Category Archives: Conferences

Dinah Livingstone – On Dover Beach

Dinah delivered our third and final talk of the NFN 2021 Conference on 21st July and ’rounded off’ the series very fittingly.

(The many links below generally open in a new window or tab).

Our three speakers spoke quite independently, guided only to deliver their talks based on their idea of spirituality – ‘That’s the spirit! – dimensions of spirituality.’

Nonetheless, the notion (one of George Fox’s ‘windy notions’?) of Spirituality resulted in three talks which, very different as expected, hung together to satisfy and inspire different members of our ‘Quaker Kaleidoscope’.

Dinah is the editor of the Sea of Faith’s magazine ‘Sofia‘ in which role she succeeded the previous editor, NFN’s ‘own’ David Boulton (one of the key founders of the Nontheist Friends Network) in 2004 and changed its name to ‘Sofia‘.  Gill Pennington mentioned David’s ‘The Faith of a Quaker Humanist‘ (1997) which I understand is still the most often downloaded booklet from the Quaker Universalist Group’s website. We can see and perhaps ‘feel’ the threads linking Humanism, the Sea of Faith Network and the Nontheist Friends Network.

The Sea of Faith Network takes its name from Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘Dover Beach’, one stanza of which reads:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

You can find the full poem (4 stanzas, 37 lines I think) here:
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43588/dover-beach

Was it surprising to many of us that Dinah’s talk from a ‘sea of faith perspective’ was so biblical? Both Andrew Copson and Gill Pennington had mentioned biblical stories but Dinah wove an account of what I might call the ‘sea of faith version of religion, humanism and nontheism’ drawn substantially from the bible as if it might be considered the source of these ideas. This is consistent with Dinah’s re-naming of the SoF Journal to ‘Sofia’ – a serendipitous extension of the acronym SoF. (An alternative spelling for ‘Holy Wisdom‘ being Sophia). The wisdom literature of the bible provides this potential biblical basis for Don Cupitt‘s ideas and Dinah’s talk. (SEA OF FAITH NETWORK started in 1984 as a response to Don Cupitt’s book and TV series of the same name.)

At the very top of the Sea of Faith website homepage it states:

“The Network…
Explores the implications of accepting religion as a human creation;
Promotes the validity of creative, human-centred religion;
Affirms the continuing importance of religious thought
and practice as expressions of awe and wonder and
celebrations of spiritual and social values.”

Only slightly less prominently on our NFN website (You have to look under ‘About’ and then ‘Aims of the network’ here: https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/about/aims-of-the-network/), we state:

“The Network’s aim is to provide a forum and supportive framework for Friends who regard religion as a human creation. We want to ensure that our Religious Society of Friends is an inclusive rather than an exclusive Society. We seek to explore theological and spiritual diversity and their practical implications, in respectful acceptance of different views, experiences and journeys.” (clause 2. of our constitution added the words ‘and attenders’ at our last AGM).

It’s almost as if the Sea of Faith is the Christian branch of the nontheist humanists and the nontheist Friends network is the Quaker branch of the Sea of Faith. (and I’d always thought of us as the nontheist branch of the Quaker Universalist Group). Perhaps we should convene next on Dover Beach?

Joking apart, we can surely feel those threads referred to above linking Humanism, Christian origins, Quaker Universalism, Sea of Faith and the NFN.

Dinah drew from the bible, and Christ’s teaching, its essential humanism or human facing concerns. This is perhaps not so surprising given that ‘Humanism’ has arisen, in the last two centuries, from within the Western Christian tradition. As one wit reported in a recent Quaker meeting ‘God created man in his own image – and man returned the compliment’ (or was it the other way round?). I had better at least mention at this point the Goddess to contrast with God the Father.

