The NFN Newsletter for May 2019, previously emailed to members and those on our mailing list has now been added to the website for reference. (see under ‘Articles – Newsletters’ above).
We have had discussions in the past about forums, facebook, email groups and so on but I hope that Friends and visitors to this site will choose to comment here (on any post or page inviting comments or replies) and establish a conversation in this way.
However, we don’t often draw attention to what is happening with non-theist Friends in the USA and internationally.
There are numerous links to the US NTF site at various points on this website (see, for example, the bottom of the right hand column or scroll right down on the mobile version). The US email discussion group is still active and can be accessed at the top of any of the US pages or directly here: https://groups.google.com/forum/?hl=en#!forum/nontheist-friends
A recent discussion there on meditation, god and non-theism includes an interesting youtube video. This can be accessed via the email discussion group here: https://groups.google.com/forum/?hl=en#!topic/nontheist-friends/myIj6VLE8hs or directly from youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBGIqp8EKfg&feature=youtu.be (conversation starts 17 minutes into the video and is certainly worth watching for 20 minutes, even if the full 1 hour plus is too long. After that 20 minutes there is a lot of discussion about Barclay, Quaker belief, Richard Dawkins and so on).
A little late in arriving but here a slightly more formal report on our 2019 Conference at Woodbrooke than the more personal reflections published so far.
The Conference was attended by just over 30 people, a few of whom only attended on the Saturday.
In addition to our NFN feedback form, there were at least two other feedback forms from Woodbrooke itself and that may have accounted for the relatively small number of our own feedback forms returned – just 10.
These were for the most part very positive and the Saturday afternoon trip to the Bourneville Carillon was greatly enjoyed by those who decided to go. (Details from the feedback forms can be found here.)
The conference began on the Friday evening with a ‘getting to know you session’, first of the Steering Group members explaining who they were and then small groups of about 4 ’neighbours’ asking various prompted questions of each other. These groups were ‘fluid’ in that first one and then another member of each group was asked to move to the neighbouring group, first to the left and then to the right.(Thus about half the meeting moved from one group to another at some point). This seemed to work quite well and was followed by an introduction to the history of the NFN and its present situation by David Boulton. Questions about the future of NFN were then left to be followed up ahead of the AGM on Saturday evening.
On Saturday morning our first speaker was Hugh Rock of NFN (and who did all the work of managing the Conference bookings) who spoke on what he thought was a defining characteristic of Quaker practice: ‘The authority of no authority: the paradox of Quaker unity through diversity’ as the ‘actual, unifying, but rather difficult to summarise, practice of Quaker Faith.’ which referred to the absence of a priesthood or hierarchy (‘The refusal of priesthood tells of the reliance and validation of individual experience.’); the discernment of ‘God’s will’ or ‘the sense of the meeting’ as part of the ‘Quaker business method’ in Meeting for worship for business. (For non-Quakers, ‘business’ here means the business of running Quaker Meetings and making the many decisions about activities which have to be made to keep things moving forward). (‘The refusal of vote taking within the Society is a powerfully equalising principle. It recognises, unusually, that democracy may be a form of dictatorship.’). He went on to illustrate this with a practical example drawn from John MacMurray’s statement that ‘the central conviction which distinguishes the Society of Friends is that Christianity cannot be defined in terms of doctrinal beliefs’ (Swarthmore Lecture 1965, p50). Hugh saw this ‘authority’ deriving from an absence of ‘authority’ as a key aspect of Quaker unity enabling the acceptance of great variety in belief (perhaps from nontheism to evangelical christianity) under one roof and great fluidity in our boundaries. Unity, diversity and boundaries being the theme of the conference. (Hugh’s post-conference text of his talk can be found here.)
After the morning tea and coffee break, we were addressed by Tony Philpott, Clerk to the Quaker Universalist Group, who gave a carefully thought out presentation of the history of ‘universalism’, in various senses, throughout Christian history, referring to inclusivity and exclusivity, and then the history of Quaker universalism from George Fox, Margaret Fell, William Penn and others through to the 1990’s and the forming of the Quaker Universalist Group (QUG). He gave, by way of example, a personal account of his own journey ‘From Christian to Quaker’, the subject of his book of that name, which also deals with a broad range of religious viewpoints (varieties of Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Atheist and Quaker). Tony examined unity, diversity and boundaries within Quakerism in Britain Yearly Meeting, based on Ninian Smart’s ‘Dimensions of the Sacred’. He then looked at issues to do with definitions, membership, etc., and suggested that Quaker universalism may have much to offer as a solution to the problems raised by diversity.
