1. A letter to the clerk to YM
Trustees notifying that I hoped to ask a critical question during consideration
Trustees' Report in Yearly Meeting
2. A one-page summary
of my 'concern'.
3. A five-page
written for submission to my local Meeting.
4. Postscript and
(including why I was unable to ask the question in
Redcatch Road, BRISTOL, BS3 5DY
(0117) 972 8054 E-mail: stephenbs3 @ yahoo.co.uk
- May 22, 2009
- To the Clerk to Yearly
- cfi: Clerk to YM
Clerk to Meeting for Sufferings
Clerk to Quaker Life Central
Clerk to Bristol Area Quaker Meeting
Clerk to Bedminster Local Quaker
(Also by email to the Recording
- Dear Clerk
- If permitted to do so by the
Clerk to Yearly Meeting, I hope to ask the following questions at
Yearly Meeting during consideration of the Trustees' Report:
- What have the Trustees done
and what do they intend to do about any central committee which acts
outwith its Terms of Reference?
- I refer particularly to the
Summary of Purpose in Quaker Life Central Committee's Terms of
Reference which says they should, “help deepen our experience
of God's grace”. All Central Committees are supposed to act in
accordance with Yearly Meeting's wishes. In this case these are
expressed in “Quaker Faith and Practice”.
- Despite this Quaker Life CC
has failed to act effectively to counter the rise of non-theism in
our Religious Society. Worse, they have actively encouraged
- Secondly, have Trustees
considered what might be the situation when we come to revise
“Quaker Faith & Practice” if there are among us many
non-theistic Friends who insist on us avoiding religious language,
such as the word 'God'? Would the situation not be disastrously
- Thirdly, are the Trustees
content to allow our Religious Society to morph into a “Spiritual
Society” or even a “Secular Society of Friends”?
- Would the Charity Commission
- I attach further information on
my thoughts on this subject, and an explanation of why I find myself
unable to bring it to the national level through my local and area
- In Peace,
- Stephen Petter.
SUMMARY OF MY 'CONCERN'
Fact 1: The Religious
Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain is a religious society.
- Fact 2: The word
'religion' and hence 'religious' means what the dictionaries say it
(The definition includes
the word 'god'.)
- Fact 3: The words
'god' and 'God' mean what the dictionaries say they mean.
(The definition includes
the words 'supernatural' and the word 'Being'.)
- Fact 4: The Religious
Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain is an active, leading member
of the Christian faith.
- Fact 5: British
Quakerism is inclusive and non-credal; there is no requirement for
individual members to accept any set of beliefs.
- Fact 6: The word
'non-theistic' means lacking a belief in the existence of any 'God'
(noting Fact 3 above). It is not the same as 'agnostic'.
- Fact 7: Within British
Quakerism there is an increasing proportion of non-theistic Friends,
some of whom are assertive, appearing to demand that our Society
accepts their position.
- Fact 8: It is not
unusual, and usually harmless, for the aims of some members of an
organisation to differ from the aims of the organisation.
- That when we come to
revise “Quaker Faith and Practice” in a few years from
now the demands of assertive non-theistic Friends might be extremely
divisive. For the sake of the Society, and indeed wider society,
this should be avoided if possible.
That all Friends and Attenders be made aware that Quaker Faith and
Practice is up-to-date and relevant.
- 2. That all Friends
and Attenders be made aware of Facts 1 to 5 above, and of Quaker
Faith and Practice 1.01, and Advice 1.
- 3. That Quaker Life
- a. cease to encourage
the growth of non-theism;
b. nurture our religious
faith, as expressed in Quaker Faith and Practice;
- c. take positive,
effective action to implement Suggestions 1 and 2.
- 4. That it be accepted
that our trustees have an obligation to ensure that our charitable
organisation acts only within its agreed religious object.
- Stephen Petter,
Quakerism. A Concern to be tested by Bedminster Local Quaker
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.
- Dictionaries exist for use when
there is uncertainty or disagreement as to a word's meaning. 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 God was actually a delusion, it is 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'.
Trusting is not the same as believing. It is an activity one decides
to do, often 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
- We ARE a Christian denomination
even though many of our members might wish we were not.
- 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
- 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.
- Even if YM became convinced that
we should cease 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
- 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. 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 was 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 emphasise 'spirituality' and
avoid 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 Yearly Meeting having discussed and
- 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
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 poorer 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 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 leading this deliberate deception, 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 honest? 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
- 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.
- 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,
- The reason I find myself unable
to progress my 'concern' through my local and my area meetings is
that my local meeting decided it could not do so.
- When I insisted on it being an
item in a clerked business meeting, rather than simply a topic for a
discussion group, they eventually agreed and asked me to prepare a
detailed statement which they distributed to members. But the
subsequent business meeting decided that my position did not
constitute a 'concern' as defined in QF&P and it was rejected
without any discussion of the substantive issues.
- Stephen Petter, 22/5/09,
- Addendum: 26/7/09:
- 1. My local Quaker meeting on
July 4 heard me make a statyement which was much breifer than the
foregoing and in which I simply called that Friends (initially in
our local meeting) be informed of the basic tenets of Quakerism as
expressed in (QF&P 1.01 first paragraph and Advice 1. Despite
agreement by a weighty Friend and Elder, the meeting decided it
could not accept my suggestion.
- 2. I am prevented from attending
Yearly Meeting because I was to have brought my grand-daughter but
she fell ill. Her parents are away having entrusted her to me for
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