TEN: Gilbert White & AFSC: A Letter to the Editor, Friends Journal, 2006

H. Larry Ingle & Chuck Fager

(Published in the April 2006 issue.)

Dear Editor,

We were very disappointed in Margaret Bacon’s review of the biography of Gilbert White, Living With Nature’s Extremes. The reviewer dismissed with a throwaway comment the deep concerns Gilbert White developed about the direction and governance of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in the late 1960s.

    These issues became so troubling to White that he abruptly resigned as Chair of the AFSC Board in 1969. White did not “go public” with these differences for more than thirty years, until they were spelled out in this book.

    In light of Gilbert White’s distinguished career and service to Friends and as a Friend, we believe that in a Quaker journal, and in the larger Quaker community, these issues deserve to be identified and clearly addressed, not shrugged off as if they were of no consequence.

    As stated in the text, as board Chairman White was firm in “believing that the Society of Friends, through its representation in the [AFSC] Corporation, should lead in establishing [AFSC] priorities and policies.” (P. 109).

    However, during his tenure “Gilbert felt that the agenda of the AFSC was unwisely determined more by staff than by the Board. He also felt that the gradual decline in numbers of American Quakers was in part the consequence of reduced opportunities for voluntary service and career development.” (P. 115) When his repeated protests were ignored, he resigned and cut his ties to the group.

    The book notes that more than thirty years later, “Gilbert’s concerns about the staffing composition of the AFSC and service opportunities for Friends did not abate.” (Ibid.) These were shared again privately with the new Board Chair.

    Moreover, the author quotes the late Stephen Cary, a longtime AFSC insider, acknowledging in a 2001 interview with the biography’s author that “As to whether staff are too central, I think they are. The board hasn’t been willing to exercise due control. And Gilbert in my opinion was correct in his belief that the right balance has not been struck.” (P. 129)

    Over the past thirty-five years numerous other Friends have raised similar concerns about AFSC’s relationship to the Society of Friends, and the character of its governance ― and had them similarly dismissed out of hand by AFSC defenders, as they were in the Friends Journal review, usually without even being named.

    We reject this way of dealing with differences by suppression. These issues were important to Friends in the 1960s, and they remain so today. We wish Gilbert White had spoken openly about them earlier, but are grateful to see them now in print.

    They should stay “on the table” among Friends. We call on AFSC and Friends Journal to step up and support an open, full and searching re-examination of the questions of right governance and authentic connection between the Religious Society of Friends and a service body which claims the name “Friends.”

    Gilbert White raised these questions almost forty years ago based on close, first-hand experience. Dealing with them was timely then. Dealing with them openly now is urgent and long overdue.

    In Friendship,
    Chuck Fager & H. Larry Ingle

Chuck Fager was editor of Quaker Service at the Crossroads, published in 1988. H. Larry Ingle published “The American Friends Service Committee, 1947-49: The Cold War’s Effect,” Peace & Change, [January 1998], both of which dealt with related issues.

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