The Annunciation: A Pilgrim's Quest

3 Apr 2018

Mark Byford, a Governor of the University of Winchester, discusses his new book which is the result of a three-year journey searching for the spiritual meaning of the biblical story of the Annunciation. 

A chance viewing of a picture in London's National Gallery inspired my book, The Annunciation: A Pilgrim's Quest, published on 25 March by Winchester University Press. The early-eighteenth-century painting by French artist, François Lemoyne, on loan from Winchester College, depicts the encounter between angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, as described in Luke's gospel passage (Luke 1: 26-38). That meeting may be a pivotal point in Christianity, but has the status and significance of the Annunciation been lost in today's world?

I undertook a three-year journey, searching for the spiritual meaning of the biblical story through intimate conversations with more than a hundred senior clerics, world-renowned theologians, historians and leading artists. People spoke to me as never before about the personal and profound impact that the Annunciation story has had on their lives. Alongside those encounters, I traced the history of the Annunciation story through Christianity, from the early Church, through to the medieval cult of Mary and then the Reformation, to the age of the Enlightenment and on to the present post-modern world. I learnt how different views of the Virgin Mary's role and status at the encounter creates a range of responses, often highly charged and emotional.

I travelled around England, across the Continent and to the Holy Land and stood before some of the greatest ever works of art created over the past two thousand years and all inspired, in some way, by the Annunciation story. A vast array of paintings, sculpture, mosaics and tapestries. I also listened to music and poetry rooted in the biblical encounter.

Certainly, no book before has concentrated on such a range of Annunciation interpretations. It is the intimacy, honesty and originality of the revelations from such a wide ranging and authoritative cast list that, I hope, gives this book its real edge. Richly illustrated with more than hundred colour images, Winchester University Press describes the book as 'a project of monumental scale, ambition and innovation, highly distinctive in its originality of approach and content.'

One of the most powerful encounters involves Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, who offers a dramatic interpretation having seen the image of the painting alongside the front page of a national newspaper on the day we meet. You'll have to read the book to find out what he says! Some months later, I meet up with him again, inside the grotto in the Basilica in Nazareth, the very place where the encounter between angel Gabriel and Mary is said to have taken place. It is a profound conversation, deep in spirituality and faith.

The Roman Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth, Philip Egan, describes the Annunciation as: 'the most important event in human history.' I ask all my interviewees what they make of that comment and there is a wide range of responses. I had the privilege of being allowed to stay with a group of Carmelite nuns in their enclosed monastery at Thicket Priory near York. How has the Annunciation story shaped their own lives devoted to prayer, silence and contemplation?

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams; the first woman bishop in the Church of England, Libby Lane; the newly appointed Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally; and leading members of the Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Evangelical and Orthodox churches all take part, as well as members of the Chapter at Winchester Cathedral.

Suffice to say it has been one of the most fulfilling projects in my life. At the end of the book, and at the end of my three-year 'pilgrimage', I reveal how, as a practicing Christian, all these encounters have shaped and changed my current beliefs and understanding.

The Annunciation: A Pilgrim's Quest is published by Winchester University Press (WUP). It is available to order online direct from the publisher here or from the Winchester bookshop, P&G Wells.

Mark Byford has lived in Winchester for more than thirty years. An award-winning journalist and editor, he was the BBC's Deputy Director General and Head of Journalism from 2004-2011. He was Director of the BBC World Service from 1998-2004. Married with five adult children, his first book, A Name On A Wall, was published in 2013.

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