Non-theistic Quakerism. A Concern to be tested by Bedminster Local Quaker Meeting

I am glad to have this opportunity to express my Concern.

The reason the Meeting asked me to write this rather than speak to it is that I had warned them it would take quite a while to express it. I feel I need to clarify the language I use, and I need to convince Friends that the problem I see is real. I need also to explain how it came about, and, finally, what can be done about it. Another introductory point: because I have not felt able to express my Concern adequately in the past, or have done so without clarity, some Friends have jumped to false conclusions. I must emphasise, I do not say 'everyone should believe what I believe'. Nor that anyone should be excluded from the Society on the grounds of their belief or non-belief.

The Meaning of Words.
Some Friends dismiss my Concern by saying it is only a matter of language. That being so, I need to be clear as to what I mean by certain key words, such as religious, god, God, believe, trust, etc. I believe that anyone joining a specialist organisation, be it a sports club, a professional body, or a religious group, should be willing to learn and accept its jargon. Moreover, just because many people mis-use or misunderstand certain words, we need not abandon them. The word 'Christian' does not necessarily mean a rabid evangelical fundamentalist. 'God' does not mean an authoritarian old man with a long white beard. We are limited if we choose not to use perfectly good words simply because some people with whom we disagree use or over-use them. And, if we disagree on a word's meaning we have dictionaries. They exist for use when there is uncertainty as to a word's meaning. I try to use words with only the meaning defined in dictionaries. People differ about the nature or even the existence of God or their gods, but we all know what the word 'god' means. In case not, the dictionary tells us, a god is a supernatural being worshipped as the controller of some aspect of life. And that 'God' with a capital 'G' means “the sole supreme being … in religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam.” If what we thought was one thing turns out to be another, we use a different word. For instance if we thought what we heard was an approaching thunderstorm, but it turned out to be artillery, we would be silly to go on calling it thunder. Similarly, if some Friends come to believe that what we all thought was the effects of a god, was actually a human construct, a delusion, I think it confusing if they continue to call it God.

As for the meaning of some other words, I point out that the verbs 'to believe' and 'to trust' are used when there is room for doubt. Otherwise we use 'to know'. To trust is something one does, maybe despite considerable doubts. The word 'religion' as about God, the dictionary says it is “belief in or worship of a supernatural power … considered to be divine and have control of human destiny”. And in the word 'religious' the '-ous' means having it, not just being interested in it. 'Light' with a capital L in the phrase God's Light' refers to the eternal Christ, 'that which is eternal', or what St John called 'The Word'.

Are we religious?
We are members of the “Religious Society of Friends”. In other words we announce ourselves as being an organisation set up to worship a supernatural power. This I regard as a fact, not an opinion. I consider it seriously sad that it needs saying.

Are we Christians?
We are religious, but are we Christian? I would say undoubtedly, 'yes', like it or not. Firstly, if we were to regard the followers of each Hindu god as constituting a separate religion, and every schism of Islam as a separate religion, and every denomination of Christianity as a separate religion, then we might say Quakers was a distinctive Religion in its own right. But if the world religions are grouped into 5 to 15 main categories or Faiths then we are definitely in the Christian camp. Secondly, all our main testimonies and practices are clearly 'in the school of Christ'. The morals we espouse are those that Jesus of Nazareth emphasised, more so than those of Mohammed or Buddha or Shiva. Thirdly, the theologians and leaders of the other Christian denominations implored us to join them, and when after lengthy debate amongst ourselves, we agreed to do so, they immediately appointed our YM Clerk as one of their three Presidents, the others being the arch-bishops of the Anglican and the Roman denominations. In most towns, Quakers are active members of Churches Together. Fourth, it has been shown in an official BYM document (“To Lima With Love”) that we practice all the essential Christian rituals albeit in our own distinctive manner. Fifthly, we agreed to give our handbook (QF&P) the sub-title “Book of Christian Discipline...”.

