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Books to sustain you through the pandemic

12 February 2021

At the one-day Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature, to be held online on 20 February, Canon Mark Oakley will talk about the books that have sustained him through the pandemic. This week, we asked the same question of Church Times regulars

Ann Morisy

theologian and lecturer

Ann MorisyIS IT my age or a year of restrictions which prompts so many memories from childhood and previous decades? An old friend suggested that this might be God telling me to go to confession. Such directness reminded me of the characteristic Liverpool Catholicism instilled by the nuns.

Ghost Town by Jeff Young has salved my need for reminiscence with splendid precision. He, too, trawls his memory for sights and sadnesses, and quirky moments from his childhood and youth as he looks back to a fading Liverpool of the 1960s. The irony: Liverpool had never been so much in the public eye with the Mersey sound, but the background beat was of a city decaying.

The book isn’t chronological and nor are the wonderful photographs that separate each chapter. Young allows time to slip and dreams to invade the narrative. Incidents burn themselves into his mind by way of hearing his mother talking with a neighbour. Ghost Town evokes the nature of memories.

It is a tender memorial to Liverpool and a meditation on loss; so much so that I felt I might have glimpsed my own ghost that once lived in those now torn-down Bootle back streets.


Michael Wheeler

Visiting Professor, University of Southampton

Professor Michael Wheeler“CABINED, cribbed, confined”, I returned recently, not to Macbeth but The Tempest, an enchanting play, full of strange beauty. Perhaps I was unconsciously drawn to a study of characters who are locked down on a remote island.

In re-reading the play, I found that familiar lines resonated in new ways, speaking to our current condition. Ariel, once freed by Prospero but now bound to his master by magic, marshals the dramatis personae into groups, or bubbles: “In troops I have dispers’d them ’bout the isle,” he reports. While Ferdinand is left alone, in an “odd angle of the isle”, the drunks are over there, the courtiers over here, and the “mariners all under hatches stow’d”.

Radio 3 has become even more of a solace during lockdown, as I’m reminded by Caliban’s “Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.”

Walks, too, after long spells of writing at home. Like Prospero, “poor man, whose library Was dukedom large enough” back in Milan, “a turn or two I’ll walk, To still my beating mind.”

During the reconciliation scene in the last Act, Prospero says: “Welcome, my friends all!” — a greeting that I hope to echo, once lockdown is lifted and warmer weather allows al-fresco social distancing.


Augustine Tanner-Ihm

winner of the 2020 Theology Slam

Augustine Tanner-IhmI WAS drawn to Sheila Wise Rowe’s book Healing Racial Trauma: The road to resilience, after watching over and over as people that look like me, talk like me, and dress like me were killed, and the worldwide protest of Black Lives Matter.

I knew that healing needed to happen. Owing to being in isolation for almost a year, I did not want to harbour bitterness, hatred, and malice toward people with white skin — rather, enable the spirit to work in me for healing and reconciliation.

The trauma experienced among people of colour is something not spoken about much, because it is a shared experience of historical oppression, but there are long-lasting effects on our well-being.

The book has been a vaccine of healing. Throughout the pages, I could feel my heart and mind being moved by pain experienced in the stories of survivors relating to my own.

Wise Rowe holds a Master’s degree in counselling psychology and has many years of experience ministering to survivors of trauma in the United States and South Africa. She also cites numerous scriptures to support her arguments and how to engage with healing.

Healing Racial Trauma is a helpful read for anyone wishing to understand, or better understand, racism, its effects, and how to move forward in race relations within a Christian world-view.


Jennie Hogan

psychotherapist and Associate Priest of St George’s, Bloomsbury

The Revd Jennie HoganGROUNDED by the pandemic, I have been taking refuge in the food, flora, and fauna of the Mediterranean through Honey from a Weed: Fasting and feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia. Patience Gray abandoned Fleet Street to live among deeply rural communities with her sculptor partner.

