Recent NYYM History: Atheists, Agnostics, and Non-theists

by Tim Connoly 
Attender, Purchase Meeting


Are there lessons from the past that may help us move into the future? Based on my observation of the NYYM brand of Quakerism over the past ten years: Yes, with respect to business practices and social witness. No, for a minority of members with respect to Spirit and the Divine. A minority of what I will refer to as Spirit and Divine deniers have been accepted into membership by numerous monthly meetings over the past 20-30 years, and this may be at odds with our Faith and Practice as currently written. 


Before continuing, a personal statement. I am a fan of the Divine and Spirit. Whether these are real or fictitious makes no difference to me. My bias is that they are necessary and need to remain as deep and central parts of our faith. And I am open to other points of view and for their incorporation into our Faith and Practice following discernment by our corporate body.


Should the relatively recent evolving presence of Spirit and Divine deniers as members of the Religious Society of Friends be addressed? If yes, how? To know where we need to go, we probably ought to consider where we are. What exactly is our current theological status in 100 words or less? 


Some say it’s inexact or too hard to explain or too divisive so don’t even try. Others say that in a world of many constraints there are more important things to focus on. Ignore it and move on.  To others, theology is irrelevant. They say experience and how lives are lived, doing good, is our “Spirit.” For some, words just can’t capture it so hush up, look within silently, and wait expectantly for the truth. 


The foregoing are valid points. There may indeed be a sense in which the letter killeth but the Spirit giveth life, as the Elders of Balby suggested in 1656. But please! Don’t we need to throw around a few letters to at least address, not necessarily incorporate in our Faith and Practice, the views of those in our membership who deny the existence of the Divine? These people are members. They are not accidental tourists. We have invited them into our midst. Some have held leadership positions within our yearly meeting. Isn’t it time to leave a way open for them to come out of the theological closet? 


Here’s a stab at our status:  We are seekers coming from many traditions. We vary in our understanding of the Divine and in our related confidence of that understanding. Some of us doubt or deny the existence of Spirit or the Divine or theistic constructs. Some redefine our language to redefine Spirit so as not to offend divergent positions. Whatever our insight, we share a desire to seek truth together based on our experiences. And we share our insights and revelations with our community. 


So far so good? The statement may facilitate unity and acceptance of many points of view. But it falls short and contradicts when compared to the language of our current Faith and Practice. And there are many examples of this contradiction. (To name a few: queries 1-3; advices 1 & 4; the expectations outlined in General Business Practices: “In the transaction of business the same reverent waiting upon the Lord should prevail as in meetings for worship.”) 


The contradiction of the non-theist, agnostic, and atheist positions of some members with the theistic historical language of our Faith and Practice creates confusion for newcomers and conflict among members. Many members choose not to engage on the matter, to look the other way and keep it all friendly.  Is the silent treatment the friendly thing to do? Should an absence of confusion and creation of false or disguised unity among members be a goal of the NYYM?


One lesson I have learned from our distant Quaker history is that our discipline as set forth in our Faith and Practice, particularly as it relates to committee worship, structures, and process, is a great way to engage with and seek truth. Provided there is diversity present throughout the process, it works well.


For a number of reasons, NYYM has elected not to address as a body the faith of a minority of its members and incorporate that into its Faith and Practice. Personally, this has been most discouraging.


All is not lost. There are Quakers who care about this and stand ready to engage as a body. Britain Yearly Meeting has elected to pursue the matter as a body. Check out God, Words, and Us, edited by Helen Rowlands and published in 2018 by Britain Yearly Meeting. This is a compilation of ‘threshings’ having to do with whether and how to incorporate into their Faith and Practice the views of members of British monthly meetings who do not admit of the possibility of the Divine or Spirit in their lives, or in meeting for worship, or in meeting for worship with a concern for business.


And so in Great Britain the lessons of the distant past, particularly with respect to Quaker process and integrity, appear to be helping them move into the future.