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Quakers, Ecumenism and the WCC

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  • Quakers, Ecumenism and the WCC

    When one attempts to speak about the world communion of Friends, it is virtually impossible to nuance statements in a way that will do justice to all the wide variety of theological bases, worship patterns and world-views. Comments elicited by circulating an earlier draft of this essay to more than a dozen Friends in North America and the UK attest amply to this great variety of views; and I have cited some of these in what follows.(1) It is important also to state that I can speak only as a Friend, not for Friends.

    At the outset a few words about structure are necessary. In the United States approximately 110,000 Friends adhere to four over-arching bodies, sometimes with dual affiliations. Membership in these is usually by Yearly Meetings, which are diocesan-like in geography, but "autocephalous churches" in theological terms. Yearly Meetings, in general, are the only bodies which can issue Statements of Faith. More detail on these "umbrella" groups -- Evangelical Friends International (EFI), Friends United Meeting (FUM), Friends General Conference (FGC) and Conservative Friends (Cons) -- will be added as we go along.

    Mention must also be made of London Yearly Meeting in the UK, where there is no over-arching body. A London Friend said that while in some sense "Christ is still at work" among them, they "rarely see the radiant faith in Christ" that characterized the early twentieth-century renewal brought about by John Wilhelm Rowntree of England and Rufus Jones of the US. A recent survey showed that London could only unite around "the 'that' of God in everyone'".

    One who knows FGC well stated that "there are shadings of belief within FGC all the way from universalist Friends to liberal Christians", with most finding themselves "somewhere in the middle of that spectrum". When some extremists in New York Yearly Meeting (which is affiliated with both FGC and FUM) went "too far", there were several repercussions: (1) A "realignment" along purely Christian lines was proposed, and although it did not materialize fully, it did result in Southwest Yearly Meeting's pulling out of FUM. (2) One person who kept urging disruptively that the General Board move FUM from a Christ-centred position was "eldered" (i.e., ruled out of order); and a standing policy was adopted that the Christ-centredness of FUM is not a matter for debate. (3) A Statement of Purpose was issued stating that "FUM commits itself to energize and equip Friends through the power of the Holy Spirit to gather people into fellowships where Jesus Christ is known, loved and obeyed as Teacher and Lord".

    The other two over-arching US bodies -- Evangelical Friends International and Conservative Friends -- "may be described as strongly Christocentric". And, "in Europe Quaker groups, small in size (a few hundred or less) are fairly homogeneous culturally and theologically. In Latin America, Asia and Africa the Quakers are largely in groups reflecting geographic, ethnic and leadership factors rather than theological variations." In general, they too can be described as "strongly Christocentric". While they reflect the particular agency which missionized them, usually only one variety is found in a particular country. Canadian Yearly Meeting has also had problems with "increasing diversity, loss of faith understanding, and loss of tradition and knowledge of Quaker history".

    Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC), our "Christian World Communion", while unable to speak "officially" for anyone, has nevertheless stated that "learning to transcend our differences is a major task" for it. I would add that reuniting Christian universalism (as it was originally) must have high priority if who we are and how we act are not to be sundered from what we believe. In what follows I will speak from an historically normed Christian perspective.

    The attitudes of these over-arching bodies to ecumenism also vary. It can be described as indifferentism to antagonism among the FUM constituency. The antagonism would seem to be "a fear-driven fundamentalist response to the perception of the WCC as expounded by Reader's Digest; opposition to a world church, to the [alleged] funding of violence, and [alleged] support of communism". EFI Friends primarily join only Evangelical Christian associations. Conservative Friends, long isolationist, are now intensely interested in bringing the varieties of Quakers closer together and also display some local ecumenical interest. FGC, in spite of the "shadings of belief" mentioned earlier, has had the greatest US Quaker involvement in ecumenism. It is a founding member of the WCC, but not a member of the US National Council of Churches.(2)

    Canadian Friends (numbering about 1200) were founding members of both the WCC and the Canadian Council of Churches. They have participated fully in the WCC, and Barbara Bazett, the present Quaker representative on the WCC central committee (in a succession from Jean Zaru, a third-generation Palestinian Friend) is a Canadian. British Friends have never joined the WCC, but they have been very active around the fringes and have contributed several key staff persons. They have been "very active and enthusiastic members of the British Council of Churches, and are active in the new British ecumenical structures".

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