This ‘pre-conference reading’ bibliography prepared for the 2020 conference provides links to David Boulton’s and other NFN books: https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/2020/03/01/a-2020-nfn-conference-bibliography/

(Some of the links above are repeated):
https://sofn.org.uk/pages/dinah_livingstone.html
https://www.sofn.org.uk/links/don-cupitt.html
https://sofn.org.uk/sofia/index.html – Sofia magazine
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43588/dover-beach
https://www.sofn.org.uk/links/index.html – useful links
https://www.sofn.org.uk/links/spirituality.html – SoF links for Spirituality

Gill Pennington, The very hungry caterpillar and a Möbius strip

Our second 2021 Conference speaker’s talk on 14 July 2021 was from Gill Pennington, former Spirituality tutor at Woodbrooke Quaker Centre, Birmingham.

Gill spoke about spiritual awareness and development and presented a series of slides loosely based on the well-known illustrated children’s book, Eric Carle’s ‘The very hungry caterpillar’.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Very_Hungry_Caterpillar

Just as the caterpillar in the story eats and eats and also eats unsuitable food (unlikely for a caterpillar) until it has indigestion, so, Gill suggests, humans consume and consume, and are absorbed in great busyness, until they also suffer from a mental indigestion and perhaps feel unwell or dissatisfied. Then, as the caterpillar eats a simple green leaf, before pupating and going into its cocoon for a long ‘sleep’, humans (or Quakers at least?), seeking respite from their busyness and ‘indigestion’, simplify or retreat into silent worship which provides rest and spiritual nourishment.

After a period in the cocoon, in which it is transformed, the once caterpillar emerges as a beautiful butterfly.  In parallel fashion, the worshipper who has sought stillness and silence is transformed into a ‘fully developed’ and beautiful human being.  The caterpillar eats, grows, pupates and is transformed and emerges as the beautiful butterfly.  So the human, to realise their true destiny, must live (and eat and work etc.), grow and develop but then go through a spiritual process of transformation, perhaps through stillness and letting go, in order to reach their spiritual goal.

Gill drew parallels between different forms of Quakerism, from the ‘Godly’ and use of traditional godly language, to the non-theist and cited a number of quotations and books, including David Boulton’s ‘The Faith of a Quaker Humanist‘ (1997)

Gill talked of the relationship between the inner (contemplative or silent) life and the outer or active life in the world and how these can seem separate but then illustrated how they might be integrated by showing us the making of a paper ‘mobius strip’ in which the inner (illustrated in white) and the outer (illustrated in a contrasting colour) become continuous or one with each other, the mobius strip magically only having one continuous side through a twist in the paper band. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C3%B6bius_strip (good-luck!)  In an analogous way, being active in life and having a spiritual practice (for example of silence) can perhaps integrate our ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ personalities to become a better ‘whole’.

Before closing with a quote she loves from the dancer Martha Graham from Agnes de Mille’s biography Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham:
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
(From this quote), Gill asked us, in our small breakout groups, to consider:
“How can you ‘keep your channel open’ to enable you to enhance your vitality, your life force, your energy and how might you translate this into action and consider possible change?”

The comparisons with the ‘very hungry caterpillar’ made the principles memorable: growth and busyness; ‘indigestion’; spiritual practice and transformation; emerging ‘whole’ (and beautiful) like a butterfly.

I’m not entirely sure whether ” You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you.” from the Martha Graham quote could be a description of Quaker worship and ministry.

Our thanks to Gill for a memorable and thought provoking illustrated talk.

We look forward to welcoming you to our next conference speaker Dinah Livingstone, Editor of Sofia (Sea of Faith magazine) on Wednesday 21st July at 7.20pm.

Full details here: https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/events/thats-the-spirit-dimensions-of-spirituality-nfn-conference-2021/

Registration here: https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/2021/04/28/thats-the-spirit/

 

Andrew Copson (Humanists UK) – what a fantastic talk!

‘What a fantastic talk! That was a great talk, what a thought provoking and affirming start!’ was one response to our first 2021 Conference speaker’s talk (Andrew Copson, CEO of Humanists UK) on Wednesday 7th July.