We ARE a Christian denomination even though many of our members might wish we were not. Again, I consider it terribly sad that this needs saying.

My Concern
My Concern relates to the increase in numbers of Friends who describe themselves as non-theistic and in particular those who insist on or campaign for full acceptance of their non-belief in God, not merely toleration. My dictionary defines 'theism' as '1. belief in one God as the creator of everything in the universe. 2. belief in the existence of a God or gods'. So presumably non-theism is rejection of these beliefs. Non-theists do not call themselves agnostic, which would imply their minds were open.

It might help Friends to accept the validity of my Concern if I point out that it is possible, in fact normal, for the aims or purpose of an organisation to differ from those of its members. A communist may work for a capitalist company. A school's purpose is education while a teacher's is his or her salary and career. My view is not that every Friend should declare themselves a Christian, but that BYM is and I hope will remain a religious society in the Christian camp.

I fully accept, in fact welcome, our inclusiveness. So I would not say that a non-theistic Quaker (“NTQ”) should not attend meeting. (I do however consider it foolish to appoint non-theists to roles such as Elders.) My understanding and my experience is that if one attends meeting, open to the Spirit, one will be taught and transformed. But I wonder if the Spirit can teach and transform a Friend who is actively resisting the concept that it exists. I am uncomfortable in a meeting for worship when not all of us trust that true vocal ministry is inspired. And in a business meeting where some of us see our task as working together to discern the will of God, while others are simply expressing their own opinions. However, this only makes me uncomfortable. I can cope with it, so long as NTQs don't interfere with our customary practice. As people of faith, we come together to strengthen our faith, not to have it undermined. Jesus said that three most important qualities were faith, hope, and love. We do not seek to undermine each others' hope or love - why undermine faith?.

What I see as a more significant potential problem with the growing number and assertiveness of non-theistic Quakers is the situation which might arise when we come to revise “Quaker Faith and Practice” (QF&P) in a few years time. Will non-theistic Quakers demand that words to which they object be removed from all the editorial passages? Will they demand that our title, the Religious Society of Friends, etc. which was revised in the 90s be revised again? Will they object to its sub-title “The book of Christian Discipline...”? If so, it will very, very divisive. And even if the YM became convinced that we ceased to claim to be religious, we would encounter another unfortunate problem. As a charity we are not permitted to alter our 'Object' which is 'religious'. We could only do so by giving away all our property and investments, disbanding, and re-forming as another organisation.

Two arguments might be put to allay my Concern. One is that I have exaggerated the number and assertiveness of NTQs. In response I note that we have had several instance of opposition to religious language within our local and our area meetings. More to the point, Quaker Life has been supporting non-theism and neglecting its duty, according to its terms of reference, to nurture our faith. Two conferences held in 2008 by QL were entitled 'Quaker Identity, the Heart of our Faith' but were almost entirely devoted 'revolutionary spiritualities'. One main invited speaker, the notorious David Boulton, described religion as a 'delusion'. He said one might as well believe in Harry Potter. Another keynote speaker described many many 'new spiritualities', some Christian, most secular, as being today's Quakerism. Another, who 'admitted' apologetically to being a Christian, is the only one whose speech is not included in the published proceedings. In my home group meeting after David Bouton's contribution all of us rejected his thesis except one Friend, who was a prominent leading member of QL. Almost all current learning materials which QL publishes emphasises 'spirituality' and avoids almost totally any mention of us as a religious body. (Spirituality can be found in many areas besides religion. It is an essential part of religion but it does not replace it.) So I do not agree that the potential danger is trivial. It should not be acceptable for Friends House to bring about significant change without BYM generally having discussed and agreed it.

