Minute and Epistle of the gathering of nontheist Friends at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, Britain, Feb 18-20 2011
“There are nontheist Friends… Friends who might be called agnostics, atheists, sceptics, but would nevertheless describe themselves as reverent seekers.” So began the report of the first formal workshop for nontheist Friends, held in New York State in 1976. A generation later, nontheist Friends are a widely accepted strand in the multi-coloured fabric of theologically diverse liberal Quakerism in both the United States and Britain.
Forty Friends from all over Britain, identifying as nontheists or wishing to explore nontheist perspectives with an open mind, met in Woodbrooke this weekend. Some for whom Woodbrooke rooms were not available were accommodated in the adjacent Fircroft College but another forty would-be participants were unable to attend because of lack of available beds.
In plenary sessions and small groups, through discussion, worship and creative listening, we explored varieties of Quaker nontheism – atheist, humanist, agnostic, non-supernaturalist. We listened to the words of Friends through the ages, from the 17th to the 21st century, who declared for free thought and free expression within the Society of Friends, thereby laying the foundations on which an authentic nontheist understanding could be built within our beloved Quaker community.
In an informal session with Friends on other Woodbrooke conferences (“Becoming Friends” and “Churches Together”) many of us were able to share our different experiences of what it means to be Quakers today. We shared epilogues and joined together in meeting for worship.
In our business session we addressed the question in the title of our gathering: “What next for Quaker nontheism?”. Acknowledging that the burden of organising and financing our work has tended to fall on isolated individuals, we explored ways in which we might share responsibilities in a more formally organised way. Recognising the concern among some Friends that open differences can lead to division, we looked to find a way forward that would celebrate and enhance the Society’s diversity of religious opinion. After careful thought and collective discernment we resolved to form a steering group to prepare proposals for a Nontheist Friends Group within BYM. Six names were brought forward and accepted. The steering group was asked to liaise with Woodbrooks on possible dates for a further gathering next year to continue our work and explorations.
Finally, we noted the recent statement on the Britain Yearly meeting website, as follows:
“There is a great diversity within the Quakers on conceptions of God, and we use different kinds of language to describe religious experience. Some Quakers have a conception of God which is similar to that of orthodox Christians, and would use similar language. Others are happy to use God-centred language, but would conceive of God in very different terms to the traditional Christian trinity. Some describe themselves as agnostics or humanists or non-theists, and describe their experience in ways that avoid the use of the word God entirely.”
We expressed our appreciation of this public recognition of our diversity. We are all in the Quaker mainstream now.
This Minute was agreed by the 40 participants at the gathering and signed on their behalf by the newly-appointed steering group:
- Anne Bancroft
- David Boulton (convenor)
- Maureen Kinsley
- Tim Regan
- Michael Yates
- Miriam Yagud
February 20th, 2011