The first report in the Times, headlined ‘Quakers may cut out God in faith update’, began: ‘References to God could be reduced or removed from the Quakers’ main book of guidance as part of a “once in a generation” update to the faith’s teachings.’
This was followed two days later with an opinion piece by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian, ‘The Quakers are right. We don’t need God’, in which he wrote: ‘The Quakers are clearly on to something. At their annual get-together this weekend they are reportedly thinking of dropping God from their “guidance to meetings”.’
The articles followed a press release issued on 29 April by Quakers in Britain. This, highlighting the forthcoming Yearly Meeting of Friends in London, did not mention removing any reference to God. It stated: ‘More than one thousand Quakers from across Britain are heading to London next week for Yearly Meeting. They may decide to re-write “Quaker Faith and Practice”… Each new generation of Quakers has revised the book. A new revision may help it speak to younger Quakers.’
Paul Parker, recording clerk, was interviewed by Justin Webb on the Today programme on 7 May. He said: ‘God is pretty important in religions but I do not think we are about to do away with God at all’. He explained that Friends have been asking ‘what is the right language to talk about religious experience today?’ and said Quakers use a number of terms to describe their spiritual experience. ‘We don’t try to impose any beliefs on people… you can only speak with integrity if you have experienced something yourself.’ He also stressed the importance of Quaker heritage.
The misleading headlines and articles produced a mixed reaction among British Friends and in Ireland some Friends expressed deep concern and hurt.
Harry Albright, an experienced journalist, ex-editor of the Friend and member of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group, described the Simon Jenkins article as ‘utter nonsense. I don’t think those who identify as nontheist have that agenda. What is important is that as we have evolved as a Yearly Meeting, and nontheist Friends have been welcomed into the community, we need to express what they believe without lessening what other Friends believe.’
He explained: ‘I would be very surprised if we were presented with a revised book years down the line that had no mention of God, Jesus or any biblical quotations. What would not surprise me is to be presented with a Book of Discipline that presents a broader spectrum of belief than the current one does, and includes ideas that the current one does not, for example, on sustainability and modern means of communication.’
Friends attending Britain Yearly Meeting had a mixed reaction to the story. Lucy White, from Tottenham Meeting, told the Friend: ‘I think the writer might have got the wrong end of the stick because it wasn’t what we were going to discuss. If it generated some publicity, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.’
Alison Buckley-Jones, from Alford Meeting, told the Friend: ‘I was half encouraged because at least it put Quakers on a mainstream radar, but it gave the wrong impression that we were going to become a notionally spiritualistic organisation rather than a religious one.’
The article in the Guardian by Simon Jenkins had 5,358 shares across social media, and received 1,441 online comments below the article. Several Quakers responded. A Young Friend, Chris Venables, tweeted: ‘Great to see Yearly Meeting being written about – it’s wrong to think revising Qf&p is primarily about language though, it’s about embracing the complexity and challenges of the modern era, and opening ourselves up to new voices and sources of wisdom.’