Full booking details and application forms are now on the website.
Further details including booking of our 2020 annual conference and AGM at Friends’ House are now on the website here: https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/events/nontheist-quakers-annual-conference-2020/
Please book as soon as possible as numbers are limited!
Preliminary details of our 2020 annual conference and AGM at Friends’ House are now on the website here: https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/events/nontheist-quakers-annual-conference-2020/
Please put the date in your diary!
Quaker ‘Advices and Queries’ for Nontheists.
A ‘thought for the day’ from Trevor Bending, member of NFN Steering Group and NFN website editor.
(Most of the hypertext links in this piece do NOT open in a new tab or window. Therefore use the browser back button to return to this page).
I thought very carefully about the title of this post and decided it would be ‘Advices and Queries’ (from Quakers) for all (including nontheists) expressed as above. ‘All’ approaching nearly 8 billion of us and counting.
After 370 years there are about 377,557 Quakers in the world (less than 0.016% of all Christians), most of them in (more or less) Evangelical Friends’ Churches or ‘programmed’ meetings in Africa and the Americas. Of the world total about 21,500 are members of or attending ‘unprogrammed’ (often largely silent 1 hour) meetings for worship in Britain (excluding Ireland where there may be another 2000). There are 129 followers of this NFN website whilst our number of paid-up members of the Network for this year to date are too embarrassingly few to mention. So, what can we say?
The NFN Steering Group (SG) have previously discussed a ‘nontheist’ version of Advices and Queries prepared by an ‘old Friend’ and member of NFN which manages to remove the word ‘God’ altogether. But it was decided that we would not want to be seen (mistakenly) as ‘proselytising’ for ‘nontheism’ (which we are not) and that for this and other reasons (including ‘something missing’ – traditional language or God perhaps?) we would not wish to publish that document, interesting though it is.
A Friend, Stephen Feltham, has asked ‘Why have Quakers stopped referring to God’ and more generally laments the loss of spirituality amongst Friends or its submergence by political and social activism, losing God. (But see QF&P 20.14).
Seeking to hear where Stephen’s words come from, his heartfelt plea certainly strikes a chord with this ‘nontheist’ (whatever ‘nontheist’ might mean). But it is not the intent of NFN to remove God (either in person or the ‘Word’) or religion or spirituality from the Religious Society of Friends. In fact our conference next year is to be titled ‘That’s the Spirit! – Dimensions of spirituality’ and is now planned to take place at Friends’ House, Euston, from 28-29 March 2020.
Stephen’s last paragraph in the piece above reads:
‘Is it fair to question if we are really justified in calling ourselves a religious society anymore? Have we become so politically ‘on message’ with justice, equality, inclusivity, diversity, the planet and gender issues that we have no more time for the love of God and so we may just as well call ourselves a social activist association?’
On the home page of the Quaker Spirit website, under the heading ‘A clarification – Quaker Spirit is for all’, Stephen writes ‘ALL are welcome. We want to develop our spirituality and avoid great busyness.’
I think it would be fair to comment that many, especially younger, Friends may feel that ‘activism’ for justice, equality, inclusivity etc. by Quakers is dependent on spirituality and not separate from it. Whereas our A&Q 28 advises ‘Attend to what love requires of you, which may not be great busyness’ it is clear that this is in the context of advancing age and the need to ‘relinquish responsibilities’ (and make way for others?) and not a recommendation to ‘avoid great busyness’ altogether. Indeed, early Friends (at least in the 17th century) were hugely concerned with ‘with justice, equality, inclusivity, diversity, the planet and gender issues’ (the latter in consideration of the role of women in ministry and in (the) society). It was only later in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that Friends in Britain became ‘quietist’ and somewhat inward looking (not in the best sense of that term).
In the 21st century, Friends in Britain have become more outward looking again (as they have perhaps been for the last 150 years) and social (including political) concerns and activism have again come to the fore. At the same time there has been an increasing concern for ‘re-kindling’ and ‘vibrancy’ in meetings which certainly depends on developing greater spiritual ‘inwardness’.
In a previous post and in response to a piece by Neil Morgan in The Friend of 9 August, a member of the NFN Steering Group writes:
I am a member of the Network who does actually believe in God. But what I believe in is not the existence of God but the presence of God, and for me that difference is vital. …. cont.: .. I feel that to speak of God as ‘existing’ is to categorise God as part of the universe, bound by space and time, whereas the presence of God is not an objective reality but a subjective human experience. People may claim they don’t see God as a bearded old man in the sky, yet many still speak as if they do. If God ‘exists’ anywhere, it is in the human heart, not ‘out there’. A literal belief in the externally ‘real’ existence of God seems dangerous and demeaning. The NFN provides me with a respectful and non-judgmental forum enabling me to explore my theology more thoroughly than in most other areas of Quaker life.
