Tag Archives: Diversity

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.
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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.

Report on 2019 NFN Conference

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!).

A Conference Reflection

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.

Trevor Bending

Diversity

Our conference this year (29th-31st March 2019 – have you booked yet?) is on the subject(s) of Unity, Diversity and Boundaries.

Perhaps our speakers will be thinking mainly of diversity of belief (and practice) but there are other kinds of diversity (of concern) and here is an interesting article from Friends Journal about racial diversity by an American Friend:

https://www.friendsjournal.org/white-stamina/