We are society’s hands


(Commemoration of the Fortieth Anniversary of the United Nations by United Nations Photo on flickr)

There’s a Thatcher quote I often see out of context, and that bugs me. Here’s the quote:

there is no such thing as society

And here it with more of its context:

I think we have been through a period when too many people have been given to understand that when they have a problem it is government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant. I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They are casting their problems on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no governments can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours. People have got their entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There is no such thing as an entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.

I am no conservative (bar one election when I voted Green I have always voted Labour) but Thatcher is not saying she doesn’t believe in society, she’s saying that society is the sum of the people in it: if we do not act then society cannot act. Sure, there are other nasty things in the quote that I disagree with …

  1. Why pick on the homeless? My mum often says that the measure of a civilisation is how it treats its least able members. Thatcher clearly didn’t feel, and she should have done.
  2. “People must look to themselves first.” There’s truth in thisyou have to love yourself first before loving others, and you should put your oxygen mask on before helping others—but it could also be a way to excuse self-centred behaviour, especially juxtaposed against her dig at homeless people.
  3. The final part about entitlement and obligation also seems unkind, but there is an odd way we feel more comfortable talking about rights than responsibilities.

The pithy version of this quote is taken to mean that Thatcher believed that society was dead, but what it actually meant was she saw that society only acts when people take responsibility and act. There’s a clearer statement of her view in this quote

In our philosophy the purpose of the life of the individual is not to be the servant of the State and its objectives, but to make the best of his talents and qualities. The sense of being self-reliant, of playing a role within the family, of owning one’s own property, of paying one’s way, are all part of the spiritual ballast which maintains responsible citizenship, and provides the solid foundation from which people look around to see what more they might do, for others and for themselves. That is what we mean by a moral society; not a society where the State is responsible for everything, and no-one is responsible for the State.

(N.B. That begs the question of how we deal with those who have very few talents, either through illness, mental or physical, or through drug addiction etc. That’s where Thatcher and I diverge again.)

The core of Thatcher’s quote, the idea that we are responsible for the actions of the state, reminds me of this religious quote.

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

(N.B. It is often attributed to Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), though it’s not by her, as Timothy Phillips explores here.)

It is the same idea: good is achieved through our actions.

Summer is icumen in


The mice and the mouse organ from Bagpuss. Photograph: Peter Firmin

The mice and the mouse organ from Bagpuss. Photograph: Peter Firmin (via The Guardian)

On Saturday the 26th of April 2014 during the BBC Radio 3 breakfast showBBC Radio 3 breakfast show, Martin Handley revealed that the wonderful Sumer is icumen in had been added to the BBC Radio 3 Best of British playlist, the first entry attributed to “anonymous”. The whole playlist is available on Spotify and the recording Handley played is the last track on the Dufay Collective’s collection of anonymous secular English music of the middle ages titled Miri it is. It is such a joyful and fun recording of the song, recorded in St Bartholemews Church in Orford.

Roll on a few days and Kate and I were back fro the first of this terms choir sessions for the 69th of 4th 365: Jotting down a list of what we sang tonight at Cambourne Community Choir, a choir-cum-evening-class run in Cambourne Village College. Natania Goldrich, our director, had us trying Sumer is icumen in too. Great fun. I’ve been singing it on the cycle in to work ever since!

Not to belittle the Dufay Collective’s mastery or indeed our own tentative beginings but afterwards Kate remembered where she knew the tune from. Of course! It is not, after all, an anonymous thirteenth century song, but the creation of some cute (if a little mischievous) mice dreamt up by Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate in Bagpuss:


MIDI notes and enharmonic equivalence – towards unequal temperaments in Clojure


“Positiv Division, Manila Cathedral Pipe Organ” by Cealwyn on flickr

One current ‘when-I-get-spare-time-in-the-evening’ project is to explore how different keys sounded before the advent of equal temperament. Partly out of interest and partly because whenever I hear/read discussions of how keys got their distinctive characteristics (for example in answers to this question on the Musical Practise and Performance Stack Exchange) temperament is raised as an issue or explanation.

