The Annunciation: A Pilgrim’s Quest by Mark Byford

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A chance viewing of a picture in London’s National Gallery has inspired Mark Byford’s book, The Annunciation: A Pilgrim’s Quest, to be published by Winchester University Press on 25th March 2018. 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? 

Award-winning journalist Mark Byford searches for the spiritual meaning of the biblical story through intimate conversations with more than a hundred senior clerics, world-renowned theologians, historians and artists. People speak as never before about the personal and profound impact that the annunciation story has had on their lives. It is a project of monumental scale, ambition and innovation, highly distinctive in its originality of approach and content. Certainly, no book before has concentrated on such a diversity of interpretations about the Annunciation. It is the intimacy, honesty and originality of the revelations from such a wide ranging and authoritative cast list that gives the book its real edge. 

They include 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; the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Vincent Nichols; his predecessor, the late Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor; as well as leading members of the Orthodox, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Evangelical and Coptic Churches. The author is also granted special access to a group of enclosed Carmelite nuns at Thicket Priory near York and discovers how the annunciation story inspires their lives, devoted to prayer, contemplation and silence.

The Roman Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth, Philip Egan, describes the Annunciation as ‘the most important event in human history.’ When each interviewee is asked to respond to that specific statement, the results are wide ranging, the diversity of opinions paralleling the widely divergent critiques offered about the Lemoyne picture. The author also learns how the Virgin Mary’s role and status in the annunciation story creates very different reactions, from adoration to condemnation, which are often highly charged and emotional. 

‘The book is about certainty and doubt; belief and non-belief; calling and acceptance; trust and commitment; what is truth; and how a person’s faith is shaped by a multiplicity of factors and life experiences,’ says Byford. ‘The annunciation passage is under three hundred words long and takes just over a minute to read. And yet the disparate views amongst believers on what the story means gets to the very heart of what shapes a Christian belief. It has been a real voyage of discovery - a wonderful and deeply fulfilling venture.'

In a Foreword, the BBC’s Religion Editor, Martin Bashir, describes the book as ‘an extraordinary devotional journey… unique and thought-provoking.'

Alongside the searching conversations, Byford traces the history of the annunciation story in 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. The feast of the Annunciation, 25 March, exactly nine months before the day marking the birth of Jesus, was once the start of the new year. Known as Lady Day, it was an important event in the nation’s calendar. Today, its significance is increasingly lost and the author wonders how the profile of the Annunciation can be revived in an increasingly secular Britain. 

Byford travels around England, across the Continent and to the Holy Land, to stand before some of the greatest works of art, all of which are inspired, in some way, by the annunciation story. A vast array of paintings, sculpture, mosaics and tapestries. He also absorbs acclaimed music and poetry rooted in the biblical encounter. From a catacomb fresco in Rome to an Andy Warhol screen print; from a Leonardo da Vinci masterwork in Florence to a Grayson Perry tapestry in Leeds; from a Sir John Tavener choral work performed in Winchester Cathedral to a specially organised bespoke tour of ten great treasures in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Richly illustrated, featuring more than one hundred works created over the past two thousand years, Byford’s three-year journey ends with the author revealing how all the encounters have shaped and changed his own current beliefs and understanding.


About Mark Byford

Mark Byford was born in Castleford, West Yorkshire in 1958. He has lived in Winchester for more than three decades. An award-winning journalist and editor, he worked at the BBC for thirty-two years. He was the BBC’s Deputy Director General and Head of Journalism from 2004 to 2011. Previously, he was Director of the BBC World Service from 1998 to 2004. Married with five adult children, his first book, A Name On A Wall, was published by Mainstream in 2013. A practising Christian, he has been a Lay Canon and member of Chapter at Winchester Cathedral since 2017.