THE theme of the Church Times Faith and Literature Festival, “Building a New Jerusalem”, proved fruitful when more than 50 authors and performers gathered together in Bloxham School and Bloxham Church, in Oxfordshire.
Over three days, audiences heard visionary solutions to contemporary problems, touching on peacekeeping, land-ownership, a universal income, the environment — and where the Church might fit into all this.
And, because these were authors, in the main, rather than bureaucrats or polemicists (in the main), these solutions combined inventiveness and playfulness with heartfelt passion.
KT BruceMark Oakley
Mark Oakley, Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s and author of The Splash of Words, opened the festival, asking: “What language do they speak in the New Jerusalem?”
People were like the foetal narrator in Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Nutshell, he said: only hearing “the muffled sound” of our creator’s voice as if from the womb, but this was enough: when they see God face to face, there would be recognition.
The New Jerusalem described in the Revelation of St John was a place, a people, and divine presence, Oakley said. The language that they should learn now in their “nutshell” which would enable them to recognise God’s voice in the New Jerusalem was poetic. Such language “distrusts the paraphrase, the quick clarity, the cliché, the avoidance of difficulty. It dispels illusions without leaving us disillusioned. . . It takes people, and place, and presence to its heart.”
Transformation of a similar sort was at the heart of a talk by Margaret Silf. Through the story of how a caterpillar became a butterfly, she explored ideas of finding a New Jerusalem in “England’s torn, conflicted land”. She asked the audience: “Are we in the caterpillar world now? Is there the possibility of a butterfly emerging?” She talked about the potential of humanity, and its spiritual transformation.
Prophetic voices were routinely ignored, she said, and she referred to a “300-year gap between demonisation and canonisation”; but Jesus had said: “The Kingdom is within you.” She remarked: “There is no way we are at the end of the story: the pinnacle of creation.”
COLE MORETON questioned James Runcie about the extent to which the protagonist of his Grantchester novels, the Revd Sidney Chambers, was based on his late father (Robert Runcie, a former Archbishop of Canterbury). That was very difficult to answer, Runcie said, but, in writing the novels, he had certainly been trying to understand his father more deeply, and to keep him alive.
Many fictional vicars were comedy characters, Runcie said. “I wanted to speak up for vicars, really, and have a vicar who was a serious force.” His novels did not start from plot, as most detective fiction did, but “from an issue or a character being put under pressure. I’m more interested in deviousness of character: ‘whydunnit’ rather than ‘whodunnit’.”
Runcie had also spoken after the festival’s gala dinner. His Grantchester series was an attempt to make sense of the country’s cultural history during the turbulent post-war decades. Like much detective fiction, it had a strong moral element.
Philip North, the Bishop of Burnley, drew on scripture to imagine what Jesus was saying to today’s Church. He is critical of the Renewal and Reform programme, particularly when it is driven by a fear of decline. Evangelism “motivated by a desire to cling on to the institutional Church in the way we know it now” had proved ineffective.
KT BruceThe Rt Revd Philip North
He offered consolation from history: earlier periods of stagnation and decline had prompted revivals, whose key element was a concern for the poor. Drawing on Christ’s words, he reminded the audience that, in serving the least in society, people were serving Jesus. Through such service, “we are evangelised.”
A Church that was obsessed with growth tended to go for the low-hanging fruit, North said: middle-class, affluent congregations who could mould Christianity to their liking. All the while, he warned, the Church in outer estates was on the verge of extinction. His solution? “Place the poor first.”
Discussing her book I Thought There Would Be Cake, Katharine Welby-Roberts spoke emotionally about mental health, particularly her clinical depression, in conversation with Sarah Meyrick. “As life changes, you have to accept that what you are now is enough.”
On the subject of religion and mental health, she told the audience: “It is not helpful for us to pour out theology into people in a way that is not going to help them.” Mental-health Sundays were not helpful, despite their good intentions, and churches should instead be more accepting as a whole. “It’s a difficult thing to navigate, being a vicar’s kid. . . I am a person in my own right.”