You can still register for the remaining sessions on 14th and 21st July 2021 here: https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/2021/04/28/thats-the-spirit/

Andrew appeared to extemporise, speaking apparently without notes and giving the impression of masterly ad-libbing, suggesting he is fully conversant with a humanist understanding of spirituality and was able to cite illustrative examples without hesitation (I’m tempted to add or ‘repetition or deviation’!)

As the talk took place immediately prior to the European Cup semi-final between England and Denmark and there was some humorous speculation about how many attendees we may have lost, it was perhaps appropriate that one of Andrew’s earliest examples of ‘humanist spirituality’ (ie. non-religious) was the communal passion of a big football match. As he later revealed that he had no personal interest in football whatsoever, perhaps this was a bit tongue in cheek. He did say however, that although this might appear to be a ‘group experience’, he felt, from a humanist and scientific perspective, that the experience(s) were individual – in each individual’s head so that the idea of it being a ‘group experience’ was perhaps an illusion. Some Quakers, and many others, might disagree about the ‘group experience’ being an illusion. However, although we talk of a ‘gathered meeting’, let’s not forget George Fox’s ‘what can’st thou say?’ (individual experience?).
I also have no personal interest in football though I understand from my wife Georgina who (like my sister) is now watching the England-Italy final as I type this, that England has scored a goal within a record 2 minutes of the start.

It was also clear that Andrew had a good understanding of his likely audience and was familiar with Quaker practice and even nontheist Quakers.

Andrew suggested that a humanist spirituality had four key characteristics:

  1. Powerful and Positive experiences – elation, joy, a moment
  2. Personal, individual subjective
  3. Not intellectual, non-rational
  4. Take you outside of yourself – connect – ‘transcendent’?? peak experiences, universal in imagination, bigger than yourself, immersed ‘elsewhere’

This in part equates ‘spiritual experiences’ with Maslow’s ‘peak experiences’
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs and
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak_experience
where Maslow describes these as “rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter.”

So this is a psychological kind of explanation for spirituality. I believe Andrew also mentioned the mystical and magical and, somewhat tentatively, the idea of ‘transcendence’. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow’s_hierarchy_of_needs#Transcendence_needs in the first of the above articles).

That reminds me of an older, female Friend saying in (I think) an ‘afterwords’ discussion after meeting that ‘good sex is transcendent’ (or was that ministry in meeting?).

Later in his talk, Andrew added three ‘facts’ about humanistic spiritual experience he felt were also essential:
Humanist interpretation: – product of human brain – identical feelings – different interpretation – is it ‘God’? or ‘divine’?
3 facts:

  1. Humans not the pinnacle – product of evolution cf. the unitarian hymn ‘blue boat home’
  2. ‘Connective’ (to oneself), integrated (human being), know yourself – personal development – in this life – a Friend to yourself – humans give meaning to experience
  3. Connection with others – eg. one other; but also imagined connections – importance of fiction, novels (ex. Middlemarch), connection with art, fictional individuals; being part of the human story (history and ancestors). Future gazing, reaching out, awe and wonder, peak experiences

So, whilst Andrew sees these as ‘individual experience’, it is clearly possible to consider a connection with others as being a ‘group experience’. (whether this supposes a belief in a Universal Mind, I’m not sure). (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_mind) and see Jung on Spirituality:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Jung#Spirituality

Many Friends present will have felt that Andrew’s explanation of humanist spirituality ‘spoke to their condition’ (apologies for the Quaker speak: http://quakerjane.com/index.php?fuseaction=spirituality.glossary#speak) and closely matched their own understanding; some may have a few caveats and it would be interesting to hear from you in the comments (Leave a reply below or by clicking on Comments at top).

Our thanks to Andrew Copson and Humanists UK.

We look forward to welcoming you to our next conference speaker on 14th July Gill Pennington, former Spirituality Tutor, Woodbrooke and final speaker Dinah Livingstone, Editor of Sofia (Sea of Faith)on 21st July.

