6th - 22nd October 2017

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The Manchester Literature Festival Blog

Review: The Manchester Sermon at Halle St Peter's

Author lionel shriver delivers the 2013 Manchester sermonChris Payne

  • Author lionel shriver delivers the 2013 Manchester sermon

If this year's Manchester Sermon had been delivered by a quiet author, somebody a little meeker in their delivery, then it might have been easy to be distracted by the beautiful surroundings of Halle St Peters in Ancoats. The arched windows and tall pillars. The dim red lighting. But this was Lionel Shriver. And anybody who knows anything about Lionel Shriver knows that she doesn't do quiet or meek.

The evening began with an address from Manchester Cathedral's pastor, who gave us a little bit of background on sermons before introducing the Cathedral Choir. They performed three songs, providing a captivating and haunting introduction which set the tone for what followed.

You could say that it was typical of Shriver to follow a pastor and a cathedral choir by introducing her Anti-Sermon Sermon. Sitting in a church, surrounded by many of the signs and symbols of organised Christianity, it was a little shocking to hear the author follow a reading from Corinthians with a claim that the human race might need to put away the “childish thing called religion.” The audience came expecting controversy, and within twenty words they had it.

But Shriver's sermon soon took a personal turn. After recalling several anecdotes from her father's time as a preacher and her childhood of forced religious worship, she informed the audience that her father is gravely ill and may not be with us much longer. For once, her perfect delivery cracked a little. While remaining very clear on the fact that she struggled to understand the religious and that she wonders how sensible, intelligent people can believe something so scientifically implausible, she did begin to show signs of warming towards the idea of faith.

Although the sermon has a very different spec to most literary events, it is still part of Manchester Literature Festival. So when Shriver began comparing her role as a writer to her dad's preaching, the evening reached a peak. The Good Book, she said, does much the same as 'a good book.' Both aim to help and counsel people, to usher us through difficult times and to shape our minds. Both foster community, and, when a book or an author garners a large audience, that audience becomes a kind of congregation. And, she admitted, the stories of the Bible are compelling narratives. Her only problem is that people take them as fact.

The evening ended with a Q&A which demonstrated a personable and humble side to the author that you don't often read of in the press. She answered questions about her family with tenderness, wit, and a sense that their current situation has brought a change to her perspectives. One thing she said about her atheism and her railings against religion rang particularly true with regards to her current situation: “we should focus on what we share, not what divides us.”

About the writer: Fran Slater is a Manchester-based writer and editor who is currently taking far too long to finish his first novel. He blogs at franslater.wordpress.com.