”Why Does (or Doesn’t) FWCC Do That?

When asked to explain our faith and practice, we Friends often tell stories—of the steadfastness of those who faced persecution, or the boldness of those who left home to bear witness to others. However, I am also asked lots of short questions that need more factual responses. Here are some typical ones:

What is FWCC?

Friends World Committee for Consultation exists to keep yearly meetings and isolated Quaker groups around the world in touch with each other so they don’t exist as separate "islands." In the ecumenical world, we function as the Christian World Communion for the Religious So-ciety of Friends. CWCs are "International organizations of churches of the same tradition or confession." (World Council of Churches’ description.) CWCs are global and inclusive of the cultural and theological variations that are inevitable in a denomination that spans the world.

FWCC’s structure is decentralized, reflecting Friends’ bias against hierarchy. We have four Sections to which yearly meetings affiliate: Africa, the Americas, Asia West Pacific, and Europe & Middle East. The Sections vary in size and structure, reflecting the culture and needs of their part of the Quaker world. We also have a World Office, which organizes much of our global work.

What does FWCC do?

Our work is to assist and encourage consultation, communication, and interchange among yearly meetings, groups, and organizations of the Religious Society of Friends throughout the world, and to promote fellowship between those who are in sympathy with the ideals and beliefs of Friends. So while most of our focus is on building connections between yearly meetings, we also provide information about Friends to a worldwide audience. Everything we do—from the global to the local—crosses yearly meeting boundaries. We hold world conferences and meetings (formerly called triennials but to be known in the future as plenaries), Section-wide meetings, and regional gatherings. Some Sections have their own programs, such as the Quaker Youth Pilgrimage and the Wider Quaker Fellowship. We arrange and often provide financial support for intervisitation across yearly meeting boundaries. We hold conferences and consultations on a range of concerns to Friends as the need arises. These may be limited to a geographical area, but they have to be on a topic of concern to Friends across the theological range.

What does FWCC hope to accomplish?

My hope for FWCC is that it encourages Friends, as a peace church, to practice peacemaking among ourselves. Friends face challenges of strongly held and sometimes very different beliefs. Some people make authoritative statements, beginning "Friends believe . . ." and then go on to say something that reflects the views of just their own tradition. Some Friends don’t want to associate with Friends who have beliefs different from their own. Some even say that members of some other yearly meetings aren’t real Friends. We believe that there is room at the table for all meetings that call themselves Friends and that are recognized as such by other yearly meetings.

Each Section of FWCC reflects the different histories, languages, and traditions within its boundaries. The Section of the Americas has a policy of being bilingual. We have interpretation for all sessions of our Annual Meeting, and we publish many of our materials in Spanish and English. More recently we adopted the words Connecting Friends; Crossing Cultures; Changing Lives to describe our work. While in the early years of FWCC much of the focus of Friends in our Section was on healing the theological splits in North America, more recently, with the growth of Friends in Latin America and their increased involvement in FWCC, much of our focus involves providing resources and connecting Friends across yearly meeting boundaries throughout the hemisphere. Holding our 2006 Annual Meeting in Guatemala encouraged many North Americans to travel to Central America and worship with Friends there.

Does FWCC have any authority?

Those Friends who set up FWCC were at pains to ensure that they didn’t set up a centralized hierarchy or an international body that had authority over yearly meetings (which are the sovereign bodies of the denomination). That is why the word "consultation" was inserted into the title. FWCC doesn’t have formal power over anyone. However, some would say we have influence among Friends, and influence, exercised sensitively, can carry its own informal authority.

Are all yearly meetings affiliated to FWCC?

The vast majority of yearly meetings worldwide are affiliated. There are just a few, mostly some Evangelical and Holiness yearly meetings, that as a matter of policy only link with those groups that have almost identical theology and beliefs.

How does FWCC address the theological diversity among Friends?

It is who we are. It is the water in which we swim. I think that as a denomination Friends have a broader spread of belief than most other churches. For instance, most denominations contain only Christians of various stripes. But while the vast majority of Friends worldwide are Christians, those who call themselves Friends can range from Evangelical Christians to a whole lot of hyphenated kinds, such as Jewish-Quakers, Buddhist-Quakers, and so on. It is up to a monthly meeting to discern whether or not to admit a newcomer into membership. Our tradition is based on the exchange of epistles between yearly meetings. If a yearly meeting identifies as Quaker, and another yearly meeting recognizes it by accepting its epistles or acknowledges it in some other way, then it is part of the world family of Friends! FWCC does not make that decision.

Our work can create a space for Friends to meet and talk about their faith, and God’s influence on their lives, rather than trying to create uniformity of belief. My experience has been that the more different another’s experience of God has been from my own, the more it challenges me to go deep and reflect on my own faith.

Why aren’t there more Latin American Friends at FWCC Section of the Americas meetings?

My dream would be for all FWCC gatherings to reflect the numbers of Friends within the boundary of the gathering. For instance, if a world conference of 1,000 were held this year, it would include roughly 460 Africans, 260 North Americans, 170 Latin Americans, 70 from Europe and the Middle East, and 40 from the Asia West Pacific area. At present our gatherings are dominated numerically by Friends from the global North who can afford to travel and who do not encounter visa barriers to their free movement to worship with others. But each time we meet, we get a little closer to my dream.

If we followed my dream plan, 200 people gathered for the Annual Meeting of the Section of the Americas would include roughly 79 Friends from the Caribbean and Latin America and 121 from Canada and the U.S. We got fairly close to that when we met in Guatemala last year, because so many Central American Friends were able to travel over land and cross borders freely to attend at little cost to us (we are currently able to fully fund one representative from each yearly meeting in the global South to attend). So we have to hold more of our gatherings in the global South!

