THE works of William Shakespeare, whose death occurred 400 years ago, provided the theme of this year’s Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature, the fourth to take place in Bloxham, near Banbury, in Oxfordshire.
The bookstall, run by Church House Bookshop, contained just a small selection of the new titles on Shakespeare, including works by some of the Bloxham speakers.
But as well as insights into Shakespeare’s thought and faith, there were other strains, too, among them the modern novel, science and religion, and justice and peace.
The Shakespeare Circle is written by a distinguished team of scholars, biographers and writers, and edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells. Together with the historian, broadcaster, and documentary maker Michael Wood, they shared the fascinating narrative of who might have been closest to Shakespeare: family and in-laws, friends, publishers, neighbours and beneficiaries, colleagues and patrons, theatre friends, acting companies, literary patrons, or collaborators.
Wood believed Shakespeare to have been most influenced by his parents’ and grandparents’ generation: “The 20 years before you were born shape your mental horizon.” Contributors to the book had been encouraged to challenge old assumptions: might Shakespeare have been a Roman Catholic, for instance, his daughter Susanna having been known to have refused communion after the Gunpowder Plot?
The speakers portrayed two families going through a period of tremendous psychological and material change, and speculated on the “lost years” that had encouraged biographers “to send him where they wanted”. And where did he get the money to buy New Place? — “a question always of interest to historians”.
Edmondson, head of research and knowledge for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and author of Shakespeare: A beginner’s guide, was grateful that the state education system in the 1980s had made studying Shakespeare compulsory. Seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream on a school trip from York to Stratford in 1989 — for which parents could pay the £13.50 cost in instalments — had been “the most challenging, disturbing, and imaginative phenomenon I had ever encountered.”
Edmondson spoke animatedly from a wealth of knowledge and experience, much of it on the emotional impact on audiences. Shakespeare’s words were “the currency by which we can be transported”; Shakespeare was like “a large and many-sided conversation”; his language inspired actors to portray a heightened reality; he was “a mouthpiece for oppressed people”. He reflected on some of the mysteries of Shakespeare’s life, and urged his listeners to read Shakespeare aloud, beginning, perhaps, by whispering a sonnet.
In a later session, Wells waxed enthusiastic about great Shakespearian actors. There are 40 in his book, including modern greats such as Judi Dench. Sarah Siddons had been the first woman to play Hamlet, and there had been 175 female Hamlets since. Sybil Thorndike had loved playing men: to combat the superstition surrounding Macbeth, she and her husband had read aloud the 93rd Psalm: “We were then quietened and strengthened and made to feel normal again.”
Great roles invited greatness of performance: the complex facial expressions of William Macready playing Benedick in Much Ado had “drawn roars before he even uttered a word”. Actors had to call up tears at will, and John Gielgud had been “famously tearful”. Technical skills could be acquired, but the extra dimension to being great was the genius revealed in the handling of the language.
Alison Shell was fired by consideration of the religious context in which Shakespeare lived and worked. It had proved difficult to pin down Shakespeare’s own convictions: he talked obliquely, even in the sonnets; so that some saw him as profoundly religious, and some as profoundly secular.
There were moments in the plays when audiences of his day would have been alerted to religious references, such as the speech of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, with its Romish doctrine of purgatory. “He was demonstrating his brinkmanship in referring to it at all. It needn’t be read as endorsing purgatory,” Shell suggested.
Political and religious matter was likely to attract the censor’s attention. People’s ears were peeled to references to the Old Faith, Shell said. It was legitimate to see Shakespeare anticipating contemporary atheism. He was a writer operating in a post-Reformation world, a pluralistic environment. Donne’s poems were “insistently personal in a way that Shakespeare never is. Shakespeare is a war artist, Donne a fighter.”
In the end, Shakespeare’s views were “damnably hard to pin down,” she concluded. “Religion was a private matter for him. His age was saturated with religion, but also did look to a kind of secularism. He disliked religious quarrels. I would call him a secular playwright, more comfortable with private religion than public. He holds possibilities in imaginative suspension.”
One of the most popular sessions was one of the simplest: a reading of sonnets from Shakespeare onward, with commentary, by Malcolm Guite, assisted by Eleanor Zuercher.
