‘The Manchester Sermon: Ali Smith’, Thursday 18th October 2012, 7pm, Manchester Cathedral

It is already dark outside when I arrive at the Manchester Cathedral for this year’s Manchester Sermon delivered by author Ali Smith, which is part of the Manchester Literature Festival. The only light inside the cathedral comes from the spotlights high in the ceiling and the soft glow of a few candles, which cast a warm light on the stone arches and pillars surrounding the audience; beyond the rows of seats are shadowed spaces. I notice the musty, sweet smell that I always notice in churches and cathedrals, so much so that this scent has become embedded within my concept of spirituality. As Ali Smith will mention after her sermon during the Q&A session, the cathedral is a ‘special place’ where we feel reverent, and this smell triggers this reverence for me.

The event is introduced by the Canon Theologian, Andrew Shanks, who explains the Manchester Sermon as an ‘experimental event’ to explore the potential uses of the sermon and to question whether or not it can be reborn in the twenty-first century. The audience are asked not to applaud immediately after Ali Smith’s sermon, but to wait in a moment of meditative quiet. Following Shanks’ speech the Manchester Cathedral choir gives a stunning and atmospheric performance of two pieces, including William Henry Harris’ ‘Strengthen Ye the Weak Hands’.

After this, Ali Smith, whose novels Hotel World (2001) and The Accidental (2005) have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, begins her sermon. She starts by reading an extract from John Donne’s poem, ‘A Nocturnal Upon St Lucy’s Day’. This is Donne’s response to the shortest and darkest day of the year, when it is physically most difficult to see; yet the name Lucy is derived from Lux, Lucis meaning ‘light’. And Smith remarks that our own present is a dark time which we ‘light with the screens of our smartphones’. Smith informs us that St Lucy is the patron saint of blind people who is frequently depicted holding a plate with eyes in it (which makes me think of the monster with eyes in its hands in Guillermo del Toro’s film ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’). Through this dichotomy of blindness and darkness against sight and light, Smith suggests that we find new ways to see the world through the power of imagination.

Smith then draws attention to Donne’s expression ‘rebegot’ and how it might refer to new beginnings of beginnings, a kind of ‘progenesis’. Throughout the rest of her sermon, in between her quick, witty speech, at several points she interrupts her own train of thought to reintroduce herself: ‘Hello, I’m Ali Smith; it’s lovely to be here’. In turn the structure of her sermon conveys this sense of ‘rebegetting’. Smith argues that the power of our imagination gives us the responsibility of what we beget through our imagination, and in turn, how we ‘rebeget’ our world.

Though the form of the ‘sermon’ has become associated with haranguing, (‘and I’ve not got round to haranguing you yet’, jokes Smith) she suggests that the sermon joins voice and language together in an act of making connections. And with the request for the audience to pause and quietly reflect once Smith has finished speaking, the sermon seems to invite a cooperation of imaginative thought. Smith sets up a cooperation of imaginations within her sermon by reading quotes from the works of various writers. Smith states that ‘every writer is an active verb’, from John Donne to Charles Dickens to Angela Carter, which illustrates how we continue to actively deal with the imaginations of these writers from the past in the present; we continuously ‘rebeget’ them.

There are so many layers of complexity to Ali’s sermon that not only is it both difficult for me to scribble notes and to summarise her nuanced language in a short review, but the sermon really does demand a pause for reflection after she has finished; an audience member behind me who feels it too mutters ‘wow’. In the Q&A session led by broadcaster Edward Stourton and with contributions from the audience, Smith discusses her approach to writing her sermon, her thoughts on religion and also on writing. Smith returns again to her idea of the power of the imagination when asked about writing fiction: she argues that ‘fiction is made-up truth’, suggesting that fiction has a responsibility to continuously interrogate our present world and in turn to develop the future.

Both Smith’s powerful sermon and her witty responses during the Q&A session earn her a loud and enthusiastic applause at the end of the event. But during the applause I am still thinking about her answer to the final question from Stourton, who asked what Smith wanted her audience to take away from her sermon. Smith answered that she wanted people to take away ‘the feeling of an open eye’. I know that for me the musty sweet scent of cathedrals is what spirituality smells like. But the ‘feeling of an open eye’ – isn’t this what spirituality feels like?

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