Like most people of my generation, barring weddings and funerals, I have not stepped foot in a church in twenty years. I thought the Manchester Sermon might be a nice place to break that habit. Happily I was right. It was a brilliant evening.
The location, Manchester Cathedral, is stunning. At night it is warm and welcoming at its centre, but at the edges lie gloomy corners, dark and full of mystery. Chocolate brown stone pillars prop up giant ceilings. Sodium street lights shine through stained glass windows. It is a venue that invites contemplation.
Canon Andrew Shanks introduced the evening by explaining the philosophy behind its conception (I’ll stop the religious puns now – sorry). The sermon, as a form, was until very recently a major branch of literature, practiced by some of the greatest British poets. The Manchester Sermon was an attempt to revive an almost lost part of our literary heritage. So unused to hearing a sermon is the majority of the audience that we are given a little hint of sermon etiquette. We are politely asked not to applause the sermon but to sit in silence for a few moments: “It’s like when you microwave something and leave it to stand.”
After the introduction, and before Jeanette Winterson speaks, a choir sings. The devil hasn’t got the best tunes, he just has a better press agent. The music is beautiful. Some of it, written in the time of the Tudors, is still incredibly effecting and the acoustics in the cathedral were stunning.
And then there is the Manchester Sermon itself. I’m afraid my notes get a bit sketchy here because I stopped writing and started listening. Winterson used the temptation of Christ in the desert as her base text, and from it delivered a secular sermon which looked at the current economic climate, celebrity culture, and our responsibilities to each other as human beings. It was funny, it was moving, it was powerful. It was surprisingly edgy. It was a triumph.
The evening ended with a question and answer session. The questions were answered by Jeanette Winterson and Canon Andrew Shanks, and also the poets Michael Schmidt and Michael Symmons Roberts. The discussion was chaired by Rachel Mann.
The panel discussed whether or not we had heard a sermon, the need for spiritual guidance in an increasingly secular world and the place, and role, of the church during the terribly difficult economic period the country is entering.
At the risk of sounding controversial I would say that it may well be events like this that show the church’s relevance in the coming years. By interacting with the community, by reaching out, by being able to surprise, churches like Manchester Cathedral will continue to remain relevant and important. That the evening was such a success is due not only to Jeanette Winterson but also to churchmen and women like Shanks and Mann who are brave enough to open their doors to argument.
It would be hard not to be effected by the Manchester Sermon. It was important as well as being interesting. I hope very much it will be the first of many.
by Benjamin Judge