Having recently enjoyed Karsten Schmidt‘s Clojure workshop at Resonate 2014 Clojure and Overtone seem a good place to start. My first steps are with the easiest non-equal temperament to get my head around, the Pythagorean Temperament. My (albeit limited) understanding of temperaments has been helped enormously by the amazing chapters on the subject in David Benson’s book Music, a mathematical offering.

The story, as I was told it, has Pythagoras walking down a street in ancient Greece when he hears the sound coming from blacksmiths hammering iron bars. He notes that some hammerings produce harmonious sounds and some do not. On further investigation into the pleasing sounds Pythagoras discovered the frequency ratios behind the octave (a doubling of the frequency) and the perfect fifth (adding a half to the bar length, a frequency ratio of 3:2). Thus the Pythagorean Temperament is formed solely of repeated perfect fifths and octaves.

So how might that look in Clojure? This is me working through my understanding so I’m going to keep it simple. But first up I need some helper functions

(defn keep-in-octave [ratio]
  "Shift ratio by octaves until it falls between 1 and 2 inclusive"
(> ratio 2) (keep-in-octave (/ ratio 2))
(< ratio 1) (keep-in-octave (* ratio 2))
:else ratio))

(defn apply-ratio
"Vector of ratio and pitch shifted by ratio"
([ratio] (apply-ratio ratio 440.0))
([ratio pitch] [ratio (* pitch ratio)]))

With them in hand I can define the ratios that take our root pitch up through the fifths in Pythagorean tuning:

(def pythagorean-ratios-ascending-fifths
"Lazy sequence of ascending fifth ratios in Pythagorean temperament starting from root."
(iterate (fn [x] (keep-in-octave (* x (/ 3 2)))) 1))

Inverting the ratio to take us up a fifth takes us down a fifth, which when we shift up an octave is the same as going up a fourth:

(def pythagorean-ratios-descending-fifths
"Lazy sequence of descending fifth ratios in Pythagorean temperament starting from root."
(iterate (fn [x] (keep-in-octave (* x (/ 2 3)))) 1))

I can now just write out the names of the fifths and fourths we are interested in. Starting from A the first few give us the notes we need for a scale of A major: A, B, C♯, D, E, F♯, and G♯, and if we take the first twelve of each we get to common notes before needing double sharps, double flats, etc. (N.B. We’ll come back to that “etc”!)

(def fifths-ascending-from-a
[:A :E :B :F♯ :C♯ :G♯ :D♯ :A♯ :E♯ :C :G :D])

(def fifths-descending-from-a
[:A :D :G :C :F :B♭ :E♭ :A♭ :D♭ :G♭ :C♭ :F♭])

Zipping these together gives us the ascending fifths and fourths:

(zipmap fifths-ascending-from-a
(map apply-ratio pythagorean-ratios-ascending-fifths))

=>{:A [1 440.0], 
:D♯ [729/512 626.484375], 
:C [19683/16384 528.59619140625], 
:B [9/8 495.0], 
:G [59049/32768 792.894287109375], 
:D [177147/131072 594.6707153320314], 
:E [3/2 660.0], 
:C♯ [81/64 556.875], 
:G♯ [243/128 835.3125], 
:F♯ [27/16 742.5], 
:E♯ [6561/4096 704.794921875], 
:A♯ [2187/2048 469.86328125]}

(zipmap fifths-descending-from-a
(map apply-ratio pythagorean-ratios-descending-fifths))

=>{:A [1 440.0], 
:C [32/27 521.4814814814814], 
:D♭ [8192/6561 549.3796677335771], 
:F [128/81 695.3086419753087], 
:G [16/9 782.2222222222223], 
:D [4/3 586.6666666666665], 
:C♭ [65536/59049 488.33748242984626], 
:F♭ [262144/177147 651.1166432397949], 
:B♭ [256/243 463.5390946502056], 
:G♭ [32768/19683 732.5062236447696], 
:A♭ [4096/2187 824.0695016003657], 
:E♭ [1024/729 618.0521262002745]}

