The Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature
The first Bloxham festival of faith and literature took place
last weekend, sponsored by the Church Times. Paul
IT WAS an eventful weekend, but two incidents stood out. One was
Rabbi Lionel Blue's leading his audience in Sydney Carter's hymn
"One more step along the world I go".
The other, perhaps slightly more personal, was being approached
by a WI member in a red apron: "Would you like more cake?" Was this
My experience of other festivals, Greenbelt, for example, is of
being torn between various options on the programme, dashing around
a large site, and eating on the run in order to get to at least a
few things. The advantage of being at the launch of a festival -
albeit one that looks almost certain to expand, if not, perhaps, to
Hay proportions - is that things can be more leisurely. So there
was often a three-quarters-of-an-hour break between events during
which strangers could wander round the magnificent St Mary's,
Bloxham, and locals could catch up with the news - and all of us
could eat homemade cakes. The driving force behind the festival was
Tony Baldry MP, the Second Church Estates Commissioner and a
resident in the village.
If the feel of the festival was reassuringly local, its line-up
was decidedly not. The weekend started with a dinner at nearby
Bloxham School, with an address on Winston Churchill's early life
by Lord Dobbs, the former MP. It set the tone
for the weekend, combining erudition with entertainment.
Both these elements were there in abundance on Saturday morning,
when Professors Gordon Campbell, a historian,
and David Crystal, a linguist, joined forces to discuss the
composition and enduring attraction of the King James Bible.
The Jacobean translators had drawn heavily on earlier versions
of the Bible, both English and Continental, but in addition they
were, Professor Campbell said, remarkable linguists, bringing a
knowledge of Syriac, Samaritan, and Ethiopian, as well as the
commoner Greek and Hebrew. And they had aimed for the simplest
translations possible, introducing monosyllables whenever they
could. The effect was to mirror the poetic rhythms of everyday
Professor Crystal had gone further, tracking the use of everyday
idioms in the KJB. Reading it through twice, he had counted 257
examples that had endured, such as "fly in the ointment", "thorn in
the flesh", and "whited sepulchre". It was surprisingly few, given
that modern English contains about 10,000 idioms. It was, none the
less, more than were found in any other source. (Shakespeare
produced about 100.) Of these 257, all but 18 could be found in
Next to speak was Fr Michael Seed, an RC
Franciscan priest who has recently moved on after 24 years at
Westminster Cathedral. His spiritual journey had taken him from
being baptised in the Roman Catholic Church, brought up in the
Salvation Army (the period of which he spoke most fondly), and
transferred to the Strict Baptists. He spent three months as an
Anglican, before he was recommended to return to the RC Church in
order to become a religious.
He spoke of taking Dr Billy Graham to mass at Westminster
Cathedral. Boundaries were irrelevant, he said; "we have the
problem, not God." Asked what Jesus would make of denominational
Christianity, he said: "Pathetic. He would find it pathetic. He
would need a large glass of whisky just to deal with it."
And he related an occasion when he had to speak to a thousand
boys in Westminster Abbey. "And I don't really like children. . . I
suppose nowadays it's quite unusual for a Catholic priest not to
like children." Mervyn Tower, the RC canon who was chairing the
session, seemed to feel that we needed a little orthodox pep-talk
On Saturday afternoon, Jane
Williams gave an illustrated lecture on Christ in
art. She had come late to the power of images, she said, but now
appreciated that they could show at a glance elements of the divine
which would take many words to convey. She compared contrasting
treatments of the annunciation by Van der Weyden, Fra Angelico, and
El Greco, of the temptation in the wilderness by Duccio and Blake;
and of the crucifixion by Messina and Grünewald, describing which
she found most attractive as a theologian (and which most
repulsive). "We under-use pictures in the Church," she said.
William Fiennes, whose family home, Broughton
Castle, is two miles from Bloxham, spoke of pilgrimage in relation
to his first book, The Snow Geese, describing three
months spent tracking the return of the snow geese from the
American South to Canada. He was critical of many pilgrimages,
which, on reaching the destination, whisked pilgrims home again by
aeroplane or train. "The true destination of a pilgrimage is not
Lourdes, or Canterbury, or Santiago, or Rome: the true destination
is the home you come back to." Although an agnostic, he was struck
by the times God is described as a dwelling place.
Humans, he suggested, were subject to two conflicting impulses:
the familiar and homely, and the new and unexplored. "It is hard to
imagine a life lived entirely in the familiar; but it's equally
hard to imagine a life lived without anything familiar." He spoke
fondly of the "muscle memory" whereby your hand reaches out in the
dark to where you know the light switch will be.
