Tag Archives: Language we use

Upcoming events

I mentioned at the AGM on Thursday (17th February) that some nontheist Friends might be interested in the Quaker Universalists’ Conference at Woodbrooke and online from 1-3April.
Details can be found here: https://qug.org.uk/conference-2020-health-and-healing/

Friends might also be interested to look at the newly formed Quaker Truth and Integrity Group (next meeting for QTIG members on 23rd February and Zoom Conference from 25 April): https://quakertruth.org/calendar/

Courses at Woodbrooke which should certainly be of interest to nontheist Friends have already been mentioned here.

Trevor

Update and Courses at Woodbrooke

The audio file for John Richter’s talk has now been added to the homepage. There’s a minute or two missing at the beginning and unfortunately the recording quality is only fair. If we are able to add a text or transcript later we may do so.

Woodbrooke has some upcoming (online) courses which may be of particular interest to nontheist Friends – they might make a nice follow-up to John’s talk!

Nontheist Approaches to Religious Language
28 February 2022 – 27 March 2022
Tutor: Rhiannon Grant
£45.00

Why Attend Meeting for Worship if you Don’t Believe in God?
12 April 2022 – 12 April 2022
19:30 – 21:00
Tutor: Rhiannon Grant
Pay as you are led ( £ )

Are Quakers Christian?
26 April 2022 – 26 April 2022
19:30 – 21:00
Tutor: Rhiannon Grant
Pay as you are led ( £ )

Details of all these and a few other courses can be found here:
https://www.woodbrooke.org.uk/product-category/exploring-quakerism

I put the following in the comments this morning:
Whilst we’re talking about spirituality, here’s an interesting article (terrifying?) on Xi Jinping thought and the politicisation of spirituality in China:
https://unherd.com/thepost/chinas-new-plan-to-fill-the-religion-shaped-hole/

John Richter’s talk – some thoughts on the challenge

John Richter’s talk on Thursday evening did not feature his work as an artist but proved to be a provoking challenge to Quakers today, non-theist or not, to perhaps change the way we approach things if we are not (in terms of membership) to continue in terminal decline.
John’s ideas might have been unconventional after 60 years a Quaker, perhaps still feeling ‘On the Edge of Quakers’, but drew out a lively conversation of different or opposing views amongst those present (about 82 for the talk).
Our own William P(urser) closed the conversation at the very end with this from a somewhat earlier William P(enn):

“True godliness don’t turn men out of the world, but enables them to live better in it, and excites their endeavours to mend it… Christians should keep the helm and guide the vessel to its port; not meanly steal out at the stern of the world and leave those that are in it without a pilot to be driven by the fury of evil times upon the rock or sand of ruin”. (QF&P 23.02) William Penn 1682.

One of John’s suggestions (in relation to his own somewhat declining meeting at Wells-next-the-Sea (Norfolk, England)) was, weather permitting, to leave the doors open so anyone might wander in during the meeting and for people to join or leave the meeting at times to suit themselves – a practice also followed by Friends 340 years ago and indeed in the Sikh Gurudwara today. (In both cases much longer ‘meetings for worship’ – perhaps 3-4 hours amongst 17th century Quakers and sunrise to sunset amongst Sikhs).

Meetings often have a copy of the Bible, Quaker Faith and Practice (The book of Christian discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain – the ‘big red book’), Advices and Queries (the ‘little red book’ being Chapter 1 of QF&P) and sometimes other books or leaflets on the table, with a vase of flowers, in the centre of the meeting. Piers thought that visitors or newcomers to a meeting find this off-putting if the Bible and ‘Christian discipline’ have negative associations for them. But, we are the Religious Society of Friends and there were contributions from those who disliked the associations of ‘Spiritual’ whilst others might want to emphasise ’the Society’ (of which you can be a member – ’socio’ in Spanish) at the expense of ‘Religious’. Tom Shakespeare the 2020 Swarthmore Lecturer (https://www.woodbrooke.org.uk/research/swarthmore-lectures/) expressed a preference for ‘Religious not Spiritual’, doubtful about those who say they are ’Spiritual not religious’ and the associations of ’Spiritual’ with ‘New Age’ spirituality and perhaps ’Spiritualism’.

