meeting house

Making these walls ring with music and silence

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Our latest speaking attender… helping to make more of the venue with music

Just over a year ago we acquired a piano with the help of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Sustainable Development Fund.  Perfectly normal for a venue of course but something of a departure for a Meeting House that has been host to silent gatherings for nearly 4 centuries.

Silence is a valued commodity for Quakers, so what was the appeal of a piano for the small group that regularly meets here?  After all, we don’t make much use of the instrument ourselves – a fine thing though it is.

In the past year we’ve been treated to a wide range of work – jazz, new compositions, spiritual songs and stories, solo and chamber choir recitals, as well as drama and monologue – some private, some public.  From the notes in the visitors’ book, the occasional tourist scratches a musical itch by playing the piano as well.

players from the Vacation Chamber Orchestra bringing old and new music to the Meeting House

For me, music is part of the fabric of living: woven into heartbeat and breath, available to help express instantly the desires, elations, traumas, rages and reliefs of the soul.  Growing up as a piano student, my piano quickly became confidante and mouthpiece: a prosthetic emotional sounding board.  The immense value of this particularly to young people can’t be overstated and it saddens me greatly that music has been one of the first casualties of cuts in education budgets.

The 19th century Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote the verses which included words that would become the hymn ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’ – somewhat ironically as it would turn out – as an entreaty to people to ditch elaborate ceremonies and noisy hymns in favour of the benefits of quiet reflection.  But the experience of listening to or participating in music is such a richly rewarding one, so why would anyone want to exclude it from the heart of community life?

I don’t have an answer either for Mr. Whittier or for anyone who finds Quakers’ aversion to music in worship odd.  But I do know what music can do and what at best it represents.  As with all the arts, music somehow expresses truth more eloquently than a whole library of words.  Melody, harmony, rhythm and texture all speak to the soul, giving voice to inner longings, joys and regrets, grounding the listener’s experience in the shared humanity of composer and performer.  A well-crafted piece of music appeals across cultures and throughout time, dissolving perceived boundaries of place or people; and when performers join together to create music, it demonstrates the heights to which people in co-operation can rise.

Music to set the heart racing – this gig played to a packed house!

And that would perhaps be all, except for one component of music that’s often forgotten.  The truly heart-stopping moments in music often come when the instruments stop playing, if only for an instant.  Every great performance is framed by silence, permeated by musical silences and in fact at its most translucent when silence is part of its texture.  Those silences are the canvas on which the piece is painted, the questions it attempts to answer and the material out of which it is carved.

Cello ensembles are particularly resonant in these walls…

So amidst all the beautiful, inspiring and uplifting music of religions from around the world, perhaps there is after all a place for a kind of faith that is expressed in silence: one which offers an uncrowded space, in which the music of the soul can flow unconstrained and in which we are all performers regardless of the instrumentation of our lives.

‘Don’t just pass by – stop and look inside!’

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So sang the children in the nativity play I enjoyed this week, having been drafted to accompany the renditions of ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘A Merry Christmas’ on the keyboard to book-end the performance.  Not having children of my own, witnessing a school nativity from the outside (as opposed to being a tea-towel wearing shepherd the last time I had anything to do with one…) was a delightful first.  The children sang, shouted their lines and gesticulated with gusto, all in splendid costumes that rivalled the attire of anyone on a big-time stage.  A production worth stopping and looking in for sure (assuming you were a parent or had something to do with the school of course).

The line that stuck out brought to mind the dozens of times this year I’ve noticed walkers and visitors to Airton stop by at the Meeting House, accepting the implicit welcome of the open gate, and step inside our remarkable building.  Intentionally simple both inside and out, this humble pile of stones nonetheless seems to appeal, offering perhaps a moment of rest on a long walk, a fascinating peak into history or just shelter from the rain.  It’s meant much more to thousands of people over the centuries of course and to us who know it now, as a living Meeting House, a cultural venue, polling station (all too often of late…) and community facility.

But without the people, familiar or strangers, it is just a pile of stones – the contents page of a lost history perhaps.  It’s those who built, expanded, maintained and cared for these buildings whose story they tell; and principally, that story revolves around the obvious question of ‘why?’

The answer to that question lies in the 17th century beginnings of Quakerism: a coalition of dissenting voices gathered from various parts of this country, particularly here in the north-west of Yorkshire and northern Lancashire, many of whose lives are documented in some of the older books on our library’s shelves.  Their spiritual journey had brought them to a point where they no longer wished to be bystanders in faith, receiving titbits of wisdom from priests and people in authority, being told what to find significant and finding that that included little about their daily lives.  For these dissidents, it was no longer enough to attend services, perform rituals, take instruction from above.  They believed they could be authors of their own journey, both as individuals and as communities.  So they gathered in simple, out of the way places, waited on the wisdom they found within themselves, shared their thoughts with each other and grew in confidence and faith.

Today’s Quakers might individually follow a variety of religious faiths and even none but that story of seeking one’s own wisdom and listening to the wisdom of those around you regardless of status or personal history unites them with the forbears who occupied this meeting place and the hundreds of similar places that quickly sprang up around the country in the latter half of the 1600s.

