Quakerism. A Concern to be tested by Bedminster Local Quaker
- I am glad to have this opportunity to express my
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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