Guite read with an energy and speed that taxed the two BSL interpreters, but they were up to the task. One of the most moving sights was the signing of George Herbert’s “Prayer”, a tumble of images, each of which could have been a poem in itself.
Guite described the sonnet-form as “something like the Tardis — a small door leading to a greater spaciousness within”. He praised their brevity, clarity, concentration, and capacity to contain contradictions.
Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, the first female Lord Justice of Appeal, was in frank and fascinating conversation with the priest and economist Ed Newell. His question, “How do you handle it when it becomes deeply emotional and the public are demanding justice that is really vengeance?” brought some riveting insights into the trial of the two boys who murdered the toddler James Bulger.
Butler-Sloss gave the boys lifetime anonymity after the European Court of Justice had decided they should be reintegrated into the community at the end of their sentences. The public, encouraged by the press, had been “extraordinarily punitive”: The Sun had asked its readers if they wanted these boys to rot in prison for the rest of their lives, and 80,000 had said yes. “I got a deluge of letters and emails asking how I could behave like that,” she said. “It seemed to me to be merciful and practical. There was a chance that they might become good citizens.”
She went on to talk about the merits of the restorative justice and rehabilitation programmes. She was impatient with the way the findings of the Church of England report on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, which she chaired, had been reported. And she was unequivocal on the issue of the grooming and rape of young women by men mostly of Asian origin. Justice had to be done, and long sentences given: “It shocked me more than anything else that the police treated them as bad girls.”
Reflecting on whether justice sometimes had to be overlooked for the greater good, she described the peace process in Northern Ireland as “deeply flawed”. She elicited laughter when she described her initial indignation at having to withdraw from being chair of the child-abuse enquiry because victims considered she was compromised by her brother’s role as Attorney General; but her later response was heartfelt: “Looking back, I think I should kiss them.”
Did justice work when the abuser was dead?, Newell wondered. “The police are so shocked by Jimmy Savile that they have gone to the other extreme. . . The Met now have a very difficult time. . . Let Goddard go through Ted Heath’s papers. That’s their job.”
Ruth Scott brought to the festival some of the wisdom about conflict resolution that she had taken to each of the regional shared conversations about sexuality.
She prefers to talk of “conflict transformation”, since not every conflict can be resolved. “Some conflicts need to be stayed with, in order to learn what needs to be learnt,” she said.
In keeping with the theme of the festival, she drew on King Lear: his sojourn on the heath pointed to the need for time and distance in order to heal.
Scott used images of visual tricks and puzzles to demonstrate to her audience how different people see different things. This was far more prominent in places such as Northern Ireland, where people were taught one particular perspective from infancy.
She spoke of how victims attracted sympathy until they became perpetrators. “But is the perpetrator the only one who uses violence? What about the onlookers? Those who watch and do nothing collude with the perpetrator. There is never a neutral position.”
She was troubled by the easy lumping together of “peace and justice”. Again citing Northern Ireland, she said: “Sometimes justice has to be sacrificed in order to allow peace to happen.”
Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford, was both highly entertaining and very profound in his reflections on “Snatches of Old Tunes”, a reference to the scorn of Hamlet’s mother at Ophelia’s inability to cry out her own needs and find her own words as she was dying. Her words were sustaining her at the hour of her death: it was not fanciful to think that they might have been from the Psalms, the song book of the Bible, “the absolute bedrock of our praying”, he suggested.
Speaking as a child of the first generation not to learn things by heart, Cottrell lamented that loss. Young minds soaked up words and rhythm and metre, he said, speaking movingly of encounters with elderly people: a woman with dementia, who could still recall “the beautiful cadences of the Prayer book she had learned as a child”; the woman approaching death who recited with confidence Tennyson’s end-of-life poem, Crossing the Bar: “What a gift she had been given.”
He lamented that ordinands were no longer required to learn the Psalter by heart — “A few songs by Matt Redmond will suffice. . .”
The Psalms were “there for you when your own words fail. . . If you are feeling joyful, there is a psalm more joyful than you; if you are despairing, there is a psalm more despairing than you. They are a library of prayer and petition to build your prayers upon. They provide text and narration when we have nothing left to say.”