Why doesn’t FWCC take a position on political or social issues?

Much of this kind of advocacy involves Friends trying to influence their own governments, and as a global body FWCC has to be careful only to speak on issues on which Friends in different countries are in agreement. Yearly and monthly meetings discern the particular social witness that they are called to carry out. There are also service bodies and advocacy organizations in different countries that are supported by individuals and meetings. Since there is no global unity among yearly meetings on most issues, it would be inappropriate for FWCC to get involved in advocacy.

What makes FWCC different from FGC, FUM, EFI, AFSC, FCNL, and the rest of the "alphabet soup"?

FGC (Friends General Conference), FUM (Friends United Meeting), and EFI (Evangelical Friends International) are organizations with clear boundaries, whereas FWCC potentially includes every yearly meeting in the world. AFSC (American Friends Service Committee) and FCNL (Friends Committee on National Legislation) are U.S.-based service or advocacy bodies. FWCC, by contrast, is a worldwide organization whose mission is to connect meetings, and to create opportunities for good things to grow out of
those connections.

How does FWCC deal with the financial inequalities among Friends worldwide?

I encourage Friends to read what Scripture has to say about economic inequalities. God’s messages are pretty clear. I think Friends should be paying close attention to the care of creation and exploitation of resources worldwide, and to the equitable distribution of resources in the world. Right Sharing of World Resources arose as a concern at the 1967 FWCC World Conference and began as a program of FWCC until it was released as an independent nonprofit organization because of its growth and effectiveness.

There are countries in the world where resources are simply not available to fund travel to, and participation in, international activities. There are communities of Friends who, because of their situation as marginalized (e.g., some indigenous people), fall into that category too. So on a case-by-case basis, there is a way in which FWCC decides which yearly meetings or isolated monthly meetings should have the costs of their representatives paid out of central funds. We collect those funds by writing appeal letters to meetings and Quaker foundations. Friends are very generous and there has been no problem in finding the funds to cover the costs of one or two representatives from each group that qualifies for assistance. Of course, the situation is still unequal. A large yearly meeting that might be entitled to half a dozen representatives to a worldwide meeting can only have a maximum of two funded by FWCC.

What is the relationship of FWCC to the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO)?

The Quaker United Nations Office is a program of FWCC (at the world level) and two different Friends service bodies. FWCC is the "parent" because, as the only truly global organization of Friends that has the potential to embrace every yearly meeting in the world, it was the only Friends body that could be accredited with the United Nations in 1948 to do this work. However, the majority of the funding and hands-on management lies with the service bodies. American Friends Service Committee is our partner for QUNO-New York, and Britain Yearly Meeting is our partner for QUNO- Geneva. The governance committees that set global program priorities for the two offices are made up of equal numbers of nominees from FWCC (worldwide) and the appropriate service body.

Does FWCC have specific projects?

Most Sections have programs. The Section of the Americas and the Europe and Middle East Section share responsibility for the Quaker Youth Pilgrimage, a month-long experiential plunge into Quakerism for high school juniors and seniors. The most visible program of the Section of the Americas is the work carried out under the supervision of the Committee of Latin American Friends (COAL). We also have the Wider Quaker Fellowship and a related scholarship program, the Bogert Fund for Research into Christian Mysticism. The Friends Committee on Scouting is an FWCC program because, rather like QUNO, it was necessary to have a body that could embrace all Friends’ groups to oversee the granting of religious service awards to Young Friends involved in these movements. Other programs or projects arise and are laid down depending on the needs identified by our Annual Meeting session.

If the growth among Friends is in the global South, why is the FWCC World Office still in London and the Section of the Americas office still in Philadelphia?

Good question! Back in 1937, FWCC was dependent on the generosity of the groups of Friends who got it started, and they provided the office spaces. From time to time we consider relocating the World Office, but given the travel schedule of the general secretary and the need to convene meetings of Friends from different parts of the world, London, as a worldwide aviation hub, usually comes out as the most cost-effective solution. Britain Yearly Meeting and its trusts provide almost half of the World Office’s funding, so, for reasons of accountability, it is important to stay close. FWCC as a world body is now registered with the Charity Commission for England and Wales. That was a lengthy and challenging process, so starting that all over again somewhere else would have to be outweighed by some substantial benefits.

There is no fixed location for the Asia West Pacific and Europe and Middle East Sections. The address is usually a spare room in the home of the executive secretary, so it changes every few years. The Africa Section has an office in the Friends Center on Ngong Road in Nairobi, and the vast majority of African Friends live in Kenya despite growth in other parts of that continent. The Section of the Americas is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit religious organization, registered in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. That status, and the need to register in a different state, would not be a major deterrent against moving to a location where there is a greater diversity of Friends. When we last considered a move, though, I was the only staff member able to relocate. The thought of losing our dedicated staff because of their family ties to Philadelphia was a loss that did not seem justified, but we keep the issue under regular review.

Does FWCC do peace work?

We are not a service agency, but I hope that everything we do contributes to developing a culture of peace among Friends so that our witness to the love of God can be more effective. Building peace among Friends and practicing respect for those groups of Friends whose understanding of God, Jesus, the authority of Scripture, and validity of other faiths is different from our own can be a challenge. But if we cannot practice this on a daily basis among ourselves, what hope is there that we can be peacemakers elsewhere?

Margaret Fraser

Margaret Fraser, executive secretary of FWCC Section of the Americas, is a member of Swarthmore (Pa.) Meeting.