That’s a fun start, but it has left me with a question. Overtone seems to use MIDI notes as the underlying note ‘name’, but MIDI notes give enharmonically equivalent notes the same name. So, for example, the MIDI note 73 is C♯ and D♭ but in Pythagorean Temperament rooted on A they have different pitches. Benson refers to this by changing the familiar “circle of fifths” to the “spiral of fifths” noting that the “Pythagorean spiral never joins up”, i.e. after double sharps there will be triple sharps etc. without ever reaching enharmonic equivalence. I’ll check on the Overtone mailing list to see how important/correct my sense of underlying MIDI notes is.

Britten’s Curlew River


Submerged in the Serpentine by Swizzle Studio on flickr
Submerged in the Serpentine by Swizzle Studio on flickr

One of the great things about living in a city like Cambridge with such a vibrant tradition in classical music is that the student societies are always putting on amazing performances. They are amazingly talented youngsters and the audience is usually packed with their friends which lends a real buzz to things. The Cambridge University Opera Society (CUOS) has put on some wonderful productions since we moved here. They’ve done big operas from the standard repertoire like Eugene Onegin and the forthcoming Don Giovanni (which my son Will recently saw the students at York perform) but also less often staged ones like Pelléas et Mélisande, The Rake’s Progress, and Britten’s The Turn of the Screw.

That last one, The Turn of the Screw was amazing. I blogged about it and it has remained one of my favourite nights at the opera ever. So I am so excited that the CUOS are putting on another of Britten’s smaller ‘operas’, Curlew River. It is on this Friday and Saturday the 7th and 8th of February 2014 in Trinity College Chapel. There’s more information on their website or Facebook event page and tickets are available from the ADC Box Office. It’s a strange and magical piece in which Britten combines aspects of Japanese Noh plays with a medieval church parable. The resulting chamber piece is hauntingly beautiful.

I have seen Curlew River once before, as a late night prom at the Royal Albert Hall in 2004 and there is some video on YouTube of that performance.

The current CUOS committee have also started a series of academic talks to run alongside their productions. The series opened on Saturday at St John’s Divinity School where John Hopkins talked on all aspects of the piece, from its position in Britten’s canon and in the culture of the time through to musical aspects like Britten’s use of heterophony and musical frames.

We are also lucky that the original production was recorded, and further that it is available on Spotify.

See you there!

X marks the stop


Another crazy musical marking.

I’ve been working on Peter Maxwell Davies’ “Dances from The Two Fiddlers” (in The Boosey & Hawkes Violin Anthology) with my violin teacher and we came across this line:

Before this line the time signature is set to 3/8, though clearly the line starts in 2/4; but what does the X mean? I was going to pose the question on the Musical Practise and Performance Stack Exchange site but first I reached for a birthday present. My sister got me the bible of musical notation, Elaine Gould’s Behind Bars. And sure enough Gould has the answer. On page 611 she starts a section on unmeasured bars, or music without metre, and tells us that “An ‘X’ placed on the stave cancels an existing time signature” though Gould goes on to note that one should “Indicate whether the performer takes a new speed […] or continues at the same speed as the previous metre.”

There – now I know though it looks like it’ll take a lot of practise to master this line!

Mieczysław Weinberg’s The Passenger at the ENO


it was more than one step for the man by Leszek Golubinski on flickr"it was more than one step for the man" by Leszek Golubinski on flickr

Back on Monday the 19th of September Will & I attended the opening night of ENO’s production of The Passenger, Mieczysław Weinberg’s first opera. It was amazing. Harrowing, but amazing. It’s based on a novel (sadly not available in English) by Zofia Posmysz which in turn is based on her own 1959 Polish radio play Passenger from Cabin Number 45.

