Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Religious Society of Friends’

We Mustn’t Take Peace for Granted

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 12th April, 2014

Battle of the SommeIn this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War many minds have been turning to the issues of war and peace, and when I make speeches at hustings or rallies in the current European election campaign I always make the point that the founding fathers of what is now the European Union wanted to enmesh the economies of France and Germany (in particular) so that war in western Europe would be unthinkable. And so it appears. But it is all too easy for us today to take that for granted. As a child of the 1950s, I was very much aware of the legacy of the Second World War — the bomb sites, the drab unpainted unrestored buildings, the dreary food and the tail-end of rationing — but I was too young to see National Service. So it was perhaps a little perverse of me to go off to war voluntarily at the age of 18 — as a journalist in Vietnam. What I saw there burned into my heart a hatred for war and for all the human emotions connected with it. I attended my first Quaker meeting there, and joined the Society of Friends when I went up to Oxford. And although Reuters sent me off to comfortable Brussels when I joined the news agency after university, the lure of conflict zones was too great, and relaunched as a freelance commentator and broadcaster I covered a whole range of bloody situations, from Israel/Palestine to Central America and Angola. That was not because I revelled in the suffering. Quite the contrary. But I believed passionately that it needed to be reported, so people might learn that humanity should develop ways of resolving differences and rivalries more constructively. I still feel that today, as Vladimir Putin seems intent on infiltrating deeper into eastern Ukraine, alarming not just Kiev but several other of Russia’s neighbours. In the recent Clegg versus Farage EU IN/OUT debates in Britain, Nick Clegg stressed the importance of Britain’s EU membership for jobs — and of course that is true. But I shall also carry on talking about something that is not just related to the economy or livelihoods: the EU — enlarged a decade ago to take in formerly Communist states of central and eastern Europe — is a brilliant example of how to do things differently, about how to live togeter in peace, celebrating diversity. Fall back on nationalism, as Nigel Farage and some of his more unsavoury counterparts on the Continent would like us to do, will only lead to renewed tensions between peoples and, yes, the reappearance of the spectre of war.

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The Kindness of Strangers

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 16th February, 2014

The Kindness of StrangersThe Kindness of Strangers 1There’s a wonderful line in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, in which Blanche Dubois declares: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” At one level this is an indictment of the disfuntionality of some families, but it is also an important affirmation of the fact that we can be affected positively by the behaviour or words of people we don’t know personally, in a very supportive way. I was prompted into this meditation this morning by a series of ministries at Quaker Meeting in Hampstead (to which I belong), started off by a lady aged 96 who said simply that she was grateful for the way people were kind to her. Of course, when the Religious Society of Friends (aka Quakers) was in its infancy in the 17th century, Friends needed to support each other in the face of often terrible persecution and destitution. In the 21st century — in which people are often too busy to be kind, or else engrossed in their iphones — that is no longer the case, but I wonder whether part of the Quakers’ Peace Testimony these days shouldn’t be an awareness of how the way we move, speak and act can affect those around us, and that indeed even in small ways we may be of assistance to those who do depend on the kindness of strangers.

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The Spirit of the Quakers

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 7th October, 2010

In the second half of the 20th Century, Quakers — or Members of the Religious Society of Friends, to give them their formal name — tended to hide their light under a bushel. Proselytising was a no-no, though they were not an exclusive sect. One just had to stumble across them, as I did in Vietnam, in 1969, at the height of the War. It was in Saigon that I attended my first Meeting for Worship, in the living room of a Scottish paediatrician and his wife. It was only later, while studying at Oxford, that I took the plunge and became a Member, having in the meantime flirted with Buddhism — as is referred to in a short extract from an essay I wrote a few years ago, now published in a new Quaker anthology, edited and introduced by Geoffrey Durham (Yale University Press, £9.99). Last night, I went to the book launch at Friends House, Euston, at which Geoffrey presented The Spirit of the Quakers with all the vigour and flair of someone whose background is in the performing Arts. He has been a central figure in the relatively new enterprise of Quaker Outreach — an acceptance that for all our stillness, Quakers ought at least to make their beliefs and practices known. The book offers snippets — and several whole texts — from 350 years of writing by Friends, providing a kaleidoscopic image of an evolving community of seekers after Truth. But as Geoffrey says in his Introduction, Truth is but one of four cornerstones of the quest and the testimony, the others being Equality, Peace and Simplicity.

