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
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
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.