21 February 2013

Hardshaw and Mann Area Meeting Spring Gathering Swarthmoor Hall 22 – 24/2/13

“An opportunity to share our values and views on what Quakerism means for us as individuals, as members of our meeting and in the community” was the heading on the well-designed itinerary of the AM Spring Gathering weekend, organised by Allan Williams, Tim Slack and Bernie Thomas. Not only were we looking forward to sharing a weekend away with Friends and attenders from Wigan, Southport and Liverpool, we were also delighted to welcome Penny and Alan Vernon from Heswall meeting (Wirral and Chester AM). The enriching experience of widening our acquaintance with friends outside our Area Meeting led to a wish to venture beyond the boundaries and connect with other meetings in the region.
The following question was also included on the itinerary:
How has the truth prospered amongst them since the last yearly meeting, and how Friends are in peace and unity?
(From the three questions asked of representatives from each quarterly meeting, at Yearly meeting 1682)
One of the weekend’s fascinating insights was getting to know the “life” of other meetings. We heard from Allan from Liverpool about the initiatives by Northern Friends Peace Board to commemorate National Conscientious Objectors’ day. Denise Graham from Southport introduced us to some of the fascinating work in which the local history group have been involved. Alan and Penny delighted us with a presentation on their stunning Modernist Friends meeting house in Heswall and the prizewinning Tatton Park Show garden design that helped to raise awareness of the work of QCAT (Quaker Concern for the Abolition of Torture – a campaign started by Chas Raws at Heswall). Rachel Grimshaw from Wigan spoke movingly about the growing number of attenders at the twice a month meeting for worship in Swinley Road, and her and Eric Silk’s valiant efforts to provide a Quakerly witness where the majority of people attending are not Quakers. After she had spoken, we sensed a great feeling of unity and it was decided that we would visit Wigan in groups or individually to lend the meeting support when we could.
The facilities at Swarthmoor are excellent with modern, sympathetic out-buildings housing cosy bedrooms and well-stocked kitchens, and even small libraries. We were well looked after by the manager Jane, who deserves our thanks for creating a very comfortable and welcoming place.
We had the whole of Swarthmoor Hall to ourselves: a real treat. There is something about the place that imparts a feeling of sanctuary, friendship and healing – a “heart of light” in a dark world – remaining, no doubt, due to its history as the refuge of early Friends finding welcome and support from the family home of Judge Fell and his wife Margaret. This was evident in the interesting tour of the 16th century house by Quaker historian, Jenny Paull, where George Fox and the Valiant Sixty found sympathy and support. This theme was expanded by an evocative afternoon talk by Dr. Paull, who gave us a fascinating insight into the character and influence of Margaret Fell. Friends’ eyebrows were raised when she suggested that Margaret Fell was rather like Margaret Thatcher in character! If one can separate politics from character, one can almost imagine Mrs. F. declaring in the style of Mrs. T.; “there certainly is such a thing as society: the Society of Friends!” I valued the time we had for meeting for worship that closed our relaxed and enjoyable study sessions. These included readings from Quaker Faith and Practice, chosen by the reader and were, for me, very helpful and enriching. On Friday evening, Penny read George Gorman’s insight about religion being about relationships between people (QF&P: 10.20). On Sunday we had meeting for worship in the same room where early Friends had met: a wonderful experience; “…inspirational – the origins of Quaker belief linked with the world at present.” (This quote comes from a card I selected as I left Swarthmoor, written by an anonymous friend. We were each asked to write a sentence or two on a card and leave it face down. As we left we were invited to take a card without knowing what was written on them.) During meeting, Bernie Kennedy read James Naylor’s powerful, moving prayer of 1659.
Other highlights of the weekend for me included a walk with friends along the footpath to Sunbrick burial ground where Margaret Fell is buried. We didn’t quite make it to our destination, but got a glimpse of silvery Morcambe Bay in the distance. On Saturday evening we shared poems, stories and songs in front of a log fire. We heard Jonathan Griffith’s philosophical musings on a spider, Bernie Thomas’s moving song about the peace testimony and Alan Vernon led us in a sing-song that included an attempt at rounds and the one about George Fox “with his leather breeches and his shaggy, shaggy locks!”
There is so much more to tell about the wonderful weekend, not least the fellowship: getting to know each other better and making new friends. This was facilitated by the brilliantly prepared and delivered programme of study and worship sharing. I am very grateful to Allan, Tim and Bernie for organising a great Spring gathering.
“And the power and presence of the Lord being so much there with us, it was as a means to induce many, even from afar, to come thither, so that at one time there would have been Friends from five or six counties…”
William Caton, Swarthmoor Hall, 1652 [QF&P: 22.22]

Edward Bruce 4/3/13