Reviews – June 2015
Light Shining in Buckinghamshire
Written by Caryl Churchill
Lyttelton Theatre, London
Until 22 June
Caryl Churchill’s Light shining in Buckinghamshire was first produced in 1976. I wonder if each generation finds things in it that make it feel like a state of the nation play. It is set during the English Civil War, and describes a time of great turmoil – a brief moment in which the status quo was destroyed and radical ideas flourished, and then the status quo was restored.
This production opens with Es Devlin’s amazing set: A giant table laid with an opulent oversized banquet fit for a king, at which a silent community cast of wealthy citizens sit eating, and a vicar drinks his wine whilst talking to his servant about the privilege of embracing suffering. As the large historical battles are waged offstage, the set is bit-by-bit stripped away: The food is looted; the table cloth removed to reveal a bare, puritan, wooden floorboard stage; the floorboards are pulled up, revealing the soil underneath. Out of this radical destruction come radical ideas. The revolutionaries believe they are bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven, with notions of democracy and the common ownership of property. At the end of the production we see the same vicar (Daniel Flynn, who also plays an unreadable Oliver Cromwell) talking to a corn merchant, now a landowner (Nicholas Gleaves, going from idealist to pragmatist); it is clear that despite all the radical change, things will be the same as before.
I watched this timely production two weeks before the general election. It is impossible not to make the connection. In a section of the play showing the Putney Debates, we hear impassioned arguments for keeping property in the hands of those who know best, and for all people, with property or not, to have the vote. The language is taken verbatim from historical documents and hard to follow, but the voices calling down the ages cannot be ignored. Post-election, as we discuss electoral boundaries and proportional representation, it feels as if the same argument continues. If only our televised debates had such passion.
Sometimes theatre’s greatest value is timing. Here there are echoes of all our current parties, even UKIP and the Green Party. And as the Churches call Christians to engage in politics, it is fascinating to see Christianity being used first to oppress, and then briefly and radically to free people from constraint and disempowerment.
Seeing the cast of everyday people standing, rain pouring down as they slip on their rain covers, seemingly caught mid-protest, I thought of more recent protests, from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the miners to Occupy Faith and the anti-austerity demonstrations. Will they also eventually disperse?
Celia Morris-Sanchez is an actor and writer
How to eat
Andrew Francis is passionate about food – not only about cooking and eating, but also knowing what we eat and how it got to our plate. In this informative, challenging book, he urges Christians to take responsibility for eating by treating our neighbours and the rest of creation ethically, and as an appropriate response to God, our Creator.
In a relatively slim book, Francis ranges widely across big issues such as water supply (endangered), animal welfare (needed and non-negotiable), meat eating (permissible if responsible), genetic modification (possibly regrettable but inevitable), free and fair trade (the former a “con” and the latter commended), food labelling (frequently misleading), self-sufficiency (a fantasy), and “growing your own” (a great idea). Along the way he tells us how his strong opinions flow from experiences as a family member, minister, traveller, gardener, school governor, abattoir worker and continuing student.
This gives the book a grounded feel, with many stories of how attitudes work out in actions. There is even a chapter of practical actions, alphabetically arranged; everything from keeping an address book of good food suppliers to the benefits of making your own yoghurt.
Francis’ prophetic passion and Christian commitment can overwhelm. Page after page is peppered with, “we have to”, “we need to” and “we must”. This urgency stands in tension with his observation in a later chapter that change comes slowly in society and churches. Reading the book can feel a little like experiencing a sermon identifying one’s many faults and calling for a host of life changes (few respond positively to such sermons!)
Yet, both individuals and church groups can respond positively to this book. Many will learn from it. Several chapters would form a good basis for discussion sessions and encouragement to individual and congregational action. There is a distance between where we are and where we should be with regard to food and this book helps us close that gap.
