My Concern about the spread of Non-theism amongst Quakers.

December 2013


(Extracts from a letter to a fFriend)

Friends seem continually to misunderstand me. I suppose I must admit that it is probably that I do not express myself adequately. For instance it is said that I try to impose my idea of God on Friends. In fact my views about God are very wide, inclusive and uncertain. For this reason I am careful to try not to express them. People jump to conclusions about what I believe. If I mention certain words, such as 'Christian', or 'Jesus' many Friends assume I am some sort of evangelistic fundamentalist.

When I wrote that I accept 'standard orthodox modern Quakerism' I did not mean to emphasise the word 'orthodox' (as in 'Orthodox Jew') but simply to claim that nothing I say is outwith accepted Quakerism, as described in the current edition of QF&P.

As Quakers we do not try to define or describe God. We refer simply to God's effects on us. (“We know this experimentally”.) But God and God's effects are utterly essential and crucial to Quakerism. Non-theists often defend their membership by listing their qualities, their acceptance of the testimonies, and their sincerity. But these are not unique to Quakerism nor are they essential to it. As the first paragraph of Advices and Queries states (and the Bideford statement repeats), all our testimonies grow from the leadings of God's Spirit. Non-theists point to their spirituality, but in my opinion spirituality is a part of, or closely associated with religion, but it is not all there is to religion. We are a religious society, exercising a deep spirituality; not merely a spiritual society.

There is no doubt in my mind that non-theism is gaining ground to a significant extent in our Society, especially in Bristol. I am very concerned that it will debilitate or even destroy the Quakerism which we love, and which many of us find to be our only satisfactory spiritual home. Moreover I consider Quakerism to be of great value to the world. Non-theism will lead us to being  just another reformist organisation, very like the Green Party (of which I am a member). (The GP starts its meetings with a period of silence.)

Quakerism as I understand and love it is best described in QF&P. One of our admirable features is that we revise it every generation – I was much involved in the massive consultation process and the two YMs in one year which resulted in the current version, so I 'own' it. It starts with us defining ourselves as people who allow God to teach and transform us. In Advice 1 we urge each other to trust that certain good things come from God. The chapter on applications for membership refers to divine guidance being a Quaker fundamental. As a national organisation and at local level in many places we take a very active part in the Christian ecumenical movement. But many Friends are ignorant of these facts. What I feel led to do is to dispel that ignorance. I am very critical of Quaker Life Central Committee for having allowed this situation to arise despite many warnings from weighty Friends far more erudite than me.

What I am most worried about is that when we come to revise QF&P again the non-theists will object to the word 'God' and to the concept of divine guidance. (One of my early disputes after arriving in Bristol and serving as clerk to Bedminster Meeting, was whether a clerk should simply record the sense of the meeting or whether he or she should record the discernment they have reached in the light of what has been said. It seems that the prevailing wisdom is the former, which is very close to democracy.

I may sound very certain in all this, but in fact I do question myself and frequently ask myself if I am mistaken. I pray and I discuss the issues frequently. Next week I am to have a discussion about it at Woodbrooke. But several times during my 30 years as a member I have been unpopular for expressing a conviction, and felt very wretched about it. But I have had reassurance later when the Society eventually accepted the position I had advocated. It's not that I am educated or clever, but it seems that I am prepared to take the risk of voicing a view which the establishment does not.



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