And he implored: “Give yourself the gift of learning something by heart. You might be giving yourself a gift you will unwrap on your deathbed.”
Allen Chapman, historian of science at Oxford University, is especially interested in debunking the myth that Christianity held back science, a subject he explored in his book, Slaying the Dragons.
The development of science in the Christian West was utterly fundamental to the connectedness of things, he declared. The Christian faith had grown out of three intellectual traditions: the Greek idea of understanding the natural world; Roman know-how; Christian spirituality. The Islamic influence had been far in advance of Europe in its thinking, absorbing the Greek traditions of Aristotle, translated into Arabic. That permeated slowly into the West, absorbed into the new proto-universities that were not exclusively religious institutions. “So enriching. They made Aristotle a good Christian.”
Far from being persecuted by the Church, Galileo, for instance, had been a man with three children by a courtesan, who made money from predicting judicial horoscopes, who had no humility, and who dismissed all those who disagreed with him as simpletons, morons, and pygmies, and who made derogatory remarks about the Pope.
“They wouldn’t have persecuted him otherwise. He was a top-rate, three-star heretic if ever there was one.” Christians had “lost their nerve,” he said on the subject of the New Atheism, which he believed “has a better assault force”. Clergy felt they couldn’t be frank and brutal, but lay people should get out there, he suggested, concluding: “I believe there’s a media bias against Christianity. We have to challenge it wherever we can.”
There is something in Professor Richard Dawkins’s complaint that Christians aren’t always very good at embodying awe and wonder when they encounter creation, thinks David Wilkinson. He sought to elicit such emotions in his presentation on the nature of the universe: big, surprising, yet ordered. What does it mean to be human, given that the universe is destined to futility (albeit it not for at least 20 billion years)?
In his subsequent conversation with Alan Chapman, he explored how awe and wonder had often inspired worship. In previous centuries, Christians’ engagement with the canopy of stars above them had been “much more direct”. We had lost this immediacy, he believes, and should rediscover the place of astronomy in Christian spirituality. Chapman revealed that he often prayers at night beneath the stars, in his garden, in winter.
There were challenging questions in the Q&A, including a reflection on whether Jesus moved physically to heaven during the ascension. Wilkinson believes he did.
Quantum theory was also under discussion in Wilkinson’s talk on prayer. If a musician like Nick Cave doesn’t believe in an interventionist God, can a physicist? It was a tricky conversation, ably joined by John Pritchard, who brought to it examples of unanswered prayer in parish life, and metaphors and pictures that had shaped his understanding of intercession.
There were no easy answers to the age-old questions that have shaken the faith of many Christians, including Charles Darwin —Wilkinson suggested that it was the death of his daughter, Annie, as much as scientific questions, that affected his faith.
Wilkinson was open about his own struggles: his wife, an able preacher, has been affected by rheumatoid arthritis; and the way his prayers had changed over the years. But despite the challenges and mysteries, he wanted to assert that “God retains the freedom to act in his own universe.”
WHY were crime novels with church backgrounds so enduringly popular, asked the crime writer Kate Charles. She has 400 clerical crime novels in her own personal collection, featuring the perennial themes of the genre. It had something to do with the concept of sacred and profane as flipsides of the same coin, she suggested. Crime novels continued to inhabit a moral universe. The enclosed world of cathedrals in particular — “full of eccentrics” — provided a rich breeding ground for murder.
She took a gallop through the history, fashions and fads of a genre that began with G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. The 21st-century clerical detective was as likely as not a woman. Her own curate heroine, the Revd Callie Anson, who features in Deep Waters and False Tongues, “doesn’t spend time and energy doing the police’s job for them . . . that may be an appealing conceit, but a highly unlikely one.”
Did she believe her books should educate and convert as well as entertain, someone asked. “I get to write books that put everything I believe into a story. . . I believe I do have a role to inform and help people think about issues in the Church. They’re not just fun and games and death,” she said.
When Sarah Perry finished her creative writing course, her tutor, Andrew Motion, tapped the manuscript of what was to be her first novel, After the Flood, and declared her to be a “Gothic” writer. A key element of this description was the notion of “something over her shoulder” she admitted. Running through her first novel, the fear of a reservoir bursting. In the second, The Essex Serpent, to be published in June, it is the serpent of the title.