The other objection that might be raised against my Concern is that for Quakers to become non-theistic would be a good thing. Maybe so long as we continue to 'worship' as we do the Spirit will be able to 'teach and transform us' despite us not believing in it. Maybe the world needs an organisation which accepts semi-religious practice while rejecting the faith that originally inspired it. Just as we are now a haven for those who seek religion without the ritual and accretions of other Christian denominations, and other Faiths, so maybe it now needs another ethical society to replace the almost rather moribund British Humanist Society. Maybe the world needs a reformist, peace and social witness organisation whose members also indulge in regular meditation. I think not.

The basis of Quaker effectiveness.
I believe the reason liberal, unprogrammed Quakers have been so extraordinarily effective despite their small membership (I could offer objective evidence of this assertion) is that they act correctly and boldly because of their conviction that they are directly and personally guided and strengthened by God's Spirit. There are many reformist peace and justice-seeking groups. There are many religious and secular meditation groups. There are several groups interested in exploring religious phenomena and comparative religion. There is only one unique Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and and the world would be a worse place if it degenerated into the Spiritual or the Secular Society of Friends.

However I acknowledge that I might be mistaken in this, hence my wish that it be prayerfully considered and tested in a worshipful meeting. David Boulton himself has frequently called for a full discussion of this topic.

How has it happened?
How has this situation - the strengthening of non-theism in our supposedly religious society - come about? Firstly, we have been very wrong deliberately not to inform newcomers of the true religious a nd Christian nature of our organisation, for fear of putting them off. It is reprehensible that we have defied our testimony to truth by obscuring our essential Truth. The result is that many have joined us unaware that “Religious” in our title was anything more than a hangover from our history. There are Friends of some years standing who are totally ignorant of the true nature of the organisation they joined. Or those who simply reject the truth. All of us are to blame but I particularly blame Quaker Life for not acting effectively in support of our Christian faith,  despite warnings in books and lectures over the past two or so decades from Friends far more learned and authoritative than me. What would have happened had we been more forthcoming? We might not have gained so many recruits, we might have declined in numbers. But would that have been so bad? We are already very small compared with all the other well-known denominations, but effective in our peace and social witness activity, and effective in providing a unique home for people seeking a simple way of reaching God, and being reached by God. For us numbers should matter less than truth and simplicity.

Secondly some intellectual Friends (and members of other denominations) have developed their philosophical and theological thinking to the belief in the 'human construct' theory. They are products of the philosophies fashionable in the Twentieth Century: relativism, individualism, and post-modernism. I've nothing against that but I would have thought them more at home in one of the organisations concerned with theological theory, such as the Alsister Hardy Society. Traditionally Quakers have not been much interested in theology and did not respect 'professors'. For me that was one of Quakerism's attractions. I do my theology elsewhere.

To sum up so far. I hope I have shown that we do have a potential problem.

What is to be done?
Firstly I believe Quaker Life should be required to act on its terms of reference and not outside of them. They should cease advocating non-theism. They should introduce effective measures to ensure that all Friends especially newcomers are made fully aware of the fact that we are a religious society, and an active member of the Christian Faith. We should all be helped to realise that QF&P is current and relevant, especially the passages which state what we are and what we expect each other to do (but not what to believe), as are clearly specified in QF&P 1.01 and Advices 1 and 8.

1.01. As Friends we commit ourselves to a way of worship which allows God to teach and transform us... all our testimonies grow from this leading.”

Advice 1: … Trust [the promptings of love and truth in your hearts] as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to a new life”

Advice 8 says that worship is our response to an awareness of God, and that God draws us together and leads us.

I hope Friends will unite with my Concern. If we are to avoid serious divisiveness we all need to accept that our Religious Society is indeed a religious society.

Stephen Petter
16 April 2009, revised 4/5/09

My local Meeting declined that this was not a 'concern' as implicitly defined in Quaker Faith and Practice and so decided not to discuss the substansive issues in a clerked business meeting.

I am inclined to send it to such Friends as the clerks to YM Trustees, YM Quaker Life Ceentral Committee, etc., and to raise it at YM.
SP 19/5/09, revised 8/8/09 

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