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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 Handley reports.

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 heaven?

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 speech.

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 earlier translations.

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 after that.

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 Jordan."

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 school.

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 attention."

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 imagina­tion.

There was just a little time for more cake, and the weekend finished with a Songs of Praise service, featuring the Hook Norton Brass Band.

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