Bloxham: Love and its complexities, in writers’ hands

by
06 March 2020

Love was the theme of the sixth festival of faith and literature. Adam Becket, Ed Thornton, and Paul Handley report

KT BRUCE

Suzannah Lipscomb

Suzannah Lipscomb

BLOXHAM SCHOOL was once again the host for the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature, held over two days a fortnight ago.

Authors stuck close to the festival’s theme, “the power of love” — which did not restrict them much. Poetry and fiction were to the fore this time, but the darker side of love was explored, as well as some of its practical applications.

As in the past, audiences enjoyed hospitality from the school’s catering team, and, as well as intellectual stimulation, there was entertainment from the exuberant a cappella group Out of the Blue, and a musical selection performed by the North Cotswold Chamber Choir.

 

Malcolm Guite and Roger Wagner introduced the audience to ekphrasis, the practice of writing about art. In an illustrated talk, the poet-priest and painter-poet exchanged anecdotes and tasting notes about words and images. Both recited poems, Guite from his recently published collection, Wagner from a work in progress which explores the worlds of art and faith.

KT BRUCERoger Wagner’s display in the school chapel

Dr Martin Percy, interviewing Ed Newell, asked where the idea for his new book, The Sacramental Sea, had come from. Newell explained that he had grown up next to the sea, but the view from St Paul’s Cathedral, his previous place of work, had made him realise that he would always prefer a view from cliffs of the sea.

He explained that the sea had originally been an ominous place for humans, but that the view of the sea had changed: “One of the turning points . . . came in our rapid urbanisation and industrialisation, and so people saw the sea as an escape.” The sea was an agent of chaos in the Old Testament; Percy pointed out that the New Testament was just as ambivalent.

 

Suzannah Lipscomb spoke about the fruits of her years of research in the Languedoc archives. Vellum volumes there contain the records of the 16th-century consistory courts presided over by Protestant elders that ran in parallel with the criminal courts. Because the consistory courts were free and available to women, they contain a unique record of the lives and relationships of women of all ranks, detailing betrothal arrangements, allegations of assaults, and accusations of paillardise, almost literally “rolling in the hay”.

Despite technical difficulties (the indifferent handwriting of scribes, the random use of nicknames, the drawn-out nature of cases), Lipscomb was able to tell coherent stories of five women of the period.

 

Sam Wells discussed his project of condensing the Bible into a small paperback with Martyn Percy. Wells, Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, in central London, explained why he began his version with the story of Daniel in the fiery furnace, a key story at the time that much of the Old Testament was written.

The story illustrated a key progression that Dr Wells sees: from a God who did what the Israelites wanted to a God who was with them and, through the incarnation, with us. As the title of his book suggests, this is the heart of it all.

 

Mark Oakley, now Chaplain of St John’s College, Cambridge, compared R. S. Thomas with George Herbert. Thomas’s reputation was as the “Clint Eastwood of the Spirit”, but Oakley introduced his audience to the Welsh poet’s love poetry addressed to his wife, Elsie. The marriage had parallels with Thomas’s relationship with God, a play of presence and absence, certainty and doubt — what Oakley called “ambiguous clarity”. The same play was present in Herbert’s work, though his 170 poems were focused directly on God.

 

Given his ongoing wrangles at Christ Church, Oxford, Martyn Percy’s focus was remarkably upbeat: God’s “unstoppable, unfathomable love”. The challenge for Christians was how to cope with God’s overflowing abundance. The main task was merely to get out of the way, and not eclipse God’s love, poured out on the undeserving as much as the deserving.

In the light of this, the Church could not be fussy about its borders, or lapse into membership-speak. “God doesn’t run a rewards-card scheme.” And he quoted John Robinson: the purpose of the Church was to be the construction hut in God’s building site, which is the world.

 

A.N. Wilson spoke about his novel Aftershocks, in conversation with Sarah Meyrick. Wilson said that he had the idea of writing about the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand in some way, and the two characters just popped into his head, quite different from his usual planned-out method of working.

KT BRUCEJudith Maltby, Alison Pearson. Sara Pearson, and Catherine Fox

A lot of the novel deals with a professor of Greek tragedy. Wilson said: “Faith, particularly for people who are in love with the Ancient world, faith is a very difficult thing to hold together in one’s head.”

One of the characters, he said, was loosely based on Michael Ramsey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, not just in appearance, but in emotion.

 

Charles Pemberton spoke about his research into foodbanks in the UK, which culminated in his book Bread of Life in Broken Britain. Eating, serving, and worshipping were overlapping things; saying grace before every meal would help people appreciate the nature of food conservation. Pemberton argued that the theology around food that he was proposing was deeply at odds with the current world: “Are the challenges we face now not the cost we are paying for our inflated sense of self?”

Presented by a choice of foodbank charities by Alison Webster, Pemberton opted for the Independent Food Bank Network was the best choice, away from Fair Share and the Trussell Trust. He argued against any measurement of desert: “We receive the gift of life without having earned it. . . Mercy precedes justice.”

