Report by Miriam Yagud
We expected a lot of interest at this Yearly Meeting, in exploring issues raised by nontheist Friends And there was. The nontheist Friends conference at Woodbrooke last February has stimulated a rich and energetic discussion about nontheism and theological diversity among Friends. Some of this has been reflected in the pages of “The Friend” and in discussions in local and area meetings. At this Yearly Meeting a nontheist inspired event took place on five of the seven days of Yearly Meeting attended by about 100 Friends.
The Nontheist Friends Network contribution at Yearly Meeting was a workshop on Sunday, a stall at the groups fair on Wednesday and a picnic gathering on Thursday for Friends who identify as nontheist. Two impromptu nontheist meetings also took place which were independent of NFN; one after a morning meeting for worship and another on Tuesday evening, when two groups of Friends explored nontheism and diversity among Friends.
“Sharing Our Diversity on the Quaker Journey”
Exploring the fact of theological diversity among Friends, how we influence each other, the life of our meetings and the Religious Society of Friends.
Indigo Redfern and I co-facilitated the workshop on Sunday afternoon. 70 People turned up and we let in 50 to a room that really only comfortably held 30. The enthusiasm, depth and quality of the discussions enabled most of us to overcome the cramped conditions.
The workshop began with a 5 minute presentation by Indigo then me describing our differing journey to becoming Friends and how being a theist (Indigo) and a nontheist (me) sits with our being Quaker.
We then invited those present to divide into smaller groups and to consider four queries and inviting people to share their own journeys and explore themes together. I modified the four queries that Dave Britton used in New York Area Meeting discussion which provided a very sound framework for the discussion. Thanks for these Dave.
There was a very lively debate; a wide diversity of Quaker perspectives shared and explored. Many questions were asked and chewed over quizzically. The room was really buzzing!
“Our words can get in the way of hearing each other” was a comment and a sentiment that was expressed by many Friends. If there was a theme to emerge from this years activities at Yearly Meeting then it was about the limitations of language. In discussions and conversations I participated in, overheard or were reported back this was a recurring theme: That we make assumptions, that we use words sloppily or too carelessly, to attack or silence each other or that have this unintended effect on each other. That we must get behind the words we use, unpack and examine their meaning, what we really are trying to say when we use words like “god”, “religion”, “love”, “spirit”, “light”, “atheist” and so on…..
A few people felt that Indigo and I were “not a real enough Christian” or “not a real enough atheist” This was prompted by the fact that neither of us come from a position of saying that we have “The Truth” or that our way is the right way. I know that there were 2 or 3 participants who felt very strongly that they did have the truth; one of these described himself as an atheist and 2 others as Christian. A couple of people felt they missed out on a chance to have a heated set-to with theists/nontheists.
The overwhelming majority expressed relief that the discussion was not framed as an oppositional debate between theist and nontheists. Indigo and I had set a tone that we hoped would enable people to share their own journey to Quakers if they wished to, in an inclusive atmosphere. The feedback afterwards was positive and warm. It was good to get people talking and listening to each other. More than once, Indigo and I went to intervene in a group only to be waved away by all the participants who were in fact having a passionate engagement, not an argument!
Many people said they had experienced a sense of connection with another Friend with whom they had assumed there to be no common ground. Most people left reluctantly and wanting more. Some asked for a re-run. Unfortunately there were no rooms available during the rest of the week.
Many Friends identifying as nontheist said they felt buoyed up by the visible presence of nontheists at Yearly Meeting, of sharing their Quaker journey with others in a positive and open discussion. Some long standing attenders said they were going to reconsider applying for membership as a result of their experience this year.
On Wednesday, I had an illuminating discussion with a Catholic priest from Ireland who was an interfaith visitor. He had asked me what the word “nontheist” meant and then said that he considered traditional Christian (and other religions) language hinders our attempts for human solidarity with each other and across cultures, closes rather than opens doors and carries too much difficult baggage. This opinion was expressed by many theist and nontheist Friends in different settings during the week .
Another conversation left me with this interesting query:
What happens when we reject the religious meaning of words such as “god” “spirit” “soul” “divine” etc? Religious words often strive to express the inexpressible or the unknown. They are useful and important metaphors in our language. Once we identify as nontheist do we lose these words or can we use them in new ways? Give them new meanings? Or just by being known as a nontheist and use them, do others hear these words differently when we speak them? Many nontheist Friends say they “reinterpret” the meaning of the words when used by theists. Our words and metaphors are probably much more “elastic” than we think or make of them. There is some important work to be done to explore ways of expressing “the inexpressible” “the unknowable” from a nontheistic perspective. Not surprising that these conversations were with poets whose work is doing just this.
More than one Friend holding a position of central responsibility within Britain Yearly Meeting commented that the development of the Nontheist Friends Network, the discussions that it has stimulated and our contribution at Yearly Meeting is valuable work within the society at the moment.
The picnic was a small gathering of nontheists. It was an opportunity for people to find out more about the Nontheist Friends Network, nontheist Friend resources and other activities such as the book, Godless for God’s sake and this website. Some Friends would have liked a workshop that was just for nontheist Friends at Yearly Meeting. Some Friends shared current and past difficulties in their local meetings around issues of their nontheism. Everyone said they wanted more opportunities to explore their personal journey with other nontheists, to develop coherence around being nontheist and Quaker. Some felt the lack of this in their local or area meeting.
In response to this request, I have offered to facilitate a workshop at the next nontheist Friends conference at Woodbrooke 2012 on “Exploring our nontheist Quaker journeys”.
Yearly Meeting was the second opportunity I’ve had, to experience nontheist Friends and the Nontheist Friends Network within the wider context of the Religious Society of Friends. Yearly Meeting is a fantastically vibrant and exciting experience; so many different kinds of Quakers meet, cross fertilise and explore new ground together. I have learned from this experience:
- The boldness of nontheist Friends to speak our truth with integrity and with a care and respect for others is helping to create safe spaces for all Friends to share who they are, whatever their outlook on life, the universe and everything. This is an important service we do for the Society. In doing so, we deepen our Quaker practice and what it means to be Quaker in the 21st century.
- That nontheist Friends enjoy the positive regard and welcome of many within the Society; and that Friends with a wide range of theological perspectives and none, enthusiastically engage with us and our activities, feel enriched by our explorations and want more!
- Most Friends do not understand the term “nontheist” and are unfamiliar with it. It is a useful term once people understand it as an umbrella term, but is a hindrance too. It does not positively say what we are. It may be more useful and familiar when more nontheist Friends are open and confident about their perspectives and when there is more openness between Friends in local meetings.
- Nontheist Friends as individuals are a recognised presence among Friends across the UK. Many are open about their perspectives and questions, have the respect of other Friends and hold positions of responsibility at all levels within the Society. But many more nontheists are subdued, silent or isolated.
- I am convinced that the formation of the Nontheist Friends Network in the UK is a positive and important step for nontheists and for the Religious Society of Friends. It really does meet the needs of many Friends and reflects the interests of a great number of Friends of all perspectives across the Society.
- Nontheist Friends need a Recognised Interest Group within BYM in order to participate in Yearly Meeting again. It will enable nontheist Friends to work corporately within the Society to (among other things) broaden and deepen the Society’s appreciation and understanding of diversity among Friends and what Quakers are in the modern world. We have an important contribution to make to understanding a Quakercommunity not as dependent on sharing identical or exclusive beliefs, but as one experienced through our sense of connection to each other; our experience of sharing, worship and working together.
Nontheist Friends Network Steering Group