However, Jesus said: Mark 3.28-9 “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” (New Revised Standard Version).
And as the Nontheist Friends Network, our online conference in 2021 was entitled ’That’s the Spirit – Dimensions of Spirituality’
(https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/events/thats-the-spirit-dimensions-of-spirituality-nfn-conference-2021/ ) which included an impassioned talk on Humanist (or secular) Spirituality.by Andrew Copson of Humanists UK. See also https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/articles/the-faith-of-a-quaker-humanist/#Spirituality

John posed two questions at the end of his talk for the group to consider:
1 What is the purpose of Quakers?
a John’s 4-word answer was “to explore religion together” and
b He asked us to respond with our four-word answers.
2 To flourish as a society we need to make ourselves meaningful to ourselves and to people who might join. What do we need to change?

Howard answered the first with (5 words perhaps) “to have our answers questioned”. Whilst this was drawn from some Quaker pamphlet or notice and makes a nice ‘sound-bite’, I strongly suspect that many would like their questions answered too – I know I would.

John especially wanted to emphasise the open-ness of Quakers and the open ended search for truth which has evolved from the 17th century when Friends felt they had the ‘Truth’ and while this latter claim might still be true in terms of ‘the spirit within’, the ‘inner light’, the ‘Christ within’ and so on, nonetheless we recognise that there are different kinds of truth (for example scientific truth, historical truth, spiritual truth, ‘the facts’, your truth and my truth – what is true for you is not necessarily true for me, and so on) and Friends ask ‘Are you open to new light , from whatever source it may come?’ (Advices and Queries no. 7) (Some Friends question ‘from whatever source’?).

So we see that your answers may indeed be questioned but our ‘queries’ often constitute implicit ‘advice’. We can question and seek but we can also find, or perhaps that’s ‘discern’ in ‘quakerspeak’. We no longer (as Quakers did in the 17th century) go out of our way to attack or challenge ‘Puritans’ (Evangelicals?) or Papists and indeed many of us now find wisdom from the (Western) Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions too, even if we rather specialise in being unorthodox or heretical. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heresy for a good overview of heresy). The great majority of Quakers in the world, in the Americas and Africa in particular, are members of evangelical or programmed meetings with quite different worship practices and beliefs from most ‘unprogrammed’ Quakers in meetings like BYM. Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC – https://fwcc.world/about-us/) by and large succeeds in uniting all the different sorts of Quakers into one ‘family’ with a common heritage and willingness to see beyond differences and work together to ‘mend the world’.

John had himself suggested some ideas for change in his talk and these included the above-mentioned openness (even open doors) and focussing on being a society of Friends rather than a church (building or meeting) and not making silence our creed – that is to say emphasising the importance of spoken ministry and attentive ‘listening’ to what might come to us during the silence. Other Friends present emphasised the importance of friendship and being meetings of friends – doing things together, socialising together as well as to ‘live better in the world, and be excited in their endeavours to mend it’. Whilst there were disagreements and differences of emphasis, many of these came down to different language: spiritual not religious or v.v, society v. church and meeting v. church. The development of language about ‘God’ – or ‘whatever you call it’ is particularly demanding: God is real or a metaphor, ‘theist’ or ’nontheist’ might be a continuum rather than either/or – see, for example, ‘God, words and us’ – https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/?s=God%2C+words+and+us

Whether you were present at John’s talk or not, please let us have your comments and thoughts below!

 

Dinah Livingstone – On Dover Beach

Dinah delivered our third and final talk of the NFN 2021 Conference on 21st July and ’rounded off’ the series very fittingly.

(The many links below generally open in a new window or tab).

Our three speakers spoke quite independently, guided only to deliver their talks based on their idea of spirituality – ‘That’s the spirit! – dimensions of spirituality.’

Nonetheless, the notion (one of George Fox’s ‘windy notions’?) of Spirituality resulted in three talks which, very different as expected, hung together to satisfy and inspire different members of our ‘Quaker Kaleidoscope’.

Dinah is the editor of the Sea of Faith’s magazine ‘Sofia‘ in which role she succeeded the previous editor, NFN’s ‘own’ David Boulton (one of the key founders of the Nontheist Friends Network) in 2004 and changed its name to ‘Sofia‘.  Gill Pennington mentioned David’s ‘The Faith of a Quaker Humanist‘ (1997) which I understand is still the most often downloaded booklet from the Quaker Universalist Group’s website. We can see and perhaps ‘feel’ the threads linking Humanism, the Sea of Faith Network and the Nontheist Friends Network.