Normally when you read opera critics they either talk about the music, the staging, the acting, the costumes, etc. This opera appears to be Marmite to critics – the reviews are varied indeed – and one perplexing theme is a debate as to whether writing and staging an opera set in wartime Auschwitz is valid, or wise at all? I don’t get this. Throughout our history we, as a species, have used storytelling and song to pass knowledge from one generation to another, so that important events that shape our understanding of the world and of ourselves are not forgotten. Surely then the Holocaust is exactly the kind of event we should write stories and music about? In my own experience it is often the story-telling from unexpected genres that brings the impact home. For example the children’s story The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne helped introduce my children to this subject and the graphic novel (i.e. comic book) Maus by Art Spiegelman is a shocking but insightful biography of his father, a Holocaust survivor. There are other more obvious reasons why both Posmysz and Weinberg should be allowed to write about Auschwitz: she was there and he lost his family to the Nazis. But even without that harsh heritage, surely anyone should be at liberty to explore what happened through story-telling and music?

I think so, and I’m excited to be returning this evening (with my wife Kate this time) to see the closing night. To find an opera that is so moving (and harrowing) tackling such necessary subjects in a thoughtful way is rare. And that’s without mentioning the music. I’d never heard of Weinberg but he is great – especially his writing for strings. If you are a Spotify user I’ve put together a playlist, roughly in opus number order, of all I could find there: http://open.spotify.com/user/dumbledad/playlist/5569eNo77PBA4EKsUOP3A6 His music is a weaving together of much that was important in twentieth century composition, and that seems a very modern (and accomplished) approach.

Roll on tonight!

Note to self: Internal Server Error may mean ill formed Ajax request


Ajax carrying the body of Achilles by Sebastià Giralt on flickr
Ajax carrying the body of Achilles by Sebastià Giralt on flickr

I’ve been battling away with JavaScript, jQuery, Ajax, and WCF in a project for several days now failing to see why my Ajax call repeatedly threw an “Internal Server Error” without any of the WCF server code running. It turns out that I’d forgotten to put quotes in the JSON data field around the string I was passing in, I had them around the argument names, but not the string values.

Nico Muhly’s Two Boys at English National Opera



"On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog", a cartoon by Peter Steiner published by The New Yorker on July 5, 1993

Yesterday Kate and I went to see Nico Muhly‘s new (and first) opera Two Boys at English National Opera. Kate’s not much of an opera fan but we’d both seen and loved another Muhly premiere, Impossible Things with the Britten Sinfonia, and so it wasn’t hard to persuade her along.

What a great evening it was. We attended the pre-concert talk, part of the ENO’s Join the Conversation: Live series, and it was far fuller than your usual pre-concert talk with three speakers (including Muhly and the video producer Mark Grimmer from 59 Productions) and a brief recital with Muhly accompanying Valerie Reid on the piano as she sung the character Anne Strawson’s opening aria. I learnt tons about the opera and the talk turned my excitement and expectation up to 11!

And we were not disappointed. Two Boys is a fabulous and gripping opera. Beautiful and thought provoking.

The video promised to be beautiful too. I had already seen 59 Productions work with the ENO in Death in Venice, Riders to the Sea, Doctor Atomic, Messiah, Satyagraha, and The Pearl Fishers so I knew how good they could be – neither background nor foreground but subtly integrated into the staging and performance. I was even more excited to find (in the pre-concert talk) that Grimmer had eschewed the usual graphics used to sum up the internet. Initially I was disappointed. When Grimmer said they’d avoided the obvious I assumed he meant they would not use abstract data visualizations of networks. But that is exactly the aesthetic reference they started with! I was left pondering which more conventional imagery they had discarded. But I was not disappointed for long, because the projections were so well done in terms of integration into the action and in terms of balance with the acting and other staging and just so beautiful that I soon forgot my disappointment and just enjoyed them.