(for the full response and many others from members of NFN on Discernment see here).
Elsewhere on Quaker Spirit, in Squeezing out the Spirit, Stephen writes: ‘I am inexorably being driven to resigning altogether from Quakers one of whose fasting growing special interest groups does not, it seems to me, believe in God!’
I wrote in response on the site’s Forum: I would like to re-assure you that NFN is not fast growing! (I think we have about 100 members at most and a conference attendance – not all members – of 40-50.) As to not believing in God, some do, some don’t. One of our Steering Group believes in the ‘presence of God’ but not in the ‘existence of God’. (see above). Others have varied beliefs’.
I’m a little doubtful though, whether Stephen would want to add NFN to his list of other Quaker groups, but then consider some of the points made above and that in a sense NFN ‘budded off’ from the Quaker Universalist Group, itself regarded somewhat askance by many Friends when it first formed some 40 years ago.
Perhaps then we can agree on inclusivity and in the future join together in celebrating, and practising, Quaker spirituality.
Meanwhile, we can turn to Young Friends for a new take on Advices and Queries.
In ‘Living our beliefs’ a book which deserves to be much better known, produced by Young Quakers in 2015, edited by Graham Ralph, young Friends have made a book that ‘tackles similar topics to Quaker Faith and Practice but .. (is) .. shorter, more accessible and more concise.’
An online version of this book (pdf) and a range of videos and music tracks and talks associated with it can be found at http://www.yqspace.org.uk/living-our-beliefs One of the 17 or so chapters is ‘Advices and queries as compiled by young Quakers’ (p79-81) created at junior yearly meeting in 2015.
This version reduces 42 Advices and Queries (some 12 pages) to 42 simple statements (2 pages). One breathtaking example is A&Q4 which is reduced to just 4 words ‘Remember our Christian heritage’, compared with the original – 73 words with 5 references to Jesus and two to God.
These 42 contain one reference to (the word) God compared to some 37 in the original. The one reference to God is in A&Q 17 (original 117 words, 2 references to God) which becomes:
‘Everyone thinks of God differently; don’t be judgemental’.
(The original ends with ‘Think it possible that you may be mistaken’.)
Another view, by Laurence Hall, can be found in the Young Quaker, Sketches of a Godless Quakerism (to read online pages 8-9).
What all this boils down to is that it is not whether you believe in the existence of God, or the presence of God, or not but what kind of God, what do you mean by ‘God’, what do you mean by belief. In the end it is all words (theology? Or ‘windy notions’ as early Friends might have called them) and it is our practice, both spiritually and actively, that counts.
If Christianity (and perhaps Judaism?) can be reduced to Jesus’ (fictional??) story of the ‘Good Samaritan – now go and do likewise’ then these ‘simplifications’ (of complex issues) by young Quakers might serve us well.
I became convinced this morning that whilst ‘Quakerism’ (Quaker meeting for worship, Quaker Faith and Practice) might not be for everyone, it is right for me and is ‘the Truth, the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth’ – but this Truth includes uncertainty and mystery and not knowing what we don’t know and I can’t impose it on anyone else and I must ‘think it possible that I may be mistaken’ although I must accept that others may try to impose their Truth on me.
Towards a Nontheist View of Discernment
What is discernment for you? A recent piece in The Friend (by Neil Morgan, 9 August issue) titled ‘How nontheists view discernment is giving me a headache’, argues that without the sense of revelation from God, and sense of connection with God, discernment loses its distinctive Quaker quality. So what are nontheists doing? Are they just ‘listening empathically’ to each other? The piece ends with the plea, ‘Could Rhiannon [Grant] or someone from the NFN please explain to me what they are doing when they are discerning – or at least what they think they are doing?’ (This was in a review of Rhiannon’s book Telling the Truth about God. Rhiannon reminds us that she does not self-identify as a nontheist but is a friend of nontheists.) In response, we asked our members to share their views on how nontheists view discernment for publication in this newsletter, identifying writers only by initials. Here are some responses (so far…)
The Nontheist Friends Network is my spiritual home. Born in 1935 I have always been a sceptic about God. My mother was a Grammar-school science teacher, my father a pillar of the Welsh Calvinist Methodist Church.
When, as a young child, I asked my mother where God was, she said ‘Oh – up there somewhere’, to which I responded – ‘He cannot be thick, or else he would fall down’. I have never been a ‘believer’ in God or been able to ascribe any significant meaning to the word. My ambitious father sent me to a Quaker boarding-school, simply because he could not find a private Methodist school that he liked.