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Speaking Truth to Power in Brussels

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 24th October, 2009

Berlaymont and flagsI spent most of the day at a seminar, just over the street for the European Commision’s Berlaymont Building, celebrating 30 years of existence of the Quaker Council for European Affairs (QCEA). In the early 1970s, soon after Britain joined the then European Community, a number of us Quakers living in Brussels — most working for the European institutions, but me as a journalist initially with  Reuters and then freelance — decided that there deserved to be a ‘still, small voice’ of reason in the self-styled Capital of Europe, raising humanitarian and social concerns with the European institutions and with NATO, whose headquarters is in the same city. This is what Quakers historically have called ‘speaking turth to power’. It took us four years to persuade the wider Quaker community that this was an appropriate thing to do. Though the Religious Society of Friends (as Quakers are more properly known) had long had offices essentially lobbying the United Nations in both New York and Geneva, some Friends (notably in Norway and Sweden) were worried that we would be getting too close to mammon by embarking on a similar operation in Brussels.

William PennAnyway, to cut a long story short, the ‘Scandinavian hesitations’ (as they became known) were overcome and we set up QCEA in 1979, initially on a very modest basis. Since then it has grown significantly (not always entirely smoothly) and has tackled such issues as conscientious objection, the treatment of women prisoners, sustainable living and peace witness. As we were reminded today, the origins of the project — and indeed of some of the European institutions — date back much further. Three hundred years ago, the Quaker William Penn — who went on to found what he hoped would be a peaceable kingdom in Pennsylvania — wrote a pamphlet while he was studying in France, at a time when the continent had been ravaged by decades of war, saying that what was needed was a sort of European Parliament, where people would discuss, not fight. Well, we now have one and for the past 30 years (coincidentally since the birth of QCEA), the citizens of the ever-expanding European Union have been able to vote directly for members of the European Parliament. I still hope to be among their number one day, then my own mission will be complete.


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Speaking Truth to Power

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 24th August, 2008

    This morning I went to Meeting for Worship at Quaker House, Brussels, for the first time for several years. When I visit ‘the capital of Europe’ these days, it’s almost always during the working week, for meetings — and indeed I will be at the European Parliament for most of the coming week, to sit in on a Group Week of the ALDE (Liberal) Group and a seminar on religious fundamentalism. But I was glad I stuck on a weekend beforehand (even though I was thus unable to accept a TV slot back in London yesterday!) so I could catch up with some old friends and to see what has happened to the Quaker centre in whose creation I participated over 30 years ago.

In the 1970s a number of us who were members or attenders of the Religious Society of Friends (as the Quakers are formally known) and were working in Brussels developed a ‘concern’ to have an office in the Belgian capital, to monitor what was going on at the European Commission and other European institutions, as well as NATO (which also has its headquarters here), to report back to Friends worldwide and to lobby on issues on which we felt the Quakers had a particular message. This latter activity was called historically ‘speaking truth to power’, though unlike George Fox and William Penn, few Quakers today would use such language to describe it. This concern led to the creation of the Quaker Council for European Affairs (QCEA), of which I was the first Secretary, and which still thrives today, working on a whole range of issues from conscientious objection to energy security and terrorism.

QCEA still has its base in Quaker House, a glorious building in the Square Ambiorix, just a stone’s throw from the European Commission. If I recall accurately, we bought it for sixty thousand pounds. I’ve no idea how much it is worth today (in London it would be several million pounds), but that is not the point. It is not the value of the historic building itself but the value of the work done inside that counts. Having been absent for so long, it was great to be back.


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