Thursday, October 25, 2012

Preaching to the converted

Manchester Sermon, Thursday 18th October, 7pm, Manchester Cathedral

Words by Benjamin Judge. Photograph by Roshana Rubin-Mayhew.

The sermon was once a respected literary form like the poem or the essay. In the 19th century, many of our greatest writers wrote them, they were collected together in books and they were, like, probably, like, on the telly, like, all the time and that. Then, in the 20th century, Mary Quant invented the Beatles and something-something-something to do with Spitfires and rationing, and then all of a sudden there was that song based on the music from Tetris, and Ace of Base, and that thing with Carol Smillie where they decorate each other’s homes and cry because they don’t like how they decorated each other’s homes, and... where was I?

Oh yes, sermons. Well, Manchester Cathedral and the Literature Festival and various other people got together and decided to give sermons another go. It started two years ago, with the first Manchester Sermon, which was delivered by Jeanette Winterson. Then last year Andrew Motion visited the cathedral. This year Ali Smith became a sermoner for a day. (Note to self – check if sermoner is a real world.)

And the interesting thing about all this is... it works. I am not a Christian, I am not very religious period, but in two of the last three years, the Manchester Sermon has been my highlight of the festival. (I should clarify here that I’m not suggesting one of the previous two years wasn’t up to snuff; I missed Andrew Motion because I was having tea at my mum’s house.) That shouldn’t be a surprise, really. The Bible is an infinitely interesting text, whatever your thoughts on it, so it makes sense that when you invite brilliant writers to speak about it, the results will be entertaining and thought provoking.

And Ali Smith is a brilliant writer. And a brilliant speaker too. I was lucky enough to meet her briefly, and to see her read from There But For The last year. I would happily pay to see her read from the phonebook. As a writer, she is so alive to the joy of language, of words, that she seems incapable of talking without investing her speech with that joy. From her opening sentence, a borrowing of a pun, “Let us play”, to the final word, via a series of increasingly lovely rebeginnings, rebegottings, quotes, asides, ideas and jokes, all held together by a narrative voice that anyone familiar with her novels and short stories will already be enamoured of, she talked about Donne and death, and loss and the Book of Job, and somehow made all of it joyful and true and wise.

Yeah, that good.

There are many events at the Manchester Literature Festival. Some are interesting, some are funny, some are serious, some are life-changing. But of all the events, none are quite as important as the Manchester Sermon. The Sermon creates new, and repeatedly brilliant, work in a form that is all but forgotten. It investigates the place of the Bible in literature and the place of the Bible’s lessons in an increasingly secular society. It opens up a dialogue between literature and religion. It offers a place of reflection in the bustle of the city centre. And, most appealingly of all, it does so without being preachy or pushy or even the slightest bit judgmental. And they have a choir at the start. Singing a couple of hymns. All beautiful and that.

So, there you are. I had fun in a church. Again. Manchester, eh?


Benjamin Judge is the author of Who the fudge is Benjamin Judge?, the winner of the Best Writing Award at the 2011 Manchester Blog Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @benjaminjudge

You can read more reviews of this event, by students at the Centre for New Writing, on The Manchester Review.