Francis Spufford, on his third visit to the festival, read from his new collection of essays, True Stories, and from his Costa-award-winning novel, Golden Hill. “Some kinds of truthfulness actually thrive in story form,” he said.
“There are some kinds of truth about the world we can tell best by making stuff up. . . To believe in a story requires patience, and a kind of humility on our part. It means waiting around for the story to make sense without shoving too much into order too soon.”
When writing Golden Hill, his first novel, he had noticed that he was “absent-mindedly tracing out some of the fundamental Christian story without quite knowing it. . . It ended up being a bit of a grace-and-redemption story.”
THROUGH the concept of the parish, Andrew Rumsey grappled with the idea of space. Rumsey said that the parish was the “bond that brings together the local and the national” in England, and was also a meeting of natural ecology and social ecology. He acknowledged that there was incredible pressure on the existence of the parishes, but argued that they should continue to exist.
There was “nothing quite as persistent or consistent as the parish as a way of defining place”, Rumsey said. He discussed the concept through neighbourhood and nature. “The Church has always adapted its form to the changing nature of everyday life, and it must continue to change.”
The bond between a person and a place came up when Marie-Elsa Bragg and Joanna Rossiter discussed their debut novels in conversation with Angela Tilby. Rossiter, whose first book is The Sea Change, remarked that “as a society we have changing views of place; we have lost belonging.” In their natural state, she said, “we absorb a sense of place like we absorb our parents, our upbringing.”
Bragg, whose debut novel is Towards Mellbreak, said: “It is quite dangerous to have generations of people who are detached from the traditions of their ancestors.” These traditions could be places as well as thoughts.
The Bishop of Worcester, John Inge, engaged in lively conversation with Fiona Reynolds, a former director-general of the National Trust, about how cathedrals and churches inspired beauty. “It is through beauty that we often perceive the existence of God,” Inge said. Church buildings were still able to “evoke that sense of awe and wonder”.
KT BruceJohn Pritchard and members of Kids4Peace
Reynolds noted the huge number of visitors to cathedrals, who spanned age groups and social classes. “People need beauty, and want it and go find it. We need to say to politicians: ‘It’s worth giving money to churches, because they really matter to us as a society.’”
Inge remarked that money had to “generally be prised out of government for church buildings. . . We tend to be in the hands of governments who will not make plans for anything other than the short term.”
“We are a nation that’s fairly passionate about trees — perhaps because we don’t see enough of them, and perhaps because, deep within our DNA, we are a forested species,” the Bishop of Dudley, Graham Usher, told a tea-time audience in a talk: “The leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations.”
Usher took the audience on a journey through trees in scripture and ancient history, but said that they could also be vital to the future of the planet: “Can trees be the medicine of healing as we begin to face up to our global concerns about climate change?”
IN CONVERSATION with the theologian Eve Poole, Nick Spencer, the research director of Theos, spoke on ways in which the parable of the Good Samaritan had been appropriated by politicians. Margaret Thatcher had used it “to articulate a political ethic of voluntary intervention” (the Samaritan had had money, not just good intentions, she had said); Labour had used it to justify state intervention, both domestically and internationally.
His reading of the commentaries had shown him that the parable was “much more complex, and subtle, and multivalent than we sometimes think”. It had been interpreted as concerning ethical action across ethnic and religious divisions, about going the extra mile, about moral agency, and, by St Augustine, as about the whole story of salvation. A challenge from the parable for writers such as Spencer was Jesus’s command to “go and do likewise”: a shift from moral dissection to moral action.
In her talk, on “converting capitalism”, Eve Poole demonstrated capitalism’s “toxic assumptions” with a range of props, including a Santa (to represent shareholder value) and a fake CCTV camera (to represent “agency theory”). She had not come to bury capitalism, but to suggest adjustments that needed to be made to prevent its collapsing.
These included rethinking things such as the “invisible hand”, shareholder value, and limited liability. Poole challenged the audience to focus on the micro as well as the macro: what did their bank statements say about their economic behaviour? Which transactions were they proud of?