On Sunday morning our third keynote speaker Marisa Johnson from Friends’ World Committee for Consultation – Europe and Middle East Section (FWCC-EMES) spoke on “The gift of difference in the World Family of Friends”, addressing the vast diversity of culture, theology and practice within the Quaker World Community. Her account was illustrated with slides and a moving video from the meeting of FWCC representatives in Peru in 2016. The video illustrated that ‘vast diversity of culture, theology and practice’ in a way which no text would have done. Marisa’s talk was also deeply personal, relating her own spiritual journey from her native Italian Catholicism to a London Church of England (‘because it was there’), then Methodists, and then to the ‘Sea of Faith’ and Quakers in Cambridge, as well as the personal journey from being a child and young person in Italy to a married woman in England (with an English husband Mick, also present for the Conference). Marisa spoke about how, through her international work, she has come to value the “uncommon ground” and how she moved from celebrating the freedom from dogma to trusting her leadings to keep her safe during very dark times in family life. Many present were I think moved near to tears by Marisa’s account and the illustration of the great diversity across the world family of Friends. Marisa finished with a word game she has devised to illustrate how certain (for example, biblical) words can be re-phrased in ways which are associated with quite different emotions. (The example given to me was ‘Evil’ versus ‘Cause of Harm’). The text of Marisa’s talk (minus a few personal anecdotes) can be found here.: The gift of difference in the World Family of Friends – holding on to the Uncommon Ground.
Our Saturday afternoon programme had continued with 3 short presentations volunteered by course participants:
Roger Warren Evans, South Wales, on his own version of ‘Advices and Queries without using the word God’: “‘Take Heed, Dear Friends’, a nontheist re-statement of the values and perceptions of Advices and Queries”;
Kitty Rush from Massachusetts on “‘New Bottle Quakerism’. Finding words to describe the Quakerism of today which would be useful to theists and non-theists alike”;
John Senior, Mid-Wales, on “Quaker spiritual practice – Advices and Queries 1 and 3 shorn of supernaturalism, a toolkit”. (John has a further session on this topic on 30th May – see here.)
These were followed by the option of further discussion of these presentations or a walk through the park to Bournville for a Carillon performance.
After Tea and before Supper, the Saturday programme continued with open discussion around reflections prompted by ‘To be or not to be’ (paper, David Boulton 2019, as included in participant packs, on the future of NFN) preparatory to the Nontheist Friends Network AGM itself.
Saturday evening had our usual ‘Quaking with Laughter’ followed by Woodbrooke’s Epilogue.
The Conference closed on Sunday after Marisa’s talk, a plenary session and finally lunch.
It is also worth noting that participants included those from the following (Area) Meetings: Bath, Cambridgeshire (3), Chilterns, Cumberland, Gloucestershire (3), Ipswich, Kendal & Sedbergh, Leeds, London West (2), Massachusetts (2), Mid-Thames (2), Mid-Wales, North-East Thames, South London (2), South Wales (2), Southern Marches, Sussex, Taunton, Torquay, Warwickshire, West of Scotland (4), Wirral (E&OE!).
For details of NFN presence at Britain Yearly Meeting 2019 see our Events page.
For a special event ‘Finding Stillness‘ on Thursday 30 May at Dolobran Meeting House, not organised by NFN but by John Senior of mid-Wales AM developing further the talk he gave on Advices and Queries 1 & 3 at NFN conference at Woodbrooke on 30 March see here.
Buddhism, Meditation and God
One of the problems of an individual maintaining a small group website (and we are a small group in terms of both our membership and followers of the website) is that, if no-one else contributes, then it is difficult to steer the line between ‘personalising’ the website (which generally makes it more interesting and readable) and stopping it from becoming that individual’s personal or pet project.
Whilst we have many interesting articles on the website written by speakers at our conferences, and many other members of the network, which should in many cases still be of great interest to anyone interested in nontheism or aspects of religious belief and theology, there are very few ‘live’ contributions in terms of pages or ‘posts’ to the website itself which have not been written by ‘yours truly’.