His work is crafted meticulously. The Snow Geese had taken a
year to write, then a further two years of editing. His latest
work, The Music Room, shows a similar wit and
attention to detail, as did a modern fable he read out about why
the ash has black tips to its branches.
By contrast, Tony Jordan spoke
robustly of creating a version of the Nativity story which would
convince his mates in the pub. After a career writing
for EastEnders, and then creating Life on
Marsand Hustle, he landed the commission by
chance in a bar in Cardiff.
He had got to page 42 in his first script, which was "a bit
like 'Allo 'Allo - very flippant", but,
remembering his plaster nativity scene, "I felt a bit dirty, a bit
disrespectful." Attempting to tell the story straight, he had been
disheartened by the historians he consulted: no Virgin birth, no
wise men, no inn, no star - "and it didn't happen in December".
Then he talked to what he called "the other side": people of
faith, and concluded that the story of the nativity "couldn't be
bound by the historical so-called facts that I'd been given by the
historians". Secondary details might be dismissed, "but the one
thing that stays is the heart of the story."
The audience then saw the result of his research, the
four-part Nativity, shown on BBC1 last Christmas.
"There was nobody dry eyed at the end," said one, "not even Tony
The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John
Pritchard, came to Bloxham for the Sunday- morning service, during
which he spoke about the theme of his latest book: the reasons why
people lost touch with God, and how they might find him again. He
mentioned four reasons for losing touch: tragedy; the constant
undermining by "our chattering, unbelieving culture"; people's
experience of church; and the experience that the spiritual well
simply runs dry.
Concerning the reasons for this last, he spoke of the dashing of
unreasonable expectations. As in marriage, "there is a lot of
ordinary in life." To expect champagne and fireworks was to invite
disappointment. There was also the misapprehension that God was to
be found only in the abnormal, or the transcendent. This was
"skewed theology". Looking for God in the spectacular was a severe
burden on many people's spirituality. Instead, God was present "in
every last molecule of creation", and we needed to train ourselves
to see him there.
He offered two thoughts that he had gleaned from others: "God
doesn't know how to be absent"; and "it is no longer I who live,
but Christ who lives in me."
Rabbi Lionel Blue looked frail, sitting
through the service; but he produced wonderfully robust stories
when he related his journey from militant atheism to rabbinical
A combination of religious disappointment and repressed
homosexuality had taken him to the brink of a breakdown while up at
Oxford. A Freudian analyst and a chance encounter with a Quaker
meeting had begun to restore his soul, he said. Sitting with the
Quakers, "I began to realise that perhaps my problems weren't a
minus for me; perhaps they were a secret plus." He was once
advised: "Lionel, your successes will make you clever, but only
your problems will make you wise."
From that point, he said, "God kept popping up all over the
place." He slowly concluded what it was that he wanted from
religion: "the know the next step, and encouragement to take it".
This was where the singing of "One more step along the world I go"
came in. He had sung it constantly.
He had stayed with Judaism, he said, out of a sense of duty, but
also because "it is burnt into me." But at the same time he had
come to admit that "it doesn't contain every goodness." Asked about
religious division, he recalled watching girls skipping. They
turned away one girl who obviously wanted to join them. "To
increase their loyalty to each other, they had to exclude someone
else." His conclusion: "You make friends with God as you make
friends with any other person: you have to invest time and
Sunday afternoon was another one of contrast.
First, Canon Ed Newell (a former Canon
of St Paul's, now at Christ Church, Oxford) paired up
with Jeany Spark, an actress who had flown in
from the set of Wallander in Sweden, for a
performance of three tales by the Brothers Grimm. Spark read the
original, unbowdlerised versions of Cinderella, Snow White, and
Little Red Riding Hood, and Newell draw parallels with Christian
theology and imagery. There were many, changing the tales from
moral fables to parables.
Then came P. D. James, Baroness James of
Holland Park, now aged 91, but still publishing detective fiction.
She read a series of excerpts from her novels, all set in churches.
The contrast between something that is good and beautiful and the
evil of murder was a satisfying one, she said.
In addition, nearly every one of her books contained someone who
was religious in some respect, she said. And she illustrated the
three types: the truly devout; those who knew that something was
missing from their lives; and those who felt that religious
understanding and consolation would be denied them for ever.
What was striking was the affection she betrayed when describing
her characters, giving a sense that they existed beyond her
There was just a little time for more cake, and the weekend
finished with a Songs of Praise service, featuring the Hook Norton