Marion Sullivan, New South Wales Regional Meeting

Marion SullivanIn 1937 a group of some 80 Friends met in England to establish a new body: the Friends World Committee for Consultation. They came, not only from many different countries, but also from different traditions within the Quaker world: programmed and unprogrammed, universalist, evangelical, Conservative.[1] The primary purpose of this body was to begin building bridges between these different strands of Quakerism, divided by conflicts originating in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

I wonder how much of this initiative was generated by the common work undertaken by Friends to feed the starving children of Germany throughout the winter following the Armistice in 1918, literally saving an entire generation which lived to assist Friends in their final achievement before the onset of the Second World War: the “children’s trains” which saved the lives of hundreds of Jewish and other “undesirables” within the Nazi regime.[2] Quakers of all varieties found themselves working together, and found that they could cooperate with each other, despite their inherited differences.

It was a brave initiative to commit to in the face of the gathering storm clouds of the 1930s when the very future of the civilised world seemed to be in doubt. I’m certain that there were many people (not only Friends) who felt that it was a time wasting and futile exercise when there was so much to be done: supporting the League of Nations in conflict resolution, protesting the growing militarism of the emerging totalitarian regimes, protesting the actions of those regimes and of course, addressing the needs of the millions of people reduced to abject poverty by the Great Depression, as well as the causes of that poverty itself.

And yet these terrible times produced the essays of Thomas Kelly and the FWCC. Clearly God’s time differs markedly from our own perception of time and we can only be grateful for those Friends who listened to the Spirit and followed its leadings.I am a Quaker 1

My own experience of FWCC began in the late of 80s. Shortly after being received into membership, I was asked to become correspondent of the Darling Downs Recognised Meeting and in those days, all Meetings routinely received such things as the FWCC newsletter and reports about its Gatherings. At that time, a Triennial held in Kenya caused African Friends to recognise and begin to address their own differences (add historical tribal rivalries into the mix of existing Quaker splits, stir and see what happens!) and another Triennial experimented with holding its Gathering in three different locations world wide in an effort to overcome the tyranny of distance. I was fascinated. Here were all these Quakers who did things differently but still called themselves Quakers. As I began to attend Yearly Meeting on a more regular basis, I made a point of attending the Preparatory sessions on FWCC to learn more. I subscribed to the Newsletter personally, read the reports of other international gatherings and anything else from FWCC I could lay my hands on.

I am a Quaker 2Back then, many Australian Friends disapproved of FWCC. It was seen as elitist, restricted to those who had the financial resources to attend its gatherings, and as irrelevant – what value was there in making an effort to talk to, or worship with, with programmed or evangelical Friends who were often as hostile to us as we to them? Not surprisingly, our preparatory sessions were poorly attended: sometimes the group consisted only of our FWCC Committee members and two or three “ringers” of which I was one.

The first goal was simply that of toleration –being willing to accept the existence and validity of Quakers whose worship was structured, led by a paid pastor, and included a prepared set of hymns, prayers, Bible readings and even a sermon! And the theological differences! Achieving basic toleration took a long time and much effort. When I left Pendle Hill in 2006 I brought back a DVD called “Can We Be Friends?” made up of interviews of Friends from each of the different Quaker traditions in the United States. It makes for some interesting and very thought-provoking viewing.

I also brought back with me a copy of what is known as “The Tree” which shows the various schisms within the US as a tree. The trunk is a time line, with branches leading off at the appropriate positions to indicate the historical split of yet another Yearly Meeting (or group of Yearly Meetings) based on yet another conflict over doctrine or practice. One result was that there were often two or more Yearly Meetings within a number of States. The version of the Tree which I purchased was less than a year old, but it was already out of date. The many years of patient labour spear-headed by FWCC has led to a steadily increasing number of these historically divided Yearly Meetings to slowly and painfully amalgamate. And thus we can see the achievement of the next goal: acceptance of each other’s differences.

For Australian Friends that process really dates from the Auckland Triennial of 2004, when we welcomed a large number of African Friends to ourI am a Quaker 3 Yearly Meeting, on their way to Aotearoa/New Zealand. (Remember David Purnell’s FWCC Quiz?) Much to our surprise, we discovered that despite differences in meeting processes and even theology, these were still Friends! We could worship with them, chat with them, and discover how enjoyable they were. And because the Triennial was so close, lots of us were able to attend the Gathering, where again we discovered, to our delight, that all of these people were Friends and that worshipping and working with them was not only possible, but wonderful and inspiring.[3]

Let me add to that with a personal reflection. One of the many things I came away with from Pendle Hill was a perception that the labels were dissolving. Programmed and unprogrammed, pastoral and non-pastoral, evangelical and universalist were merging into each other. I overheard one pastor say to another, “I can prepare a message, but whether I give it, and if I do, when I give it is up to the Spirit.” A new term being bandied about was “semi-programmed.” Our historical differences seemed to be becoming points on a continuum instead of fixed places, or islands, sharply defined by particular ways of doing, being and believing.

From that seed planted with such temerity in 1937, we now come to the fruit. Let me share two examples. The first is Gretchen Castle’s[4] presentation to us at this year’s Yearly Meeting in Melbourne. It’s theme was simple: she sees her job as celebrating the diversity of Quakerism. The differences generated over time are no longer obstacles to overcome, but gifts to be explored, shared, enjoyed and even learned from. As I told her, after the long years of defending and promoting FWCC, these words were music to my ears.

Finally I come to a much more personal experience. A very dear and long-standing Friend of mine who has not ever been much involved with FWCC “stuff” went to the UK for several months to aid and support a Friend and her family as she died of cancer. On her return, my Friend spoke in Meeting for worship on how she found strength and felt upheld in such a gruelling task by being part of the world family of Friends.

To me this epitomises the work and the achievement of FWCC. The seed has truly produced fruit.

FWCC logo

[1] Only Quakers could produce a group labelled Conservative which is actually the reverse: Conservative Friends trace their heritage from the Hicksite “side” of the Hicksite controversy and many of their practices and beliefs would be considered quite radical by other Quaker traditions, and definitely so by other churches.

[2] Whilst Jews made up the largest group the Nazis believed necessary to exterminate, there were other targets as well: Communists, Socialists, trade unionists and other political and religious dissidents, the disabled, Romany Gypsies and homosexuals.

[3] I shall always treasure one member’s comment at the conclusion of her report on the experience: “Sell your house, sell your children, but GO!”

[4] Gretchen is the General Secretary to the World Office of FWCC, which is based in London. The illustrations in this article are from Gretchen’s PowerPoint presentation “What is a Quaker.”


Share This