The source of this apprehension is the weight of guilt and sin that she carries from her childhood as a Strict and Particular Bapist, growing up in Chelmsford and forbidden contact with contemporary culture. “Imagine a childhood in the 1890s.” She fears she will never be free of it, despite having left the confines of the Church in her mid-twenties for something much more doubtful and tentative.
Another theme of her work is friendship. Again, she fears that she will never be able to reproduce the warm relationships that came with being in a close-knit “fundamentalist” church.
She spoke of receiving 14 rejections before her first book was accepted by a publisher. “It actually made me quite ill.”
Catherine Fox, Richard Beard, and Sarah Meyrick spoke of their relationship with publishers, among other aspects of the writing life, in conversation with John Pritchard. Fox, in particular, spoke of the value of an editor when she came to the end of her first trilogy of books, and “ransacking my own life” bore no more fruits. For seven years, her editor continued to tell her that her further efforts with a “poor, failed novel” were being unsuccessful, and it was only when she started writing a blog, in imitation of the Victorian serialised novels, that Acts of Omission and Unseen Things Above came good.
Meyrick spoke of the pleasure of writing — “sometimes it’s just a blast” — but also of the challenge of finding the space to write while working full-time. Beard said that it was important to devote “your best hours” to writing, which for him were in the morning. “It’s a way of saying this is the most important thing you’re doing.”
Fox was later in discussion with Angela Tilby. She had pondered how to write as a Christian: “Should you convert all your characters at the end? Are there subjects you shouldn’t touch? I knew I wanted my stuff to hold its own in the secular market.”
Tilby asked how, as an Evangelical, she stayed within that tradition and yet acquired the universalism which was now her hallmark? The word “Evangelical” needed unpacking these days, Fox suggested. She wanted to say: “I am an Evangelical, but I’m not a narrow-minded bigot. I’ve always felt I’m not going to be seen off this turf: it’s where my roots are, my homeland.”
She dreads accidentally telling someone’s story: “I would be mortified, distraught, if I had outed someone without knowing.” On the subject of raciness, she acknowledged the first three novels to have been “quite explicit”, and confessed her unpreparedness for their reception in some quarters: “I was handbagged in Chorleywood for using bad language. Sometimes novels just fall into the wrong hands. It’s a mental misunderstanding of the category. I’m not trying to write Christian fiction or Christian romance.”
Fox later chaired a panel in which Judith Maltby, Alison Shell, Jane Williams, and Francis Spufford discussed a forthcoming book of essays that will profile important Anglican women writers, such as Charlotte Bronte, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Goudge, Rose Macaulay, and P. D. James.
One criterion for inclusion was that the writer had to be dead. Maltby recounted how James had declined to write an epilogue, perhaps knowing by then that she would be included in the usual way. Discussion then became distracted by this aspect of selection. Perhaps it was a book with its own hit squad, suggested one. And when an audience member recommended one of her own books, Fox said she was feeling “distinctly worried”.
The audience was invited to suggest other authors, Anne Bronte and Mrs Henry Wood were among the names suggested, and quite soon volume two was being spoken of.
Another living author, Salley Vickers, spoke to Ed Newell about her work, and read from her latest novel, The Boy Who Could See Death, which is based on The Winter’s Tale. In her view, myths were “stories that give us the facts”. More important than news of the latest EU summit, they told us something about human nature, truths that still resonate with people.
THE environmentalist Michael Northcott and his wife Jill divide their time between Edinburgh and the small Dumfriesshire village of Durisdeer, which was in the news a fortnight ago because three walkers had been lost in the hills near the village.
Talking to Sally Welch, he spoke movingly about the importance of place, a connection with geography that was now largely lost in the United Kingdom. Unlike in other countries, the Reformation had misfired here: the break-up of the Church’s lands had not led to more equitable local distribution but to a concentration of wealth and sovereignty in London.
He argued that nature made places special long before people made them sacred, a connection that was lost in the post-Newtonian world. He was, none the less, an optimist: “As Christians, we must have a theology of the local. You can build from below. You can fight back.”