The Sea of Faith Network takes its name from Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘Dover Beach’, one stanza of which reads:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

You can find the full poem (4 stanzas, 37 lines I think) here:
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43588/dover-beach

Was it surprising to many of us that Dinah’s talk from a ‘sea of faith perspective’ was so biblical? Both Andrew Copson and Gill Pennington had mentioned biblical stories but Dinah wove an account of what I might call the ‘sea of faith version of religion, humanism and nontheism’ drawn substantially from the bible as if it might be considered the source of these ideas. This is consistent with Dinah’s re-naming of the SoF Journal to ‘Sofia’ – a serendipitous extension of the acronym SoF. (An alternative spelling for ‘Holy Wisdom‘ being Sophia). The wisdom literature of the bible provides this potential biblical basis for Don Cupitt‘s ideas and Dinah’s talk. (SEA OF FAITH NETWORK started in 1984 as a response to Don Cupitt’s book and TV series of the same name.)

At the very top of the Sea of Faith website homepage it states:

“The Network…
Explores the implications of accepting religion as a human creation;
Promotes the validity of creative, human-centred religion;
Affirms the continuing importance of religious thought
and practice as expressions of awe and wonder and
celebrations of spiritual and social values.”

Only slightly less prominently on our NFN website (You have to look under ‘About’ and then ‘Aims of the network’ here: https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/about/aims-of-the-network/), we state:

“The Network’s aim is to provide a forum and supportive framework for Friends who regard religion as a human creation. We want to ensure that our Religious Society of Friends is an inclusive rather than an exclusive Society. We seek to explore theological and spiritual diversity and their practical implications, in respectful acceptance of different views, experiences and journeys.” (clause 2. of our constitution added the words ‘and attenders’ at our last AGM).

It’s almost as if the Sea of Faith is the Christian branch of the nontheist humanists and the nontheist Friends network is the Quaker branch of the Sea of Faith. (and I’d always thought of us as the nontheist branch of the Quaker Universalist Group). Perhaps we should convene next on Dover Beach?

Joking apart, we can surely feel those threads referred to above linking Humanism, Christian origins, Quaker Universalism, Sea of Faith and the NFN.

Dinah drew from the bible, and Christ’s teaching, its essential humanism or human facing concerns. This is perhaps not so surprising given that ‘Humanism’ has arisen, in the last two centuries, from within the Western Christian tradition. As one wit reported in a recent Quaker meeting ‘God created man in his own image – and man returned the compliment’ (or was it the other way round?). I had better at least mention at this point the Goddess to contrast with God the Father.

This ‘pre-conference reading’ bibliography prepared for the 2020 conference provides links to David Boulton’s and other NFN books: https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/2020/03/01/a-2020-nfn-conference-bibliography/

(Some of the links above are repeated):
https://sofn.org.uk/pages/dinah_livingstone.html
https://www.sofn.org.uk/links/don-cupitt.html
https://sofn.org.uk/sofia/index.html – Sofia magazine
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43588/dover-beach
https://www.sofn.org.uk/links/index.html – useful links
https://www.sofn.org.uk/links/spirituality.html – SoF links for Spirituality

NFN Monthly Meeting reminder

Don’t forget the first of these monthly meetings with Creative conversations is tomorrow night Thursday 4th March 2021 at 7.30pm UK time (UTC). You can see all the details in the previous post and on the relevant (new) page, which is currently set as our home (landing) page under ‘Events’.

We have now added two further confirmed dates/speakers, so John Senior and William Purser will be followed by Philip Gross on Thursday 6th May and Kiera Faber on Thur. 3rd June.

We look forward to seeing you there and if you haven’t registered yet, please email as shown to do so.

History of the NFN

At this 2021 New Year’s tide, I thought it might be interesting to have a look at our NFN (UK) history to help us reflect on ‘where we are’ and ‘how we got here’.

The earliest history directly on this site is our 2012 Minute and Epistle to be found here: https://nontheistquakers.files.wordpress.com/2016/09/nontheism-among-friends.pdf

However, there is even earlier history, from 2011, on our companion US site here: http://www.nontheistfriends.org/article/what-next-for-quaker-nontheism and here: http://www.nontheistfriends.org/article/new-nontheist-friends-network-in-britain
Going even further (way back to 1976) there is a report on the US site of an FGC meeting in New York in that year: http://www.nontheistfriends.org/article/report-from-nontheistic-friends-workshop-at-fgc-1976-2

An early and moving post by James Riemermann of (and at) Twin Cities Meeting, Minnesota from April 2005 can be found here: http://www.nontheistfriends.org/article/my-spiritual-journey-riemermann

The earliest post I can find on the US site concerns a gathering of nontheist quakers including David Boulton, David Rush, and Kitty Rush at Woodbrooke in January 2004, posted by Os Cresson here: http://www.nontheistfriends.org/article/greetings-from-woodbrooke-2004

That should whet the appetite for now and there might be more to follow!

