Tag Archives: Events

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.

Steering Group Meeting at Lancaster 24 July 2019

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!

Spirituality without Supernaturalism

A guest post from John Senior (mid-Wales Area Meeting):

Finding Inner Stillness – Spirituality without Supernaturalism

John Senior                                                                                                                 June 2019

On a sunny Thursday in late May, nine Friends gathered at remote and tranquil Dolobran Meeting House in mid-Wales for a day of ‘Finding Inner Stillness – an Experiential Exploration following leads given in Advices & Queries 1 & 3’.

This was the culmination of thoughts I first expressed in a short article ‘Words killeth’ published in the Friend, 8th June 2018, and subsequently developed into a 20 minute talk ‘Quaker spiritual practice – Advice and Queries 1 and 3 shorn of supernaturalism’ given at the NFN Conference in March this year. I had become frustrated that all the discussion about the meaning of words used in Quaker Faith and Practice had become a distraction from our mystical experiential roots. There are however, in Advices and Queries at the very beginning of Quaker Faith and Practice, four clear pointers:

‘All of us need to find a way into silence which allows us to deepen our awareness of the divine and to find the inward source of our strength.  Seek to know an inward stillness…

…even amid the activities of daily life’. (A&Q3)

‘Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts.  Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life’. (A&Q 1)

‘Hold yourself and others in the Light, knowing that all are cherished by God’. (A&Q 3)

Sadly, nowhere in Faith and Practice is there guidance on putting these four instructions into practice.

The response to my article was not encouraging – just a pedantic observation that ‘Words killeth’ is bad English: it should be ‘Words kill’ or ‘The word killeth’.

Undaunted, I set about the task of uncovering practices behind these four instructions, starting by rewriting them shorn of their unhelpful veil of supernaturalism:

All of us need to find a way into silence which allows us to find the inward source of our strength. Seek to know an inward stillness…

…even amid the activities of daily life.

Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.

Hold yourself and others in the Light.

Putting these directions into practice formed the structure of the day at Dolobran.

Geoffrey Hubbard (QF&P 26.12, 1974) states that ‘…one approaches…by efforts which call for the deepest resources of one’s being…to the condition of true silence…not just of sitting still…but of a wide awake, fully aware non-thinking. The thinking me has vanished, and with it vanishes the sense of separation, of unique identity…one is conscious of being a participant in the whole of existence, not limited to the body or the moment… It is in this condition that one understands the nature of divine power, its essential identity with love, in the widest sense of that much misused word’.

We spent most of the morning trying out a range of methods for bringing the mind to stillness – methods widely used in the East, but less familiar to non-monastics in the West – to find one that worked best for each of us. First finding a good posture and relaxing any tension in the body, scanning from scalp to toe (or toe to scalp). Then observing the breath, or looking at a pebble, or chanting a mantra – a short repeated word or phrase such as Maranatha (Aramaic: Our Lord comes) – under the breath with or without meditation beads, or practising slow walking meditation taking a step forward on each breath. All are methods for focusing the mind so as to prevent wondering thoughts. Finally, once the mind had settled, watching thoughts as they arise and just letting them be: ‘Let through (into awareness), let be (without elaborating), let go’, or, perhaps more memorable, ‘Let unexpected visitors in through the open front door, let them out by the open back door, but don’t give them any biscuits!

Of course, this is of little value unless we can maintain a degree of inner stillness ‘even amid the activities of daily life’. Although the discipline of a regular practice helps us respond to daily events in a non-judgemental manner rather than reacting on impulse, we need to be on the alert for loss of equanimity. Reflecting on this was helped by reading two ancient stories (see http://www.katinkahesselink.net/tibet/zen.html ). One, Taoist, compares the calm way in which an old farmer, unlike his neighbours, reacts when his horse escapes; returns with three wild horses; one of which throws the farmer’s son, breaking his leg; saving him from conscription. The other, Buddhist, compares the reactions of two monks when one helps a young woman by carrying her across a river: the other monk worries about the unseemly action of the first monk, who replies ‘I set her down on the other side, but you are still carrying her’.

Following a quiet lunch, the only distraction being a pair of redstarts feeding their young in their nest under the gable end, we took heed of the statement in A&Q 1 that ‘Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life’. For this we are fortunate in having the guided meditation ‘Experiment with Light’: theologian Rex Ambler’s carefully researched reconstruction, based on detailed study of early Quaker texts, of a practice referred to, for example, by James Nayler (QF&P 21.65), and in more detail in George Fox’s letter of 1658 to Lady Elizabeth Claypole, and 24 years later in William Penn’s ‘No Cross, No Crown’. The meditation is presented by Rex in the format ‘Mind the Light, Open to the Truth, Wait in the Light, Submit to the Truth’ – giving the acronym MOWS. After the 40 minute guided meditation we took advantage of the sunshine to spend half an hour alone in the garden absorbing what had arisen, and expressing it in words or drawing if inspired to do so, before gathering for a sharing session based on the guidance given in QF&P 12.21.

Experiment with Light is a deep practice, best practised in a group that meets on a regular basis: for texts and guidance, and your nearest group, see www.experiment-with-light.org.uk

To complete the final admonition to ‘Hold yourself and others in the Light’ we first wrote the names of those, including ourselves, whom we wished to hold in the Light on a small piece of paper which we folded and placed in a container – in our case a Tibetan ‘singing’ bowl. We lit a candle, and after declaring ‘We dedicate this time and space to the healing of all those who are named so that they may benefit from the Light’ we sat for half an hour in the manner of Meeting. During the sit any other names that came to mind could be mentioned. The session and the day was brought to a close by declaring ‘We wish all merits deriving now or in the future from these our practices to be distributed everywhere for the good of all’, shaking hands, and extinguishing the candle.

Thus we each found a PRACTICE for finding ‘an inner stillness’, considered our EQUANIMITY ‘even amid the activities of daily life’, engaged in EXPERIMENT WITH LIGHT to experience the ‘Light (that) shows us our darkness and brings us to new life’, and held ourselves and others in the LIGHT – giving the acronym PEEL. I hope that this will be of some assistance to all of us who are seeking to peel away outer delusions to find, and give life and expression to, the inward source of our strength – the Light within.

 

John Senior                                                                                                                 June 2019

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!).

Buddhism, Meditation and God

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).