I went to university, and became Secretary of the Cambridge Humanist Society, under the chairmanship of E M Forster. I regard the world’s religions as among the greatest artistic creations of mankind. I realize that millions have found inspiration in their images of Deity, but I cannot share them. For me, religions resemble great symphonies, inspiring works of sculpture or painting, wise sayings – and they are part of my world, but not supernatural.
And yet I loved my Quaker school and its diverse, cosmopolitan, community. I loved Reading Meeting, which we attended every fortnight. I came to love Quaker ways, and Quaker values. Later, in my sixties and an Attender at Swansea Meeting, I was accepted as a Member, and became a Friend. I came home. [RWE]
I am surprised that Rhiannon Grant’s book gives Neil Morgan a headache. Nontheists have a heart and an awareness of all the rich sensitivities of the human spirit, communicated for instance by poetry, art and music. They also share the characteristic human sense of empathy and compassion towards the feelings of others. They bring all these senses to bear on matters that require discernment – senses that some would call spiritual. [GGS]
I find a quiet place and I think. Not exactly rocket science. I may do this during MfW too. Occasionally I may do some research and read things that may relate to a concern, or I speak to people. This process may take some time, depending on the concern, or it may just be listening to points of view at a meeting for worship for business to compose a minute. Either way it just requires some head space and a time of thought without the intervention of a God figure. I often come to a revelation all on my own. [AK]
I’m listening to what Friends have to say with an open mind and an awareness of my own possible prejudices, being prepared to make up my mind or change my mind according to what I hear. I weigh it all up, using my experience and intelligence, think about ‘what love requires of me’ and I speak my views if I feel it would be helpful. If a decision goes a way I’m not happy with, I accept that this is what Friends wanted and try to accept it with good grace,
I’m certainly not waiting for any kind of divine guidance. [LE]
My late husband called Quaker processes ‘the jewel in the Crown.’ As Assistant then Clerk of my Meeting, I found discernment to be a bright facet of the jewel.
It is hard work, to put oneself aside and listen – really listen to what each Friend says. Then to keep that so important space between each contribution is vital as we begin to ‘take on board’ the many aspects of the item under consideration. This will lead to a moment when the Clerk feels it is right to attempt a minute. The Clerk then needs to be upheld by the quiet, loving support of those present as he or she tries to put into words the sense of the Meeting.
The minute first proposed can then be worked on, if need be, until Friends feel it to be a true reflection of the discernment process that has just taken place. This has been achieved by a group of Friends having mutual respect, care and love for each other and for the furtherance of Quakerism. [AR]
I see discernment as a way of improving the quality of discussion and of eventual decision- making as compared with more common ways of handling group discussions such as committees and voting.
The very fact of meetings (of any kind) implies universal recognition of ‘collective intelligence’ alongside individual points of view. My own experience has left me in no doubt that (a) the outcome of meetings can be influenced by the mood of the meeting and (b) that the mood can be managed. Such management can take the form of, for example, the style of the chair, the meeting conventions and practical aspects such as timing, papers circulated, accommodation and so on.
Quakers have developed a particular style of discussing business matters that is harmonious with Quaker values and therefore, on the whole, observed. The discipline of waiting to be called by the clerk to speak, of avoiding engagement with others who have spoken, of speaking respectfully, of a readiness to be persuaded and of careful recording of the discernments of the meeting by the clerk all lead to a productive interaction between individual views and the collective intelligence which, to me, is the essence of discernment.
So I understand Neil Morgan’s use of the words revelation and connection but I see them applying to the relationship between individual views and collective intelligence rather than to God. [GH]
I have never ever thought that discernment was only possible with a belief in God!
This would mean that only ‘religious’ people could do any good – which is obviously not true.
For me, Quakers are a constant reminder that the fundamental tenets of Quakerism – peace, equality, sustainability, justice and truth – are what we need to keep in mind on a daily basis and that is what the community of Quakers gives me. [MW]
Discernment does not lose its distinctive Quaker quality because one is a non-theist. In meeting I try to think good thoughts and how I can do better with my life – it tempers the bad stuff in the world. I do not sit there worrying about whether it is God, or simply my conscience bringing these thoughts out. But it does. For me Quakers is about what you do, not whether you believe in God or not. [EW]
Neil Morgan (9 August) asks how nontheists regard Quaker discernment, assuming that they necessarily cut ‘God’ out of the equation. I am a member of the Network who does actually believe in God. But what I believe in is not the existence of God but the presence of God, and for me that difference is vital.
