Quaker Theology #32 - Spring 2018
SEVEN: A Flicker of Hope:
A Friendly Letter –Written & published by Chuck Fager
Issue Number Seven
Tenth Month 1981
30th of Ninth Month , near the Oregon coast, a meeting took place
which could be very important for the future of American Quakerism.The
two top executives of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC),
Board Chairman Stephen Cary and Executive Secretary Asia Bennett met
behind closed doors with Yearly Meeting and Association executives from
all over the country and all the largest branches of Friends.
meeting was part of the annual Superintendents and Secretaries Meeting,
an informal conference which has for over twenty years brought together
the key cadre of our constituent organizations for off-the-record
fellowship and ecumenical sharing. [The conferences were later
abandoned when the evangelicals refused to attend.]
meeting invited Asia Bennett and Stephen Cary to visit after last
year's session, in hopes of developing a better mutual understanding of
the range of deep concerns about AFSC policies, procedures and programs
that have become so widespread among Friends of widely varying
perspectives and backgrounds, including many longtime AFSC supporters.
several Yearly Meeting executives, especially those of Evangelical
groups, this was the first time they had ever sat down and talked,
face-to-face with any Service Committee representatives.
Suspicion of the AFSC among Evangelical Friends goes back almost to its
beginnings, and some of their Yearly Meetings have long since disowned
Unsurprisingly, then, the meeting was an intense one. Although
scheduled to last only two hours, it went on for almost four; sources
insist, however, that the spirit was Friendly throughout. In my view if
this encounter were to become the opening round in an ongoing series of
discussions between the AFSC and those Quakers who have become
estranged from it, the gathering could be a turning point for us all. I
whole-heartedly commend the Superintendents and Secretaries for
extending the invitation, as well as Stephen Cary and Asia Bennett for
long felt that the problems of the AFSC are intimately connected with
the problems of American Quakerdom at large; and while considerable
change within AFSC is necessary, it is not sufficient; longterm
resolution of its difficulties will require mutual efforts, of which
the Oregon meeting could and should become a shining example.
This is not to suggest that anything was resolved in this session;clearly it was not.
It is hard in my judgment
to overstate just how much work lies ahead if constructive
relationships between the AFSC and its Quaker critics are to be
reconstructed.This is true now for many more than Evangelicals; as the
article in this issue tries to show.
THE AFSC AND ITS FRIENDLY CRITICS
Evangelical complaints about the AFSC from 1920 bear a striking
resemblance to their complaints in 1981: both center around the AFSC’s
lack of an explicit Christian identification, and the perception that
the organization has been unresponsive to their concerns. Today,
however, these perennial critics have been joined by a growing number
of Liberal Friends and Meetings, which have voiced somewhat similar
criticisms. They are similar or at least parallel even though based in
the Liberal view of Quaker identity.
Unfortunately, they are also parallel in that since
these Liberal Friends’ concerns surfaced, at Friends General Conference
in 1979, there is little evidence that, beyond evoking considerable
discussion, they have been heeded much more than the Evangelicals’
concerns. If anything, the relationships involved seem to be continuing
these concerns now run can be gauged from the fact that two Eastern
Meetings, which have supported the AFSC for many decades, recently
retargeted their annual contributions away from Philadelphia in protest
against certain issues which they feel remain unaddressed.
Other Meetings have considered similar action
The Key Issues: Identity and Governance
first point in the current critique involves Quaker identity: Friends
have wanted the Service Committee to be an interfaith, multicultural
body; but now more and more Friends are doubtful that Friends are any
longer adequately represented on the AFSC staff. Here the numbers and
trends are not encouraging: According to its own data, barely 20% of
the AFSC staff are now Friends; by contrast, it was close to 55% in
1962. In addition, the Board was told last year that only 10% of the
year's new staff appointments were Friends.
national administrative staff, 36% are Quakers, compared with 56% in
1962. Perhaps more significant, in that year 27 of 28 top
administrators in Philadelphia were Friends; today, all three major
program divisions are headed by non-Friends.
numbers for overseas staff follow the same pattern: in 1962, 54% were
Friends; yet as of last Spring, there were no Friends at a among the
AFSC's program staff in Latin America, the Middle East, or Africa.
second key issue in the Liberals’ critique flows from the first, and
has to do with governance. In sum, the critics believe that staff,
especially in Philadelphia, have joined with a small coterie of
like-minded Board members to take effective control of the organization.
transfer has meant the exclusion of an increasingly large proportion of
the AFSC’s traditional Quaker supporters from any meaningful role in
its affairs–particularly those who have voiced their concerns.
numbers are less useful here, the evidence for this shift is still not
hard to find: For instance, staff now routinely serve on program
committees, and thereby maintain an effective veto over recommendations
to the Board regarding program, as well as nominations for their own
of three staff-initiated, in-house special interest groups, The Third
World Coalition, the Affirmative Action Program and the Nationwide
Women’s Program, serves to reinforce this staff influence. This amounts
to a built-in conflict of interest; but in addition, blatant individual
conflicts of interest involving Board members and staff have been
tolerated and continued, even after protests from other Board members.