Taking the time to engage both with the world and one’s own thoughts in company is no indulgence.  It’s no less than an opportunity to stop and look inside.  And when that opportunity is taken, sometimes what is found inside is precious – no less than one’s own contribution to the peace and wholeness of the world.  Not just something to be passed by, whether in the busy-ness of Christmas or at any time.

Have a peaceful Christmas and come to visit us in the new year!

Memories recalled – Airton’s welcome then and now

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Saturday 28th September was a day of memories and reflection.  Our ‘Young Friends’ reunion brought together former guests who had spent many a magical weekend at Airton Friends Meeting House and Barn from the 1950s onwards.  Laying out fascinating old photos, they shared their stories of games by the river, muddy walks and evenings of camaraderie.
John Gilham recalls ‘…between 1995 and 2004 the young persons’ Link Group had an annual mountain-biking weekend at the Quaker “bunk barn” attached to Airton Meeting House. Conditions were Spartan, if not primitive, the cycling exhausting, exhilarating and incredibly muddy, yet many participated multiple times.

The barn had been stayed in by groups of, particularly, Young Friends since the 1950s but by 2005 was almost unusable, failing to comply with standards of health, hygiene and fire safety.  It was totally renovated and enlarged thanks to the efforts of local and regional Friends and re-opened in 2011.  On 28 September this year, Bone Jones and I attended a re-union of some of the people who had used the barn from the 1960s on.  What a contrast!  Clean, warm and spacious with modern kitchens well kitted out, comfortable-looking bunk beds and places to relax.  It can sleep up to 18 people in dormitory accommodation but also welcomes families to stay…

Of course, even more wonderful is the adjoining historic Meeting House, used for Quaker worship continuously since the early 1650s, always open.  Meeting for Worship on 2nd and 4th Sundays at 3pm.  And if that’s not enough there’s some of the most beautiful scenery in Yorkshire right on the doorstep!’

The evening gave a different take on recollection in the form of Debbie Cook’s wonderful rendition of two monologues from Alan Bennett’s canon of ‘Talking Heads’.  A feat of memory in itself, the performance brought two beautifully scripted characters to life and reminded a rapt audience why these pieces and their author are so warmly and widely loved.

What has silence ever done for us?

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If people in general know anything about Quakers it’s that we tend to sit quietly a lot.  I mean, really quietly.  The recent, hilarious depiction of a Quaker Meeting on the BBC’s ‘Fleabag’ by genius comic writer-actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge sort of celebrates whilst gently teasing this quirk of Quaker worship, brilliantly showing how counter-cultural it is to sit in a room together not talking.

Silence heralds spring on a foggy Grimwith Reservoir in March

Silence is something in abundance in this part of the world – in the evenings, anyway – so much that sometimes the whole place can feel like one extended Quaker Meeting.  But listen hard and there are plenty of conversations going on: bird to bird, fox to fox; planes transmitting souls across the sky; climate and soil in the endless dance of life.  All players making themselves known, all asking questions, some receiving answers.  But apart from the ticking clock and the scuttle of fingers over a keyboard, my world is silent this evening.

For most people in our society, silence is in far shorter supply.  We’re bombarded with information, data, opinions, noise.  Things we must know, ideas we should follow.  The world says ‘Listen to me!  I know what you need, even if you don’t, and I have the answers!’  Except mostly it doesn’t.  Then it gets demanding: ‘Like me!  Decide what you think!  Make a choice!’  The only way to shut it out is to confront the wall of sound constantly bearing down on us by turning up our own volume – of speech, noise or music – making our own definitive statements, finding better arguments than the ones that are trying to win us over, or just bore us with their noisy irrelevance.

There would be more than enough of this noise if it only came from politics, work, fashion and entertainment; but into this cacophony steps religion – another voice, insisting on another set of beliefs, practices and choices.  So with the world in a state of confusion, as soon as someone enters a service of worship, they’re given yet another position to agree or disagree with above and beyond any ethical standpoint they might have formed on their own.  Lines are drawn and the question is asked ‘are you in or out – with us or not?’  Whilst valuable for some, for many people this extra layer of certainty is the turn off that stops them questioning at all.

Which is why I’ve come to appreciate the silence of Quaker Meetings more than any other aspect of Quaker life.  A natural fidget, it takes me a good while to get settled but once I’m in the space so to speak, I find the noise of my thoughts start to diminish, my petty concerns one by one unravel and my sense of appreciation increase – for the good things of life, for the hopes I carry and crucially, for the people in the room with me.

Occasionally, someone will share a thought they think might be useful for the others (something a bit more profound than ‘I think I’ll go home in November’ – funny as that was Phoebe!) and then the disturbance to one’s own thought processes becomes valuable in its own way; but often the silence continues for the whole hour.  And afterwards, calmer, happier, stronger I’m better able to articulate the things that need to be said, take part in the discussions that need to be had, act on what needs to be done.