For as long as I can remember I have been constantly aware of a presence that is ‘closer than breathing’, very personal, yet not entirely part of myself. It has always been with me, more or less out of eyeshot, and its presence means that I never feel lonely or alone. Not only that, but I also feel that it both guards and guides me. Whatever it may be is reliable and comforting. I call it ‘God’ because I grew up with the word and still find meaningful and useful. But it’s a name, not a definition. I ‘believe in’ it in the etymological sense of credo = cor do (Latin: ‘I give my heart’). I also share in the presence of God corporately, mostly in meeting for worship.
I feel that to speak of God as ‘existing’ is to categorise God as part of the universe, bound by space and time, whereas the presence of God is not an objective reality but a subjective human experience. People may claim they don’t see God as a bearded old man in the sky, yet many still speak as if they do. If God ‘exists’ anywhere, it is in the human heart, not ‘out there’. A literal belief in the externally ‘real’ existence of God seems dangerous and demeaning. The NFN provides me with a respectful and non judgmental forum enabling me to explore my theology more thoroughly than in most other areas of Quaker life. I may not like the word ‘nontheist’, but I treat it as a name, not a definition. After all, I don’t define myself by reference to my own name.
Thus I can understand Quaker discernment as joining with others in listening to and acting on the leadings of God, and as an occasional clerk and elder for many years can attest to its efficacy. [DP]
IF.. You would like to respond to this discussion, or comment further, please email David Parlett, or Comment (‘Leave a reply’) here below. (Initials or name required. Your email address will not be published).
Book review: Michael Wright’s ‘Jesus today – a Quaker perspective’
by David Parlett (extracted from our forthcoming NFN Newsletter)
Isn’t it remarkable how some of the best books on Jesus are written by former clerks of the Nontheist Friends Network? (David Boulton’s Who on Earth was Jesus?, published in 2008, became – and maybe still is – a standard text book in some RC seminaries following the enthusiastic recommendation of Henry Wansbrough, general editor of the New Jerusalem Bible.)
Now Michael Wright has published Jesus Today – a Quaker Perspective, to add to the collection. Michael was an Anglican priest for 40 years before leaving ordained ministry and becoming a Quaker, so he knows whereof he speaks. Furthermore, his knowledge is up to date: while most of his quotations are from the bible and Quaker Faith and Practice, he also draws on valuable material from such writers as John Spong, Karen Armstrong and Marcus Borg. ‘What I am seeking to share with those who read this’, he explains, ‘is a fresh appreciation of Jesus, his life and teaching, which is not trapped in the mindset of the past’. He regrets that ‘Few [Quakers] refer to Jesus or the gospels in meeting for worship. Mention of him can even be unwelcome to some. I hope now to stimulate an interest in the significance of his teaching from which we can draw inspiration for our values and practice today… There is a significant contrast between Jesus’ original teaching and behaviour and the authoritative doctrines and orthodoxies later developed and then imposed by the institutional churches. Quakers have largely either challenged or sidelined these since the foundations of our movement in the 17th century.’
If Chapter 3, devoted to ‘some elements of the Quaker way’, will serve well for newcomers and enquirers who find some of our language and attitudes unusual and perhaps baffling, chapter 4, ‘A Quaker approach to the bible’ is essential reading for many of us who think we know it well enough already. ‘Quakers share the biblical narrative with other Christians, and we value the scriptures without taking everything at face value. We pay attention to the spirit who gave the scriptures, rather than abiding by the letter of them.’ (This is almost word-for-word Robert Barclay). ‘Our approach to the scriptures is distinctive and not widely understood, even among Quakers’. Rather than adopt creeds, he adds: ‘The early Quakers […] delved into the scriptures and drew from them inspiration to shape their lives in the circumstances of their own time. This we can do in our day. Our Quaker testimony to truth and to integrity, to equality and justice, to peace, to simplicity and sustainability, all spring from gospel principles which Jesus taught’.
Michael then looks at the four gospels, using an image that particularly appeals to me. As a former journalist, he likens the style of Mark to The Daily Mirror, Matthew to The Daily Telegraph, Luke to The Guardian, and John to The Sunday Times as it used to be.
Chapter 6, ‘Revising our understanding of the Jesus story’, precedes ‘Some Quaker Responses to Jesus’, in which we are reminded of George Fox’s central experience of discovering Jesus within himself and of the impact of the Quaker message in English life when first shared publicly. But the scene in Britain today is very different from the 1640s: ‘Then Christian religious practice and teaching was the shared experience of just about everybody, although there were lots of disagreements between different groups about what should be taught and practised. Today Christian congregations are clearly a minority, in which the distinctive Quaker voice is a minority within a minority’. David Parlett
Michael Wright’s Jesus Today – a Quaker Perspective is published by Sixth Element Publishing, 2019 (ISBN 978191221857-8). Michael has very kindly allowed us to add it our website at: https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/2019/07/23/jesus-today-book/ (182 pages pdf), but if you would like a nice printed copy try Friends House Bookshop.