 

Rhidian Brook discussed Thought for the Day and his life during a session about his book, Godbothering. He began by reciting a poem about doing Thought, which he had used on Radio 4 before. Explaining that he always wrote the script the day before, he said it was about “serving fresh bread”. A good producer could always “steer you away from the rocks”. He concluded: “I have come to see Thought for the Day as more pastoral over the years.”

 

In an emotional session on Friday afternoon, Madeleine Davies and Alan Hargrave spoke about their writings on death and bereavement. Davies’s book, Lights for the Path, due to be published in June, seeks to help teenagers to deal with the death of a parent. Hargrave’s book, One for Sorrow, recounts the death of his son, Tom. Hargrave said: “I thought this book was about Tom, but I soon realised it was about me and my grief.”

Davies said: “It’s not unusual to lose someone as a teenager, but you’re probably the only person in your class - you feel very alone in it. . . There are some really good picture books [for children] and there are adult books around bereavement, but there’s a gap for teenagers, especially in Christian families.”

She said that it was important to let teenagers know that they were not weird in the way they reacted to bereavement. Both agreed that the Church could do more to assist people who were dealing with death and grief.

 

Janet Morley discussed poetry from her compilation Love Set You Going: Poems of the heart in the late session on Friday. She explained that she was initially daunted to create an anthology of love poetry, but soon realised that she could go further than just romantic and erotic love. The three sections of the book were Love Up and Down the Generations; Grown Up Love; and God and the Human Heart. She said: “Love begins with the body, but points us towards eternity.”

 

On Saturday morning, an audience was treated to Shakespearean love, as Paul Edmondson, Finbar Lynch, and Catherine Cusack recited selections from his works. Edmondson, head of research for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, said of Shakespeare: “Love is a golden seam running through his words.” Plays quoted included Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Merchant of Venice. Lynch and Cusack took turns at reading lines from the sonnets as well as the plays.

KT BrucePaul Edmondson (centre) with Finbar Linch and Catherine Cusack

 

Speaking about her novel, The Body Lies Jo Baker read passages and answered questions from Angela Tilby. Baker, best known for her Austen inspired Longbourn, said: “I have never written anything with thriller tropes before. . . I wanted to pick them apart.” The book was her “trying on the hat” of thriller-writing.

Baker was reacting against the “tendency in crime fiction to imagine psychopathic genius. . . a man with a plan, a scheme, undetected”, such as Hannibal Lecter. “The reality is that killers aren’t superhuman, they’re missing something.” Another influence was the way women victims were usually treated. “The way this novel is structured emerged from being really sensitised to the female body in fiction.”

 

There was a collaborative effort to discuss Kiss and Part, a collection of short stories by female writers, three of whom were in attendance, Catherine Fox, Jo Baker, and Sarah Hosking. Hosking explained the thinking behind the Hosking Houses Trust, which provides the use of a secluded cottage she makes available to female writers. “Too many clever women past their first youth have too much work to do.”

Michael Bywater lay claim to coming up with the idea for the collection, first suggesting a continuous narrative written as a sort of relay by authors who had stayed in the Hosking house. This was refined to unconnected stories set in and around the village.

 

Cole Moreton was interviewed by Angela Tilby about his debut novel, The Light Keeper (Books, 10 January). The novel is set in Beachy Head, where Moreton lives, which is a famous suicide spot. The novels felt “on the edge”, Canon Tilby observed: was that particularly relevant to our time? “We’re not quite sure where the edge is; we’re not quite sure where to put our feet,” Moreton replied. “So many of the certainties of the past have disappeared. We’re confused and wandering around.”

Moreton, who has written four books of non-fiction, pondered the process of writing a novel, which he described as “a kind of meditation, a prayer. . . In fiction, there are millions of choices every moment. You follow the character.”

 

Rachel Mann, a former poet-in-residence at Manchester Cathedral, now a parish priest, has just had her first book of poetry published: Among the poems she read to her audience was one about a journey on the London Underground, full of allusions to Greek mythology, and a sequence that grew out of the burial of someone close. The poems were spare, but the language was rich, and a queue formed at the book-signing table after the performance.

KT BRUCERachel Mann

 

Hannah Bacon described the unusual field-research she had undertaken for her book Feminist Theology and Contemporary Dieting Culture (Books, 21 February): joining a slimming club.

For slimmers, “sin enters their world through food,” Bacon said. But food was also viewed positively: club members were entitled to a limited number of “sinful” foods a day, and were told to use them wisely.

Weight loss emerged in members’ stories as salvific: “the only solution in the face of fat is to get rid of it. . . Fat must be beaten, buried, and deleted.”

Slimming clubs facilitated meaningful social bonds from which the Church could learn, Bacon argued. “There was a real sense of community in the group. . . A genuine network of support and friendship.” But the darker side should not be ignored: slimming clubs sought to make money out of that desire for community, “and that’s toxic”.

Ultimately, dieting culture “strips of us a love of food. Decisions are always about losing weight, which rids food of its goodness.” Food was meant for our enjoyment. “It’s for us to love, because God gives it out of love.”

 

Natalie Collins, the author of Out of Control: Couples, conflict, and the capacity for change, (Back Page Interview, 18 January 2019), reflected on the causes of domestic abuse, and how churches could identify situations of abuse and help victims.