We do get a fair number of comments on existing pages or posts which very occasionally develop into a ‘conversation’, but it is quite hard to provoke these.
I think ‘provoke’ is definitely the right word, so from time to time, I try to write something provocative in the hope that this will result in numerous comments which might become such a conversation.
Our ‘Aims’ include: being a forum; being ‘a supportive framework for Friends who regard religion as a human creation’; ensuring that the RSoF is inclusive rather than exclusive; exploring theological and spiritual diversity whilst being ‘in respectful acceptance of different views, experiences and journeys.’
So far, my post seems to have little or nothing to do with its title.
Other members of the RoSF criticise both nontheist and universalist Friends as being ‘inclusive of all’ and therefore ’standing for nothing’. How can you accept ‘anyone’ into membership (of the ‘Religious Society’) of ‘any religion or none’, regardless of belief and so on.
The Society has always kept its ‘Meetings for Worship’ open to all (as ‘attenders’) presumably in the hope that something of the practice of silent ‘worship’, its possible benefits and/or the Society’s ‘testimonies’ of ‘good behaviour’ will somehow ‘rub-off’ on those who attend. Some of those who attend (possibly for decades) might eventually become members and perhaps contribute both financially and in ‘service’ more consistently than they might have done as ‘attenders’ and this helps to pay the bills, maintain old buildings and ’keep the show on the road’.
The ‘necessary minimum’ qualification for membership has always been a matter of some argument – what does it mean exactly to be ‘convinced’ (or ‘convicted’ in older language).
Once it (membership) meant to be ‘Christian’, a follower of Christ or a follower of Jesus. But Friends were never followers of the Nicene Creed, often, perhaps justifiably, regarded as heretical by other Christian churches, although they did emphasise the importance of the personal experience (of Christ). However, this ‘personal experience’ (once, after George Fox, to ‘know it experimentally’) was never dependent on declared belief and even held to be available to all, Christian or not.
This ‘open’ position was assisted by the open and varied language used to describe the experience or ‘experiment’. Experience of what? The inner/inward light; ‘Jesus come to teach his people himself’; just ‘the light’; ‘that of God’; ‘the kingdom of heaven’; and a number of other expressions or variants biblical and non-biblical. Coupled with a belief in ‘that of God in everyone’, it is not difficult to see how this was not exclusively christian, though at first it was perhaps assumed (maybe until the middle of the twentieth century) that those who were ‘convinced’ were in effect ‘Christian’.
Whilst, after a number of ’schisms’ especially in America (perhaps after British ‘interference!), some Friends became christian and evangelical (so today we have some (Yearly) Meetings styling themselves as ‘Evangelical Friends Churches’) others including Britain Yearly Meeting set off in another direction, emphasising the ‘unprogrammed’ silent meeting and in some cases tending to become ‘universalist’ and accepting into membership Jews (not surprising); Muslims; Hindus; Sikhs; Buddhists; ‘Others’ and eventually ’nontheists’.
In addition to this, from about the middle of the twentieth century again and perhaps not co-incidentally, some Christians and some ’non-believers’ and latterly, some Friends, found Buddhism and then aspects (including ‘meditation’) from other Eastern religions (including ‘Hinduism’ and Islam/Sufism) of benefit to them in their spiritual seeking.
From being substantially Christian (or at least ‘Jesus following’) unprogrammed ‘liberal’ Friends only needed to be ‘Godly’ (believing in God?) to come into membership. Even this developed further as understandings of ‘God’, influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Eastern Christianity and Biblical criticism, changed, so that the question ‘Do you believe in God’ could be answered by ‘It depends what you mean by God (or ‘belief’)’ as well as ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. (And even ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ could be interpreted according to different understandings of ‘God’.)
Amongst nontheists, we have in membership of NFN or attending our conferences, sometimes as our keynote speakers, theists, non-theists, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, ‘lapsed Anglicans’, Christian Atheists, ‘converts’ to some of these religions or ‘positions’, agnostics, ‘naturalists’ and ‘materialists’ (believing in only the ‘natural’ or ‘material’ world, not some other spiritual or ‘transcendent’ world), ’non-theist theists’ and so on. (See the wikipedia article on ’nontheism’ for further ideas).