Your Steering Group spent the day at Lancaster Meeting House on Wednesday (7 SG members in attendance) to discuss plans for the coming year.
There was a lot of discussion of possible amendments to the Constitution around issues of membership and aims but in the end it was decided that no changes should be recommended to our aims or structure as reflected in the Constitution and the only change to the latter required to be put to the next AGM for ratification is that the phrase ‘listed informal group’ in paragraph 1. needs to be updated to ‘Quaker recognised body’ to be technically correct.
Alternative arrangements for an Annual Conference and AGM in 2020 were also discussed and the current intention is to go ahead with a weekend conference at Woodbrooke, perhaps with 3 principal speakers, on the topic of Spirituality and with the title ‘That’s the Spirit! – Dimensions of spirituality’. It is hoped to find speakers who would span the wide range of views, both amongst Quakers and elsewhere, about Spirituality. Further details on the website and by email/newsletter as they become available.
We also agreed to take a booking at Britain Yearly Meeting (weekend gathering) in Bath for next August, topic to be arranged.
Our finances were reported to be in good order and it is hoped we will be able to publish a booklet of talks from the 2020 conference.
One item of some concern is that although we now have 125 ‘followers’ on the website and email the Newsletter to more than 80, only a significantly smaller number of NFN members have yet paid their £10 subscription for 2019-20 which was due from 1st April.
If you receive the Newsletter (a further edition shortly) and have not yet joined the Network or paid your subscription up to date, the steering group would much appreciate it if you did so now!
Michael Wright (Teesdale and Cleveland AM) who stepped down from our Steering Group after 3 years as clerk in 2018 has now published his short book on his understanding of Jesus today.
He has very kindly allowed us to add it the website here (540 Kb): Jesus Today Book, (182 pages pdf) but if you would like a nice printed copy
JESUS Today cover (1 page pdf 840Kb)
it is available as Michael says here:
I am hoping that Friends House bookshop will stock it, but with being away have not been able to speak to the manager, which I shall aim to do tomorrow if he is available. I will let you know. I have also asked if Simon Best will have it on sale or return at Woodbrooke, but am awaiting a response on that.
It is available from any bookshop or online by ordering it, as the publishers (Sixth Edition) supply it to major book wholesale distributers Bartrams, and Gardners. The RRP is £9.99 but print copies can also be obtained from me for £7.00 plus £1.20 postage – £8.20. It is available free as an ebook from various sources:
I understand it will be reviewed in the near future in the PCN magazine Progressive Voices, The Friend, and Quaker Universalist.
I hope this is helpful, but do come back to me with any further queries. Best wishes, and many thanks. Michael
Thank-you Michael. Other short articles by Michael are also available here on the website under ‘Articles’.
The book is a very interesting read on one of the many ways in which, for example, nontheist quakers might view Jesus today so a very apt title for us. For a fuller review of the book by David Parlett see here.
The NFN Steering Group will meet in Lancaster on Wednesday 24/7/19 (usually just one annual meeting in addition to the Conference/AGM).
Topics under discussion will include NFN structure and organisation; Future conferences/events/participation at BYM gathering; Website and online presence; Membership and Newsletter; Finance; Publishing pamphlets/ booklets?; Name question: “Nontheist Friends Network” or?
Expect to hear further here soon.
You may or may not have noticed two new posts by Os Cresson on our American Friends website. (It’s taken me more than 2 weeks to notice and only then because I needed to visit their website for reference). These posts appear automatically in the ‘Feed’ we get from them which you can find towards the bottom of the right-hand column here. (These don’t appear on the mobile version – but you can there scroll to the very bottom and choose ‘View Full site’, then scroll to the bottom again and you will find them there. Such fun.)
But I do suggest Os’s posts are worth a read:
Good without God is the ambiguous part-title to this interesting editorial article on atheism and religion in the Guardian 15/7/19 (The Guardian view on atheism):
Not sure if they mean it’s good to be without God or you can be good without God or? There appears to be an implicit sense of concern in the article and I wonder if Quakers, nontheist or otherwise, have the answers?
I note that, for Britain, citing the British Social Attitudes Survey: “Even among the over-75s, only a third identify as Anglican. More than half of British people now say that they have no religion; about two-fifths are Christians of one sort of another; 9% are Muslims.”