KT BruceEve Poole
Ruth Valerio spoke on following Jesus in a consumer society. Holidays with her family on Bardsey Island had taught her lessons about limits (no electricity, running water, or shops on the island); time (“What does the way I use my time speak about my values? . . . Consumerism so often robs us of our time”); and a connection to the natural world, which humans had been created to have, but which consumerist society often severed.
Living justly meant, Dr Valerio said, considering four key questions concerning: the food they ate; the way they travelled (“think twice before flying somewhere”); the energy they used; and the things that they threw away.
Malcolm Torry introduced his idea of a Citizen’s Basic Income (CBI), which he called a “Christian social policy”. Also known as Universal Basic Income, CBI is the practice of giving every citizen an amount of money, regardless of status or existing income. Torry said that the “benefits system we have is far from Christian”, and that CBI would be an “act of grace”.
In his book Citizen’s Basic Income, each chapter title draws on Christianity. He said, while talking to Ed Newell: “There is absolutely no reason we should not do it.” But the “intuitive sense that you only give money to the poor is a barrier.” Interest in CBI has risen recently, partly owing to anxiety about the impact of AI and automation on employment.
Jonny Baker and Ian Adams discussed ideas about how the future could be more fully realised in the present. “If we want to imagine a new future, any change has to begin with us. . . The contemplative path must be right at the heart,” Adams said. Christians would do well “to dwell more deeply in the transfiguration, a shining glimpse of the future in the present”.
Baker offered practical examples of “future present things”, including the creation of the Clean for Good social enterprise in the City of London, which paid office cleaners the London Living Wage and put profits into services such as English-language lessons that would help migrants. “Imagine a different way of treating each other and doing business. It feels like good news.”
IN ANOTHER session, Ian Adams read poems from his numerous volumes, including his newest compilation, Breathing Deep. Longer poems sat alongside haikus, including “Run Barefoot” and “Iona”. On the theme of Jerusalem, Adams said: “Maybe you and I are made exactly for these times,” and were perfectly placed to “build a new Jerusalem”.
He asked, too: “Is the FTSE index the way we want to end the news? What about the happiness or well-being index?”
Another poet, Malcolm Guite, began his talk by saying: “There are moments when it seems like there is a New Jerusalem, shimmering around us.” He went on to reflect on the words of “Jerusalem”, taken from the preface to William Blake’s epic poem Milton. He called it an “astonishing piece of poetry”, which played with the fanciful fantasy of Glastonbury.
He said that the “desire to go back [to a paradise lost] should fill us with a desire to go forwards” to a New Jerusalem. And he went on to explore the links between longing and vision through his own poetry, besides quoting from others, such as W. B. Yeats.
KT BruceSarah Meyrick in conversation with Katherine Welby-Roberts
Sarah Meyrick, the festival director, was also in conversation with Sally Welch on the subject of pilgrimage, which Welch defined as “a spiritual journey to a sacred place in expectation. . . I walk to regain my sanity, to regain my relationship with God, and to experience peace. And I find all those.”
Pilgrims should be open to being changed in unexpected ways, however: “I tell pilgrims: before you go, write a list of five things that you hope to happen through this journey. Then burn the list, because none of that will happen. Something else will happen instead.”
Sarah Meyrick was, in her turn, interviewed by John Pritchard about her forthcoming novel The Restless Wave, a family saga in which a young woman discovers that her grandfather participated in the Normandy landings as an army chaplain.
Meyrick described her research for the novel. In the audience was a man who had given her his father’s unpublished account of a life that matched closely the fictional life of the grandfather in her story.
Francesca Kay discussed her second book, Translation of the Bones, with Adrian Duffern. Kay said: “If every writer had a reader like Adrian, they would be blessed.” They talked about the importance of faith in her novel. Kay read aloud from the beginning of the book, in which a woman cleaning a Roman Catholic church comes face to face with Jesus on a crucifix.