I’ve not even mentioned Unitarians (‘Quakers with hymns’) who have perhaps gone further in welcoming ‘Pagans’, ‘Traditional religions’ and so on. Some individual Friends may also attend Unitarian services (to sing?), Anglican or Methodist services, or retain some of their practice of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism etc. (a number of Anglicans being in joint membership for example), whilst others come to Friends and drop their former religious belief or practice. In this way, and at this time, the RoSF welcomes all to attend its meetings and often to become members according to an individual’s inclinations and the ‘discernment’ of their local and Area Meeting.
NFN, I believe, welcomes this ‘unity in diversity’ with fluid boundaries and a feeling that this is in accordance with and not at variance with Friends’ practice through the ages.
At this point (not quite finished my labouring) I will turn to the bible:
Mark 3:28-29 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”
Luke 12:10 10 “And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.”
or in the non-canonical (and clearly heretical) Gospel of Thomas:
44. Jesus said, “Whoever blasphemes against the Father will be forgiven, and whoever blasphemes against the son will be forgiven, but whoever blasphemes against the holy spirit will not be forgiven, either on earth or in heaven.”
I last used these quotations in the post “Theism vs Non-Theism” or Quaker Spirit? in June 2018 where I commented: In the end then, what Friends think, believe or experience of the ‘spirit’ might be a matter of some significance.
aSo, what do we then, as Friends, whether identifying as ‘non theists’ or not, have to say about the ‘Spirit’. (See the above post for some discussion of this).
It is, quite often, asked ‘what do nontheists do in Meeting for Worship?’ Some Friends who have been quakers all their lives from long established quaker families like to refer just to ‘Meeting’ so that the possible question ‘what are you worshipping’ is not asked.
Surveys have shown that Friends, including non theist Friends, do many different things in Meeting for Worship. Perhaps we worship, venerate, adore, pray, reflect, think, meditate, contemplate, sleep, snore, rest, sit quietly, dream, minister or all of these, none of these and some I haven’t thought of. Is there some ‘core’ to the practice (of ‘silent worship’) that we all agree on or partake of in some measure. Is it ‘communion’ or communing. How does it sometimes come to be ‘diagnosed’ as a ‘gathered’ meeting?
Friends have different experiences and understandings (not to mention misunderstandings or misconceptions) about what ‘meditation’ might be. (There are of course quite a number of different meditation or ‘meditative’ practices). Is Buddhist (or other) ‘silent worship’ (meditation) of some use or benefit to non-Buddhist Friends? Is (not) meeting for worship in part a special kind of ‘Christian’ meditation? (Please don’t just say ‘No’. Research the topic!). Is ‘Experiment with Light’ a genuine reflection of some early Friends’ practices and whether ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is it useful to (all of?) us as a conjunct to or preparation for Meeting?
Some nontheist Friends (materialists or naturalists perhaps) are distinctly unhappy with the idea, notion, concept or word ‘divine’. Other self-identified nontheists are quite happy with the idea of the ‘divine presence’. Is that the same as the Spirit (Holy Ghost or otherwise)?
Can I, at this point, say, in short? Perhaps not. Enough. Have I provoked sufficiently?
If not, why don’t we have a conference (or other event) on ‘The Spirit without God’. (or would ‘The Spirit, with or without God’ be better?).
(Answers, replies, comments, expressions of disgust etc. here please – below – rather than on a postcard).
We (that is the Nontheist Friends Network) say, under our Aims, that we ‘regard religion as a human creation’. But is it?
Humans have created many things – culture, science, technology, music, literature, architecture, society and so on. There is also a developing view that we have socially created language/s.
One thing we did not create, except in the sense of ‘making babies’, is ourselves. Humans were created, if not by God then by evolution.
A fascinating story on the BBC ‘futures’ website, based in part on the work of the Dutch-American primatologist Frans de Waal, suggests that religion itself ‘evolved’ in co-evolution with biology so that its beginnings can be traced back many millions of years to a time long before humans or even primates appeared. (Much further back than Robert Wright’s sociological perspective in his ‘Evolution of God‘).
It’s quite a long read but worth the effort I think as another contribution to our reflections on matters theological.