Her sui generis account, published in 1986, of life rooted in the seasons, the landscape and the liturgical year is erudite, charming, and other-worldly. It is a chronicle of culture rooted in place and food.

There is a sense of delight at the world around her, and wonder for those who work the land and endure the hardships that reliance on the nature demands. Chapters range from “Fungi and Michelangelo” to “Products of the Pig”, and not only include multiple recipes, but are also enriched by apposite insights from the likes of other Mediterraneans, such as Homer.

The bibliography alone is intoxicating. So, while I impatiently wait for change and renewal, the stoicism, appetite, and steadfastness found in those about whom Gray so lovingly writes humbles and inspires me.


John Perumbalath

Bishop of Bradwell

Dr John Perumbalath, Bishop of Bradwell  TWO books that resonated most with my journey during the pandemic are on spirituality and leadership. Developing the Augustinian insight that we are shaped most by what we love most, James K. A. Smith’s You are What You Love offers a corrective to our spiritualties that are often based on what we think, being influenced by Cartesian approach.

But we do not always love what we think we love, because our culture has shaped us through liturgies — habits of desire — that love rival gods. Smith provided me with a toolkit for cultivating Christian habits of desire and reimagining the tasks of discipleship and mission today.

Susan Beaumont’s How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going is about leadership in a liminal season. This practical book of hope that links spiritual sensitivity and vital leadership offered me clarity on some questions in my ongoing reflections during the pandemic.

Leaders need a fundamental shift in their spiritual orientation first and then should explore the soulfulness of the institution. Leadership task will involve clarifying institutional purpose, shaping institutional memory, deepening communal discernment and nurturing emergence.

We can stand firm in a disoriented state and lead despite the confusion.


Rachel Mann

Rector of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, and Visiting Fellow, Manchester Met University

Canon Rachel MannI GO back to favourite novels for many reasons: to be comforted and to feel safe; to escape the discomforts of the present; to bathe in the presence of fictional characters who have become friends.

This year, I returned to Anthony Powell’s epic A Dance To The Music Of Time for all those reasons, and more. I’ve read the 12-book novel sequence, centred on six decades of 20th-century upper-class bohemian and literary life, many times. Each time I laugh at previously unappreciated passages or find myself lost in the simple delight of picaresque characters.

Dance is famous for the way in which its central character, Nick, repeatedly bumps into old friends, rivals, and family. In lockdown, I’ve found these repetitions and seeming coincidences unexpectedly moving.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been cut off from such random encounters with my own friends and family. Dance is about the shaping of memory and identity by seemingly trivial moments — a glance, a smile from someone one loves or dislikes — as much as by great world events.

Time has its way with us, and we are changed, but even when we are separated from those we love, they leave inescapable traces in our lives.


Guli Francis-Dehqani

Bishop-elect of Chelmsford

Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, Bishop-elect of ChelmsfordONE of the most memorable and apposite books from my lockdown reading has to be Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark. Darkness gets a bad press. We expend energy trying to avoid or eliminate it by shining light, literal and metaphorical.

Christians talk about Jesus as the light, shattering darkness, and about our call to be light in the darkness of the world. Brown Taylor offers a beautifully positive and reflective study of darkness.

In her always honest and yet deeply compassionate way, she dares us to travel with her into the darkest places physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and demonstrates how it’s possible to grow, be replenished, and encounter God when we least expect it, and when we allow darkness to do its thing.

There are painful moments in this book, but also some beautifully evocative illustrations, which serve as a reminder that, when all is said and done, darkness need not be feared. In fact, some things come to light only when we’re willing to encounter them in the darkness.

Reading the book took me back once more to Henry Vaughan’s poem “The Night”, which invites us to see in God a certain “dazzling darkness”.


Robert Stanier

Vicar of St Andrew and St Mark, Surbiton

The Revd Robert StanierA QUIRK of publication meant that Rowan Williams’s The Way of St Benedict, with its reflections on how his rule compels people to live together, was released at the start of 2020, just when people were stuck into isolated bubbles — in some instances, on their own, but, in others, spending more time with their immediate family than they had done for years.