She said that the miracles in her book were a reflection of her own belief in them, because she “genuinely and seriously” believed “that we have no way of seeing the bounds of the possible”.
THERE was practical advice, too. Philip Davies and Simeon Courtie spoke in detail about the travails of publishing a first book: one a fantasy novel for teenagers, the other a comedy travel book. One had used a specialist publisher; the other had gone down the self-publishing route.
Davies recounted how he had received 70 to 80 rejections over four years, before finding his publisher. Courtie spoke about the decision to self-publish after hearing praise from agents who regretted, however, that they did not think that they could sell it. Both had similar (and salutary) tales of the effort that it took to promote and sell a book. They spoke of taking stalls at village fêtes, the limits of social media, and getting on the Women’s Institute circuit.
KT BruceJames Runcie
Sometimes, however, the publishing experience is different. Kate Nicholas spoke about her book Sea Changes, originally written as a farewell to her children after she was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. She survived, and, as part of a journey of faith, converted her farewell into a survivor’s tale. She is now encouraged by her oncologist to talk to secular groups around the country. She picked one publisher from near the start of the list, Authentic, and (with a little help from an email to the managing director) had her manuscript accepted and published, almost without alteration.
Healing, of sorts, was at the centre of the story told by Cole Moreton, recounted in The Boy Who Gave his Heart Away. Two teenage boys in different parts of the UK, Marc and Martin, had suffered catastrophic illness. Martin died, but his donated heart had allowed Marc to live on. Several years later, Moreton was present when Martin’s mother put her hand on Marc’s chest to feel her son’s heart beating inside a different body. Miracles had their painful side, Moreton said.
During his story, he paid tribute to the medics who had performed the miracle; but, above all, to the boys’ parents, Linda, Norrie, Sue, and Nigel.
THE poet, author, and cleric Rachel Mann, whose latest work Fierce Imaginings considers how British self-understanding has been “shaped and fixed by the tragedy and catastrophe of the First World War”, looked at different visions of the final destination. Whereas Modernist writers such as T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf had attempted to promote the city as a place of glory, the English envisaged market towns and shires. Even the New Jerusalem was subjected to this: “When we of faith think of the heavenly city, we tend to pastoralise it.”
The Great War was the moment when reason went awry, she said. But she was pleased by the democracy of remembrance: how the names of all who died were remembered alike, regardless of social status.
The pull of history on the present was clear when Ed Newell and Kurt Barling, Professor of Journalism at Middlesex University, talked through the lens of history and the work of Amy Buller (Features, 5 May 2017) about the challenges facing nations and societies today. The pair discussed how Buller took groups of academics to Germany in the 1930s to explore Nazism, before she founded Cumberland Lodge in 1947.
Newell said: “The closer war got, the more controversial this work became,” as Buller explored what drew people to National Socialism. She went on to publish Darkness over Germany, in 1943, and gained the support of King George VI, and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who helped her to found Cumberland Lodge. Barling called her a “pretty extraordinary character”, for whom “disagreeing well does no harm to our morality.”
In Journey Through Conflict, Major-General Andy Salmon discussed his experiences as a soldier in the Middle East in this emotional performance. It began with a call to prayer by an imam, Ismail Ginwalla, and was interspersed with songs by a Kurdish singer, Nawroz Oramari.
Salmon related his encounters with Kurdish and tribal residents in Iraq during the first and second Gulf Wars, and the aftermath of both. He described the disruption of everyday life in Iraq throughout the period. When the performance ended, 19 candles were lit by members of the audience, in memory of those who had lost their lives, and the Taizé chant “Lord hear my prayer” was sung by members of the production.
PRESENT-DAY Jerusalem and a possible New Jerusalem combined in a session in which four young people from either side of the Israeli-Palestinian divide were interviewed by John Pritchard, the former Bishop of Oxford. All four were members of Kids4Peace, an organisation that not only brings children together from the two communities, but also encourages them to act as ambassadors for the peace process.
