All posts by Trevor

Annual Conference 2020 update

The AGM will now be on Saturday evening (formal notice to follow) and the participants’ short presentations and QandA on Sunday morning. (The Conference page and documents have been updated to reflect this).

We now have about 40 booked places but there are still a few places and possibility of Saturday or Sunday only ‘day-tickets’ available from Roger. Please see the Conference (‘Home’) page to book.

This promises to be a very worthwhile and informative conference (but they always are!).  We do however need to recruit new members to the Steering Group (as well as the Network!) and I have taken the liberty of reproducing below a lightly edited version of part of a Steering Group email from our clerk Gisela Creed:

“There will be big changes to our Steering Group (SG) this year with a number of long serving members standing down, creating vacancies, and a new clerk and newsletter editor to be appointed. The SG could therefore do with a couple of new enthusiastic members. If any of you know someone who might volunteer, please give them a strong push to come forward.”

We conduct most of the Steering Group business by email (with usually one meeting a year in addition to meeting at the Conference) so it is not too arduous and if any of you could help out, please volunteer at the AGM or in advance by email to Gisela jgcreed@btinternet.com (Gisela is a member of West of Scotland Area Meeting and our 9 SG members are from 9 different AMs. For full details of these, see the ‘Organisation of Nontheist Friends Network‘ page.)

Attendees at the Conference this year are from a very wide range of Area Meetings (or none) across all parts of the United Kingdom.

A QUG Conference of interest to NFN members and other Friends

The Quaker Universalist Group and London Quakers are co-hosting a conference on Language and Spirituality NEXT WEEKEND as follows: (from QUG newsletter)

“London Quakers – Saturday February 8th 2020

Alan York, QUG committee member and author of QUG Pamphlet 39, will be speaking to London Quakers on the topic Language, Truth and Religion. Alan will talk about ordinary language, scientific language, religious language and the possibility/impossibility of a language of the spirit.

The meeting will be in Friends House, Euston Road, on the afternoon of Saturday February 8th 2020 from 2.00 to 4.30 p.m. It is open to all and there is no charge, though donations will be welcome. The meeting is jointly organised by London Quakers and QUG, and QUG literature will be on sale.”

(Alan attended the NFN conference at Woodbrooke last year.  Another QUG pamphlet relevant to our upcoming NFN conference is David Boulton’s ‘Faith of a Quaker Humanist‘ from 1997).

For Friends in London, this might be useful preparation for our own NFN conference at Friends’ House on ‘Dimensions of Spirituality’, 28-29 March.

It is also likely that some NFN members, (after attending our conference!), might be interested in this years’ QUG conference at Woodbrooke on ‘Life, Time and Eternity’:
QUG 2020 Annual Conference
LIFE, TIME AND ETERNITY
Friday May 8th (6 p.m.) – Sunday May 10th (2 p.m.) 2020
Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre.

Humanism and our Conference

The three speakers at our Conference at Friends’ House 28-29 March are Gill Pennington (former spirituality tutor at Woodbrooke), Dinah Livingstone (editor of ‘Sofia’ magazine for the Sea of Faith) and Andrew Copson (chief executive of Humanists UK).

For further details of these speakers see the 2020 Conference page

I am considering putting up a **bibliography of useful readings on spirituality for the Conference but in the meantime, think these two posts about Humanism on ‘Canadian Atheist’ interviewing Andrew Copson (see above) and the President of Humanists UK, Alice Roberts, would be of considerable interest to those attending or thinking about attending the conference. (We haven’t sold out yet but places are limited!): (click on the headings to go to the full interviews)

Interview with Professor Alice Roberts – President, Humanists UK & President, British Science Association

Extensive Interview with Andrew James William Copson – President, Humanists International & Chief Executive, Humanists UK


Don’t forget that the NFN AGM will also take place on the Sunday morning 9.30am!  For those unable to attend the whole weekend, ‘day tickets’ for Saturday (including evening meal) and Sunday (including lunch) are available from Roger on request (again, see the Conference page for booking details).
** If you have any suggestions for books or reading (including blog posts) of relevance to our theme of ‘Spirituality’, please let me know on our Contact page.

Call for conference short presentations from David Boulton

We have three first class keynote speakers, but we are keen to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to contribute to the agenda.

So we are arranging a special session (Saturday 7.30pm) in which attendees are invited to offer a short talk or presentation, up to 10 minutes, sharing their own understanding and experience of “spirit” and “spirituality”.

Offers, please, to dboultondent@btinternet.com preferably with a title and a brief indication of subject matter.

Whether you find spirituality in prayer and meditation, in worship, or silence, or music, or nature, or human endeavour, share it with us. That’s the spirit!

Accommodation still available at the Penn Club

Our clerk, Gisela, has confirmed, contrary to my comment yesterday:
I have today (7 January) confirmed with the Penn club that they still have plenty of accommodation, concession rates for people attending the conference are £81 for standard room and I think £75 for budget room.

The Penn Club are offering a special discount to Friends attending the conference. Book before January 31st to avail of the discount. To book call The Penn Club on 020 7636 4718 or email: office@pennclub.co.uk and quote non-theist conference. Space is limited and subject to availability. https://pennclub.co.uk/

For other options, see the previous post and comments. Now really is the time to book!

Time to book and Newsletter

The (more or less final) programme for the 2020 NFN Conference at Friends’ House is now available on the website (Please see the Home/Conference page).

We also have a December Newsletter (this version is very slightly different from the two emailed to members a week or so ago) which has a few additional details about the conference.  Please note in particular the point about emailing David Boulton if you would like to express an interest in sharing your own understanding or experience of “spirit” and “spirituality”, or giving a brief account of your own spiritual journey, at the Conference.

There is an article about nontheism and correspondence in The Friend, an article by Piers Maddox about being ‘A humanistic Quaker’, and an article about our good Friend (and NFN member) John Lynes preparing to defend himself at his trial after his arrest during the Extinction Rebellion blockade at Dover Docks in the summer.

Please note too that we really would like some new members on the Steering Group if NFN is to continue in something like its present form or organise further conferences.

Now (at just £50!) is the time to book for the conference (28-29 March 2020) – or maybe it would make a nice Christmas present! (Quakers don’t do that do they?).

The Conference fee includes Saturday evening dinner and Sunday lunch but not accommodation in London if that is required:
The Penn Club are offering a special discount to Friends attending the conference. Book before January 31st to avail of the discount. To book call The Penn Club on 020 7636 4718 or email: office@pennclub.co.uk and quote non-theist conference. Space is limited and subject to availability. (I think booking before Christmas would be highly advisable TB)
(Our clerk, Gisela, negotiated this to Penn Club members’ rates and believes a single starts around £85, including a very good breakfast.)

Gisela also recommends the Bedford (single £102, double £138) and the Tavistock (single £91, double £117) Hotels, both within 10 minutes walking distance from Friends House and often used by Friends’ committees. (See https://www.imperialhotels.co.uk) They do give discounts for group bookings of more than 10 people. So if anyone feels able to take that in hand, you are welcome!
(There are cheaper, or more expensive, options but it would be as well to book soon).

Quaker ‘Advices and Queries’ for Nontheists.

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.

One of the video passages in ‘living our beliefs’ online is this from Quaker Faith and Practice on ‘Believing in God’. (The text of which is here.)

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.