Wholly Human Experience

Our NFN Clerk, Gisela, wrote to The Friend in response to a letter by Martyn Poole in April 2020, entitled”Faith and Practice”. Her letter was published in the 19 June issue but I thought it worth reproducing here. It read (edited by The Friend) as follows:

Stirrings of the heart
Why be so concerned and negative about Quakers with diverse conceptions of ‘God’ airing their views? Where does the idea come from that nontheists (granted it is a bit of an unfortunate name) wish for the Society of Friends to change their practice?

Personally, as a nontheistic Quaker, I respect our Christian roots and the history of Quakerism and the insights that has given us. Like most Quakers, I too feel challenged to look deeply into my heart for the promptings of love and truth, for compassion, wonder, thankfulness and, most of all, honesty to live usefully and responsibly in this wonderful world together with all people and creatures.

For me, this is a wholly human experience to do with my feelings, where God language, used by others, is often like beautiful poetry to describe the stirrings of the heart.

Gisela Creed

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.

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.

Towards a Nontheist View of Discernment

Towards a Nontheist View of Discernment

What is discernment for you? A recent piece in The Friend (by Neil Morgan, 9 August issue) titled ‘How nontheists view discernment is giving me a headache’, argues that without the sense of revelation from God, and sense of connection with God, discernment loses its distinctive Quaker quality. So what are nontheists doing? Are they just ‘listening empathically’ to each other? The piece ends with the plea, ‘Could Rhiannon [Grant] or someone from the NFN please explain to me what they are doing when they are discerning – or at least what they think they are doing?’ (This was in a review of Rhiannon’s book Telling the Truth about God. Rhiannon reminds us that she does not self-identify as a nontheist but is a friend of nontheists.) In response, we asked our members to share their views on how nontheists view discernment for publication in this newsletter, identifying writers only by initials. Here are some responses (so far…)

The Nontheist Friends Network is my spiritual home. Born in 1935 I have always been a sceptic about God. My mother was a Grammar-school science teacher, my father a pillar of the Welsh Calvinist Methodist Church.

When, as a young child, I asked my mother where God was, she said ‘Oh – up there somewhere’, to which I responded – ‘He cannot be thick, or else he would fall down’. I have never been a ‘believer’ in God or been able to ascribe any significant meaning to the word. My ambitious father sent me to a Quaker boarding-school, simply because he could not find a private Methodist school that he liked.

I went to university, and became Secretary of the Cambridge Humanist Society, under the chairmanship of E M Forster. I regard the world’s religions as among the greatest artistic creations of mankind. I realize that millions have found inspiration in their images of Deity, but I cannot share them. For me, religions resemble great symphonies, inspiring works of sculpture or painting, wise sayings – and they are part of my world, but not supernatural.

And yet I loved my Quaker school and its diverse, cosmopolitan, community. I loved Reading Meeting, which we attended every fortnight. I came to love Quaker ways, and Quaker values. Later, in my sixties and an Attender at Swansea Meeting, I was accepted as a Member, and became a Friend. I came home. [RWE]

I am surprised that Rhiannon Grant’s book gives Neil Morgan a headache. Nontheists have a heart and an awareness of all the rich sensitivities of the human spirit, communicated for instance by poetry, art and music. They also share the characteristic human sense of empathy and compassion towards the feelings of others. They bring all these senses to bear on matters that require discernment – senses that some would call spiritual. [GGS]

I find a quiet place and I think. Not exactly rocket science. I may do this during MfW too. Occasionally I may do some research and read things that may relate to a concern, or I speak to people. This process may take some time, depending on the concern, or it may just be listening to points of view at a meeting for worship for business to compose a minute. Either way it just requires some head space and a time of thought without the intervention of a God figure. I often come to a revelation all on my own. [AK]

I’m listening to what Friends have to say with an open mind and an awareness of my own possible prejudices, being prepared to make up my mind or change my mind according to what I hear. I weigh it all up, using my experience and intelligence, think about ‘what love requires of me’ and I speak my views if I feel it would be helpful. If a decision goes a way I’m not happy with, I accept that this is what Friends wanted and try to accept it with good grace,

I’m certainly not waiting for any kind of divine guidance. [LE]

My late husband called Quaker processes ‘the jewel in the Crown.’ As Assistant then Clerk of my Meeting, I found discernment to be a bright facet of the jewel.