THE Revd Richard Coles, a Northamptonshire vicar and the presenter of Saturday Live on BBC Radio 4, was questioned by Francis Spufford about Fathomless Riches, the first volume of an autobiography in which he recounts the story of his journey from a 1980s pop star (half of the Communards) to being ordained.
Writing the book had not been particularly cathartic. “What came to the surface wasn’t all easy, and created all sorts of currents and dynamics.”
His generation was the first in which it was OK to be gay, at least in London; but then HIV struck. “A quarter of the people I knew died.” His grandfather said that it reminded him of the time of the First World War, except that the people who died were not publically celebrated or mourned. “We all went a bit mad — it was an awful time,” said Coles.
This led to a “classic crisis conversion. . . Would I have got there by another road? I don’t know.”
He acknowledged Spufford’s suggestion that he was severe on himself in the book, partly to pre-empt the criticism of others. “Also, there’s a danger, if you’re a vicar on Radio 4, that you drown in a sea of your own whimsy."
He contrasted his first curacy in Boston, which has left him with a deep concern for housing reform, with his second, in Knightsbridge. He encountered different sorts of poverty. “People whom the world had richly rewarded are easily gulled into thinking that they don’t have a problem.”
WHEN Sam Wells, Vicar of St Martin’s-in-the-Fields, in London, was talking to trainee youth workers, he asked them to suggest an 11th commandment. When one suggested “Live your dream”, he had laughed. He now felt ashamed, and his latest book Learning to Dream Again was his response. When, at an earlier stage, a tough parish ministry that had seemed to be turning a corner began to go sour, his Bishop had counselled: “You’re going to need time to learn to dream again.”
In conversation with John Pritchard, he discussed the possibility of a communal dream, the sort of thing he was managing at St Martin’s with its staff of 134 people. Such a large-scale enterprise was a welcome contrast to his time in the United States, with its sense of individual destiny.
He shared one of his mottos: “It is better to fail in a cause that will finally succeed than succeed in a cause that will finally fail.” And he quoted another author: “The way to follow the God of the Bible is to do unbelievable things.”
THE festival was not all talk. Alycia Smith-Howard, a Shakespeare scholar and an ordinand at Ripon College, Cuddesdon (one of the festival’s sponsors), has teamed up with Alan Deegan, the former head of catering at Stratford-upon-Avon College, to produce The Food of Love, a book of recipes that Shakespeare might have tasted.
There are 2173 references to food in Shakespeare’s works. In the view of the authors, Shakespeare would have eaten better when he was poorer (vegetables, pulses, a little dried meat, dried fruits) than when he was better off (game and rich meats, very few vegetables).
The biggest change Deegan had made when converting the recipes found in contemporary accounts to the present day was in cooking times. What would now be cooked for a scant 20 minutes was often cooked for six hours, or even overnight.
SATURDAY ended with a revue on things Shakespearean and theatrical by a small company of actors and singers directed by Malcolm McKee and featuring Paul Greenwood, Nicola Keen, Marilyn Hill Smith,and Claire Nielson. The songs and skits were clever, funny, and well-performed. It was the sort of production Joyce Grenfell would have enjoyed, and certainly the audience did, judging by the cheers at the end.
ON Sunday morning, the festival moved along the village into St Mary’s Church. After the festival eucharist, where the intercessions included quotations from King Lear, Hamlet and one of the Sonnets, John Pritchard interviewed the veteran writer and broadcaster David Winter — about being a veteran.
Winter, a regular Church Times columnist, spoke candidly about his tendency to become a grumpy old man. “We can go in one of two directions: either we become more fussy, getting upset by trivia; or we become more serene, more all-embracing.”
His latest book, At the End of the Day, is subtitled: Life in the departure lounge. “When you’re in the departure lounge, one thing you’re pretty sure of is that there is going to be a flight.” An acceptance of death, and peace about what might come next (the subject of his next book) were essential components of the serenity he tried to cultivate.
The festival concluded with a songs of praise service in St Mary’s, Bloxham, led by the Chaplain of Bloxham School, the Revd Gerard Moate. Hymns and Shakespearean sonnets were chosen by festival speakers and read by Salley Vickers.