Reviews May 2022
Directed by Terence Davies
Certificate 12a, 137 minutes
Released 20 May
Films about poets are few; however, the director Terence Davies has now made two in a row as different as their historical subjects. The earlier A Quiet Passion (Reform, April 2017) concerns the introverted, isolated, American spinster Emily Dickinson while the current Benediction is about First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden) – a homosexual man when this sexual preference was illegal, before the word ‘gay’ was used to describe such things.
His Military Cross earned for bravery as a First World War officer drops into a stream then sinks, an image expressing Sassoon’s dissatisfaction with the way the war is being run, and the hardships endured by the troops. He writes in protest to the top brass, but instead of the court-martial and platform to speak he expects, he is diagnosed with ‘shell shock’, partly thanks to literary mentor Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale). Sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, Sassoon finds a kindred spirit in fellow war poet and gay Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), who later returns to active service, to be tragically killed in the conflict’s final week.
After the war, Siegfried falls in with the English aristocracy and the literary and theatre worlds, embarking on relationships with Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine) and Stephen Tennant (Anton Lesser) among others. In later years, he marries Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips) who is under no illusions as to his sexual identity. Their union produces a son, George. The film shows the couple living together to a ripe old age (played by Peter Capaldi and Gemma Jones), although in fact they separated after twelve years. Siegfried later moves into the home of his concerned son (Richard Goulding).
Initial research via three huge autobiographies revealed much that Davies didn’t know (including Sassoon’s homosexuality and late Catholicism). It took five years to whittle the huge amount of biographical information into a script for a two-hour film. Half the running length covers Sassoon’s gay relationships, while the all too brief scenes exploring his marriage and Catholicism leave you wanting much more. The opening reel covering Sassoon’s protest and time at Craiglockhart is arguably the most satisfying.
Dream and do
For anyone identifying as pioneer, or who wants to understand radical mission beyond church walls, this book is a breath of fresh air. For those more comfortable with conventional models of worship and mission it might be somewhat puzzling or unsettling – or might not even make sense at all.
Pioneer Practice is written by a pioneer for pioneers. Jonny Baker, head of training at the Church Missionary Society, was pioneering in London long before the term ‘Fresh Expression’ was invented. He begins boldly, defining pioneers as ‘dreamers who do’ and the practice as ‘dissent from business as usual’. He introduces the book as ‘a mix of research, stories, conversations, articles and insights from a range of pioneers who are doing it’. What follows is a work of missiology, gradually unfolding the mystery that is pioneering so that the reader is left under no illusions about how slow, difficult, counter-cultural, and deeply spiritual this sort of radical mission really is….
Janet Sutton is a United Reformed Church minister living near Ely in Cambridgeshire
Where ‘It’s not fair’ can lead us
Justice for Christ’s Sake: A personal journey around justice through the eyes of faith
The country is in lockdown, and James Jones is brooding on his experience chairing the Hillsborough Independent Panel and the suffering of his grandson. He writes this book and tries to unify his thoughts around the age-old child’s cry: ‘It’s not fair’. The driving narrative for this book is almost entirely the Hillsborough Panel experience – what Jones describes as ‘the single most important aspect of my work as Bishop of Liverpool from 1998 to 2013’.
He starts by unpacking that experience with astounding clarity, describing how his involvement began with pastoral care and blossomed into a heart, soul and guts identification with the struggle for justice fought on behalf of ‘the 96’ by those who loved them. Jones’s passion for this cause and his growing realisation of the injustice that has been done to these people drips between every sentence he writes. It is an emotional ride to read his account. Simply and effectively, he invokes the parable of the persistent widow and brings it to life in the struggle of real people in our age. He challenges us with the idea that, rather than humbly reject the considerable power society has gifted the Church, we should embrace it and use it to empower those to whom nobody listens….
Phil Nevard is the Minister of three village churches in South Cambridgeshire
Saving the family silver
Sacraments after Christendom
Andrew Francis and Janet Sutton
URC Ministers Andrew Francis and Janet Sutton address the question of where (if anywhere) the idea of sacraments belongs in a post-Christendom society in which organised religion appears increasingly irrelevant. Responses to their quest have ranged from an honest dismissal of their value to the implied view of a high church Anglican such as Rowan Williams, which sees sacraments as the ‘family silver’ that must be preserved however strongly the secular tide is flowing.
The book does not attempt an exhaustive survey of the use of sacraments through Church history, although it does provide a useful overview. Neither does it seek to determine the number and nature of durable sacraments beyond identifying baptism (identification with the community of believers) and eucharist (a deliberate act of remembering Jesus and re-membering the community of believers) as essential elements to carry forward into the future. The authors recognise the value of ‘sacramental’ experiences for individuals and groups but understand a stand alone sacrament to be the means of ‘enabling believers to experience the presence of God in Christ for themselves through the power of the Holy Spirit.’..
A collaborative review edited by Ian Fosten, book reviews editor for Reform. Available from the URC Bookshop
In praise of hangers on
Candles in the Dark: Faith, hope and love in a time of pandemic
I’ve made the mistake in the past of suggesting a Rowan Williams book for our church book club based purely on the slimness of the volume. Invariably, such has been the intellectual requirements made of us by one of the greatest thinkers of our time, it took us longer to explore than a book four times thicker!
This book is different and completely accessible to all. It consists of 26 separate reflections that Williams gave to his church, St Clement’s in Cambridge, between March and September 2020. St Clement’s had, like many others, moved its worship and prayer online. Initially, Williams’s reflections connected with Lent, then some of the more obscure feasts and saint’s days, but also many more secular occasions as hope for an early end to our isolation disappeared…
Martin Fosten is an elder and leader of the book group at Christ Church United Reformed Church, Petts Wood, London
This article was published in the May 2022 edition of Reform