It is hard work, to put oneself aside and listen – really listen to what each Friend says. Then to keep that so important space between each contribution is vital as we begin to ‘take on board’ the many aspects of the item under consideration. This will lead to a moment when the Clerk feels it is right to attempt a minute. The Clerk then needs to be upheld by the quiet, loving support of those present as he or she tries to put into words the sense of the Meeting.

The minute first proposed can then be worked on, if need be, until Friends feel it to be a true reflection of the discernment process that has just taken place. This has been achieved by a group of Friends having mutual respect, care and love for each other and for the furtherance of Quakerism. [AR]

I see discernment as a way of improving the quality of discussion and of eventual decision- making as compared with more common ways of handling group discussions such as committees and voting.

The very fact of meetings (of any kind) implies universal recognition of ‘collective intelligence’ alongside individual points of view. My own experience has left me in no doubt that (a) the outcome of meetings can be influenced by the mood of the meeting and (b) that the mood can be managed. Such management can take the form of, for example, the style of the chair, the meeting conventions and practical aspects such as timing, papers circulated, accommodation and so on.

Quakers have developed a particular style of discussing business matters that is harmonious with Quaker values and therefore, on the whole, observed. The discipline of waiting to be called by the clerk to speak, of avoiding engagement with others who have spoken, of speaking respectfully, of a readiness to be persuaded and of careful recording of the discernments of the meeting by the clerk all lead to a productive interaction between individual views and the collective intelligence which, to me, is the essence of discernment.

So I understand Neil Morgan’s use of the words revelation and connection but I see them applying to the relationship between individual views and collective intelligence rather than to God. [GH]

I have never ever thought that discernment was only possible with a belief in God!
This would mean that only ‘religious’ people could do any good – which is obviously not true.

For me, Quakers are a constant reminder that the fundamental tenets of Quakerism – peace, equality, sustainability, justice and truth – are what we need to keep in mind on a daily basis and that is what the community of Quakers gives me. [MW]

Discernment does not lose its distinctive Quaker quality because one is a non-theist. In meeting I try to think good thoughts and how I can do better with my life – it tempers the bad stuff in the world. I do not sit there worrying about whether it is God, or simply my conscience bringing these thoughts out. But it does. For me Quakers is about what you do, not whether you believe in God or not. [EW]

Neil Morgan (9 August) asks how nontheists regard Quaker discernment, assuming that they necessarily cut ‘God’ out of the equation. I am a member of the Network who does actually believe in God. But what I believe in is not the existence of God but the presence of God, and for me that difference is vital.

For as long as I can remember I have been constantly aware of a presence that is ‘closer than breathing’, very personal, yet not entirely part of myself. It has always been with me, more or less out of eyeshot, and its presence means that I never feel lonely or alone. Not only that, but I also feel that it both guards and guides me. Whatever it may be is reliable and comforting. I call it ‘God’ because I grew up with the word and still find meaningful and useful. But it’s a name, not a definition. I ‘believe in’ it in the etymological sense of credo = cor do (Latin: ‘I give my heart’). I also share in the presence of God corporately, mostly in meeting for worship.

I feel that to speak of God as ‘existing’ is to categorise God as part of the universe, bound by space and time, whereas the presence of God is not an objective reality but a subjective human experience. People may claim they don’t see God as a bearded old man in the sky, yet many still speak as if they do. If God ‘exists’ anywhere, it is in the human heart, not ‘out there’. A literal belief in the externally ‘real’ existence of God seems dangerous and demeaning. The NFN provides me with a respectful and non judgmental forum enabling me to explore my theology more thoroughly than in most other areas of Quaker life. I may not like the word ‘nontheist’, but I treat it as a name, not a definition. After all, I don’t define myself by reference to my own name.

Thus I can understand Quaker discernment as joining with others in listening to and acting on the leadings of God, and as an occasional clerk and elder for many years can attest to its efficacy. [DP]

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