Friends General Conference and the World Council of Churches

On June 15-18, 2022, the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches met in Geneva, Switzerland, and FGC participated. Ann Riggs of Baltimore Yearly Meeting has the story.

In the latter years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century, innovations in communications and travel led to innovations in continental, even global, connectivity and relationships. Friends General Conference is itself a product of these impulses. Before there was FGC, unprogrammed yearly meetings across North America were sending representatives to meet together and consider religious education, worker justice, and relating with other religious bodies, what John Woolman more than a century earlier had called “other societies.” 

A seminal example of these movements was the Parliament of the World’s Religions, held in Chicago in 1893. Desire to participate put some organizational pressures on Friends. The Parliament was not able to accommodate a delegation from New York Yearly Meeting (Hicksite) and another from Illinois. Friends had to work together to participate in the Parliament. 

As the decades went by, such movements produced institutions with ongoing programs, publications, and common action, in addition to hosting large stimulating and enriching events. One result of this period was the World Council of Churches, in formation from the late 1930s and finally formalized at an Assembly in Amsterdam in 1948. FGC was a founding member. Singularly, there was little that could be done to support the nonviolent resistance to Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Through combined efforts in the WCC-in-formation in Geneva, Friends ran secret messages into and out of Amsterdam.

Decades later a delegation of FGC Friends attended a World Council of Churches event in Atlanta. In the original Ebenezer Baptist Church, at the pulpit used by Reverends Martin Luther King Senior and Junior, Bishop Desmond Tutu began his talk by asking us to give ourselves applause. Together, member churches of WCC gave the churches of South Africa the support they needed for their task of ending apartheid.  

A WCC Programme to Combat Racism fund provided modest grants to liberation movements across Southern Africa. For the longer term, the WCC’s challenging of institutional racism manifested in economic and political power structures was more influential. It moved focus away from personal attitudes and private actions, toward large scale divestment from businesses entangled in apartheid and symbolic global action in support of oppressed majorities on the basis of shared beliefs in human values and a more just social order. Together, these efforts gave churches in South Africa support they needed for the task of ending apartheid in South Africa.

Through the early years of the twenty-first century, Friends provided important leadership to the WCC’s Decade to Overcome Violence: Churches Seeking Reconciliation and Peace. Tom Paxson was co-chair for a decade of North American collaboration among WCC member churches in peacebuilding and local violence reduction. FGC authors are included in WCC publications still being sold and read around the globe. 

June 15-18, 2022, the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches met in Geneva, Switzerland. They issued an urgent call for people of faith to focus on the climate emergency of our time and to be especially attentive to ways racism shapes disproportionate impacts of human-caused climate change on Indigenous peoples and other marginalized communities.  Four Friends were present in Geneva for the meeting. Kenyan Friend Anjeline Okolo Charles, on the WCC staff; British Friend Janet Scott, a formal observer from Friends World Committee for Consultation; Jeffrey Dudiak, Canadian Yearly Meeting, representing the WCC member churches headquartered in Canada; and Ann Riggs, Baltimore Yearly Meeting, for FGC. 

As the Central Committee meeting began, one WCC member church called for the expulsion of the Russian Orthodox Church in the context of the war in Ukraine. Using an alternative theological method and drawing on decades of previous efforts articulating a shared understanding of Just Peace, the Historic Peace Churches (including the Religious Society of Friends, Mennonites, and Church of the Brethren) and Moravians were able to successfully transform the conflict among the participants. A statement on the Ukraine war was accepted by consensus, with full agreement from the Russian Orthodox representatives. In FGC’s partnership with WCC, with its 550 million colleague members, Friends are able to have an active, global impact.  

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