So that’s why in my view, in times of social tension, political challenges, economic turmoil and ecological breakdown, the silence of Quaker Meetings might just be a radically important offering that Quakerism can make to society in general.  No doctrinal demands, no complex ritual practices, no hierarchical powerplay – just a space in time when everyone is equally valued, equally significant and equally eloquent.  A space into which all are welcome and from which all can exit equipped by silence to participate in the work that reconnects people with people and people with the universe we inhabit.

after the crowds – evening in lower Malhamdale

Abolition – an idea whose time needs to come again

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On four Sunday afternoons from mid-September to late October this year, Airton Friends will be hosting a series of moving and informative events exploring the lives both of people experiencing slavery and those who worked towards it abolition, sometimes in spectacular fashion.  However, whilst abolition may have been a great historic achievement, it’s work is far from finished, as we will hear from speakers later in the series.

The events begin on September 17th with a performance by Leeds Heritage Corner (http://heritagecornerleeds.wixsite.com/heritage-corner) of Meet the Crafts – a two handed play based on the biographical work Running a Thousand Miles to Freedom by escaped slave William Craft, published in 1860 by William Tweedie of London.  This harrowing story charts the flight of William and Ellen from slavery in the southern US, passage across the Atlantic and their reception in this country.  150 years after publication, the written narrative, available online at http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/craft/craft.html, is as gripping as any contemporary adventure, all the more intense through its being the real story of a man and woman struggling for freedom.  Meet the Crafts brings this story back to life as well as giving voice to other transatlantic voices of the time.

On October 1st, we explore the life of Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) in a dramatised reading by Arthur Pritchard and Mike Casey of Plain Quakers Theatre Projects (PQTP).  In Nine Parts a Quaker – Unfinished Business, the duo ask ‘If slavery was abolished in the nineteenth century, why are more than 20 million people enslaved today?’  The title refers to the fact that Clarkson was a sympathiser to Quaker values but was not himself a Quaker – an apt reminder that movements for change are most effective as coalitions rather than as single interest groups.  Follow PQTP on twitter @PlainQuakers.

The third event is part answer to the question posed by Nine Parts a Quaker.  Returning to the present day, in Here and Now, we will hear short talks and engage in discussion about contemporary slavery with contributions from someone who has experienced the sharp end of trafficking and domestic servitude; a former chair of Anti-Slavery International Andrew Clark; Cristina Talens of the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation (University of Hull); and Sheila Mosley of Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network.  Between them, these four speakers will shed light on the continued persistence of slavery both internationally and within the UK.  Abolitionists faced the challenges of their time with courage and determination; facing present reality is the beginning of change – so if you can only make one event in this series, this is the one to attend.

In the final event of the series, on October 29th, we travel back three centuries to explore the life and times of abolitionist Benjamin Lay (1682-1759).  Despite his small stature, he worked as a sailor, travelling to Barbados, where he was appalled by slavery.  Arriving in Philadelphia – where many of his fellow Quakers owned slaves – he provoked and annoyed them with incessant and sometimes extravagant campaigning, eventually being disowned by the Quaker meeting.  Yet his protests inspired subsequent Quaker abolitionists Anthony Benezet and John Woolman, helping to turn the movement wholesale against slavery.  This story will be unfolded for us by historian Marcus Rediker of the University of Pittsburgh, with an illustrated talk based on his book The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist (Beacon Press/Verso, 2017).

We warmly invite you to join us at any or all of these events.  Each begins at 3.30pm.  Entrance will be free and a collection will be taken to cover costs, with the surplus donated to a relevant charity by Airton Friends Meeting.

Keep updated over the next few weeks by visiting this site, including our news page.

Simon Watkins and Laurel Phillipson, 17th July 2017.

Hello from the new Friend in Residence at Airton Quaker Meeting!

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The Dales have been familiar to me since childhood as a place of adventurous day trips with my Yorkshire grandparents (based near Barnsley) and escapes with rambling groups whilst at university in York.  But although I always thought I would eventually move to Yorkshire, I imagined the move as a sideways step from my home city of Coventry into one of the region’s metropolises – not through any particular love of cities but because that’s what I knew and because statistically speaking, the chances of a ‘Volunteer Resident Friend’ (VRF) position coming up in a small village in the heart of the landscape I’d grown up captivated by is much less likely than finding a job in Leeds or Sheffield.

I’m completely thrilled to be here.  Never mind that I’ll miss countless friends, my small suburban garden, the amateur orchestra that until last week I conducted, the choir of Holy Trinity in which I sang Bass, Coventry Quaker Meeting, the community farm at Ryton Organic Gardens from which I collected fresh vegetables every week, etc.  Coventry was good to me but I know already that life in Malhamdale will be just as rich.

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As the VRF at Airton Barn I will enjoy welcoming visitors from far and wide.  One of the attractions of the position was the opportunity to meet new people as they travel through.  As well as residential visits the Barn is a great venue suited to a wide range of creative activities including courses, retreats, away days and exhibitions – a programme I hope to continue to facilitate, having been looked after so well by my predecessor Floe for four years.  In the short term however I’m taking time to explore the country lanes & fill my lungs with the Dales air as well as getting confused over the names of the neighbours (my apologies if that includes you…)

Drop in at Airton Barn soon!