Quaker International Centres
The network of Quaker bases around the world that became the Quaker International Centres were originally the brainchild of British Quaker Carl Heath.
Heath became a Quaker in 1916 after what he saw as “some deep failure of the peace movement that it should… break to pieces when the trumpets of war sounded.” In 1917, Heath addressed a conference in Skipton, with a vision for a network of Quaker ‘Embassies’ in the capital cities of Europe, staffed by ‘ambassadors’ and organised through a Quaker ‘Foreign Office’. He believed that, in the face of the horrors of war, Quakers would gain a special respect for their pacifist stance. This would give them special responsibility to work actively for peace.
In his vision, ‘ambassadors’ would be sent abroad for two years’ service. Their homes would become centres for social services and reform, building international political institutions for peace, adult education, children’s holiday camps, study centres and conferences. Students taking time out between school and university would be attachés.
In response, the Quaker Outposts Conference was held in 1918, and in 1919, London Yearly Meeting established the Council for International Service (CIS), with Heath as its first chairman. Heath’s grand vision had been a little toned down by then – his Embassies had become Centres (sometimes also known as Outposts or Settlements), and his Ambassadors, Quaker Representatives.
In cooperation with Irish and American Friends, the first Quaker International Centres were established in areas linked with post-war relief efforts - three in Germany (Berlin, Frankfurt and Nurnberg) and four others in Paris, Vienna, Warsaw and Moscow. In 1922, the centre in Geneva – the predecessor of the modern Quaker United Nations Office – was established to provide liaison with the League of Nations.
Different centres operated in different ways. In Germany, the focus was initially on raising awareness of the economic difficulties caused by the terms of the Vienna Convention that ended the First World War. Later, attention was turned to the human rights of minorities under Nazi oppression. In Vienna, the centre coordinated the activities of various Austrian peace groups and gave help to Jewish families. The Paris centre was used for peace activities, penal reform and campaigning for the rights of conscientious objectors. The Warsaw centre ran conferences on German-Polish relations between 1925 and 1927.
In the US, Heath’s vision was echoed by Rufus Jones, a founder of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). In 1925, he wrote: “We conceive it now to be our business to do what we can to prevent another war and to bring about a better understanding between nations and groups of people who are affected by a clash of interests and who are antagonistic to each other.”
In Britain in 1927, the CIS merged with the Friends Foreign Mission Association to form the Friends Service Council (FSC, now QPSW), with Carl Heath and Harry Silcock acting as joint secretaries. By 1939, FSC had four International Centres outside of Europe - in India, Madagascar, Mozambique and Syria. In the early years of the Second World War, new centres opened in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. In Shanghai, the FSC and American Friends Service Committee jointly opened a centre to help Chinese and European refugees, alongside a Nutrition Camp for children and expectant mothers.
After the Second World War the Quaker International Centres continued to expand. Their remit became, in some ways, closer to Heath’s original wide-ranging vision. In Dacca, in what is now Bangladesh, for example, a small group of Quakers ran a doorstep clinic giving basic medical care to mothers and babies, provided a kindergarten, taught English to the women and ran literacy classes for the men.
However, Quaker International work was moving in a different direction. In 1948, QUNO was established to work with the UN on behalf of Quakers. QCEA followed in 1979, to work in an analogous way with the EU. At the same time, the idea of International Centres organised centrally from London or Philadelphia was gradually being replaced by Quaker Centres (or Quaker Houses) organised and run by local Friends, often working in partnership with Quakers in other countries on particular initiatives. AFSC still maintains a network of international offices, but otherwise international collaboration is largely via visits, conferences, funding, and placements.