Our Problem and How To Resolve It.
Submitted to The Friend, December 2013.
Letters to The Friend about acceptance of Atheism, Non-theism, and God indicate that despite several year's discussion we are no closer to a resolution of this dispute. The debate has not been helped by the lack of definition of terms, particularly ‘non-theism’. Are non-theistic Friends merely unhappy with the word 'God' while accepting divine guidance? Or do they firmly disbelieve in any 'God' (as normally understood), in which case might they not more helpfully describe themselves as atheists?
How have we become so dis-united over such an essential issue? Is it because newcomers receive no induction training? Many Meetings no long even read Advices and Queries regularly. Our reluctance to engage in anything smacking of indoctrination is justified by two assumptions. First, that Friends 'allow God to teach and transform' them; any didactic introduction to traditional Quaker beliefs might interrupt the flow of the Spirit. Secondly, that no-one would remain in a religious society if they had no intention of accepting its religion. In addition our avoidance of religious language in order not to upset “refugees from Christianity” results in an assumption that Quakerism is no longer to do with God, Jesus' teachings, or the Spirit. Some Friends have an outdated, simplistic concept of God, which we do little to dispel. “Quaker Faith and Practice” (QF&P) shows that the God worshipped by Quakers is very different from that which they reject.
It is regrettable that we have failed despite many warnings over the past few decades to make clear to all enquirers and applicants for membership that Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM) is an active part of the Christian church; that members are 'humble learners in the school of Christ'. Many Friends consider Quakerism to be essentially about testimonies, values, love, community, and a generalised 'spirituality' – but not God.
Can those Friends who have decided to trust in God and God's Light and those who have firmly decided they cannot do so worship together with integrity? Can we make acceptable, honest decisions, for instance on proposed revision of the phrases such as 'the leadings of God', by our process of seeking God's will, if many present firmly reject any such God? The potential for debilitating dispute is very real. We need to resolve the matter before we meet to revise QF&P.
I suggest that we need to cease concentrating on our individual beliefs and values, and turn our attention to BYM as a corporate whole. What is to be its position? Is it to remain a denomination of the Christian faith, and active in the multi-faith movement? QF&P and more recent BYM publications make very plain that it is supposed to be an association of members who are God-centred and Spirit-led. Should this continue?
One solution to this dispute might be for non-theistic Friends to form what might be called the Spiritual Society of Friends (Reformed Quakers) or BRYM. BYM and BRYM could work together harmoniously on almost all but religious projects. BYM might donate assets to BRYM in proportion to the number of members transferring their allegiance. Quaker Peace and Service might become semi-independent, with governance similar to that of American Friends Service Committee or the Quaker UN Office, serving several YMs, and free also to work for other organisations.
A preferable solution would be if on the one hand non-theistic Friends accepted that in a religious society they should tolerate and fully accept that they will be exposed to religious language and beliefs. Promotion of atheism is more appropriate elsewhere. Other Friends should cease their excessive restraint in avoiding language that non-theists find challenging. Instead they should accept their responsibility as members of the priesthood of all believers to make plain the essence of Quakerism: that it is God-centred and Spirit-led.
Stephen Petter, Bristol Area Quaker Meeting
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Dec 12 2013 by Stephen