*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

Diary

13 July 2012

ISTOCK

IT WAS a great privilege to be in the audience at Charleston recently when the Church Times's very own Ronald Blythe was talking with Robert Macfarlane and Olivia Lang about "a sense of place". In a marquee at the foot of the Sussex Downs in this summer outpost of the Bloomsbury Group, interrupted by the odd mooing from a truculent cow, they shared the love of half-lost pathways and the cyclical English landscape.

It was with very different emotions that I considered the prospect of another speaker, Jeanette Winterson, a few days later. At a session, "Mothers and Daughters", the writer of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was going to talk about her new autobiography, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

I have heard her talk before, and, although always entertaining and fiercely intelligent, she has come over as fairly prickly and single-minded. She began the session like a speaker at a Revivalist Meeting, which, as a child, she had been. "How many here have never read anything by me? Is there a gap in your life? Let me fill it!"

She talked of her formidable Pentecostal foster-mother, Mrs Winterson, her terrifying childhood, and her struggle for self-expression and understanding. She said that, as a child, she knew God loved her and that she loved God, and that at the time that had been important.

IN THE questions afterwards, I screwed up the courage to ask whether, after she had had a reconciliation with her foster-father, there was any reconciliation with God, or if the childhood experience had been too horrendous. She laughed and said: "Oh no, you must not get the wrong impression. . . I think God is religion-proof."

She then spoke for the next five minutes about the need for the Church and church leaders to stand up and offer guidance and sense rather than worrying about gay marriage and women bishops: she spoke about the Church's response to the Occupy movement, pointing out, in a comment I loved, that the Jesus of scripture, having cleared the moneychangers, would not have said: "Can you please clear the sidewalk so the bankers can get to work."

She described the Bible as uncomfortable, high-minded, difficult, challenging, and about love; and she talked of the arguments with her Jewish girlfriend over life after death. She talked of the concept of the Trinity as an image of meditation; and movingly spoke of reading the mystics John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila during a time of breakdown, and how their descriptions of the "dark night of the soul" and the "night sea voyage" gave her language to express her own struggles.

"It's always about opening the space," she said, "allowing us to be more than we are, not shrunk up and small, but wide, big, and expansive. We're not here for very long, and we're here to make the most of it. . ."

It was this sense of a life inside, to be meditated on, exercised, and understood, that Mrs Winterson and the Church had given her all those years ago: "I never left that behind, and I won't," she said.

It's all on the Charleston website if you want to hear it. I was hugely impressed, and most surprised that I agreed with 90 per cent of what she said. I bought the book (always the acid test for me), and got her to sign it. I'll treasure it.

A FEW days before, I had an experience that also moved me, but in a very different way. A family with real connections to the church had a bereavement: the head of the family, Derek Lewry, had died, and we had the funeral in church.

The thing that made it so different was that Derek, or Poppa Bear, as he was generally known, had been heavily involved in a Wild West re-enactment group, and, at the funeral, the majority of the congregation were dressed as cowboys, cattle rustlers, Indians, squaws, and outlaws.

I was particularly impressed by the gang of "naughties", saloon boys and bar-girls, who stood, well behaved and respectful, corralled at the back. We had Indian flute music, and Native American prayers to the Great Spirit, all with a sense of meaning and spiritual depth.

Talking to people afterwards, I heard how Derek and his family would spend most of their weekends at "the Farm", where they would live a Wild West life in a town of some 14 Western buildings. It was fun for them, but, more important, clearly gave them and their friends an expansion of life, a sense of belonging and meaning above and beyond the humdrum, ordinary, and everyday.

It is hard to think of Ms Winterson and Poppa Bear in the same world, but the words she used have surprising resonance for both: "allowing us to be more than we are, not shrunk up and small, but wide, big and expansive. We're not here for very long and we're here to make the most of it. . ."

I think Poppa Bear would have nodded and understood.

The Revd John Wall is Team Rector in the Moulsecoomb Team Ministry in Brighton.

@churchtimes

Sun 22 May @ 04:29
Christians are harder to spot in UK - but more people are willing to hear about faith, survey finds https://t.co/Y5PeQkls3Q

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)