Full details here: https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/events/thats-the-spirit-dimensions-of-spirituality-nfn-conference-2021/
Registration here: https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/2021/04/28/thats-the-spirit/

NFN Quaker meeting and Creative conversation 3 June 2021

Dear Friends,
Due to unforeseen circumstances, David Parlett will not be able to share his Creative Conversation presentation for the 3rd of June.  The QM+CC Working group has prepared a Meditation reading written by Harvey Gillman to share with you and invites you to participate in a contemplative conversation with your fellow Friends.

This will be our last QM+CC before we holiday for summer and resume again in September, so we hope to see you.  We are sorry for the change-of plans; thank you for your patience and understanding.

Please arrive early, as the Meeting will start promptly at 7PM.  The Zoom Room opens at 6:45PM.
The format will be as follows:
• Zoom Room opens at 6:45PM, please arrive early.
• 7PM: Welcome and Quaker Meeting: approximately 20 minutes for quietly gathering ourselves and connecting.
• Creative Conversation: up to 20 minutes for presentation or raising a question.
• Small break-out rooms: up to 20 minutes for creative exchanges, expressions, and reactions; hopefully fostering community and fellowship.
• Open discussion in main room: up to 20 minutes to share ‘creative moments or surprises’ that occurred in small break-out rooms.
• Conclusion: ending with a few moments gathered in silence.
• Duration: 1hr:20m-1hr:45m

With gratitude and in Friendship, Kiera Faber, Gisela Creed, William Purser, and John Senior (QM+CC Working group)

If you wish to attend our Conference in July, please register separately for this at clerk@nontheist-quakers.org.uk   (Just a simple email requesting registration for the Conference) Entry limited to 100. Book early!

That’s the Spirit! – registration

That’s the spirit! – Registration details

The Nontheist Friends Network (A Quaker Recognised Body) invites you to an adventurous exploration of spiritual diversity, from the holy spirit to the wholly human spirit, engaging with keynote guest speakers on three successive Wednesdays in July.

  7th: Andrew Copson, Executive Director, Humanists UK

14th: Gill Pennington, former Spirituality Tutor, Woodbrooke

21st: Dinah Livingstone, Editor of Sofia (Sea of Faith)

By Zoom, 7.30 to 9pm. The presentations will be followed by creative discussion. All are welcome.

More details on https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/events/thats-the-spirit-dimensions-of-spirituality-nfn-conference-2021/

Register at clerk@nontheist-quakers.org.uk   (Just a simple email requesting registration for the Conference) Entry limited to 100. Book early!

The End of words …

… is to bring men to the knowledge of things beyond what words can utter. Isaac Pennington QF&P 27.27 so, perhaps that should be the end of the post?

Whilst I am sorry that we have not prompted yet more words here in response to our last ‘MfW + creative conversation’ and post, a very interesting discussion has broken out in the last week  or two on the Nontheist Quaker Facebook page especially prompted by some posts by a newcomer to Quakers (and would be attender) in Belgium, Jean-Christophe Ducin – see his posts for 10 and 16 April. I do hope he responds to the invitation from ‘Quakers of all sorts from non-theist, to universalist to various degrees of Christian outlook.’ in Brussels.

Our next ‘MfW + creative conversation’ is on 6th May with Philip Gross and details of how to register for the NFN conference in July will be on the website soon.  In the meantime, Friends may also be interested in the Quaker Universalist (UK) conference on ‘Life, Time and Eternity‘ online from 7th-15th May if they are quick to register!

I might have had more to add but unfortunately the new wordpress block editor makes writing these posts take about five times as long as before, so it’s over to you.

History of the NFN

At this 2021 New Year’s tide, I thought it might be interesting to have a look at our NFN (UK) history to help us reflect on ‘where we are’ and ‘how we got here’.

