Remembrance Sunday 2014. Tavistock Square London

Peace Pledge Union Peaceowrks Peace Passage London N7 0BT

“We are one in Christ, and can never be at war.” This friendship between a British Quaker and a German Lutheran founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation a century ago, when people were facing global war fuelled by an ever-growing global arms trade – just as people here today exercise friendship, and action our faith in God and each other by our witness against war and its preparation.

The friendship began at a conference on Lake Constanz trying to prevent war in Europe. When it did eventually break out, the delegates had to quickly disperse before the borders closed. Parting on Cologne station, Quaker Henry Hodgkin and Lutheran Friedrich Siegmund Schultz shook hands, promising to one another: “whatever happens, nothing is changed between us. We are one in Christ, and can never be at war.”

A letter went around reconvening the conference in December 1914 in Cambridge and stating that all the business would be based around “that intuitive certainty which we share that all war is contrary to the mind of Christ.”

Emma Anthony at Remembrance Day event, London

It went on to say, “What has Christ to say to modern civilization?... Does it not appear that at this time, in obedience to his command and in his service, we have to display a heroism of peace no less unmistakeable than the heroism of war? … Though the war may be the immediate occasion of our conference, is it not being continually revealed to us today that we must undertake a propaganda deeper and wider than that of simple passivism…?”

Leyton Richards was an FoR activist, Manchester-based Congregationalist minister and a delegate at the Cambridge event. It says in his biography that, “He went a lonely and depressed man and came back a few days later transfigured, for he had found 130 people who thought as he did and they had together brought into being the Fellowship of Reconciliation on a Christian pacifist basis.” There was soon a thriving FoR group in each city in the UK, with thousands of members. FoR still has members, groups and conferences, including one in Cambridge in a fortnight in case you missed the first one.

FoR attracted people who were absolute pacifists who actively campaigned for an immediate negotiated peace and against conscription when it arrived in 1916. By this time, FoR had around 5000 members; 600 of these went to prison for being conscientious objectors. Those of its members who weren’t COs themselves were key in support for them, working closely with the No-Conscription Fellowship when it formed. FoR held demonstrations; one which included Muriel Lester and Sylvia Pankhurst was violently broken up by soldiers and other hostile gangs. FoR meetings were often prohibited, disrupted and on at least one occasion, an FoR publicity van was pelted with stones and burnt. Opposing violence was and still is an unpopular stance. We sometimes see that today with the verbal abuse given to people – especially public figures – who choose not to wear a red poppy – let alone those who actively choose to wear a white one.

Hodgkin laid out his thoughts for the new group in a newsletter in 1916: “The FoR has, we believe, been called into existence to emphasise the central truths… [which] may be very simply stated. …: God is. God is love. God is near… If they were so, war would be impossible. Fear would be cast out. Self-interest would die. Joy would be reborn. Love would triumph.” Around the same time, in FoR’s monthly newssheet The Venturer, “force and fear are no remedies for moral disorder … love and reason alone have redemptive power”.

The basis of FoR was set out. It still stands and can be summarised as saying that as Christians we’re forbidden to wage war, but must instead live out a message of love in all our personal, social, commercial and national affairs and that in order to achieve this society, those who believe in it need to take the risks involved in doing so, in a world which still rejects this idea.

One of the things FoR did during the war was to create The Riverside Village for children to come and learn to live together and create community and their own laws. Expectations of young people was rock-bottom, leading to a lot of youth offending, and FoR sought to help these people by showing them love and respect. The idea that misbehaviour wasn’t punished was seen by many as peculiar, but this was all part of their Christian witness to peace, that they would not mark people out as “bad”. Someone from the Home Office came to one of the communities for a visit, which he described as an “interesting experience”. They ended their relationship with the Home Office when they realised that they would have to compromise their Christian beliefs and that their first obedience must always be to God. They never labelled the children and tried to blend the communities as much as possible into the surrounding areas, so that the children weren’t alienated. This is still a part of FoR’s work – pursuing a society where groups of people are not scapegoated by extreme populist groups, who shift blame for their own gain. It’s not hard to think of contemporary examples.

Our work stems from our belief in the inherent dignity of every person, in the potential for good and for God within us all. We work to explore that agency, starting with active nonviolence.

The community invested in a small cooperative bakery in 1916. Today, we’re careful not to invest in (among the obvious arms, tobacco etc!) fossil fuel extraction and burning, which are leading causes of CC and direct and indirect causes of conflict. FoR still resists conscription, but now it’s more to do with our taxes being conscripted than our bodies, at least in this country. Our members today witness against the arms trade and its role in making war more likely, as it did in 1914.

Women have always been key members of FoR including activists and suffrage campaigners. Today our IPF has supported New Profile, a feminist organisation campaigning in Israel against the militarisation of their society.
After WWI ended, For wrote a joint statement with NCF and Friends Service Committee: “Unless war, and the fear of war, can be got rid of now, the monstrous sacrifices of this great conflict will all have been in vain…At this Christmas season, when the old familiar carols are in our ears, let us think and speak and act in a spirit of … forgiveness and “goodwill to [all people].”.