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Interview: The gospel as a conversation between friends

by
01 April 2021

Before his Easter Day reading from Westminster Abbey, Sir David Suchet talks to Vicky Walker about the “warm and intimate” tone of St John’s Gospel

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Sir David Suchet reads St John’s Gospel in the Jerusalem Chamber at Westminster Abbey

Sir David Suchet reads St John’s Gospel in the Jerusalem Chamber at Westminster Abbey

“JOHN’S GOSPEL has been with me most of lockdown,” Sir David Suchet says. “I don’t make any apology for it.”

On Easter Day, at 4 p.m., the actor will be seen and heard reading it by an online audience around the world. The première of the recording, in the Jerusalem Chamber at Westminster Abbey, will be broadcast on the abbey’s YouTube channel.

He has engaged with scripture in detail over the years, recording the entire Bible for Hodder & Stoughton’s NIV Audio Bible — which necessitated many hours of reading to bring to life more than three-quarters of a million words.

What has made him want to revisit it? He describes his reading of St Mark’s Gospel in a packed St Paul’s Cathedral in 2017 — which has since been watched more than two million times — as “one of the most extraordinary, wonderful experiences of my life”.

And so he has turned his attention to St John’s Gospel, which lends itself to a more personal interpretation. “I continually read it and re-read. It is the most intimate of all the Gospels. And it’s suitable to be read to one person. I don’t think this is a Gospel to be read to millions, all in one go.”

John wrote, he says, for no lesser reason than that “people may read what he wrote and believe that Jesus Christ is divine, and is the prophesied Messiah, and that by his life, crucifixion, and resurrection, proved himself to be the Son of God, the Divinity, that Messiah that everybody in the world was waiting for.”

He thinks that there is a musical resonance to John, too. “I was reading to my wonderful director of music at the Tower of London yesterday. And his favourite, and my favourite, is Bach. And John’s Gospel is Bach.

“It’s all counterpoint: you’ve got the top line, but you’ve got other meanings and references that just go down, down, down, down, down, down, down.

“And you can’t sound like Bach. You can hear all those things, but when I read John, you’ve only got my voice. And I can only do one thing that I hope, with my tone: to convey a little of all the other layers that John is writing about. I wish I had the ability to have four different voices, all sounding at the same time. There are great depths and great mysticism in the Bible.”

 

HE ATTRIBUTES his own conversion to Christianity to reading a hotel Bible in 1986. In it, he “found a way of being or philosophy of life that I wanted”. John was central to his understanding of that: “When I got to the very end, I thought, ‘This is it. This is my message that I’ve devoted my life since then.’”

During the pandemic, the actor, renowned for his portrayal of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, felt drawn to “a slightly more ordered form of personal worship”. That has taken the form of “regular Bible reading during my spare time”, and coming back repeatedly to John, where “Jesus can speak to you as a person rather than just disappearing.”

He describes the tone of John’s Gospel as “warm and intimate”, and his hope for the Easter reading is personal. “I want the listener to feel very comfortable. I want you to be sitting with me. And as I look into the camera, I’ll be looking at you.

“And I’m just reading to you. I may be speaking to what may amount to millions, but my tone is intimate, warm, friendly, not to push you away, but draw you in and just share it.”

He is fervent about the benefits of hearing scripture read aloud. “My message to everybody is to read it out loud, quietly to yourself. Never, never, never, never read the word silently. . . Let it go in into your body, absorb it. And let it come out. If you continue, this wonderful, wonderful relationship you can have, with God and his word.

“I always read any passage of Bible out loud, because I can hear it at the same time. And that’s actually a great, a great source of nourishment.”

 

Sir David Suchet’s reading of St John’s Gospel, in Westminster Abbey, can be watched on YouTube from 4 p.m. on Easter Day. Listen to Sir David on the Church Times podcast.

www.westminster-abbey.org

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