Can We Be Friends

By Ingle, Larry | The Christian Century, April 19, 1995 | Go to article overview

Can We Be Friends


Ingle, Larry, The Christian Century


THE AMERICAN Friends Service Committee, now in its 78th year, is expanding its governing board of directors to include non-Quakers. If that sounds almost as strange as John Paul II's appointing a Lutheran to the Curia, then you haven't grasped the peculiar nature of American Quakerism.

The AFSC Corporation, made up of approximately 150 Friends who name board members, agreed late last year to permit clerks of regional offices to serve as full members of the board even if they are not Quakers. Currently three of nine are not. This much-discussed change may precipitate a new crisis in the AFSC's long-eroding Quaker support. In 1993 the Illinois Yearly Meeting recorded its opposition to the proposed revision, and others now will likely reconsider their relationship with the Committee.

Illinois Yearly Meeting, part of the liberal Hicksite wing of the Quaker movement and once considered firmly allied with the AFSC, will probably be further alienated. If it now moves, as some members are proposing, to cut ties with the AFSC and to establish its own service committee, other yearly meetings may go the same route, particularly others in the Hicksite tradition. These liberal Friends, typically located in the East, have strongly supported the Committee. Meanwhile, evangelical yearly meetings west of the Mississippi like those in Kansas, Oregon and the Southwest have remained aloof from the AFSC.

Criticism of the AFSC goes back almost to its beginnings, when it offered Quaker objectors to World War I an avenue for alternative service. Evangelically oriented Friends, committed to missions and led by pastors, complained that "service" was defined in political and pacifist terms and did not aim to win souls for Christ. Defenders countered that the AFSC's "service in love" theme meant ministering to all sides in domestic and international conflicts.

During the Vietnam War, as the AFSC adopted the AFSC adopted an increasingly professional cast and spoke in what many considered radical terms, Quaker questioning waxed. It surfaced forcefully in 1979 at Earlham College at a gathering of Friends who do not make use of pastors. An ad hoc committee addressed a number of concerns to the national office, including the AFSC's paucity of Quaker staff (at that time about 18 percent; it has since increased to 20 percent); discontinuation of work camps that had invigorated hundreds of Quaker and non-Quaker youth; support of radical and violent liberation movements across the world, especially in the Middle East and southern Africa; and a preponderance of professional staffers, many filling affirmative-action slots. Underlying these concerns was a fear that AFSC was slipping from its Quaker moorings.

The AFSC's drift from Quaker influence has been natural for an organization drawing a large portion of its budget from non-friends. (Annual financial reports do not break down contributions into these categories, so exact proportions remain murky. When the complaint is made that the organization's relation to the Society of Friends is that it seeks its members' contributions, the AFSC gives no satisfactory answer. It merely proclaims, as one corporation document stated, that in its tie to Friends it "seeks to translate their faith into social action." That claim is increasingly doubtful.

Though the recent decision to permit clerks to be full board members is largely a symbolic change, it demonstrates how divisive symbolism can be. The board of directors conducts business based on a "sense of the meeting"; that is, a matter is discussed until unity is reached and all are willing to acquiesce in a proposal or lay it aside. Since the early 1980s, presiding clerks of the nine regional offices have attended meetings of the board, and been an integral part of decisions. Still, they formally remained outsiders, and that status grated, based as it was on an invidious distinction among people who regard themselves as inclusive. …

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