The vast majority of perpetrators were male, she said. “It’s not that men are fundamentally worse than women. We live in a society that perpetuates beliefs of ownership by men.”

She categorised abusers as different types, such as “The Isolator” (who stops his partner from seeing friends), “The Demander” (who forces or manipulates his partner into doing trivial or pointless tasks), and “The Nice One” (potentially the most dangerous).

KT BRUCENatalie Collins

Thirty per cent of women have been subject to abuse, Collins said, and churches needed to be aware of this. Preachers should assume that at least one woman in the congregation was being abused, and that one man was perpetrating abuse.

 

“The baby is here,” Catherine Fox said at the start of a session on Anglican Women Novelists, holding up the book (Features, 5 July 2019; Books, 23 August 2019). The idea had come at Bloxham four years earlier, and many in the audience had been present.

Sara Pearson spoke about Charlotte Brontë, the daughter of a clergyman. “She wasn’t Anglican merely by birth or default: in her adulthood, she had a deep and abiding love for the Church.” This was evident in Shirley (1849), which “presents the Church she loves with both realism and idealism. . . She aspired to the ideal, while accepting the real.”

Judith Maltby considered the Anglicanism of Rose Macaulay, and described The Towers of Trebizond as “the greatest Anglican novel of the 20th century: it should be to Anglicans what Graham Greene’s Power and the Glory is to Catholics.”

Macaulay described herself as an Anglo-agnostic well inside the walls, instead of outside, Maltby said.

Alison Shell, joint editor with Maltby, said that, when putting together the collection, “it became clear . . . that a constant theme would be the unmarried woman.” A notable example of the “Anglican spinster” novelist was Barbara Pym.

 

Adrian Leak spoke on four Anglicans in history whose lives had applied Jesus’s commandments to “Love the Lord thy God . . . and love thy neighbour as thyself.”

The first was Richard Busby, “a formidable headmaster of Westminster School throughout practically the entire 17th century”. How did he survive? “A lot of those leading the nation had been his pupil or had sons at the school.”

The second, Francis Wrangham was “a conscientious parish priest and distinguished scholar”, whose achievements included setting up a library in the vestry of his church, which included fiction. “People are more interested in stories than sermons,” he had said.

Josephine Butler, a social reformer, found relief for the pain of losing her young daughter in an accident “by associating herself with the outcasts of society”. This included working in a Liverpool Workhouse, where she earned the right to talk about her faith.

Sabine Baring-Gould, best known as the author of “Onward, Christian soldiers”, was a “completely unambitious” parish priest who had little time for church politics. His lives of the saints ran to 15 volumes.

 

Michael Arditti appeared on Saturday. In an interview with Cole Moreton, he spoke of his two most recent novels, both steeped in historical research. The last one, Men and Angels, plots the retelling of the story of Lot in Babylon, medieval York, Renaissance Florence, the mid-19th century, and 20th-century Hollywood. His new novel, The Anointed, relates the story of Bathsheba, written from her perspective.

Arditti compared King David to Henry VIII, handsome and noble when young, gradually becoming a more corrupt figure.

 

Catherine Fox’s first novel was Angels and Men. She paired up with Michael Arditti, in the company of Angela Tilby, to discuss writing about sex — and how not to win the annual award for the worst description of a sexual encounter.

Both agreed that distance and reticence were aids to eroticism, compared with what Fox called the “mechanical, explicit cataloguing” that constituted pornography. On the other hand, novelists were supremely placed to explore “the murky nature of our desires”.

 

Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York-designate, talked of his sabbatical spent walking the Camino two years ago. He is appearing again at the Church Times Festival of Christian Pilgrimage in September, but his Bloxham talk reflected the literary theme, since he had set himself the task of writing a sonnet each day of the journey.

The poems that he read out reflected some of the lessons he learned, and was still learning. It was sobering to learn just how little one needed. The hospitality of strangers was as welcome as it was unexpected. There were other ways to live than trying to get from A to B in the shortest possible time by the shortest possible route. “And you can’t choose your fellow travellers.”

 

Malcolm Doney and Martin Wroe were interviewed by Jillian Moody about their book Lifelines: Notes on life and love, faith and doubt (Books, 30 November 2018).

“A lot of people we meet don’t go to church, but that doesn’t mean they don’t do faith or spirit or philosophy,” Doney said. “They haven’t necessarily found a vocabulary to talk about it, and they don’t understand the code that is often in churches.” The book was intended to give them something more “earthy”.

Wroe suggested that the Christian tradition contained many riches, but they were often hidden within the institutional Church.

 

Marie-Elsa Bragg was in conversation with John Pritchard about her latest book, Sleeping Letters,which returns to her mother’s suicide when Marie-Elsa was six.

KT BRUCEMarie-Elsa Bragg

The eucharist “punctuates” the book, Pritchard observed. “The eucharist is very much the place I feel I meet God the most,” Bragg said. “It’s something about it being embodied. . .

“The eucharist is the most intimate, it sees me the most clearly and I accept it, even when I’m in doubt,” Bragg said. “It breaks through every boundary of intimacy.”

 

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