In his typically unruffled manner, Williams unfurls a series of insights that have hugely challenged my way of living, both in my ministry and my family life. Try this:

“A great deal of our politics, our ecclesiastical life, often our personal life as well, is dominated by the assumption that everything would be all right if only some people would go away. . .

“The point is that, for the writer of the Rule of Benedict, other people are not going to go away: and therefore the heart of the spiritual challenge is how we live with that otherness — honestly, constructively, hopefully and not blindly.”

The whole book is like being guided by a master yachtsman as he sails through tricky coastal waters. Beautiful.


Chine McDonald

writer, broadcaster, head of public engagement at Christian Aid

Donna FordChine McDonaldGEORGE FLOYD’s murder in those early months of the coronavirus pandemic, and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, sent me on a journey of devouring the black-theology books that seem to have evaded my church reading lists all my life.

While the Western world reckoned with the reality that the racial injustices that black people had been subject to for centuries still persisted, I was hungry to read more about black history, to reconnect with my own heritage, but also with the collective story of the black experience — particularly in white-majority societies.

While books on black British history educated me, black-theology books spoke to my inner being — none more so than The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone.

It spoke in the most profound way about the way in which the oppression of black people, and the violence they have experienced in the face of white supremacy for centuries (most horrifyingly through the lynching of black people in the southern states of America), gives a unique perspective into the suffering of the crucified Christ.

For Cone, the innocent victim murdered and hanging from a tree is the clearest symbol we have of Jesus: a re-crucified Christ in the image of a brutalised Black body.


David Chillingworth

former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church

The Rt Revd David ChillingworthI HAVE found myself both busy and unmotivated in lockdown. Hilary Mantel, Tolstoy, and many others have clamoured for my attention. But the book that stays with me is one that I found simply heart-warming. Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole — a Scottish twist, of course — is a love story told in a series of letters.

David Graham, a young student from Illinois, writes his first letter to Elspeth Dunn, a Scots poet living on Skye, in 1912. He admires her poetry, and she is delighted to have an unexpected admirer of her work. Their friendship flourishes — perhaps because they can never meet — and love blossoms.

The world is convulsed by war. Elspeth will not leave Skye, because she has a deep fear of drowning — no bridge to Skye at that time. So Letters from Skye becomes a fitting lockdown read for us who can meet online but never in person.

Then David volunteers as an ambulance driver on the Western Front, and the possibility of a meeting arises. But reality arrives in the form of Elspeth’s fisherman husband Iain.

Letters from Skye is a beautifully written lockdown love story. I frequently recommend it.


Cally Hammond

Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

AS I was watching a documentary about Robert Mitchum out of pure lockdown-induced boredom, suddenly in front of me was a terrifying face: Harry Powell, the supposed man of God and itinerant preacher, played by Mitchum in The Night of The Hunter.

I was haunted by the film when I saw it years ago; Charles Laughton directed it, his only such film. It is the story of two children whose father is executed for committing a robbery. The hope of finding the stolen cash leads his cell-mate (Mitchum) to target the children’s mother as a way of pressuring them to reveal where the loot has been stashed.

His appearance is unforgettable, his knuckles tattooed with “HATE” and “LOVE”. But Harry Powell is no preacher. He is the “hunter” of the title: a thief and murderer.

Remembering the impact of the film, I ordered the book, by Davis Grubb. Not a glamorous name, but the story was finely written. It was a study in evil both mundane and grotesque, a dissection of the dangers of religion, and a masterclass in manipulation.

I never watched the film again. It was too dark, too disturbing. Perhaps I’ll never read the book again either. But reading it once has left a life-affirming mark.


Tickets for the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature, in association with Christ Church, Oxford, on 20 February, with Mark Oakley, Francis Spufford, Rachel Mann, Katharine Tiernan, and Stephen Cherry, are on sale now: £20, or £10 for a Church Times subscriber. 

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