The earliest history directly on this site is our 2012 Minute and Epistle to be found here: https://nontheistquakers.files.wordpress.com/2016/09/nontheism-among-friends.pdf

However, there is even earlier history, from 2011, on our companion US site here: http://www.nontheistfriends.org/article/what-next-for-quaker-nontheism and here: http://www.nontheistfriends.org/article/new-nontheist-friends-network-in-britain
Going even further (way back to 1976) there is a report on the US site of an FGC meeting in New York in that year: http://www.nontheistfriends.org/article/report-from-nontheistic-friends-workshop-at-fgc-1976-2

An early and moving post by James Riemermann of (and at) Twin Cities Meeting, Minnesota from April 2005 can be found here: http://www.nontheistfriends.org/article/my-spiritual-journey-riemermann

The earliest post I can find on the US site concerns a gathering of nontheist quakers including David Boulton, David Rush, and Kitty Rush at Woodbrooke in January 2004, posted by Os Cresson here: http://www.nontheistfriends.org/article/greetings-from-woodbrooke-2004

That should whet the appetite for now and there might be more to follow!

Your views!

Piers Maddox is compiling a new NFN newsletter for October and sent this request for the website:

Do you have anything to share with the group? Thoughts? A book review? After a period of newsletter inactivity Piers has committed to produce a few. Please send contributions to him at piersmaddox@gmail.com. 400 words maximum please. Deadline for next issue is Monday 5 October. Thanks!

That’s 13 days to go.  I’m sure Piers will welcome any items of general interest to Quakers and perhaps how you have been faring with your meetings during the present pandemic.  Please turn your thoughts to this this coming weekend and I wonder if there are any reflections on ‘Nontheism and Spiritual practice in the time of the coronavirus’?  I have just completed a rather lengthy survey by the University of Coimbra on my feelings and experiences during this awful time.

Some Friends seem to have quite enjoyed the ‘lockdown’ but that is clearly not true for most people and I lost one very good friend to the virus in May.  Your thoughts, reviews of books read during this period or any other reflections on Quakerism, NFN or these times will be most welcome.

The Steering Group is actively considering what to do next; will convene an SG meeting by Zoom shortly I believe and we will be discussing whether and how to hold a conference and AGM at least partly by video link (probably Zoom) at that meeting, so your thoughts on that possibility too will be welcome.

Piers awaits your contributions with bated breath.

NFN April 2020 Newsletter

Our April 2020 newsletter which David Parlett sent out to NFN members on 15 April is now on the website with messages from our clerk Gisela, new membership secretary Roger, Marcus Aurelius (apparently, although it might be Andrew Copson of Humanists UK or even David Boulton), myself as designated webperson, David Parlett and Helen Johnson of Croydon Local Meeting about all sorts of interesting issues. (and so far I haven’t mentioned coronavirus).
Trevor Bending

(PS not providing a link to the newsletter is a deliberate ploy to assist you in exploring the website – lots of interesting stuff including newsletters from 2013 to the present – now, where could it be? Tip – try the drop-down menus above or the menu on the mobile version of the website).

AGM postponement, membership and Steering Group

A minute from our clerk (9 April 2020):

The NFN Steering group sends heartfelt, loving greetings to all its members and friends during these difficult times.
As you know we have postponed our annual conference and the AGM until better days , and we hope that those of you who were going to attend will have the opportunity at a future date to join with us. The Steering Group will continue unchanged for the time being, except that Roger Warren Evans will take over responsibility for membership from David Parlett.
To simplify administration, membership will be rolled over until the future AGM and free membership will be offered to any new applicants meanwhile.
We wanted to reassure you that the Steering Group is in good spirits. During these uncertain times we will do our best to stay in touch mainly through our website, by telephone and email. We welcome all your thoughts, reflections, suggestions and questions and are looking forward to a lively exchange of thoughts and experience. Trevor Bending invites us all warmly to contribute to the website.
With your moral support we will keep the network ticking over for now.

Stay safe and well,
Gisela Creed, clerk

The Steering group: Gisela Creed (clerk), Piers Maddox,( treasurer), Trevor Bending, (website), David Parlett, (newsletter), Roger Warren Evans, (membership), David Boulton, Sarah Siddle, Keith Ryecroft, Tim Regan