Tag Archives: Gill Pennington

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/

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!

Coronavirus and Conference Cancellation/Postponement 2020

The Steering Group of the Nontheist Friends Network (NFN) has been closely monitoring the situation with the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic and reviewing the advice issued by Government and Public Health. It now seems likely that the situation will worsen in the next few weeks.

So, after careful consideration, and with deep regret, we have decided it is in the best interest of our participants , the keynote speakers and all who are near to us to cancel our conference, which was to be held 28-29 March 2020 at Friends House, London : “That’s the Spirit”, and postpone it to more certain times later or the following year, to be agreed.

This is not an easy decision for us to take but we feel it is the responsible thing to do now. We are disappointed not to meet you and engage with our subject of the different dimensions of spirituality. The decision will have some financial consequences for us, but we hope that by postponing , we are able to lessen the impact.  We are upholding all those affected by the COVID-19 outbreak and are hopeful we can forge virtual connections with many of you over the coming weeks, especially at a time when it will be important to come together while being encouraged to stay apart.

We hope that this announcement gives you time to cancel any accommodation and travel bookings . Your fees will be refunded at the earliest opportunity and we will stay in touch regarding a new conference date.

Gisela Creed
Clerk, NFN, 16/03/2020
Latest update here.

PS. Roger Warren-Evans will be contacting all participants with refund information shortly but it may take him a little time to work through the over 40 bookings received.

As Gisela indicates, it is hoped to hold the conference eventually, either much later this year or possibly next.  Information about the AGM (which is also POSTPONED!) will follow in due course.

Being ‘hopeful we can forge virtual connections with many of you over the coming weeks’ is in part an idea that in the absence of the conference, and perhaps being at home, we might all make use of the website to communicate our thoughts about the conference theme, the coronavirus and the new circumstances we all now find ourselves in. If you would like to send us your thoughts or start a conversation, please use the Comment/Leave a reply box below or at the foot of any relevant page or post.

Annual Conference 2020 Further update

With just a month to go, documents for the conference and AGM have been updated on the Conference page and we hope these will be the final updates.

Look forward to seeing you there. (And if you haven’t already booked, contact Roger now to see if he has any spaces left!)

Humanism and our Conference

The three speakers at our Conference at Friends’ House 28-29 March are Gill Pennington (former spirituality tutor at Woodbrooke), Dinah Livingstone (editor of ‘Sofia’ magazine for the Sea of Faith) and Andrew Copson (chief executive of Humanists UK).

For further details of these speakers see the 2020 Conference page

I am considering putting up a **bibliography of useful readings on spirituality for the Conference but in the meantime, think these two posts about Humanism on ‘Canadian Atheist’ interviewing Andrew Copson (see above) and the President of Humanists UK, Alice Roberts, would be of considerable interest to those attending or thinking about attending the conference. (We haven’t sold out yet but places are limited!): (click on the headings to go to the full interviews)

Interview with Professor Alice Roberts – President, Humanists UK & President, British Science Association

Extensive Interview with Andrew James William Copson – President, Humanists International & Chief Executive, Humanists UK


Don’t forget that the NFN AGM will also take place on the Sunday morning 9.30am!  For those unable to attend the whole weekend, ‘day tickets’ for Saturday (including evening meal) and Sunday (including lunch) are available from Roger on request (again, see the Conference page for booking details).
** If you have any suggestions for books or reading (including blog posts) of relevance to our theme of ‘Spirituality’, please let me know on our Contact page.