Trevor Jamison is environmental chaplain for Eco Congregation Scotland
Christianity through conversation
Pádraig Ó Tuama (leader of the Corrymeela community) has created a refreshingly original book in which he invites us to revisit many central themes of the Christian faith. He weaves together scripture, literature, anecdote and poetry into a rich tapestry. Drawing on his Irish heritage, as well as on his personal life experience, Ó Tuama takes the reader with him on a journey that is ultimately about hope.
A central theme to the book is the word “hello”. We are reminded that when the risen Christ greeted the disciples with the word “peace”, he was using a standard greeting still used today by speakers of Hebrew and Arabic. In each chapter we are invited to say “hello” to such diverse themes as: Power, story, imagination and change. The use of this non-threatening, everyday word opens the way to conversations about darkness and shadow, as well as about peace and light.
The person of Christ is very much at the heart of the book – we are asked to meet him afresh, free from some of the assumptions that have piled up over the centuries. Ultimately, Ó Tuama is reaffirming Christianity as offering us a place of shelter – a shelter with open doors and where hearts are unlocked.
This is a very accessible read and easy to dip into as the author offers us interlinked thoughts punctuated with poetry. I found it hard to read too much at a time, as there was so much to digest. As well as being a stimulating resource for personal reflection, In the Shelter could be a good basis for discussion in a small group. This is certainly a book that I will return to – I imagine again and again.
Rachel Poolman is warden of St Cuthbert’s Centre on Holy Island, Lindisfarne, Northumberland
Reformed observations of Vatican II
Donald Norwood is an enthusiastic participant in the ecumenical movement and this book represents many years’ work. How did Karl Barth, eminent Swiss Reformed theologian respond to the Second Vatican Council? Catholic respect for Barth and his friendship with leading Catholic theologians justifies this study. After a chapter on the background to the Council, Mr Norwood looks at the influence of the non-Catholic observers and at issues where little new was said, such as Communism, or the announcement by Pope Paul VI of a new title for Mary: “Mother of the Church”. He then turns to Barth’s hopes for the Council, and issues concerning the papacy (including apostolic succession). Catholic criticisms of Barth follow, with some commentary on the place of women in the Church, which neither the Council nor Barth addressed.
The last two chapters, “Differences that still divide” and “The rediscovery of unity”, raise the most interesting questions for reflection. Readers of Reform may not worry about whether we can know God without revelation, though most will recognise the difference between belief in a supreme being and belief in Jesus Christ as God’s unique self-revelation in history. Similarly, many may not recognise a “hierarchy of truths”, though we will believe that some questions are more important than others. Even justification by faith does not raise the same anxieties that it does in German-speaking Christianity, and the crucial words “by grace” after “justification” in the Reformed tradition brings us closer to the Catholic position. Most of us still find the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven difficult and the theological dialogues on this topic have not done justice to Mary’s deep-seated place in popular Catholic devotion.
Christians from the Reformed tradition are happier discussing ministry, particularly bishops, and subsidiary (ie the wisdom of devolving certain decisions from the “centre”). Constitutional episcopacy is a valid and pragmatic way of resolving problems of authority in Church life and I would rather have bishops, recognised and accountable, than others who exercise the power without the accountability. The problem is always the claim that organisation of the Church is part of God’s revealed will.
I welcomed recognition of Margaret O’Gara’s book, The Ecumenical Gift Exchange (Liturgical Press, 1998), and Mr Norwood’s link between it and Paul Murray’s more recent advocacy of “receptive ecumenism” – the emphasis on what we can receive from others, rather than what we might give them. I was also challenged by the author’s link between the idea of the Council as “event” (theologically speaking) and the reflection that Christian unity is also an event, not of our making. Mr Norwood tells a fascinating story; some readers might struggle with the early chapters but the conclusions are worth reflection by everyone.
David Thompson is the United Reformed Church Eastern Synod’s ecumenical officer; he is also a retired professor and church minister serving in Cambridge
This is an extract from the June 2015 edition of Reform.