Sally Kingsland, Formerly Canberra Regional Meeting, Australia Yearly Meeting, now Strawberry Creek Monthly Meeting, Pacific Yearly Meeting (USA)
In October 2015 I attended the Friends General Conference (FGC) Central Committee meeting in Maryland. I was invited as an observer representing Australia Yearly Meeting and it was a wonderful opportunity to witness faithful Quaker process and meet a group of dedicated Friends from all over North America.
Friends General Conference (FGC) is a collaborative initiative of a number of Yearly Meetings in the USA and Canada Yearly Meeting. It was formed 1900 in response to the wide and enthusiastic support of a biennial gathering of North American Friends. FGC grew out of the gathering and continues to host, what is now, an annual gathering that typically attracts more than one thousand Friends from across the globe. Various Australian Friends have attended FGC Gathering through the years, including my family in 2014. The Gathering aims to nurture spiritual growth and fellowship and provides opportunities for worship, workshops, plenary addresses, concerts and dances, special interest groups and affiliations, child and youth programs, exploration of the local area (the Gathering is held in different locations each year) and much more. Many plenary and Bible study sessions from previous gatherings are available on the FGC website.
With a staff of just under 20 people, FGC also undertakes a range of work in areas that many Yearly Meetings would struggle to address on their own. I have seen Australian Friends benefit from FGC’s current, or former, programs including Couple Enrichment program, Travelling Ministries, children’s religious education resources, the QuakerBooks bookstore and more. FGC also offers the Quaker Cloud service to host Meeting websites, a Meeting House Fund that allows Meetings to borrow funds for Meeting House purchase or renovation, and Stewardship Services that provides advice around estate planning.
The Christian and Interfaith Relations subcommittee of FGC is responsible for representing FGC Friends at the World Council of Churches and interfaith dialogues. In this way, and others, I have come to realise that FGC is an umbrella body for “unprogrammed, liberal” Yearly Meetings in North America, though it is very inclusive. FGC has a great working relationship with other branches of the Quaker family. The FGC website is wonderful place for new seekers to learn about the tradition that we, in Australia, are closely related to.
Central Committee is the FGC governing body and is made up of representatives of the member Yearly Meetings, and a small number of Monthly Meetings (equivalent to our Local Meetings), who have affiliated with FGC. Observers from other Yearly Meetings are also often invited, and Friends who have been co-opted to Central Committee committees also attend. Central Committee meets every year in October over four days and the event typically involves around 130-140 people including FGC staff.
I was mightily impressed with the way that Spiritual opening and deepening was supported during, what was essentially, a long business meeting. Participants could choose from worship groups, open worship or singing in the mornings before breakfast and the event finished with an hour-long Meeting for Worship.
This year Central Committee had some difficult business to address around reducing the FGC budget. In order to reduce the budget, programs had to be laid down and staff let go. It was made more difficult because the impetus for change had come only two months before Central Committee was to meet. Despite the significant changes to be considered, and short time frame, the reports for the meeting were provided in good time for reading and committee members were able to join conference calls prior to the meeting to ask questions and raise concerns. Listening sessions continued to be held during Central Committee.
Thanks to an enormous amount of work from executive members, subcommittee members and staff, Central Committee was able to consider and approve significant reductions in the budget in a timely and considered manner. This was not easy, or without challenges, and grieving and celebrating during the process was necessary. The work was upheld by nearly ten prayerful presences (Elders) and a number of people were available as compassionate listeners throughout the four days. The FGC report from Central Committee is available here.
In finishing this report I would particularly like to highlight some services that I think Australian Friends may benefit from – there are many resources available for free, or at low cost, from FGC. These include material on children’s religious education, addressing racism, spiritual deepening for Meetings, how to better welcome newcomers to our Meetings and starting new Meetings. The Quaker Cloud service for hosting Meeting websites is unique and really worth investigating. Not only does it allow Meetings to have an attractive, easy-to-manage website at a highly competitive cost, it has features specifically useful to Quakers such as the Minute record keeping. This saves Minutes getting lost on people’s individual computers which is a serious concern these days. We are in danger as a faith tradition of losing our impeccable historical record of keeping unbroken minutes that have, at times in the past, been sufficiently reliable to be used as court evidence. Another benefit of the Quaker Cloud is that as a community, all the Meetings who use the service contribute to, and benefit from, building resources for new seekers and existing members.
Since moving to the USA (in December 2013) it has occurred to me what a challenge we have in Australia of being a relatively small Yearly Meeting and also undertaking a lot of the functions that FGC plays for unprogrammed liberal Friends here in North America. I wonder about, and will continue to explore, ways that we can collaborate to strengthen the spiritual vitality of Friends everywhere. I hope we might see a few Australian Friends at the FGC Gathering in July 2016! It will be held in Minnesota with the theme “be humble, Be Brave, BE BOLD!”
The FGC website is: http://www.fgcquaker.org/