BYM 2019, 24-27 May, Friends’ House, Euston, London
We have booked to hold a special interest meeting on Sunday 26/05/19, 12.30-13.30, William Penn room 2, (the room holds 40-50 people)
Title: Unity, Diversity, Boundaries, the case for an inclusive Society of Friends, open to all.
(Further exploration of our Conference theme).
The meeting will be in the shape of a forum with a short introduction by David Parlett and an informal panel discussion.
We have also booked a space to take part in the special interest (Groups’) fair on the same day, Sunday 26th May evening from 5.45 , members of the SG need to be available to man this stall!
A personal view from one of our Steering Group members.
ALL Conference participants are invited to share THEIR reflections here.
(Scroll down to the very bottom to complete ‘Leave a reply’ there. You may leave the ‘website’ field blank and only need enter your name and a valid email address which will not be shared or visible on the site).
It will soon be 3 weeks since our NFN annual conference at Woodbrooke for 2019. Time enough to reflect a little on the experience.
There were about 32 present for all or part of the conference (I don’t have the exact number) and I was somewhat surprised, looking round the Cadbury Room during our final plenary session on the Sunday, that I could name everyone there (but for one surname which I had to look up). That has never happened before.
Of course, there were many ‘old friends’ (as distinct from ‘Old Friends’) who had been to many NFN conferences before but, amongst the 28 there for that final session, there were 10 who had not attended previously.
The lower numbers than previous conferences (when we have had between 50 and almost 100 attending) presented some disadvantages but also created a cosier atmosphere and the feeling by the end (at least for me) that everyone knew everyone else.
I’m sure some of those who had not attended before may feel quite differently and one participant who was rather unhappy with what he saw as ‘unquakerly’ behaviour by some there, wrote and told me about that.
I would be very interested to hear from other participants, and especially those who had not attended before, how they felt about the conference. We only received 10 feedback forms, which were generally very positive with mostly ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ ratings, and this might have been partly because there were also at least two feedback forms from Woodbrooke to complete. I know it can be difficult to find time to complete forms in the hurry to pack and leave on Sunday, but I also wonder whether only those who felt most enthusiastic, bothered to complete the forms!
You can still let us know ‘how was it for you’, either by commenting below (‘Leave a reply’), or by emailing one of the Steering Group, including myself at trevor(at)humber.co.uk (replace the (at) with the usual @ symbol (and no spaces) in your email ‘To:’ field).
Different individuals will have responded differently to different aspects of the conference but I found, as I often do, that the overall effect was very inspiring for me. Any one part on its own might have been less so, but taken together, for me, there was a good balance between our 3 main speakers and other aspects of the conference.
One slightly unsatisfactory aspect was that we did have problems with the microphones, mainly because many, myself included, find them difficult to hold close to the mouth the whole time you are speaking and find them off-putting. Microphone problems affected the short presentations where one speaker could be heard very well and the others only with difficulty. I thought that this might partly have been because the mikes handled some voices better than others.
But apart from those difficulties, I felt the conference overall was excellent. I hope we can add some specific information and reflections on each of our 3 key speakers shortly.
Please do let us know about your experience of the conference and any thoughts about future conferences, local gatherings and indeed the future of NFN as discussed at the AGM.
I have left the 2019 Conference page (29-31 March – last weekend) as the home page for the time being but enabled comments on it so, if you were there, please use the comment box (‘Leave a reply’) to give us further feedback on the conference. I will use my discretion as to whether to publish, edit or remove these!
Otherwise I have tried to update the website to reflect recent changes but some areas might still be a bit out of date. Much of the ‘old content’ is still relevant and of interest, so please have a look around (a good browse) and let me know through comments on relevant pages if you feel anything needs updating or refreshing.
It was very agreeable meeting everyone last weekend, even if, in the end, we only had just over 30 participants. Being smaller loses something but I think we also gained from the smaller numbers.
One enthusiastic first-time participant suggested we should have conferences on themes of general Quaker interest rather than just related to non-theism, theological positions and so on – but last year’s conference was on the future of Quakerism – will it survive?
What do other Ffriends think about this?
Feedback from the conference was generally very positive and further details will follow in due course.
PS. If NFN is to continue, we really do need some of you to come forward to join the Steering Group. (We can co-opt new members between AGM’s). So, if you feel you could give even just a little time, please email us or use the Contact Form to send me a message.