The criticism that proved harder to shake was of the subject itself. Back in the early days of the internet there was a real fear that when you were talking with someone on the internet you had no real idea who they were. This fear was summed up perfectly in 1993 (yes 18 years ago) by Peter Steiner in the New Yorker cartoon above. Academics also explored this idea, most notably Sherry Turkle in her 1995 book Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. Perhaps the internet would prove a place of continual identity play where we could be whoever we wanted to pretend to be. But no, that is not what happened, and most of these analyses have been revised, even the cartoon.

Response from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Now we realise that the opposite problem may be more real. Like all teenagers I did things I’d rather forget. And indeed I have forgotten most of them. My children play their lives out in an archived medium and so for them forgetting and reinvention is harder, not easier. Jaron Lanier talks about this (amongst other things) in his book You Are Not a Gadget. But even these new fears are not crippling. I grew up surrounded by cars and find crossing the road relatively easy (though I was taught how to do it). My children grew up surrounded by the interweb and by social media. Though I’ve done my bit to teach them how to use it safely I’m sure it is their generation not mine that will be fluent and safe.

Not that the old fear was without founding, the news event on which Muhly and Lucas based Two Boys was real, as was the Lori Drew / Megan Meier case referred to by Muhly in the programme. But these events are uncommon. Nico Muhly is fluent in interweb, so why choose a hackneyed 1990s fear as the driving plot device? Why not look more subtly at  the problems presented to young and old by the internet? danah boyd’s writings are a great resource for this. Or why not recognise that communication on the internet is less about problems and more about adding depth (and texture) to existing real friendships, as is pointed out in Richard Harper’s recent book.

[N.B. In the interests of full disclosure I ought to point out that Lanier, boyd, and Harper are all colleagues of mine at Microsoft Research.]

My criticism is quite abstract. The concrete detail of the opera was wonderful. The plot was gripping. Kate and I spent the interval sipping pink drinks and trying to guess who the guilty party was, and I’m happy to fess up that I guessed wrong. The production, the set, the video projection, etc. were beautiful and really drew us in. The singing was fabulous, especially the boy soprano Joseph Beesley and the main characters: mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley, tenor Nicky Spence, and soprano Mary Bevan. Above all of that goodness the most memorable part of the evening was the orchestration. I’m sorely tempted to buy tickets for Friday and go and listen again. There were some lovely touching parts and I especially enjoyed the way the tuned percussion was woven together from either side of the orchestra pit, with the glockenspiel and two xylophones (marimbas?) on the far right and the celesta on the left. Fantastic.

Bella Béla Bartók


From Béla Bartók's 44 Duos for two violins No. 11 (Universal Edition)
Name that key?’ on flickr

Each week recently, for sight reading and ensemble playing practise, my violin teacher and I play a duet from Béla Bartók’s 44 Duos for two violins. The harmonies are exquisite and odd. This one’s No. 11 and made us both laugh – what key is that!

Report from “What Next for Quaker Nontheism”, a workshop organised by Miriam Yagud and David Boulton at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre from 18-20/2/11


La Victoire de Samothrace by caribb on flickr

One year before the workshop one of the organisers, Miriam Yagud, booked the twelve available rooms at Woodbrooke with some trepidation; she was not sure that her proposal would attract twelve attendees. In the event around eighty people applied to come and (using overflow accommodation) roughly forty were able to attend, including my Mum and me.

We started on the Friday evening with a ‘get to know yourself’ session. Miriam used a game to get us thinking about ourselves and our Quakerism. We broke into groups of six and each group member delved into a bag to retrieve two objects, without peeking, the first would represent you and the second your Quaker faith. I was left pondering how a battery might represent me and an old hiking sock my Quakerism! We used a mixture of silent reflection and discussion that served well to start the weekend getting to know ourselves and our fellow attendees better.

