A Quaker life through music

Something uplifting to read in these difficult times! This personal reflection by John Sheldon of Warwick Quaker Meeting was originally commissioned for ‘News from the Centre’, the next edition of which we hope can be printed later in the year.

When I was a music student in Manchester I said to a Methodist friend one day that I might end up as a Quaker. He was surprised, noting that I was a musician and that Quakers did not use music in their worship. I accepted this but thought privately that I would probably become one anyway!

A few year later, married with two small sons and living in Lewisham I found myself setting off for Blackheath Meeting. There, a parent of one of my pupils invited me to take part in a musical event Friends were organising and I started getting to know Friends through making music together.

Later, in Manchester, we attended Eccles Meeting. Jack and Carrie Wrightson were members and they welcomed us for our music as well as for our children, and it wasn’t long before I was invited to join the committee of the Quaker Fellowship of the Arts. This was a very lively group where Ormerod Greenwood was a leading light. He had been invited to deliver the Swarthmore Lecture in 1978 when Yearly Meeting was at the University of Lancaster. There was a lot of artistic activity, including singing, and the Leaveners made their début performance there. Being involved with that event I had the strong feeling that Friends needed a songbook. I took the concern to the QFA committee and as a result, a Quaker Song Book, the first of its kind in Britain was published three years later.

At Eccles Meeting there were enough of us to form a small four-part choir and I was invited by Chris Lawson to contribute to Family Summer Schools at Woodbrooke. These were joyous events which culminated in a musical show and on one occasion Peter Fishpool and I wrote a musical called Who’s the Fool?

I became involved with Leaveners whose work was based on our testimonies. As a result I realised that although many Friends were involved in local choral societies and orchestras, there was something precious about being able to express our faith through music with other Friends. The depth of worship felt rich with the sense of the uniting spirit; we felt recharged and able to continue the rest of our Quaker lives as a result of making music together in this way.

More recently I was asked by the Leaveners to join a group of Friends to put together a new songbook. As we worked on what became Sing in the Spirit I was struck by the wealth of material which came to our attention. Clearly the work of the Leaveners, and the presence of the earlier songbook, had done much to engender creativity in Friends. It was a real privilege to work on that book which remains a rich musical resource for Friends in our Yearly Meeting. I have also used it in music workshops amongst Friends in continental Europe and the USA.

Alec Davison and Tony Biggin, co-founders of the Leaveners have continued their music-making amongst Friends by offering singing workshops and our Area Meeting hosted one of these last summer. It was so well attended that we decided to experiment with an Area Meeting singing group. So here I am, well in to my later years, enjoying singing with Area Meeting Friends. And as I look back over so much Quaker music I can’t help but smile at the conversation with my Methodist friend in Manchester all those years ago!