elenita attended our Bible studies in the fall of 2012. Over the course of six sessions in October and November, we considered the ways in which we use Scripture and looked specifically at those passages most often cited in a conversation about same gender sexual relationships.
On October 18, a delegation from NWYM Elders met with a delegation of leaders from West Hills Friends. As recorded in the minute from that gathering, the yearly meeting Elders expressed their concern about language in the West Hills Friends "Advice & Queries" that is out of compliance with "Faith and Practice." Without identifying anything specific, they asked us to revisit our "language around same-gender sexual relationships." We agreed to honor their request.
The preliminary work of discerning a response to yearly meeting Elders involved the Elders of West Hills Friends, our Welcoming Ways Committee, our presiding clerk and pastor. We also received input from a group of gay and lesbian Friends in our meeting. Finally, the WHF Elders felt clear to recommend a course of action to our business meeting. The business meeting approved this course of action as a minute on March 17, 2013.
As a gathered body, West Hills Friends reaffirmed its commitment to welcoming lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning people and to honoring their relationships. Our support for LGBTQ people is the result of God's activity among us, and we will be faithful to that leading. At the same time, we saw NW Yearly Meeting as our extended spiritual family. In the spirit of peacemaking, we decided to move our statement on Human Sexuality from our Advice and Queries to our historical archives. We considered it significant that NWYM was taking a second look at its own statement on sexuality, with a newfound awareness of how the existing language was a barrier to relationship.
Our statement on Authority was left unchanged.
On July 9, 2013, a delegation of yearly meeting Elders met with a delegation of leaders from West Hills Friends. The visiting Elders asked whether LGBTQ people were welcomed into membership and permitted to teach at WHF. They also asked us to clarify what we meant by "honoring LGBTQ relationships." We explained that we do indeed have LGBTQ people as members, that LGBTQ people are welcome to speak a prepared message, lead singing, coordinate potluck, or provide leadership as the Spirit guides them, and that we honor LGBTQ couples in lifelong committed partnerships, just as we would honor a married straight couple.
The visiting Elders informed us that West Hills Friends was already considered "out of compliance" with Faith & Practice. During annual sessions (July 21-25), the yearly meeting Elders would decide if our failure to comply was "shattering" to the health of NW Yearly Meeting. They asked us to reserve time on Thursday, July 25, so they could inform us of their decision.
"Shattering" & the Formation of a Subcommittee (2013-14)
On July 25, the yearly meeting Elders provided us with letter of noncompliance and a procedural document. Within the framework of the procedural document, West Hills Friends was found to be "noncompliant" and "shattering," but still functioning as a healthy church. Based upon this conclusion, the yearly meeting Elders appointed a Subcommittee to meet with West Hills Friends. The Subcommittee (Lana Thurston, Ken Redford and Lorraine Watson) was given a two-year timeframe to effect reconciliation, or to determine that reconciliation won't be possible.
Also at the July 25th meeting, we learned that Tom Stanwyck had ended his term of service with yearly meeting Elders. Nancy Thomas was appointed to join Elenita Bales for monthly visits to West Hills Friends. Because of other commitments, Nancy and Elenita were unable to visit regularly. The Subcommittee became our primary point of contact with YM Elders.
The first meeting between the yearly meeting Subcommittee and WHF Elders was August 28. All those who gathered expressed their hope in God's ability to bring about change. However, the Subcommittee made it clear that some possible changes were not up for consideration. They considered changing Faith & Practice or seeking to heal the perceived "shattering" without a change in our church's commitment to welcoming LGBTQ people beyond the scope of the purpose of the Subcommittee's meetings with WHF Elders. From the perspective of the Subcommittee, the only possible path to reconciliation involved a change in WHF's sense of leading.
Every 3-6 months, a delegation from WHF met with our appointed Subcommittee. Most of the time, we were joined by Tom Stave (Presiding Clerk of NWYM) and Becky Ankeny (Superintendent of NWYM). These meetings were loving and prayerful, but WHF remained committed to welcoming lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning people and to honoring their relationships.
During annual sessions in 2014, the yearly meeting considered a proposed change to its statement on sexuality in Faith & Practice. It was hoped that the proposed change would restate the status quo with less inflammatory language. Many of those who wanted the yearly meeting to become more inclusive rejected the proposed change as inadequate. Many of those who wanted the yearly meeting to unequivocally condemn homosexual behavior rejected the proposed change as dilution of core beliefs. Because the yearly meeting was unable to agree on change, the statement on sexuality was left unaltered.
Although Faith & Practice was unchanged, an increasing number of Friends churches in NWYM found respectful ways to talk with one another about sexual orientation, same-sex relationships, the teachings of Scripture and the guidance of God's Spirit. Some churches discovered a diversity of beliefs within their congregation.
Same-Sex Marriage Becomes Legal (2014-2015)
Knowing that supporters were planning to put same-sex marriage on the Oregon ballot in November, West Hills Friends started a discernment process around same-sex marriage in November of 2013, guided by the leadership of our Welcoming Ways committee. We created opportunities for Friends to listen to one another and to seek God's guidance as a gathered community. By June of 2014, our meeting wrote a minute in support of same-sex marriage and informed NW Yearly Meeting Elders of this action.
Oregon's ban on same-sex marriage was declared unconstitutional in May of 2014. In July, the Oregon legislature passed a law in support of gender-neutral marriage.
The Elders of WHF met with the Subcommittee on July 19, 2014. The Yearly Meeting Elders asked WHF to refrain from same-sex marriages for a year, informing us that the timeframe of the two-year noncompliance process could be shortened if there was a same-sex wedding at WHF. At the time, WHF had no plan to perform a same-sex wedding. However, the WHF Elders refused to make any commitments and wrote the following statement: "WHF Elders are deeply troubled by the inequality implicit in the request for a moratorium on marriages that would apply only to our gay and lesbian Friends. After honoring the request to prayerfully consider our position, the Elders of this meeting do not recommend reopening our discernment in support of same sex marriages." This statement was presented to the meeting, and to members of the YM subcommittee.
Shortly before annual sessions in 2015, a year after same-sex marriage became legal in Oregon, WHF gathered to celebrate the wedding of a beloved same-sex couple in our community.
Release/Removal and Appeal (2015)
On July 24, 2015, the Elders of NWYM met with a delegation of leaders from WHF. The Elders presented us with a letter, which released/removed our meeting from NW Yearly Meeting. In their letter, the YM Elders said that their decision could be appealed within 30 days.
In the first days and weeks after being released/removed from NWYM, some Friends in our community felt an enormous sense of relief and an eagerness to turn their attention to other matters. Other Friends, equally loved and respected, felt an enormous sense of loss and an eagerness to pursue every possible avenue of reconciliation. We simply couldn't discern God's guidance in the time available to us.
After several weeks of collective listening and conversation, the WHF Elders wrote a minute, approved with slight modification at a called business meeting on August 23. In the minute, we acknowledge that "the 30 day window does not offer adequate time for our community to come to unity in Spirit-led discernment on the question of appeal."
Although WHF needed more time to discern its next step, eight churches in NWYM were able to file an appeal in the allotted time. We were heartened by voices from within NWYM who said that the yearly meeting would be diminished by our absence. While the Administrative Council took up the question of appeal, WHF considered its own sense of leading.