The first evening ended with an epilogue, a Woodbrooke tradition consisting of a short meeting for worship including a longer piece of prepared ministry from one of the groups studying there that weekend. The Churches Together group lead the session and read the Britain Yearly Meeting epistle on same sex marriage from 2009. Looking back I can see how important this was for my understanding of the weekend. The reference to George Fox’s words “Marriage is God’s work and we are but witnesses” got me thinking about how nontheists understand the role of God and of God-language within Quakerism. The epistle also underlined the importance of diversity to modern Quakerism.

Day Two started with a talk by Miriam’s fellow organiser, David Boulton, covering various definitions. David is known to many Quakers as the author of Who on Earth was Jesus?, the editor of Godless for God’s Sake, and a member of the Quaker Universalist Group, the British Humanist Association, and was editor of the Sea of Faith Network’s magazine. He talked about the various words used to describe nontheism: atheism, agnosticism, heresy, humanism, etc. and looked both at their etymology and at what they might mean for us now. Nontheism, though clumsy, appears to have become the preferred term lacking as it does some of the more aggressive critical connotations of the word atheism.

Breaking again into groups we next explored how the diversity of Quaker faith is supported in our local meeting. I was amazed at the diversity of experiences. There were nontheists present who felt isolated and silenced by their local meeting and others who felt core to their local meeting’s faith. Practises like discussion groups and ‘after words’ were reported as valuable ways to explore and nurture the diversity of beliefs among existing Quakers.

This was followed with a look at Quaker history, highlighting the role of dissenting voices. Starting with early Quakers and Ranters we heard quotes like this from Gerrard Winstanley (1609-c.1660):

“He that looks for God outside himself, and worships God at a distance, worships he knows not what, but is … deceived by the imagination of his own heart.”

Many of the nontheists on the workshop had been asked the question asked of Susan B Anthony (1820-1906): do you pray? Her answer was inspiring:

“I pray every single hour of my life; not on my knees but with my works.”

Though this historic journey was inspiring, and did show that Quaker notions of faith and of God have been diverse from our inception, I did wonder, especially reading back through my notes, just how realistic it is to claim some of these historic Friends as relevant for nontheism.

On the Saturday afternoon each of the groups at Woodbrooke had free time and so we decided to get together for silence and discussion. It wasn’t easy. Several of the Churches Together attendees felt that the conceptions of God put forward by the nontheists were too constraining of their own ideas and that our approach was too evangelical. The last point made was that we should listen to each other’s beliefs and experiences, not with the intention of changing minds but purely to understand the personal meaning of what was said and felt.

The last formal session on Saturday looked at meeting for worship and explored what we, as nontheists, do in meeting. For me this was the most troubling and the most confusing session. I had hoped to find other nontheists sharing common experiences of meeting for worship but the six people in my group all approached what happens in meeting very differently, and in ways that sometimes felt foreign to me.

After dinner we relaxed with an evening of music and poetry sharing. Most of this was uplifting but the gems turned out to be the jokes and shared humour, like this limerick recited by one of the women attending the workshop:

There was a young lady called Alice
Who peed in the Vatican Palace.
It wasn’t her need
That prompted the deed
But pure Presbyterian malice.

Saturday closed with another Woodbrooke epilogue, this time lead by David Boulton from our group. He chose to weave readings and analysis of Blake’s poem The Divine Image through the ministry:

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk, or jew;
Where Mercy, Love, & Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.

On Sunday we shared meeting for worship with the other groups after a closing session looking forward to our next steps as a group. We worked on a minute summarizing the weekend which I’ll include at the end of this report. I came to the workshop hoping to deepen my understanding of my own beliefs, and my understanding of my Quakerism. But I feared that less subtle, more aggressive atheist arguments might dominate. In fact neither proved true. What I found instead was a fascinating community of committed nontheist Friends, many of home needed this workshop to convince them that Quakerism could still provide their home. The minute we worded reads as follows:

“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 Britain Yearly Meeting. Six names were brought forward and accepted. The steering group was asked to liaise with Woodbrooke 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.

(Minute and Epistle of the gathering of nontheist Friends at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, Britain, Feb 18-20 2011, taken from the Nontheist Friends website)