Manchester Literature Festival: Jeanette Winterson

22nd Oct 2010

Manchester Literature Festival: Jeanette Winterson

First things first. Manchester Cathedral is gorgeous. The atmosphere and acoustics are incredible, and it is fast becoming a popular venue choice for touring bands and theatre companies who want something more than sticky-floored, gig-ravaged holes (CocoRosie, Will Oldham and Noah and The Whale have all played there this year). Andrew Shanks, Canon Theologian, is behind this new strategy to develop the Cathedral into a popular venue for education, arts and culture. So, in such forward thinking times, why a Sermon?

This was the first ‘Manchester Sermon’ to be held at the cathedral, and whether it was due to the festival, the draw of Jeanette Winterson or the beautiful building, it was packed. Shanks started by welcoming us and explaining that whilst hosting this event in 2010 might seem like a counter-cultural concept, things used to be very different; sermons used to be a very considerable branch of English Literature. Shanks believes that the sermon can still be a form of popular art, encouraging reflection, lifting the imagination and helping people to make moral sense of the world around them.

Jeanette Winterson spoke after a beautiful 10 minute performance by the Cathedral choir.  She is no stranger to sermons or the idea of preaching, having been raised in the Pentecostal church and exposed to the work of missionaries at an early age (see Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit). She left home, and the church, after declaring that she was a lesbian, and she acknowledged that her adoptive mother would be “as happy as she could be” to see her back in a church. Anyone familiar with Winterson’s work will not be surprised to hear that the sermon was beautifully written, spoken with humour and sincerity, and that the audience was spellbound. (For more For Books’ Sake fangirling over Jeanette, read another review here – we’re a little smitten!). She admitted that she still thinks the gospels are worth reading and that Jesus could stage a comeback if only “we could get him away from the church and the Republicans!” and everything that she said was relevant and insightful, with cheeky references to today’s celebrity culture (King Midas with his golden cloth, golden hair and destructive lust for wealth was likened to Paris Hilton: “the world’s most expensive leper.”) I want to write it all down word for word, but you’ll have to make do with scribbled notes and memories. Using the story of the Temptation of Christ as the backbone of the sermon, she picked apart what is wrong with society today, and made some powerful observations about priorities.

The setting – and timing – of the event couldn’t have been more apt. During the Industrial Revolution, Manchester (Cottonopolis) was a machine; Friedrich Engels noted that the people were regarded as nothing more than ‘useful objects’. This was brought bang up to date with reference to today’s quest to produce, to package, to consume – “everything the machine could achieve, and the terrible human cost” – and the current economic crisis. When Satan first appears to Christ in the desert, he tempts him to turn stones into bread to satisfy his hunger; Satan is appealing to a basic animal need. Jesus resists, but Winterson argued that we have not. When Marx talked of the redistribution of wealth, it was because he saw there’s more to life than money, and that it’s essential to tend to our human needs. In the ‘80s, Thatcher and Regan paid lip service to family values, but it was all about having – money, credit, goods. The World Health Organisation predicts that by 2020, depression will be in the top 3 causes of death, and Winterson said we must take responsibility – we bought into the idea of consumption, but soon we won’t be able to afford houses, good food or education so what will we be left with? Ourselves. “We exist, the person I love, friendship, books, music, our body, the planet exists…. Man shall not live by bread alone.”

Next, Satan tries to appeal to Jesus’ more godly attributes, tempting him to throw himself onto a pinnacle and prove that angels would not allow him to die. It is an appeal to vanity. Here, Winterson laid into the empty ‘me’ society, the quest for fame and vanity-driven dreams, and the celebrity culture that forgets the rules still apply. As celebrities get embroiled in scandals and we watch them crash and burn, we are reminded that they are human after all – we want them to throw themselves on the pinnacle – whilst at the same time, through alcoholism, delusions and self-harm we ourselves are trying to escape the limits of our own bodies. I know this all sounds terribly bleak, but Winterson is an unashamed optimist, and her words were inspirational (and full of humour) rather than depressing.  Here, she hoped to show that what is crucial to our existence is a respect for our own limits, and a respect for other human beings.

Lastly, Satan “gets serious. He goes all Simon Cowell, showing [Jesus] glory in return for his soul. Absolute power begins with absolute submission.” Winterson described corruption as a breaking force – breaking faith and breaking bonds – that is unfortunately recognisable in most leaders and people in power. But the hope lies, according to Winterson, in ourselves. The only way to become more than a ‘useful object’, a consumer, a CV, a Facebook profile or a number is to work out what is of value to us – what is worth living and dying for – and then to not break that faith. Talk turned to the church as an organisation, an organisation that she said is incredibly good at “fannying about… Why is it faffing about women bishops when there’s such a crisis? We need some spiritual strength, not questioning whether you have boobs or not.” She accused the secular left of failing to re-think values, whilst the right take the reins. So the responsibility lies with us: “I’m not suggesting going vegan and cycling everywhere, though you can if you want, but what we need is to realise what matters – the value of life. We need time, creativity, the inside not just the outside, we need to ask why weapons are more important than education. We are more than money, don’t apologise for your soul.”

A panel discussion followed, chaired by Rachel Mann (poet and Parish Priest for Burnage, Manchester) tackling some of the questions raised during the sermon. Andrew Shanks said this event had been somewhat of an experiment, but that it was exactly what they had hoped for. Jeanette Winterson, when asked how it felt for her replied, “it feels like home.” An incredibly inspiring and powerful evening: a room packed full of people listening to an engaging, intelligent and eloquent speaker; thinking; being given time to reflect and encouraged to re-evaluate the world. This is what going to church must (should?) feel like.

With only 4 days left of Manchester Literature Festival, you’ve still got time to catch some cracking events!

Post by Alex Herod


  • Jenny says:

    I wish I’d been there, I love hearing her speak. The transcript is now on her website though:-

    • Jane Bradley says:

      Fab, thanks for the link, Jenny – I was heartbroken to miss it too so will be perusing this over a cup of tea to make me feel like I was there!

    • Alex Herod says:

      I went, but i’ve just made a cup of tea so i’m going to read over it again. It was the first time i’d heard her speak at a live event, wonderful evening. Thanks for the link Jenny!