The Board and Corporation: Turning Into Figureheads?
Board itself, under the By-Laws, is drawn from the Corporation, to
which Yearly Meetings send delegates, and which is the AFSC’s legal
the Corporation, which meets once a year for a few heavily-prograrrnned
(mostly by staff) hours, to which the bulk of Friends’ complaints are
referred, as the “official link” between AFSC and the larger body of
many Friends realize that the Yearly Meetings' delegates are
outnumbered almost three to one by “At Large” Corporation members
selected by the Philadelphia-based Nominating Corrnnittee. Moreover,
the same Nominating Committee selects the Board, and currently only
three Board members out of forty are Yearly Meeting delegates–and this
is an unusually high number; all the rest are from the “At Large”
ranks. Does this help explain why the Board and Corporation have so
often shrugged aside outside criticism and gone along with staff
recommendations in recent years?
The critics think so.
case, Board minutes, and reports from members, make it clear not only
that staff typically outnumber Board members at Board meetings, but
that they also take an active, even assertive role in the deliberations.
informal “power structure,” argue the critics, is unrepresentative of
and unresponsive to the larger body of Friends, and hence in pursuing
its interests it has moved the Service Committee far away from its
traditional Quaker constituency, even among Liberals. As evidence, they
point to a series of policy and program decisions which have, they
believe, lacked full fidelity to such Quaker testimonies as
nonviolence, respect for all sides in conflict situations, good order,
and even veracity.
last may be the gravest criticism of all. As expressed in a lengthy
statement of concerns by Southern Appalachia Yearly Meeting earlier
this year, it “is perhaps the most serious claim that one could make
against a Quaker organization. Truth telling is, or should be, the
central Quaker testimony.”
Veracity, Expert Critiques, and Controversy
some of AFSC’s recent program decisions and publications lacked
veracity? Several have been subjected to intense, informed criticism by
Friends of considerable weight and expertise in the relevant fields,
many of whom have also been AFSC supporters. Examples include critiques
of AFSC literature on nuclear power by Victor Vaughen, Clerk of
Knoxville, Tennessee Meeting and a nuclear scientist; a dissection of
AFSC advocacy of a “New International Economic Order” by John Powelson
of Boulder, Colorado Meeting, an international economist; a critique of
AFSC’s Southern Africa program by Hendrik van der Merve, Clerk of South
Africa General Meeting. And there are others.
unable to judge the technical aspects of these critiques, but having
examined them I do believe they have at least shown that many of AFSC’s
recent positions and publications, even if they were technically
accurate, have too often been tendentious, poorly documented and
blatantly partisan. Moreover, it seems undeniable that in these cases
and others, both the AFSC position and the manner in which it has been
advanced have been sources of growing unease and controversy among
Friends, including longtime AFSC supporters.
far, the Board’s main response to these growing concerns has been to
issue a long, rather bland statement, dated 6/27/1980, which
essentially turned aside the concerns that had been raised. Thus it is
not surprising that the unease has continued to spread.
Board statements have been issued before; but they have not done much
to halt the continued erosion of the Service Committee’s base in the
larger body of American Friends.
Modest Suggestions for Sweeping Change
judgement, the situation has gone so far that suggestions for concrete
remedial efforts are of necessity rather sweeping in character. Here
are several, culled from the statements of recent critics and my own
crash Affirmative Action Program for Quakers ought to be undertaken at
once. Nothing else is solvable unless the AFSC once again becomes a
predominantly Quaker body, and not only one of Quaker origins.
lay control ought to be firmly re-established. This would entail
several changes: eliminating the staff veto over policy, program and
personnel decisions; strictly prohibiting conflicts of interest on the
part of Board and staff; and substantially increasing the numbers of
Board members from Yearly Meeting Corporation delegates.
Third, thoroughly review programs and publications that have
caused controversy among Friends, revising them as necessary to meet
the hightest Quaker standards of research, fairness and veracity. This
would of necessity involve consultations with many expert Friends whose
views have not previously been taken into account.
Last month's Oregon meeting ought to become the beginning of a
sustained effort to rebuild friendly contacts with Evangelical Quakers,
from whom we all have much to learn.
a tall order, of course. A skeptic might ask whether it is practical?
To me, the more important question is: How much longer can the AFSC
expect to operate with a continually shrinking base of support among
American Friends? I am reminded that Rufus Jones conceived of the
Service Committee's role as including bringing the various groups of
Friends closer together. Today, regrettably, it can be said without
much exaggeration that the AFSC has become probably the most divisive
internal force in American Quakerism. Can this situation be redressed?
I pray it can; but often it is difficult to hope.