They spoke of discussions in which they could not agree even over the facts of what had happened in the region; but they also spoke of the friendships that had been forged, and their successes and failures when trying to persuade their peers to change their attitudes.
Then, on the Sunday afternoon, the documentary-maker, producer, and writer Karl Sabbagh, a Bloxham resident but with a Palestinian background, interviewed Ghada Karmi, who has written of her own experience of being driven from her home in Palestine in 1948.
Karmi’s mother would say: “Palestine is lost. It’s gone. It’s gone.” But she became an activist, until, one day in 2005, she felt that she was regarded simply as “a windbag”. Since then, she has tried to write from a Palestinian perspective the story of the creation of Israel. She has written movingly of returning to her family home and finding it occupied by American Jews.
She and Sabbagh are unusual in advocating a one-state solution. Since 20 per cent of the population of Israel are Arabs, any formal two-state partition would almost certainly lead to further displacement. Sabbagh described a journey from Ramallah to Jaffa. “It just seemed like one country.”
THERE was a première of a new play from Theatre 17: A Fearful Symmetry, an exploration of William Blake’s thought, language, and theology, by Stephen Loveless. Robin Hillman played Blake, and performed songs and poems as he proclaimed his belief in the moral principle of the imagination.
Quoting “Jerusalem” from Milton, “And did those feet, in ancient time”, Hillman’s Blake said that they were “questions as assertions” that allowed people to explore their faith and their imagination, on the way to a New Jerusalem.
KT BrucePerformers from the Saturday-night revue
Blake is walking back through Hampstead, reflecting on the question in “Jerusalem”. Loveless had caught Blake’s diction, and the way he simultaneously inhabited three worlds: the present, the past, and the divine. Hillman became Blake, aided only by a stick and a handful of sand.
The other theatrical production was in a lighter vein. It came from a quartet, the Shakespeare Revue Company, who had performed at the last festival. It was a perfect end to Saturday: a piece of pure silliness, crisply put together for the occasion, and bringing together sketches and songs from the likes of Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Flanders and Swann, Joyce Grenfell, and Victoria Wood. The message was the most serious thing about it: in the New Jerusalem there would be love, life, and laughter.
AT THE festival eucharist in St Mary’s, Bloxham, on Sunday, the Bishop of Oxford, Steven Croft, looked at the vision of the heavenly city portrayed by Ezekiel, most of which was sterile and dull (“there’s a lot of measuring”), until, at the end, the prophet mentioned the stream flowing out of the sanctuary at the centre of the city. He told the large congregation that fertility and growth came from God, and were at the centre of worship.
Fertility and growth of a more material sort were at the heart of the talk that followed the service. The church restaurateur and food writer Bill Sewell spoke of the care that he took in finding the best ingredients for his restaurants in Hereford, where he now lives, and Cambridge. He used only locally sourced beef and pork, and free-range chickens, he said.
But, having been a vegetarian for years, until he “cracked” in France one day, after successive plates of crudités, he resisted the common fare of “a lump of protein with slightly less interesting vegetables on the side”.
When the audience was hungry enough, after Sewell’s description of his mother’s puddings (always crumble), and dishes such as roast-aubergine ratatouille, “not salad”, and chocolate, chilli, and rosemary pots, they were escorted across the road to the Baptist chapel for a filling bowl of parsnip, cheese, and rosemary soup, and salted-caramel brownies.
THE festival was rounded off with two musical events. The first was a concert by the North Cotswold Chamber Choir, established as a festival favourite. The programme, conducted by Peter Hunt, was a weaving together of the themes of the weekend, with readings from Eliot, Herbert, Lawrence, and Herrick, and musical offerings from Gibbons, Vaughan Williams, Chilcott, and Beck, among others. The New Jerusalem was invoked and embodied.
Then, finally, a Songs of Praise service, led by the Vicar of St Mary’s, Dale Gingrich, featured hymns suggested by speakers from the festival. During the service, awards were presented to children from schools in Bloxham who had taken part in a writing competition on the theme of “A new world”. A rendition of “Jerusalem” was the inevitable end to the festival.