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13 May 2016


The real thing

AS I write, we are still enjoying the celebrations for Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary. I was introduced to Shakespeare at an early age by my father, who would sometimes recite The Merchant of Venice to me instead of a bedtime story.

By the age of 11, I had read and become familiar with several plays, mostly comedies, and had grown to love them. I was therefore horrified to find that the first-year English course at the grammar school included not Shakespeare, but Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. I could not fathom why we should be subjected to the plots, which seemed to me silly, and deprived of the poetry, which to my mind was the only point of reading the plays.

I was further incensed by reading the preface, which explained that the book was intended for girls, since boys would already be reading the real thing. It exhorted the fortunate boy, “Take your sister by the hand, and gently lead her” to the daunting intellectual challenge of being introduced to Shakespeare, even in a digested form.

As I have grown older, I have come to appreciate the plays’ representation of character, relationships, and political complications, as well as the language, and to accept operas and ballets based on Shakespearean themes — but I still feel cheated if I am presented with Shakespeare without Shakespeare’s words.

We are very fortunate in Derby that our arts centre, the Quad, shows live screenings of Shakespeare plays from the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and I have occasionally been able to use these to indulge my passion.

Driven by conviction

ONE of our Sisters, now departed, grew up in Germany in the Hitler years. Her father was a pastor of the Confessing Church — the group led by Dietrich Bonhoeffer which broke away from the official Church (the “German Christians”) because of that Church’s support for Hitler.

The Confessing Church believed that Nazi ideology and Nazi practice — in particular the persecution and eventual genocide of the Jews — was utterly contrary to the Christian faith. Its members were convinced that the German Christians had forsaken the teaching of the Bible and Christian tradition, and had surrendered to the prevalent culture of the age and place.

The Anglican Communion is now embroiled in a conflict over same-sex relationships. The General Synod of the Church of England is soon to tackle this subject by engaging in “shared conversations” on sexuality and gender between people of different views, such as have already taken place in many regions.

The aim of these conversations is to enable people to learn to “disagree well”; it seems to be accepted on all sides that consensus is too much to hope for. In other parts of the Communion, the debate is being conducted in a far less moderate way. This is a subject on which emotions on both sides are extremely strong.

It seems to me that the “traditionalists”, even if they do not use this language, see themselves as a sort of present-day “Confessing Church”, holding fast to established Christian and biblical norms in the face of apostasy. The obvious fact that, at least in the West, the tide of public opinion is running strongly in favour of acceptance of same-sex relationships, serves only to convince them that they must hold fast to the truth and bear witness to it at all costs.


Handed on a plate

BUT the “liberals” or “reformers” are equally convinced that their position is deeply Christian and urgently necessary. From what example might they draw inspiration? My mind goes back to 2007, when we celebrated William Wilberforce, and the 200th anniversary of the Act for the abolition of the slave trade.

Slavery was a long-established institution, supported by individuals and institutions, including the Church. It was justified by the belief that those who were enslaved belonged to inferior categories of humanity; they needed to be controlled and guided by those better able to see what was good for them.

Crucially, the institution of slavery was supported by many biblical texts. The New Testament comes from a world in which slavery was a normal feature of life, generally accepted; the household codes in the epistles exhort slaves to obey their masters, even if they are oppressive.

But Wilberforce and his friends became convinced that slavery was incompatible with the Christian understanding of the value of human beings. The famous Wedgwood design showing a chained slave with the caption “Am I not a man and a brother?” showed their reasoning. Wilberforce campaigned for 18 years to achieve the Act outlawing the slave trade.

As we reflect on this continuing controversy, we may well reflect that both the Confessing Church and the anti-slavery campaigners were protesting against the view that some groups of people were intrinsically less valuable and less acceptable than others.


The Revd Sister Rosemary CHN is a nun at the Convent of the Holy Name in Derby.

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