A literary festival that isn't afraid to 'do God'

(Photo: Unsplash/Jonas Jacobsson)

The count-down towards the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature is well and truly on. In a few weeks' time we will throw open the doors and welcome our punters. This year's festival – the sixth – will take place on 21 and 22 February at Bloxham School, near Banbury, in a beautiful part of north Oxfordshire.

What's it all about? Well, we describe the festival as "a literary festival with a theological slant". Our mission is to encourage a love of literature as it relates to faith, and to create a thoughtful and relaxing space in which to consider works of literature and their religious and moral themes.

That means we bring together a range of fascinating speakers to talk about everything from fiction to non-fiction, music to poetry, art to drama, history to debate. The programme is made up of lectures, conversations and performance, always offering the chance for audience interaction and book signings.

We choose a theme – the 2020 theme is 'The Power of Love' – around which we loosely base the programme. The venues range from a large hall to the intimate classroom. The input is a mix of the serious and not-so-serious, the entertaining and the weighty. It's deliberately eclectic, eccentric, unexpected.

This year, for example, our speakers will be inviting people to delve into the love poetry of George Herbert and R.S. Thomas with Mark Oakley, discover forgotten stories of sixteenth-century love and marriage with Suzannah Lipscomb, and examine the darker side of love with novelist Jo Baker and campaigner Natalie Collins. You can find out about a whole range of famous Anglican women novelists (think novels from Charlotte Bronte to P. D. James), and spend time with the writers behind a short story collection inspired by a literary retreat for women. Or find out how Sam Wells set about creating an abbreviated Bible.

What we're trying to do is offer food for thought and encouragement to think. We don't offer workshops or training – but rather a dose of inspiration; something to feed our faith via the arts and our imagination.

Generally, faith is not well served by most literary festivals. There's a nervousness in our secular world that religion is just too weird, off-putting even. We're pretty confident we're the only UK literary festival devoted to celebrating the very best fiction and non-fiction with a faith perspective – and the responses of our audience suggests it's well worth doing.

And why February? Partly because of the availability of our venue, and partly because there's not much else on offer. It's a grim time of year. We like to think we offer a little light in winter's gloom.

So how does it all happen? Our festival is biennial, and follows a well-trodden planning cycle. Drawing up the programme and curating events begins more than a year in advance. A small group of us formulate a theme, and share early ideas. Who's writing what? Who did our audiences love last time? The commissioning begins. Will 'X' author speak on 'Y' subject, perhaps in conversation with person 'Z'?

Sometimes it's like herding cats: a particular speaker would love to come, but can only do 5pm on the Saturday, and needs to be on a train home by 6.30pm. Yet I want to pair her with someone else who is only available on Friday morning. Will scheduling speaker 'A' against speaker 'B' alienate audiences who'd like to attend both sessions?

Then there's the "big name" who takes six months (while we hold the biggest venue at a prominent time-slot) to conclude, reluctantly, they can't come after all. And that panel session we want to squeeze in; can the three speakers and the chair get from A to B and back to C again – signing books on the way - and stay sane?

One of the best parts of the process comes when I hand over the entire list of events to the marketing team, who populate the website and begin promoting the festival. At last it looks like a rich and varied programme, with something for everything. Better still is when people start to buy tickets – because a programme without an audience is not much of a festival.

But best of all, of course, is when the festival is up and running. Our hard-working team of staff and volunteers pull all the stops out. Brilliant speakers turn up, sometimes quite diffidently, and wow their audience. There's a buzz in the air as people ask questions, queue up for signings, wait to grab a few moments to share their story, or chat over coffee or lunch, followed by the emails and thanks afterwards that make all the hard work worthwhile.

And then the planning begins again...

Sarah Meyrick is the Festival Director for the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature which will take place in February 2020. Tickets for the festival are available at: www.bloxhamfaithandliterature.co.uk or 0845 017 6965